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Zen Precepts (Talk 3 of 3)

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

Norman discusses his relationship with his teacher, Sojun Weitsman. The remaining thirteen precepts are discussed: the three bodhisattva precepts, which are called the three pure precepts, and the ten grave precepts.

Zen Precepts Talk Three

(Transcribed and Abridged by Barbara Byrum)

Before leaving for this retreat, I knew that I would be gone for a week, so I decided to look through my mail. There was a newsletter from the Berkeley Zen Center that had in it a talk by my teacher Sojun Weitzman, and even though I just glanced at it, it seemed so wonderful that I threw it in my briefcase and brought it with me. Since his talk is brief and since it is รก propos of what I was speaking about yesterday, taking refuge in the Triple Treasure, I thought I would read it to you today.

Those of you who know me well know that I rarely speak about my teacher, and I don’t know why that is because I think of him often. I remember when I first met him, I looked up the Berkeley Zen Center in the phone book, and I went there and saw him raking leaves in front of the building. I thought he was the gardener, and I said to him, “Who is the roshi here?” He said, “There is no roshi, just a priest.” Only later I realized that he was the priest. When thinking about this, I realized that is why I really don’t like the term “roshi”, and I don’t use the term when talking about myself, because I don’t consider myself a roshi. I am just a priest. There have been meetings of Western dharma teachers to consider terms like roshi, and it turns out that I’m qualified: I just want you to know! Here are the qualifications according to American Soto Zen: you have to be over fifty years old, which I am; you have to have received dharma transmission and been a fully ordained priest for ten years, which I have done; you have to have trained students and trained a student as head monk, which I have also done. So I could be a roshi, but I am not; I am just a priest. The funny thing is that now my teacher uses the term roshi. But I figure that there are already too many roshis out there. I just call my teacher “Mel”, which is the name his parents gave him.

When I was looking for him, I wasn’t looking for a teacher; I was looking to practice on my own. I could never see the point of having a teacher. As my father told me when I was about twelve until the day he died, “You’re too stubborn to learn anything from anyone,” which I think is actually true. My teacher didn’t really teach me anything. We just practiced side by side for a number of years, and for awhile we lived together in the Berkeley Zen Center. I was young in those days and had a lot of suffering in my life, and I remember that one time I was really in deep waters of suffering. I didn’t have a job and didn’t have anywhere to live, and he took me in and let me live in his house. He didn’t bother me or talk to me or console me. We sat Zazen together every day. He didn’t even in those days conduct dokusan. We hardly ever spoke except that once in awhile we would have lunch together under an old plum tree. He had a big garden in the back. I can remember the plum blossoms falling down like snow. We would eat in silence, so it is true that he never taught me anything, which was, I think, exactly what I needed. So, I always say that he never taught me anything.

A few years ago he gave me a rakasu. On the back of it he wrote, “I have nothing to give you but my Zen spirit.” And I did receive from him my Zen spirit. His spirit is that of everyday Zen, just regular, American, everyday life Zen. I think he is most admirable for his strong common sense, faith, stability, and steadfastness, just to do the practice no matter what.

So this is all an introduction to this wonderful talk of his. You will hear in this talk all the wonderful qualities I have been speaking about: solid, ordinary, common sense, everyday Zen. This lecture was given January 30, 1995:

Practice of teacher and student must be built on trust, but the main thing is that the student should be able to trust himself or herself. The purpose of having a teacher is to help the student become self reliant. I remember Suzuki Roshi saying, “When the student comes, the teacher should turn the student out. You don’t bring the student in and make some kind of home for her. The student must find her own way. But a good teacher also matures the student. It depends on the circumstances. It is like dealing with a child. You nurture the child but you also let the child be a little stretched. The child is out there on the edge, reaching how to stand up, learning how to walk, how to climb, how to take care of himself. The teacher’s aim is to help the student stand up on their own. Sometimes the student has to lean on the teacher, which is okay, but only for awhile. Like with children, a mother goes to the playground with her child, and the child goes off to play with the other kids. At some point the child remembers, ‘Hey, where’s my Mom?’ The child goes back to check in with Mom, who says, ‘Everything’s fine,’ and so the child goes out to play again. The child is always checking in, ‘Where’s my Mom?’ It is sometimes like that with student and teacher.”

My relationship with Suzuki Roshi was like that. I would check in with him. I would bring him a problem. We would sit down and look at the problem. Then he would turn it into a koan for me, not by saying that this is your koan, but making me think about it in a different way, and then he would say to me, “I’m sorry. You came to me with a problem, and I’ve given you another problem.” And we would laugh. I would go away and practice with my koan and then I’d come back. Back and forth. I had to work hard on my own. This coming and going was the way of developing my practice and my relationship with him. Sometimes I did practice very close with him. Sometimes we worked together for a period of time. The whole point was to enable me to know how to have my own practice and gain my own self reliance. Even if something happened to my teacher, I would be able to stand on my own.

