By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | April 15, 2010
Norman speaks on the Precepts and Jukai ceremony (lay ordination) at the Mar de Jade, Mexico, Sesshin
Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum
Buenos dias a todos. Tonight we conclude our retreat with a ceremony for taking precepts. Roccio, Chelo, and Luis are going to get new names and rakusus and lineage papers, and they are going to commit themselves to the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts.
So I thought this morning I would talk a little bit about this ceremony and the precepts. Although when we're in retreat we think a lot about meditation practice, and that's our focus, in Zen the practice is fundamentally not about meditation. It is really about how we live our lives every single day. We read about this the other day in Dogen, in his great text all about zazen. He says, "Practice is a matter of everydayness." This is why the name of the group that we practice in is called Everyday Zen. It's not called "Peaceful Ocean Zen," or "Dharma Eye Zen," or "Dragon Gate," or something like that, although there are groups that have that kind of name. Our group is called Everyday Zen, because I really believe that practice is a matter of every day. Of course, we value zazen very highly, because zazen shows us the way to live every day - with kindness, with courage; with clarity, with respect for the unknown, with whole-heartedness, and with a dignified patience when things are tough. If we practice zazen, we will learn all these things, all these qualities. But we'll just do zazen when it's time to do zazen, and the rest of the time we'll forget about it, and we'll just go forth in our lives in this way.
So that is where the precepts come into it. Dogen says, "Zazen is the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts." I think that Rick was saying in his talk that the precepts are not rules. Like rules in school. Or sometimes like training rules in a monastery or a retreat. Things we should not do. Things we should do. The sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are just the description of the spontaneous conduct of a Buddha. The precepts are a way of trying to express, "This is how we live when our hearts are full of kindness and joy."
When you consider our human life, you could say that we actually have two lives going on at the same time: the life of the body and the life of the vow. The body comes from our parents, it comes from the earth, and it comes from God. So the body is a miraculous thing. It is the most amazing creation that we could ever imagine. And it is beyond what we could imagine. It's a shame that we take it so much for granted.
But the body would have no life without the vow, because the vow illuminates the body and moves the body and motivates the body in its living. Our vow is our sense of purpose and meaning in life. It is the basic spirit behind everything we think, everything we choose, and everything we accomplish with this body in this lifetime.
We actually all have a vow. We wouldn't be in this life if we didn't have a vow. It's a little startling to think about that. "Oh, I didn't know I had a vow, that I was living by a vow." Most of us think, "I'm just living. I'm just trying to get along. I don't really have a vow. I am just an ordinary person." But, actually, nobody can get out of bed in the morning and go through a day without some vow. You can tell that this is true, because there are times in life - maybe it has never happened to you - when people lose their vow. They lose it completely. And then they cannot get out of bed. They're depressed. They're in despair. They actually can't figure out how to go on living. And sometimes they don't go on living. Or sometimes they somehow manage to go through the motions of living, but really, inside, there is no meaning.
So most of us do have our vow. It keeps us going, and somehow we are living based on our vow. Even if we don't know we have a vow or don't know what that vow is, somehow or other, we believe that our life makes sense. Our vow is formed in us in childhood, and it develops as we grow older. It comes from our parents and our family. It comes from our culture and our values. And it is there in us, even though we don't know it. Usually we have not really contemplated our vows, and we don't quite understand our vows. Most of the time our vows are very mixed up with our wounds and our confusion, and so they actually need to be clarified.
I think that any serious spiritual practice involves clarifying our vows and our commitments, and it involves having a strong sense of commitment beyond self-interest. If we don't have a vow to search for the truth, if we don't have a vow to be of benefit to others, if we do not commit ourselves to a path with some degree of discipline and support, probably we will drift in our lives. Even though we have the vow, it won't be clear, and we'll drift. And eventually we will feel - deep inside - loneliness. And the strength of our lives will eventually wear out. When you are young, this is not so much a problem, because life is so exciting, and it remains interesting all the time - all kinds of problems and passions and needs and desires. That can keep you going for quite a while. But after a while only a vow is enough to sustain your life. Excitement is simply not enough.
