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Buddhism Teaching Resources

Buddhism Teaching Resources

Teach about Buddhism with a little help from Edinburgh Buddhist Studies

A story about the five precepts

Here is a story that I find useful when discussing the five precepts (against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants).

This story is number 459 in a large collection of past-life stories of the Buddha (the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā) found in Pali and preserved by the Theravada school of Buddhism. The text was probably composed between the 3rd century BCE and the 5th century CE. For the full text see

This is a summary/abbreviated translation by Naomi Appleton, free to use (and adapt and change as needed) for educational purposes. I have been liberal in cutting out portions of the text that are irrelevant to the main theme. In particular I have removed all references to the renouncers becoming paccekabuddhas (“solitary” or “independent” buddhas), since this was probably not original to the story, and the complex implications of this concept would only distract from the usefulness of the story as a teaching aid.


Paniya Jataka, or the Water Story

At one time, five hundred citizens of a particular city heard the Buddha’s teachings and became monks. However, they continued to have lustful thoughts. The Buddha had them gathered together and addressed them: “Monks, there is no such thing as a minor defilement. Monks must stop all defilements as they arise. Wise men of old, before the coming of the Buddha, subdued their defilements and became renouncers.” And he told them a story of the past:

In the past, when Brahmadatta was king in Varanasi, there were two friends in a certain village nearby. They went out into the fields and took a drinking pot each, which they set aside as they worked. Whenever they got thirsty they would go and take a drink, but one of the friends took water from the pot that was not his own, preserving his own water for later. At the end of the day he reflected, “Have I done any wrong today?” He thought of the water he had stolen, and cried out, “If it increases, this thirst will lead me to a bad rebirth! I must put a stop to this defilement.” As a result of reflecting on this, he became a renouncer.

Meanwhile, a landowner was sitting in the marketplace. Another man’s wife walked past and she was absolutely gorgeous. The man was struck by her beauty and desired her. He thought, “If it increases, this thirst will lead me to a bad rebirth.” He too became a renouncer.

Not far off, a father and son were travelling through a forest known for kidnappers. If these robbers came to know that there was a close family relationship between those they caught, they would keep one person and send the other off for a ransom. So the father and son agreed that they would not reveal their true relationship if caught. When they were intercepted by the robbers, they claimed to be nothing to one another, and so both came out of the forest safely. But when the son reflected on the lie they had told he cried out, “If it increases, this evil will lead me to a bad rebirth! I must put a stop to this defilement.” He too became a renouncer.

In another village nearby, a village overseer was approached for permission to carry out the traditional sacrificial offering to the spirits. He gave his permission, but when he saw how many animals had been killed he was distraught: “So many beasts have been killed all because of my words!” He too became a renouncer. Similarly, the overseer of another village gave permission for a drinking festival to be observed, as a result of which people started having fights and injuring themselves. He felt sorry for this, and reflected, “If I hadn’t given my permission, they might not have experienced this suffering.” He too became a renouncer, and went to a mountain cave, where he met the other four renouncers. They began to travel together seeking alms.

One day, they approached the city of Varanasi, and the king was so impressed by their appearance and manner that he invited them to his palace. There, he washed their feet and offered them food and then asked them, “Sirs, you have become renouncers while still young, and you see the danger of desires. How did this come about?” They replied:


“Though a friend, I stole the water of a friend.

Later I loathed that bad deed I had done.

I renounced so I would not do evil again.”


“I saw another’s wife, and desire arose.

Later I loathed that bad deed I had done.

I renounced so I would not do evil again.”


“Great king, thieves snatched my father in the forest,

And I answered their question one way, knowing it was otherwise.

Later I loathed that bad deed I had done.

I renounced so I would not do evil again.”


“Beings were killed for the sacrifice,

And I gave my permission.

Later I loathed that bad deed I had done.

I renounced so I would not do evil again.”


“The people first got drunk on spirits and more,

And caused a great deal of harm in their drinking bout,

And I gave my permission.

Later I loathed that bad deed I had done.

I renounced so I would not do evil again.”


Hearing their verses of explanation, the king was delighted and praised the five men. He offered them many gifts before they departed. And from that day onwards the king stopped being satisfied with his life of sense pleasures. He no longer enjoyed his food, and wouldn’t even look at his wives. In the end, he decided that he wanted to abandon worldly ties altogether, and he, too, became a renouncer.


Possible discussion questions:

  • What do you think the Buddha means when he says there’s no such thing as a minor defilement? (Note the term translated as “defilement” is kilesa, which is a defiled state of mind. Most famously greed, hatred and delusion are kilesas, but we should also include things like anxiety, lust, or anything else that could lead to bad kamma.)
  • What are the actual transgressions of these five men? How do they relate to the five precepts?
  • Do the men do very bad things? What is the role of their remorse?
  • Why is the mental state behind the action so strongly emphasised in the story? What role does mental state have in Buddhist understandings of kamma and of the causes of suffering? (Note that the word translated as “thirst” is taṇhā, which is often translated more loosely as “craving”, for example in many accounts of the four noble truths.)
  • Why do all the men become renouncers? How does renouncing help them avoid doing more bad deeds?
  • Why do you think that they are all men? Is there no place for women to become renouncers in this text, or in the ancient Indian society in which it was composed?


2 replies to “A story about the five precepts”

  1. Kathy says:

    How was the lie bad when it saved his father’s life?

    1. Naomi Appleton says:

      Hi Kathy. I guess that’s part of the point – none of the “bad” things are very clearly bad, and yet the men are horrified enough to feel the need to leave their normal lives. Part of that is because of the sense that a small transgression is the first step on a slippery slope to bigger and worse lies. So the fact that we don’t blame them for doing something quite understandable is part of the story’s message, perhaps. Thanks for your comment. All the best, Naomi

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