Skip to main content

Zen Precepts (Talk 1 of 3)

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 12/31/2000
Location: Red Cedar Dharma Hall
In Topics: Buddhist Ethics / Precepts, Precepts

General description of the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts and a Bodhisattva. Description of the three levels of precepts: the literal, the compassionate, and the koan level.

Zen PreceptsTalk One

(Transcribed and Abridged by RyusenBarbara Byrum)

I am feeling a little overwhelmed because sometime ago I casually said that I would speak about the sixteen Boddhisattva precepts at the sesshin, and it was so long ago, but now here it is, and I am thinking what an enormous task this is! During zazen this morning a thought crossed my mind: how deep and wide the precepts are and how much has been thought and spoken and taught about them over the generations. So how am I going to say anything useful in three short talks? It is an awesome and daunting assignment. But as is the case with life, one goes cheerfully on and does the best one can do in the circumstances.


Last night in our period of zazen, I asked all of you to do your best, to sit diligently and with a strong seriousness of purpose and with heart. Our practice isn’t really about doing it right or even about some technique about being alert or aware. Rather, it is about embracing and being embraced by our life, completely entering our life, completely immersing ourselves, occupying fully our lives. When you fully embrace your life, fully occupy the life that you have been given, it is very clear that your life isn’t just your life. The small life that we all think that we have – I was born here, I did such and such a thing, I married or did not marry – all of that does not cover the life that you are really living when you are living your life. If you will sit with full intensity, intimately being body and mind, you will come to recognize what your life actually is. It is just this and being just is. Really it is ungraspable and is all mixed up with the timelessness of time and the spacelessness of space and with the everywhere effective love which is the force that allows life to be life.


This is why it is natural to talk about precepts during sesshin, because it is only through immersion in our zazen practice that we can really appreciate the essence and meaning of the sixteen great Boddhisattva precepts. For Zen practitioners of our way, all of us are bodhisattvas in training. Bodhisattvas mean “enlightening beings”, those beings who work enthusiastically, naively, innocently for the enlightenment of all sentient beings, no matter how long it takes or the difficulty, cheerfully going forward with this impossible project, like the man of La Mancha in the impossible dream.


Bodhisattvas, as you also no doubt know, are inspired by the sudden flash of inspiration that bursts into their lives, which in Buddhism is called bodhicitta, the sudden flash of awakening, the opening of the door of enthusiasm and effort. With bodhicitta lighting up our lives, we make effort everyday to be in solidarity with and in communion with all sentient beings. All of our everyday activity is in solidarity and communion with all sentient beings, even brushing our teeth and going to the toilet. When we are brushing our teeth, we are cleaning all the teeth that ever were. That is our vision and understanding of a bodhisattva’s activity.



Traditionally it is said that there are three kinds of bodhisattvas: the kings, the boatmen, and the shepherds. Kings are the bodhisattvas who work for enlightenment so that after their own enlightenment they can help all sentient beings. The boatman bodhisattvas get all sentient beings into a boat, and together with them, ferry across the ocean of suffering and pain to the other side. The shepherd bodhisattvas first make sure that all the flock is safe, and then they go last. So that is our practice, the shepherd bodhisattva practice. It is the spirit of the shepherd, guiding others across, and then going last, that is the main spirit of the sixteen bodhisattva precepts, the spirit of humility and loving-kindness for others.


Our tradition of Soto Zen is actually very esoteric. At the same time, it is also very ordinary. On the one hand, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts are simply the way to live – an ordinary, common sense code of conduct, just the way we take care of each other and ourselves on a daily basis. Any person would understand that it is common sense not to lie, to steal, or to speak unkindly of others. The sixteen bodhisattva precepts are human common sense to be kind to others and to live a life that is sane and peaceful. But also in Soto Zen, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts are simultaneously understood as the deepest mystery of the Buddha’s heart. The sixteen bodhisattva precepts are understood as the ultimate, ineffable truth. In our tradition, the most profound of all esoteric rituals is the dharma transmission ceremony, which occurs after many, many years of study and training, in secret and private, in the abbot’s room, literally in the middle of the night. What is transmitted in that ceremony is the secret, ineffable essence of the sixteen bodhisattva precepts. At that time the disciple learns the secret truths which I will now tell you (since it is not really that secret): the life blood that runs through the veins of the Buddhas and ancestors is the lifeblood of sixteen bodhisattva precepts. This is the essence that flows through the bodies of these Buddhas, and is passed down, one to another, to the present. So the precepts are the actual blood lineage of the Buddhas.


