Tag Archives: precepts

To Live and Be Lived

Ethics, or sila in Sanskrit, is the second of the six paramitas or practices of an awakening being called a bodhisattva. Ethics is at the very root of the Buddhist tradition. In fact, much of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching was an exhortation to turn toward wholesome actions and states of mind, and away from unwholesome actions and states of mind. In this he was extraordinarily successful, convincing even murders, petty thieves, and ruthless political leaders to take up a path of morality, peace and freedom. The Buddha taught many people to consider the consequences of their actions, so that they might realize how much of the difficulty they experience is a direct result of their own unskillful behavior.

This is the teaching of karma, the fundamental law that each and every intentional thought, spoken expression, and action has a consequence at some point in the future. It is a fairly complex teaching, which takes into account factors such as forethought, one’s motivation, and celebration or remorse afterward. However, at its heart, it is simply about doing good and not doing bad, offering compassion instead of aggression, helping and not harming.


Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first teaching

Thus when the Buddha began teaching, monks and nuns committed to only 10 precepts or rules of conduct. Later, as difficult situations arose, more rules were added until the list reached a length in the hundreds. Even later, as the path of practice called the Mahayana emerged, some Dharma teachers began to emphasize the ways in which compassion spontaneously emerges from the experience of inter-connectedness. So, with that understanding, in Zen the precepts became vows rather than rules. They became expressions of intention to act from the realization of non-separation. Thus, some of the Mahayana schools reverted back to 10 precepts, though they are a different 10. These together with the refuges and the pure precepts are known as the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts. They are:

The three refuges

I take refuge in Buddha.

I take refuge in Dharma.

I take refuge in Sangha.

The three pure precepts

I vow to refrain from all evil.

I vow to do all that is good.

I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

The 10 grave precepts

I vow not to kill.

I vow not to take what is not given.

I vow not to misuse sexuality.

I vow to refrain from false speech.

I vow to refrain from intoxicants.

I vow not to slander.

I vow not to praise self at the expense of other.

I vow not to be avaricious.

I vow not to harbor ill will.

I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.



rakusu – the robe of one who has taken the 16 Bodhisattva vows

For today, I’d like to focus on the third of the pure precepts. Taken as a whole, the three pure precepts carry a strong message. They imply that it’s not good enough to simply refrain from harmful actions and to perform skillful actions. To be truly skillful, one must also commit to a life of service. That is what it means to “live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.” This vow is the foundation of the bodhisattva way, a commitment to everyone’s welfare and an acknowledgment of the way in which their welfare is intrinsically tied to our own.

One my experiences as a hospice chaplain clearly demonstrates this dynamic. On one particularly intense day, I was told that one of my colleague’s patients might be close to death. Knowing that my fellow chaplain was out of town, I went to visit the dying woman and offer her spiritual support, though I felt I had little left to give.

When I arrived, I heard from the nurses that the patient was feeling a bit better, but that I was still welcome to pay her a visit. She was lying on a couch in her darkened room, seemingly asleep when I walked in. She awoke as I knelt by her side and gently spoke her name. I introduced myself, and told her that I was with the hospice team. The woman began speaking gently to me, but what she said was incoherent. She was a bit confused, as is common with folks near the end of life. Still, I asked permission to take her hand and continued talking to her.

At some point she seemed to wake up a bit more and asked “why here?” I replied, “I’m just here to bring you blessings.” “Ah, blessings. Blessings. Blessings!” She continued to repeat the word over and over again until I realized that she was offering me blessings. She had received my blessings and she was returning them, not just politely, but with enthusiasm. She held my hands strongly, looked into my eyes, and spoke emphatically, giving me her blessings. I had to smile and laugh and, after thanking her, I walked out of this woman’s room with much more joy than I had when I came in. This gift, from a woman who didn’t have much to give, was invaluable. She was a bodhisattva.

This is the kind of ethics that a bodhisattva practices, the kind of ethics that begins and ends with the recognition that we belong to each other in ways we cannot fully know. It is the kind of ethics that emerges from the wisdom that a skillful person doesn’t see oneself as separate from action or separate from others.

As Dogen wrote in Shoaku Makusa, a fascicle whose title translates as “Refraining from Unwholesome Action,”

…one moves from the aspiration for “refraining from unwholesome action” toward the practice of “refraining from unwholesome action.” As unwholesome action becomes something one is unable to do, the power of one’s practice suddenly appears fully.

What is the power of one’s practice? The power to give and receive joy, the power to live and be lived, the power to benefit all beings. That’s a pretty awesome power, if you ask me.

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Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose – continued

Continuing on yesterday’s theme…

The beauty of this teaching of no gaining mind is that no gaining also means no losing. That is, you have nothing to lose if no one recognizes your most generous acts, your most selfless words, your most harmonious gifts. You have nothing to lose if there is no discernible reward for being your best self. This can be said because you are already one with all things, so the recognition is intrinsic.

It reminds me of the parable of the Bodhisattva Never Disparage. It’s a tale from the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Pundarika Sutra) and it tells the story of a being who had vowed to never disparage other beings. It’s said his practice was to tell people that they too would be Buddhas, as is predicted in the Lotus Sutra. However, some people didn’t like this, and would shun him, yell at him, or even throw rocks at him. At those times, when his safety was at risk because people not only didn’t appreciate his compassion but disagreed with it, the story tells us that the Bodhisattva would “run away to a safe distance and continue” telling folks that he could see their buddhanature.

