Precepts and Paramites
Clifton Hill Meditation Retreat, November 2019
Taking the precepts in a formal ceremony is an important step on the road of traditional Buddhist practice. In Buddhism’s journey to America and Europe, though, they’ve sometimes not been put into as prominent a place. Sometimes they’re not discussed at all. Perhaps this comes from an allergy we’ve acquired due to some of our Western religions’ emphasis on guilt and sin; we’ve seen many examples of principles preached but not practiced until we feel distrustful of sanctimonious scoldings. But the Buddhist precepts are not moral commandments which must be obeyed if we don’t want to be punished by divine wrath. The precepts are gateways to enlightenment, ease, and joy.
They aren’t always presented that way. To take one example: there’s so much emphasis on being mindful these days it can shade into a sense that when your mindfulness lapses you’re failing in something you “should” be doing. But there’s no “should” to mindfulness, no special honor to it. Right practice isn’t a virtue in the sense of “right” as the opposite of “wrong.” The “right” in “right practice” is the kind you find when you’re righting a ship, trueing a board. It’s balancing, aligning so that you function harmoniously along with everything and everyone else.
A friend of mine - not a Buddhist - told me she loves Zen aesthetics, but feels Zen practitioners have such intense superegos they are hard to be around. I think she has a point. The strict forms of Zen often trap people into judgments of “you (or I) am not doing the form ‘right.’” Paradoxically, when you practice with this long enough it usually leads to a softening into liberation. At a certain point you discover there’s no way to do the forms “right” and there’s no way to do the forms “wrong.” There is a way to practice “just so.” It’s called whole-heartedness. But it’s easy to get off track.
I encountered this at one point when I offered to help some Soto Zen priest friends offer precepts to sangha members. They were upset with me. They felt I hadn’t been around long enough in the community, and they had a point. But then one of them asked me how I could presume to know who was “worthy” of taking the precepts. I replied that nobody is “worthy” of taking the precepts - the precepts are not a matter of being worthy or pure or holy. If we had to be worthy of taking the precepts nobody could take them. Certainly I couldn’t. Taking the precepts doesn’t signify you’re a good person. But because you’re an ordinary person, you are enlightened. Your goodness leads to take the precepts as a way of realizing them in everyday life, stumbling along, making errors, straying this way and that. It’s like driving a car, you keep your direction by turning your wheel slightly off one direction, then the other in order to maintain your course on the road. The precepts are the road. They’re our reference point, even when we don’t know where the road is taking us, even when it’s dark and we can’t see where we’re going.
Ordinary Mind Zen sees everyday life as the venue for our practice. We learn how to express the precepts in our workplace, our home, our intimate relationships and our community. We recognize the value of forms and ceremonies but don’t attach any special “holiness” to officiants. I’ll offer Ordinary Mind Zen in Sacramento for anyone who wants to have a place to sit daily meditation. I’m in no way rejecting my Soto heritage, which I love, respect and feel gratitude for. There are many Soto practitioners (including priests) who are fully open to lay practice, but there is a split in this issue which has never been resolved and sometimes leads to excluding folks. I’m hoping everyone will feel welcome to come to a Sacramento group where they can sit in silence with others, whether they are practicing Rinzai Zen or Soto Zen, Vipassana-Insight or following Tibetan methods. I’ve been inspired by how you here at Clifton Hill have been able to maintain an open door and a coherent sangha over many years.
Getting back to the precepts: as people prepare to take the precepts in Ordinary Mind Zen, we ask them to re-write the precepts in their own words. Diane Rizzetto describes this process in Waking Up to What You Do. So I’ve been doing this myself along with my students, and as part of the study I’ve compiled several versions of the precepts to contrast and compare them. I sent you a chart with the versions from Berkeley Zen Center, Dharma Rain, Ordinary Mind Lammi, Zen Peacemakers, and Thich Nhat Hanh.
It’s important to put the precepts into your own words because otherwise they remain as abstract ideals. We need to look at each one and say “what does this mean to me?” How does it affect the way I go about my everyday activities? What can I do, what am I willing to do, what seems impossible?