Of course, don't get me wrong. I'm not making a pitch here that everyone should take the Zen precepts. In fact, it's a lot of work for a poor priest when a lot of people take precepts, so I am not trying to get more customers! That's not what I am talking about. An official, organized, church-sanctioned vow is not necessary. An inner vow, if it is clear, can be very strong. If it is strong enough, it sometimes can be stronger than an official vow taken in a ritual. A deep and serious inner vow can be stronger than an official vow or a vow that we have taken because it is expected of us, or we do it because everybody else is doing it and we don't want to get left behind.
If we take this vow because of our own experience - because our own suffering shows us that it is absolutely necessary that we take it - and if we make this vow seriously and from the heart, then we can find the support of the ritual and of the tradition and of the community to be a big help.
Our ceremony tonight is a ceremony of profound vowing. A vowing to benefit others, to clarify our hearts, to go beyond old karma, and to act in accord with kindness. We do the ceremony as a member of Buddha's family. We promise to do this not only in this life, but lifetime after lifetime, and world after world.
So now, briefly, I will tell you what the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are. The first three are called the Triple
Refuges, or Refuge in the Three Treasures. We have been chanting this together every night - taking refuge in Buddha, which means the awakened nature of our own heart. Taking refuge in dharma, which means the way of life that comes from our awakened heart. And taking refuge in the sangha, which is the community of beings that makes life possible, and with whom we share life.
That is the widest explanation of the triple treasure. The narrowest explanation is that we take refuge in Buddha as our teacher. We take refuge in the teachings of Buddha as they have been handed down to us. And we take refuge in the community of people that are practicing these teachings, under the direction from Buddha, as their teacher. So when we take the Triple Refuge, the idea is that we are vowing to return to the kindness that is the essence of the human heart and mind. In other words, to return to a basic sanity in this crazy world, and to do this in concert with everyone, with the feeling that we will receive support from everyone in this process.
Those are the first three precepts. The next three are called the Three Pure Precepts. There have been various translations of these and ways of understanding them through the generations. But basically it is like this: The first one is not to do harmful things. To be committed to trying our best to avoid harming - harming ourselves, harming others - not only with our body and our speech, but also with our thoughts. This is a precept of restraint. It means we will hold ourselves in check when afflictions overcome our minds. That we will refrain from acting out of these afflictions, and we'll refrain even from validating these afflictions in our minds.
The second Pure Precept is to do everything good. Instead of a precept that restrains, this is a precept of great expansiveness. We'll be extravagant in all of our efforts of thought, speech, and mind, when those efforts are beneficial for self and others.
The third precept is to vow to benefit all beings. This is understood in Zen very clearly as all beings, not just the nice ones. Not even just the human ones. Not even the living ones only. But even beings like rocks and tables and chairs. So we don't smash things up. We take care of things. We polish the furniture. We recognize that even material things that are not living are sacred.
These precepts mean that we practice restraint from bad conduct, and we practice expansive, joyful effort of good conduct. And we do all of this with the spirit of benefit and loving-kindness to others.
So we have six precepts so far. Ten more. These are called the Ten Grave Precepts. These are usually given in a negative form, such as, "A disciple of Buddha does not kill. A disciple of Buddha does not steal." So it is a list of ten things that the disciple of Buddha does not do. But also we understand them - and practice them also - as positive. In other words, "A disciple of Buddha does not kill. She nurtures and nourishes life. A disciple of Buddha does not steal. She receives and offers gifts."
So I will tell you what the Ten Grave Precepts are. You will hear them again tonight in the ceremony. First, the disciple of Buddha does not kill or take life. Second, a disciple of Buddha does not take what is not freely given, and doesn't steal. Third, a disciple of Buddha does not misuse sexuality, which means being unselfish and honorable, and appropriate in practicing restraint in sexual matters. Number four, a disciple of Buddha doesn't lie. The fifth precept is a disciple of Buddha does not intoxicate, which means not to become intoxicated with drugs or alcohol. But, also, it is explicitly understood not to become intoxicated with teachers or teachings. Or with meditation. Sixth, the disciple of Buddha does not slander. Seventh, a disciple of Buddha does not praise self at the expense of others.
