1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

The (Missing) Precepts in Western Buddhism

By April 8, 2012

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When I first read this article by Charles Prebish on Precepts practice in Western Buddhism, I thought he was arguing that we must somehow re-invent the Precepts to make them relevant in the West. It turns out that wasn't exactly what he meant to say.

In a comment elsewhere, he said "we need new commentaries which explain how the existing precepts can be applied to modern circumstances in the West. With changing times, and new issues in ethics (such as bio-ethical issues not considered in ancient times) coming to the forefront, we simply need to consider how we can manifest the existing precepts in a new context."

This is needed, he said, because "I have been visiting North American Buddhist centers for more than forty years, and alas, in many of them, all I hear is talk about meditation, and of course its practice. Sometimes precepts are never even mentioned." I'm sure Professor Prebish is right about that.

However, I think the context he is talking about already exists. I'm mostly familiar with western Zen literature, but I recommend three books -- The Mind of Clover by Robert Aitken Roshi; The Heart of Being by John Daido Loori Roshi; and Being Upright by Reb Andersen Roshi. All very good.

There are also some good dharma talks on the Web, such as this talk on the Precepts and the Environment by Daido Roshi. My point is that teachers already have given us plenty of context for practicing the Precepts in  a way that takes in 21st century issues. And I'm sure that's true in other traditions as well; I'm bringing up Zen because that's what I know best.

The real problem  is that Buddhist centers in the West often do a hit-and-miss job of teaching. I can think of several reasons for this.

First, dharma centers are too few and far between for many of us, so we don't get to attend teachings regularly. That's probably the biggest problem.

Second, meditation probably is the primary "draw" for many centers, or the most common reason people first walk in the door.  It takes a skilled teacher to awaken interest in other aspects of practice. However ...

I suspect some people have been shoved into (or promoted themselves into) teaching positions before they were ready.

It's not just Precepts; A focus on meditation and mindfulness alone leaves out, well, dharma. Meditation/mindfulness outside of the context of the rest of the Buddha's teaching isn't really Buddhism at all.

It's a particular shame about the Precepts, though, because I think the Buddhist approach to morality would be a great gift to the West, if it's ever taught properly.

Comments
April 9, 2012 at 2:08 am
(1) Petteri Sulonen says:

Hear hear.

I also think the Precepts are particularly dangerous waters in our cultural context. We’re so heavily burdened by the Abrahamic thou shalts and thou shalt nots that it’s very difficult to shake that approach to them. I’ve also noticed a tendency to take off on “purity trips” when working with the precepts, which just sort of turns them on their head.

I don’t even know if what we need is more writing; it could very easily end up with yet more thou shalts and thou shalt nots. “The precept of not killing means thou shalt become vegan and give up driving.” That sort of thing. We do need good teaching though, on how to live them and what they mean. And other things, naturally.

April 9, 2012 at 9:44 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

I don’t even know if what we need is more writing; it could very easily end up with yet more thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

Well, as I said, the context already exists that clearly points away from understanding precepts as commandments. Nobody needs to reinvent the wheel on that score.

April 9, 2012 at 10:01 am
(3) Lee says:

after years of meditating a monk once asked me “How about trying to keep the precepts?” I defended myself saying “I’ve always been a good person. I don’t lie, cheat or steal… ” I noticed what I later told her was a smirk on her face. She said… “How about doing me a favor and each day read the 10 precepts. Do this for 6 months.” Being serious about training I said I would do that. I lived far from any group and my only help was the ability to call into the monastary where different monks ‘on duty’ talk with me. After a few months I called into the monastary one morning and the very monk who had asked me to read the precepts answered the phone. I told her “Rev. Kodo I’ve been reading the precepts every day and something has happened. I’ve learned I keep none of them.” For me what happened (and continues to happen) is that although I was a pretty moral, ethical person (capable of justifying most any action :) …. as i read the precepts daily and they began to reverberate in my mind they affected my conversations … in the middle of a sentence i’d find i was misleading or not being totally honest and a little ‘niggle’ would go off … or other actions became clearer… the greed began to show through … and the willingness to try to do better grew .. I would challenge any true trainee to read the 10 precepts each day and let them digest within … they are not about thou shalt not … they are about gaining an understanding of what your actions really create…and the knowledge that you can never really keep them perfectly … at least for me that’s been so far my practice.

April 9, 2012 at 10:16 am
(4) Mila says:

As a seemingly separate human being, it is impossible to perfectly maintain the precepts: continuously we are transgressing each others’ boundaries, in conscious & unconscious, intentional & accidental, pleasant & unpleasant ways.

