Working With the Precepts

By 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
 precept practice.
 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 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
 of Non-Stealing.
 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