Ethical North Star: The Five Buddhist Precepts for Modern Times

In this complex and interconnected world, living ethically has never been more challenging—or more important. Jan Willis, Rebecca Li, Trudy Goodman, Thanissaro Bhikku, and Sister True Dedication share the five Buddhist precepts for modern times.

Rebecca Li  •  Trudy Goodman  •  Thanissaro Bhikkhu  •  Jan Willis  •  Sister True Dedication
27 February 2021
Illustrations by Nolan Pelletier.

1. Don’t Kill

Jan Willis on the first precept.

I’ve long considered verse 183 of the Dhammapada to be one of the best and most succinct summations of the buddhadharma. That verse says:

Do no harm,
Practice virtue,
Discipline the mind.
These are the teachings of all the buddhas.

These three—not causing harm (to oneself or others), practicing what is good and wholesome (for oneself and others), and disciplining one’s mind in order to accomplish the first two activities—are Buddhism in a nutshell. Compassion, nonviolence, and nonharm are the heart of Buddhist practice.

It seems fitting, then, that an enumeration of the general ethical guidelines for Buddhist lay followers—the five precepts, or “five trainings”—begins with an injunction to refrain from causing harm, killing, or taking life.

It might seem that undertaking a vow not to kill would be easy for most of us, but this is not the case. In many ways, it is the hardest of all the precepts.

In Buddhism, actions (karma) are of three sorts: they’re committed by our body, speech, or mind. In order to think and act virtuously, our mind is key. Our motivations and our physical actions begin in the mind, and the mind’s actions are much faster than the body’s.

Say we get angry with someone. We might become so furious that we want to harm them. Now if we were to pick up a knife or gun, find that person, and aim the gun, or figure out a way to get close enough to use our knife to stab them, well, that would take some time. But in a flash, in our mind, we may have “killed” the person a hundred times over! Owing to our motivation, having thought violence is as much a violation of the precept against killing as having done it physically.

The incredible speed of the mind is why it’s so important to discipline our mind. If we can restrain our mind, we can cause less harm and perform more actions that are beneficial for all concerned. Shantideva warns in The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicaryavatara) that without disciplined mental restraint, without patience, our anger can destroy in an instant all the virtuous activity we have performed in a thousand eons.

Why? Because anger—unlike righteous indignation or simple frustration—wishes only to cause harm to another. It’s solely a destructive force. Therefore, to undertake the practice of the first precept is to step upon the Buddhist path in earnest.

A cartoon drawing of a bank robber with a bag of money.

2. Don’t Steal

Rebecca Li on the second precept.

Precepts are often viewed as restrictions on our freedom. In reality, they are our best friends in the practice of cultivating wisdom and compassion.

The second Buddhist precept is to not steal. As we live in a world that celebrates wealth and fame, it is easy to be tempted by shortcuts to success, acceptance, or recognition. Sometimes these shortcuts involve taking what is not given—stealing. Blinded by our greed for acknowledgment and achievement and all that comes with it, we convince ourselves that these shortcuts are okay.

The precepts act as a friend who asks us, “Are you sure you want to do that? What about the precept of not stealing?” This gentle reminder provides an opportunity to cultivate clear awareness of our craving and greed, to stop the mental agitation arising from convincing ourselves

that we’re not harming anyone or that the end justifies the means, and to end the suffering caused by erroneous views. We can choose not to suffer ourselves by letting go of craving, and that choice reflects wisdom. Likewise, we choose to refrain from harming others by not stealing, and that choice reflects compassion.

Contemporary life provides numerous opportunities to practice upholding the second precept. When we take money and material things, we can readily recognize this is a form of stealing. But what about presenting someone else’s work, knowledge, or idea as if it were your own in order to appear more intelligent and productive? This can be a tempting shortcut to gain influence and achieve success.

We try to convince ourselves that no one is getting hurt when we take undue credit. But is that really true? It can help someone’s career when they are recognized for their intelligence or contributions. By taking credit for another’s work, we are stealing that from them. We may convince ourselves the person doesn’t mind because they are not complaining. Yet our actions put them in an untenable position. By complaining, they risk being seen as petty, especially if they are members of a less powerful group—women or minorities—or

in a subordinate position, such as student or employee. As a result, they are hurt twice—first by losing the recognition due to them, and second by being silenced or misunderstood if they stand up for themselves.

Not stealing is in accordance with wisdom and compassion. Properly acknowledging other people’s work is compassionate behavior because it makes them feel appreciated and seen. Recognizing that our accomplishments are the coming together of many causes and conditions, including work done by others, is wisdom. In this subtle way, upholding the precept of not stealing frees us all from suffering.

A cartoon drawing of a mirrored face.

3. Don’t Stereotype, Exploit, or Harm Others Sexually

Trudy Goodman on the third precept.