In Reality, it’s impossible to the break the precepts, since there is no separate “me” or separate “others” to be found, when we look deeply … all is flow and interbeing …

April 9, 2012 at 4:07 pm
(5) Hein says:

Just need to add my voice to this topic.
How can we expect to live a spiritual and civilised if do not live by some ‘guidance’. In the Buddhist context that should be the Three Jewels and (at least) the Five Precepts.
I can relate to Lee’s experience of he Precepts. Teaching on the Precepts are an important part of the dharma. But the practice of the Precepts perhaps even more important. In our group we read weekly from ‘The Heart of Being’ and at the beginning of each meditation also session chant take vows to uphold the Five Precepts.
That is not enough. I am going to propose we also read by ourselves the Five Precepts.

April 10, 2012 at 10:23 am
(6) gary gach says:

Has anyone seen the version Thich Nhat Hanh’s community has drawn up? Here’s the latest iteration : http://bit.ly/HYsjC0 . They fulfill what Chuck Prebish, for one, calls for, as Barbara cites. Shalt Nots become positive. “Mindfulness trainings” is actually a literal translation of one of the traditional phrases for “precepts.” I don’t wish to say too much more, as — res ipsa loquitor — they speak for themselves, & perhaps to you too. Mindfulness without mindfulness trainings may be but a hobby ; if the stars were to go out, and the seas dry up, these trainings might still remain imperishable. Please see for yourself.

_(())_
lotus

April 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

Gary — your link didn’t work for me, but maybe this one will do –

http://www.oldpathsangha.org/resources/Five.Wonderful.Mindfulness.Trainings.Commentary.pdf

I have read similar commentaries by Thay elsewhere. Clearly he does not call for people to ignore the Precepts in favor of mindfulness, but rather work with the Precepts in the context of mindfulness training. So here is another approach to the Precepts that westerners can use. We don’t need more commentaries; we need more comprehensive teaching.

April 11, 2012 at 2:52 am
(8) Ratana says:

Basically only the 5 or 8 precepts that are taken up by lay-followers at the occasion of upósatha (full moon days), the day of cremation of a family member, or other special days are meant for the laity.
The full sets of precepts of the orthodox vinaya schools are not for you. They’re not your business.
Of course, everything muddled up as soon as semi-monastic communities such as the zen and Pure land sprang up. Now your poor heads are split in seven. Am I, visitor of a meditation or Dharma center obliged to follow rules? (other than the normal rules of politeness and restraint) No. Exception made for semi-monastics in non-vinaya schools.

April 11, 2012 at 7:14 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

Basically only the 5 or 8 precepts that are taken up by lay-followers at the occasion of upĂłsatha (full moon days), the day of cremation of a family member, or other special days are meant for the laity.

Yes, that’s the case in Theravada. In Mahayana laypeople have a few additional precepts. For example, in Zen there are ten “grand” precepts and three “pure” precepts for laypeople.

April 11, 2012 at 1:31 pm
(10) pema gyurme says:

Meditation without study is like a bird with no wings. You’ll never soar! This goes for precepts and other aspects of study too. New Age Buddhism bites and betrays the lineage of Shakyamuni Buddha! We should preserve lineage authentically.

April 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm
(11) Yeshe says:

I feel that the precepts are the natural product of realisation, and that by practicing them it helps us to attain realisation and benefit others. The great Mahasiddhas of the Vajrayana didn’t “break” the precepts. They just kept them better, in ways that we don’t necessarily understand.

April 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm
(12) Yeshe says:

I feel that the precepts are a natural product of realisation, and keeping them helps one to attain realisation. The great Mahasiddhas of the Vajrayana didn’t “break” the precepts, but just kept them better than us, in ways that we don’t understand, but benefitting others greatly.

April 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm
(13) pema gyurme says:

Well said, Yeshe la. What is your background that you write so incisively and accurately of the mahasiddha lineage?

April 12, 2012 at 4:47 am
(14) Hein says:

Reading through the posts here I decided to once again look at the Three Precepts and the Ten Great Precepts as well as the precepts found in the Brahma Net Sutra. I have taken especially note of Ratana’s comments (The full sets of precepts of the orthodox vinaya schools are not for you. They’re not your business.). It would appear that the 48 Bodhisattva precepts are in a similar category and (me thinks) quiet a tough act to follow for lay people. For example; not eating garlic and onions (precept 4). Modern science (and even Japanese Macrobiotics) has shown that these two herbs have a lot of health benefits. Pungent they might be, but does there health benefits not outweigh their negative side? Why would one be committing a secondary offence if one eats pungent herbs? Perhaps that is the advantage of the Zen precepts (the Three and the Ten); both are much less onerous and for a layperson in a modern society (or any society anytime) much easier to follow. It seems to me that the 48 Precepts are rather a nice to have or something to aspire to in some future life-time rather than something really practical workable in everyday life? I cannot but agree that the Five Precepts, Eight Precepts (on moon days), the Three Precepts and the Ten Precepts are much easier to follow for a lay person. That way at least one can still enjoy a glass of fine and some pizza or pasta with garlic :)

April 12, 2012 at 7:57 am
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — I don’t know of anyone — laypeople, especially — following the 48 secondary precepts in the Mahayana Brahma Net Sutra. If you’ve heard otherwise do let me know, though.

