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Buddhism’s Dos and Don’ts: Simple rules everyone should follow all the time


tan tian Buddha by Kon Karampelas courtesy of

Here are five simple rules (precepts) that all Buddhists are supposed to follow, taken from Wikipedia’s article on Buddhism’s “Refuge”; they are also discussed at length in the article on the “Five Precepts”:

  1. Refrain from killing.
  2. Refrain from stealing.
  3. Refrain from lying.
  4. Refrain from improper sexual conduct.
  5. Refrain from consuming intoxicants.

Simple, straightforward, but open to interpretation or even a little quibbling.  Let’s consider how this is interpreted by Buddhists:

  1. Refrain from killing.  (Particularly human beings, but this means all forms of animal life.  Some nominally Buddhist peoples do a lot of killing.)
  2. Refrain from stealing.  (Begging is OK, even mandatory for monks.)
  3. Refrain from lying.  (Simply remaining silent is alright.)
  4. Refrain from improper sexual conduct.  (Again, the extent of this is open to interpretation; for a monk, this might mean refraining from all sexual activity of any kind.)
  5. Refrain from consuming intoxicants.  (This means alcohol and opium.)

All of these do-nots are open to interpretation among non-Buddhists.  I’m not a Buddhist, but I consider these rules to be very seriously important to follow when I can.  There are situations in which they have to be broken in order to survive, but I might consider life not worth living if it is necessary to transgress some of them to get on.

What about the Golden Rule?  “Do unto others as you wish to be done to.”  Not there.

Let’s consider the boundaries of these rules, just for the sake of argument; we’ll talk about their incompleteness some other time.

First, to refrain from killing.  To destroy a human is obviously wrong, unless perhaps that human is intent on destroying you and cannot be stopped without resort to lethal violence.  In certain circumstances, one might allow oneself to be killed to avoid breaking this rule.  I won’t get into that just now– maybe later.  More realistic: does this prohibition on killing extend to animals that are often used for food, such as cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, birds, fish?  Many Buddhists would agree.  They prefer to be vegetarians.  Some people only avoid “red meat” and allow fish or even chicken.  They draw the line at mammals, I guess.

On the other hand, you have to kill other living things in order to survive.  Even a plant is a living thing, has feelings (although it may be difficult for us to sense when those feelings are hurt).  Since Buddhism long predated microscopes, bacteria and fungi were not up for discussion as living things.  Thus, we might include plants and allow for the harvesting of an elemental diet (such as “Soylent Green”, a foul substance which causes bad-smelling flatus but contains all essential nutrients, derived from microbial sources).  Let’s move on.

Second, to refrain from stealing.  That’s fairly easy, assuming you are not in extreme need among a people that won’t allow you to beg for a living.  Some Buddhist monks live by begging or survive on donated items.  (As an aside, Muslims consider charity or giving alms to be a religious obligation.)

Third, to refrain from lying.  This particular rule is one that I find very hard to break.  I think it is because I was raised in a household where there was a free rein of lies.  I came to hate lies, even those which were told in the service of “not hurting your feelings”.  Thus I find lying particularly abhorrent, even lying to yourself.  This brings me to Miyamoto Musashi’s nine rules, the first of which I translate as “Do not think dishonestly”.  I find that rule sacrosanct.  Don’t lie to yourself.  I won’t accept “little white lies”– they’re just as bad.  The only untruth I will allow is to remain silent, and even that is to be observed with extreme discretion.  That’s the way I am– I think Buddhists in general are probably pretty loose about this.  Please feel free to disagree with me in the comment section.

Fourth, to not engage in improper sexual conduct.  Again, this is also found in Miyamoto Musashi’s 21 rules (but not his nine rules), in which lust and love are frowned upon.  I think this rule is open to so much interpretation that it would take a very long post to cover it.  Let’s just leave it that I think faithfulness to one’s spouse is the most important thing.  Also, I don’t much approve of sadism or masochism, or lack of consent in general.

Fifth, don’t take intoxicating substances.  I’m pretty tolerant about this, but some Buddhists find it particularly galling to find others abusing alcohol or cannabis, or even tobacco.  But what about tea and coffee?  Aren’t they intoxicating to some extent?  That’s a deep discussion right there.  MM doesn’t mention intoxicants even in his extensive 21 rules, although he does have “I will not seek pleasurable activities” and “I will have no delicacies for myself” (the latter refers to food).  Somewhere it says that the samurai is not supposed to get drunk, although he (it’s always a man) is allowed to drink.

There is a disconnect between observing these rules oneself and disapproving of others who don’t observe these rules.  Where to draw the line?  The first two– killing (of humans) and stealing– I’d consider calling the police if these came up.  You should also, particularly if you personally are being transgressed upon.  Don’t let anyone kill you without at least calling 911 first.  The rest of the rules, although I try to observe them myself, I’m somewhat tolerant of others abusing.  I don’t like being lied to, but what is a fellow to do when his president keeps lying to everyone?  I’ve complained and complained, and nothing gets done.  Perhaps in November, things will change.  We’ll see.

That’s about all I want to say about this today.  I’ll have more later, I promise.  I’d like to write about the Noble Eightfold Way at some point.  In the meantime, do feel free to tell me what you think.

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