Precepts transcend space and time and are beyond our capacity to understand them. We spend a lifetime, maybe even many lifetimes, and still we are unable to exhaust their wonderful meaning. And yet the mystery is that at the same time they are also a manifestation of ordinary acts of human kindness that light up our lives. That is the wonderful mystery of our tradition.

The sixteen bodhisattva precepts are more than rules to live by. They really are the essence of the practice. Our practice is not about meditation or insight. It is about conduct, how we live. How do we conduct ourselves on a moment-by-moment basis? How do we conduct ourselves in relation to our own precious life and to the lives of those around us?


There is a Zen saying, “Pick up a speck of dust and the whole world comes with it.” And that is how we approach our conduct. Each of our acts, even an act such as brushing our teeth or going to the toilet, has immense dimensions and immense repercussions. So we approach all the moments of our lives with respect and reverence, doing our best.

We ask, “How can we know what to do in the great scope of things? How could we ever know the effects of our actions?” But eventually we do know through our sitting practice, day by day, retreat by retreat. For those of you new to our practice, I am sorry to say it is not a short term arrangement. I wish I could say, “Weekend retreat, no problem. After that, everything will be okay.” It isn’t like that. Life isn’t like that. If there were something like that other than our practice, I would be there before you! I am always ready to find such a thing, but so far I haven’t seen anything. I haven’t seen any way other than effort over time.



When you do make effort over time, you find, little by little, there is a rock solid sense of confidence in our life as Buddha’s life, in Buddha’s life welling up through our life. We do know that good actions lead to good results and bad actions will bring bad results. We have an unshakeable confidence in this, and a commitment to doing good and letting go of bad actions of body, speech, and mind; because we know that they will bring suffering. We know that in this process the precepts are a good guide and inspiration.



The older you get, it is clearer to see how hard it is to know what is good and what is bad. When you are young, you know exactly what is good and bad! But we have a commitment to understand in the present moment what is good and to trust that things will work out at they need to. Sometimes, something that seemed to be good in the short run turns out to be an utter disaster. Sometimes, something that seemed utterly disastrous turns out to be good. (This is especially good to remember when you are thinking about politics.)


We know that certainly we will break the precepts. Despite our intentions, we won’t be able to do good all the time. We may break them in small or big ways, but our commitment is to recognize this, and to let go of our sense of righteousness of our conduct, and to try to do better. There is never any need in working with the precepts to feel guilty, worried, uptight, or upset. Each moment we ask what is the best way to conduct ourselves. Because we know how difficult it is to live the life of the bodhisattva precepts, we are tolerant of ourselves and especially tolerant of others. The sixteen bodhisattva precepts are not external rules. They are not something objective or outside of us. They are human words and concepts to describe the shape of Buddha’s mind, which is formless.



So we don’t ever look at someone else and see if they are breaking any precepts. From the standpoint of the sixteen bodhisattva precepts, this is the most outlandish idea. It is unthinkably ridiculous! Sometimes within ourselves we may feel that we are breaking precepts. But there is no condemning others. And there is no condemning oneself. Sometimes it may be necessary to be strict with yourself or maybe even with others, but the strictness is motivated by loving kindness. There isn’t any sense of righteousness. It is like the mother of a little child. The child may run into a busy street thinking how fun it is, but the mother becomes very fierce and strict. She doesn’t say, “Do you mind not going in the street?” She is grabbing the child, pulling the child back almost violently, not because she is angry and condemning the child, but because she understands from her wider view that this is a matter of real danger. We are always like little children doing things in acts of body, speech, and mind that are dangerous and harmful. So we have to be a child and also our own mother to help ourselves and others.


There are three levels of understanding or approaching the sixteen precepts. The first is the literal or everyday understanding of the precept. So, for instance, the first precept, “Don’t kill”, literally means don’t kill anything, not even a bug. This also means in the psychological sense, don’t diminish anyone, don’t take away anyone’s confidence. Be harmless. Have a spirit of nurturing life.



