Eight precepts

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

In Buddhism, the eight precepts (Sanskrit: aṣṭāṇga-śīla or aṣṭā-sīla, Pali: aṭṭhaṅga-sīla or aṭṭha-sīla) is a list of precepts that are observed by lay devotees on observance days and festivals. They include general precepts such as refraining from killing, but also more specific ones, such as abstaining from cosmetics. Probably based on pre-Buddhist brahmanical practices, the eight precepts are often upheld on the Buddhist observance days, and in such context called the uposatha vows or one-day precepts. They are considered to support meditation practice, and are often observed when staying in monasteries and temples. In some periods and places, such as in 7th–10th-century China, the precepts were widely observed. In modern times, there have been revival movements and important political figures that have observed them continuously.


Translations of
eight precepts
(RR: p'algwan hoe)
Sinhalaaṭa sil
(RTGS: sin paet)
Glossary of Buddhism

The first five of the eight precepts are similar to the five precepts, that is, to refrain from killing living beings, stealing, wrong speech and to abstain from intoxicating drink or drugs,[1] but the third precept is abstinence of all sexual activity instead of refraining from sexual offenses.[2] The final three precepts are to abstain from eating at the wrong time (after midday); to abstain from entertainment such as dancing, singing, music, watching shows, as well as to abstain from wearing garlands, perfumes, cosmetics, and personal adornments; and to abstain from luxurious seats and beds.[3][4]

To summarise, following anthropologist Barend Terwiel's [de] translation from Pāli language used in Thai ceremonies:

  1. "I undertake [to observe] the rule of abstinence from taking life
  2. I undertake [to observe] the rule of abstinence from taking what is not given
  3. I undertake [to observe] the rule of abstinence from unchastity
  4. I undertake [to observe] the rule of abstinence from false speech
  5. I undertake [to observe] the rule of abstinence from intoxicants which cause a careless frame of mind
  6. I undertake [to observe] the rule of abstinence from taking food at the wrong time
  7. I undertake [to observe] the rule of abstinence from dancing, music, visiting shows, flowers, make-up, the wearing of ornaments and decorations
  8. I undertake [to observe] the rule of abstinence from a tall, high sleeping place."[5]

In Thailand, when the eight precepts are taken, it is believed that if one of them is broken, they are all broken.[6] In the Pāli tradition, the precepts are described in the Dhammika Sutta, part of the Sutta-Nipāta.[7] In many medieval Chinese texts, the order of the last three items is different, with number 6 and 8 switched.[8][9]

According to ethicist Damien Keown, the eight precepts were derived from the regulations described in the Brahmajala Sutta, an Early Buddhist Text. Since in this discourse the Buddha describes his own behavior, Keown argues that the eight precepts and several other moral doctrines in Buddhism are derived from the Buddha as a model figure.[10] Religion scholar J.H. Bateson and Pāli scholar Shundō Tachibana have argued that the eight precepts may be partly based on pre-Buddhist brahmanical practices (vrata) during the fast on the full and new moon.[7][11]


Asian devotees prostrating for images of the Buddha and two disciples. The images are positioned in front of a large stone monument (stupa).
Buddhist lay devotees observe the eight precepts often during yearly festivals such as Vesak.

On regular observance days (Sanskrit: poṣadha, Pali: uposatha), Buddhist lay devotees often observe the eight precepts. In that context, the eight precepts are also called the uposatha vows (Sanskrit and Pali: upavāsa; Sanskrit: poṣadhaśīla, Pali: uposatha-sīla).[12][13] When laypeople stay in a Buddhist monastery[1] or go on a meditation retreat,[14] they also observe the eight precepts often; they are also upheld during yearly festivals such as Vesak.[15][16] Presently, the uposatha vows are mostly associated with Theravāda Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia,[1] but it was a widespread practice in China as well,[16] and is still practiced.[17] In practice, in Theravāda traditions, the precepts are mostly observed by faithful devotees above 40 years of age.[18] Since the eight precepts are often observed for one day, they are also known as the one-day precepts.[19] Sometimes a formula is recited confirming the observance for one day (and one night):

"I undertake to observe in harmony during this day and this night these eight precepts that have been designed by the wisdom of the Buddha."[5]

Observance does not need to be temporary, however: some lay devotees choose to undertake the eight precepts continuously to improve themselves in morality.[4] The eight precepts are also undertaken by people preparing for ordination as a monk, sometimes called anagarika in Pāli or pha khao in Thai.[20] Furthermore, many nuns in Buddhist countries, such as the mae chi in Thailand or the dasa sil mata in Sri Lanka, observe the eight or ten precepts all the time as part of their way of life.[21][22]


Nine Asian women dressed in white robes are standing and talking. Eight are shaven, one is not.
The mae chi in Thailand observe the eight precepts all the time as part of their way of life.