And so it is with each of us. We are called to bring compassion into the world, called to see the best in others and to “do good,” and perhaps we meet with some resistance or we are ignored. But a practitioner who truly sees non-separation, truly sees nothing to gain and truly sees nothing to lose.

Hide and Seek c. Center for Media and Democracy


Walking at Work

Recently I was asked about whether I felt that there is any benefit from the work that I do. It struck me as an important question because, from the standpoint of right livelihood, no matter what work I do, it should matter. It should be of benefit to beings. In fact, taking the precepts means vowing to work toward making every moment a moment of benefit to all beings. This is a lofty aspiration, and yet it can be very mundane in its expression.

To some this concept of benefit might be understood as “merit,” a word Merriam Webster defines as “a spiritual credit held to be earned by the performance of righteous acts and to ensure future benefits.” However, since there is no spiritual accountant adding up credits and meting out future benefits, it might be better understood as positive energy whose benefit is in the creating act itself and in its dissemination. Typically, in traditional Zen ritual, we close by dedicating any merit that may have been generated to others, that they may be supported by our positive actions. That is, the most basic view of merit is simply that if you have a positive intention and you direct it toward someone else, they benefit and you also benefit by generating that positive intention. This is pretty intuitive. Any number of psychological studies have shown that when we have good feelings about someone else, this usually improves our own well-being. This is the Bodhisattva Way.

Returning to the matter of work – how is it that I can be of benefit? The person I was speaking to wanted to know. I paused to consider. The teaching of Zen is that there is nothing anyone can give you, because you are already an expression of that perfection which is more perfect than our idea of it. Certainly, as a person with my own set of illusions and hindrances, I recognize that it’s not possible for me to improve anyone else, nor is that my intention. So how is it that I can be of service?

I responded by saying that, in talking with me, people find courage and that helps them heal. “So,” this person replied, “you give them courage.” Well, no, not exactly. I walk with them in their journey of self-discovery, and they find their own courage, the courage to acknowledge what is. If they are open to it, they find that their life is a unique expression of that which is greater than them. This discovery helps them frame their experience and their response to the experience. It helps them to be more skillful with what arises.

As the woman haiku poet Chiyo-ni wrote:

Full moon –

Keeping it in my eyes

On a long walk.

Or in the words of Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, Happy Trails to you…

c. Nat'l Park Service

c. Nat’l Park Service

It’s a Matter of Choice

Given that Americans are going to the polls this week, the topic of choice has been on my mind. How is it that I, or any practitioner, can skillfully discern when and how to take action? How is it that I, or any practitioner, can find the appropriate response to a situation or a decision when I fully acknowledge the continuously changing nature of the world? If there is no ground to stand on, how can I take a stand?

This dilemma reminds me of the koan of Nan-ch’uan (Nansen) and the cat. It’s said that Nan-ch’uan saw the monks of the East Halls and the monks of the West Halls fighting over a cat. He approached them, picked up the cat, and said, “If any of you can give me a reason not to kill the cat, then I won’t do it.” The monks were stunned and said nothing. So Nan-ch’uan cut the cat in half. Later, the Master encountered his disciple Chao-chou (Joshu) and asked, “What would you have done to save the cat?” Chao-chou put his sandals on his head and left the room. Nan-ch’uan said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”

Whether the cat was actually killed or not, we may never know, but one message from Nan-ch’uan is clear – failing to respond to the moment has its consequences. So you must say something, but what? If you simply apply your preference, you end up arguing with the other side. But is there an “other side?”

This is where the distinction between decision and discernment can be found. Typically, there are two practices that practitioners apply to any decision-making situation – zazen or seated meditation, and the precepts or ethical vows. So how is the great Master Nan-ch’uan upholding the precepts in this moment?

Pointing at the foundational teaching, Sekkei Harada Roshi said,

The meaning of the precepts is that there is no separation at any time, that we are one with all things. In other words, the true meaning of keeping the precepts is not to interfere with now…

However, the difficulty is in the details. In fact, this koan seems to fly in the face of one of the precepts. It is the first of the ten “grave” precepts which intones, “I vow not to kill.”

One way to think about it is that there are three perspectives on precepts practice: the ultimate, the mundane, and the maintained. And all three of them are necessary. Taking the ultimate view, there is no dualism at all and no conceptualization, so there can be no killing and no cat to be killed. From the mundane perspective, however, there was a being with fur and flesh, and there was a sword, both expressions of the ultimate. And then there is the cutting itself, a radical act of maintaining and upholding the precept in response to the delusion that presented itself at that moment. These three forms of precepts practice correspond to the three bodies of Buddha – Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya – and it is in the third, or transformation body, that we can study in order to see how the first two apply.

As Eihei Dogen Zenji describes it,

Carrying the self forward to confirm and verify the myriad things is delusion. When the myriad things come forward to confirm and verify the self, that is enlightenment.

That is to say, rather than deciding on our point of view and applying it to a given situation, we start by studying the way in which we are one with all things, and the way that causes, conditions and results effect one another. Then, an appropriate response will be clear.

Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi puts it this way,

The precept of not killing life is not about restraint. It is about liberating our acts from delusion. It is concerned with awakened mind, which needs no restraint at all…

In other words, acting from the mind that recognizes the integrated nature of all things, and its manifestation in form and in activity, is inherently acting in accord with the precepts. There is no ground to stand on, and therefore no stand is needed. Instead, standing on no-ground we are an integral, skillful part of the great activity that is taking place in every moment. So, with this teaching in mind, I encourage you to put your sandals on your head, go out, and vote for a liberated life!

a monk's sandals