The 5 Ethical Precepts (sīla)

Buddhism as a liberation path is a gradual purification of the heart that takes root as we see more clearly, stop clinging so much, and grow out of confusion about who we are into the maturity called wisdom. Wisdom is expressed partly as understanding: everything changes, and many things hurt, but there’s an openness, a clear space, at the heart of it all. This clear space can feel like loving-kindness, like emptiness, like discernment, like vastness. In its own nature, it’s just openness, I think — the heart unconfused, available for contact. Clear.

But if that clarity is as nearby as the Buddha and the sages promise it is, why isn’t it easier to rest in? Because as a state of mind, it’s conditioned by the past. Everything that’s ever wounded us, confused us, threatened us, or even praised and uplifted us (which may be confusing or challenging in their own way), is present in this moment as momentum throughout our being. And that means not just what has affected “us” but “US” — we inherit the karma of our families, communities, culture, and the earth itself. We ARE all these. We feel this momentum as the hindrances of greed and anger, restlessness and dullness, doubt and fear. It’s hard to let go of such deeply embedded patterns! But some things do make it more possible, and the most foundational of those is ethics.

The ethical guidelines are the most fundamental practice in Buddhism. They are the basis of working with karma, renunciation, and purification, all of which support deep meditation (samādhi) and equanimity, the bases of Liberation practice. They are one of the most powerful and transformative practices we can take on, if we give ourselves to them seriously. So much joy and safety comes from getting grounded in these principles.

This is because the path can be understood in terms of working with states, which mostly feel like emotions. And the core instruction for states is in the 7th Component of the Eightfold Path: Wise Effort, which tells us to encourage wholesome states and discourage unwholesome ones. But what do wholesome and unwholesome mean? They mean “leads to safety and care” and “leads to danger and harm” for ourselves and others. And once we translate them this way, their ethical roots are laid bare. And this means that the ethical roots of mindfulness are laid bare as well.

Mindfulness can be defined as knowing clearly what’s happening as it’s happening, then directing our attention in appropriate ways so we can make better choices and deepen in clarity. Choices means action, and action means ethics, as we turn toward our deepest available wisdom in a moment to discern the best path ahead in a complex situation. Mindfulness is inherently ethical. The process, as a practice you can take on in your daily life, goes like this:

  1. What’s happening right now (externally and internally both)?
  2. Is my state wholesome or unwholesome?
  3. If wholesome, what Wise Action can I do to strengthen the state?
  4. If unwholesome, what Wise Action can I do to diminish the state?
  5. Having done what I can do (whether internal or external), how is it now?
  6. [Repeat till liberated. 😉 ]

Ethical inquiry is the constant companion of the passionate mindfulness practitioner because it is the thing that guides the process as it unfolds. The unfolding I’m describing here is basically an oscillation between observation and action, or Wise Mindfulness and Wise Effort. Moment by moment, our responsibility as practitioners is not just to neutrally observe our experience, but to shepherd our states toward greater wholesomeness and thus greater ease and movement on the path.

In relationship with others and the larger world, that responsibility is only amplified. Am I in a wholesome state in relation to others? What Wise Action can I do to shepherd my state toward deeper well-being, and what can I do to create the conditions for others to deepen as well?

Here is a set of talks from 2016 on the basic framework for Wise Action known as the 5 Ethical Precepts. For a more recent exploration of the implications of this perspective on communal processes around oppression and social action, see the 2018 talks on the Diamond Sūtra and the series on social justice that grew out of our exploration of the bodhisattva ideal.

The 5 Ethical Precepts

3. Not misusing sexuality (6.23.16)

2. Not taking that which is not offered (7.14.16)

4. Not misusing speech (7.21.16)

5. Not misusing intoxicants (7.28.16)

1. Not causing harm (8.4.16)

3 thoughts on “The 5 Ethical Precepts (sīla)”

  1. Pingback: 10 Perfections (pāramī) to Cultivate on the Path • Sean Feit Oakes, PhD

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