Taking the Zen Precepts and making them part of your life is an important step in practice. Perfection is not required but the earnest intention to commit yourself to an upright life is a pre-requisite to the full flowering of the Zen life. If you would like to consider taking the Precepts, this is a document to guide you in your contemplation:
"The Great Matter of Birth and Death, the Great Matter of swift change – unless these are reflected and pondered deeply, even though you received this valuable human birth with is so difficult to come by, you might yet end up carelessly squandering it. However, if you truly feared birth and death, would you then now eagerly seek for the way out?" Zen Master Daibai Unkan.
We come to practice Zen because something in us recognises that we can do or be better. Our life may be outwardly successful and fulfilling but nevertheless something inside is not fully satisfied. Many people learn to simply ignore this nagging sense of unease. But a few people have the courage to take it seriously and begin to consider where true fulfilment might lie.
Traditionally framed as a realization of impermanence, we see that we are in the perilous position of our life draining away day by day like sands falling through an hourglass. Naturally, this develops a great sense of urgency. We begin to seek a refuge, a safe place. This seeking mind itself is the beginning of our awakening process.
In the ceremony of receiving the Precepts as Shinzan Roshi conducts it, there is a section where we bow in gratitude to our parents and families, we bow in gratitude to the land where we have grown and we bow in gratitude to our previous teachers and experiences that have brought us to this point. Take some time to think through the events of your life. What has brought you to the gateway of the Precepts? Your life might contain experiences that the conventional mind might consider either positive or negative. But when you view these experiences in the light of your realization of the way, they may form an entirely new pattern. It is said that for the young prince in the north of India, who was later to become Shakyamuni Buddha, four sights changed the course of his life. He saw in close succession an old man, a sick person, a corpse and then a spiritual seeker. What have you seen, what have you experienced that brings you to this point?
When we glimpse the possibility of a more authentic life, we begin to re-orientate our activities to be more true to this vision. People who have near-death experiences often speak of a 'life-review' – they see what they have done and where harm has been caused to others. We don't have to wait until death. It is far better to take stock of our life right now and do what we can to put things right.
Daikan Eno, the sixth ancestor of Zen in China taught:
"What is it that is called 'regret' (san)? What is it that is called 'resolve' (ge)? Regret is to acknowledge past harmful actions. One should regret all one's unwholesome actions from the past, one's transgressions of stupidity, pride and deception, jealousy, and so on, so that they will never arise again. This is called 'regret'. Resolve is to avoid future errors, those from now on. Since you have become enlightened [to them] now, all one's unwholesome actions from the past, one's transgressions of stupidity, deceitfulness, jealousy, and so on, are eradicated forever, never to be committed again. This is called 'resolve.' Therefore, it is called 'regret and resolve' (sange).
It can be helpful before we come to take the Precepts to list all the occasions we can remember when we have caused harm to ourselves and others. Being willing to face what we've done and to take responsibility for it is a great step forward in spiritual maturity. It can be helpful to go through your list confidentially with your teacher. There may be many things on the list where what is done is done and no further action is possible. But there may be other situations in which some apology or restitution can be achieved.
The process of sange continues throughout our spiritual journey as we fine-tune our lives to be more and more in accord with the truth of things. This work is not done in a spirit of judgementalism or self-condemnation, rather in the completely natural way that a flower changes its aspect to follow the course of the sun.
The Precepts are a description of enlightened action and serve as a guide. They are never imposed, but may be undertaken freely by anyone who wishes.
The Three Refuges
The Three Pure Precepts
The Ten Precepts
We take refuge in the Buddha by trusting the wisdom born of the compassionate heart and we also develop the humility to check our understanding with the teaching of the Buddhas and Ancestors (the Dharma) and with the Sangha (the living community of those who follow the Buddha's Way). We are all human and even the greatest teacher can make a mistake; however, if the Precepts are taken seriously, they provide the necessary safeguards and guidance.
Receiving the Precepts, we need to have the clear intention to practice them, even though we will not keep them perfectly. Because we cannot keep them perfectly, we naturally nourish humility and kindness, but we must do the best we can, in any case. The Precepts are for humans, not saints from heaven. The important thing is the heart that is willing to commit, to engage. The Precepts nourish ease and equanimity. Without mental stability, we cannot respond to the world around us in a healthy way. Study the following commentaries on the Precepts by two great Zen masters. Don't worry if you don't fully understand them. Keep coming back to them. Practice what you understand and in the light of your practice, your understanding will grow. Chew over them. Engage with them. These great teachers want you to experience the great ease and joy of the Buddha's Way.
By Dogen Zenji
The Great Precepts of the Buddhas are maintained carefully by the Buddhas. Buddhas give them to Buddhas, Ancestors transmit them from Ancestors. Receiving the Precepts goes beyond the three times; realization continues unceasingly from ancient times to the present. Our great Teacher Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted the Precepts to Mahakashyo, and Mahakashyo transmitted them to Ananda. Thus they have been transmitted generation after generation down to me. Now I will give them to you in order to show my gratitude toward the Compassionate benevolence of the Buddhas and make them the eyes of all sentient beings. Indeed this is the way to maintain the Living Wisdom of the Buddhas. I pray for the guidance of the Buddhas and Ancestors to verify it. First you must make sange and take refuge in the Precepts.
