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Zen Precepts (Talk 2 of 3)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Dec 31, 2000
Location: Red Cedar Dharma Hall
In topic: Buddhist Ethics / Precepts
Discussion of the first three precepts: I take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
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Zen Precepts Talk Two

The sixteen Boddhisattva precepts are really at the center of our practice. The word “Zen” actually means meditation, and especially in a sesshin there is an emphasis on meditation practice, on zazen, so much so that one might think that zazen is the center of our practice. This is true, but what is zazen? Zazen is really the sixteen Boddhisattva precepts and the sixteen Boddhisattva precepts are really zazen. Zazen has a big, wide meaning and is not understood just as meditation practice. Zen practice started with the redefinition and expansion of what meditation practice really is. We do have to pay attention to our meditation practice, to our breath, but in the end, we understand that the container of zazen is much bigger than that. Zazen is conduct on the most profound level. Zazen is the sixteen Boddhisattva precepts. It is the understanding of embracing and being embraced by our life. Zazen is really the complete saturation in our life. So, it is no good to worry how your zazen is going – “Am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong?” Definitely make effort and evaluate how you are doing, but the big picture is, as Dogen says, just to take this seat as Buddha’s activity. Just to sit down is already Buddha’s activity.

It is very interesting that Dogen, who so powerfully stressed the literal, actual, physical posture of zazen, did not practice at the end of his life what we would call zazen. When he was dying, he was exactly my age, which is not young, but which is not old for dying. When he recognized that he was dying, he did not do zazen day and night. He took three pieces of paper, and wrote a character on each piece of paper, and posted them on the pillars of his room. He continuously circumambulated his room and chanted the three characters: “Buddha, Dharma, Sangham”.

This all sounds so religious, and no one is more aware of the many pitfalls of religion than I. Religious enthusiasm is great, feels good, is inspiring, but one should be careful. It is good not to be coerced by my or anyone else’s enthusiasm in taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangham. It is good to just listen, and let it come and go. Take your time with it, evaluate it, be careful. Let it ripen and mature in you, and if it does, slowly, and in a grounded way. Nowadays I practice with different people in all kinds of ways. A lot of the people with whom I work most closely in the dharma are not even Buddhists at all. It makes absolutely no difference. So, religious feeling has to be grounded in human feeling, and it should never be in violation of kindness and common sense. The test is that religious feeling should unite you with others, not just with your co religionists in the dharma, but with everyone that you meet, and you should feel a sense of union. The sense of union is the real religious feeling.

Many people come to practice, to meditation thinking it will help their lives. And actually that is a true motivation. I think that you should feel that it benefits you and helps your life, and if it doesn’t benefit you, give it up and find something else. However, the real benefit is not that you feel better, because that’s not enough. In the end, the real help is that you can go beyond your personal needs and appreciate that your life is bigger than the personal. Human beings want and need to feel that we belong to the world, that we belong to each other, that we belong to ourselves, that we possess our own lives. This is the deepest human desire, I think. This is the horizon of what is possible for us as human beings. So, we start out thinking that a little meditation would be nice; it will make us feel good. But I warn you newcomers, it is kind of sneaky, it kind of sneaks up on you. After a while of meditation, you end up joining, loving, and being responsible for everything, which is a tall order. It is a wonderful and ultimately satisfying way of life, but not necessarily easy.

It is often said that the sixteen Boddhisattva precepts really boil down to one precept: I take refuge in Buddha. If you really appreciate the meaning of “I take refuge in the Buddha”, then all the other precepts naturally flow from it.

So now I want to talk about the first three precepts: I take refuge in the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but especially “I take refuge in the Buddha”. In the Pali language, the word sarana means refuge, protection, or shelter. “Refuge” is especially a good translation because in Latin re fugere means “to fly back.” Taking refuge means to fly back home, flying back to our ancient, true home, the place we really belong. As we say in Zen, returning to our true nature is to take refuge in Buddha. That is who we most truly and deeply are. To take refuge in Buddha is to recognize this true home, and to return to it over and over again as the primary commitment of our lives. This idea of return is really important. In the Surangama sutra, the word “return” is used as a technical term to mean the mind seeing through its own projections, and resting in emptiness: the endless, timeless, potential of all things. There is a wonderful Wang Wei poem that says something like, “I follow the stream back to its source and watch the clouds pile up.” So when you can turn the mind around, returning it to the source, so that it is no longer grasping anything on the inside or outside, this is the effort we make in our zazen practice.

