FIVE BUDDHIST MORAL PRINCIPLES TO LIVE A HEALTHY LIFE: A FOUNDATION TO BUILD A PEACEFUL LIFE OF MANKIND
Most Venerable Dhammavamso
(Nguyễn Văn Thông)
Principal, Vietnam Theravāda Buddhist College
Human beings have entered into the 21st century for over one decade. We are living in a new era when changes are taking place in all and every aspect of our life with a lightning speed. The society of 21st century is often described as a knowledge-based society, in which knowledge plays a core role and education is the key to all kinds of development. Grounded on such a development trend, it is predicted that the 21st century is “The century of knowledge and talent”, “Knowledge is power”, and “The future society is built on knowledge base” (Alvin Toffler, American futurist).
Our world has so far undergone five revolutions: scientific revolution, technological revolution, economic revolution, political-cultural revolution, and democratic revolution among many. Three features that are prominent in the modern world include: science and technology development, social development and economic development. At the same time, moral degradation, social insecurity, fears and sufferings that individuals are wrapped up are becoming pervasive and severe. The world is getting flat simultaneously with the globalization trend, along which all nations, peoples, religions… are supposed to be getting closer to one another. In reality, individual humans are becoming much more lonesome in their own tiny world. This is an enormous misfortune for humans to live in the modern 21st century. As the author of “Study of Values: Theory of Value” has a doleful remark:
“Today is time of confusion, time of great losses, war and continuous conflict; negative phenomenon happens all over the world, such as terror, sabotage, fire, deceiving, murder, drugs, alcohol, obscenity, broken family, unjustness, corruption, robbery, slander. This mess causes many losses for human’s most valuable property, mistrust of the others, teachers and parents’ charisma and authority’s supremacy decrease, dignity disregard, traditional disdain, life’s value disregard. People feels “The more improved the material world is, the wilder the moral world is”. 
Among many causes of that misfortune, the root one is the changing nature of values as well as other social phenomena under the law of impermanence. The near cause is limitless desire and rapid out-of-control development in both quality and quantity, which makes all traditional values disconcerted and human morale decayed. The newly emerged values lead to a consequence that almost every individual as a limited person is arduous to adapt and find a peaceful place in the formidable non-boundary stream of the so-called globalization!
Appeared almost 26 centuries ago, Buddhism is considered as a great religion with the most ancient way of life significantly contributing to peace and development of mankind. By appreciation of knowledge (paññā) and caring for beings’ suffering (karuṇā), Buddhism conveys the message of peace and understanding wherever it arrives. One of the Buddha’s teachings which has tremendous value and is able to create a peaceful life for mankind is Five Moral Principles that are often called Five Precepts (pañca sīla) , in case they are well understood and widely applied.
II. Buddhism’s Five Moral Principles
Monks and laity from generation to generation all around the world are quite familiar with Five Moral Principles which are popularly explained in many basic Buddhology books for laity. The Five Moral Principles include:
1. Abstaining from killing living being,
2. Abstaining from taking what is not given,
3. Avoiding sexual misconduct,
4. Abstaining from false speech, and
5. Abstaining from fermented drinks that cause heedlessness.
These are the Five Moral Principles viewed from negative perspective. If they are properly observed, people will not create harm, fear of loss, marriage break-up and injustice to others, and will not bring heedlessness, stupidness and damage to themselves. Generally, these Five Moral Principles are regarded as five rules, five forbidden things because those who do not obey them or do otherwise are condemned by the wise and surely undergo painful consequences. As long as these Five Moral Principles are put into practice, societies will have less problems, less anxiety, less insecurity; the world will be a safe and peaceful place to live. Nevertheless, since the world nowadays is full of wars, injustice, pollution and other unwholesome issues, these Five Moral Principles should be also looked at from positive perspective to provide solutions and healings.
III. Five Moral Principles from Positive Perspective
Let’s start with the first moral principle: pāṇ’ātipātā veramaṇī. The word ‘pāṇa’ here not only means ‘living being’, but also means ‘life’ . ‘Life’ obviously has wider sense than ‘living being’. Life may include living environment, humans, animals, plants, mineral, natural resources such as water, forest, ocean, air and the like. Thus, from positive perspective, the first principle in formal way can be interpreted as follows:
- Pāṇ’ātipātā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from destruction of life. In other words, lay followers learn how to respect and protect life in order to make life exist and develop naturally.
The second moral principle:
- Adinn’ādānā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
The second principle is often understood as abstaining from stealing or from taking what is not given. Here, the second principle in positive perspective is not just be limited in abstaining from taking what is not given, it also means respecting and protecting legal property which is socially regulated. It depends on each community/society/nation, personal and public property is protected by the respective community/society/nation’s rule of law that must be obeyed by every community’s member.
The third moral principle:
- Kāmesu micchācārā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to avoid sexual misconduct.
The third principle is often considered as avoiding illegal sexual conduct. It means that a man/woman is not allowed to have sex with the other who is not their legal partner (husband or wife). The key point of this precept is marriage! Meanwhile, marriage practice is different from one country to another, depending on custom, law or religious belief. There is country/society/religion that regulates marital monogamy – an individual has only one partner during his or her lifetime or at any one time. There is country/society/religion allows man to have maximum 4 wives (in Muslim countries) or even do not limit the number of wife (feudalism in the past and some places at present). Some ethnic minorities in China are still keeping matriarch – woman is the head of a family or tribe. A woman there is free to get married to as many men as she wishes. Children are brought up by woman and they just care for their mothers; man plays a minor role in the family or community. Therefore, the third moral principle can be rephrased: lay followers learn how to respect and protect marriage life regulated by their society.