The seventh precept, like the previous one and the fourth precept, is a speech precept, about how we speak. Speech is a special, magical power reserved for human beings. We throw around our words as if they were cheap and didn't matter. We are more careful with our money than we are with our words. But, actually, we can do a lot of good and a lot of harm with our words. So it is part of our practice to recognize that and to be careful with our speech. To speak always with honesty and truth, but also with generosity and kindness, about ourselves and others. To be especially careful in our speech to and about others. If sometimes we must be critical, to be very generous and kind in our criticism, and as much as possible, not to be critical of others. We try to speak always with a great humility, knowing, "This is the way I see it. It looks like this to me. But I know that others will see it very differently." And also, never promoting ourselves in our speech - even in subtle ways.
The eighth precept is that the disciple of the Buddha is not possessive. This involves a deep understanding that we never can possess anything anyway. It always amuses me that in the United States people buy houses, and they think they own houses. It looks to me like the houses own them! The house says, "Give me more money, and I want more money right now." And the person says, "But I don't have any money." And the house says, "I don't care. I gotta have money now. You get money somehow." And the government, which is in collusion with the house, comes and says, "Now you have to pay taxes. Lots of taxes." And then you're paying the taxes. And then you die. The house doesn't jump in the grave with you. The house is still there, laughing at you. [Laughter] "You thought you owned me, but now I am welcoming in the next poor soul."
So in the case of houses, this is all very obvious; but it is exactly the same with everything else. We don't own anything. We are the servants of all these things. We are taking care of these things for someone else, so we are not possessive. We are always generous, but not with the feeling, "I have something now. Look how generous I am. I'm giving it to someone else." But rather, "This thing that is temporarily in my keeping, whether it is money or not, I now give back. It was never mine." So that is the eighth precept. It is very liberating to practice this precept.
The ninth precept is the disciple of the Buddha does not harbor ill will. This does not mean that we never get angry. It means that when we do get angry, we don't justify the anger. We don't say, "It's your fault. You made me mad." We might feel like doing that, but we notice that that is really stupid. And, certainly, we don't act in anger. Instead, we commit to the practice of patience.
The tenth precept is that a disciple of Buddha does not abuse or denigrate the Three Treasures, which means that we respect and honor the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Usually in our tradition, by the time we take the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts in the ceremony, we have practiced for awhile with our teacher, so we already have the feeling that the precepts are not something outside of us, imposed on our lives. We sincerely feel that the precepts are our own mind and our own heart - our own best mind, our own best heart. So it is not so hard to practice with the precepts, because naturally we find that this is the way we want to live, and we feel from our experience that living this way makes us happier. It strengthens our love. When we find ourselves violating the precepts, and that happens, then - right away - we feel regret.
So there is no resistance to practicing with these precepts. But I use the word on purpose: "Practice" with the precepts. Not keeping the precepts, or violating the precepts, but practicing with the precepts. From one point of view, you could say that there is no way to keep these precepts. Since we are human beings, it means that we are going to violate the precepts sometimes, and that is part of the practice. We try not to do that, but probably it happens sometimes. And then we forgive ourselves and go on.
Another way to say this is that it is absolutely impossible to break the precepts. No matter what our conduct is, it is included within the wide circle of Buddha's way. So the spirit of precept practice is always one of gentleness and forgiveness. As some of us have found out, perhaps, in our own lives, sometimes the way to go right is to go wrong, for a long time, maybe, and to suffer the bitter consequences of this.
So the ceremony that we will do tonight is actually not a performance; it is a practice in itself. It is an empowered ritual that somehow brings a turning of the heart. I don't know how that works, but somehow it does.