Recite this, following my words: All the evil karma ever committed by me since of old, Because of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance, Born of my body, mouth and mind – Now I atone for it all.
Now, by the guidance of the Buddhas and Ancestors, we have discarded and purified all karma of body, mouth and mind and have attained great immaculacy. This is by the power of sange.
Now, you should take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The three treasures have three merits and virtues, called the One Body Three Treasures, the Realized Three Treasures, and the Maintained Three Treasures.
Complete and utter enlightenment is called the Buddha Treasure. Being pure and genuine, apart from the dust, is the Dharma Treasure. The virtue and merits of harmony is the Sangha Treasure. These are the One Body Three Treasures.
To realize and actualize Bodhi (awakening) is called the Buddha Treasure of the Realized Three Treasures. The realization of the Buddha is the Dharma Treasure. To penetrate into the Buddhadharma is the Sangha Treasure. These are the Realized Three Treasures.
Guiding the heavens and guiding the people; sometimes appearing in the vast emptiness (sky) and sometimes appearing in the dust is the Buddha Treasure. Sometimes revolving in the leaves and sometimes revolving in the oceanic storehouse; guiding inanimate things and guiding animate beings is the Dharma Treasure. Freed from all sufferings and liberated from the house of the three worlds is the Sangha Treasure. These are the Maintained Three Treasures.
When one takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the great Precepts of all Buddhas is obtained. Make the Buddha your master and do not let any other ways be your master.
THERE ARE THREE PURE PRECEPTS:
CEASING FROM EVIL This is the abiding place of laws and rules of all Buddhas, this is the very source of laws and rules of all Buddhas.
DOING GOOD This is the Dharma of complete enlightenment; this is the Way of all beings.
DOING GOOD FOR OTHERS this is to transcend the profane and to be beyond the holy; this is to liberate oneself and others.
THERE ARE TEN GRAVE PRECEPTS:
FIRST, NON-KILLING Life is non-killing. The seed of Buddha grows continuously. Maintain the wisdom-life of Buddha and do not kill life.
SECOND, NON-STEALING The mind and the externals are just as thus. The gate of liberation has opened.
THIRD, NOT BEING GREEDY The three wheels (body, mouth, mind; greed, anger, ignorance) are pure and clean. Nothing is desired for; go the same way as the Buddhas.
FOURTH, NOT TELLING LIES The Dharma wheel unceasingly turns and there is neither excess nor lack. Sweet dews permeate; gain the essence and gain the truth.
FIFTH, NOT SELLING THE WINE OF DELUSION It has never been defiled; don't be defiled. It is indeed the great clarity.
SIXTH, NOT SPEAKING AGAINST OTHERS. In the midst of the Buddha-Dharma, we are the same way, the same Dharma, the same realization, and the same practice. Do not [let them] talk about others' errors and faults. Do not destroy the Way.
SEVENTH, NOT BEING PROUD OF ONESELF AND BLAMING OTHERS Buddhas and Ancestors realized absolute emptiness and realized the great earth. When the great body is manifested, there is neither outside nor inside in this emptiness. When the Dharma body is manifested, there is not even a single square inch or soil on the ground (earth).
EIGHTH, NOT BEING MEAN One phrase, one verse, ten thousand forms, one hundred grasses; one Dharma, one realization, all Buddhas, all Ancestors. Since the beginning, there has never been meaness.
NINTH, NOT BEING ANGRY There is no regress, no advance; it is not real, it is not unreal. There is illumined cloud-ocean; there is ornamented cloud-ocean.
TENTH, NOT DEFAMING THE THREE TREASURES Expounding the Dharma with the body is a harbor and a fish pool (the most important thing). The virtues return to the ocean of reality. You should not comment on them. Just hold them and serve them.
These sixteen Buddha Precepts are as thus. Obey the teachings and follow those given. Bow to them and be obeisant to them. Now I have expounded them.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the ceaseless Dharma, not giving rise to the intention of killing is called the Precept of no killing.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the Dharma in which nothing can be grasped, not giving rise to the thought of grasping is called the Precept of no stealing.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the unstained Dharma, not covering it with lust is called the Precept of no sexual misconduct.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the inexplicable Dharma not speaking even a single word is called the Precept of no lying.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the intrinsically stainless Dharma, not allowing the mind to darken is called the Precept of no trafficking in delusion.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the faultless Dharma, not faulting others is called the Precept of no slander.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the sphere of equal Dharma, not speaking of self and others is called the Precept of no slander for one's own benefit.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the all-pervading true Dharma, not clinging to a single form is called the Precept of no miserliness.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the Dharma without self, not giving rise to the conception of self and other is called the Precept of no anger.
The inherent nature is inconceivable luminosity. In the midst of the divisionless Dharma, not giving rise to the thought of separation between sentient beings and Buddhas is called the Precept of no defilement of the Three Jewels.
