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History of Precepts 2

By: Norman Fischer | 04/22/2009
Location: Deer Run Zendo
In Topics: Buddhist Ethics / Precepts, Precepts

Second in a two part series of the History of Precepts.

History of Precepts 2

By Norman Fischer | April 22, 2009

Transcribed, abridged, and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum


So, we are continuing with thinking about the precepts, about conduct in this world, about how we live, what we do, and how we understand what we do. The more you think about this question, the deeper it gets.

Last time I spoke here, I spoke about morality in the Western tradition. I talked about our traditions of Judaism and Christianity and the effects of those traditions on our moral conduct, and I compared that to Buddhism. It seems that in Western thought there's a big difference between metaphysics and ethics. In other words, there's a big difference between the ultimate truth and conduct – which seems a more practical, everyday matter, and different from pursuit of truth. In our Western thought there's a bias in favor of metaphysics, because searching for the truth seems like a much more profound thing than everyday ethics. So metaphysics gives us philosophy and mysticism and mystery and art and intuition, and ethics just seems like probity and goodness and common sense, as with moral or legal codes. We all know we need that, but it seems less important, less meaty.

When I was young it sure seemed that way to me, and since in the beginning of the Buddhist movement in those days most of the practitioners were young, and since anybody young or old who took up Asian forms of thought was somehow automatically in revolt against Western conformity, there was almost no interest at all in discussions of ethics. Not at all. It was all about meditation. So now, forty years went by in the blink of an eye, and here I am talking about ethics. I'm all the time thinking about it and concerned about it, which maybe attests to the fact that I and the rest of us are getting old and boring and less interesting – or maybe we're just growing up!

But also, in the intervening years there's been a lot of important thought that is questioning whether or not it really makes sense to have this big split between metaphysics and ethics. A lot of the thinkers that I've been interested in reading about in these last five or ten years – people like Buber, Levinas, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, some of the most important thinkers of the late twentieth century – have criticized the notion that there's some metaphysical truth outside of the actual facts of our daily living, outside of our interactions and our conduct. That sounds like Dogen's understanding and Buddhism's understanding, that there is no essential truth and no essential self who could discover that truth. There are simply the arising and passing away of empty phenomena in radical mutual interrelation. This in Buddhism is the teaching of pratityasamutpada, usually translated into English as "conditioned coproduction": everything arises together and passes away together; everything influences everything else; there is no separate anything; there's just the phenomena of existence moment after moment. And this, according to Nagarjuna the great philosopher of emptiness, is what emptiness is. Things are empty exactly because they arise together and pass away together, and they have no real separateness.

So according to this way of looking at things, you don't have some primary truth and then ethics comes later. Conduct is truth, and truth is conduct. There's no difference whatsoever between the two. I think that Dogen and Buddhism and all these important thinkers agree on this point, and make many differences the same or bring them together.

I'm saying all of this just to get to where I left off last time. I was talking about ethics in Western thought and all the terrible problems with guilt and tortured conscience and self-denigration that comes from being commanded to be good by an absolutely good deity – when maybe we think we're not so good. I was contrasting all of that with Buddhist ethics, which seems refreshingly to be not about commandment or goodness or badness, but simply practical. That liberation and freedom from suffering just seem empirically to require ethics as part of the path. So ethics in Buddhism is not a matter of being a good person or not being a good person. It's just a matter of practice. It's a matter of making an effort for the purpose of our own liberation and happiness, and that that effort requires good ethical conduct. Although in Buddhism you have the practice of confession, and there's the encouragement of remorse for harm caused by actions that are harmful, there is no concept of, and no need for, what we would call guilt or repression.

