Precepts – Introduction


[download the Precepts Summary]

Our bodhisattva precepts emerged originally, probably in China, as a compliment to the long and very specific list of monastic precepts generally called the pratimoksha. The Buddha realized how the monks conduct themselves was critical both to the progress of their meditation practice and to the practical survival of the monastic order. Since he wanted the monastics to focus completely on liberation the system was set up so that the monastics were completely dependent on the goodwill of the communities they lived near. Part of their daily routine was walk and alms round. And that alms round wasn’t just to receive food and support so they could practice all day. It in itself is a deep practice of equanimity and humility.

And as they went along living together in small communities and interacting with the lay people like this various problems emerged which the Buddha responded to with a gradually increasing list of rules until there were about 250 pratimoksha rules for monks and about 280 rules for women. And many of these rules were in support of a kind of ecosystem of practice and dependence on these lay communities. There was a major issue at one point for instance around some monks choosing to head for the richer parts of town to do their begging. And other monks feeling that this was both greedy in the obvious way but also greedy in the sense that it was denying the poorer people the opportunity to practice generosity – denying them the spiritual merit received from giving to the order – so the second group of monks started going exclusively to the poor parts of town. The Buddha got wind of that and say “no, both are improper, you should wander through the town without preference for rich or poor.”

And some of the rules were very simple and practical around the extremely simple lifestyle of the monastics. The possessions you can own: just three robes, a sitting cloth, a begging bowl, a little medicine. Not much. Both again a simple lifestyle oriented around practice but also a radical way to work with desire and materialism. The monastics were not allowed to handle money for instance. And there are many monastics, mostly in the southern Buddhist countries of Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka who live like this today. And many who don’t too.

And these early detailed rules weren’t just an efficiency thing to allow the monastic to meditate a lot either. One rule for example was no saving any food for later. You receive what you need for your one large meal a deal, eaten a bit before noon, and you eat it all, no saving for the next day. If it was just about maximizing time on the cushion maybe you would do a big long begging round and try to save some of it for later – no refrigeration of course so this would still be a limited solution – but no it seems like Buddha’s plan was to really include the inter-dependency of the monastics and the lay people as a daily practice. And thus in these early days the communities couldn’t be too large and they had to be somewhat distributed around the different communities of the Ganghetic plain in northeastern India where this all started.
When Buddhism was established in China between the 3rd and 5th centuries in the common era that system changed. Partly due to climate, partly culture and precedent of other Chinese religions. The monastics established more permanent temples and eventually monasteries. The monastics now needed to work, they needed warmer clothes. Rules that allowed monks and nuns to fit in gracefully in Indian society would make them weirdos in Confucian China. So the rules needed to be modified and supplemented.

But also the religious impulse and purpose of practice and the forms of practice also changed. And when the practice of precepts reaches China the religious meaning of precepts practice will change even more.

The Mahayana branch of Buddhism that came to China emphasizes compassion and service a bit more than the earlier Buddhisms, which are now represented by Theravada Buddhism. And most important for precept practice the Mahayana Buddhism, or Buddhisms really, emphasized flexibility – this idea of upaya, or skillful means, is strongly emphasized. If you participated in Edie’s study group around the Lotus Sutra you might remember this. And paired with this emphasis on being flexible in helping others we have the emphasis on understanding the ultimate empty nature of this whole show. If you participated in Talus’s study group on the Diamond Sutra you heard something about emptiness and the spirit by which it’s recommend that Bodhisattvas go around saving beings. More or less it says the way Boddhisatva’s go about saving beings needs to include letting go of any such idea of “saving” or “beings” – that these are very limited markers for an inexplicably rich and mysterious reality.

And so the great Buddhism minds in China realized they needed some guidelines that transcend the nitty gritty details about which kind of bed to sleep on, what the order of seniority in the sangha is, and what kinds of food are allowed. That they needed guidelines that encouraged the monastics to access this larger vision of the bodhisattva – the enlightening worker helping others by every means needed. Even in some cases when the means needed to help might look on the surface like violating the pratimoksha precepts.

And so they did what the great religions usually do – they put words into the founders mouth and wrote a sutra, called the Brahma’s Net Sutra, in which the Buddha explains that these new precepts – 10 major precepts and 48 minor precepts are in fact the ultimate expression of Buddha’s mind. The ten grave precepts in our own list of 16 are a slightly modified version of these 10 major precepts in this Chinese sutra.