The second of the three levels is compassion. We recognize that the network of causality in this world is wide and subtle. Nothing is linear or one dimensional. So sometimes not to kill one thing is to kill something else. Not to break a precept this way is to break a precept that way. So we are stuck because of this network of causality. There is no way that we can be pure. For instance, we all have to eat in order to live, and we have to kill something in order to eat. If we decided to kill nothing, we would be killing ourselves. You may think if you don’t eat living creatures, such as fowl or flesh, that you aren’t killing anything, and that’s its okay to kill a vegetable because they don’t mind, but there is no production of vegetables without killing. A senior student who worked on the organic farm at our temple in Green Gulch once gave a talk about the precept of not killing. He described the things that he had inadvertently killed that morning, like crushing birds’ nests, while doing his work. So if you eat, you cannot escape breaking a precept.


So the motivation when we have to break precepts is always compassion. Some of you may think that we have too many rules: stand this way, move that way. But the purpose of the rules is to harmonize our activity together, so after we practice together, our lives flow together as if we were one person: sitting, standing, walking, eating. Kindness and compassion in the unity of our being together is the purpose of these rules. Since the purpose of the rules, as with the sixteen precepts, is to manifest kindness, it would be more important to be kind to one another than to enforce a precept. To practice perfect conduct without kindness is to break the precept of compassion. So it doesn’t matter how you do the practices, as long as your spirit is good. We allow people to break any of the rules out of kindness.


So compassion is the second level of the precepts: breaking the precepts in kindness for the purpose of kindness.

When you really get down to it, as close and intimate as a human beings can, you see that life and death are truly indivisible. Life and death is one word, one thing. There isn’t any life without death. Time passes. Every moment we die to that moment. There is no death at the end of a lifetime when we enter what is conventionally called death. We are entering timeless time, beyond time. We are entering the everlasting life which is never distant from us. This is the ultimate understanding of our life. This is the ultimate flavor of every moment of our conduct.


The third level of precepts is the mysterious, ineffable level: the koan level. In his commentary to the first great precept, Banjan says,

“Living and dying are not before or after. Just not taking life is manifesting the whole works. When we understand that life is the manifestation of the whole works, the words ‘to kill’ and ‘not to kill’ are used as they are understood in the world. When the three worlds are only mind, all things have true marks, and to kill and not to kill are beyond their literal meaning. This is what is meant by just one vehicle, or one indestructible, brilliant, precious precept. In all versions of the Mahayana precepts, not killing is found. Each instance of not to kill is not with reference to beginning and end, but is just not to kill. Not to kill is mind only. Not to kill is the three worlds. Not to kill is sentient beings. Not to kill is not to kill. Not to kill is one precept. Not to kill is ten precepts. This understanding in the meaning of maintaining Buddha’s precepts. Besides this, do not expect any other result.


That is the kind of understanding that is expressed on the ultimate level. What this means is to see that life and death are truly indivisible. Life and death is one thing. There isn’t any life without death. This means that time passes. Every moment we die to that moment. At the end of life, we do not enter what is conventionally called death; we enter time beyond time, the everlasting life. And ultimately this everlasting life is never distant from us. This is the ultimate understanding of our life. This is the ultimate flavor of every moment of our conduct.



At this ultimate level the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts disappear. Buddha’s life shining everywhere is all there is. On the ultimate level we are following the precepts without any sense of constraint. There is no sense of following precepts. We are easily and joyfully living our life as Buddha’s life, unimpeded, with kindness welling up.

Talking about levels is unfortunate because it sounds like these three levels are different things. When you say levels, it sounds like the low, medium, and high level, and the ultimate level is bigger and better than the other levels. We are all striving to get to the ultimate level, and it sounds like we are all just fooling around at the literal level to get there. But looking at it like that is not only incorrect, it is also terribly dangerous. There are not three levels. The literal level is the ultimate level. We just have different ways of talking about it. The only way that the ultimate level could manifest in the world in which we live is in the literal, everyday level. The ultimate level is here, not far away. If you think the ultimate level is something over and beyond the literal level, this does not mean you are seeing the ultimate level. It means you are stuck in your head. You are stuck in concepts. So, please don’t mistake this. It is a very important point.

So we never go beyond the literal, everyday level. There are no advanced students here. No one goes beyond the simple daily acts. No one goes beyond the literal level of non killing, non stealing, and non intoxication. We are always paying loving attention to all the moments of our lives. So it is not that the ultimate level is beyond the literal level, it simply helps us to see the depth involved in the literal everyday moments of our lives. Each moment of our conduct cuts through this world into the endless realms beyond.

Download file

Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.