INTO THE HEART OF BUDDHA:
Working With the Precepts
Sensei Egyoku Nakao
Abbess Zen Center of Los Angeles
This month, I want to introduce you to the
Sixteen Observances of the Zen Peacemaker Order
and to share briefly some perspectives on
In our lineage, the sixteen precepts are one of the three
pillars of practice, the other two pillars being samadhi
and wisdom. These precepts are the Buddha's precepts, the
natural expression of our life as the awakened nature that
is our birthright.
We practice the precepts from many different perspectives.
Let's explore three of these perspectives from which to
open up the ten grave precepts. These perspectives are: 1)
the fundamentalist aspect, 2) the compassionate aspect,
and 3) the absolute aspect.
From the outset, let me emphasize that our practice is to
raise an awareness of all three perspectives and of when
we are ignoring one or another. In this way, we come to
know our life from as broad a view as possible, thus
transforming our limited, short-sighted attitudes. These
perspectives can help us to become as all-seeing and
all-sided as possible, moving us beyond positions of
merely solidifying opinions and attitudes.
The precepts are often stated as "do nots:" do not lie, do
not steal, etc. The Zen Peacemaker expression (see next
page) takes a different turn. Regardless of how one
chooses to state these precepts, it is important to see
that the precepts are not chains, not a list of "do and do
not" that result in self-righteous and rigid behavior.
The precepts have their home in generosity for they are
life-enhancing; in gratitude for they illuminate the
functioning of our life; and in respect, without which we
are something less than human. The precepts are a breath
of freshness, inspiring us to live from truth and not as
an imitation of what someone tells us we should or should
not do. Precepts help us reflect deeply upon ourselves and
examine how we live.
Now for the three perspectives. The first is the
fundamentalist perspective. Sometimes it is called the
literal or the Hinayana (Small Vehicle) aspect, but I
prefer to call it fundamental because it is very basic, a
black and white perspective, not characterized by the gray
areas of interpretation. "Do not kill" means do not kill.
"Do not lie" means do not lie. It is straightforward:
simply don't do it. Another reminder is that this
perspective engages the body: do not use one's body to
lie, cheat, steal, etc.
The second perspective is of compassionate action. This is
sometimes called the Mahayana (Bodhisattva or Great
vehicle) aspect. It is characterized by the so-called gray
areas of life where choices are not black and white, but
where we confront the possibility that the "do not" may be
a "do," and vice versa. Our partner begs us to help end
their life due to unbearable pain. We find ourselves or
our partner unexpectedly pregnant. We come into
information that will hurt innocent people. We find
ourselves in situations where the course of action is not
clear cut: how do we engage our compassion?
When considering compassionate action, there are several
guidelines which we can apply to help us make decisions.
For any given situation, we can consider the facts,
appropriateness, and motivation. Facts are fairly
straightforward: who, when, where, how. Appropriateness is
subjective: we consider the appropriateness of our actions
and how much action is necessary. What is the right amount
of caring? And third, we consider our motivation, paying
particular attention to the inner whispers of
We encounter many everyday life situations that are not
grave, but push our buttons for some reason or another.
When our buttons are pushed, we can raise our awareness.
In doing so, we see how we project outwardly and can
respond by softening the rigid boundaries of our
self-protection. We have the opportunity to see tightly
held beliefs and attitudes and open to the possibilities
of life as it is.
Of course, no matter how well considered, our decisions
have consequences. We cannot avoid cause and effect, and
therefore the life of precept practice is revealed in how
things unfold from moment to moment, year to year,
lifetime to lifetime. In some sense, we never really know
if we have acted sufficiently. Regardless, each of us is
responsible for our life. We simply do the best we can do
at any given time.
The third perspective is the absolute. Sometimes it is
called the essential or Buddhayana (Buddha vehicle)
aspect. This is the perspective of emptiness: no black, no
white, no gray, no color. Here there is only the naked
self, without the clothing of our conditioning. This
perspective reveals to us that ultimately there is no such
thing as stealing: no one to steal, no one to steal from,
nothing to steal. In other words, non-stealing. This is
the undifferentiated state in which stealing is not even
possible; we have stepped beyond "do" and "do not."
Often when people hear of this absolute perspective, they
say, "Well then, it doesn't matter what I do." This is
wrong understanding. It matters very much what you do.
Living life as emptiness is a life of decisive action
based not on our personal issues, but on the impersonal
nature of the Self. From this perspective, we begin to see
that practice is not so much about making our life "work,"
but about settling into the heart of Buddha. The heart of
Buddha is simply our life as it is.
Once again, let me emphasize that all three perspectives
-- fundamental, compassionate, and absolute -- are
essential for wholeness. To only be fundamental would
result in unbearable rigidity; to hold only an absolute
position would be psychopathic. How we practice with these
perspectives reveals the kind of person that we are.
In precept practice, we simply do the best that we can.
Whatever we do, we raise our awareness. This is a practice
of continuous awareness. In the midst of the ever-changing
conditions of our life, do we have the awareness to
respond to whatever is happening in a way that exposes our
life as it is? This non-attachment leaves us open to the
infinite possibilities of the heart of Buddha. Deeply
examine this heart of Buddha and realize it as your own
THE SIXTEEN OBSERVANCES
OF THE ZEN PEACEMAKER ORDER
The Three Refuges of a Zen Peacemaker (The Three
Inviting all creations into the mandala of my practice and
vowing to serve them, I take refuge in:
Buddha, the awakened nature of all beings;
Dharma, the ocean of wisdom and compassion,
Sangha, the community of those living in harmony
with all Buddhas and Dharmas.
The Three Tenets of a Zen Peacemaker (The Three Pure
Precepts: Do no evil, Do good, Do good for others)
Taking refuge and entering the stream of engaged
spirituality, I vow to live a life of:
Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about
myself and the universe.
Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the
Healing myself and others.
The Ten Practices of a Zen Peacemaker (The Ten Grave
Being mindful of the interdependence of Oneness and
Diversity, and wishing to actualize my vows, I engage in
the spiritual practices of:
1. Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is.
This is the precept of Non-Killing.
2. Being satisfied with what I have. This is the precept
3. Encountering all creations with respect and dignity.
This is the precept of Chaste Conduct.
4. Listening and speaking from the heart. This is the
precept of Non-Lying.
5. Cultivating a mind that sees clearly. This is the
precept of Not Being Deluded.
6. Unconditionally accepting what each moment has to
offer. This is the precept of Not Talking About
Others Errors and Faults.
7. Speaking what I perceive to be the truth without
guilt or blame. This is the precept of Not Elevating
Oneself and Blaming Others.
8. Using all of the ingredients of my life. This is the
precept of Not Being Stingy.
9. Transforming suffering into wisdom. This is the
precept of Not Being Angry.
10. Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking.
This is the precept of Not Thinking Ill of the Three
Copyright 1998, Zen Center of Los Angeles