In Judaism, there is the same idea of returning, and of course in Judaism it is returning to God. During the high holidays in the fall, everyone talks about turning the mind, turning the heart around, letting go of our entanglements, and allowing the mind to rest in its true shelter and protection, the only thing that is reliable: our true heart and our true nature.

So, that is what we mean by taking refuge in Buddha. If you are a Zen student, you might want to take refuge in Buddha, the myth and the symbol that we call Shakyamuni Buddha. Personally I like Shakyamuni Buddha a lot. I think he was a good teacher and an inspiring image of religious practice – steady, serene, modest, wise. But the real taking refuge in Buddha goes beyond Buddha. Buddha himself took refuge in Buddha. To truly take refuge in Buddha is a continual commitment and never ending process. To take refuge in Buddha is to find a true, lasting protection and security, as everything in the world is unreliable. Only taking refuge in Buddha, God, or whatever you want to call it, is reliable. The reason that Buddha or God is reliable is because it isn’t anything. The Buddha is nothing that you can point to and say, “That’s it.” Nothing that you could know or possess or indicate would be it, because it includes and is beyond everything. To take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in the essential nature of existence as it really is, beyond projection and desire, the coming and going, the arising and passing away, the forming and unforming of life, death - like clouds in the sky. This is the only thing that you can count on. If you have confidence in this, you can have confidence in everything. You can have confidence in yourself, although your body and mind are unreliable. You can have confidence in others, no matter who they are or what they do. You do not expect anything, so you can really trust everything. Your life is a trusting life when you take refuge in Buddha, and trust is the magic of our lives.

In the Buddhist sense, dharma means the Buddhist teachings, sutras, and sangha means the community of practitioners. In Zen we understand sangha to include not only all practitioners, but also the net of causality that embraces everything that is…all beings, tiles, pebbles, rock, grasses. To embrace all life as our own life, and not to see our life as separate, our thoughts being inside and most things being outside, to embrace all that as our own life is to take refuge in sangha.

The dharma is also the same, because the teachings are the pattern of what is. The mountain, the cloud, the grass, the trees…all of it is speaking the dharma. We see a bird fly by, and we can’t even express the awesome beauty, because it is not just the bird flying by, it is the feeling of the rightness of just that moment, the pattern of all that is. We shouldn’t be disappointed in ourselves if we forget all this, because that is how life is: we forget. Life is so perfect and so utterly right all the time, and at the same time, so tragically messed up. Other people can be so bothersome and so disappointing. People can be counted on, like we ourselves, to be fear driven, to act not from their best selves. We shouldn’t be upset by this. This is normal because we regularly forget who we are. One has only to read the daily newspaper to see the consequences of our forgetting who we are.

So we need to return, to turn around, to remind ourselves and each other of what is really important. And we need Buddha and good teachers who can connect us to our awakened nature, which we are now and always have been and always will be, even after our lives are done. We need teachings, dharma, reminders of ways to return, encouragement to return, and we need sangha, the community of friends with whom we can share our life and our practice. They are buddies who say, “You wake me up and I will wake you up.”

I think Suzuki Roshi once said, “Practice is rowing a leaky boat out into the middle of the ocean and sinking.” I might have made that up, but I think he said that! So to take refuge in Buddha, dharma, and sangha is just like that: rowing a leaky boat out into the middle of the ocean and sinking. When you are out in the ocean in a little boat, the ocean is so vast. You can see only a small part of the ocean, but you have a feeling that what you see is really, really big. You can see the waves, sometimes big, sometimes small, but you cannot see how deep it is, but you know that it is deep. Sitting in your little boat can seem scary and lonely. So the only thing you can do is to fall in love with the ocean. And then you know that you come from the ocean and go back to the ocean. You don’t mind. Plus, you have a few friends in the boat with you. Together you can row the boat and enjoy the wind and the sky and the ocean. That is my idea of taking refuge in the Triple Treasure.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to take refuge in the Triple Treasure. You don’t have to take any special ceremonies or vows, but we all have to come to this in our hearts. I really feel, after a long time contemplating this, that everything that is really worthwhile in our lives: birth, death, love, commitment, work, community, enjoyment, suffering, understanding, wonder, all of these things flow from this source of refuge and the true heart. So, I think it is really important that we need to think about this, but more than thinking about this, we need some means of practice, a way to evoke this in our lives, something that becomes real and not just a feeling that it is a good idea that we heard one day. To shape it into something that really grounds our life as a reality takes steady committed practice.