by Sandra Jishu Holmes
Talk given to Zen Group at Naropa during the years 1993-1995
The next phase of our study is called Aspects of our Lives and is a study of the precepts. The precepts are really the heart of our practice. This is where we truly meet ourselves, where we deal with the aspects of our embodied selves, aspects of our human condition. There is a ceremony called Jukai which means receiving the precepts which is a ceremony of becoming a Buddhist. During the ceremony you take refuge in the Three Treasures, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha and you receive the sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts. This ceremony is also called lay ordination. As preparation for this ceremony you make a Rakusu, which is a small version of the Buddhist robe and represents the Buddha’s Teachings. Greta will be participating in that ceremony this June.
The sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts are:
The Three Refuges
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha
The Three Pure Precepts
I vow to cease from evil
I vow to do only good
I vow to do good for others
The Ten Grave Precepts
I vow not to kill
I vow not to steal
I vow not to be greedy
I vow not to tell lies
I vow not to be ignorant
I vow not to elevate myself and blame others
I vow not to be stingy
I vow not to be angry
I vow not to speak ill of the Three Treasures
What does it mean to say that the precepts are the heart of our practice? And what does it mean to say that we receive the precepts at Jukai? Why do they play such a central role in becoming a Buddhist? It comes down to understanding that we are all intrinsically enlightened just as we are, but because of our veil of ignorance we do not realize it. The precepts are a way of practice that helps us to purify our body mind and speech so that our Buddha Nature can reveal itself. Functioning in the relative world we are constantly dirtying the glass we drink from and we must constantly be cleaning it. It’s just the way things are in this everyday world that we live in. Its not so that we can sit sparkling clean on a shelf in a state of spotless purity, but so that we can us that glass over and over again. We receive the precepts, the pure mind of the Buddha, the essence of the Buddha’s Teachings in order to constantly purify ourselves of greed, anger, and ignorance. I remember the first time I saw a Jukai ceremony and heard someone I knew vowing to keep the precepts. I thought, “How could she say that? I know she’s going to walk away from this ceremony and start breaking the precepts right away.” The most important thing to remember in receiving the precepts are in working with the precepts is to understand the role of intention and the purpose of vow. It does not mean that you stop making mistakes. It does not mean that you will never break the precepts again. The precepts are aspects of our lives and we will be constantly breaking them. We use them as a guide for atonement and purifying our Body, Speech, and Mind. Atonement is like remembering, putting back together, becoming at one again. Our goal is not just to become a sparkling clean glass that sits on a shelf, this is a practice of cleaning the glass so that it can be used over and over again in enlightened action to save all sentient beings. As we practice with the precepts are notion of what it means to break a precept becomes subtler and more refined. Only you can know when you have made a mistake, when you have broken a precept; and only you can decide that you are nevertheless, going to continue to try to keep them. That is why we continue to receive the precepts over and over in our lives. Every time we chant the precepts are hear them chanted we are receiving the precepts.
In this phase of the “How to Raise and Ox” program, we will be studying the Precepts from several different points of view. In the beginning I will be asking you to try them on. To do a bowing practice with them each morning and to find out which one or ones resonate with you. We all have one or two of the precepts that come particularly close to home, where we recognize the need for training. For me it is not talking about others errors and faults. For some of you it may be not getting angry or not being stingy. Only you can know which precept belongs to you.
After you have chosen which precept is yours we will look at it from a Hinayana or literal point of view. This is the spirit in which the Vinaya, the code of ethics and behavior for monks and nuns was developed. I will ask you to keep your chosen precept literally until the next Ox class. You must examine and decide for yourself what it means to literally keep this precept. If it is “I vow not to kill” what does this literally mean? How will you maintain this precept literally? How far will you go in not taking life? Will you kill cockroaches, ants, or rats? Will you take an antibiotic if you get an infection? Will you eat meat? Will you pull weeds, pick flowers? Will you boil water? Once you have decided what it means to literally follow this precept, you should practice in that way until the next class. If the precept is not being ignorant, how will you literally maintain it? What clouds your mind? What do you do to check out? Drugs? Alcohol? Tranquilizers? TV? How will you literally maintain this precept? Once you have decided then make a vow to literally maintain it for the remainder of this phase of the Ox program.
Now staying with your chosen precept, we will look at it from the Mahayana or relative point of view. From this point of view we look at the circumstances involved in planning a course of action. The time, the place, the people involved, the numbers of sentient beings involved. So if, for example, your chosen precept is, “I vow not to kill” and literally you have decided that it means not taking antibiotics, suppose your child is sick with a high fever and is suffering terribly? Suppose you aging father has bacterial pneumonia, and if it is not treated he may die? Suppose a child is about to be attacked by a rabid dog? Suppose you garden is choking with weeds? Literally in each of these cases your vow is not to kill. However, from the Mahayana point of view you don’t get off so easily. You must weigh the circumstances. You must ask yourself, “How in this situation, can I reduce the suffering for myself and for all sentient beings?” You must act from your heart. Only you can know the appropriate response in that moment. And the more your heart has been opened through the practice of zazen and openness to your own suffering, the more likely you will be able to respond from a place of wisdom and compassion.
The third point of view that we will use to look at the precepts is the Buddhayana or absolute point of view. In this case, try to imagine that you are a being standing in the center of the universe looking through a huge microscope at the planet Earth, with its intricate web of life and its vast interconnectedness. Take your chosen precept and look at it from this perspective. Let’s say, once again, that it is “I vow not to kill.” From the Buddhayana point of view it becomes non-killing. If you see the Earth as one living organism, with parts of it constantly being transformed from one form to another, from molten lava, to rock, to soil, from flower to compost to tree, where is the killing? It is simply a continual transformation of energy from one form to another. From the absolute standpoint nothing is outside the circle of life, there is no killing. From this perspective, imagine yourself being part of a seamless whole, one vast being, and see how it affects your relationship to your chosen precept.
The next way to look at the ten grave precepts is through the three pure precepts. Ceasing from evil, doing good, and doing good for others. Ceasing from evil is not doing or supporting anything that causes suffering. So if your precept is “I vow not to kill” you may not be killing, but are you supporting industries that are poisoning the Earth? Do you wear alligator shoes or a fur coat? Examine your life and your actions and become aware of how ceasing from evil affects the precept you’ve chosen.
Doing good means actively choosing to support actions that reduce suffering. It might mean taking a stand against war or poverty or against spending for the military. For each person it will be different. Examine your chosen precept from this point of view.
To do good for others is to take yourself out of the picture. It us just the Buddha seeing the Buddha. There is no pride in helping, there is no patronizing the one being helped, there is no act of giving to be defined. To do good for others is to become the Buddha. Then there is no gift, no giver, and no receiver, just the transfer of energy along the web of life.
Looking at the precepts as aspects of our life we will see that life presents us very often with situations which are not black and white. We are frequently faced with complex moral dilemmas. The answer to these dilemmas does not lie in a simple code of ethics. We cannot take refuge in a moralistic or legalistic interpretation of the precepts. We must ultimately rely on our practice of being present in the moment. It is in having an open and unclouded heart, in being vulnerable and naked in the moment, that we are able to use wisdom and compassion, to choose the best possible course of action.