Precepts are not rules for becoming holy or worthy of enlightenment. You, and all beings, are already enlightened. The question is, how do you put that enlightenment into play in everything you do?
Precepts are not commandments. Historically, they mostly arose when some follower of Buddha did something which upset the laypeople who provided them with alms. The laypeople would complain to the Buddha and Shakyamuni would tell his monks: “don’t do that, or you won’t get anything to eat!” The precepts are very practical responses to how to live in the world. They help us discover a way of living which in the long run is the easiest and most harmonious.
Precepts are percepts. We experience the world through our percepts, and inevitably filter the information coming in. When we adopt precepts, they become our lenses on the world: they help us see the world in ways which open up some avenues of engagement while fencing off others but are never absolute: they always arise in response to circumstances.
The dictionary definition of “precept” is: “a general rule intended to regulate behavior or thought.” The words comes from the Latin praeceptum and praecipere: to ‘warn, instruct’, from prae ‘before’ + capere ‘take’. So a precept is what arises before we take action, and offers us some instruction, or at least some hints on which way to turn, what compass direction to orient in. Reb Anderson, in discussing the three pure precepts, call them “the shape of Buddha’s mind.” Which means they’re the shape of your true mind. By exploring them you grope for this underlying shape, and put the specifics into forms which shape you.
I find the three pure precepts the most difficult. The other precepts all address specifics, but the three pure precepts are daunting in their all-inclusiveness. A traditional translation of the three pure precepts is: refrain from unwholesome actions; do wholesome actions; purify your mind.” Zen Peacemakers’ version is “do no harm, do good, free all beings.” Lammi is similar but instead of “free all beings” says “serve all existence.” Dharma Rain is Cease from Evil – Release all Self- Attachment; Do only Good – Take Selfless Action; Do Good for Others – Embrace All Things and Conditions. At Berkeley Zen Center during the Bodhisattva ceremony we recite:
I vow to refrain from evil
It is the abode of the law of all Buddhas; it is the source of the law of all Buddhas.
I vow to make every effort to live in enlightenment
It is the teaching of anuttara samyaksambodhi and the path of the one who practices and that which is practiced.
I vow to live and be lived for all beings
It is transcending profane and holy and taking self and others across.
I like the echo after each vow; it puts the personal commitment, with all its contingencies and conditioning, in the context of the wide field of unconditioned, limitless practice-enlightenment.
When I grapple with the three pure precepts, I find I re-write them each time a little differently. I have the least difficulty with the first one, to avoid creating harm. I phrase it as: “I vow to not create suffering for myself or others.” This is very much in keeping with Taoist practice, which stresses we need to be careful about doing too much, and instead “do less, and do less, until you reach non-doing, but nothing’s left undone.” This is to let things be, to not meddle, to make room for the course of events to unfold naturally.
It’s familiar to us in the Hippocratic oath physicians take: “first, do no harm.” I wish medical professionals would pay more attention to it. In my experience, medical professionals are so eager to help and so allergic to feeling helpless that they rush to offer something, anything - even if it won’t be effective and may have harmful side effects. I used to see patients along with a lovely neurologist. Most neurological illnesses don’t have cures, and often are progressively debilitating. When a patient came to my neurologist friend describing some symptom he’d almost immediately reach for his prescription pad. Afterwards I’d ask him - “will that actually help?” He’d reply, “no, but you have to do something.” I’d ask “but doesn’t that medication have its own problematical side effects?” He’d agree, but he felt uncomfortable stating the bare fact to a patient that there was little he could do. Gradually, though, he began to realize what most patients wanted wasn’t a prescription, but compassion: the more he could “just” listen and be with them, the better they would feel.
