Tuesday, October 25, 2011


In past talks I have mentioned what are known as the Buddhist precepts. Tonight I would like to talk about them.

First, what is a precept?

Simply, it’s a type of behavior.

Second, what are Buddhist precepts?

Buddhist precepts are ethical guidelines related to a harmonious life.

Some Westerners compare Buddhist precepts to the ten commandments of Christianity. However, unlike the ten commandments, they are not mandates, or edicts, or rules. Furthermore, one does not have to be a Buddhist to realize the precepts are common sense notions of behavior.

Rather than an individual being finger-wagged and given a bunch of “do not do this,” one is encouraged to use one’s intelligence to apply the precepts in the best way possible in life.

There are anywhere from five Buddhist precepts to 227, depending on the source of information. One source says ten precepts are considered major, 48 minor. But that’s splitting hairs and making judgments. I don’t know anything about the other 169.

I will talk about only five precepts, since most of the others are specialized ones that are given to novices to prepare them for a monastic life.

In most cases, receiving the Buddhist precepts involves a full blown ceremony that includes bowing, chanting, and gonging. During the ritual a master reads each precept aloud and asks the individual receiver if he or she can keep each one. If all goes according to plan, each time the receiver answers “Yes, I can.”

The master acknowledges the positive responses, and with that the receiver is considered a Buddhist.

Presumably, then you entitled to reveal to the world that you are a Buddhist. It’s sort of like admitting publicly you’re gay. Not that anyone cares to know.

Here are the five basic precepts, plus a clarification of each. Of course there are countless exceptions for every one, and every one is open to questions of philosophy and morals. But as I present each precept, just receive it without agreeing or disagreeing.

Later we can discuss them.


One should not deprive any living creature of life. That means one should not stomp on creeping ants or worms or caterpillars. Do not shoot squirrels or deer or elephants. Do not shoot other humans. No matter how contemptible or weird a living form may be, every being has a right to life.

I know you will ask what about Hitler, or termites, but let’s save the questions until later.

To paraphrase Dr. Bodhippriya Subhadra Sinwardena, an Indian Buddhist: “Nobody has the right to destroy the life of another for any reason. But we know human beings kill others individually and collectively in the name of human rights, religion, peace, and population control.”

In the name of human rights, religion, peace, and population control, eh? In practical terms, especially in the Western World, these are assumed to be good purposes.


If something is not given, one may not take it by stealing, by force, or by fraud. To steal, or to possess anything that belongs to others, is to ignore the well being and the dignity of others as well as oneself. Such actions are based on excessive desire.

And what do desire and greed lead to?

In a word, attachment.

According to an old Buddhist writing, this precept applies not only to valuable items such as gold and silver, but even to things as small and inexpensive as needles.

To quote Korean Master Wu Bong, “This precept teaches one to accept oneself wholly. To make this total acceptance is to become complete, to attain the Buddha state.”

Dogen wrote that giving means non-greed. Non-greed means not to long for something.


This is often stated in an earthier way: “I will avoid sexual misconduct.”

Human moral standards vary in different countries and in different times. Who is to say one thing is perverted or nasty, and something else is okay? However, any behavior—sexual or other—that is injurious to others shows disrespect for individuals and is demeaning to all concerned.

As writer Winton Higgins suggests, sexuality is a very strong energy, the focus of many cravings and delusions. If we have the inclination to make fools of ourselves, to act stupidly and destructively, then we are likely to objectify it in our sex lives. But we also have the opposite propensity to act consciously and considerately.


To refrain from telling falsehoods—no matter if they are fibs or whoppers—is to show respect for the truth. When a Buddhist observes the fourth precept he avoids outright lying or even half-facts that exaggerate or understate.

Essentially this means that one will not spread gossip or rumor that is not known to be certain. Also implied is that one will not criticize, condemn, or pass judgment on things that can cause disharmony.

In the book The Pocket Zen Reader, John Clearly mentions that Master Ta-sui was asked, “What is the very first point.”

Ta-sui replied, “Don’t think falsely.”


Actually, Precept 5 is usually worded as “I will not be a lush.” It says, “I will not take intoxicants.” I will quote the wording from one source.

“Taking intoxicants will lose the seed of wisdom. Liquor, drugs, smoking, and such, can be harmful to one’s mind and health. Under the successive influence of intoxicants one may lose self-control of body as well as mind. Further, the influence of overindulgence in such things may cause one to harm others.”

It’s a proven medical fact that intoxicants and drugs can be harmful to the human body and mind. As with anything else, use common sense. If you sense you are starting to mess up yourself or others, change your behavior.

