Votive Stela with Buddha Shakyamuni

Ethical Guidelines

What ethical considerations guide Buddhists in their actions?

How are “good” and “bad” deeds defined?  

Many cultures define such deeds in similar ways. Around the world, lying, stealing, and killing are considered morally wrong.

When it comes to judging the ethics of any action, what is crucial for Buddhists is the intention and the outcome. These are key aspects that determine one's karma.

Discover the connection in this story. 

Buddhist laywomen making offerings, Phra That Doi Suthep temple, Chiang Mai province, Thailand

Wholesome Deeds

Buddhism classifies actions as “wholesome” or “unwholesome”.  

Simply put, wholesome deeds produce positive karma; unwholesome deeds produce negative karma.

Making offerings to the Buddha, or to monks and nuns, is considered wholesome. Lying, stealing, and killing, it is no surprise, are considered unwholesome.

Tibetan monk with an injured sparrow, Ladakh, India


Karma is like a lifelong scorecard or balance sheet of an individual’s actions.

A person's karma – the sum total of their wholesome and unwholesome deeds – determines their future, not only in this life but beyond death as well. That's because karma governs how a person will be reborn.

What guidelines do Buddhists follow to ensure good karma?

Young monks on a doorstep, Nepal

The Five Precepts

The Five Precepts date from the earliest days of Buddhism. Monks, nuns, and laypeople vow to follow them.

Depending on the particular Buddhist school – Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana – there are various ways in which these rules are observed.

Young monks on a doorstep, Nepal

The Five Precepts state that individuals should not

(1) kill, (2) steal, (3) engage in sexual misconduct, (4) lie, or (5) use intoxicants.

Many monks and nuns understand the third rule to mean that they should lead a celibate life, that is, not marry or have sexual partners.

Several hundred other rules of conduct apply to ordained monks and nuns, but not to laypeople.

Buddhist Monastic Rules from the Pali Canon

Other Rules

There are some rules for monks and nuns that laypeople should also observe on particular feast days.

One of these states that no meal is to be eaten after midday. Others prohibit singing, dancing, music making, or participating in festivities, the wearing of perfume or jewellery, or the use of comfortable chairs or beds.

There are great differences in how these rules are applied, however.

Buddhist nuns and laywomen, Xi'an temple, Shaanxi Province, China

Rules for Ordained Buddhists

Many of the rules require monks and nuns to renounce sensual or worldly pleasures. For example, one rule forbids them from accepting and keeping gold and silver.

Given that monasteries depend on donations from the public, this rule usually refers to private ownership. Nowadays, it is common to give gifts of money to monasteries.

By following a strict code of conduct, ordained Buddhists should gain control of their senses. This control is the foundation of the meditation practices that should lead to spiritual awakening.

Someone asked: Is wisdom large?

The master replied: Yes, it is large. How large? Infinitely large.

Then the person asked: Is wisdom small?

The master answered: Yes, it is small. How small? So small it can no longer be seen.

Finally the person asked: Then where is it?

The master replied: Where is it not?

Ethical Guidelines