The Three Pure Precepts

A Foundation of Buddhist Morality

Japanese Nun
A Japanese nun listens to a dharma talk. © Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The Three Pure Precepts, sometimes called the Three Root Precepts, are practiced in some Mahayana schools. They are said to be the basis of all Buddhist morality.

The Three Pure Precepts seem laughably simple. A common translation is:

To do no evil;
To do good;
To save all beings.

Although they seem simple, the Three Pure Precepts are profoundly important. It is said they are written so that a three-year-old child can understand them, but a person of eighty years may struggle to practice them. Zen teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson, Roshi, said that they "describe the structure and fundamental design of the enlightened mind."

Origin of the Three Pure Precepts

The Three Pure Precepts originated with this verse from the Dhammapada [verse 183, Acharya Buddharakkhita translation]:

To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind -- this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the last line was revised to reflect the bodhisattva's vow to bring all beings to enlightenment.

Alternative Translations

There are many variations of these precepts. In his book The Heart of Being: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen Buddhism, John Daido Loori, Roshi, wrote them this way:

Not creating evil
Practicing good
Actualizing good for others

Zen teacher Josho Pat Phelan provides this version:

I vow to refrain from all action that creates attachment.
I vow to make every effort to live in enlightenment.
I vow to live to benefit all beings.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, liked this translation:

With purity of heart, I vow to refrain from ignorance.
With purity of heart, I vow to reveal beginner's mind.
With purity of heart, I vow to live, and be lived, for the benefit of all beings.

These translations may seem very different, but if we look at each Precept we see they are not so far apart.

The First Pure Precept: To Do No Evil

In Buddhism, it's important not to think of evil as a force that causes wrongdoing or a quality that some people possess. Instead, evil is something we create when our thoughts, words or actions are conditioned by the Three Root Poisons -- greed, anger, ignorance.

Greed, anger, and ignorance are depicted at the center of the Wheel of Life as a cock, a snake, and a pig. The Three Poisons are said to keep the wheel of samsara turning and are responsible for all the suffering (dukkha) in the world. In some illustrations the pig, ignorance, is shown leading the other two creatures. It is our ignorance of the nature of existence, including our own existence, that gives rise to greed and anger.

Ignorance also is at the root of attachment. Please note that Buddhism is not opposed to attachments in the sense of close, personal relationships. Attachment in the Buddhist sense requires two things -- the attacher, and the thing to which the attacher is attached. In other words, "attachment" requires self-reference, and it requires seeing the object of attachment as separate from oneself. But Buddhism teaches us this perspective is a delusion.

So, to not create evil, to refrain from action that creates attachment, and to refrain from ignorance are different ways of pointing to the same wisdom. See also "Buddhism and Evil."

At this point, you might wonder how a person can keep the Precept before he or she realizes enlightenment. Daido Roshi said, "'Practicing good' is not a moral injunction but rather realization itself." This point is a bit difficult to understand or explain, but it's very important. We think we practice to attain enlightenment, but teachers say we practice to manifest enlightenment.

The Second Pure Precept: To Do Good

Kusala is the word from the Pali texts that is translated into English as "good." Kusala also means "skillful." Its opposite is akusala, "unskillful," which is translated as "evil." It may be helpful to understand "good" and "evil" as "skillful" and "unskillful," because it emphasizes that good and evil are not substances or qualities. Daido Roshi said, "Good neither exists nor does not exist. It is simply practice."

Just as evil manifests when our thoughts, words and deeds are conditioned by the Three Poisons, good manifests when our thoughts, words and deeds are free of the Three Poisons. This takes us back to the original verse from the Dhammapada, which tells us to cleanse, or purify, the mind.

Tenshin Roshi said that "purify the mind" is "a kind and gentle encouragement to let go of all dualistic, selfish motivations in your practice of refraining from evil and practicing good." The Buddha taught that compassion depends on the realization of wisdom -- in particular, the wisdom that our separate, permanent "self" is a delusion -- and wisdom also depends on compassion. For more on this point, please see "Buddhism and Compassion."

The Third Pure Precept: To Save All Beings

Bodhichitta -- the compassionate wish to realize enlightenment for all beings, not just oneself -- is at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. Through bodhichitta, the desire to attain enlightenment transcends the narrow interests of the individual self.

Tenshin Roshi says that the Third Pure Precept is the natural fulfillment of the first two: "Absorption in the good of selfless liberation spontaneously overflows into nurturing all beings and helping them to mature." Hakuin Zenji, a Zen master of the early 18th century, put it this way: "From the sea of effortlessness, let your great uncaused compassion shine forth."

This precept is expressed in many ways -- "embrace and sustain all beings"; "actualizing good for others"; "live to benefit all beings"; "be lived for the benefit of all beings." The last expression points to effortlessness -- the liberated mind naturally and spontaneously gives rise to beneficence. The selfish, ignorant, attached mind gives rise to its opposite.

Dogen Zenji, the 13th-century master who brought Soto Zen to Japan, said, "There is no enlightenment without morality and no morality without enlightenment." All of the moral teachings of Buddhism are explained by the Three Pure Precepts.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Three Pure Precepts." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 26). The Three Pure Precepts. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Three Pure Precepts." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).