The precepts and Jukai: acknowledging and taking responsibility for our role in the world Barry Magid October 10th 2020

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Andrew Tootell, as some of you know, is my dharma heir in Australia, invited me to talk to his sangha there tonight, and he specifically asked that I give a talk on the precepts and jukai, as we utilize them in our sangha here in New York. So I was left with the dilemma of either preparing two different talks to give in one day, or trying to give the same talk twice on the same day to different groups, neither of which is a very appealing option for me.

But I chose the latter, so I will talk about the precepts and jukai to you this morning as well, although I’m sure that by the time I talk to Andrew about it this evening it will have morphed into a completely different talk.

In all the years, when I was studying with Joko out in San Diego, I don’t think I ever heard her talk about the precepts and she certainly never did jukai ceremonies with her students, even though in her own training with Maezumi Roshi, she had done precepts and ordination as part of that training in lineage.

But even though she never talked about the precepts explicitly, you could say that from another perspective, that’s all she talked about, that her primary concern was always: How do you take this practice out into your daily life and what does it mean to practice in your daily life? Particularly, what does it mean to keep yourself aware of the thousands of little acts of separation that you engage in as you go about your day, all the moments of liking and disliking and judging, all the moments in which you think about my interests versus someone else’s interests, all the ways we are preoccupied with the results enacted on myself rather than on others?

So there are lots of ways in which she defined practice as the awareness of that edge of separation, as marked by judgment or anger or anxiety, greed or pushing away, and so she never wanted to try to organize that kind of awareness or practice into a set of vows. I think she felt in general that ordaining people or going through jukai ceremonies, having people wear robes or shaving their heads or wearing rakusus, were all just further badges of separation and specialness, separating an in-crowd out from everybody else, and if anybody ever tried to ask her to ordain them as a priest or a monk, she would say, If you want to be a monk, just act like one! You don’t need a ceremony, you don’t need a robe, you don’t need to shave your head so everybody knows you’re different. Let’s just see it in your behavior. Let’s see what difference practice is making in your life.

She came to that kind of attitude because she was trained in a highly ritualized setting by Maezumi in which people did shave their heads, they got Japanese dharma names, they wore robes, there were all these marks of separation and ritual, and she felt it was too much, so she wanted to take things in another direction. But when I started teaching in New York, I was doing it under very different circumstances. That would have been close to twenty-five years ago, in 1996. Sometime next year perhaps we will be able to be together again to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the zendo.

It was a very different kind of situation. First, people sat in a room we emptied out adjacent to my office space. Some of you may remember John McInerny, who shared an office with me on Greenwich Avenue in the Village, and he was there part time and we were able to empty that space out for sittings. But many of the people who began to sit there had no experience with Zen and had never been in a place where people wore robes or did any of these rituals.

When we started out, I organized every sitting, I was the jikido for every sitting, I led all the chants, did all the service positions, began to teach people things like oryoki, but after some years of this, it looked like it would make sense for other people in the sangha to at least learn how to strike the gong, but more important, make a commitment to show up on specific days to ring the gong, and to learn how to read and teach oryoki to newcomers and to begin to give beginners instruction to new people, so that it was not always a case of my being the sole instructor and leader of every activity.

And so before we ever had a space where we could have a resident, I wanted to get people to make a different level of commitment after a certain point, in which they began to take responsibility for holding and maintaining the sangha, so it was not entirely a top-down kind of organization, but all the members took responsibility for keeping the place running, and for knowing how we did things and how to pass that on to new people.

And so after a while, it seemed like one way to formalize that commitment was to train people in the precepts and in leading up to a jukai ceremony, which really meant, to me, a commitment to the sangha and not simply a commitment to your own individual practice. Because if the precepts are basically about non-separation, the first order of separation we have to encounter is that separation between inside and outside, and for almost everybody, in a lay practice setting, when they learn meditation, it feels like an individual practice. I’m learning to sit in a certain posture and stay there for this amount of time, count my breaths, label my thoughts, and I’m going to be very focused on and preoccupied with what’s going on inside my head, my racing or troubling thoughts, what’s going on in my body, my painful knees or ankles, my back.

It can feel very personal and individual, and so part of what you’re doing when you talk about the precepts and training for jukai, is that you're basically getting out of your head, you're getting out of the idea that practice is something that is taking place between your ears, and you realize it’s something that you’re doing in a group with other people, and it’s not just that they are there providing peer pressure so you’ll sit still, but that you’re actually practicing in a way that offers mutual support and trying to come together to define and maintain a tradition together.

Particularly in a new group, a lay group, we had to actively decide together what makes sense to do. What kind of rituals and chants are worth maintaining? Should we continue to do things in Japanese or should everything be in English? What kind of sesshin should we run? What would be practical? Should we do things one day or many days or week long? How are we going to do that?

As much as possible I wanted those decisions to come from the group and not simply be something that I decided, provided, and then people signed up for. People needed to try actively to think about what was their commitment to practice, what was their relation to the sangha, and particularly what was their relationship to the lineage and the traditions coming to us from Japan? What of that made sense, what were we going to preserve, and what were we going to change?

I thought of jukai particularly as the forum in which people would ask themselves that question: What is my relation to this tradition? Do I think of jukai, for instance, as a conversion ceremony, where I am becoming a Buddhist or not? What kind of Buddhism or Zen do I want there to be in America? To what extent are we trying simply to replicate what was done in Japan, in which case you probably shouldn’t be sitting in an apartment in Greenwich Village, but they should find a monastery when they’re going to do that sort of thing.