Part of the confusion is that Theravada and Mahayana have different lists of Precepts. Theravada laypeople follow the Five Great Precepts and add three more for Uposatha. And that’s it. I believe the three additional precepts for Uposatha are strictly Theravadin, though, unless they are observed in Tibetan Buddhism. Not sure about that. They are not observed in most other Mahayana schools.

The first five precepts of the Mahayana Ten Precepts are nearly identical to the Theravada Five Precepts, so following both is kind of redundant. One exception is that the Theravadin #5 forbids drinking liquor, whereas the Mahayana #5 is not so strict. So wine with your pasta and garlic is OK with Mahayana but not Theravada. And then add the Three Pure Precepts for Zen and some other Mahayana schools, but not Theravada.

April 12, 2012 at 9:08 am
(16) Mila says:

RE: “For example; not eating garlic and onions (precept 4)”

Hein — As I understand it, the rationale behind this one is that garlic & onions tends to stimulate sexual energy — creating a bodymind condition that then makes it more challenging for celibate monks to maintain their vow of celibacy.

April 12, 2012 at 9:23 am
(17) Lee says:

and if you cultivate pure intention to do good … cease from causing suffering in self and others … and you have internalized the precepts … right action, speech, behavior will be much more likely to happen in your life. Reading and understanding the intent of the 48 lesser precepts just helps you cultivate good intentions … which in turn manifest in a more peaceful life for self and others. When we have time to think about our actions many times we will do the right thing but when a situation requires immediate reaction then if we’ve cultivated good intent, internalized the precepts and truly wish to do good/right then our reaction will more than likely be good and manifest good.

April 12, 2012 at 9:45 am
(18) Hein says:

Thanks Barbara for putting that into perspective for me. And to add; I know of nobody that follows the 48 Precepts. The difficulty I do have though is; how am I (as a lay practitioner) to relate to the 48 Precepts or the Bodhisattva Ideal? Are the Three Precepts, the Ten Precepts and Four (Bodhisattva Vows) sufficient for a lay person? I do have to add, though, that the prohibition for monks against garlic, onions, alcohol etcetera – as Mila thankfully explained – understandable is.
Can you perhaps direct me to a place where I can read more about the 48 Precepts and there relevance for a lay practitioner in the modern context or am I vexing about it unnecessarily?

April 12, 2012 at 11:15 am
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

how am I (as a lay practitioner) to relate to the 48 Precepts

I tend to ignore them. It’s worked so far.

Are the Three Precepts, the Ten Precepts and Four (Bodhisattva Vows) sufficient for a lay person?

Yes. Plenty. I’d say if you are thoroughly practicing the Three Pure Precepts you are practicing all of them; the Ten are just reinforcement. The 48 are just more reinforcement. And don’t worry about the garlic.

April 12, 2012 at 10:19 am
(20) Mila says:

Lee — what you’re referring to (as I’m hearing your comment) is how, at a certain stage of practice, it’s skillful to replace negative conditioning with positive conditioning.

For instance, I also have experienced how reciting the precepts daily tends, over time, to create a situation in which my responses to situations as they arise are more and more in alignment with the precepts, and so with the spirit of Buddha Dharma. So that gradually the percentage of skillful/beneficial responses increases, and that of unskillful/harmful responses decreases — which is a good thing.

But eventually, if what we’re interested in is absolute freedom, final liberation, all conditioning — “positive” as well as “negative” — must be transcended. Or so it is said …. :)

April 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm
(21) donindo says:

What i have learn about precepts are different form the religious teaching. What the Buddha taught us about precept is we undertake the precept to abstain from Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.
The Buddha ask to practice this basic 5 precept.
As we all know that The Buddha is the most compassionate being knows that this will be very difficult to practice, so this is left to the individual to be honest to oneself, of course breaking this will lead to bad Karma that you yourself will have to face. No force to practice, you yourself have to be honest to yourself
Buddha never force anyone to practice what he teaches but one has to know what the teaching meant and practice as the teachings the best possible

April 12, 2012 at 10:47 pm
(22) Toby says:

Percepts:
Rev Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanations help solve whether to keep or to break.
Rev Thich Nhat termed pecepts as “Happiness”- be it the five percepts= 5 happiness.or even more than 5 percepts!
If one does not kill, one would not live in fear of being killed.
Likewise one does not steal, no one would steal from you.
It goes on and on, it is about duality of have not’s-and have’s
If one have not taken any intoxication-one would have been sober and not doing anything disastrous.
If one looks for happiness all the time, then make happiness be the day.

