Engaging The Bodhisattva Precepts: a talk by Leland Shields on October 8, 2017

Posted by on Oct 13, 2017 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Engaging The Bodhisattva Precepts: a talk by Leland Shields on October 8, 2017

It seems civility is violated daily in our public discourse. White supremacists seem newly emboldened as we saw in Charlottesville. Early this year in our own state, respected professor Bret Weinstein objected to a proposed demonstration on the Evergreen State College campus, and received death threats. Also this year, the Dallas News reported that Representative Tony Tinderholt received death threats over his bill to abolish abortion. More recently and while I was writing this talk, yet another senseless mass shooting occurred, this time in Las Vegas.

Internationally, Buddhists are not immune to this pervasive dynamic. Largely Buddhist Myanmar (90%) is responsible for death and cruelty to Rohingya Muslims.

Dualistic responses abound around us, among us, and I think it’s safe to say within us. Hate crimes have risen sharply in the past year. But perhaps these times are not unusual in the course of human history. The Precepts were not written for a time in history, they were written because we are human. Further affirming the universality of what we speak, the Buddhist precepts are also not unique. During Yom Kippur last weekend, Al Chet, the traditional prayer of forgiveness, was recited numerous times in each synagogue around the world. Al Chet includes recognition of sins akin in spirit to our own precepts, of speaking falsely, exploitation, malice, hate, and others. Even in sincere practice, we can be blind, and can benefit from reminders of specific awareness about things we do and don’t do that can adversely affect those around us.

In our lineage, in the Jukai ceremony we take the 16 Bodhisattva precepts that includes taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, The Three Pure Precepts, and The Ten Grave Precepts.


The Ten Grave Precepts in our sutra book are:

I take up the Way of Not Killing.

I take up the Way of Not Stealing.

I take up the Way of Not Misusing Sex.

I take up the Way of Not Speaking Falsely.

I take up the Way of Not Giving or Taking Drugs.

I take up the Way of Not Discussing Faults of Others.

I take up the Way of Not Praising Myself While Abusing Others.

I take up the Way of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets.

I take up the Way of Not Indulging in Anger.

I take up the Way of Not Defaming the Three Treasures.

The Three Pure Precepts in our sutra book are:

I vow to maintain the Precepts.

I vow to practice all good dharmas.

I vow to save the many beings.

I’m pleased to say that I have only the deepest respect for the generosity, integrity, and intentions of all I know in TTS. Thus, application of precepts in our setting requires a more nuanced consideration. Each of us can benefit from reflection on engagement with the precepts, to benefit all beings, and to manifest practice in this very moment. Each precept is rich, and could well be the subject of its own talk. Today, I will instead look more generally at the practice of the precepts as koans, and how we can hold and savor them.

For my own comfort, I need to include one disclosure. Perhaps it’s already obvious that I’m not an expert on relationship or the precepts. I have not taken Jukai myself, and even if I had, can only offer reflections for our mutual consideration regarding precepts and the application of our practice in relationship.

The daily news is replete with examples of violations of the intentions of the Ten Grave Precepts. Starting at the top: taking the way of not killing stands out with Las Vega fresh in all our minds. Whether or not directly killing, many actions can indirectly be detrimental to life through fostering poverty, climate change, divisive anger, and discussion of the faults of others. Taking up the way of not killing is indeed a subtle, wonderful, and necessary practice. It is a practice that is not far away from any of us as, even as we sit, and speak today.

The Three Pure Precepts themselves are comprehensive. In the first of the 3 Pure Precepts, we embrace all precepts, which includes the Ten Grave Precepts. The second Pure Precept is affirmative – in addition to the avoidance of harmful behaviors, we practice all good. In the third, we commit to the liberation of all.

With the commitment to liberate all beings, we are reminded that we are not talking about someone else when we are offended by the lack of civility, violence and threat of violence. If contemptuous of divisiveness, we are divided. The more acrid the atmosphere, the more imperative that we renew our vow to save all beings, now, leaving no one and nothing separate. Any breach in acting within the precepts that we perceive by others calls us back – saving all beings leaves no one and nothing separate. I have not found this to be easy in recent months.

Holding the Precepts is also practice itself. Just as in kinhin, after the sound of the clapper, we walk to our seat and take this step with nowhere to go. We hold intentions of moral behaviors and there is no one to behave morally. This is not amnesty or pardon for harmful behavior. We can drive freely about the world, operating within the painted lines and laws of the road. It is miraculous how well millions of people seamlessly drive a few feet apart, and for the benefit of all, trust and adhere to the lane markings. There is no contradiction between freedom and lawful driving. Holding the precepts is no different.

