Norman speaks on the Precepts and Jukai (lay ordination) ceremony at the Mar de Jade, Mexico, Sesshin
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | April 15, 2010
Norman speaks on the Precepts and Jukai ceremony (lay
ordination) at the Mar de Jade, Mexico, Sesshin
Abridged and edited by Ryūsen
Buenos dias a todos. Tonight we conclude our retreat with a
ceremony for taking precepts. Roccio,
Chelo, and Luis are going to get new names and rakusus and lineage papers, and they are going to commit themselves
to the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts.
So I thought this morning I
would talk a little bit about this ceremony and the precepts. Although when we're in retreat we think
a lot about meditation practice, and that's our focus, in Zen the practice is fundamentally
not about meditation. It is really
about how we live our lives every single day. We read about this the other day in Dogen, in his great text
all about zazen. He says,
"Practice is a matter of everydayness."
This is why the name of the group that we practice in is called Everyday
Zen. It's not called "Peaceful
Ocean Zen," or "Dharma Eye Zen," or "Dragon Gate," or something like that,
although there are groups that have that kind of name. Our group is called Everyday Zen,
because I really believe that practice is a matter of every day. Of course, we value zazen very highly,
because zazen shows us the way to live every day – with kindness, with courage;
with clarity, with respect for the unknown, with whole-heartedness, and with a
dignified patience when things are tough.
If we practice zazen, we will learn all these things, all these qualities. But we'll just do zazen when it's time
to do zazen, and the rest of the time we'll forget about it, and we'll just go
forth in our lives in this way.
So that is where the precepts
come into it. Dogen says, "Zazen is the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts." I think that Rick was saying in his
talk that the precepts are not rules.
Like rules in school. Or sometimes
like training rules in a monastery or a retreat. Things we should not do. Things we should do.
The sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are just the description of the
spontaneous conduct of a Buddha.
The precepts are a way of trying to express, "This is how we live when
our hearts are full of kindness and joy."
When you consider our human
life, you could say that we actually have two lives going on at the same time:
the life of the body and the life of the vow. The body comes from our parents, it comes from the earth,
and it comes from God. So the body
is a miraculous thing. It is the
most amazing creation that we could ever imagine. And it is beyond what we could imagine. It's a shame that we take it so much
But the body would have no
life without the vow, because the vow illuminates the body and moves the body
and motivates the body in its living.
Our vow is our sense of purpose and meaning in life. It is the basic spirit behind
everything we think, everything we choose, and everything we accomplish with
this body in this lifetime.
We actually all have a
vow. We wouldn't be in this life
if we didn't have a vow. It's a
little startling to think about that. "Oh, I didn't know I had a vow, that I was living by a vow." Most of us think, "I'm just living. I'm just trying to get along. I don't really have a vow. I am just an ordinary person." But, actually, nobody can get out of
bed in the morning and go through a day without some vow. You can tell that this is true, because
there are times in life – maybe it has never happened to you – when people lose
their vow. They lose it
completely. And then they cannot get out of bed. They're depressed. They're in despair. They actually can't figure out how to
go on living. And sometimes they
don't go on living. Or sometimes
they somehow manage to go through the motions of living, but really, inside,
there is no meaning.
So most of us do have our
vow. It keeps us going, and
somehow we are living based on our vow.
Even if we don't know we have a vow or don't know what that vow is,
somehow or other, we believe that our life makes sense. Our vow is formed in us in childhood,
and it develops as we grow older.
It comes from our parents and our family. It comes from our culture and our values. And it is there in us, even though we
don't know it. Usually we have not
really contemplated our vows, and we don't quite understand our vows. Most of the time our vows are very
mixed up with our wounds and our confusion, and so they actually need to be
I think that any serious
spiritual practice involves clarifying our vows and our commitments, and it
involves having a strong sense of commitment beyond self-interest. If we don't have a vow to search for
the truth, if we don't have a vow to be of benefit to others, if we do not
commit ourselves to a path with some degree of discipline and support, probably
we will drift in our lives. Even
though we have the vow, it won't be clear, and we'll drift. And eventually we will feel – deep
inside – loneliness. And the
strength of our lives will eventually wear out. When you are young, this is not so much a problem, because
life is so exciting, and it remains interesting all the time – all kinds of
problems and passions and needs and desires. That can keep you going for quite a while. But after a while only a vow is enough
to sustain your life. Excitement
is simply not enough.