April 12, 2012 at 10:47 pm
(23) Sheila says:

I think the precepts are very knotty for us Westerners (though we assume the Buddha didn’t design them to be knotty) and, like everything else, are probably best understood in context because, these days, how can you refrain from killing when your own body’s immune system is automatically killing all day and night? How can you refrain from consuming alcohol when your own body actually produces it? (This is a definite problem for strict Muslims, and maybe for some strict Buddhists.)

These transgressions (or whatever else you choose to call them) aren’t voluntary actions; we aren’t even aware of them until someone points them out to us. But, by simply being human beings, we commit these transgressions.

Is the involuntary killing of life-threatening bacteria wholesome or unwholesome? What about free will, and will power? How are we to understand individual observance of the precepts and will power in a collective, global society? We are part and parcel of our habitat, our environment and socio-economic globalism, not to mention infinity.

April 13, 2012 at 8:33 am
(24) Barbara O'Brien says:

I think the precepts are very knotty for us Westerners (though we assume the Buddha didn’t design them to be knotty)

It is we who are knotty, not the precepts.

and, like everything else, are probably best understood in context because, these days, how can you refrain from killing when your own body’s immune system is automatically killing all day and night? How can you refrain from consuming alcohol when your own body actually produces it? (This is a definite problem for strict Muslims, and maybe for some strict Buddhists.)

I think this is a misreading of Precepts practice. Intention is enormously important in Buddhism. Even going back to the Pali texts, we read time and time again about people who broke a “rule” involuntarily, and the Buddha would say there was no blame attached. Remember, karma refers to volitional action, not to stuff that just happens as part of natural law. So don’t spin your wheels over the bacteria.

And second, you are not separate from the bacteria. See an old post

Here’s something to reflect on — scientists say that only about 10 percent of the cells in our bodies are human cells. The rest are microorganisms — bacteria, viruses and other microbes — that live mostly in our guts and on our skin. And these microorganisms are not all just going along for the ride. Some of them help keep us alive; for example, by aiding digestion. If they all died, we’d die, too.

Think of it. Your body is not just your body. It’s a big colony of symbiotic life forms. And all of you are without abiding self.

So, when you think of yourself keeping or transgressing precepts — who is the keeper/transgressor?

“How are we to understand individual observance of the precepts and will power in a collective, global society?” Again, “individual” and “collective” are constructions. Consider Indra’s Net and our interdependent causality. Our individual actions affect the entire net. “Individual” and “collective” are not two.

The late Daido Loori Roshi used to tell students to take care of what’s in front of you. He also said,

“To practice the Precepts is to be in harmony with your life and the universe. To practice the Precepts means to be conscious of what they are about—not just on the surface, but on many levels, plummeting the depths of the Precepts. It means being deeply honest with yourself. When you become aware you have drifted away from the Precepts, just acknowledge that fact. That acknowledgment means to take responsibility for your life; taking responsibility plays a key role in our practice.”

So I don’t really see a conflict between individual practice and global practice. In practicing the precepts, in taking responsibility, we gradually lose sight of ourselves as autonomous actors living in a world of bits and pieces.

April 12, 2012 at 10:51 pm
(25) Sheila says:

Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Mindfulness Trainings’ are truly exemplary for today’s world, and I am very deeply grateful to him for his understanding and love of our human situation, yet, I have to admit, I feel guilt every time I recite them. Morality has always seemed like something distasteful or anachronistic to us rebellious, freethinking , scientific Westerners, no matter how ecologically the argument is presented.

As humans in society, we are raised with guilt and shame. I doubt we can ever really get beyond that. OK, we could transgress society’s norms and move into some other ‘sphere,’ but as the transgressing Zen masters found, that kind of behavior does not sit well with the general populace or the law. We are not at liberty to confuse ultimate and relative. Shame on Eido Tai Shimano, for example. I say that in support of a dear friend who hasn’t yet been able to recover from the trauma he inflicted on her when she was in his ‘inner circle.’.

April 13, 2012 at 8:39 am
(26) Barbara O'Brien says:

yet, I have to admit, I feel guilt every time I recite them.