Torei Zenji, a great Zen master teaches:
The true Dharma of the Zen School does not differentiate between monk and layman, man and woman; nor does it choose between high and low, old and young; in it there is neither great nor little, neither acute nor dull energy – but only the great-hearted will finally and without fail attain. So believe profoundly in this Dharma and seek deliverance with diligence. Start walking according to your ability and do not speculate whether the way is long or short.
As W.H. Murray tells us,
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."
To truly receive and realize the heart of the Precepts is to receive and realize the heart of enlightenment. We can directly realize this for ourselves. Nevertheless we remain human beings and all that humanity is heir to. After we have committed ourselves to walking the great path of awakening, we study how to walk this path gracefully. One of Daizan Roshi's Zen teachers, a monk of thirty years of practice described his way as "like a stumbling down a path. Two steps forward, then off into the hedge; two more steps forward and off into the hedge on the other side." As long as we are willing to keep going, even our mistakes can be part of the path and part of the learning process.
The Precepts were and continue to be a living body of awakening, a way to be Buddha now, and a treasure for our lives as social beings. The Buddha knew this, and as he lay dying, he gave his students three guidelines: he encouraged them to realize the truth of impermanence so they could let go of their unhealthy attachments; he asked them to be guided by the Precepts so they could stabilize their own minds and live in harmony with each other and all beings; and he encouraged them to be a lamp unto themselves, that is to take full responsibility for their lives. He realized that living a clear and honest life would be a basis for their liberation from suffering, and that if his successors had strong moral character, their minds would most surely open to inherent natural wisdom and compassion. That is, they would be Buddhas, too.
When we receive the Precepts today, we let them open our lives to a deeper truth that we are not separate from each other. Through living the Precepts, we can discover that we are linked by the bonds of suffering as well as the bonds of enlightenment, and in this way, recognize that we share a common body, a common life, and a common aspiration for happiness and peace.
By taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and practicing the Precepts, we begin to realize our connection to all beings and to understand we are not alone in this journey. We are upheld by the practice of our Zen Ancestors and walk side by side with our current sangha.
In doing our best to live uprightly and keep the Precepts we become more and more aware of our areas of selfishness, hardness, limitation and fear. It is only through awareness that we can be able to release these areas of our life and relax into our true nature. This work takes effort, courage and commitment. But over time we realize that the Precepts are not really rules, they are a definition of the life of a Buddha, of how a Buddha functions in the world. They are how enlightened beings live their lives, relate to other human beings and this planet, and make moral and ethical decisions while manifesting wisdom and compassion in everyday life.
Perhaps unique among religious ethical teachings, the Precepts are based on the experience of no-self. Sometimes compared with 10 Commandments of Judeo-Christian fame, the Precepts differ in that they are recommendations towards a happy, fruitful life and not commandments that if broken will lead you to eternal damnation. You can think of the Zen Precepts as more of a road-map towards the enlightened mind and less of a checklist towards heaven. As you take an active role in applying the Precepts to your life, you begin to understand that Buddhas have those Precepts internalized – it's part of what makes them a Buddha. They don't follow or obey the Precepts; they are the Precepts.
In the same way, as practice matures we use our own inherent compassion tempered by acquired wisdom to apply the Precepts in our lives. They are affirming as well as condemning – all dependant upon your needs and experience. As the Precepts become internalized they begin to flow along with and as all things. At this level, the life of the Precepts is simply life itself. We just live, knowing we have nothing to seek, nothing to hold onto, nothing to want. We are naturally of service to others simply because it is our joy to be so. We are as free as the broad blue sky. We wear the patched Rakusu, showing the all is one and the all is different simultaneously present at all times. We literally clothe ourselves with the entire universe. We cease thinking of our life; truly we are lived by the universe and every moment takes on a miraculous quality. Gratitude towards our teacher, our fellow practitioners, the lineage of enlightened Ancestors and the entire universe manifests. Some Zen teachers call this naturally-arising gratitude the first sign of enlightenment.
The Great Zen Master Torei shares this vow with us:
I am only a simple student, but I offer these respectful words
When we regard the natures of all living creatures and all things, we find them to be the sacred forms of the Tathagatha's never- failing essence. Each particle of matter, each moment, is no other than the Tathagatha's inexpressible radiance.
With this realization, our noble ancestors, possessed of compassionate minds and hearts, gave tender care to bird and beast. And in our own daily lives we, too, should be reverently grateful for the protections of life: our food, drink and clothing! Though these are inanimate things, they are nonetheless the warm flesh and blood, the merciful incarnations of Buddha.
All the more, we can be especially understanding and affectionate with foolish people, particularly with those who become sworn enemies and persecute us with abusive language. That very abuse conveys the Buddha's boundless loving-kindness. It is a compassionate device to liberate us from the mean-spirited delusions we have built up with our wrongful conduct from the beginningless past. With our open response to such abuse we completely relinquish ourselves, and then the most profound and pure faith arises. At the peak of each thought a lotus flower opens, and on each flower there is revealed a Buddha. Everywhere is the Pure Land in its beauty. We see fully the Tathagata's radiant light right where we are.
May we retain this mind and extend it throughout the world so that we and all beings become mature is Buddha's wisdom.