Of course, don't get me
wrong. I'm not making a pitch here
that everyone should take the Zen precepts. In fact, it's a lot of work for a poor priest when a lot of
people take precepts, so I am not trying to get more customers! That's not what I am talking
about. An official, organized,
church-sanctioned vow is not necessary.
An inner vow, if it is clear, can be very strong. If it is strong enough, it sometimes
can be stronger than an official vow taken in a ritual. A deep and serious inner vow can be
stronger than an official vow or a vow that we have taken because it is
expected of us, or we do it because everybody else is doing it and we don't
want to get left behind.
If we take this vow because
of our own experience – because our own suffering shows us that it is
absolutely necessary that we take it – and if we make this vow seriously and
from the heart, then we can find the support of the ritual and of the tradition
and of the community to be a big help.
Our ceremony tonight is a ceremony
of profound vowing. A vowing to
benefit others, to clarify our hearts, to go beyond old karma, and to act in
accord with kindness. We do the
ceremony as a member of Buddha's family.
We promise to do this not only in this life, but lifetime after lifetime,
and world after world.
So now, briefly, I will tell
you what the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are. The first three are called the Triple
Refuges, or Refuge in the
Three Treasures. We have been
chanting this together every night – taking refuge in Buddha, which means the
awakened nature of our own heart.
Taking refuge in dharma, which means the way of life that comes from our
awakened heart. And taking refuge
in the sangha, which is the community of beings that makes life possible, and
with whom we share life.
That is the widest
explanation of the triple treasure.
The narrowest explanation is that we take refuge in Buddha as our
teacher. We take refuge in the
teachings of Buddha as they have been handed down to us. And we take refuge in the community of
people that are practicing these teachings, under the direction from Buddha, as
their teacher. So when we take the
Triple Refuge, the idea is that we are vowing to return to the kindness that is
the essence of the human heart and mind. In other words, to return to a basic sanity in this crazy
world, and to do this in concert with everyone, with the feeling that we will
receive support from everyone in this process.
Those are the first three
precepts. The next three are
called the Three Pure Precepts.
There have been various translations of these and ways of understanding
them through the generations. But
basically it is like this: The first one is not to do harmful things. To be committed to trying our best to
avoid harming – harming ourselves, harming others – not only with our body and
our speech, but also with our thoughts.
This is a precept of restraint.
It means we will hold ourselves in check when afflictions overcome our
minds. That we will refrain from
acting out of these afflictions, and we'll refrain even from validating these
afflictions in our minds.
The second Pure Precept is to
do everything good. Instead of a
precept that restrains, this is a precept of great expansiveness. We'll be extravagant in all of our efforts
of thought, speech, and mind, when those efforts are beneficial for self and
The third precept is to vow
to benefit all beings. This is
understood in Zen very clearly as all
beings, not just the nice ones.
Not even just the human ones. Not even the living ones only. But even beings like rocks and tables and chairs. So we don't smash things up. We take care of things. We polish the furniture. We recognize that even material things
that are not living are sacred.
These precepts mean that we
practice restraint from bad conduct, and we practice expansive, joyful effort
of good conduct. And we do all of
this with the spirit of benefit and loving-kindness to others.
So we have six precepts so
far. Ten more. These are called the Ten Grave
Precepts. These are usually given
in a negative form, such as, "A disciple of Buddha does not kill. A disciple of Buddha does not steal." So it is a list of ten things that the
disciple of Buddha does not do.
But also we understand them – and practice them also – as positive. In other words, "A disciple of Buddha
does not kill. She nurtures and
nourishes life. A disciple of
Buddha does not steal. She
receives and offers gifts."
So I will tell you what the
Ten Grave Precepts are. You will
hear them again tonight in the ceremony.
First, the disciple of Buddha does not kill or take life. Second, a disciple of Buddha does not
take what is not freely given, and doesn't steal. Third, a disciple of Buddha does not misuse sexuality, which
means being unselfish and honorable, and appropriate in practicing restraint in
sexual matters. Number four, a
disciple of Buddha doesn't lie.
