‘The precepts guide us in our life. They have come from the experience of the truth in the past, so we can say that they are based on reality. But our lives are tremendously complex and varied. If we try to apply the precepts too strictly we may lose the freedom to act. We are living here and now so we must find rules which can be used here and now. We must find our precepts at every moment. Reality is changeable so our rules must also be changeable. True rules must work in the real world. True precepts are changeable and at the same time unchangeable. This is the nature of Buddhist precepts. They help us to live correctly. They provide a framework which is exact and rather narrow, and yet we are free to act in the moment by moment situation of our life.’ (from a talk on the Precepts)
‘Trying to obey the precepts is a hopeless task. The harder we try the more difficult it becomes. Gautama Buddha, Master Dogen, and the great patriarchs all gave up trying to obey the precepts. This sounds strange but it is true. They found they could not obey the precepts by their conscious efforts so they worked on the problem from another angle. They found that when they practiced Zazen every day their lives became simple and clear. They found in fact that they could not disobey the precepts.
In our life we must make our decisions moment by moment. They are instantaneous: they are dependent on the condition of our body and mind at the moment. Therefore when our body and mind are balanced and composed, our action reflects our composure. When we are `right’, our actions will also be right. So the only way to obey the precepts is to change our body and mind through the practice of Zazen. When we practice Zazen we resume our original nature – our Buddha-nature. We find ourselves in harmony with the Universe at every moment. In such a state it is impossible for us to break the precepts. When we practice Zazen we become persons who cannot disobey the precepts.’ (from a talk on the Precepts)
This is one of those expressions that needs careful attention paying to it, or else someone can come away thinking, oh, you can’t break the precepts, so that means you can do anything. Far from it.
‘In most religions, precepts are considered to be the commandments or laws of god. They form the basis of the religion itself and they must be adhered to strictly. But in Buddhism the precepts are fundamentally different. Keeping the precepts is not the aim of Buddhist life. Perhaps this sounds strange to you but it is the fact in Buddhism. Master Dogen said that following the precepts is only the custom of Buddhists; it is not their aim. He felt that the precepts were only standards by which to judge our behavior. As such they are very useful to us, but we should be careful not to make them the aim of our life.
The precepts have been described as a fence which surrounds a wide, beautiful meadow. We are the cows in that meadow. As long as we stay within the fence our life is safe and serene and we can play freely in the meadow; but when we step outside the fence we find ourselves on shaky ground – we have entered a dangerous situation and we should return to the pasture. When we do, our life becomes safe and manageable again.’ (from a talk on the Precepts)
‘It’s no surprise that what we put into our bodies reflects what’s in our heads… The real practice comes in how we handle body or mind states we’re not satisfied with – that don’t meet the requirements we have come to rely on in order to avoid more core beliefs about who we think we are. If I have a deadline to meet, and I’m clean out of energy, I’ll no doubt reach for a piece of chocolate or a cup of coffee. Remember, it’s not the substance we’re using that’s key here; it’s our intention in using it and the harm and suffering it causes when we use it to cloud our ability to take clear, intelligent action.’ (Deep Hope)
This passage comes from a discussion on the fifth grave precept, around intoxication. These ten precepts are often called the clear mind precepts, and this one specifically speaks to the value of a clear mind – so that we don’t keep fooling ourselves as we often like to do. Many commentators point to the myriad ways we can intoxicate ourselves, with everything from our own thoughts to powerful drugs. I have my own ‘poisons’, coffee being one I will turn to for energy; others, like watching a football match or having a couple of drinks, as a way of zoning out for a while.
‘Intelligent practice remembers that the value of practicing with the precepts lies not in how it measures our distance along the idealized path to enlightenment but rather how it helps us live in the everyday circumstances of our life. In the real life most of us live, we yell at our kids, we shout back at our partner, we get angry with our political leaders, and so forth.
So rather than trying not to become angry, the most helpful way of working with the precept [the ninth grave precept] is to watch what happens when anger arises.’ (Deep Hope)
Again, this is pointing to how the Mahayana school works. And we know that when anger arises it can get pretty messy very quickly, so we do our best not to get caught up in it, rather than having unrealistic expectations that we must never get angry if we want to be ‘good Buddhists.’
‘The value of working with this precept [the precept of not intoxicating, but cultivating a clear mind] is not to try to clear the clouds forever, but to come to an understanding that neither the clouds not a clear mind alone is the fullness of life.’ (Deep Hope)
Here is a quote that somewhat typifies how the zen approach differs from the initial Theravadan approach: instead of eliminating the impurities, we do our best to be clear, and also get to experience the effects of clouding.
I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures. (Zen Center)
Experience the intimacy of things. Do not defile the Three Treasures. (Zen Mountain Monastery)
To expound the dharma with this body is foremost. The virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is unfathomable; we just accept it with respect and gratitude. (Dogen’s commentary)
This precept has never especially resonated with me, although I understand its necessity as part of maintaining harmonious practice, and not allowing anyone claiming to be a buddhist while denigrating the actual cornerstones of Buddhism.
However, Dogen’s commentary has long been one of my favourite formulations, especially the first line, which is clearest. Training in a temple or a monastery, you eventually come to understand that the practice is a physical one more than a mental or philosophical one – through our sitting, our deportment, our bowing and chanting, our working. Since it is impossible to explain this, the best we can do is demonstrate it. I always speak of how Blanche taught me so much when she was abbess, not so much from the dharma seat as how she showed up for daily life in the temple, and how she behaved in many different circumstances, from the most formal to the most mundane. Her husband Lou had that first sentence written on his priest’s rakusu, which he wore all day, as he stepped in to wash dishes, tidy up the newspapers in the residents’ lounge, or take care of an altar. There are others, some who are exalted teachers, others who are less senior practitioners, in whom I can clearly see their embodiment as a clear expression of whole-hearted practice. These are the people who continue to inspire me, and that is how I aspire to practice.
And the following lines make clear what happens when you do this: it does not make you a superior person, because the virtue returns to the ocean of reality. Any good you do ripples out into the world, and we don’t know what effect it will have. I trust that it benefits myself and others, and try not to worry so much about how that manifests.
(This post first appeared on my Patreon page, as part of a series on the precepts – and I have posted it before, but as I was meandering around the blog the other day, I thought it might be worth airing again)
As we approach the full moon, a final commentary from Dogen, this time on the ninth precept, ‘I vow not to harbour ill will’:
‘Not negative, not positive, neither real nor unreal. There is an ocean of illuminated clouds, and an ocean of bright clouds.’
Reading Enkyo O’Hara Roshi’s book, Most Intimate, she offered a different translation in her chapter on anger that helped illuminate the meaning:
‘Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is an ocean of bright clouds. There is an ocean of solemn clouds.’
The moon is waxing again. Dogen’s commentary on the eighth precept, ‘I vow not to be avaricious’:
‘One phrase, one verse, that is the ten thousand things and the one hundred grasses. One dharma, one realisation is all buddhas and ancestors, therefore, from the beginning, there has been no stinginess at all.’
Continuing with Dogen’s commentary phrases for the grave precepts: the fourth precept, ‘I vow to refrain from false speech’.
‘The dharma wheel turns from the beginning. There is neither surplus nor lack. The sweet dew saturates all and harvests the truth.’