In Buddhism, the most basic things that a lay Buddhist should know are the five primary rules. These rules offer the essential training rules for lay Buddhists to practice every day, anytime, and anywhere. In general, they are not commands or kind of imperatives. Instead, they only form training rules that someone can take them voluntarily.

That is to say, it means whether someone undertakes them or not is not a problem. But, if someone practices the rules, he/she will attain good behaviors, good thoughts, right actions, kind speech, peacefulness, calmness, and happiness.

Herein, the five main rules are prominent teaching in Buddhism. They are the foundation and the first step of practicing for both Buddhist lay initiation and regular lay Buddhist devotional practices. Anyone, even a non-Buddhist can undertake the rules. Because they are kind of reflections to generate good and high-quality human beings.

The following are the five main rules:

  • Refrain from killing.
  • Do not take part in any sort of stealing.
  • Avoid any sexual misconduct.
  • Refrain from wrong speech or lying.
  • Avoid taking any intoxicants and drugs that can reduce consciousness.

FIRST RULE: To Refrain from Killing

The first of the five rules may include abstention from killing small animals such as insects. However, this first rule mainly prohibits the taking of the life of a sensitive being. Hence, one violates this rule when one intentionally and successfully kills such a conscious being. More so, causing injury to live beings goes against the spirit of this rule. But technically speaking, may not violate it.

On the other hand, the first rule includes taking the lives of animals, which includes even small insects. However, it has also been pointed out that the seriousness of taking life depends on the size, intelligence, benefits done. And, most importantly, the spiritual attainments of that living being.

As a result, killing a large animal is worse than killing a small animal (also because it costs more effort). As well, killing a spiritually accomplished master may be seen as more severe than the killing of another “more average” human being. On the same note, killing a human being is more severe than killing an animal.

But all the same, Buddhism prohibits all killing. Thus, virtues that go together with this rule are respected for the dignity of life, kindness, and compassion. A positive behavior that goes together with this rule is protecting living beings.

Furthermore, positive virtues like sympathy and respect for other living beings in this regard based on a belief in the cycle of rebirth. That all living beings must be born and reborn. Also, the concept of the fundamental Buddha-nature of all human beings underlies the first rule.

Are There Prohibitions for This First Rule?

Yes, the explanation of the first rule can be taken as a prohibition of capital punishment. Suicide is also seen as part of the prohibition. More so, abortion goes against the rule. Since in the act of abortion, these criteria for violation are all met.

Nevertheless, in Buddhism, human life is understood to start at conception. Hence, a prohibition of abortion appears clearly in the monastic rules. And, several Buddhist tales warn of the harmful karmic consequences of abortion.

Were There Objections for Abortions?

Definitely, Bioethicist Damien Keown argues that Early Buddhist texts do not allow killings for exceptions with regard to abortion. As they consist of a “consistent’ pro-life position.” As a result, Keown further proposes that a middle way approach to the five rules is logically hard to defend.

Similarly, Asian studies scholar Giulio Agostini argues. That, however, Buddhist commentators in India from the 4th century onward thought abortion did not break the rules under certain circumstances.

What Are the Other Aspects of This First Rule?

Actually, ordering another person to kill is also a part of this rule. Therefore, requesting or administering euthanasia is also an abuse of the rule. As well as advising another person to commit abortion.

Therefore, with regard to euthanasia and assisted suicide. Keown quotes the Pāli Dīgha Nikāya that says a person upholding the first rule “does not kill a living being, does not cause a living being to be killed, does not approve of the killing of a living being.” As a consequence, Keown argues that in Buddhist ethics, regardless of motives, death can never be the aim of one’s actions.

What Are Buddhist Views On Killing During Warfare?

Explanations of how Buddhist texts regard warfare varies. But in general, Buddhist doctrine opposes warfare in whatever manner. In many accounts, particularly some historical documents. Buddhists take the virtue of non-violence as resistance to all war. This includes both offensive and defensive.

At the same time, though, the Buddha is often shown not to oppose the war in his conversations with political figures openly.

As a result, the Buddha showed some reservations in his involvement in the details of administrative policy. Basically, he concentrated on the moral and spiritual development of his disciples instead. Thus, he may have believed such involvement to be futile. Or, on the other hand, harmful to Buddhism.

Nevertheless, according to history, King Pasenadi, who is one of Buddha’s disciple refrained from retaliating his enemies because of the Buddha.

Were All Buddhists Really Refraining from Retaliating Their Enemies?

We may not really be certain about this, though. This is because, in some later Mahayana texts such as in the writings of Asaṅga, there are examples of people mentioned who kill those who persecute Buddhists. In these examples, there was a justification for killing by the authors for the protection of Buddhism. As such, this reason was seen as more important than keeping the rules.