The Pāli texts describe that one undertakes the eight precepts on the observance days following the example of the enlightened disciples of the Buddha.[23][24] The eight precepts are meant to give lay people an impression of what it means to live as a monastic,[13][25] and the precepts "may function as the thin end of a wedge for attracting some to monastic life".[26] People who are observing the eight precepts are sometimes also addressed differently.[27][28] The objective of the eight precepts is different from the five in that they are less moral in nature, but more focused on developing meditative concentration, and preventing distractions.[18] Indeed, in Sri Lanka, lay devotees observing the eight precepts are expected to spend much time and effort on meditation, focusing especially on meditation on the parts of the body. This is intended to develop detachment.[29]

Among the eight precepts, the third precept is about maintaining chastity. Buddhist tradition therefore requires lay people to be chaste on observance days, which is similar to the historical Indian tradition of being chaste on parvan days. As for the sixth rule, this means not having food after midday, in imitation of a nearly identical rule for monks. Fluids are allowed.[30][18] Taiwanese physician Ming-Jun Hung and his co-authors have analyzed early and medieval Chinese Buddhist Texts and argue that the main purposes of the half-day fast is to lessen desire, improve fitness and strength, and decrease sleepiness.[31] Historically, Chinese Buddhists have interpreted the eight precepts as including vegetarianism.[32]

The seventh precept is sometimes also interpreted to mean not wearing colorful clothes, which has led to a tradition for people to wear plain white when observing the eight precepts.[18][33] This does not necessarily mean, however, that a Buddhist devotee dressed in white is observing the eight precepts all the time.[34] As for the eighth precept, not sitting or sleeping on luxurious seats or beds, this usually comes down to sleeping on a mat on the floor. Though not specified in the precepts themselves, in Thailand and China, people observing the precepts usually stay in the temple overnight. This is to prevent temptations at home to break the eight precepts, and helps foster the community effort in upholding the precepts.[35]


Sri Lankan man dressed in dark robes, sitting in meditation posture.
In 19th-century Sri Lanka, there was a revival of observing the eight precepts due to the influence of Anagarika Dharmapala.

In 6th-century Korea, the eight precepts came to be associated with worship of Maitreya, due to the work of Hyeryang, a Korean monk that wrote a tract about these matters.[8] In 7th–10th-century China, government officials would often observe the eight precepts for one or more months a year, during which they often invited monks to teach them at home. On the same months that were designated for such religious observance, called the chai, the government also refrained from executing death penalties.[36]

In the late 19th century in Sri Lanka, there was a renewed interest in the tradition of observing the eight precepts, during the time of the Buddhist revival. This was mostly because of the influence of Anagarika Dharmapāla, who observed the ten precepts (similar to the eight) continuously, maintaining a status between lay person and monk.[37] The interest was further fostered by campaigns emphasizing Buddhist religious practice on traditional observance days.[38] In the 1980s and 1990s, Thailand saw the rise to popularity of the politician Chamlong Srimuang. As a member of the Buddhist Santi Asoke movement, Srimuang observed the eight precepts continuously, even during his life as a politician. The movement interprets the eight precepts as eating one vegetarian meal a day. Srimuang's strict life following the precepts has led his friends to call him "half monk–half man".[39] Just like the Santi Asoke movement, the Thai Dhammakaya Temple also emphasizes eight precepts, especially in their training programs.[40] In Sri Lanka, in the 2000s, the eight precepts were still observed with great strictness, as was noticed by Religion scholar Jonathan Walters in his field research.[41] In Theravāda traditions in the West, the eight precepts are observed as well.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Religions Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism". BBC. 2 October 2002. Archived from the original on 30 November 2018.
  2. ^ Tucci, Giuseppe; Kitagawa, Joseph M. (27 April 2018). "Buddhism - Popular Religious Practices". Encyclopedia Britannica. Archived from the original on 4 December 2018.
  3. ^ Keown 2004, p. 22.
  4. ^ a b Getz 2004, p. 673.
  5. ^ a b Terwiel 2012, p. 191.
  6. ^ Terwiel 2012, p. 201.
  7. ^ a b Tachibana 1992, p. 65.
  8. ^ a b McBride 2014, Buddhist Rituals.
  9. ^ Teiser 2003, p. 150, n.40.
  10. ^ Keown 2016, pp. 28–31.
  11. ^ Bateson 1912, p. 836.
  12. ^ Keown 2004, Uposatha.
  13. ^ a b Buswell & Lopez 2013, Aṣṭāṅgasamanvāgataṃ upavāsaṃ.
  14. ^ Surinrut, Auamnoy & Sangwatanaroj 2017, p. 650.
  15. ^ Vithararta 1990, pp. 230–1.
  16. ^ a b Buswell & Lopez 2013, Baguan zhai.
  17. ^ Harvey 2000, p. 88.
  18. ^ a b c d Harvey 2000, p. 87.
  19. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, Upavāsa.
  20. ^ Gosling 1984, p. 62.
  21. ^ "Nuns: Buddhist Nuns". Encyclopedia of Religion. Thomson Gale. 2005. Archived from the original on 1 December 2018 – via Encyclopedia.com.
  22. ^ "Nuns". Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Gale Group. 2004. Archived from the original on 1 December 2018 – via Encyclopedia.com.
  23. ^ Witanachchi 2003, p. 555.
  24. ^ Tachibana 1992, p. 67.
  25. ^ Tachibana 1992, p. 66.
  26. ^ Whitaker & Smith 2018, Ethics (sīla).
  27. ^ Terwiel 2012, p. 192.
  28. ^ Gombrich 1995, p. 78.
  29. ^ Gombrich 1995, pp. 314, 329.
  30. ^ Terwiel 2012, pp. 201–2.
  31. ^ Hung, Kuo & Chen 2002.
  32. ^ Watson 1988, pp. 13–4.
  33. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, Ugraparipṛcchā.
  34. ^ Terwiel 2012, p. 187, n.16.
  35. ^ See Terwiel (2012, p. 203) and Harvey (2000, p. 87). Only Harvey mentions China, and the sitting.
  36. ^ Watson 1988, p. 13.
  37. ^ Harvey 2013, pp. 378–9.
  38. ^ Bloss 1987, p. 8.
  39. ^ Keyes 1989, pp. 319–20.
  40. ^ Fuengfusakul 1993, p. 157.
  41. ^ Walters 2010, p. 131.
  42. ^ Gomes 2004, p. 49.


External links[edit]