Many years ago, during a three-month meditation retreat, a visiting Burmese meditation master was asked a question about sex. As a monk, he responded, “Sex is gross, base, and disgusting.”

The Buddha was clear that while sexuality is an enjoyment for married householders, the rules are different for monastics who take a vow of celibacy. During “Dharma Follies,” the funny skits performed at the end of the retreat, the monk’s answer was humorously adapted for laypeople: “Sex is engrossing, basic, and worth discussing.”

Yes! Sex can be a delightful way to get to know yourself and others. Knowing and being known, loving and being loved—most people long for this.

The third precept extends the overarching principle of integrity and non-harming to the powerful energies of sex. The precept for laypeople is a vow not to engage in sexual misconduct. But unlike the precepts against killing or stealing, it’s not so clear exactly what constitutes sexual misconduct.

I know that when I’m in my integrity, my wholeness, there’s respect for my body and yours, even in the forcefield of sexual desire. If I view people as sex objects or through gender stereotypes, I’ve fallen into disrespectful dualism that dims the light of awareness. Objectifying or “othering” each other opens a door to exploitative behavior and abuse. Exploiting anyone’s vulnerability in sex for my own pleasure takes me far away from my true nature. For whenever I harm another, knowingly or unknowingly, I’m harming myself.

Without mindful awareness, it’s easy to rationalize and indulge in sexual behaviors I know to be harmful by pretending they aren’t really so bad, or by deciding “It’s okay this one time.” When we start going down this path, it’s time to take a moment to check in, breathe deeply, and call in some loving awareness. Pause and ask yourself, “Is it wise to take the next step?”

Sex is a big deal. How much time do you spend wanting, wondering, fantasizing, even obsessing about it? It takes willingness and courage to move past fear of the unknown, fear of being known, painful or traumatic sexual experiences, and cultural sexual inhibitions to explore this territory. It takes practice to handle the heat of erotic fire skillfully. For me, learning to navigate sexual relationships wisely has been the work of a lifetime, full of joys and sorrows.

When I enjoy the pleasure and happiness of my sexual partner as well as my own, that joy aligns me with my buddhanature—and it’s sexy. All the factors of awakening—joy, energy, interest, mindfulness, relaxation, concentration, spaciousness—come into play in the intense space of sexual connection. Shifting from “having sex” to being inside the sexual experience, either by myself or with another, is powerful intimacy. In Zen, it’s said that true love is when the division between self and other disappears. We find that passionate, heart-opening presence when the third precept is kept with love and care.

A cartoon drawing of Pinocchio.

4.Tell the Truth

Thanissaro Bhikku on the fourth precept.

The very first dharma lesson the Buddha gave to his son was never to tell a deliberate lie, even in jest. In another context, he added that if a person feels no shame telling a deliberate lie, there’s no evil that person will not do. Obviously, the Buddha saw the precept against lying as crucial to goodness of any sort.

He defined telling a lie as deliberately misrepresenting the truth. You did x, but you say that you didn’t. You didn’t see y, but you say that you did. Many people, when they learn of this definition, immediately look for two possible exceptions: What about jokes where you exaggerate the truth, but without intending to deceive your listener? What about lies told with compassionate motives, such as wanting to protect people from truths they’re not ready to hear or to protect people from danger?

The Buddha’s first lesson to his son explicitly rules out the first exception. The teaching he gave after that lesson helps explain why.

The practice of training the mind is a matter of becoming increasingly sensitive to your actions in thought, word, and deed, to the intentions motivating them, and to the results they yield. If you see anything unskillful in your actions, you do your best to abandon it.

This practice requires not only sensitivity, but also rigorous honesty. If you’re careless in how you frame your words to others, it’s easy to be careless in how you view your intentions and the results of what you’ve done. You keep turning a blind eye to currents in the mind you’d rather not see. To counteract this tendency, you have to be rigorously true in everything you say, even when looking for ways to express your sense of humor. Try to find it in the truth. There’s plenty of it there.

A similar line of reasoning applies to the second exception. It’s all too easy to justify breaking a precept by citing compassionate motives. But your self-professed compassion may be hiding other motives that are more self-serving. The mind is notorious for lying to itself about what its genuine motives are.

There are also social consequences to white lies. When people find out that you’ve told them a lie, no matter how compassionate you thought it was, they’ll never really trust your words again. When trust is broken, the relationship is wounded. And when little lies become acceptable, bigger ones become more widely acceptable too, and society, as a whole, breaks down.

When you want to avoid sensitive topics, learn how to be quick-witted in getting around them without misrepresenting the facts. It’s a better exercise of your discernment to stick with the precepts in a harmless way than to justify breaking them.

A cartoon drawing of a person drinking with a lampshade over their head.

5. Don’t Consume Toxins

Sister True Dedication on the fifth precept.