The fifth precept is a disciple of Buddha does not intoxicate, which
means not to become intoxicated with drugs or alcohol. But, also, it is explicitly understood
not to become intoxicated with teachers or teachings. Or with meditation.
Sixth, the disciple of Buddha does not slander. Seventh, a disciple of Buddha does not
praise self at the expense of others.
The seventh precept, like the
previous one and the fourth precept, is a speech precept, about how we
speak. Speech is a special,
magical power reserved for human beings.
We throw around our words as if they were cheap and didn't matter. We are more careful with our money than
we are with our words. But,
actually, we can do a lot of good and a lot of harm with our words. So it is part of our practice to
recognize that and to be careful with our speech. To speak always with honesty and truth, but also with
generosity and kindness, about ourselves and others. To be especially careful in our speech to and about
others. If sometimes we must be
critical, to be very generous and kind in our criticism, and as much as
possible, not to be critical of
others. We try to speak always
with a great humility, knowing, "This is the way I see it. It looks like this to me. But I know that others will see it very
differently." And also, never
promoting ourselves in our speech – even in subtle ways.
The eighth precept is that
the disciple of the Buddha is not possessive. This involves a deep understanding that we never can possess
anything anyway. It always amuses
me that in the United States people buy houses, and they think they own
houses. It looks to me like the
houses own them! The house says,
"Give me more money, and I want more money right now." And the person says, "But I don't have
any money." And the house says, "I
don't care. I gotta have money
now. You get money somehow." And the government, which is in
collusion with the house, comes and says, "Now you have to pay taxes. Lots of taxes." And then you're paying the taxes. And then you die. The house doesn't jump in the grave
with you. The house is still
there, laughing at you. [Laughter] "You thought you owned me, but now I am welcoming in the
next poor soul."
So in the case of houses,
this is all very obvious; but it is exactly the same with everything else. We don't own anything. We are the servants of all these
things. We are taking care of
these things for someone else, so we are not possessive. We are always generous, but not with
the feeling, "I have something now.
Look how generous I am. I'm
giving it to someone else." But
rather, "This thing that is temporarily in my keeping, whether it is money or
not, I now give back. It was never
mine." So that is the eighth
precept. It is very liberating to practice
The ninth precept is the
disciple of the Buddha does not harbor ill will. This does not mean that we never get angry. It means that when we do get angry, we
don't justify the anger. We don't
say, "It's your fault. You made me
mad." We might feel like doing
that, but we notice that that is really stupid. And, certainly, we don't act in anger. Instead, we commit to the practice of
The tenth precept is that a
disciple of Buddha does not abuse or denigrate the Three Treasures, which means
that we respect and honor the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Usually in our tradition, by
the time we take the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts in the ceremony, we have
practiced for awhile with our teacher, so we already have the feeling that the
precepts are not something outside of us, imposed on our lives. We sincerely feel that the precepts are
our own mind and our own heart – our own best mind, our own best heart. So it is not so hard to practice with
the precepts, because naturally we find that this is the way we want to live,
and we feel from our experience that living this way makes us happier. It strengthens our love. When we find ourselves violating the
precepts, and that happens, then – right away – we feel regret.
So there is no resistance to
practicing with these precepts.
But I use the word on purpose: "Practice" with the precepts. Not keeping the precepts, or violating
the precepts, but practicing with the
precepts. From one point of view,
you could say that there is no way to keep these precepts. Since we are human beings, it means
that we are going to violate the precepts sometimes, and that is part of the
practice. We try not to do that,
but probably it happens sometimes.
And then we forgive ourselves and go on.
Another way to say this is
that it is absolutely impossible to
break the precepts. No matter what
our conduct is, it is included within the wide circle of Buddha's way. So the spirit of precept practice is
always one of gentleness and forgiveness.
As some of us have found out, perhaps, in our own lives, sometimes the
way to go right is to go wrong, for a long time, maybe, and to suffer the
bitter consequences of this.
So the ceremony that we will
do tonight is actually not a performance; it is a practice in itself. It is an empowered ritual that somehow
brings a turning of the heart. I
don't know how that works, but somehow it does.
