Pali: attha-sila ('eightfold morality')

The Eight Precepts are eight guidelines of Buddhist morality, primarily observed by lay Buddhists on special occasions. The Eight Precepts, as established by the Muluposatha Sutta (AN III.70), are as follows:

  1. Abstention from killing living creatures
  2. Abstention from taking what is not given (theft)
  3. Abstention from sexual misconduct
  4. Abstention from wrong speech
  5. Abstention from intoxicants
  6. Abstention from eating outside the 'proper time'
  7. Abstention from viewing entertainments and wearing adornments, perfumes, and cosmetics
  8. Abstention from sleeping on a high or large bed

The first five components of the Eight Precepts are the same as the Five Precepts, the basis of the universal Buddhist moral code, and as such are primarily a negative statement of the first three components of The Eightfold Path. The remaining three precepts are drawn from the Ten Precepts, the basic behavioral code that defines monastic life and is elaborated upon in the Vinaya. In fact, the only one of the ten precepts missing from the Eight Precepts is the prohibition of handling money; the 7th and 8th of the Ten Precepts are condensed into the 7th precept.

Existing in the middle ground between the regulations that govern monastic and lay life, the Eight Precepts are primarily undertaken by devout lay Buddhists on the occasion of certain holidays and festivals, such as the various Uposatha days. In the Theravada tradition, where a viable bhikkhuni lineage no longer exists, some women permanently undertake the Eight Precepts as part of a committed monastic lifestyle. Other Buddhists may undertake the Eight Precepts as a Vassa observance, during a retreat, or as preparation for entering monastic life. So-called 'lay brothers' or 'lay sisters', men and women who live and work in a temple or monastery while managing its day-to-day affairs may also undertake the eight precepts; it imposes a strict moral code, but allows them to conduct the temple's business.

While the Eight Precepts seem fairly straightforward, there has been a great deal of thought put into the correct observance of these regulations. While basic morality (in the form of the Five Precepts) is incumbent upon all Buddhists, many believe that when precepts are formally undertaken, and particularly on auspicious days such as Vesak, the act of breaking a precept has greater karmic impact. As such, a lot of thought has been put into how not to break the precepts. Note that the meaning of individual precepts when undertaken as part of the Eight may differ from their interpretation when taken as one of the Five or Ten (see the explanation of the 3rd precept for an example).

The following definitions are derived from writings of two Thai monks, Somdet Phra Buddhaghosacariya (a former Buddhist patriarch of Thailand), and Phra Payutto Thera. Their works are in turn derived from the Pali Canon (tipitaka) and the traditional Pali commentaries. Any errors that have crept into the interpretation of the precepts are my own; consult a more reliable spiritual authority before undertaking any program of religious discipline or strenuous exercise.

General Concepts

As a general principle, there are two ways of breaking every one of the Eight Precepts: by body (sahatthikapayoga) or by speech (anattikapayoga). The first case encompasses any intentional violation of the precepts by an individual; the second concerns asking or compelling another to break them on your behalf ('Kill that mosquito for me; I'm on Uposatha'). The word 'intention' looms large in these considerations; to qualify as having broken the precept, one must be aware that ones actions will constitute a breach of the discipline. Violating a precept through ignorance, by accident, or even due to a moment of distraction may not be considered a violation (this third case appears tenuous, but possibly quite defensible in light of the Abhidhamma).

The inverse of this principle is that intent matters more than the fulfillment of intent. Of one is possessed by the intent to kill, the fact that you failed does not lessen the offense. The primacy of the mind in interactions with the world ('we are what we think', one translation of the Dhammapada phrases it) means that a negative intent not consummated with physical action may still constitute a violation of the precepts.