Another example often cited is that of King Duṭṭhagumaṇ. In the chronicle, the king was sad due to loss of life after a war. However, a Buddhist monk came to comfort him. Basically, the monk stated that nearly everyone who lost their lives in the war did not uphold the rules anyway.

Therefore, Buddhist studies scholar Lambert Schmithausen posited an argument. Thus, he said that in many of these cases, there was a misuse of Buddhist teachings like that of emptiness to further an agenda of war or other violence.

SECOND RULE: To Refrain from Stealing.

The second rule prohibits theft. More so, it involves the intention to steal what one perceives as not belonging to oneself (“what is not given”). And, as well as acting successfully upon that intention. All the same, the strictness of the judgment for the act of theft is by the worth of the owner. And, also, the worth of that which is stolen.

Furthermore, underhand dealings, fraud, cheating, and forgery are also part of this rule. Additionally, the second rule includes different ways of stealing and fraud. Besides, it includes sometimes borrowing without permission. As well, gambling sometimes is inclusive.

The Psychologist Vanchai Ariyabuddhiphongs did studies in the 2000s and 2010s in Thailand. As a result, he discovered that people who did not adhere to the five rules more often tended to believe that money was the most essential goal in life. As such, they would more often pay bribes than people who did adhere to the rules.

Are There Professions That Violates This Rule?

Professions that appears to violate the second rule include working in the gambling industry or marketing products that the customer does not actually request for.

However, people who observed the five rules regarded themselves as wealthier and happier than people who did not observe the rules. This is regardless of the fact that those who do not observe the rules take advantage of people for selfish interests.
Accompanying virtues are generosity, renunciation, and right livelihood. Hence, positive behavior is the protection of other people’s property.

THIRD RULE: To Refrain from Any Sexual Misconduct

The third rule condemns sexual misconduct. This rule as explained in Buddhist texts tend to include adultery with a married or engaged person, rape, incest, sex with a minor (or a person “protected by any relative”). And, sex with a prostitute.

In later texts, details such as intercourse at an inappropriate time. Or, in an inappropriate place is also counted as breaches of the third rule. Similarly, masturbation goes against the spirit of the rule. Although, in the early Buddhism accounts, it was not part of the prohibitions for laypeople.

In addition, the explanation of the third rule shows that most people violate it due to greed in oneself. As a result, causing harm to others. In general, the offense appears as more severe. Especially, if the other person is a good person.

Additionally, the virtue that goes hand-in-hand with the third rule is contentment. Most especially, the contentment with one’s partner. More so, it affects recognition and respect for faithfulness in marriage.

How Does a Buddhist Ensure the Third Rule in Practice?

The third rule interprets as avoiding harm to another by using sensuality in the wrong way. That is to say, not engaging with inappropriate partners. And, also, respecting one’s personal commitment to a relationship.

In some traditions, the rule also condemns adultery with a person whose spouse agrees with the act. Since of course, the nature of the act itself is condemnable. Besides, flirting with a married person may also come as a violation. In a similar manner, this third rule discourages prostitution. Although, it is usually not actively prohibited by the Buddhist teachers.

Are There Any Other Significant Teaching of the Third Rule?

This is with regard to uses of the principles of the third rule. Or, in any way, any Buddhist belief for that matter. The third rule usually does not connect with a position against contraception.

In traditional Buddhist societies such as Sri Lanka, pre-marital sex appears to violate the rule. Though, there may be poor adherence by people who already intend to marry. In the interpretation of modern teachers, the rule includes any person in a sexual relationship with another person. As they define the law by terms. Such as sexual responsibility and long-term commitment.

Additionally, some modern teachers include masturbation as a violation of the rule. Others include certain professions, such as those that involve in:

  • sexual exploitation,
  • prostitution,
  • pornography and professions that promote unhealthy sexual behavior. E.g entertainment industry.

FOURTH RULE: To Refrain from Wrong Speech or Lying

The fourth rule involves falsehood spoken or committed to by action. Also, avoiding other forms of wrong speech is part of this rule. For example, wrong speeches as malicious speech, harsh speech, and gossip.

Thus, a breach of the rule is more severe, especially if an ulterior motive motivates the falsehood (rather than, for example, “a small white lie”).

What Are the Importance of the Fourth Rule?

The accompanying virtue is being honest and dependable. More so, it ensures honesty in work, truthfulness to others, loyalty to superiors, and gratitude to benefactors. In Buddhist texts, this rule is considered second in importance to the first rule. Because a lying person presents himself as to have no shame. And, therefore capable of many wrongs.

