Skip to content
Home » The Five Precepts and the Ten Commandments

The Five Precepts and the Ten Commandments

The Five precepts gives the basic code of ethics for observant Buddhists to respect. They are meant to develop mind and character, enabling progress to enlightenment. Keeping the five precepts forms part of regular devotional practice, both at home and at the local temple. Society upholds the Five Precepts through ceremonies whereby monks lead assemblies reciting the Five Precepts. The recitations follow ancient customs. 

The Five Precepts
Farang Rak Tham, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Five Precepts Listed

For Theraveda Buddhists, a typical reciting (from Pali) goes as follows:

  1. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from onslaught on breathing beings.” (Abstaining from killing of all living beings including animals).
  2. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from taking what is not given.” (Abstaining from theft).
  3. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from sexual misconduct.” (Abstaining from sex outside of marriage).
  4. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from false speech.” (Abstaining from lying).
  5. “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness.” (Abstaining from drunkenness or intoxication from drugs).

The Five Precepts given by Buddha are very similar to the Ten Commandments received by Moses one thousand years earlier. Therefore, understanding how people were to keep the Ten Commandments gives insight into the Five Precepts. We can understand these two ancient codes in the context of the modern Coronavirus pandemic which has spread everywhere.

Moses and the Ten Commandments

The ancient Hebrew Scriptures recounts how our world fell into suffering, death, and impermanence. Buddha had great insight about these through the Four Noble Truths. Because of human tendency to sin, the Creator God gave Moses the Ten Commandments shortly after they escaped Egypt in the Passover. Moses did not plan just to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He wanted also to guide them to a new way of living. He intended to establish a just and corrupt-free society. So fifty days after the Passover that freed the Israelites, Moses led them to Mt. Sinai where they received the Law. God also gave this law through Moses to uncover the underlying problems of our age.

Mount Sinai in Egyptian desert

What commands did Moses get? The complete Law of 613 commands for priests and leaders was quite long. So Moses also received specific moral commands on tablets of stone, known as the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue). These Ten formed the summary of the Law. Like the Five Precepts, they established the moral duty for all people, not just the monks. God’s uses them today as His active power to persuade us to repent common evils.

Part of the All Souls Deuteronomy, Containing the Oldest Surviving Copy of the Decalogue
Author unknown, photograph by Shai Halevi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ten Commandments

The following is the comprehensive list of the Ten Commandments, which were inscribed on stone by God and later transcribed by Moses into the Hebrew Scriptures:

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

Depiction of Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments
Bishop John H. Vincent, D. D., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Exodus 20:3-17

Five Precepts and Ten Commandments

Notice that the Ten Commandments cover four of the Five Precepts. Apart from these same commands, the whole intent of the Precepts and the Commands align. They require self-control over various desires in order for the rights and well-being of others to be respected.

The Standard of the Ten Commandments

God gave these as commands. He did not intend them as suggestions or recommendations. But to what extent are we to obey these commands? The following comes just before the giving of the Ten Commandments:

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 

Exodus 19:3, 5

The people responded in the following way just after the Ten Commandments.

 Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the Lord has said, we will hear and do.”

Exodus 24:7

Sometimes in school exams, the teacher gives multiple questions but then requires students to answer only some of the questions. For example, we may choose any 5 questions out of 10 to answer. Each student can pick the 5 easiest questions for him/her to answer. In this way the teacher makes the exam easier.

Many treat the Ten Commandments (and the Five Precepts) in the same way. They think that God, after giving the Ten Commandments, meant: “Attempt any six of your choice from these Ten.” We think this way because we imagine God balancing our ‘good deeds’ against our ‘bad deeds’. If our Good Merits outweigh or cancel our Bad then we hope to earn God’s favour, or cancel our karma. 

However, an honest reading of the Ten Commandments shows that this was not how God gave them. God expected the people to obey and keep ALL the commands – ALL the time. The sheer difficulty of this has made many dismiss the Ten Commandments as well as negatively view the Five Precepts. They treat them simply as long-term goals, not immediate requirements. But both were given in order to reveal an underlying issue within ourselves.

Coronavirus Test Illustration

We can perhaps understand the purpose of the Five Precepts and Ten Commandments through the lens of COVID-19. COVID-19 gives symptoms of fever, cough, loss of smell, and shortness of breath. But these are all caused by the Coronavirus – something so small that we cannot see it. 

Suppose someone felt feverish and had a cough. This person would wonder what was causing these symptoms. Did he or she have a common fever, or had the Coronavirus infection struck? If so, that would be a serious problem – perhaps even life threatening. Since the Coronavirus spreads so rapidly, and everyone is susceptible, it remains a real possibility. To find out they take the COVID PCR or COVID Rapid Tests. These tests determine if the Coronavirus is present in their body. The tests do not cure them of their disease, but simply tell them if they have the Coronavirus, which results in COVID-19.

Tests to determine our Karma

It is the same with the Five Precepts and the Ten Commandments. Moral decay is as prevalent today as COVID-19 when it began in 2020. These moral codes were given so that by measuring our lives against them we can know if we are free from sin and its karma, or if sin has a hold in us. These moral commands function just like the Coronavirus test. They indicate if you have the disease (sin) or if you are free from it.

Sin literally means ‘missing’ the target expected of us in how we treat others, ourselves, and God. But instead of recognizing our problem we tend either to:

  • compare ourselves with others, thus measuring ourselves against the wrong standard,
  • strive harder to obtain religious merit, or
  • give up and just live for pleasure. 

Therefore, God used men like Buddha and Moses to give these Codes so that:

15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

Romans 2:15


20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

Romans 3:20

If we examine our lives against these Codes it is like taking the Coronavirus test which reveals our internal problem. These Codes do not ‘fix’ our problem, but reveal the problem clearly so we will accept the remedy provided. Instead of continuing in self-deception and wrong attachments, these Codes allow us to see ourselves clearly.

God’s Gift given in Repentance

God has provided a remedy by the gift of forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This Gift of life is simply given to us if we trust or have faith in Jesus’ work.

“Repentance of St Peter” by Gerald Seghers
Gerard Seghers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

Galatians 2:16

Abraham had his Bad Karma credited, so we too can be given righteousness. But it does require that we repent. We often misunderstand repentance, but repentance simply means to ‘change our minds’, involving turning away from sin and turning towards God and His Gift. As the Bible explains:

19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord

Acts 3:19

How does God ‘wipe out our sins’? To continue using a COVID-19 lens, He has produced a vaccine, through Jesus, which we look at here. God, in his great mercy, has given us both a test and a vaccine for sin in our age.

Moses, after establishing the Israelites in the Law, then pronounced both Blessings and Curses on them. Blessings if they kept the law and curses if they did not. How these have impacted human history we look at next.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *