I have come across someone stating that you can break any of the five precepts with exception of lying if the need may arise. Is this true? In Theravada Buddhism.

  • 1
    Yes. You can even break the not killing precept under certain conditions. I did this myself with insects, as the practice had become a hindrance. I had created a cocoon around myself that did not favour living a householder life. I didn't want to join a sangha or monastery, so I broke free. Best thing I ever did! However, this question needs to be answered with care, consideration and a great deal of wisdom for obvious reasons.
    – user17652
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 11:57
  • 2
    Wow. Cool. What's your source though? Can you recall?
    – Rubu
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 12:24
  • If you are asking for any canonical references on the subject, you can add the reference-request tag to the question? Otherwise answers may be paraphrased (not citations), or based on personal experience.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 14:24
  • 3
    I first learned of this in Chogyam Trungpa's book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. In that book, there is a small section where he speaks specifically about deliberately breaking precepts in order to undo the bindings that the practice can leave. The practice can leave a kind of ghost in the machine that must be removed.
    – user17652
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 15:23
  • 1
    That's quite insightful. Thanks!
    – Rubu
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 15:37

6 Answers 6


Can you break precepts if the need arises?

Of course you can, but there are consequences. The precepts are there to improve your situation, to help you move away from suffering and towards liberation. Breaking a precept always creates some kind of direct or latent cause of suffering. It always adds yet another knot to the tangle of our karmic situation.

Children often choose short term "need" over a more strategic but less tangible goal. They eat candy instead of vegetables and watch cartoons instead of doing their homework.

If you are an adult, tell me what's more important: getting "the need" or untangling your karma and reaching harmony in your life?


I guess it's based on the following sutta.

One who tells lies may eventually get into all other evil deeds.

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: "For the person who transgresses in one thing, I tell you, there is no evil deed that is not to be done. Which one thing? This: telling a deliberate lie."

The person who lies,
who transgress in this one thing,
transcending concern for the world beyond:
there's no evil
he might not do.
Iti 25

And also:

The person who tells a lie,
who transgresses in this one thing,
transcending concern for the world beyond:
there's no evil
he might not do.
Dhp 176


If abstaining from going after what's not true, real, how could one ever break the precepts, do any unskilfull. It's because of cheating, lying, (e.g. avijja), foremost toward oneself at first place, that one does harm to oneself, harm to other. So simply that mirror, given by the Sublime Buddha toward his son, this simple to remember talk, sets one toward liberation and final end of any harm.

  • Can you quote which sutta you're referring to?
    – ruben2020
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 22:53

The Buddha is always categorical in this matter: Anyone who takes life, take what is not given, engage in sexual misconduct, tell lies and/or use drugs is paving his/her way to a woeful existence.

The commitment to observe the precepts is yours. If you believe in the Buddha and is convinced that is worthwhile to adhere and observe the precepts, you do so. Otherwise, if you're not fully convinced that is worthwhile to keep the precepts, once you have take them, you'll start to come up with excuses to break them whenever they turn out to be inconvenient, but this doesn't change what the Buddha really taught as his Dhamma.

  • This is not actually correct. Like for eg, alcohol, Buddha only crated the rule of not using intoxicants because a monk came back to the sangha drunk. You seem to have your ideas mixed.
    – Remyla
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 20:47
  • @Remyla, What exactly is not correct in my post? How is your observation relevant?
    – Danilo
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 21:15
  • Well you said that the Buddha said "doing X action paves way for a woeful existence" but this is not wholly true. The only need for sila is to enable one to lead a life without remorse. Sila in of itself is only for this, the Buddha did not exactly elaborate on what X action leads to what X result. This is one of the 4 imponderables, the intricacies of karma was never taught by the Buddha. As well as I elaborated, intoxications were only deemed unwise to do for the sangha AFTER a monk came back to the sangha drunk. Only the henious actions were said to lead to more rounds in samsara (hell)
    – Remyla
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 9:47
  • As well as the Buddha said to the sangha that they can abandon the lesser rules he had once created for them, on his death bed, in the maha parinibbana sutta, but the first council could not deem what was greater or lesser so kept all in. For all I or you know, killing, lying etc could be lesser rules and mean absolutely nothing in the grand scale of things. It is as if you have put words in the Buddhas mouth based only upon your own opinions then come to the conclusion that the Buddha said such things.
    – Remyla
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 9:50
  • @Remyla , The one trying to put words in the Buddha's mouth it's you. The Buddha explicitly said what actions tend to lead to lower realms and what actions tend to lead to higher realms (E.g: AN 10:165). Living with remorse is one instance of a woeful existence, and if it gets worse, it'll lead to hell (SN 42:8). The use of intoxicants is not wise exactly because is something that contributes to a woeful existence. Intoxications contribute to headlessness, headlessness may lead to misconduct and misconduct is the cause to fall into lower realms.
    – Danilo
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 18:01

Today's "Yellow Page Teaching" from Ajahn Jayasāro

Refraining from telling lies or misrepresenting the truth is a powerful Dhamma practice. it requires a sharp and constant mindfulness. It has a strong purifying effect on the mind. Its power lies in the way that it exposes the defilements that are triggered during conversations. In determining to care for the truth and uphold it - come what way - we are able to recognize and let go of the fears and desires, the insecurities and the pride, that lie behind our small untruths and half-truths.

But an uncompromising approach to even "white" lies does not lead to a harsh, unfeeling style of speech; commitment to truth is not the only principle to be borne in mind while we are speaking. The Buddha also taught that our speech should be beneficial, appropriate to time and place, kind and polite.

Love of truth ennobles the mind. Expressing this love in our speech with skill and sensitivity is a wonderful gift we can offer all those around us on every day of the year.

Ajahn Jayasāro 24/12/22



Quite simply believing that observing in precepts will lead one to liberation is a fetter, one of the first 3 of 10 that will be released by actually seeing the goal and "becoming" or reaching the fruit of sotapanna.

If not killing, lying, stealing etc... lead one to liberation, why did the Buddha elaborate on satipathana, jhana, vipassana.. That would mean one could just chill out, lie down and would naturally become liberated by never doing any sort of action, negative or positive.

The simple thing is moral discipline, which is the fundamentals of the 8fold path, is there for one to live without regret and to not cause harm to oneself or others. It is not like a mahayana buddhist would believe, a means to "accumulate" good fortune (merit) as to be reborn in a situation conducive to liberation.

So essentially the precepts are just boundaries, simple rules one should strive to live by to live a shameless, blameless and non intrusive life towards oneself or others. It is like the simile of the raft, just a vessel one can leave behind when one crosses the shore. Though of course naturally one striving for liberation would have no need to lie or steal or kill. So the initial discipline work pays itself of naturally by changing ones outlook towards life which never creates causes of negative actions to bear fruit (again).

The 5 heinous actions are the most important actions one should always strive to never create, actions one as a sotapanna or "greater" would never be able to commit. These are completely obstructive actions to liberation, and would lead one in the opposite direction.

Also to point out that the Buddha himself, on his death bed in the mahaparanibbana sutta said to the remaining sangha that they can abolish the lesser rules of the sangha, but the first council could not decide what was a lesser or greater rule so kept all of the Buddhas rules in the viniya.

There is also clearly a difference between an ordained life and leniency to the precepts compared to a lay persons.

My own personal opinion is that actions which cause others harm (killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct towards others) should always be refrained from, but actions that cause no others harm are not inherently negative. For an example, refraining from intoxicants, intoxication does not inherently harm others, but if it does, like you get angry when drunk and hurt others you should refrain from it. If on the other side it brings you pleasure and causes no harm to others then in of itself it is not a negative action. Idle sure, harmful to your body sure, harmful even towards clarity of mind, sure, but not harmful to others. Obviously for an ordained person it is an obstacle towards liberation, idle entertainment and a waste of time, as well as breaking vinaya, so should be refrained from. Though for a lay person, if you yourself are unable to commit to refraining from intoxication, then refrain from the other 4 precepts, just not that one, or only that one on X amount of days.

Using intoxication as an example of course, one can use the same or similar precepts as a basis for the same meaning.

Unfortunately we often "have to" lie in society to function, in most cases we have to "technically" steal (be in debt, or miss bill payments) to function, we sometimes even have to kill to function, especially if you drive a vehicle you will kill multitude of beings just going from A to B.

Morality is not so white and black, it is grey.

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