Work on the source of that guilt; try to see clearly where it is coming from. That’s very important. Don’t ignore it or lecture yourself that a good little Zen student wouldn’t feel guilty. If the guilt is there, own up to it and enter into it. No separation. Be one with the guilt. What is it telling you? About yourself? About everything?

That’s the sort of issue that so calls out for working face-to-face with a teacher who knows you, btw.

April 12, 2012 at 10:54 pm
(27) Sheila says:

At the time I ‘took refuge’ a decade or so ago in a Zen school, I wasn’t at all ready to accept the precepts. I discussed it at length with my fellow meditation practitioners who were followers of that Master. I didn’t want to give my word for something I had scant intention of abiding by, not being vegan, being a consumer of alcohol, being prone to false speech, etc,., They assured me I didn’t need to accept the precepts in order to take refuge, so I signed up for the ceremony to “Take Refuge’ with the Master. Participation in the ceremony, however, required that one also recite the 4 vows and the 5 precepts, and unless I wanted to stick out like a sore thumb (which is an absolute no-no in that particular culture, especially for an aspiring Westerner), in order to receive the Master’s blessing and certificate w/ given Dharma name. I was not at all happy at ‘being forced’ into something I hadn’t agreed to, and have held reservations about this teacher ever since. As I see it, what happened was, I was coerced into making promises and vows I didn’t intend to, and, to my mind, that is immoral.

April 13, 2012 at 8:45 am
(28) Barbara O'Brien says:

“I was coerced into making promises and vows I didn’t intend to, and, to my mind, that is immoral.”

Did someone kidnap you and force you to take jukai? Did the teacher talk to you individually about why you were taking the refuges, and if so, did you respond honestly? Obviously you weren’t ready, and there’s no shame in that. But you don’t seem to be taking responsibility for what was obviously a misstep.

April 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm
(29) Sheila says:

There have been Zen teachers in the West who have considered themselves above/beyond following the Buddhist precepts, and there are Buddhist monks all over the world who trangress the Noble 8-fold Path. Sadly, numerous people have been hurt along the way, some permanently traumatized, by Zen teachers’ sexual abuse and deceit. This behavior is not limited to the West. Sexual abuse happens in Buddhist communities and sanghas worldwide, just as it does in other faith communities.

There is an excellent and invaluable website, Sweeping Zen. The site has extensive and accurate bios of Zen teachers, both prominent and obscure. Look there if you want to find out about a teacher. http://sweepingzen.com/category/biographies/
The owner, Adam Tebbe, is discriminating and dedicated. We in the West do not understand the first paramita ‘dana’ sufficiently well. As one of the Ten Perfections, Dana (generosity, giving of oneself) comes before Sila (morality, proper conduct). If you value the kind of (non-sectarian) Zen practice that Adam Tebbe is engaged in, donate some dollars to his worthwhile efforts.

Never mind any ultimate offering to the infinite, endless, miraculous, amazing, unknowable, beginningless ultimate universe; your donation here and now will definitely help Adam and Zen practice and all of us in the West move along on the Path in this lifetime.

April 13, 2012 at 8:47 am
(30) Barbara O'Brien says:

I’ve written quite a bit about the Zen teachers to which you refer. Such things happen in other schools of Buddhism as well, unfortunately. It’s not unique to Zen.

April 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm
(31) James C Fonduex says:

Thank you Barbara for your instructive commentary on the “Precepts,” and Lee’s (#3) comments. As an independent Nichiren practitioner, I have, generally, begun to avoid local “District meetings and World Peace Gongyo” as I perceive a move by the SGI to preferring the readings of SGI President Ikeda to the readings from the Lotus Sutra and/or Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. Lee has helped me to delineate what is truly important for my on practice and edification from that of what others. My brother “George” used to say, ” you can only” *&#@@ ” our of you own hole. Thus your commentary and Lee’s response has encouraged me to evaluate what my practice means, and to follow the teachings of Nichiren based on the “Lotus Sutra.” Again, thank you and thank Lee.

April 14, 2012 at 1:45 am
(32) Tanukisan says:

Unfortunately, as in all other faiths, the issue of moral behaviour often comes down to one’s individual interpretation of the precepts; in the case of writers, teachers, and community leaders, the results of those interpretations can be spectacularly good or disastrously bad.

I find that, too often in Western Buddhist thought, the precepts are seen through the epistemological lens of Judeo-Christianity. Whether this is done unconsciously or in an attempt to make aspects of them more “palatable”, the effect can be psychologically injurious. I have read books on Buddhism that state bluntly that homosexuality is forbidden by the third precept and that being homosexual is an insurmountable barrier to achieving Nirvana.

