Lay practice and the Buddhist precepts: How we can't possibly keep them Barry Magid January 28th 2012

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Hands in gassho, please repeat after me:

All harmful actions ever committed by me since of old
on account of beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,
born of my body, mouth and thought,
now I atone for it all.

Today and tomorrow I will be speaking about the spirit of the precepts and this verse of atonement, which traditionally opens a jukai ceremony. It’s an important way into how we understand the role of the precepts in our particular form of practice. When we recite this verse of atonement, it’s not a matter of saying something like, I know I screwed up, I admit it, I’m sorry, but I promise never to do it again. There’s certainly a role for that kind of confession and apology and promise in practice, but the spirit of the precepts goes beyond that, so while I don’t want to minimize the need to acknowledge and repair our mistakes, I don’t want to see the precepts reduced to that either.

When we talk about the precepts, it’s more or less from two different directions. Today we’ll look at them from the direction of how we can’t possibly keep them and tomorrow we’ll look at them from the direction of how we can’t possibly break them. We’ll be trying to put those two perspectives together and we’ll continue next week in an open discussion with the precepts group back in New York.

Now rather than acknowledging and correcting mistakes, I’ll suggest that the basic orientation of the precepts in our practice is to bare witness to life as it is, and we have to then understand what we mean by the notion of bearing witness but also see how very different that is in this kind of lay practice from how the precepts originated in the original sangha around Buddha.

In that original monastic community, they had a set of rules, the vinaya, which were intended to define and organize and maintain the life of a community of homeless and mendicant monks. And those rules -- I always have trouble keeping track of how many there were -- but there were something like 227 originally for the men and maybe 331 for the women -- they were considered either more unruly or more needing protection, depending on how you think about it. And then in China, that adapted further, and the men ended up with 250 rules and the women another 100 or so more than that, but things changed very much when you got to Japan and you ended up with what were called the Bodhisattva Precepts, ten grave precepts plus 50 other rules.

It’s interesting to read Dogen’s story because he was ordained with these particular Japanese Tendai based precepts. When he went to China to study he had a lot of trouble getting through the door. He had received the full set of precepts that defined a monk in the Chinese eyes, and they made him cool his heels quite a while before they sorted out his status and let him in. One result was that when he came back to China he returned with this simplified set of the precepts, the 16 precepts that we use today, trying to simplify what all that meant, if it was not a complicated set of monastic rules.

What we’ll talk about tomorrow will be Dogen’s eventual understanding of the precepts as manifestations of the awakened life, not as rules to keep to get from here to there. But the thing I want to stress today was that originally the set of monastic rules was intended to separate out the monks from the community around them in a very specific kind of way. Not only were they admonished to lead a moral life in terms that everyone would understand, the precepts against killing and stealing and so forth, but there were strict prohibitions about owning anything, of having any fixed abode, of saving up anything from one day to the next, and perhaps most importantly a strict celibacy. I read somewhere that there were only four things that would get you thrown out of that original community: murder, theft, having sex, or boasting about your spiritual attainment. There were some things you just can’t put up with.

Now, that kind of picture of the precepts, or monasticism, is one by which we set ourselves apart from everybody by the nature of our strict observance. We give ourselves a whole set of rules that other people don’t have to live by, and by doing so, we're attempting to embody the truths of impermanence and non-clinging and non-attachment, freeing ourselves from desire. And because of that model we’re presuming that we’re not eternally and intrinsically free of desire, and we’re going to make rules as if you were. Right? You’ll fake it til you make it, right?

We chant at the end of meals, May we exist like a lotus at home in muddy water. One version of the meaning of that, the whole context, is the sense that we will be the one pure thing, existing in this impure world. Like the lotus we will come out of and rise above the muddy water that has originally given us life. We will stand apart from that in our purity.

