How can Buddhists know if their life is an ethical one? By keeping the five precepts, a set of guidelines for those who wish to do no harm.
Some Buddhists follow them as literally as they can and others take a more situational approach, guided by compassion and what creates the most benefit. There are many different sets of precepts, but common to all Buddhists are five root precepts.
1. Not killing.
It’s tempting to consider this a straight corollary to “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but this precept can be applied in countless situations. Example: when we resolve ahead of time not to cooperate with someone, are we not “killing” what might have been?
2. Not stealing.
Again, not just that. Another reading of this precept counsels us “not to take what is not freely given.”
3. Not misusing sex.
Most modern Buddhists would tell you that this isn’t about who you can and can’t have sex with, but about how you relate to them. Clearly, a lack of consent or regard for your partner’s feelings constitutes misuse.
4. Not engaging in false speech.
Sometimes, a “little white lie” might be beneficial, but what good comes from mean-spirited deception and gossip?
5. Not indulging in intoxicants.
Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, television, or the internet, if it clouds your mind it’s not helping you stick to the clear seeing that Buddhist practice is meant to cultivate.