The Five Buddhist Precepts, Pancha Sila, 5 Lay Vows or Pansil
A Modern Interpretation
Katinka Hesselink, 2003, update 2011
The five precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. To take Pancha Sila, that is, to vow to live according to the following rules of conduct, is a set of vows a lay-person may take on, to try and live by, to the best of their understanding. So here goes: Pancha ( = five ) Sila ( = discipline ), the Five Precepts:
- Do not take life
- Do not take what is not given
- Do not distort facts
- Refrain from misuse of the senses
- Refrain from self-intoxication through alcohol or drugs
1. Do not take life
This obviously includes killing, both people and animals. In the extreme it would include killing plants and insects. Though it is perhaps possible to avoid killing these latter, in practice every act of eating makes us co-responsible for killing plants. This can't be avoided. Still, this rule is the basis of the vegetarianism of many Buddhists. Because although those who eat meat often don't kill animals themselves, they are helping make it financially and socially acceptable for butchers to kill animals.
2. Do not take what is not given
This rule is usually translated as: don't steal. But in fact this goes a bit further. To not take what is not given, really means only taking that where explicitly somebody says: this is yours. Taking money from a wallet that somebody left on the train is clearly not acceptable if you read this rule of conduct.
3. Do not distort fact
This one is usually translated as: don't lie. Again: it wider than that. Sometimes the use of words can make something seem acceptable, when it could also have been said very differently and be totally unacceptable. This would not be a lie, but it would be a distortion of fact.
4. Refrain from misuse of the senses
The senses in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy include not only the five generally thought of: touch, hearing, seeing, smelling and tasting, but also the mind: thinking. This means overindulgence in touching (for instance sex), hearing ( overindulging in listening to music for instance), seeing (too much focuss on beauty or ugliness around us), smelling and tasting (overindulgence in food preparation for instance). Lay people aren't expected to refrain from sex, yet they are expected to refrain from overdoing it. Moderation in this respect has become highly unpopular, with kids having sex at earlier ages every year and sexual crime becoming almost usual. To be a virgin equals being ashamed, these days. Buddhist morality is old-fashioned in this respect.
The the last sense which can be overindulged is thinking or thought, or use of the mind. One often meets people who think so much, they forget to practice. Or they out-think any morality one can come up with. The mind is a highly deceptive tool and overuse makes it overly powerful over us. When thoughts start seeming real, and control ones life, beyond what is reasonable, it is perhaps time to consider whether perhaps one has overindulged in thinking.
5. Refrain from self-intoxication through alcohol or drugs
This sila is very relevant in our present day world. It has to do with the previous one, in the sense that people seem to use alcohol as a way of making life more interesting, less mundane. The sensual experiences of daily life don't seem enough and fun can only be had, social contacts can only be made (in certain circles), under the influence. Romanticizing drugs like Marijuana is highly dangerous as the brains of our youth get befuddled through the use. On the dangers of Marijuana.
Self-intoxication includes any use of substance to change a mood. Pills like Prozac, coffee or stronger measures to wake you up, chocolate to cheer you up - etcetera.
Even for those who take Pansil, or in other words: vow to live by these rules, it is up them to decide where to draw the line. Some Buddhists eat meat, others feel that should be avoided. Many Buddhists drink coffee, even though it could be construed to change consciousness and therefore fall under the heading of self-intoxication. Still, every honest Buddhist will try to live by these rules to the best of their understanding and ability. Living by these rules is not so much something to be proud of, as it is a reminder of what hasn't yet been accomplished. Self-righteousness exists in any religious group, but should obviously be avoided. Most people will realize the fact that these rules of conduct are only outward, and though important in their own way, don't signify inner wisdom or enlightenment. Since becoming wise (in Southern Buddhism: an Arhat, in Northern Buddhism: a Buddha), is the only object of Buddhism - anything else ought to be merely a stepping stone.
- The Buddhist Handbook, John Snelling, second and revised edition, 1992, p. 57-59 (current edition, available on Kindle )