The very IMPORTANT aspect of Buddhist Precepts is that it offers ethics without a divine imperative, this radically differs from the usual spiritual/secular dichotomy.
What is Ethically wrong is also religiously Wrong, eg It is wrong to KILL and even Killing to make an offering is also Wrong! There is NO sacrificial lamb or worse, a Human Being being killed for YOU!
We must clearly understand that the Precepts are NOT divine commandments BUT Training rules [sikkhapadam] that we voluntarily undertake to keep to our best abilty [samadiyami].
First Precept: not to kill living beings.
The negative phrasing of the precepts is noteworthy but the First Precept also lends itself to a positive reading, the development of Metta-Karuna [Loving Kindness], the positive aspect which encourages love, compassion and kindness to all living beings.
Buddhism teaches the interdependence of all living things, there must not be callous disregard for animal life or human beings.
The First Precept offer insights onto modern medical codes of Ethics. For instance, it prohibits assisted suicide or even encouragement of suicide, though they do not condone prolonging life at all costs.
Second Precept: not to steal.
“I take upon myself the precept of abstention from taking that which is not given.”
If someone does not give us something, it is not ours to take. Without permission, taking is stealing. However Buddhism absolves one who takes something without knowing that it belongs to another .
The positive counterpart to the Second Precept is the Buddhist virtue of generosity [Dana]. To give is a greatly meritorious act.
This precept should be read in its original language: Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.
The word kama refers to any form of sensual pleasure but with an emphasis on sexual pleasure, and a literal translation of the precept would be “I take the rule of training ( veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami) not to go the wrong way/ misconduct (micchacara) for sexual pleasure (kamesu)”.
For adolescents and other unmarried Buddhists, the precept advocates the virtue of contentment in sexual abstinence—not safe sex behavior;
for spouses, the precept calls for marital fidelity. The sexual health of everyone is thus guarded.
Although most Buddhists are not celibates, we recognize celibate monasticism as the ideal lifestyle for the attainment of Enlightenment, in which monks and nuns renounce all sexual conduct as an impediment on this path.
The positive result of keeping this Precept is obvious; for the Laypeople it assures every individual of mutual respect for the body and the instituition of marriage, and for the Monastics, of the most appropriate conditions for the path of letting go of attachments, sex being a fundamental craving [kamatanha], attachment [kama upadana] and latent defilement [kamasava].
Fourth Precept: not to tell falsehoods.
Buddhists understand the negative consequences of lying, and this precept also covers gossip and other forms of unproductive and hurtful speech.
This precept calls Buddhists to a love of truth and clarity in thought and expression.
“I take upon myself the precept of abstention from taking any intoxicating drinks that give rise to carelessness/mindlessness.”
The prohibition has been extended to all intoxicants, including modern addictive drugs. The Fifth Precept is primary because of its potential comprehensiveness: break it, and the resulting mindlessness easily leads to transgression of the other four. In positive terms, the precept points up the virtue of a unclouded, disciplined, and wise mind.
Buddhism does NOT have the notion of an almighty, creator God who is the source of human ethics. There is no prologue to the precepts as there is to commandments eg: “I am the LORD your God” so do this OR….!
As Buddhists, we must understand WHY we want to keep the Precepts and do it VOLUNTARILY rather than being dictated to by an external force threatening fire and birmstone to those who disobey or lapse. The aim of the Buddha Dhamma is to enable us to evolve to be BETTER and Wiser people, to do that the change must come from WITHIN and with Insight. We keep the Precepts because we want to, not because we are ordered to.
The Buddha taught three criteria for making moral judgments.
The first is to act towards others the way we would like them to act towards us.
Eg In the Samyutta Nikaya he uses this principle to advise against adultery. He says: “What sort of Dhamma practice leads to great good for oneself?… A noble disciple should reflect like this: ‘If someone were to have sexual intercourse with my spouse I would not like it. Likewise, if I were to have sexual intercourse with another’s spouse they would not like that. For what is unpleasant to me must be unpleasant to another, and how could I burden someone with that?’ As a result of such reflection one abstains from wrong sexual desire, encourages others to abstain from it, and speaks in praise of such abstinence.”
In the Bahitika Sutta, Ananda is asked how to distinguish between praiseworthy and blameworthy behaviour.
He answers that any behaviour which causes harm to oneself and others could be called blameworthy while any behaviour that causes no harm (and which helps) oneself and others could be called praiseworthy.
Behaviour can be considered good or bad according to the consequences or effects it has and whether or not it helps us to attain our ultimate goal of Nibbana.
When asked how after his death it would be possible to know what was and was not his authentic teaching, the Buddha replied: “The doctrines of which you can say: ‘These doctrines lead to letting go, giving up, stilling, calming, higher knowledge, awakening and to Nibbana’ – you can be certain that they are Dhamma, they are discipline, they are the words of the Teacher.”
This utilitarian attitude to ethics is highlighted by the fact that the Buddha uses the term kusala to mean ‘skillful’ or ‘appropriate’ or its opposite, akusala, when evaluating behaviour.
The other thing that is important in evaluating behaviour is intention (cetana). If a deed is motivated by good (based upon generosity, love and understanding) intentions it can be considered skillful.
Evaluating ethical behaviour in Buddhism requires more than obediently following commandments, it requires that we develop a sympathy with others, that we be aware of our thoughts, speech and actions, and that we be clear about our goals and aspirations.