In addition, you do not avoid untruthfulness only because it causes harms to others. But, Buddhists obey the rule also because it goes against the Buddhist ideal of finding the truth. Correspondingly, there is inclusive of work that involves online scams as a violation of the fourth rule.

How Can a Buddhist Practice the Fourth Rule?

A true Buddhist will always strive to avoid anything related to lying and harmful speech. Hence, some modern teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh interpret this to include avoiding spreading of false news and uncertain information.

Therefore, a Buddhist avoid works that involve data manipulation, false advertising, and, as well as online scams because such are violations of the rule. Even more, Buddhists practice this rule by not insinuating, exaggerating, or speaking abusively or deceitfully.

FIFTH RULE: To Refrain from Any Intoxicants and Drugs

The fifth rule prohibits intoxication through alcohol, drugs, or other means. And, its virtues are mindfulness and responsibility, as it applies to:

  • Food,
  • Work,
  • Behavior, and
  • The nature of life.

Yet, awareness, meditation, and heedfulness can also be included here. Legends proved that Medieval Pali commentator Buddhaghosa writes that violating the first four rules may be more or less blameable. Of course, it all depends on the person or animal affected. However, the fifth rule is always “greatly blamable”. This is because it hinders one from understanding the Buddha’s teaching and may lead one to “madness.”

Consequently, in ancient China, Daoshi described alcohol as the “doorway to laxity and idleness” and as a cause of suffering. Nevertheless, he did describe certain cases when drinking appeared as less of a problem. Such as, in the case of a queen distracting the king by alcohol to prevent him from murder.

However, Daoshi was generally strict in his interpretations. For example, he allowed medicinal use of alcohol only in extreme cases.

What Are the Consequences of Breaking the Fifth Rule?

Early Chinese translations of the Tripitaka describe negative consequences for people breaking the fifth rule. Hence, the consequence includes for themselves and their families. These ill consequences are loss of wealth, ill health, a bad reputation and “stupidity,” concluding in rebirth in the hell realm.

Thus, the Dirghagama states that alcohol leads to quarreling, negative states of mind, and damage to one’s intelligence. Equally, the Mahayana Brahmajala Sutra describes the dangers of alcohol in powerful terms, including the selling of alcohol.

Furthermore, Upāli Sūtra’s statement supports the prohibition of alcohol consumption in the strict understanding. Hence, as a disciple of the Buddha one should not drink any alcohol. “Even a drop on the point of a blade of grass.”

Also, in the writing of some Abhidharma commentators, they condemned or condoned the consumption of alcohol. But then, it all depends on the intention with which led to the consumption of the alcohol.

How Can a Buddhist Practice the Fifth Rule?

The fifth rule is very important. This is because it condemned drinking alcohol for the sluggishness and lack of self-control it leads to. Certainly, this can subsequently lead to breaking the other rules.

In Spiro’s field studies, violating the fifth rule seems to be the worst of all the five rules. At least, as stated by half of the monks interviewed. As such, they cited the harmful consequences such as unhealthy food, Unhealthy entertainment, and unhealthy conversations. All these among others which Nhat Hanh included as the aspect of mindful consumption.

Are There Objections of the Fifth Rule?

All the same, in practice, the lay people often disregard the Fifth rule. Hence, in Thailand, drinking alcohol is relatively common, even drunkenness. Also, among Tibetans, drinking beer is common. Though this is only slightly alcoholic.

Similarly, medicinal use of alcohol is generally not frowned upon. And, in some countries like Thailand and Laos, they usually do not regard smoking as a violation of the rule. Thai and Laotian monks have been known to smoke. Although, monks who received more training are less likely to smoke.

On a similar note, as of 2000, no Buddhist country prohibited the sale or consumption of alcohol. Though, in Sri Lanka Buddhist revivalists attempted unsuccessfully to get a full prohibition passed in 1956. Moreover, pre-Communist Tibet used to prohibit smoking in some areas of the capital.

However, generally, Buddhist Monks must desist from smoking.


In Buddhism, rules are more like teachings that you choose to follow if they fit your level of consciousness. In the end, it becomes your karma. One of the central teachings (rules to achieve Buddhahood) is not to go to extremes. Hence, Buddhists refer to this teaching as the middle path. Thus, it is a path of moderation between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification.

The five basic rules is a very important rule for the Buddhist community. Basically, Siddhartha Gautama, the most famous Buddha, did not want anybody to believe or follow him blindly. Instead, he wanted you to understand the five basic rules of Buddhism and put them into practice.

Summarily, the five rules lie at the foundation of all Buddhist practice. And in that respect, can compare to the ten commandments in Christianity and Judaism or the ethical codes of Confucianism. So, to enjoy the full benefits of being a core Buddhist member, you should give what it requires to abide by this rule.