The Five Precepts and Five Virtues


Translated By Andrew Yang

The traditional Chinese Five Virtues include benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity. If everyone follows them in their conduct, they will all become truly noble people with moral integrity. In Buddhism, too, there are the basic Five Precepts of no killing, no theft, no sexual misconduct, no lying and no consumption of intoxicants. As a matter of fact, there are close similarities between the Confucian Five Virtues and the Buddhist Five Precepts. The latter serve as a foundation for personal ethics, which all Buddhists including the layman abide by. According to Avatamsaka Sutra, “As the root of supreme enlightenment, one should observe the Precepts without defilement. If one could do so fully, he would be worthy of praise by all Buddhas.”

First off, what is a precept? It is what prevents or stops evil. If we line up the Five Precepts next to the Five Virtues, no killing is benevolence, no theft is righteousness, no sexual misconduct is propriety, no consumption of intoxicants is wisdom, and no lying is sincerity.

No killing means never taking a life. The greatest kindness and mercy involved in this practice are epitomized by the spirit of loving kindness and great compassion characterized by Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. The Sutra on Upasaka Precepts says, “One should vow to rather die than take a life.” And Mencius states, “Someone without a heart of compassion is no human being.” Thus,  a benevolent person does not harm the innocent, and constantly maintaining a compassionate mind brings oneself and others infinite peace and joy.

No theft means not stealing other people’s assets. The act of stealing stems from greed, taking someone else’s property without their permission, and benefiting oneself at their expense. Thus, theft is considered immoral and is completely against righteousness.

As the saying goes, lust leads to all evil, and illicit sexual liaisons cause infinite suffering. For example, adultery brings on destruction of families, spread of disease and even murder. With lay Buddhists, all extramarital affairs, non-marital sex and prostitution are sinful conduct regarded as the opposite of propriety.

No consumption of intoxicants is refraining from the use of alcoholic beverages and substances that produce psychoactive effects. People tend to make mistakes when they are impaired, such as in driving, causing accidents that harm others as well as themselves, because alcohol and drugs cloud one’s judgment, cause mental aberration and alter one’s behaviour. Abstinence from consuming intoxicants is a wise practice upheld by all who follow the Five Precepts.

Finally, no lying means telling the truth and not making a false statement. In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha states, “Subhuti, Tathagata is one who speaks the truth, utters the truth, explains the truth, and one who does not distort nor alter the truth”. Lying, double speak, swearing and sweet talk all induce evil karma by the mouth with underlying greed, anger or delusion. Double speak, popularly referred to as a double-tongued snake, sows discord and incites enmity with deliberately obscure tittle-tattle. Swearing is abusive, obscene speech aimed at vilifying or insulting. And sweet talk is speech involving pleasant but insincere, meaningless, ingratiating praise. Trustworthiness is an essential quality of a good person, and without sincerity, there can be no trust. If one often presents themselves and pleases others through lies, they are sure to lose credibility and trust.

In summary, the Confucian Five Virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity broadly correspond to the Buddhist Five Precepts of no killing, no theft, no sexual misconduct, no consumption of intoxicants and no lying. They are all part of a moral foundation for good personal character. If one strives to keep them in mind and put them into practice, they may gradually build up perfectly sound morals.

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