Lay practice and the Buddhist precepts: How we can't possibly break them Barry Magid February 4th 2012

We’re told that Shakymumi Buddha, after fifteen years of ascetic practice, finally sat down under a tree, having sat all night, looked up, and seeing the morning star, said, Oh! That’s me! And the way I like to understand that moment of realization is that in seeing the star he saw something perfect twinkling away up there without any effort or practice, already simply being itself, impossible to be anything other than itself. It did not have to become anything. And Shakyamuni said, we are told, that in that moment not only he but all beings, everything, came to that same realization. We could say that everything, just as it is, partakes of that same perfection of being itself, being just what it is. And that there is not a thing lacking, leaving everything just as it is.

In Dogen’s comment on the precepts he refers back to that moment of Shakyamuni’s realization and says, That’s where the precepts arose, in that same moment. They emerged fully in Shakyamuni’s instant of realization. Now we don’t get that story in any of the old histories. Dogen is taking mystical license with a kind of deep mystical empathy with that moment of realization, to say that the precepts are something inseparable from realization itself. And just like he would maintain that zazen is not a means to an end, an end in enlightenment, we don’t do this as a technique to transform ourselves or become something else, but that in doing it, in doing zazen, we automatically, unavoidably, manifest our nature.

So Dogen says again that the precepts are not a guide to an ethical life, they’re not rules that if you follow them well, carefully, meticulously, you will become a certain kind of person. It’s more that they’re inseparable from being that person in the first place, having this realization in the first place. Fundamentally there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose.

I read a comment by one of Dogen’s translators, Shohaku Okumura, about this, and he says that Dogen strictly distinguished between the precepts as this kind of revelation and all the rest of the Vinaya, so the Vinaya arose completely differently. Buddha never in his lifetime made rules for the community. However, when a monk did something wrong, Buddha would just say, Don’t do that again. Now after the Buddha's death there was supposedly this great conference when they were going to put together and codify all his teachings, and Ananda famously was supposed to have had total recall for all of the Buddha's discourses on the Dharma, but there was another guy, whose name I’m afraid I forget, and he had total recall for every time the Buddha said to somebody: That’s a mistake. Wouldn’t you love to have that guy in the sangha?

At this conference he came up and he said, These are the five hundred things that Buddha said don’t do to somebody, and they wrote those all down and that became the Vinaya. So Dogen wanted the precepts to have a different origin story than that, and have a different feel for us, not this list of dos and don’ts, but rather an expression of a deep truth. It’s that basic sense that there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose, no one to kill, nothing to steal, no one to slander. Right? In one sense we can say, If you’re a realized Buddha, of course there’s nothing for you to gain or to lose, and thoughts of killing of stealing or slandering or misusing sex or drugs or any of these things wouldn’t even arise in you because you are full and complete as you are.

But even further, it would go on and say that if a deluded person gets a grudge going against me and comes in here and shoots me dead, still no one was killed and no one killed anybody. The self is fundamentally non-existent, so whether we realize it or not, there is no killing, whether we realize it or not, there is no stealing. That is also the sense of all beings just as they are, whether they realize it or not are Buddhas, which is to say that they partake in this fundamental impermanence, emptiness and interconnection of the world. Emptiness doesn’t depend on you realizing it or not. No-self is not a state of consciousness you attain, it’s your condition already. Now when we talk about experiences, when we suddenly get a feel for that, the big moment on the cushion when it suddenly feels that way, we’re not talking about having just changes in our states of consciousness, we’re talking about seeing something about how the world already is, whether we’ve seen it or not.

The four vows also are koans which point to the same thing. Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them all. Is that an endless task or is it already accomplished? Delusions are inexhaustible. I vow to put an end to them. Do delusions have any reality? Do they have any substance? Or are they like all other Dharmas? Are they simply empty of any essential nature? One more thing that comes and goes? What does it mean to be rid of them? They're going anyway. And what does it mean to master all Dharmas other than to simply let them be what they are: Empty. Transient. Is there anything for us to do about that? And the Buddha way? Emptiness? Interconnection? Do we have any choice but to embody that? What else can we be? So these are all ways that we look at precepts or vows from the standpoint of them being inviolable, of expressing true nature from the perspective of the absolute regardless of the level of our realization or not.

Now as a matter of practice, Joko always would ask us to look at the way we reject each moment as it is, even though at some level we know that perspective of: There’s just this. We tend to be a little pickier than that about the moment we want to be one with, and we over and over again have some judgment on the moment, and that judgment can be expressed with fear, or anger, or anxiety. They’re all ways in which we reflexively are trying to push away this moment, to deny it’s intrinsic fullness in our non-separation from it.

I think what was very important in the way she taught was that she never said, Try to do away with anger or anxiety or fear or judgment. There was no sense that, well, instead of that, you need to pay closer attention or you need to to somehow practice non-separation, as if that was something you could practice. Rather, she said, All right, the moment you have to be one with now is your fear. The moment you have to be one with is anger. Be judgment. Be those things. That’s where you are. Those things, too, are manifestations of life as it is and the absolute. Don’t change them, don’t make them go away, just be that right now. Moment after moment. Even as we say No to life, we’re part of life. Even saying No is a move in the game of life. There’s nothing we can do that’s not a move in the game.

See, from the perspective that I’ve been trying to explain today about these precepts, about life as it is, I want to say that life is like infinity. It can’t be added or subtracted to. Infinity plus one one is infinity. Infinity minus one is infinity. Infinity divided by two is infinity. Right? All the adding and subtracting and dividing are our little games of playing at separation. But at some deep level they don’t work because we end up with infinity anyway. That’s our true nature, whether we try to subtract from it, add to it, cut it up into little pieces, steal it from somebody else.

As we enter into the middle of sesshin now, I hope we settle into a rhythm where we basically take sesshin whole and it just carries us along, and that even the thoughts that we have of Am I there yet? When’s the bell going to ring? When’s lunch? Whatever we have arise, they’re just bubbles in the stream, they’re just part of what happens in sesshin. There’s no problem with our thoughts. There’s no problem with our judgment or our opinion. Right? From this perspective, all our thoughts, all our suffering, is none other than the twinkling of that star.

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