In Theravada tradition, Buddhist morality is summed up in the ‘Five Precepts’. It is important to note that these are not commands to obey, but disciplines undertaken, an individual choice:
to refrain from harming living beings;
to refrain from taking what is not given;
to refrain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures/sexual misconduct;
to refrain from false speech;
to refrain from unmindful states due to alcoholic drinks or drugs.
Mahayana Buddhists sometimes refer to a list of ten precepts, which subdivide ‘false speech’ into false, harsh, malicious and idle speech (underlining how much evil can result from words as well as actions), and add covetousness, ill-will and wrong views. Sometimes the rule about intoxicants appears and sometimes not. There are also many lists of positive behaviour, and generosity or ‘giving’ features highly in Theravada lay life and is the first of the perfections to complete in the bodhisattva path.
It is important to note that Buddhist moral guidelines are not inflexible rules, but have to be adapted to circumstances in order to do the right thing. This is particularly stressed in Mahayana Buddhism, where the concept of ‘skilful means’ requires working out what exactly is the best thing to do – for example one might have to lie to save someone’s life. One famous example in Tibet involved a monk who assassinated an evil king during a dance performance. However, ‘skilful means’ is one of the perfections of the more advanced bodhisattva, so generally the normal rules should be followed. Another important feature of Buddhist morality is the stress on the mind – our behaviour springs from our mental attitudes, and it is important to work on our thoughts and minimise greed, hatred and delusion, so meditation helps morality. Intentions are important in Buddhist morality, so that doing what looks good for the wrong reasons is a problem, whereas doing what looks bad with good intentions is less blameworthy.