The Threefold Way

Another formulation of the path is the Threefold Way of ethics, meditation, and wisdom. This is a progressive path, as ethics and a clear conscience provides an indispensable basis for meditation, and meditation is the ground on which wisdom can develop.


To live is to act, and our actions can have either harmful or beneficial consequences for ourselves and others. Buddhist ethics is concerned with the principles and practices that help one to act in ways that help rather than harm.

The core ethical code is known as the five precepts. These are not rules or commandments, but 'principles of training', which are undertaken freely and put into practice with intelligence and sensitivity. The Buddhist tradition acknowledges that life is complex and throws up many difficulties, and it does not suggest that there is a single course of action that will be right in all circumstances. Indeed, rather than speaking of actions being right or wrong, Buddhism speaks of the being skilful (kusala) or unskilful (akusala).The Five Precepts are as follows:

1. Not killing or causing harm to other living beings. This is the fundamental ethical principle for Buddhism, and all the other precepts are elaborations of this. The precept implies acting non-violently wherever possible, and many Buddhists are vegetarian for this reason. The positive counterpart of this precept is love.

2. Not taking the not-given. Stealing is an obvious way in which one can harm others. One can also take advantage of people, exploit them or manipulate them - all these can be seen as ways of taking the not-given. The positive counterpart of this precept is generosity.

3. Avoiding sexual misconduct. This precept has been interpreted in many ways over time, but essentially it means not causing harm to oneself or others in the area of sexual activity. The positive counterpart of this precept is contentment.

4. Avoiding false speech. Speech is the crucial element in our relations with others, and yet language is a slippery medium, and we often deceive ourselves or others without even realising that this is what we are doing. Truthfulness, the positive counterpart of this precept, is therefore essential in an ethical life. But truthfulness is not enough, and in another list of precepts (the ten precepts or the ten kusala dharmas) no fewer than four speech precepts are mentioned, the others enjoining that our speech should be kindly, helpful, and harmonious.

5. Abstaining from drink and drugs that cloud the mind. The positive counterpart of this precept is mindfulness, or awareness. Mindfulness is a fundamental quality to be developed the Buddha's path, and experience shows that taking intoxicating drink or drugs tends to run directly counter to this.

Many Buddhists around the world recite the five precepts every day, and try to put them into practice in their lives.


Dalai Lama

Meditation is the second stage of the threefold way. It is described in more detail in What Is Meditation?


The aim of all Buddhist practices, including meditation, is prajna, or wisdom. The Buddha taught that the fundamental cause of human difficulties is our existential ignorance - our failure to understand the true nature of reality and wisdom is the opposite of this.

To start with, we simply need to hear the teachings that indicate the Buddhist vision of life. Then we need to reflect on them and make sense of them in relation to our own experience. But prajna proper means developing our own direct understanding of the truth. It is not enough to know the Buddha's philosophy, or even to have a good understanding of it. The ultimate aim is to realise the truth for oneself and to be transformed by that realisation.

The Buddha taught that life - everything we experience - has three characteristics. He called these the three marks of conditioned existence. Firstly he said that all life is dukkha, or unsatisfactory. He also said that it is impermanent. Everything in the universe, including ourselves and the thoughts that make up our minds, is in a constant process of change. And yet we act as if the world around us is predictable and stable, and we live our lives as if death were not a certainty. Buddhists reflect on the fact of impermanence, and try to live with this understanding. Thirdly, wherever we may look in life for something solid and unchanging, we only find flux. So he said that all existence is anatta or insubstantial. There is no fixed, abiding essence to things, and no eternal soul within human beings.

A person who is wise in the Buddhist sense will naturally see life in terms of these qualities or marks, and prajna means setting aside the pleasing illusions that we adopt to make life comfortable, and to live more and more on the basis of these truths. A full comprehension that nothing lasts, or has anyfixed substance, has an utterly transformative effect. This also means that everything in life is interconnected: no individual is entirely separate from other individuals, and humanity is not separate from the world it inhabits. From this naturally arises compassion, or universal loving-kindness, which is the counterpart of wisdom.