Living within the Buddhist Precepts

Last week we talked about the Buddhist precepts, the ethical guidelines of how to live in harmony with one another and this great earth, as being a whole and complete practice unto themselves. In my tradition, the precepts are given and received as an entryway into practice, where we commit to do our best to engage and live with these guidelines. At each nodal point along the Zen path, the precepts are again given, received, and renewed. Upon our passing from this world, they are conferred to us after our death. What might seem like a simple set of rules common to many traditions — to do good, to do good for others, not to kill, steal ,and lie — become less simple when we take them up in everyday life. Our vow is to sincerely engage and become intimate with them, for it is impossible to keep them perfectly.

There are many themes to unfold in the study of the precepts, but I want to bring out this very profound aspect unique to Buddhist ethics that points to the reliance on awakened mind functioning among complex causes and conditions of the world. The precept we talked about this week is the one that says, “Do not steal — honor the gift not yet given.”  Its commentary from Bodhidharma and Dogen reads: “In the realm of the unattainable Dharma, holding no thought of gain is the precept of not stealing. The self and the things of the world are just as they are; the mind and its object are one. The gateway to enlightenment stands open wide.”

This commentary is asking us to reflect on the mind that steals, that is, the mind that sees objects separate from self, and moves from a sense of lack. Although we may not be robbing banks, we all partake of this deluded mind — when we want to steal some time, some credit for something we didn’t do, something perhaps that wasn’t freely given to us, or so called “petty theft” of small objects from the workplace. Practicing this precept is not about starting a criminal investigation, but simply honestly noticing our deep sense of lack and opening up to the awakened original mind’s natural contentedness and appreciation for the abundance of what is already given — air, food, friendship, a flower, the sun, the rain. Zazen facilitates keeping these precepts by simply sitting with things as they are, not pushing, pulling, stealing or attacking. We must bring compassion to the stealing mind and once noticed, let go of self vs. other, open the awareness to the truth that nothing can really be gained, nothing really lost — and move into action from that place, uniquely meeting the circumstances that are before us.

The precepts are not only a state of mind, but also an activity in the world. Below is one translation I like (borrowed with permission from Clouds in Water Zen Center) that uses language showing precept activity in the world. Rather than rules that punish and are clouded by guilt and self-condemnation, this way of precepts is about practicing with joy, in a way that we are most true to our own heart.

Palms together,


Three Collective Pure Precepts

With purity of heart, I vow to do no harm.
With purity of heart, I vow to do good.
With purity of heart, I vow to free all  beings.

Ten Momentous Prohibitory Precepts

1.  Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is. I take up the way of non-killing.

2. Being satisfied with what I have. I take up the way of  non-stealing.

3.  Encountering all creations with respect and dignity. I take up the way of not misusing sexuality.

4.  Listening to the speaking from the heart. I take up the way of not speaking falsely.

5.  Cultivating a mind that see clearly. I take up the way of not being deluded and not giving or taking intoxicants.

6.  Unconditionally accepting what each moment has to offer. I take up the way of not talking about others errors or faults.

7.  Speaking what I perceive to be the truth without guilt or blame.   take up the way of not elevating oneself and blaming others.

8.  Using all the ingredients of my life. I take up the way of not being stingy and not attaching to anything, even the truth.

9.  Transforming suffering into wisdom. I take up the way of not indulging in anger.

10. Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking. I take up the way of not thinking ill of the three treasures (Buddha, dharma, sangha).