So this gets us into the problem with the second pure precept, which is sometimes translated as “do all that is good.” So often our best intentions turn out to have negative consequences. Not just in medicine, when the cure is worse than the disease. One example: villagers in Bangladesh had to travel a long ways to get water from a stream. Well-meaning foreigners came in and build wells. Ten years later it turned out the aquifer they’d tapped into was full of arsenic, and over the last ten years the villagers had been poisoned. Another example: Alfred Nobel invented dynamite to excavate mines and tunnels: he thought that as a safer form of blasting powder (which often exploded unexpectedly) he’d be saving lives. He never imagined its adoption for use in warfare, and the slaughter that followed. The Nobel Peace Prize was his was of atoning, but it couldn’t bring back anyone who had died.
The problem is, once you do something it can’t be undone. You can try to make amends, you can avoid making the mistake in the future. But you can’t erase the past. When I was five years old I sneaked some candy from the little store around the corner from our house. My parents made me bring it back, but that doesn’t alter the fact: I am a thief. Or maybe better said: I’m a recovering thief.
One area where we want desperately to do good is in raising our children. We don’t have control, though, over the world they must deal with. When my daughters were in their twenties and, faced with the difficulties of adulthood they’d sometimes call me for advice and I’d try to be a good father and offer suggestions. These never worked - in part because I was infringing on their autonomy, but also because the world has moved on since I was in my twenties and the circumstances they face are different from what I dealt with. I gradually learned, when they called, to simply hear them out, and then say something like: “I don’t know what you should do. I do know that I trust you. Whatever you do, I know you’ll be able to deal with the consequences. If it’s a mistake you’ll learn from it, and if it worked out well, you’ll go forward with it.”
We want to do something because we don’t trust how things will work out. The fact is, things will work out. Often not the way we want, but something else will follow. Having trust in this process despite not knowing and not understanding is a crucial aspect of finding liberation from suffering. Offering your trust to another is a gift, it helps people to blossom as themselves. So I borrow some wording from the Tao Te Ching in my version of the second pure precept. I vow to assist the self-becoming of all being.
What, then, of the third pure precept?
The notion of purifying the mind makes me nervous - lots of people have been killed in the pursuit of ideological purity whether political or religious. I like Aitken Roshi’s gatha:
When showering the morning
I vow with all beings
To wash away all thoughts
Of ever being pure.
The first three precepts are called the three pure precepts, but “pure” doesn’t mean “virtuous” as opposed to “immoral” or “saintly” as opposed to “sinful.” That would be a very dualistic understanding. To avoid falling into this trap, in Zen we have sayings like “no delusion, no enlightenment;” “clouds make a mountain;” or - as I noticed one day during walking meditation when, having just brushed the mat clean, I saw thousand of motes dancing in a sliver of the sun: no dust, no beam of light.
Enlightened vision is non-dual. So I think Berkeley Zen Center’s version of the third pure precept - to make every effort to live in enlightenment - is on the right track. The phrasing, though, can be misleading. Enlightenment can seem far away in time or distance - even though it’s not other than ourselves. We need to live our enlightenment, but making every effort can be a strain if you mistake right effort for more effort rather than “just right”effort, the effort which fits what is needed, no more, no less. This is called wu-wei, sometimes translated as “doing not-doing,” sometimes as “effortless effort.” “Effortless effort,” though, needs to be completely heartfelt. How can we find this kind of natural effort as we find our way with the precepts?
Lately, I’ve been finding it helpful to remind myself of a verse from the Tao Te Ching:
No holding on,
No letting go.
No merit and
This may seem a little shocking to Zen students. We know not to hold on, but aren’t we encouraged to let go of everything? Letting go, though, shades easily into pushing away. Both holding on and letting go are slightly off from the dimension we need: letting be.
I sometimes use this as a mantra, a continue meditation instruction to myself: whatever comes up, “not holding on, not letting go, no merit and no fault.” It feels like it creates an opening which encompasses self and others, many and one, doing and not-doing.
As for how I translate this into the third pure precept for myself, I try to keep it simple. I’m a faulty, erring human who makes lots of mistakes. No holding on to this, and no letting go of this. From that space I can still commit myself to my version of the third precept: I vow to practice faithfully, sincerely, and wholeheartedly.