My old friend and colleague, Bruce, visited last month; his unusual example inspired reflection on the subtlety of daily ethical choices we all face. Bruce owns a car that has not left his driveway for 12 years as he bikes and uses public transportation instead. He wastes little that I could see in food, napkins, or materials that can be repaired, given a little time. I wrote about the trade-offs he was willing to make including eating spoiled food from what I thought was his commitment to a small carbon foot print, and taking up the way of not killing on a global scale through the smallest of actions. When I showed what I wrote to Bruce for his comments and permission to use the story, I found I had not fully understood my friend after all.

He did not perceive sacrifice in his choices, and his choices were based on many factors beyond climate change. Surely my error in understanding must relate to one or two of the precepts. For our purposes, it led me to consider that the same is likely true for all of us – even our reasons for taking up a precept can include deeply individual factors. Let us not be confused by the complexity of taking up the precepts, however, and thus miss their simplicity – I take up the way of not killing.

Yet, we all must draw a line, here and now. I could not help but reconsider my own choices each day, showering in hot water – for how long? –, driving to work – or walking at what cost to arthritic joints? – , and disposing of food that while not fully spoiled, had lost its appeal days before.

By one estimate, making $32,400 or more in a year falls under the category of the top 1% of income world-wide. Everyone sometimes uses resources indiscreetly – where is the line between excess and asceticism? Where is the middle way? With consideration of other precepts, everyone sometimes talks unkindly about another individual or group – where is the line between being unkind and trying to better understand uncomfortable feelings about another through conversation? Everyone sometimes chooses to deaden awareness – where is the line between deadening and just relaxing?

Certainly, we have grand choices about our commitment to living ethically, generously, and there are the choices that arise moment by moment. As practice, the question is not only about making ethical choices, but the spirit with which we make them. The way to truly minimize our carbon footprint is to physically die now and cease the use of resources. In Bruce’s response to me, he quoted a Harvard professor who wrote a book about cycling and the environment. The author argued that cycling has a negative environmental impact because the exercise fosters people living longer and therefore consuming more energy and resources. He prosed the best thing we could for the environment would be to take up smoking and die sooner. Taken to the extreme, one could take this to say that taking up the way of not killing means to foster one’s own, or other humans’ deaths.

Clearly this is internally inconsistent. Taking up smoking to shorten life is short of practicing all good, and separate from saving all beings – all beings, right here, leaving none out. In minimizing carbon foot print, what use is there for art, cuisine, dance, or travelling even a small distance for any of the above? It is easy, and understandable, that such contradictions, the scale of world problems, and the insignificance of our efforts can hobble our actions through complacency and despair.

To include all The Three Pure Precepts, discernment is necessary.

We have wonderful examples of discernment in our traditions, including the well-known story of Thich Nath Hanh’s poem, “Please Call Me By My True Names.” I won’t repeat the story or the poem now, because I expect most of you already know it well. It is a story that unfailingly moves me, carrying me through Thich Nath Hanh’s own anger at the brutal acts of pirates, to his dropping the barriers to his own piracy, and barriers to his own compassion.

Embracing all, there is also no denying that Zen practice does not save us from blindness, as the book Zen at War demonstrates. In 1934 Japan, our respected dharma ancestor, Harada Daiun Sogaku wrote:

The Japanese people are a chosen people whose mission is to control the world. The sword which kills is also the sword which gives life. Comments opposing war are the foolish opinions of those who can only see one aspect of things and not the whole.

Politics conducted on the basis of a constitution are premature, and therefore fascist politics should be implemented for the next ten years…Similarly, education makes for shallow, cosmopolitan-minded persons. All people of this country should do Zen. That is to say, they should all awake to the Great Way of the Gods. This is Mahayana Zen.

Another example comes to mind in thinking about ways to live all The Three Pure Precepts. In the life of Jewish Theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, he began at an early age, studying Jewish orthodoxy and mysticism, and writing poetry, refining his beliefs, practices and writing as Hitler came to power in Germany. Heschel fled to teach in New York without his family, who were lost to the death camps.

In this period of his life he wrote a poem that differed from what we might find in our tradition only in his use of the word “God.”

God follows me everywhere –

Spins a net of glances around me,

Shines upon my sightless back like a sun…


God follows me in tramways, in cafes,

Oh, it is only with the back of the pupils of one’s eyes that one can see how secrets ripen, how visions come to be.

(American Prophets: Seven Religious Radical & Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, Albert J. Raboteau, page 6.)

Remaining committed to what in our language we might call his practice, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that he connected religion and politics. He began thinking, writing, and speaking about civil rights, the needs of the less fortunate, and in opposition to the Vietnam War. He reflected that few are guilty, but all are responsible (page 8). In writings that I found particularly provocative, he warned that moral apathy arose from indifference (complacency), and despair. His writings led to his invitation in 1963 to address a conference titled, “Religion and Race.” To the conferees he first spoke of his discomfort with the very name given the conference, seeing the words “religion” and “race” as contradictory.