Now monks in that kind of life were very dependent on the surrounding community that they were standing apart from so carefully. To be a homeless bhikhu in India is not the same as being a homeless beggar on the streets of New York today. The mendicant monk played a very defined role in that culture and that culture had a place for them, and the notion of giving alms and accruing merit of giving alms was embedded in the culture so that even though the individual was in some sense homeless and had no possessions, he could count on a wider cultural container to hold and maintain that form of life.

In a certain sense, this monastic set of rules was meant to enable the person to live an ideal life, a life completely in accord with the dharma, in accord with the realizations of impermanence and non-clinging. But it’s of course a life that if everybody adopted, it would simply be the end of life. Everybody would become celibate and that would be the end, right? You’d have one generation and you’d finish it. So there’s a sense of a kind of literalness to the notion of extinction or nirvana built into making that an ideal.

One way or another, you never have the sense that Buddha expected everybody to do this. Again, there’s always a sense that there’s going to be a background against which this will take place, and the monks will serve as a kind of inspirational beacon to other people demonstrating in a very real way that it’s possible to live a life without clinging to all the things that we think that we need to give us security, that that security is false and unreliable and letting go of it altogether will bring about a different degree of equanimity, and the life of the monk is a kind of inspirational reminder of that truth to everybody, whether they live that life or not.

Now in China, when there was less of that sense of the wandering monk in the context of the alms-giving culture, things shifted and the monastic life became settled. It’s usually attributed to Hyakujo who set up the rules for a monastic life where the monks would live in one place all year, and they wouldn’t be collecting just during the rainy season, which was the model in India, but they would settle in one monastery and they would be self-supporting. They would grow their own food, they would be subsistence farmers, in a way that differentiated them less from the surrounding community. What happens, though, is that you get a very complicated relationship between their role as monk and their role as priest, and the priest role to the surrounding community and the way that’s plugged into the notions of merit and patronage, so that although a day of no work is a day of no eating, it became a kind of model for the monastic in both China and Japan. The work of the monks increasingly became priestly work, particularly in Japan, where it became funeral directors, and there’s a whole way in which the monastic temple community related to the larger community, less for alms, although they preserved that somewhat symbolically, but through large sets of community or wealthy patronage.

In any case, what I’m trying to say by this whole historical background is that the precepts functioned both to define a kind of formal life and a code of conduct for the monks, but it also said something about their relation to the larger world: how much they saw themselves as part of or separate from it. Now, I would suggest that where we are today, trying to define and maintain a lay practice in America, the precepts take on a kind of different function and a different connotation. They’re not going to be rules of life that set us apart from everybody else, and our way of making a living is going to be not set apart. We’re in a community for our daily life and we come together as best we can like this to practice. And our practice is going to be manifest not just by what we do in here but how we live out in the world.

So this brings me back to this notion of bearing witness, as what I’ll suggest is a kind of essence of precept practice in lay life. And the way I would define bearing witness has to do with literally witnessing, observing, and experiencing, acknowledging, what’s going on. It’s not about intervening, changing, fixing, purifying, perfecting or anything like that. And the best prototype that I can think of for that is the way we bear witness to someone’s dying. When someone dies we are there to go through that passage with them, as much as we can. We bear witness to the unavoidability, the reality of sickness, old age, and death, that these are intrinsic and inescapable aspects of what it is to be human.

And by bearing witness to them, we’re not condemning life for having this terrible design flaw, that people don’t last forever. We’re not complaining or being bitter about it. We’re trying to engage it with an attitude of deep acceptance, that this is what life is. We’re not standing outside of it, judging it. We’re in the midst of it. This is life. Our bearing witness to it doesn’t preclude trying to heal sickness or ease the pain of people as they die. There are all these ways in which we do everything to ameliorate the suffering of dying, but it’s not our job and its not our goal to eliminate dying itself. It’s not our job to eliminate the reality of sickness, old age and death themselves. We’ll do everything we can to relieve them, but in some way we accept that they are part of the human condition.

