Morality in Buddhism

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Understanding the Moral codes in Buddhism

Moral codes in Buddhism are different depending on if you are a lay Buddhist or if you belong to the Buddhist clergy (Sangha). For a lay Buddhist, the moral code is defined in the so-called Five Precepts. A layperson should try his or her best to cultivate these precepts: not taking the life of a living being, not taking anything that is not given freely, avoiding sexual and sensual misconduct and overindulgence, refraining from false speech, and avoiding substances that can cause intoxication.

first precept

The first precept is to avoid taking the life of another being. All living beings have the right to live, and this does not mean just humans; it also includes animals. For some Buddhists in certain traditions, vegetarianism naturally follows from this precept.

second precept

The second precept is to avoid taking what is not given to you. It includes stealing, but it also means not taking something if you cannot be certain that it is meant for you.

third precept

The third precept is avoiding sensual overindulgence. This includes sexual misconduct but is not limited to it; it also covers overindulging in any sensual pleasure.

fourth precept

The fourth precept is refraining from false speech. False speech includes lying, deceiving speech but also any speech that is harmful to other beings.

fifth precept

The fifth precept is abstaining from intoxicating substances. Intoxicating substances are those that can cloud your judgment and make you break the other four precepts.

A lay Buddhist should abide by these five precepts, but there are also three further precepts that are often followed on certain sacred days. Not eating at inappropriate times is a tradition some Buddhists follow on certain holy days. This can mean fasting from midday to the morning of the next day.

Abstaining from entertainment (including, for instance, music and dancing) and from beautifying oneself (for example, with jewelry or perfume), and abstaining from using luxurious or high beds, are precepts that some lay Buddhists choose to follow on certain days, and that members of the Sangha follow regularly.

A lay Buddhist should try to train himself or herself to follow the five precepts on a daily basis. But the main question to ask oneself is if an action (or a thought, or something you’re going to say) is going to be harmless or harmful to others and to yourself. Avoiding harmful actions is the main principle in Buddhist morality, and harmlessness should guide all actions.

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