I’ll wind this up with some words by Master Wu Bong: “The precepts are to help us cut off our attachments, and when that is done, then all precepts are kept naturally.”

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Gudo Wafu Nishijima is the Zen master most notably associated with the four-volume English translation of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. In a sesshin Nishijima gave in Switzerland a few years ago, he courageously opened himself to a barrage of questions asked by an audience of Zen practitioners.

This talk is a review of some of the questions that were asked. Not all the answers are Nishijima’s.

Question: What is gained in Buddhism?
This is a reasonable query because human nature tends to think in terms of compensation. If I do this or that, what do I get in return?

However, to answer the question, Nishijima went into a convoluted description of the Japanese words JijuyoZanmai, and of the autonomic nervous system. His explanation was tortuous enough to make your head throb, so I won’t repeat it.

To keep things simple, which is what Zen is all about, the straightforward answer to what is gained in Buddhism is inward balance.

That word “balance” pops up again in this talk. See if you can catch it.

Question: What is the meaning of Dharma Transmission?
Dharma Transmission is the sharing of Buddhist truth and Buddhist wisdom. Traditionally this marked a formal ceremony in which a master physically handed over his robe and eating bowl to a disciple. It was an action that symbolized the disciple’s comprehension of the master’s teaching.

Some Buddhist groups today observe Dharma transmission by having the disciple acknowledge what are known as the Five Precepts. These are vows such as “I will be mindful of all life;” “I will respect the property of others,” and so on. In this formal approach, a certificate is sometimes awarded, and there is chanting and ritual.

My transmission was pretty basic. After I had studied for several years with Master Hiromu Oda, he said, “You have understood everything I have to say to you. Now go out and tell others.”

Which is what I try to do.

Question: What is a Zen master?
Nishijima replied that “Zen Master” may be the translation of the Japanese words “Zen Ji,” which means a teacher of zazen. And, as we know, zazen is no more than, or no less than, meditation.

I teach zazen. Does that qualify me to declare I’m a master? I prefer to use the term “teacher.”

Zazen can be taught, Nishijima said. But it is necessary for each person to practice zazen himself or herself.

Nishijima cautions that we should be careful with the word “Zen,” since to some misguided people the word has a mystical meaning.

Dogen raved against such terms as “Zen sect,” “Zen school,” and “Zen patriarch,” saying that they were all twigs and leaves rooted in a distorted view.

In other words, we shouldn’t get hung up on the term “Zen.” Or on the word “master,” either. A master is a person who has mastered himself or herself and lives in balance.

Question: What is our true original nature?
This is Nishijima’s answer: “Generally speaking, it is usually impossible for us to know our true original nature, because it is just a simple fact at the present moment, and so it is usually impossible for us to grasp it at the present moment.”

Question: What is life and Death?
Again, Nishijima’s answer is worth quoting: “When our heart has stopped and if it doesn’t move again, the state is called death, and when our heart is moving without stopping, that state is called life.”

Question: What is Buddha-nature?
The expression “Buddha-nature” turns up frequently in Buddhist writings. Like most terms, Buddha-nature has more than a few definitions, and boiling them down to a clear-cut explanation is nearly impossible. But most of them imply that Buddha-nature is an inherent potential for awakening, and it exists in every living being.

By inherent potential is meant that whether you know it or not, you have the capacity for awakening.

I’ll say it again another way. Buddha-nature is an inherent potential for reaching awakening. That potential exists in every living being, and you can either use it or lose it.

Master Dogen said Buddha-nature is not something of the past or of the future, but a state of body and mind at a precise moment.

If you want more details on Dogen’s thinking, read his talk titled Bussho, The Buddha-nature, in Shobogenzo Book 2.

Question: What are Heaven and Hell?
To quote Nishijima, “Heaven is a human supposition and Hell is also a human supposition.” End of quote.

Although ancient Buddhist writings mention heaven and hell, they are used as metaphors, as figures of speech.

The Western World says Heaven, often called Paradise, is up there, and that’s where you go after death if you’ve been good while you were alive. Hell, also called The Inferno, is down there, and that is where you go if you’ve been bad.

Master Oda said heaven and hell are not something humans experience after death because no one has died and lived to tell what being dead was like. Therefore, it is foolish to worry about heave, hell, or even death. Instead, Oda said, when we live fully in every moment, we create our own heaven or hell.

To quote myself, when we are awakened and fully aware, that is heaven; when we are out of balance, that is hell.

Fred Astaire said heaven was dancing cheek-to-cheek.
Mark Twain said, Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.

Did anyone catch at least two mentions of the word “balance”?