As Buddhists, we need to establish our practice on moral principles
so that we feel a sense of self-respect and stability.
The Five Precepts provide the foundation for moral behaviour
and for lay practice of the Dharma.

To refrain from killing.
To refrain from stealing.
To refrain from adulterous or promiscuous sexual activities.
To refrain from false speech.
To refrain from drugs and alcohol.

Besides observing the Five precepts daily,
Buddhists also practice the positive aspects of the precepts
which are Loving-kindness, Generosity, Contentment, Truthful Speech and Mindfulness.
The positive precepts help is to purify our body speech and mind.

With deeds of Loving-kindness, I purify my body.
With open-handed Generosity, I purify my body.
With Stillness, Simplicity and Contentment, I purify my body.
With Truthful Communication, I purify my speech.
With Mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

The Five Precepts

Living in the World

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to reach enlightenment, to become a Buddha oneself. This is to be achieved through developing perfect morality and embracing a lifestyle which maximizes opportunities for meditational practices. Often in Buddhism, the essence of this approach is embodied in the lives of monks and nuns who not only live morally pure lives but also give much attention to meditation. Only a small percentage of Buddhist practitioners embrace the monastic life - instead they work in and through the world like anyone else. They have jobs, families, and face the day to day problems that all people encounter in one way or another at different times. Buddhism is all embracing - it has something for al levels of commitment and practice and the lay community is no exception. So what moral guidelines does the Buddha offer lay followers?

Good Moral Practice

On the face of it, he offers five abstentions - things to avoid doing. The first of these is to abstain from harming living beings. This includes human beings, animals and insects. This is why many (but not all!) Buddhists are vegetarians as the eating of meat involves the slaughter of animals. Interestingly, the Buddha, didn't forbid the eating of meat altogether. His monks were allowed to eat meat providing it hadn't been killed for them specifically. The second precept is to abstain from taking what is not given  - stealing. The third precept is to abstain from sexual misconduct, such as being unfaithful to one's partner, involvement with prostitution or pornography or entertaining lustful thoughts. The fourth precept, abstaining from false speech, includes lying, tale-bearing, and gossiping. The fifth and final precept is to abstain from intoxicating drinks and drugs - of course, drugs taken for medicinal purposes are perfectly acceptable.

Breaking the Fifth Precept

One story from Mongolia warns of the dangers of breaking the fifth precept. A Buddhist lama (spiritual master) was traveling amongst the nomadic tribes. The people would give him food and lodging in exchange for his blessings. One evening he was offered lodging by a young woman who lived alone. She made it conditional that he would have to do one of three things: sacrifice a goat, sleep with his hostess or drink alcohol. He decided on the last of these options, thinking that drinking alcohol was the least harmful of the three. One drink led to another, however, and before long he was drunk. In this state, the sound of the goat started to annoy him so much that he went out and killed it, and when he woke up the next morning he found he had been to bed with the hostess!

Positive

The breaking of any of the precepts has karmic consequences which will ripen in the future for good or ill. The precepts are not just about abstention, however - they have a positive, proactive dimension. Paralleling the abstention from harming living beings is fostering an attitude of kindness and consideration for all beings. Instead of stealing, generosity; instead of sexual misconduct, commitment and fidelity to one's partner; instead of falsehood, a commitment to honesty and fair-dealing; and finally, instead of self-indulgence with intoxicants, developing clarity of mind.  Overall, the precepts offer a clear moral foundation which has benefits for how we interact with others and our own spiritual progress.