In the event that a precept is violated, there are two categories of violation: a 'worldly' fault (lokavajja), and a fault causing loss of merit (paññativajja). The first is a violation of any of the Five Precepts in their regular sense: killing, stealing, lying, intoxication, or sexual misconduct. A violation of this sort is 'condemned by the world' (hence a 'worldly' violation) and results in misfortune for the violator (it is bad kamma/karma). The second category is a violation of the last three precepts. For this violation, there is no particular consequence other than the loss of the merit that would be made by keeping the observance.

A Buddhist wishing to formally be bound by the Eight Precepts for a period of time goes before a respected monk and asks to be given the precepts. As mentioned above, it is considered to be a serious business to undertake such an obligation formally; most sources believe that it is better to not undertake a precept than to formally undertake it and then break it. The monk 'gives' the precepts to the lay follower. One may ask for the precepts on a permanent basis, or, more commonly, for a fixed period ('until the end of vassa', 'for the Uposatha'). If one undertakes the precepts for an unbounded period, they may be 'given back' by asking a monk if one no longer wishes (or is unable) to maintain them.

In the event that a precept is broken, the upasika must consider wether they will be able to maintain the precept in the future. If they can not, then the precept should be allowed to lapse, and the violation may be confessed to a monk. If the lay follower believes that the precept can be maintained, they can ask to have it be 're-administered' by a monk, or may simply resolve to continue their efforts. As with the violation of the precepts, intent is foremost in determining whether or not the precept is kept; to gain any merit from the action, a firm decision to maintain the precept must be made and kept; one can not 'wait it out' and see whether it's going to be convenient to whack grandma before deciding whether or not to maintain the practice.

Specifics of the Precepts

Abstention from killing living beings
To break this precept, there must first be the knowledge of a living being. There must then be the intention to deprive that being of life. The completion of the violation is to act on that intention and deprive the being of life. So don't kill anyone. Not too hard. And yes, animals count. Whether this mandates vegetarian eating is too large a topic for this node; see Buddhist Vegetarians for discussion of that topic.

Abstention from taking what is not given
This includes not only outright stealing, but also theft by deception (fraud), and old fashioned, mama-told-ya-not-to taking without asking. The material value of what is taken is irrelevant to the breaking of this precept; what matters is knowledge that an object is not offered (the Pali term for theft is a negation of the word dana, the Buddhist virtue of generosity or giving).

Abstention from sexual misconduct
While the meaning of this particular term is often debated as part of the Five Precepts, its meaning as part of the Eight or Ten is generally considered fairly clear: total abstinence from sexual contact. Expansions and qualifications of this idea in the Vinaya are numerous; anyone who thinks that ancient societies were ignorant of (or shy about!) sexual matters would do well to take a peek at the Vinaya Pitaka. In the final determination, however, the biological and physiological specifics matter less than the psychological factors, as is often the case in Buddhism. Acts committed while the mind is consumed with lust or desire for external sensation are a violation of the precept. Unintentional contact and the like doesn't count. As with the other moral precepts, inducing another to break this precept on one's own behalf is considered a violation by speech. The version of this precept observed in the Five Precepts is quite complex, and takes into account a number of interesting factors;in many ways, its quite progressive for a 2,500 year old code of sexual standards, and in others it reflects the low status of women in the surrounding society. See the Five Precepts for a more complete explanation.

Abstention from Wrong Speech
The category of wrong speech includes lies told with the intent to deceive, as well as devisive or abusive speech. Untruths told without the intent to decieve do not entail a violation. Some feel that the prohibition on devisive or abusive speech is in conflict with the obligation to speek the truth ('sometime the truth hurts'), but traditional Buddhist teachings do not consider this to be the case. Part of the skillful means that a Buddhist cultivates is the ability to tell painful truths in a manner that allows them to be received (the scriptures say that the words of a Buddha, for instance should be like cooling rain on a smoldering fire); in more extreme cases, it is always permissable to keep silent rather than further aggravate a situation (as the Dhammapada says, better to do nothing than to do what is wrong).