With the sixteen bodhisattva precepts of Dogen, and with Dogen's understanding of those precepts, we arrive at the unity of truth and ethics. Dogen starts with the traditional Buddhist understanding of ethics as training, but then adds to that the idea that precepts are truth, not just conduct. They're the whole of the truth. The precepts in Zen are said not only to describe the conduct of buddhas, the conduct that we would aspire to and that we would spontaneously exhibit if we were buddhas, it says that the precepts are buddhas. The precepts are the Buddha-nature that inheres in all of us and in life. So it's as if the precepts are some kind of expression of the essence of life itself.

Some of you might know that last month I was very busy doing four dharma transmission ceremonies for priests that I ordained at Zen Center maybe ten years ago or so. These ceremonies are very intense and take a lot of effort, and they confirm within their structure the most intimate insights of our tradition. And they're all about the precepts. All about the precepts, and about the lineage of buddhas whose sole purpose is to transmit the precepts for the purpose of lighting up this world, for the purpose of compassion. And then, just the other day, last Sunday, we had a wonderful jukai ceremony. Three people received the precepts last Sunday. In the ceremony, if you were there, you heard them say, "Even after acquiring Buddha-hood I will continuously follow the path of the precepts." In going through the ritual, it's said that they become, through the agency of the ritual, "Children of Buddha." They become family members of Buddha. In the ceremony, as some of you saw, they receive a document which is called in Japanese "kechimyaku," that means "blood-vein."

It may seem strange that when you get this piece of paper, it actually says "blood-vein." The precepts are understood to be the blood that flows through the veins of the buddhas, the life-blood of the buddhas, the life-blood of consciousness itself. This is how Dogen understands the precepts and that's the kind of understanding of the precepts that we enact in the ritual. Dogen has a lot of sayings about the precepts, and there are some Shobogenzo fascicles, and so on. Of course he says in many places that obviously we should follow the precepts: that we should actually not lie, we should actually not steal, we should actually not kill, and so on and so forth, but he also says that the meaning and the power of the precepts goes way beyond this.

Believe it or not, there were times in old Japan when people believed that following the precepts as ethical rules was a trivial matter. It wasn't important, and the point was not to follow the precepts and carry them out, the point was to receive and embrace the precepts in the ritual. If you received and embraced the precepts in the empowered ritual, then there was a power that transcended and was beyond the details of your conduct. This sounds strange to us with our modern materialistic point of view, but it was not unusual in medieval Japan for priests with lots of spiritual power to give precepts to ghosts, spirits, demons, plants, and animals. If a village was being terrorized by a demon, the priest would come in and give the demon the precepts and thereby subdue the demon. Then after that everything would be fine, and the village would be peaceful again. Sometimes they would offer precepts as a way to prevent war. This may seem strange, but this is how they were viewed.

In Taking Our Places I wrote about three levels of understanding the precepts. The literal level is when "don't kill" literally means "don't kill," and "don't steal" literally means "don't steal" – all in the conventional sense of the words. The compassionate level is the level in which you might violate the literal level for a compassionate reason. Jeff [Bickner] gave an example last week of what I said a long time ago, "When somebody comes to your door in Nazi Germany and says ‘Are there any Jews in the house?' and you have twenty-five Jews the back room, you say, ‘No, there aren't any Jews in the house.'" That's what you have to do to follow the compassionate precept. There's no sense that you're breaking a precept there. It's not a violation of the precepts because it's very clearly for compassionate reasons.

So there is the literal level, the compassionate level, and the ultimate level. Here's what I wrote about the ultimate level in the book:

The third level of precept practice is the ultimate level. Through our spiritual endeavors, meditation, prayer, contemplation, we try to penetrate to this level, until we come to appreciate that the precepts are deeper than we have ever imagined, so deep that they can never be completely understood. We come to see that our ordinary mundane choices and actions are really much more than they seem, reverberating beyond anything we had imagined. On the ultimate level, we appreciate that precepts are beyond breaking and not breaking, distinctions we now see as products of our limited conceptualizing minds. Like the precepts, ultimately we and the world cannot be violated, for we are complete and perfect as we are. At the same time, we and the world are tragically limited. Things will always be a little off and our conduct will always fall short. On this ultimate and paradoxical level, it doesn't even make sense to utter the word "precept," or the words "good," "bad," "self", or "other." Beyond the dividing narrowness of our limited view, things are connected and complete, and no rules or restraints are required. Appreciating this level, even if only at first intellectually, we know that we don't need to be hard on ourselves or others for breaking precepts or congratulate anyone for keeping them. The only important thing is to go on forever making the effort to practice precepts without measurement or seeking after results.

