Precepts and vows

Buddhists tend to take lots of vows, often out loud and in public. This isn’t something uniquely Buddhist. It seems to be a human habit. People find it useful to articulate their deepest intentions, and to do so frequently.

Among the many lists of Buddhist vows and precepts, six are especially important. There are the three refuges: “I take refuge in Buddha. I take refuge in Dharma. I take refuge in Sangha.” Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha mean something like realization, truth, and harmony (specifically in relation to other beings), and these three statements, made aloud and in public, are central to the ceremony of initiation into Buddhism. There are three additional vows – Three Pure Precepts – that are also part of initiation: “Renounce all evil. Practice all good. Save all beings.”

These six are part of launching on the path of the Bodhisattva. The Sanskrit word “Bodhisattva” means something like “enlightenment-being,” implying someone who’s enlightened, someone who’s on the path of enlightenment, and someone who enlightens others. That’s what we aim for in practice, and if you’re taking up Zen practice (or considering it) it’s instructive to ask yourself what each of them means to you personally.

For example, when you hear something like, “She is enlightened,” what does it mean to you and what feelings does it arouse? Do you think, “Bunk!” Do you think, “I want to be enlightened!” What does it suggest? Does it suggest a special spiritual experience? Does it suggest someone has become some kind of super-being?

The super-being suggestion is especially tricky because it pulls on our yearning that it might be possible to be completely free from human vexations, always clear and at peace, always knowing how to behave skillfully. I am cautious about anything applied to human beings prefaced with modifiers like “completely” or “always.” Big generalizations about human beings often lead to trouble. I think it’s more useful to view Zen enlightenment in terms of one enlightened moment, one enlightened act. This is what a wise and practical person said when Yasutani Roshi’s anti-semitism was exposed: that maybe we could get past the idea of an enlightened man or woman and focus on enlightenment as one enlightened act after another (or not). This perspective, makes the idea of a Bodhisattva clearer, more grounded and realistic, and especially more useful.

When Buddhists talk about “saving” others I understand “saving” not as getting people to become Zen Buddhists or start meditating to “save” them. It’s about being in an awake relationship to life overall and to people in general and to the specific individuals in our lives and relating appropriately with awareness, compassion, and love. A tough job.

Some teachers say bodhisattva action arises naturally from meditation. I’d say “sort of, but not exactly.” As I see it, it’s the intention to act ethically that arises naturally from Zen practice, but the devil is in the details and the details don’t take care of themselves naturally. By naturally, I mean effortlessly. It’s work.

In Case 12 in the Mumonkan, Zuigan reminds himself to pay attention:

Zuigan called “Master,” to himself every day and answered himself, “Yes?”
“Be awake!” (sometimes “Are you awakened?”)
“I will.”
“Don’t be fooled by others!”
“I won’t.”

This self-talk could be understood on several levels, but very basically, we’re hearing Zuigan’s “Ethical note to self,” which he’s reputed to have repeated over and over and over again. It’s like a gatha. The word “gatha” was originally a spoken or sung verse and it’s come to mean something encouraging you say or repeat to yourself as part of practice. You can use gathas to help wake yourself up. It’s a longstanding tool. For example, Dogen offers the following for toothbrushing:

Taking my toothbrush in hand
I vow with all beings
fully to realize the subtle Dharma
and at once attain purity.
When I brush my teeth
I vow with all beings
to have the eye teeth to conquer demons
and bite through all afflictions.

If something in this general ballpark feels like it could be useful, you can write your own. You can make your own ritual. You can write a bunch of them, but I think it’s best to keep it simple – not too many, not too complicated. I sometimes have a few words up on a corner of my bathroom mirror. Right now I have two: “Selfish” and “Calm down.” Or you could try a more universal question – something you can say or ask any time. I like “What is this?” or “What am I doing?”

If you read a lot of Zen stories, you can get the impression that Zen practice bestows a magical enlightenment experience that turns you into a profound, calm, wise, and skillful person, 24/7. While there are magical and enlightening turns along the Zen path, transformation is something you do, not something you get, and tools like precepts, gathas, and vows can help with this work.