A precept (sikkhàpada) is a self-imposed rule or discipline. The moral rules that all Buddhists commit themselves to and try to live by are called the five Precepts (pa¤ca sãla). They are (1) not to harm living beings, (2) not to steal, (3) not to engage in wrong sexual behaviour, (4) not to lie and (5) not to take alcohol or intoxicating drugs. In following these Precepts one gradually develops a respect for the life of others, for their property, their dignity, their right to know the truth and a respect for the clarity of one's own mind. The Buddha called adhering to these Precepts a consideration to others which `creates love and respect and which is conducive to helpfulness, non-dispute, harmony and unity'(piyakaraõo, garukaraõo, saïgahàya, avivàdàya, sàmaggiyà, ekãbhàvàya, A.III,289). He saw it as a gift to others which would benefit both the giver and the receiver. `When a noble disciple practises the five Precepts he gives the gift of freedom from fear, from hatred and from ill-will, to limitless beings. And in giving this gift he thereby partakes in a freedom from fear, from hatred and from ill-will which is limitless' (condensed, A.IV,246). On another occasion, the Buddha called virtue `freedom-giving' and `conducive to concentration' (A.III,132,) and mentioned that one of the most important benefits of practising the Precepts is that one experiences `the happiness of being blameless' (anavajja sukha, D.I,70). In other words, Buddhists practise the five Precepts because they care about their own welfare and happiness and that of others.

In addition to these Precepts, serious Buddhists will try to practise the eight Precepts (aññha sãla), at least on the uposatha days which occur four times every month. The eight Precepts are the same as the five except that the third is replaced by abstinence from all sexual behaviour, and the additional three Precepts are: (6) not to take food after midday (7), to abstain from dancing, singing, playing or listening to music, from using perfume, cosmetics and garlands, and (8) not to use high seats and couches.

It will be noticed that while the five Precepts pertain to moral behaviour, the last three of the eight Precepts add behaviour that is conducive to simplicity, peace and reflection. Novice monks and nuns are expected to practise the ten Precepts (dasa sãla) in preparation for their monastic life. These ten are: (1) not to harm living beings, (2) not to steal, (3) to abstain from sexual behaviour, (4) not to lie, (5) not to take alcohol or intoxicating drugs, (6) not to eat after midday, (7) to abstain from dancing, singing and musical entertainment, (8) to abstain perfume, cosmetics and garlands, (9) not to use high seats and couches, and (10) not to use gold and silver, i.e. money.