Precepts – Closing Talk


I spoke a bit about the precepts as an inner work with mind and heart as well as external work with how we behave in the world. I think what I said was close to these notes. -Nomon

The root of our precepts practice is an inquiry into how it goes for us. A looking into patterns, trigger, and habits. A looking into what happens as we meet the world, moment after moment. A feeling into connections: some simple, some complex. All of it fluid and changing. As Suzuki Roshi said it’s always “not always so.”

Mindfulness in it’s basic form as remembering – remembering – is a key root. To develop this quality of mind, the possibility of snapping out of what we’re hooked into and remembering – oh yeah – we can develop this. Remembering that there is a process unfolding. A process of rich, interconnected causes leading to all kinds of conditions. Seeing how we weave together these patters and experiences and call it “me.”

We hold ourselves as fixed beings. Me. Mine. Personality. What I like. What I don’t lie. What I am like. What I am not like. Who I am. And we take our experience so personally. Everyone around us should pay attention to me. They should act in a way I like, and if they don’t I’m going to act out in some way.

So precepts can help us see by holding up some mirrors. A mirror in front of how we speak. A mirror in front of how we are generous or stingy. A mirror in front of our sexuality. How do we act and what is that reflecting inside us. What are we? Who are we? Precepts practice isn’t just trying to straighten up, it’s looking inside, it’s a deep investigation.

These teachings of the precepts are not a way to find all of the flaws in our me-ness and push us into trying harder to be some other me. They are encouragement to drop this over-simplication, this narrowing of the richness of the infinite possibilities that are a life; to stop narrowing that into such a small pattern of personality. So easily we imprison ourself with the idea of who we are.

Seeing precepts as practice instead of rules isn’t a free pass either. Precepts are about responsibility. They go deeper than rules to taking full responsibility for how we manage our own mind. So that we can be responsible for what comes out of this mouth that we are the temporary custodian of. So that we can take responsibility for what this body we are temporarily responsible for does in the world. And even for how this mind we are temporarily in charge of operates. We can’t control the emergence of thoughts into the mind but we sure can take responsibility for caring for our mind wisely.

To do this precepts practice skillfully and with freedom we need to look at it differently from “me.” To notice was arise as what arises. To be curious about it, to be interested, to wonder about the causes that are in play. But to soften around the idea that it’s me and it’s inevitable, it’s just how it goes with me, I’m that kind of person. So quickly we take things personally at so many levels.

The invitation of this practice is be willing to be with everything fully. To notice the thoughts that arise moment by moment, even the fleeting ones. So many are negative, difficult, challenge to us, so many are threatening to some idea we may have about who we are and what kind of person we are. The judgmental thoughts, the angry thoughts. Sometimes so brief and fleeting. We want to drown them out with our narrative chatter, with our entertainments and distractions. But the invitation here is to enter them fully. So turn towards everything and see it for what it is. To stop distracting ourselves. To put ourselves in situations – like zazen in community – where there is support, where there is the possibility of being fully with the mind as it is. This is not always so fun. It can be very discouraging.

But. And this is an important but. As we train we can also see the space between the thoughts and impulses too, the space around them. We can see how fleeting and unsubstantial they are if we don’t push them away or pull them towards us. We can see how they are like smoke or a mirage. We can soften around them so radically that they have no hold. And this is powerful, this is a great gift for us and the world. And we never can learn this unless we are willing to steep in these mental objects, unless we are willing to really be without self in our self. To feel the pain and the joy fully. To stop trying to hold our life at arms length. To just be ourself. Being ourself we find something broader and richer and beyond knowing. Or as Dogen put it to study the self is to forget the self. Is to just be with the unfolding.

Sometimes these teachings of non-self can also confuse us. There is a balance here. It’s not all just ahhhh. Just being. We are in the soup, in the thick of the action. We have to make choices. Sometimes simple will power helps. We can show up. We can be kind. We act from that kindness. We can love. We can drop the barriers. We can take care of ourself and others in the best way we can. We can make strong effort. Strong, strong effort. And it can be effort in freedom, effort without strain. But effort none the less. This is a dynamic path.

Other times non-self is so liberating. “Anger is arising” is so much more spacious and free than “it pisses me off when you do that.” We can train our mind to see anger as anger, thought and thought, emotion as emotion. We can remember – mindfulness training again – we can remember to turn towards all that arises with patience and curiosity. We can feel the space around it. We can see how powerful it is an also how insubstantial it is at the exact same time. And this isn’t an idea, it can only be learned experientially. It can be felt. Even in the middle of the hottest anger is the coolness of peace. It’s right there.