Now I will describe very briefly how the ceremony goes, so we can practice with it. It begins with bows and offerings. And then we will all chant together an invocation, to summon the buddhas and bodhisattvas to come here and help us out. It is kind of like what Adine was saying last night: It is hard to do anything on your own. So you ask for help, and the bodhisattvas all show up, and then with their help, you can do it. They give you courage, and then you can do it.
So next we chant the verse of confession to purify us of our old habits and our ancient karma. Then we will purify the physical space and the body by sprinkling on some holy water, which is made sacred by certain mantras and mudras. Just like the Catholics, isn't it? Holy water. Next we take the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts. Then everyone vows to practice these precepts forever and ever. Even after we become a Buddha, we are going to keep going.
Next we give people their new names and their rakusus. The understanding is that this precept ceremony is like a re-birth. You are reborn into this new vow. So that is why we give a new name. A vow name. Each person receives a name that fits his or her own character. This time Rick and I worked together to choose names for Rocco and Luis and Chemo. Very sweet for me to have such a good partner to choose names with. He actually did most of the work and provided the Spanish translation, so that we could have names in Japanese, English, and Spanish.
The rakusu that we will give is a sacred garment. We understand it to be Buddha's own robe. We sew it by hand, and with each stitch of sewing, we sew in refuge with Buddha. A rakusu is not considered a person's personal possession. It belongs to the Buddha and contains the Buddha. So we always treat it with respect and dignity. Before we put it on, we put it on top of our heads, and we chant a special verse, as we will do tonight in the ceremony.
Then we receive a lineage paper, which is a kind of birth certificate. So receive your name, your clothes, and your birth certificate. On this paper it actually has the ninety-two names of succession. Ninety-two priests from the Buddha through the twenty-seven Indian ancestors, the six early ancestors of China, and all the rest through China and Japan and America. The names include Dogen and Suzuki Roshi, and my own teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, and down to me, Zoketsu Rinsho - and you. Your name is on the lineage paper. So, ninety-three generations from the Buddha to you.
So that's it. That's the ceremony we will do tonight. As I say, it is a kind of birthday party, to celebrate this new vow-birth of these three good disciples of Buddha. Since the actual life of the Buddha is the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts, that's the life that flows through the Buddha's veins - this great vow of awakening and compassion. Wherever you see this vow, you are seeing the life of the Buddha. So, since this ceremony celebrates the birthday of the Buddha, and April is the month of Buddha's birthday, after it is over, we will go on the porch and celebrate Buddha's birthday. We will have a little statue of the Buddha inside a flowered pagoda. Starting with the three new baby Buddhas, they will bathe the statue with sweet tea, like you do with a newborn baby. Then the rest of us will have a chance to do that, too. And when you do it, hopefully you do it with a true spirit of peacefulness, and really pay attention and do it with a vow in your heart.
So I would ask everybody: Tonight, when you come to the ceremony, please do not be a spectator. As I say, the ceremony is not a performance. It is an actual practice, and we are all participants. Even though you might have come to this retreat having no idea that this was going to happen, it is a great blessing to be present at the time of such a ritual. So when Rocco and Luis and Chemo take the precepts, imagine also that you are sitting beside them taking the precepts too. If you have already taken them, imagine that you are taking them again. If you haven't taken them, receive them tonight in whichever way you feel that you understand them. I am not saying that, in the narrow sense, that you have to become a Buddhist or a disciple of Buddha. I am saying, rather, to commit yourself to compassion and awakening, deeply within your heart. To see if you can say to yourself, within yourself, "Yes" to compassion and awakening, and through that "Yes" to find and strengthen your own vow. If in the ceremony you discover that you cannot say "Yes" to that vow - because that would be very possible - then just notice that. That will be something important for you to understand. And that's okay. Notice it and just go forward with your life and your practice in whatever way you need to, trusting that, one way or another, life is going to give you what you require for your path.
I think that is all I have to say, except to thank you for your kind attention, for your effort and practice, for your faith, and for your beautiful hearts. It is always a joy for me, and an inspiration for me, to come to Mexico and practice with all of you.