Some students rely heavily on the teacher. They don’t rely so much on the dharma, and they don’t rely so much on the sangham. Some people rely a lot on the dharma, but they don’t rely so much on the teacher and they don’t rely so much on the sangham. Some people are very social, and they rely a lot on the sangham, but they don’t care so much for the dharma, and as for the teacher, it is okay that he’s there. So you have these three types. A well rounded student includes all three. So a teacher is one leg. Suddenly if your teacher turns out to be a false teacher, you may be crushed, but you still have your own practice, which is practice of the dharma and practice with the sangham. You can always find another teacher. Or, you can practice on your own until you find another teacher, so you aren’t completely thrown. But if you rely only on a teacher, when the teacher is no longer there, you have nothing. You can always take refuge in the sangham when there is no teacher. You can always study and take refuge in the dharma when there is no teacher. According to legend, when Shakyamuni Buddha was dying, Ananda asked him, “Who is going to take your place?” And Shakyamuni Buddha said, “The dharma and the sangha will take my place. Just follow the path with diligence.”

Teachers appear, and they are important. They are a focal point and more, but no matter who the teacher is, he is still a student. There is a place called “a place beyond learning”, but nobody has arrived there yet. So don’t worry about it. If your teacher says, “I have come to the place beyond learning,” you should probably find another teacher. It’s important to be able to see the teacher’s faults as well as the teacher’s ability. And if you feel that the teacher has ability, then you can weigh whether or not you can practice with that teacher, and not ignore his faults, but your eyes should always be open, and you should always know the difference between the teacher’s abilities and the teacher’s faults or problems. Because the teacher, whoever that person is, has both. Like in choosing a mate we say, “love is blind”. You see these wonderful qualities that you like about this person. At the same time, you know there are other qualities that you are not sure about. But because the qualities you like bring you together, you tend to ignore the others. Later on these other problems that make you uncomfortable begin to emerge. So you have to have your eyes open to both sides. And when you get together with someone, it is important to reflect, “Well, what are the faults of this person that I am going to have to deal with?”

When we accept something good, the other side is already there. Happiness and suffering go together. So what kind of discomfort am I willing to accept? With your teacher it’s the same, so you should know these are the teacher’s faults, they are not his attributes. We tend to trust someone when they easily acknowledge their faults. If you know your teacher thoroughly, you should know what to accept and how to help him or her. It’s not just one way, that the teacher is helping the student. The student is also helping the teacher. When the relationship is there, it goes both ways. Sometimes the student is the teacher, and the teacher is the student. If the teacher never allows the student to be the teacher, that’s a kind of a dominating role. Some people like to take a dominating role, and some people like to be dominated. And some people like to be treated like children. But if the teacher keeps the student always in an adolescent role, then she is not really doing the student a favor. If you feel that your teacher is keeping you in an adolescent role, you should question that, because the teacher should keep moving toward maturing the student, helping the student to become an adult.

Uchiyama Roshi says, “The meaning of bodhisattva is adult.” The teacher would like the students to be bodhisattivas, adults acting in responsible ways, truly grown up. Sometimes the teacher is not completely grown up himself, and the students have to help the teacher to grow. It goes both ways; however, even when the roles are reversed, the teacher is the teacher and the student is the student, and the teacher and student are not peers. If you are the abbot, you have to be able to listen to the newest student. Sometimes when you have a monastic situation and a staff of experienced people, the staff tends to be a closed circle. They just listen to each other, while there is this whole group of people who are not being heard or acknowledged. So it is important to hear everyone. Sometimes the newest student can see something which everyone else misses.

When Joshu at eighty years old went out on pilgrimage, he said, “Even if I meet a little girl of seven years old who knows the dharma better than I do, I’ll listen to her.”

And that’s the end of the talk. Isn’t it wonderful? It is just what I would say! I thought that there wasn’t any time to read this, but I thought if I saved it for later, surely I would forget. However, now we have to get back to the main job. We have thirteen precepts!

So here we go: thirteen bodhisattva precepts. We did the first three, “I take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha,” and now we have the next three bodhisattva precepts, which are called the three pure precepts. There are many ways of stating these precepts, but I like to use the ancient formula from earliest Buddhism: to avoid evil, to do good, and to benefit beings. The three pure precepts.

To do evil, or the English word “unwholesomeness”, is closest to the Pali or Sanskrit word. This precept means that we will practice a wise restraint. It’s the commitment to practice restraint in our lives. It means to be calm and to recognize that our life is being where we are where we are. That’s our life. We can’t be somewhere else when we are here, and it can’t be later when it is now. So we just practice a wise restraint, being satisfied with what is in front of us. We don’t try to grab something extra for ourselves all the time. We have wise restraint. We have precepts, common sense rules to follow, and their purpose is to give us a life of enjoyment and contentment so that we are not always reaching past what we are, where we are. It’s like when you practice walking meditation outdoors; you look at what is in front of you. If you see something beautiful in front of you like a leaf, or sunlight on the grass, you really appreciate that. You don’t look around. Whatever is ahead, you appreciate it. Another time you can look all around, but in the practice of the walking meditation, you just look straight ahead. It is like a wise restraint: be with what is in front of us, not reaching for something extra.