This is clearly a nonsense to anyone who has studied the precepts without prejudice. Even the Dalai Lama has been said to fall into error on this one; while I respect his opinion about many things, his evident antipathy towards homosexuality is not among them – I think he needs to reassess his attitude.

April 14, 2012 at 7:17 am
(33) Barbara O'Brien says:

I have read books on Buddhism that state bluntly that homosexuality is forbidden by the third precept and that being homosexual is an insurmountable barrier to achieving Nirvana.

In English? In circulation in the West? Um, sorry; I’m calling bullshit on that one. If you can find even one such book written by a Buddhist teacher and not some crackpot, I’d be quite surprised. Well, if you’re getting your information from New Kadampa Tradition (or their cousins, the Western Shugden Society), yeah, OK, maybe. They are the only Tibetans I know of given to fire-and-brimstone literalism. Note that I generally advise people to stay away from NKT.

It’s true that the Tibetans consider sex between men (although not women, oddly enough) to be a violation of the 3rd precept, but this is not because of the Dalai Lama’s “attitude.” Sex between men was described as a violation of the Precept in a 15th century text by a scholar who probably based his ideas on earlier Tibetan texts. Because this teaching has been formally adopted in Tibetan Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama cannot unilaterally change it, even if he disagrees with it. As I understand it, there has to be a consensus among the high lamas before it can be changed.

But no other Buddhist tradition has any formal, encoded teaching about homosexuality, one way or another. The 3rd Precept has generally been interpreted in the light of local sexual mores, whatever those are, so in Asia variations in interpretation tend to be geographical rather than strictly sectarian. It’s possible there are tracts and books in Asia expressing that opinion among Asian cultural conservatives who identify as Buddhists, but one generally does not run into that in the West.

I find that, too often in Western Buddhist thought, the precepts are seen through the epistemological lens of Judeo-Christianity.

I have never seen that myself, and I’ve been a Zen student since the late 1980s. But I’ve been fortunate to have had genuine lineage holders as teachers. In as much as that might be happening somewhere, it would most likely be coming from westerners who are not properly prepared to teach, I would think. Asian teachers, or the legitimate dharma heirs of Asian teachers, generally are not blinkered by the epistemological lens of Judeo-Christianity.

April 16, 2012 at 9:07 pm
(34) Sheila says:

My initial Buddhist practice was in a Zen tradition with a truly bona fide lineage holder at the fore, from both the Soto and Rinzai schools. Though he was not Japanese himself, he was Asian and had studied extensively in Japan. He received Dharma transmission from Japanese masters. I don’t know if any of his Western followers raised the question of sex and homosexuality during Q&A, but in conversation with his Asian followers I frequently heard that homosexuality was a definite no-no, and even sex between married couples was discouraged. Between oursleves, Asians and Westerners both, we concluded that this was a cultural stance rather than Buddha’s teaching , but nevertheless, this Master was very, very careful not to get imbroiled in any sexual misconduct as some Zen teachers had.
What I’ve come away with from various sects’ teachings is that one abides by the sexual norms of one’s particular culture, though this seems rather chameleonic, especially in today’s world where same sex marriage is legal in some places yet not in others. Isn’t the admonition to do no harm the best guide, though, for both hetero- and homosexual partneships? On the subject of gender difference, I once asked a monk from the tradition I’ve referred to above whether it’s true that Buddha said women can’t attain enlightenment. He responded that bodhisattvas have no gender….

April 17, 2012 at 7:15 am
(35) Barbara O'Brien says:

I once asked a monk from the tradition I’ve referred to above whether it’s true that Buddha said women can’t attain enlightenment. He responded that bodhisattvas have no gender….

In the Pali texts he is recorded to have said women could attain enlightenment, although that particular story probably was written in later. The Vimalakirti Sutra, a Mahayana Sutra important in Zen, has a wonderful passage in which a goddess changes bodies with one of the Buddha’s disciples to teach him that gender doesn’t matter.

one abides by the sexual norms of one’s particular culture, though this seems rather chameleonic, especially in today’s world where same sex marriage is legal in some places yet not in others.

Abiding by the norms of culture makes sense if you appreciate that the word translated as “morality,” sila, has a strong connotation of harmony. So along with not harming, one also would not behave in a way that would upset the harmony of the community. However, these days “community” is no longer geographical; we all live in a patchwork quilt of communities. We forget that people used to live most of their lives in one small geographic area with no direct connection to the rest of the world.

this Master was very, very careful not to get imbroiled in any sexual misconduct as some Zen teachers had.