Now I will describe very
briefly how the ceremony goes, so we can practice with it. It begins with bows and offerings. And then we will all chant together an
invocation, to summon the buddhas and bodhisattvas to come here and help us
out. It is kind of like what Adine
was saying last night: It is hard to do anything on your own. So you ask for help, and the
bodhisattvas all show up, and then with their help, you can do it. They give you courage, and then you can
So next we chant the verse of
confession to purify us of our old habits and our ancient karma. Then we will purify the physical space
and the body by sprinkling on some holy water, which is made sacred by certain
mantras and mudras. Just like the
Catholics, isn't it? Holy
water. Next we take the sixteen
Bodhisattva precepts. Then
everyone vows to practice these precepts forever and ever. Even after we become a Buddha, we are
going to keep going.
Next we give people their new
names and their rakusus. The
understanding is that this precept ceremony is like a re-birth. You are reborn into this new vow. So that is why we give a new name. A vow name. Each person receives a name that fits
his or her own character. This
time Rick and I worked together to choose names for Rocco and Luis and
Chemo. Very sweet for me to have
such a good partner to choose names with.
He actually did most of the work and provided the Spanish translation,
so that we could have names in Japanese, English, and Spanish.
The rakusu that we will give
is a sacred garment. We understand
it to be Buddha's own robe. We sew
it by hand, and with each stitch of sewing, we sew in refuge with Buddha. A rakusu is not considered a person's
personal possession. It belongs to
the Buddha and contains the Buddha.
So we always treat it with respect and dignity. Before we put it on, we put it on
top of our heads, and we chant a special verse, as we will do tonight in the
Then we receive a lineage
paper, which is a kind of birth certificate. So receive your name, your clothes, and your birth
certificate. On this paper it
actually has the ninety-two names of succession. Ninety-two priests from the Buddha through the twenty-seven
Indian ancestors, the six early ancestors of China, and all the rest through
China and Japan and America. The
names include Dogen and Suzuki Roshi, and my own teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman,
and down to me, Zoketsu Rinsho – and you.
Your name is on the lineage paper.
So, ninety-three generations from the Buddha to you.
So that's it. That's the ceremony we will do
tonight. As I say, it is a kind of
birthday party, to celebrate this new vow-birth of these three good disciples
of Buddha. Since the actual life
of the Buddha is the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts, that's the life that flows
through the Buddha's veins – this great vow of awakening and compassion. Wherever you see this vow, you are
seeing the life of the Buddha. So,
since this ceremony celebrates the birthday of the Buddha, and April is the
month of Buddha's birthday, after it is over, we will go on the porch and
celebrate Buddha's birthday. We
will have a little statue of the Buddha inside a flowered pagoda. Starting with the three new baby
Buddhas, they will bathe the statue with sweet tea, like you do with a newborn
baby. Then the rest of us will
have a chance to do that, too. And
when you do it, hopefully you do it with a true spirit of peacefulness, and really
pay attention and do it with a vow in your heart.
So I would ask everybody:
Tonight, when you come to the ceremony, please do not be a spectator. As I say, the ceremony is not a
performance. It is an actual
practice, and we are all participants.
Even though you might have come to this retreat having no idea that this
was going to happen, it is a great blessing to be present at the time of such a
ritual. So when Rocco and Luis and
Chemo take the precepts, imagine also that you are sitting beside them taking
the precepts too. If you have
already taken them, imagine that you are taking them again. If you haven't taken them, receive them
tonight in whichever way you feel that you understand them. I am not saying that, in the narrow
sense, that you have to become a Buddhist or a disciple of Buddha. I am saying, rather, to commit yourself
to compassion and awakening, deeply within your heart. To see if you can say to yourself,
within yourself, "Yes" to compassion and awakening, and through that "Yes" to
find and strengthen your own vow.
If in the ceremony you discover that you cannot say "Yes" to that vow –
because that would be very possible – then just notice that. That will be something important for
you to understand. And that's
okay. Notice it and just go
forward with your life and your practice in whatever way you need to, trusting
that, one way or another, life is going to give you what you require for your
I think that is all I have to
say, except to thank you for your kind attention, for your effort and practice,
for your faith, and for your beautiful hearts. It is always a joy for me, and an inspiration for me, to
come to Mexico and practice with all of you.