Abstention from intoxicants
This rule primarily entails abstaining from drinking alchahol. More generaly, it includes any intoxicant that alters one's behaviour or perception (including marijuana and other recreational drugs). Drugs taking for medicinal usage do not count against the precept. The reason for the prohibition against intoxicants is based not on an abstract moral judgement that drugs or alchahol are inherantly 'bad', but rather based on a belief that intoxicants tend to make one more succeptable to breaking other precepts, or falling into ignorance

Abstention from eating outside the 'proper time'
Traditionally, the 'proper time' is from dawn until midday. From noon until dawn the following day, the uposika is expected to fast. Fasting includes solid foods, but not most liquids. It is common to decline this precept for reasons of health or infirmity. Some obeservers include in this precept abstaining from eating meat; others consider it a subset of abstention fom killing, based on the idea of violation by speech. Some do not consider vegetarianism a component of Eight Precept morality at all; see the Buddhist vegetarians node for more information.

Abstaining from viewing shows and entertainment, and from adornign oneself with garlands, perfume, and cosmetics
The Uposatha day (or a permanent semi-monastic life) is meant to be a time of focusing intently on the Dhamma and shedding desire. As such, entertainment not related to Buddhist teachings is considered to be distracting and inappropriate. Again, as is the case with intoxicants, this is based not on a negative moral judgement upon 'secular' persuits, but rather a recognition that most available entertainment is ill-suited to focusing on religious persuits- hampered, for instance, by the fact that most modern entertainment primarily consist of extended product placement spots.

Regarding cosmetics and other adornments, the intent of the Uposatha is to focus the mind on shedding the selfish desires that cause suffering. Desire to control one's appearance is among these desires. Furthermore, concern with appearance is for many a significant distraction, preventing them from focussing on other matters. Taking time to avoid the activities that push concern with appearance to the forefront of the mind helps keep religious matters in focus. Many lay Buddhists who are observing the Eight Precepts also dress plainly, usually wearing white.

Abstention from sleeping in a high or large bed
This precept is aimed at combatting sloth and laziness. Beds that are too inviting tend to make one want to keep dozing rather than rising and beginning the day. Some people elect to sleep on the floor during the days when they observe the Eight Precepts; the traditional guideline is that the bed may not be higher than 8 sugata inches (20 modern inches), measured from the base board down. A 'large bed' origonally referred to an ornate bed adorned with a variety of substances no longer used for bedding (animal pelts and the like). In modern interpretation, this is more commonly taken to mean a bed large enough for two to sleep comfortably. In keeping with the 3rd Precept, couples may choose to sleep alone for days when they are keeping the Eight Precepts (best to consult ones spouse or SO before undertaking such a practice).

Sources:

  • Khantipalo, Bhikkhu. Lay Buddhist Practice. Buddhist Publication Society, 1995. Available at Access to Insight (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/bps/wheels/wheel206/index.html). Great introduction to Theravada Buddhist practice, ritual, and observance by a Thai monk.
  • Ñanavara Thera (Somdet Phra Buddhaghosacariya). Uposatha Sila: The Eight Precept Observance, Bhikkhu Kantasilo, trans. Published by The Office of the Secretary of the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, and available from Access to Insight (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/misc/uposatha.html). Probably the best nuts-'n'-bolts discussion of observance of the Five and Eight Precepts available, written by a former Thai Buddhist Patriarch. Written in 1929, it in many ways still shows a great deal of awareness of modern issues, and provides simple, categorical guidelines, without closing off the posibility of discussion and re-interpretation.
  • Payutta, Phra Prayudh. Buddhadhamma: Natural Law and Values for Life. SUNY Press, 1995. Grant A. Olson, trans. The masterwork of one of Thailand's most renowned scholar-monks, this book distills a variety of teachings from the Pali Canon into a single, relatively small volume. An excellent guide to Theravada Buddhism that offers a more technical and scholarly focus than available popular guides, while maintaining relevance and readability.

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