Can you do me a favor and get over the obsession with naughty Zen teachers? Yeah, a handful of teachers have behaved badly. Several hundred other teachers in the West have not. And we hear about it in Zen because Zen was the first school of Buddhism to attract a significant number of followers from non-ethnic-Asian westerners, so the handful of bad apples comes to our attention. The same thing comes up in other schools, but unless you’re spending a lot of time following Buddhist news you are unlikely to have heard about it. But I’ve heard about it.

April 16, 2012 at 10:04 pm
(36) Sheila says:

Barbara,
Thank you for your feedback on the topic of precepts. To answer one of your questions, no, I did not receive any prepartaion for taking the precepts. Anyone who wanted to take refuge simply registered for the event by phone of fax and showed up on the appointed day. As I already said, I’d been assured by other practitioners that I need not take the precepts if I didn’t want to, or need only take the ones I wanted to and skip any I didn’t want to take. However, when the very moment arrived to recite them, there was no opportunity to step out and I just didn’t want to make a scene and be a problem. Of course that was my choice, to follow the etiquette required and not disturb the harmony for everyone else.
I learned later that the Master encouraged practitioners to take vows, or make vows, as often as possible, saying that our vows would carry us safely forward in our future lives. I think what he meant was that we may not feel ‘ready’ to make certain vows, but if we make them anyway, they will lead us to more wholesome futures. At the time of taking refuge I was ignorant of such a far-reaching vision. I lived in the Western world of one life and the moral of keeping your word. And now we still have to make choices and express intentions, and I still want to fulfill, not shirk, my promises and offers of help. Yes, infinity is infinitywhere anything is possible, but still, here, now, if I tell someone I’ll do something, if I don’t do it, it will be on my conscience for ever (however long that is :) ).

April 17, 2012 at 7:48 am
(37) Barbara O'Brien says:

To answer one of your questions, no, I did not receive any prepartaion for taking the precepts.

That’s not “normal.” In Zen, the tradition for formally receiving the precepts involves making a formal petition to the teacher, then receiving instruction in the Precepts, then going through the formal Jukai ceremony in which the Jukai candidates alone, in front of all assembled, vows to keep each precept. It sounds as if you are describing is the Fusatsu ceremony, which is meant to be a “renewal” ceremony for those who have already received the precepts. People who haven’t received the precepts can take part in Fusatsu also; it’s not a rule that only people who have received Jukai ordination can take part in Fusatsu. But it’s not the same thing as “receiving” the Precepts.

Don’t feel guilty. I suspect that’s your own earlier religious upbringing causing you to feel guilty. Perfectly keeping the precepts is not possible, but working with them teaches you many valuable things. It’s a training.

Are you in Finland, by the way? We had a conversation here awhile back about some unusual interpretations of various ceremonies in Finland.

April 16, 2012 at 10:39 pm
(38) Sheila says:

Hein, re # 4
I know nothing about the 48 precepts, but I do know lots and lots of people who won’t eat onions, galric etc! These foods are members of the alliaceous family (alliums) along with leeks, chives and shallots. People from Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu (and perhaps other) traditions share this prohibition. Onions and garlic and the other alliaceous plants are said to increase passion and ignorance. It’s said that garlic and onions stimulate the central nervous system and can disturb vows of celibacy. “Garlic is a natural aphrodisiac. Ayurveda suggests that it is a tonic for loss of sexual power from any cause, sexual debility, impotency from over-indulgence in sex and nervous exhaustion from dissipating sexual habits. It is said to be especially useful to old men of high nervous tension and diminishing sexual power.” Well, I don’t know, I can eat garlic and feel nothing whatever! However, Horace, the Roman poet, said that garlic is “more harmful than hemlock” because raw, it can carry harmful botulism bacteria.

April 17, 2012 at 7:29 am
(39) Barbara O'Brien says:

People from Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu (and perhaps other) traditions share this prohibition.

Obviously, these are cultural beliefs that found their way into religious commentary. I don’t think we need to spin our wheels over them now.

April 16, 2012 at 11:47 pm
(40) Sheila says:

# 24 S. I think the precepts are very knotty for us Westerners (though we assume the Buddha didn’t design them to be knotty)

B. It is we who are knotty, not the precepts.

Like the ‘flag-blowing-but-the-mind-moving’ ? OK, we Westerners are tied up in knots :) . 3 trillion bacteria? And our body cells are constantly dying off and regenerating themselves. Yet in our ‘minds,’ the sense of ontological conitnuity and interdependency persists. Every day I try to make sense of ‘mind’ and get nowhere, but I have to act, and, I have to act morally and equanamously. The precepts help ease out the knotty choices .