The second precept is to do good. This is the opposite of the first one. This means that without stint, without holding back, we will practice all the positive virtues to benefit others. All the positive practices of the dharma: meditation practice, giving practice, loving kindness practice, energy, patience, wisdom, devotion, helping, studying, and so on. Everything that is wholesome and positive we will do, just as we will restrain ourselves from doing that which is unwholesome.

The third pure precept is to benefit all beings. The original statement of this precept from the oldest schools of Buddhism was not to benefit all beings, but rather to purify the mind; avoid evil, do good, and purify the mind. But this was changed in Mahayana Buddhism to benefit all beings. It is an interesting teaching in itself because the understanding in Mahayana Buddhism is that to purify the mind and to benefit all beings are exactly the same thing. All beings are the mind. And the mind is all beings. That is the fundamental Mahayana understanding. That is the mystery that we endeavor to appreciate through our sitting practice. So when we say benefit others, we do not mean others as “others”, it means just to be aware, to be kind to ourselves and others equally, to practice loving kindness with ourselves and others equally. Self and other is not really different. When we really understand finally who we are, and really understand finally who others are, then we know this.

So this is the spirit, the attitude with which we practice the first two precepts: wise restraint and to benefit others. Not uptight restraint, not uptight doing good, but free, easy, relaxed doing good. That following these precepts are one and not following these precepts are one.

I said yesterday that the sixteen bodhisattva precepts really come down to one precept: take refuge in Buddha. And the one precept opens up into three precepts: take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And when we ask what does that mean, it means practice the three pure precepts: to avoid evil, to do good, and to benefit all beings. That’s what taking refuge in the Triple Treasure means. And then how do we do good, avoid evil, and benefit all beings, what does that mean, what does that look like? The ten grave precepts are a way of living and understanding the three pure precepts.

First, we don’t kill anything. We recognize the pure and holy ultimate nature of all of life, and we respect it in ourselves and all around us. Second, we don’t steal anything. When we practice, gratitude arises in us, and we make gratitude into a practice, recognizing that everything we have, down to the miracle of being a body and mind, is a gift. And we never take anything unless we know that it is a gift.

We don’t misuse sexuality or sensuality. We enjoy the pleasure of being embodied respectfully, without hurting anyone, and without greed. When pleasure comes into our lives, someone gives us lunch and it is good, we enjoy that and we are grateful for it. When there is no sexual pleasure or other sensual pleasure, then we enjoy its absence.

We don’t lie. We speak truth as far as we can, not indiscriminately, but always with kindness, thoughtfully, not frivolously, and we recognize the awesome power of our words.

We don’t intoxicate ourselves or others. This means that we practice acceptance of our condition. We don’t try to change it. If we are sick, we take medicine, but even then our spirit is to accept our condition. If you are sick and want to get well, still while you are sick, then you accept your being sick. That is the way to get well. If you are not sick, you still have to accept your condition. Practice is transformation, radical inner transformation. Radical transformation starts with radical acceptance. That is what is meant not to intoxicate yourself. Not to intoxicate others is a special precept of priests, and we are all priests of something; we are priests of what we believe in, of what we think is wonderful and important. This means don’t try to indoctrinate someone with your beautiful and wonderful doctrine. Your doctrine may be great, but don’t try to entice someone by getting them drunk with your doctrine. Don’t try to help them find the true way which you understand and they don’t. Just love them and respond to them, but don’t try to fix them and help them out with your profound understanding of how things are.

We don’t slander others and dwell on others’ faults, either in our minds or in our speech. Everyone, including teachers, has their faults, but everyone also has their good points. We don’t dwell on their faults, but we don’t ignore them either.

We don’t praise ourselves at the expense of others. In other words, we don’t raise ourselves up over others in our mind or in our speech. Also, we don’t make ourselves lower than others in our mind or speech. To lower ourselves is just another way of raising ourselves. It seems strange, but it is true. “You think you are terrible and lazy and stupid? That’s nothing! Look how terrible and stupid and lazy I am! Much worse than you!” One upmanship.

We are not possessive of anything, not even the dharma. We understand that it is not possible to possess anything, even our own body, even our own mind, certainly our own body or mind or our brilliant thoughts. Whatever we think we have, we don’t really have it. So naturally we practice generosity.

We don’t harbor ill will. When anger comes, we recognize anger and respect the power of anger, we study the conditions that give rise to it, we try to transform and be patient with anger. But we don’t indulge in anger. We don’t blame ourselves, we don’t blame others, we just pay close attention to anger when it arises, and we let it go.

And finally, we don’t abuse the Three Treasures, which takes us back full circle to the beginning. We respect the Buddha, we unfold the dharma through the story of our lives, and we nourish the sangha by taking responsibility for it in whatever way that we can.

Done! I am so proud of myself! More could be said. I just listed the precepts. Many other depths will be found in your study of the precepts. It is a lifetime’s study. It is inexhaustible. So, the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are zazen. Zazen is every moment of our lives, one step up, one step following another.

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