What isn’t well known in the Japanese Zen circles is that the monastics in China received, and still receive, both a version of the pratimoksha precepts, and these additional list of 58 bodhisattva precepts. This was later to cause a little trouble for our Japanese founder, Dogen, when he went to China to study.

One of the wonderful and odd aspects of religion is that meaning and spiritual power bubbles up in all kinds of interesting ways. While we can see precepts as supports for practice, what happened in Japan is that precepts become not just a support but the very essence of Buddha’s practice. And even more importantly, precepts become the very essence of the lineage. And the lineage is more deeply important than I think we can ever quite understand from our cultural seat in this somewhat infantile materialistic society. There I mean materialistic not in the sense of acquiring junk, that’s a limited understanding of materialism. The deeper and more important way to understand materialism is that we think that only things we take for real are important. We start with what we can see and feel and we also invest reality in patterns and a simple kind of cause and effect too but our consensus reality world is pretty narrow and seems to have a result of supporting a kind of self-oriented world.

In Japan and China and also in our local Indian communities, there a feeling that this world is a little less substantial and the world of ancestors, the world of spirits, is much more real and important. That our ancestors are with us always. Watching over us, concerned about us, supporting us. And there for the logical way to live is not oriented around self- improvement or self-indulgence but around honoring our ancestors.

And thus in Japan we had a big shift in how precepts are understood. Starting with an 8th century monk named Saicho who is seen as the founder of the Tendai School and flowing into the 11th and 12th century founders of Japanese Zen, all of whom received precepts and initial monastic training in that same Tendai school, we make two big changes. First we drop the pratimoksha precepts altogether, and second we imbue the Bodhisattva precepts with a powerful religious spirit as a great vehicle for understanding the Dharma and honoring and holding our Buddhist ancestors. We say in our ceremonies to this day that the precepts are the blood vein of the ancestral lineage. Not just a support for being a better person and a wiser practitioner. Our Dharma Transmission ceremonies, one of our holiest and most important rituals, are all about two things: precepts and ancestors and they are two sides of the same coin. It’s not “follow the precepts to honor the ancestors”, it’s “following precepts is honoring, or even becoming, the ancestors.”

And so we have this feeling that precepts are very central. The center of our practice. As rules in some ways, sure, but with a much deeper spirit and meaning. When we bring precepts to mind, when we study precepts, when we give and receive precepts in ceremonies, we are deeply honoring and loving and being the ancestors.

And thus in all of the major Japanese Buddhist schools the monastics receive just the Bodhisattva precepts. In Tendai and some other Zen schools they receive the 58 precepts, and somehow in Soto Zen Dogen reformulated precepts to a list of 16. First he included the powerful and very ancient practice of taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as the first three, then three broad and universal guidelines around beneficial action are given as the next three, and finally the 10 grave precepts are a version of the 10 major precepts in the Brahma’s Net Sutra that the Chinese created taking which become the only precepts formally taken in monastic ordination.

Dogen really went off on his own with this. He claims in his writings that the 16 precepts were exactly what he received from his teacher in China, Rujing, but historians are really doubtful that Rujing would have done anything other than the standard system as his monastery was a public state-supported institution and precepts and ordinations are a big deal. You don’t tinker with them without high level approval.

And it was the same in Japan for the mainline Buddhist schools in Nara and the Tendai school. Saicho had to petition the emperor for permission to start doing ordinations with the 58 bodhisattva precepts and it took many years before it was approved.

The Dogen just created his own system and went off to the mountains to start his own school was actually a pretty radical thing to do and he must have wondered if it would last very long. But he had seven powerful disciples who all started temples and a 2nd generation disciple, Keizan, used precepts in innovative ways to serve ordinary lay people – they would go to villages and do lay ordinations for the whole village, in many cases the documents the villagers received were their own exposure to written language one scholar suggests, so very powerful. And Soto Zen priests even used precept ordinations to pacify troubled kami – spirits of different places who were causing trouble.

So in our lineage the precepts are both a very powerful lineage-ritual-empowerment matrix and a list of guidelines for behavior.

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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2 Responses to Precepts – Introduction

  1. Suzane Wynne says:

    The details of this talk answered many questions that have been formulating over many months. Thanks for composing and posting it.

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