The fourth moral principles:
- Musā-vādā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
The fourth principle is often understood: abstaining from false speech or lying. It is usually composed of four parts:
+ Telling a lie or deceiving,
+ Telling harsh speech, or using rude, impolite or abusive language,
+ Slandering, or speaking in a way that causes disharmony or division,
+ Making idle chatter
Utterance is the way to express and convey information through conventional audial signals. However, beside audial utterance produced by the vocal tract (mouth, lips, tongue, teeth, palate, pharynx, vocal folds), we also have other kinds of language such as hand gestures, writings, symbols, signals… The key element of this fourth principle is the truth; all information must be based on the truth in order to become a trustworthy and reliable person. Hence, the fourth moral principle can be alternatively expressed: lay followers learn how to respect and protect the truth and just convey the truth.
The fifth moral principle:
- Surā-meraya-majja’ppamāda’ṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink and distilled wine that cause heedlessness.
During the time of Lord Buddha, there were not many addictive and alcoholic substances creating illusion and mental excitement like today. Two popular liquids that bring about the feelings of ecstasy and drunkenness at that time were fermented wine and distilled wine. There was a monk who obtained the five kinds of supernormal power, was admired by the local people since he utilized the miraculous power to tame a devil dragon, liberating the villagers from the evils it brought in.
However, the monk later hurt the trust of the local people and lost all of his miraculous power due to intake of wine. The local people also took responsibility in this incident. A number of families in the area, who were merchants, usually going to the distant localities to do business, came back home for visit now and then. On their return, knowing that there was a monk who successfully tamed the devil dragon, which was used to be the perpetuating evil to the area, the merchants were very happy. They brought tasty rare foods and drinks of many kinds to offer the monk, including an ecstasy-generating liquid which is presently called wine.
When the monk consumed that liquid, he was very excited. Hence, the merchants offered him the liquid frequently later on. After a period of time using the intoxicant, the monk was addicted to it. Soon after that, he became a drunkard, losing all of his supernormal power and also the ability to control himself. This went as far as when the Buddha visited the area, He could no longer recognise his exemplary student. The monk was not a respectful person anymore but now sank himself deeply in the state of drunkenness, slept wherever he wanted, put off his upper robe and wore only a dirty sticky lower robe.
After getting people to take him to bath, shave his bushy beard, put on the upper robe for him, the Buddha condemned him in front of Saṅgha and related the destructive consequences of drinking wine, which obviously led a respected powerful monk to a dull-witted, useless man laughed at by the people. The Buddha then decided to put this fifth moral principle into force .
In our time, abstaining from fermented drink and distilled wine needs to be understood comprehensively. It means that any substance which causes illusion, mental excitement, addiction, drunkenness and makes consumers uncontrollable. The fundamental point of this principle is to protect health and keep the mind sound and clear. The fifth moral principle, therefore, can be re-stated: lay followers learn how to respect and protect health and keep the mind sound and clear by abstaining from drug and wine.
Now we can summarize the Five Moral Principles for healthy living viewed from the positive perspective as follows:
1. Respecting and protecting life.
2. Respecting and protecting legal property which is socially regulated.
3. Respecting and protecting marriage which is socially accepted.
4. Respecting and protecting the truth and just conveying the truth.
5. Respecting and protecting health and keeping the mind sound and clear by abstaining from drug and wine.
The above five moral principles for healthy living of Buddhism are very helpful for every society, every country regardless of their race, belief, religion, institution, and serves as a base for mankind’s peaceful environment and sustainable development. Let’s imagine a community, society or country where leaders and citizens are educated or aware of the benefits of these five moral principles and then live accordingly. In that community, society or country, people always respect and protect the living environment, natural resources (water, air, mineral, plants, animals…) and maintain harmonious communal relationships. There is neither theft, robbery nor dwindle because people always respect legal property which is socially regulated. In such a community/society/country, families live a happy life, children have their both father and mother; parents are aware of their responsibilities in bringing up their children and fulfill their role as a father/mother or husband/wife. People in that community, society or country love the truth and live honestly and kindly, and enjoy mutual respect and harmony. There is no dispute, slander or insult among neighbors. Any dissidence or misunderstanding is solved by constructive comments and willing-to-learn spirit. In contrast to our present society which is slave to materialism and consumption, physical and mental health in that community, society or country is considered as the most supreme property which is highly valued by all citizens, and they never consume fermented drinks or stimulant drugs causing heedlessness. With good health and lucid knowledge, many inventions and discoveries are implemented, which make the society well developed and human’s lifespan increased naturally. A world, a living environment like that is worthy of dreaming to be come true.
It is not too late if the world’s political and religious leaders, educators and the public realize the true value of these Five Buddhist Moral Principles, and then apply them to their daily life in order to build a peaceful life and sustainable development.
 Study of Values: Theory of Value” - Yahoo website, dated 02.3.2004 (anonymous author) – Reciting from Phạm Minh Hạc, Tìm hiểu khoa học về giá trị, Tạp chí Nghiên cứu con người, số 6(15), 2004, Hà Nội, Việt Nam
 Dīgha Nikāya III, p. 235; Aṅ’guttara Nikāya III, p. 203; Vibhaṅga, p. 285;
 Nāga Mahā Thera, Pāḷī-Vietnamese Dictionary
 Buddhadatta, Pāḷī-English Dictionary
 Vinaya Piṭaka, Mahāvagga
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