The Nature of the Precepts

An introduction to Zen ethicsRobert Aitken

Robert Aitken RoshiThe precepts of Zen Buddhism derive from the rules that governed the Sangha, or community of monks and nuns who gathered about Shakyamuni Buddha. As the religion of Buddhism developed through the Mahayana schools, the meaning of sangha broadened to include all beings, not just monks and nuns, and not just human beings. Community continues to be a treasure of the religion today, and the precepts continue to be a guide. My purpose in this book is to clarify them for Western students of Buddhism as a way to help make Buddhism a daily practice.

Without the precepts as guidelines, Zen Buddhism tends to become a hobby, made to fit the needs of the ego. Selflessness, as taught in the Zen center, conflicts with the indulgence that is encouraged by society. The student is drawn back and forth, from outside to within the Zen center, tending to use the center as a sanctuary from the difficulties experienced in the world. In my view, the true Zen Buddhist center is not a mere sanctuary, but a source from which ethically motivated people move outward to engage in the larger community.

There are different sets of precepts, depending on the teachings of the various schools of Buddhism. In the Harada-Yasutani line of Zen, which derives from the Soto school, the “Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts” are studied and followed. These begin with the “Three Vows of Refuge”:

I take refuge in the Buddha;
I take refuge in the Dharma;
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha can be understood here to mean realization, truth, and harmony. These Three Vows of Refuge are central to the ceremony of initiation to Buddhism in all of its schools.

The way of applying these vows in daily life is presented in “The Three Pure Precepts,” which derive from a gatha (didactic verse) in the Dhammapada and other early Buddhist books:

Renounce all evil;
practice all good;
keep your mind pure—
thus all the Buddhas taught.1

In Mahayana Buddhism, these lines underwent a change reflecting a shift from the ideal of personal perfection to the ideal of oneness with all beings. The last line was dropped, and the third rewritten:

Renounce all evil;
practice all good;
save the many beings.

These simple moral injunctions are then explicated in detail in “The Ten Grave Precepts,” “Not Killing, Not Stealing, Not Misusing Sex,” and so on, which are discussed in the next ten chapters.

These sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are accepted by the Zen student in the ceremony called Jukai (“Receiving the Precepts”), in which the student acknowledges the guidance of the Buddha. They are studied privately with the roshi, the teacher, but are not taken up in teisho (Dharma talks), or discussed at any length in Zen commentaries.

I think the reason for this esotericism is the fear of misunderstanding. When Bodhidharma says that in self-nature there is no thought of killing, as he does in his comment on the First Grave Precept, this was his way of saving all beings. When Dogen Kigen Zenji says that you should forget yourself, as he does throughout his writing, this was his way of teaching openness to the mind of the universe. However, it seems that teachers worry that “no thought of killing” and “forgetting the self’ could be misunderstood to mean that one has license to do anything, so long as one does it forgetfully.

I agree that the pure words of Bodhidharma and Dogen Zenjican be misunderstood, but for this very reason I think it is the responsibility of Zen teachers to interpret them correctly. Takuan Soho Zenji fails to live up to this responsibility, it seems to me, in his instructions to a samurai:

The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, as is the one who wields the sword....

Do not get your mind stopped with the sword you raise; forget about what you are doing, and strike the enemy. Do not keep your mind on the person before you. They are all of emptiness, but beware of your mind being caught in emptiness.2

The Devil quotes scripture, and Mara, the incarnation of ignorance, can quote the Abhidharma. The fallacy of the Way of the Samurai is similar to the fallacy of the Code of the Crusader. Both distort what should be a universal view into an argument for partisan warfare. The catholic charity of the Holy See did not include people it called pagans. The vow of Takuan Zenji to save all beings did not encompass the one he called the enemy.3

This is very different from the celebrated koan of Nanch’uan killing the cat:

The Priest Nan-ch’uan found monks of the Eastern and Western halls arguing about a cat. He held up the cat and said, “Everyone! If you can say something, I will spare this cat. If you can’t say anything, I will cut off its head.” No one could say anything, so Nansen cut the cat into two.4

Like all koans, this is a folk story, expressive of essential nature as it shows up in a particular setting. The people who object to its violence are those who refuse to read fairy tales to their children. Fairy tales have an inner teaching which children grasp intuitively, and koans are windows onto spiritual knowledge. Fairy tales do not teach people to grind up bones of Englishmen to make bread, and koans do not instruct us to go around killing pets.

Spiritual knowledge is a powerful tool. Certain teachings of Zen Buddhism and certain elements of its practice can be abstracted and used for secular purposes, some of them benign, such as achievement in sports; some nefarious, such as murder for hire. The Buddha Dharma with its integration of wisdom and compassion must be taught in its fullness. Otherwise its parts can be poison when they are misused.

“Buddha Dharma” means here “Buddhist doctrine,” but “Dharma” has a broader meaning than “doctrine,” and indeed it carries with it an entire culture of meaning. Misunderstanding of the precepts begins with misunderstanding of the Dharma, and likewise clear insight into the Dharma opens the way to upright practice.
First of all, the Dharma is the mind, not merely the brain, or the human spirit. “Mind” with a capital letter, if you like. It is vast and fathomless, pure and clear, altogether empty, and charged with possibilities. It is the unknown, the unnameable, from which and as which all beings come forth.

Second, these beings that come forth also are the Dharma. People are beings, and so are animals and plants, so are stones and clouds, so are postulations and images that appear in dreams. The Dharma is phenomena and the world of phenomena.

Third, the Dharma is the interaction of phenomena and the law of that interaction. “Dharma” and its translations mean “law” in all languages of Buddhist lineage, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese. The Dharma is the law of the universe, a law that may be expressed simply: “One thing depends upon another.” Cause leads to effect, which in turn is cause leading to effect, in an infinite, dynamic web of endless dimensions. The operation of this law is called “karma.”

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littlebear's picture

Living with precepts shows where we are, and are not fully engaging life; and, where our attachments are. Glad to be together with all for Ango.