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Dharma Seminar, Precepts 2014, Talk 1. Background to The Precepts

By | Apr 02, 2014
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
Norman Fischer's first talk, "Background to The Precepts," of the April 2014 Dharma Seminar on The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts.
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[This segment follows a discussion of pre-Mahayana and early Mahayana precept practice. Transcribed by Barbara Byrum]

Dogen took the ten basic precepts that he had received as a Tendai monk, and he added to them the three refuges and the three pure precepts. The refuges and the pure precepts are very old in Buddhism.  He didn’t construct them.  They were there from the very, very beginning of Buddhism. So he ended up with sixteen, adding those six to the ten. When he did that, I don’t think that he felt like he was making a big innovation. I think he felt that he was taking the most basic and fundamental precepts of ancient Buddhism and making them the central ritual of his whole tradition. 

These ten precepts were not considered to be monastic training rules. They were thought of as metaphysical principles, like the ultimate right conduct. This way of looking at it is really in keeping with the whole of the Mahayana tradition. In Mahayana Buddhism, these things seem to go together: an emphasis on love and compassion, an emphasis on lay life and practice everywhere in the world, and an emphasis on emptiness. In other words, the oneness of things, the non-separation, the non-existence of any separate people, things, elements. Everything swimming in one, big soup, and an emphasis on the immense vastness of the practice. All these elements are typical Mahayana elements, so when the Mahayana mind looked at the precepts, it saw the precepts in the light of all this. 

Here is what it says in the Brahmajala Sutra, which says, “The Vajra-brilliance-jeweled precepts are the original source of all buddhas, the original source of all bodhisattvas, and the seed of buddha nature.” Very different from, These are good rules to follow, and it will help your practice. It’s a bigger deal than that. “All living beings posses the buddha-nature, all with intent consciousness form in mind, be it sentient or thoughts, are included in the precepts of buddha-nature. Definitely, for every occasion there is a cause, and absolutely within every instance it is within the permanently dwelling dharma body.” 

This is very different from training rules.  Dogen was following this tradition in his practice and understanding of precepts. When you think about it, precepts as training rules diminishes the importance of ethical conduct, in a way, because it implies that ethical conduct is just a practical thing.  It is just a means to an end. It is just tidying up your mind, so that you can get down to the really important work of becoming awakened, transcending, going beyond human limitation and imperfection. 

For Dogen, as we know, ends and means, practice and goal, process and goal, was far too limited an understanding of what practice is. Way too linear. Way too small-minded. And for Dogen, basically incorrect. When Dogen complains about teachings or other teachers, which he sometimes does, he is crabby about: they are making the teachings too small. They are limiting, and that is really destructive. 

For Dogen, following the Mahayana sutras, in which he was steeped, awakening was all-encompassing. There was no boundary or limit to awakening. Awakening was a kind of metaphysical reality, not a mere psychological achievement. Awakening existed in its fullness, always, and everywhere. It was not something produced by a little person’s little activity.  It was bigger than that. So practice for Dogen was equally all-encompassing. Practice for Dogen was, already, awakening. For Dogen all these things are one thing: zazen, morality, conduct, awakening, practice. These are all one thing. 

Over the years, after many decades of reflection for me, to realize that all of our deepest rituals – in every one of them, from jukai, to shukke tokedo, to lay entrustment, to shiho – all of our most profound rituals are all about the precepts. Receiving the precepts is the central act of all these rituals. The precepts as the deepest of all koans, the ineffable and profound and ungraspable teachings of our tradition. 

The meaning of any one of the precepts is considered to be inexhaustible. You don’t know what it means. You don’t know the full measure of it. Whatever you understand that it means is only your understanding until now. There is always more. 

Dogen’s commentary to the sixteen bodhisattva precepts, he says something like, You cannot kill. There is no such thing as killing. There is no way that anybody could kill. It’s impossible. If you really understand your life, it’s obvious. There is no way to kill. Also, on another level, the reverse is just as true. There is no way to be alive and avoid killing. You are killing every minute. You breathe in a breath, you are killing. Take a step on the earth, you are killing. So there is no way to avoid killing. 

So there is no such thing as killing, and there is no escape from constant killing. Given this, how are you going to practice the precept of “Don’t kill?” Is it impossible? No, it is not impossible. It is absolutely essential, and you have to do it. And you have to know how to do it on this occasion, with all its complexities, as the person you are right now, with your understanding of your life right now, under the circumstances right now that you are living in, with your intentions, your limitations, your conditions. You have to make the effort to practice that precept your whole life’s work. 

Something like that is the way Dogen understands and transforms the precepts for us. Precepts is about our dynamic understanding of our lives, expressed through all of our actions of body, speech, and mind. Life is practicing precepts, one way or the other. 

That’s why Dogen felt like he had to add the triple treasure as the first of the three precepts of the sixteen precepts. In his commentary on the precepts, he talks about the Triple Treasure, taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha…he says there are three aspects to each one, three takes on the Triple Treasure: the triple treasure of oneness, the triple treasure maninfested, and the triple treasure maintained. The three refuges of oneness is complete awakening itself – the true and fundamental and full nature of reality. Purity, vastness, peace, harmony that exists even if nothing exists. The triple treasure exists endlessly, no matter what. The triple treasure manifested is this vastness, when it is manifested in actual life in this world – in people, in things, and what happens. Buddhas, teachings, and communities that learn. The maintained triple treasure is temple buildings, individuals who come and go, taking care of the practice, sutras written on paper, and the effort to help suffering beings in this sad world.