If we’re not doing that, are we doing something here that is complete in its own right or is it just preparation so serious students will go off some place else and do the real thing? I was very committed to the idea that Zen could be completely expressed and realized and transmitted in a lay setting, that it was not something where the real thing was happening in a monastery, but we could really make what we were doing a new paradigm of Zen in the West. All that is what had to come together around the commitment to a culminating experience for students in jukai. Just what do we think we’re signing up for?

I thought I’d say a little about the precepts themselves. One of the things we do in the jukai study groups, is take a comparative look at some of the versions of the precepts, . look at how different versions have been written, what the different lessons are, and have each person think about how the precepts are reflected in their own life and practice.

The traditional version of the precepts usually took the form of a set of vows. We keep vows in the Great Vows for All that we recite. Sentient being are numberless, I vow to save them all, and so forth. Those vows are organized as koans, they’re things that on the surface are impossible, and so we try to think about what it means to make a vow like that. What would its fulfillment mean?

But the vows of the precepts, the ten great precepts, were originally vows in the sense of commitments to a particular form of monastic life. I’ll read a version of them. I think I took this one off the San Francisco Zen Center website.

Ten Grave Precepts:

I vow not to kill.
I vow not to take what is not given.
I vow not to misuse sexuality.
I vow to refrain from false speech.
I vow to refrain from intoxication.
I vow not to slander.
I vow not to praise self at the expense of others.
I vow not to be avaricious.
I vow not to harbor ill will.
I vow not to disparage the three treasures.

Although we’ve used the version of the vow-based precepts for many years in our ceremonies, at some point, I think, following the lead of Bernie Glassman and the Peacemaker Order, I found this set of precepts of bearing witness that are less about vow and more about acknowledgement. Let me read this version of those ten precepts, framed from this different perspective:

I bear witness to the reality of killing and of violence in myself and in the world.
I bear witness to the reality of inequality and of greed in myself and in the world.
I bear witness to the power of sexuality and its potential for both love and for harm in myself and in the world.
I bear witness to the lack of honesty in myself and in the world.
I bear witness to the reality of delusion and the desire to evade the painful truths of life in myself and in the world.
I bear witness to the reality of blame and the avoidance of responsibility in myself and in the world.
I bear witness to the aggrandizement of the self and the denigration of others by myself and in the world.
I bear witness to the reality of possessiveness and my withholding of love and of resources.
I bear witness to the reality of my own ill will and the pain of indecisiveness in myself and in the world.
I bear witness to my own lack of faith in the power of the three treasures to relieve the suffering of all beings.

I feel that a version like that, in many ways, is truer to the legacy of Joko than a set of aspirational vows, which too often lead to the creation of a kind of idealized image that we try to hold up and maintain and aspire to.

Joko’s style was much more not to create an ideal you’re trying to live up to, but start with where you actually are, start with the kind of separations that in fact govern your daily life. So the bearing witness precepts all find violence and greed and divisiveness in myself and in the world. We’re not separating these things out, I’m not trying to say that I embody an ideal. It’s separating myself from the world in that ideal. Much more I want to begin by acknowledging these are the things that are the foundation of my life.

The other thing it’s saying, in a way, is that, particularly as lay people, we’re not trying to live apart from the world, to live a pure life. We’re trying to be honest about all the complications of interconnection and responsibility we’re involved in, in ordinary day life. There’s a certain kind of monastic ideal where you say, the world is a place of greed, anger, and delusion, and I’m going to separate myself off from that world and live differently. I’m going to live a life of non-attachment. That’s in part what home-leaving means. I’m not going to have possessions, a fixed home, I’m not going to form relational attachments, not going to have possessions, and in a sense all the vows and precepts are ways of asserting that I am going to live a life of non-attachment, apart from the ways of the world.

And then, when we do the meal chants at the end of oryoki, we say, May we exist like a lotus at home in muddy water. Well, there are many different versions of that, but some of them say something like, May we exist like a lotus, the one pure thing in the midst of muddy water, and we try to say we’re going to be a model of purity in an impure world. Well, that was certainly not Joko’s way, certainly not the way of Ordinary Mind. We would say much more, there‘s no way to be pure in this world. There’s no way to completely refrain from doing harm. There’s no way to not be implicated in the suffering of the world, not just sharing in that suffering but causing that suffering. We are part of that cycle of suffering and responsibility for suffering, and we don’t practice by trying to separate ourselves out from it, but by beginning to acknowledge our place in it and our role in it. The more we can feel that it is part of us, the more that I believe we can begin to reshape our lives in ways that don’t automatically create more separation, don’t try to create a kind of bubble of safety or purity for ourselves, which invariably ends up doing violence to those around us.

Very often, when new people come to the zendo or even now come online like this, I’ll meet with them after a while in dokusan, and they’ll ask me, what do I have to do to become your student? And basically I’ll tell them, first and foremost, you simply have to keep showing up, but really I’m not going to provide an answer to that question. Part of what I think your practice is, is for you to figure out: What do you think it is to be a student? What do you think it means for me to be your teacher? What kind of relationship do you think that actually is? What do you think you’re going to get? What am I going to give? What kind of interaction is that supposed to be?

Jukai is really the intensification and culmination of someone seriously asking those questions of themselves. It’s really trying to come to terms with that first question I ask of students: What are you doing here? Right? That’s what we’re all trying to figure out. What do we think this practice is? So I’ll leave you with that question, not with an answer. What are we doing here?

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