Now what I would suggest is that we go through in our thinking about the precepts with the same attitude of bearing witness. I’m not going to go through all of them right now. Maybe we’ll do some of that more particularly in our discussion. But I would begin by saying we bear witness to the reality of killing in this world. We bear witness to the fact that our lives inevitably are grounded in the death of other creatures, whether plant or animal. And that life -- our life -- is inseparable from the whole cycle of birth to death, which we partake in to our advantage, that we have our place in the world in the food chain, and it is not possible to be in this world without some level doing harm to something or to someone else.

In the same way, we bear witness to stealing or inequality. What we have, we have by virtue of the fact that someone else doesn’t have it. The fact of possession is not going to go away. We do our best to be generous or charitable or take care of those around us, but there are built-in limitations to what we can do and we acknowledge these. We bear witness to the reality of sexuality, which is not always going to be simply intimate and compassionate and loving. It will always be fueled by fantasy and desire, and we have to own and account for the reality of our unconscious, which is not going to be tame or polite all the time. And so forth through that and many of the others.

I think we also acknowledge the way in which we have the need for our own personal acknowledgement and attention. And if we don’t get that, if we deny that to ourselves, we won't really be able to flourish. See, in a large way, bearing witness is bearing witness to the reality of separation, the reality of individual and personal need, and even when we say it’s going to take place in a context of interdependence or oneness, the dimension of separation, the personal, is not eradicated. It can’t be eradicated, and there’s a particular kind of Zen sickness when a person tries to live in such a way that I’ve described as saving all beings minus one, saying in the name of compassion to serve everyone else’s needs but to deny the reality of your own. It just doesn’t work. A lot of those people end up in my office so I shouldn’t complain. It’s part of the way I bear witness to my life being sustained by other people’s suffering.

See, part of what we want to do in this practice, to bear witness to life as it is, is what Joko called our one true teacher. And we are part of life as it is in our own limits and separations, and our needs and reactivities are part of that. We’re not here to somehow make that smoother or purify. As I said in another context, it’s not our goal somehow to breed vegetarian tigers. We have to find some way to accommodate all the aspects of our nature. In some ways Buddhism presents itself as a religion of peace and compassion, but if you go to a sesshin at a Rinzai monastery you’ll find that they have very good ways to channel aggression and toughness, and that sense of the heroics of endurance, and then they find that they’re not going to eradicate their tiger side. They’re going to embrace it in a kind of samurai ethic and they can certainly err on the side of being macho and elitist and aggressive, but in some way there's at least this acknowledgement that toughness is who we are and we’re going to channel this. And you know, if you’re training a lot of 19 and 20 year olds, it’s probably a good idea to have a practice that finds an outlet for all of that. When we get a roomful of people my age you probably can tone it down a little. But there’s some way in which that acknowledges the reality of that side of the culture, that side of a kind of young men we’re dealing with, by and large.

Joko always said that it’s a mistake in practice to look for the absolute only in the rare experiences of oneness, where somehow everything resolves and you feel part of everything. She said, Look for oneness in non-separation from this moment, regardless of its content, and the content of most moments are going to be about the reality of separation, the reality of little moments of anger or anxiety or likes and dislikes, where we say, Not that! Not that! Well, the absolute is present right there too, if you fully have that edge of No!, don’t try to eliminate all those edges. Try to be completely present for them, to be honest about them, to make that the place of your practice. See, that’s practicing in the midst of separation. That’s being enlightened about the nature of delusion. That it is how our life actually manifests moment after moment, and that’s where we have to be complete.

So I’ll leave you with that idea to mull over, of the precepts as bearing witness to life as it is, to bearing witness to our own greed, anger, and ignorance, as the unavoidable marks of one side of our life, that side of the relative, of separation, and it’s not our goal to eliminate it or to demonize it. The same way, it’s not our goal to hate life because it contains old age and death. We want to find our way to loving this life as it is. That’s in a sense what makes this a religious practice -- that we can acknowledge all these aspects of life and still find a way to say yes to it. And that will bring us to our topic tomorrow, the side of life where the precepts cannot be broken, where they are always fulfilled, moment after moment.

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