On the other hand, we also see how easy it would be to use the ultimate level as a cover for our self-deception, justifying our secretly willful, bad conduct with the thought that precepts can never be broken anyway and everything is already perfect, so I can do whatever I want, it doesn't matter. The trap here is all too clear. The truth of the ultimate level notwithstanding, we are forever subject to the practical obligations and effects of our actions.

So these three levels of understanding the precepts are always operating simultaneously, and we practice on all the levels. You could say that the literal level is like early or Pali Buddhism, the compassionate level is like Mahayana Buddhism, and the third level, the ultimate level, is like Zen or tantric practice.

Buddha established the rule of training, the strict Vinaya rules, in which there are 250 or more very specific monastic precepts. Many rules of training are scrupulously followed by lineages to this day – the same exact specific rules are still followed by Theravada monastics.

How did we get from strict precepts to Dogen's sixteen precepts? In Zen the sense is very explicit that the teacher is not the sutra and not the Vinaya, the monastic rule. The teacher is the spirit of the Buddha, the mind and the heart of the Buddha – which is your mind and your heart. So we are to follow that mind and that heart, rather than the letter of the sutra or the letter of the law. This is very clearly stated in Zen, so it's quite a different attitude. Nevertheless, despite this Zen attitude, the strict Vinaya rule was followed everywhere in the Buddhist world for many, many hundreds of years, including in China, where Zen first developed. We read a few months ago the Sixth Ancestor's Sutra in which he seems to be reinterpreting the precepts to the ultimate level. Nevertheless, he and the entire Chinese Buddhist establishment practiced and transmitted the entire Vinaya Rule. But Buddhism in China was mostly Mahayana Buddhism, the foundation of which is compassion and the emptiness teachings. There was a growing sense among the Chinese community that something more was needed-another sense of precepts that expressed the importance of compassion and social virtue, because the Vinaya rules, when you analyze them and look at them, are really rather individualistic, and even to some extent anti-social. From the point of view of the Vinaya rules, interactions with others are only important insofar as they affect your consciousness and your personal liberation.

In a way, you could read the Vinaya as antisocial rules, so this was uncomfortable for the Chinese Buddhist community. So around the fifth century, all of a sudden there appeared a sutra called the Brahmajalasutra, the Fon Long Jing in Chinese, and translated as the "Brahma's Net Sutra." It was clearly a Mahayana sutra. It had celestial bodhisattvas and extravagant poetic language and miracles, just like all the other Mahayana sutras. It was claimed to be a translation from the Pali or the Sanskrit, but almost all scholars agree that this was actually written in Chinese-it was basically a fake sutra, as many sutras are. It doesn't mean that they're not read and practiced and taken seriously, but according to critical scholarship it was not actually written in Sanskrit. This sutra contains fifty-eight precepts: ten major precepts, which are similar to but not exactly the same as the grave precepts in Zen, and forty-eight minor precepts. And interestingly, unlike the Vinaya precepts, these are not monastic precepts. They're not meant just for monastics; they were meant to be practiced by both monastics and lay practitioners, which is very much in the Mahayana spirit, which by definition-you know, Mahayana means "Great Vehicle"-is a much more inclusive form of practice than the earlier vehicle. It softens the traditional Buddhist very heavy preference for monastic practice over lay practice.