And we can wonder about causes and conditions. This is the Buddha’s teaching about karma. If it’s not “me” what is it? What can be changed? Well we can take a step back and look at earlier choices, and ways we’ve influenced ourself and been influenced. What’s coming together now in this moment. Maybe it’s too late this time. We are just caught, we are just update, we are lashing out. But after we lash out and apologize we can reflect. The Buddha spoke about this very directly. Reflect on what happened, don’t assume you know what leads to what, look and see, from experience. Maybe as an example you’re choosing to hang out with people it’s better you didn’t spend so much time with anymore. One thing leads to another. When did I take the fork in the road that lead me here? Can I remember next time?

And if we can train the mind and heart – and remember the Chinese character we pronounce “shin” in our sutras means mind and heart together – if we we can train the heart-mind, the mind-heart to be with anger as anger. To make the heart big enough to just be with it, it’s so much more possible not to lash out, not to use sharp words, not to be righteous and self centered. We aren’t angry. There is anger. There it is. We know it, we feel it, and we can be skillful while it’s strong.

The 10 grave precepts are an elucidation of the three pure precepts. The wording for these three pure precepts I like best is the first I learned:
1) do all action that increases awareness
2) refrain from all action that increases suffering
3) live for and with all beings
I love this translation but it turns out to be a bit of a re-write. The first pure precept is a little confusing in Chinese, it means more or less “hold all precepts with restraint precept” so the first pure precept is to practice all of the precepts. In Reb Anderson’s book Being Upright he has a whole discussion about this and the translation “Embrace and sustain regulation and ceremonies” which I find a little confusing. It seems to mean the precept of practicing the precepts. The second pure precept is more clearly to do all good. And the third is clearly to include all beings in the practice of precepts.

I looked up the Chinese characters today thinking it would be a simple thing like “do good, no evil, for all” but of course it’s more complicated. Never doubt that this is a human enterprise. We make things complicated.

Anyway this whole topic of precepts and conduct is collectively know as sila in Sanskrit. And there is an old teaching that there are just three key ingredients in the practice: sila, samadhi, and prajña. Sila is precepts – pay attention to how it goes for us and what actions of body speech and mind result, samadhi is attention and concentration – we can’t pay attention with any clarity to how we’re acting much less what drives our action if the mind isn’t settled and clear at least somewhat – and lastly prajña is wisdom – insight, reflection, discernment. And in Buddhism wisdom is not knowledge like stuff you know, but an understanding of process. A clarity of seeing. Sila, Samadhia, Prajña. Maybe a good translation for us is: Precepts, Clear Concentration, Wise Seeing.

This practice, this wiliness to investigate things as there are and the conduct of body, speech and mind that results is rich and rewarding and also challenging and frustrating. there are times we just want to goof off. We just want to distract ourselves. And sometimes we need to rest and take another run at it. with awareness. When we are choosing not to face our experience to know that we are avoiding is wisdom. To not know this is delusion.

And it takes so much humility doesn’t it. We will be wrong a lot. If we’re willing to poke at our life with these probes of awareness and investigation we will stir stuff up in ourselves and others. We will make mistakes. We will offend people. We will misstep. We will take the wrong road. But how will we ever find the right road if we aren’t willing to step onto the wrong road and feel its wrong-ness? And in the end we have no choice but to soften around “me” and as we soften there is freedom. It’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to be right. There’s no one in the middle of this who has to be the right one or be ashamed of being the wrong one.

We have to be able to forgive ourselves and others. It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility.

Here’s a good phrase adapted from early Buddhist teachings – you can bring this up when you feel tight and upset: “This is not me, I am not this, all things come and go.” We are in the middle of the play and we have some influence but we don’t get to write the script. It’s a vast play anyway, bigger than we can understand.

So instead of seeing the precepts violations and missteps as screw ups or failures we can see them as clues, as sign posts, as encouragement. Encouragement to investigate, to keep going, to take another run at it. And when things seem to go right and there is harmony it’s a loss to just sigh and feel relieved. I wonder what’s going on now? To be fully present through thick and thin.

And in the end somehow there is so much joy. In the middle of pain. in the middle of confusion. We can laugh a little. We can smile at our universal human silliness even when it turns tragic. The experienced practitioners you meet have a kind of lightness to them. It’s not denial, there is a deep feeling of sorrow and sadness. Joyful tears, and tearful joy. May we all appreciate this winding path and pay attention to our precepts practice.

There’s a Zen story about this central point of remembering that we can pay attention to this process and not be caught by the self:

Zuigan Calls Himself “Master”

The Koan:

        Every day Zuigan used to call out to himself, “Master!” and would answer, “Yes!”  Then he would tell himself, “Be totally awake!  Be totally awake!” and he would answer himself, “Yes! Yes!”  Then he would say to himself, “Don’t be deceived by others, any day or any time!” and he would again answer himself, “No! No!”

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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