The five mindfulness trainings are Thich Nhat Hanh’s unique, modern take on the five traditional Buddhist precepts. They are a journey of training in right action—the kind of action that responds to the suffering of our times.

Thay, as he’s known to his students, has expanded the fifth precept, which is traditionally understood as refraining from drinking alcohol and taking drugs, into a deep training in “mindful consuming.” The fifth mindfulness training zeros in on the hundreds of choices we make every day about what to eat, drink, watch, or listen to. It also includes the kind of environment we choose to immerse ourselves in and the kind of dreams and intentions we nurture to draw us forward through life. All of these can be considered as “nutriments” for body and mind. They can be healthy or they can be toxic. The fifth mindfulness training is about actively seeking out those things that are healthy for our body and mind and consciously avoiding what is toxic.

In Buddhism, there is such a thing as free will. Mindfulness sets us free to choose, in any given moment, what we eat and drink, what we see on our screens, and what kind of life, ultimately, we want to lead. We get to choose what to do with our minutes, hours, and days; we get to choose how to handle what’s arising in our body and mind.

Mindfulness also leads us to a deeper, radical honesty about the effects of every kind of input on our body, mind, and spirit, and on the planet. Does what we are watching, reading, listening to, and consuming help all of us be healthy, happy, and whole?

Mindfulness allows us to ask why we’re reaching out so much to consume—to open the fridge, switch on a streaming channel, or pick up our phone. It’s only human to cover up painful feelings of loneliness, fear, and despair with a bit of distraction and stimulation. But as practitioners, we know that covering up our suffering with consumption may only make the situation worse. When we do that, we lose the chance to take care of the feelings that are there, and we may introduce even more negativity into our lives.

Consuming mindfully is an art, not a strict regimen. It’s up to each one of us to discern what’s healthy and what’s not, guided by our own insight of interbeing and compassion. For each person it’s different: there are no hard-and-fast rules for mindful consuming. It’s up to us to identify, with the energy of mindfulness, whether what we’re consuming feeds our compassion, hope, and action, or whether it waters seeds of fear and despair. Each of us has to come up with our own strategy to take our consuming in a better direction.

Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes insight into what he calls “interbeing”—the profound interconnection of all that is. In this light, you cannot separate the glass of liquor in your hand from the grains that could have fed a hungry migrant, or the communities and families that are destroyed by addiction. We cannot separate the violence on our screens, which waters seeds of fear and violence in our body and minds, from the violence that plays out on the streets.

Our body is also the body of the earth, the body of society, and we want to take care of it with love and respect, just like we want to take care of our planet and fellow citizens with love and respect. This empowering insight transforms our simple everyday choices into a dynamic realm of meaningful action.

Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li, PhD. is a Dharma heir in the lineage of Chan Master Sheng Yen and the founder and guiding teacher of Chan Dharma Community. She teaches meditation and Dharma classes, gives public lectures, and leads retreats in North America and Europe. Her talks and writings can be found at www.rebeccali.org.  She is a sociology professor and lives with her husband in New Jersey. She is the author of Allow Joy into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times, and her new book is Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method (Shambhala Publications, October 2023).
Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li, PhD. is a Dharma heir in the lineage of Chan Master Sheng Yen and the founder and guiding teacher of Chan Dharma Community. She teaches meditation and Dharma classes, gives public lectures, and leads retreats in North America and Europe. Her talks and writings can be found at www.rebeccali.org.  She is a sociology professor and lives with her husband in New Jersey. She is the author of Allow Joy into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times, and her new book is Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method (Shambhala Publications, October 2023).

Trudy Goodman

Trudy Goodman, PhD, is the founder and guiding teacher of InsightLA. She has practiced Zen and Vipassana meditation since 1974 and has trained extensively in psychotherapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction, which she taught with its creator, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. She was the co-founder of the original Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first center in the world dedicated to integrating these two disciplines. She teaches retreats and workshops nationwide.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a monk in the Thai Forest Tradition. After moving to Thailand and studying under the forest master Ajaan Fuang Jotiko for ten years, he returned to the US and cofounded the Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, California, where he serves as abbot. The translator of numerous suttas and classical texts, his most recent book is Four Noble Truths. His books and many of his other teachings and translations can be found online at dhammatalks.org.
Anne Waldman

Jan Willis

Jan Willis is a Professor of Religion Emerita at Wesleyan University as well as a visiting professor at Agnes Scott College. She has studied with Tibetan Buddhists in India, Nepal, Switzerland, and the U.S. for five decades, and has taught courses in Buddhism almost as long. Her work has explored meditation, hagiography, women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and race; her most recent book is Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra.

Sister True Dedication

Before Sister True Dedication ordained, she worked as a journalist for BBC News in London. She now edits books by Thich Nhat Hanh, including Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet and The Art of Living.