In traditional Buddhism, lay people basically give alms and hope for a better rebirth, and monastics can be liberated. There are exceptions, there are examples of liberated lay people, but basically it's unusual. You have to be a monastic to be liberated. The Mahayana does away with that way of looking at things and sees lay and monastic practitioners on a much more equal footing. The Brahmajalasutra is for both lay and monastic practitioners, and eventually in China monks, when they were ordained, began to receive both sets of precepts. Sometimes they would have an ordination ceremony in which they would receive 253 precepts, and then the next day they might be joined by lay practitioners, and all together they would take the 58 precepts of the Brahmajalasutra. So now they had, in a sense, a double tradition of ordination.

Meanwhile, in addition to all that, the Chinese established another form of precepts – the tradition of monastic rule. The Vinaya rule is not really for monastics living in monasteries; it's for monastics wherever they are, because in early Buddhism there weren't monasteries. Monks were wanderers and wandered around from village to village and didn't live in monasteries. But in China monks did live in monasteries, so now side by side with the Vinaya Rule and the Mahayana precepts, there were in China fairly elaborate monastic regulations, which were more like house rules, and were never taken ritually in ceremonies. It was just understood that you entered the monastery, and you followed the rules. They were actually conceived of as the analogue of secular laws. Monasteries were considered like an alternate reality with its own set of rules and laws, and monks could not be prosecuted by secular authorities. If they broke rules, they had their own system of justice.

Now in Japan one of the early founders of the Tendai School, Saitcho, established in the eighth century an independent ordination platform in which only the fifty-eight precepts were used, not the monastic precepts. This seems like a really radical step, but maybe not so much as you think, because in Japan they never did establish the Vinaya ordination nearly as strongly as they had in China, India, and in other Buddhist countries. So it wasn't that hard for Saitcho to change the ordination in this radical way. Dogen, who was a Tendai monk in the thirteenth century, was ordained with the fifty-eight precepts. He probably never did receive Vinaya precepts, although he lived a strict religious life, because he always lived in monasteries, and he followed the monastic rule, even though he didn't ritually take those rules.

So now we have fifty-eight precepts – ten plus forty-eight. How do we get from fifty-eight to sixteen? It seems like these precepts, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts that we study and follow, which include the three refuges and the three pure precepts, as well as the ten grave precepts, are unique to Zen, and probably were created by Dogen himself. That is, all of the sixteen precepts existed before, and Dogen didn't make them up, but they were packaged in this particular way. He added the three refuges, which were never before considered to be precepts, and he added the three pure precepts, which are a very, very ancient ethical formulation in Buddhism, and then he changed the ten precepts of the Brahmajalasutra according to other formulations that pre-existed. So his list of ten is slightly different, but he didn't make them up; he got them from other sources.

For Dogen, I think, it was very clear that lifestyle precepts, specific rules, mattered a great deal, but they were not religious commitments. You would follow them because they were important, and they were training rules, and you were committed to them if you lived in a monastic community. This was so completely understood that it didn't even need to be mentioned, and you didn't need a ritual to receive and follow these rules. On the other hand, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts were completely understood as religious commitments, and they were only operative when they were received in an empowered ritual carried out by a qualified clergy who's empowered to give the ritual. Dogen understood the sixteen precepts mainly on the ultimate level, mainly as the Buddha's very life, the ultimate expression of Dharma. He saw them, as I was saying earlier, as unspeakably deep, as almost unknowable.

When you think about it, one of Dogen's main religious insights is that practice and realization are not two different things as we would think, one being the culmination, and the other the method to get to the culmination. One is the end and the other is the means. No, he didn't think that way at all. Practice-realization for him was one word. Every moment of practice was a moment of realization. The only realization was through practice, and this was one continuously, eternally unfolding process. And so you can see how in such a process precepts would become central. They would become crucially important, because they would express this process. Its essence, its rule, and its fruition are expressed in the sixteen bodhisattva precepts. So you could see how Dogen's view of precepts is integral to his whole concept of practice.

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