April 17, 2012 at 9:53 am
(41) William says:

I think the precepts might be useful very practically and since reading Barbara’s article on the precepts have decided to concentrate on one of them only at a time – the fourth precept in this case, with a view to perhaps shifting the focus to another later on, seeing how it goes.

I find that meditation has enabled me to step outside of my thought processes, when I want to or remind myself to. And I see that I am not telling the whole truth or that I’m telling an untruth a lot of the time, that I am actually selling this to myself before I sell it to anyone else. I can there lies the mechanism of repression.

It can be quite shocking though, and of course yes guilt and shame, that is always a possibility especially given the Christian culture that some of us in the West have been immersed in. Anyway I hope to continue with this and at the same time try not to be too hard on myself and try to be compassionate.

April 17, 2012 at 6:45 pm
(42) Sheila says:

Thanks, Barbara, for all your feedback. I’m very grateful for your time and care given to this site, and for the opportunity afforded to all of us to speak our minds.

April 17, 2012 at 7:51 pm
(43) Sheila says:

re: #4, #38, food, precepts, and avoiding toxins
“Obviously, these are cultural beliefs that found their way into religious commentary. I don’t think we need to spin our wheels over them now.”

Religious commentary from one perspective, but dharma plain and simple from other age-old perspectives. Even the Buddha’s teaching was cultural.

Whether or not readers are concerned with upholding the precepts, performing meritorious deeds, and avoiding toxins, this is still an issue that merits consideration.

April 18, 2012 at 11:45 am
(44) Barbara O'Brien says:

Religious commentary from one perspective, but dharma plain and simple from other age-old perspectives. Even the Buddha’s teaching was cultural.

He taught in a cultural context, but the dharma itself transcends culture. Part of the challenge of practice, in fact, is to sort out how much of our “reality” is really cultural programming, so that we can break out of it.

April 18, 2012 at 9:56 am
(45) Richard Prangnell says:

I absolutely agree that the precepts are an essential ingredient of Buddhism. you can bake the meditation cake any way you like, but without morality (sila, = virtue), the cake just won’t ‘rise’.

Morality (virtue), concentration and wisdom (sila, samadhi, panna) are like the three legs of a stool. Take any one away and you’re on the floor! Only when all three are present in one’s practice can progress be made because they mutually reinforce and inform each other.

Can you imagine a state of enlightenment devoid of virtue? I cannot. Can anyone achieve perfect samadhi with a mind steeped in immorality? No way. Sorry, but it just doesn’t wash.

April 19, 2012 at 9:31 am
(46) Lee says:

“Morality (virtue), concentration and wisdom (sila, samadhi, panna) are like the three legs of a stool. Take any one away and you’re on the floor!”
In my practice I’ve found the three legs of the stool are usually in some ststate of being present when I have the intention to practice and allow compassion to rise. I have been ‘on the floor’ many times and it’s always possible to get up if willing and the floor is a great teacher. I’ve made a lot of progress on the floor. :)

April 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm
(47) Frank says:

This very simple matter is being complicated. Dont screw your neighbor’s wife, smoke crack, steal stuff, tell lies, or kill anyone. Makes sense, does’nt it?

April 30, 2012 at 6:47 am
(48) Barbara O'Brien says:

Frank — these are not the Ten Commandments. Just following rules doesn’t cut it.

January 2, 2013 at 9:51 pm
(49) xi says:

Actually, Frank’s right. It’s very simple, or at least it was before westerners began to complicate things and transformed the dharma, according to their own whims and desires, into a new-age “anything goes” kind of philosophy. Lol, rules like “don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t murder people, etc., are universal and exist in some form or another in almost every civilized society–we need them in order to function in the everyday, conventional world that we inhabit., no matter how much you dislike it.

January 3, 2013 at 10:07 am
(50) Barbara O'Brien says:

It’s very simple, or at least it was before westerners began to complicate things and transformed the dharma, according to their own whims and desires, into a new-age “anything goes” kind of philosophy.

No, you are the one projecting a western notion onto dharma. In the West, we are taught that morality is about following an external set of absolute rules. That has always been less true in Asian culture, and it is even more untrue in Buddhism. If you don’t understand that, you can’t possibly understand how to follow the Precepts.

The problem with absolute rules is that, if taken to logical extremes, they can become a kind of tyranny. Re-read the “Scarlet Letter.” Consider people murdering abortion doctors to “save lives.” Human life is infinitely messy, and there is a tendency for people to acquire “moral clarity” by heartlessly applying absolute rules while ignoring the suffering being caused.

In Buddhism, it is said that an enlightened being responds perfectly to moral questions without consulting a rule book. Those of us stumbling around in ignorance do need some guidance, but the “guidance” should never overrule wisdom and compassion.

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