Buddhism: Theravāda

Law and Ethics

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Buddhist Law

There is no Buddhist text that explicitly lays out laws pertaining to followers of the religion. While there are religious principles derived from the teachings of the Buddha, these are not utilised or viewed as binding laws. Rather, they are presented and understood as moral precepts. The contents of the Vinaya Piṭaka is exclusively devoted to the rules and regulations for the Buddhist monastic community. These are often seen as laws that govern the conduct of monastics. However, there is no court of appeal or other elements that one might expect in a modern legal system. The most serious offences for members of the Saṅgha are punishable by disrobing the monastic, thus excluding them from the entire monastic community.

General Ethical Principles

The ethical concept of sīla is often translated as ‘morality’, but has many connotations that go beyond the English concept of this word. It can refer to virtues (e.g. kindness), the activity of those virtues, acting morally or maintaining . Sīla is also commonly understood as three of the eight components of the Noble Eightfold Path that relate to moral behaviour (right speech, right action, and right livelihood). Actions are determined as positive or negative depending on the quality of the mental components that accompany the actions, i.e. the kamma the action generates. If the individual’s mind is motivated by skilful/wholesome states, the action and result is wholesome; if the mind is motivated by unskilful/unwholesome states, the action and result is unwholesome.

Moral Precepts

Theravāda Buddhism codifies ethical behaviour in the form of moral precepts. There is no single set of precepts; some Buddhists may voluntarily undertake five, while others may follow extensive lists. The number of precepts a Buddhist commits to depends on their position within the organisational structure and personal choice. However, there are five precepts considered to be the bare minimum that any Buddhist should follow:

  1. Refrain from killing or injuring living creatures.
  2. Refrain from taking what is not given.
  3. Refrain from committing sexual misconduct.
  4. Refrain from ‘wrong speech’, such as lying and gossiping.
  5. Refrain from using intoxicants that cloud the mind, such as alcohol or non-prescription mind-affecting drugs.

Merit (Puñña)

Puñña (Pāli, puñya in Sanskrit) refers to the concept of ‘merit’, ‘meritorious action’ or ‘virtue’. It is the primary attribute sought by Buddhists in order to develop better kamma and, thus, achieve a more favourable rebirth. Merit can be acquired through three main ways. The first is through gift-giving (dāna). The second is through observing sīla by adhering to ethical conduct. The third way is through the practice of meditation.

Karmic Debt

A common concept that underpins ethical decision-making is the idea of karmic debt (related to the concept of kamma). This refers to the idea that beings cannot avoid the negative results of their unskilful or unwholesome actions. As such, all bad deeds or actions must be eventually paid for. This notion may underpin some of the moral decision-making of many Buddhists as people seek to avoid committing karmically bad actions. Conversely, developing karmically good actions reaps good results (e.g. happiness, good fortune, etc.).

Non-violence (Avihiṃsā)

In Buddhism, avihiṃsā (usually translated as non-injury, non-killing or non-violence) refers to the concept of not causing harm to other living things. Adherence to the principle of non-violence is thought to generate positive kamma, while defying the principle is believed to bring about negative kamma. The concept of avihiṃsā forms the basis of vegetarianism for many Buddhists as well as the tolerance towards all forms of life.

Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce


There are no strict sexual ethical guidelines presented in Buddhism for lay Buddhists (apart from the fourth moral precept of refraining from sexual misconduct). Rather, sexual and reproductive ethics are based on general ethical concepts such as moral precepts and the doctrine of kamma. Buddhists are generally open to the use of birth control. However, other topics related to family planning such as abortion or reproductive technologies are usually influenced by factors other than religion (such as culture, family perceptions, financial security, etc.).

Monogamy is the predominant model of relationships. In some cases, there is local variation in marriage and dating customs in the Buddhist world. Positions on homosexuality vary; some Buddhists are conservative on the matter, while others may be tolerant or supportive.

Sexual Misconduct

Avoidance of sexual misconduct is one of the main moral precepts expected to be observed by all Buddhists. ‘Sexual misconduct’ for lay Buddhists generally refers to sexual offences such as non-consensual sexual acts, sexual activity with minors or those protected by the law, and adultery. It can also broadly refer to any irresponsible use of sexuality (such as promiscuity, an overindulgence of sex or sexual addiction). In the context of monasticism in Theravāda Buddhism, monks and nuns are expected to practise celibacy.

Gendered Interactions

Interactions between laypeople and monastics usually differ depending on the gender of the person. Monastics are expected to avoid physical contact with members of the opposite gender. Most common examples are between male monastics and females. For instance, monks are expected to avoid female contact. This helps keep a clear boundary for the monk around his moral precepts in case sensual desire enters his mind. As such, in some Theravādin cultures, females generally pass objects through an intermediate male person, or a monk will use a ‘receiving cloth’ to receive an object from a female so that their hands do not touch.


Though Buddhism recognises the importance of marriage as a social institution, marriage is usually not understood as a religious concern. Rather, marriage is seen as a matter of society in which the partners assume obligations to each other. Monks do not officiate wedding ceremonies and do not participate as matchmakers. Nonetheless, some newlyweds may visit a local monastery after their wedding to receive a blessing and in some cases perform a simple ceremony with special chants.


Generally, Buddhism has no religious objection to divorce. Social and cultural influences play a major role in determining the level of acceptance when it comes to divorce and remarriage.

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