To act in the spirt of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirt of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity…Racism is worse than idolatry. Racism is Satanism, unmitigated evil.”

I would not necessarily use the words, “God,” “religion,” and “race,” as Heschel did, but I am grateful for his pointer to that which is here, and cannot be divided. I also respect his conviction, and willingness to speak his conscience. I think it’s likely that he offended many in the room at the time, all there of concern for racism. I think his words would likely offend people from many perspectives today as well. It must not have offended Martin Luther King; In 1965 Heschel marched side by side with King in Selma. Deeply moved, Heschel wrote this soon after:

For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.

Protest and prayer intimately entangled. On that day in 1965 for Heschel, walking arose from the entanglement.

The world beckons us to, and with, intimacy. Shakyamuni didn’t stay seated under the Bodhi tree after seeing the Venus star. He recognized the Venus star / he and the Venus star were and are intimate. Shakyamuni recognized suffering / he and suffering were and are intimate. There was no space between the Venus star, rising, and speaking the four noble truths.

We are intimate also with our complacency, holding it close, and with despair. Intimate also with confusion, not knowing what to do. There is no waiting for intimacy, it is here. We are already hopelessly entangled.

It seems no religion, no endeavor is free from the potential of rigidity, and the potential of being complicit in the ethos of our time and place. That we look back at our own lineage and cringe, that we similarly cringe in looking back at our nation’s founders is a good thing. I can only hope that a future generation will look back at me and us and recognize our limitations. This is what progress looks like, as humanity world-wide has glacially slowly crept toward open heartedness, toward taking up the way of the Precepts. Where rape and pillage by the victor was once the expectation, there is now a court for international war crimes.

Therefore, we need not be deterred from our attempts at living the precepts, when open hearted and not, when certain and not. Even as we commit to The Ten Grave Precepts, not knowing, too, is our practice. It’s a given, we will get things wrong through action – in violation of the first of The Three Pure Precepts, and inaction – in violation of the second. So we sit once again, together, and so we take this breath, wherever we find ourselves, in commitment to opening to all -living into the third pure precept.

Mohandas Gandhi was a man of his own limitations (and precept violations), and of spiritual commitment, and ethical action. He named his movement Satyagraha from the word “Sat,” meaning truth, and “Agraha,” firmness. It is our practice to open our eyes and to see what is – to commit to doing so is taking the precepts, and to Satyagraha. To firmly seeing what is true when reminding ourselves of the precepts is to be creatively open to that which we do and see that is inconsistent with the precepts, that which we could do that is affirmatively acting on the precepts, and to the falling away of doing and not doing.

Each precept is a koan in our tradition, in both literal and figurative senses. Each is concrete and we know what it says about our behavior. We know to not steal, to not misuse sex, and to not praise ourselves and abuse others. The civility and survival of the world depends on it. The compassionate interaction among us in every conversation depends on it. And each precept is beyond knowing, requiring engagement of body and mind, living the statement of the precept without understanding the question, cultivating the response, and standing aside for its full expression. In our translation, each beginning with “I take up the way…” no end point, always unfolding, and always engaging.

In The Practice of Perfection, Aitken Roshi included this koan:

A monk asked T’ou-tzu, “All sounds are the sounds of Buddha – right or wrong?”

T’ou-tzu said, “Right.”

The monk said, “Your reverence, doesn’t your asshole make farting sounds?” T’ou-tzu then hit him.

Again the monk said, “Coarse words or subtle talk, all returns to the primary meaning – right or wrong?”

T’ou-tzu said, “Right.”

The monk said, “Then can I call Your Reverence a donkey?” T’ou-tzu then hit him.

This could be a koan for our time, when again and again to follow the precepts we are called to respond without falling into duality to one side or the other. In 2016, two NFL players were open to the truth of recent killings of blacks by police, consulted others and spent hours sitting their way, before arriving at a response. To put one knee to the ground during the national anthem in what one described as a respectful gesture, like a flag at half-mast. Like a bow. Others understood the gesture differently until today to stand or kneel can be taken as joining one side, or another side for players, coaches, owners, and fans. This is the ever-present and important koan of duality as it shows up influentially everywhere.

But that is not all that shows up. I began this talk reciting instances of divisiveness so intense it led to death threats. Included in the truth of what is, we see acts of conscience abound, as caring and sincere people everywhere seek a response, here, and here.

I don’t mean to offer precepts as koans to make them grand or inaccessible, rather to suggest we take one at a time, as immediate to this moment, and to let them work you. Beyond right and wrong, “I take up the way of not killing.” Even if you have taken this up numerous times, how about now? And as the day goes on, and the week, how about now?