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  • Dharma Talk with Kanho Chris Burkhart : History of the Precepts

Dharma Talk with Kanho Chris Burkhart : History of the Precepts

  • Saturday, November 04, 2023
  • Zoom Zendo

Kanho Chris offers a reflection on the history of the precepts during the community's first Samish Fall sesshin.

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Talk Notes

An unsurpassed, penetrating and perfect Dharma is rarely met with,

even in a hundred thousand million kalpas.

Having it to see and listen to, to remember and accept,

I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagata’s words.

Good morning, friends.

How are you today? I hope that you are well and I am so happy to see so many of you you here in person and on the screen via Zoom. November on Samish Island feels very different from our June sesshin. On the other hand, the dark and cold feel almost like an invitation to wait, an invitation to wait for the coming light, the grand reveal, the celebration. And this is truly how I feel today. This afternoon there will be a jukai ceremony: three more baby bodhisattvas will be taking the precepts. In one way, nothing much will change. People will continue to live their lives, continue to bump onto furniture, argue over Thanksgiving turkeys, and watch football games.

And yet, in our Soto Zen tradition, the precepts ceremony shows up over and over again as the core of other ceremonies. Over and over, we are asked to take on the precepts as a way of life. We should deeply investigate for ourselves what taking on the precepts means to us personally. How will it look like in real life? Superficially, we can say, yeah, no problem. All this makes sense. I don't run around killing, stealing, etc. Following the literal precepts makes sense.

If we stop here, we deprive ourselves of the potential offered by the precepts. Yes, we can improve on our conduct, be can do a little bit better. Embracing the precepts on that level is great! Of course, as an alternative, we can create enough space to allow transformation, the radical dissolution and reformation of our moral landscape so we don't need to wonder if we have made of life something particular, and real.

My teacher Norman Fischer said “In Zen precept practice, the fundamental, absolute ground of ethics is being itself. Because we and the world exist, there are precepts. Things are. Life is. And in this, not being is also included. A moment of time arising is a moment of time passing. Being born is the beginning of dying. This is sad, tragic, and probably impossible for us to fully appreciate. Yet we can and do feel the immensity of being itself—and the strangeness of unbeing. Grounding our lives in this fundamental truth is the fruit of our practice. This is where the teaching of “no difference between good and evil” comes from. It is essential. But it can’t be taken out of context.”

When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measle-pox when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades, I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility, and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence, and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth. When it's over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

But how did we get here? During the Buddha's lifetime, many rules, hundreds of them, were created often as a direct response to some event. On his deathbed, the Buddha said that the sangha should drop the less important rules. However, the monks could not agree which rules should be eliminated. At the First Buddhist council, Upali listed the rules and they were accepted as the vinaya. Subsequently, the strict Vinaya rule was followed everywhere in the Buddhist world for hundreds of years. From the point of view of the Vinaya rules, interactions with others are only important insofar as they affect your consciousness and your personal liberation.

When Buddhism came to China, it was mostly Mahayana Buddhism that took a hold. With its foundation of compassion and the emptiness teachings a different expression of guidelines was needed. Confucianism had deeply imprinted a sense of social responsibilty. So, the Chinese community expanded the understanding of the vinaya to express and integrate compassion and social virtue. This became a hallmark of Zen in China and later Japan. We follow mind and heart, rather than the letter of the vinaya. This is very clearly stated in our Zen practice, so it's quite a different attitude.

Mary Oliver explains it like this, as a doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.

It doesn't have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try to make them elaborate, this isn't a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.

In the 5th century CE, the Brahmajalasutra, the "Brahma's Net Sutra" Though it was claimed to be a translation from the Pali or the Sanskrit almost all scholars agree that this was basically another fake sutra that was written in China. This sutra contains fifty-eight precepts: ten major precepts, which are similar to but not exactly the same as the grave precepts in Zen, and forty-eight minor precepts. It is important to note that these are not monastic precepts meant just for monastics; they were written to be practiced by both monastics and lay practitioners.

In Japan one of the early founders of the Tendai School, Saitcho, established in the eighth century an independent ordination platform in which only the fifty-eight precepts were used, not the monastic precepts. This seems like a really radical step, but maybe not so much as you think, because in Japan they never did establish the Vinaya ordination nearly as strongly as they had in China, India, and in other Buddhist countries. So it wasn't that hard for Saitcho to change the ordination in this radical way. Dogen, who was a Tendai monk in the thirteenth century, was ordained with the fifty-eight precepts

But How did we get from fifty-eight to sixteen? We follow the sixteen bodhisattva precepts, which include the three refuges and the three pure precepts, as well as the ten grave precepts. This combination of rules is unique to Zen, and probably created by Dogen himself. While all of the sixteen precepts existed before, and Dogen did make reformulate them in this specific way. Never before had the three refuges and the three pure precepts been part of precepts or guidelines. Thus there was a return to a ethical formulation in Buddhism extending beyond rules into a greater society.

Lifestyle precepts, specific rules, matter, they are important. On the other hand, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts are completely understood as religious commitments that We receive the precepts in jukai, zaike tokudo, in a ritual. Dogen understood the sixteen precepts mainly on the ultimate level the ultimate expression of Dharma, as the expression of the Buddha's life,. He saw them, as an object of contemplation, almost unknowable.

One of Dogen's main religious insights is that practice and realization are not two different things as we would think, one being the culmination, and practice the means, the method to reach it, as the end and the other is the means. Practice-realization for him was one word. Every moment of practice is a moment of realization. Sitting down for zazen re-enacts the Buddha's enlightenment. The only realization is through practice, one continuously, eternally unfolding process. And the precepts are important, because they are the outward manifestation of this process. If there must be love, compassion, patience, freedom, or it is not the precepts. The precepts are living by vow.

Often I end my talks with a poem. However, today, I will end with a reading of the precepts, adding commentary by Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor in China, and Dogen Zenji, the founder of our Zen school in Japan.

The First Grave Precept: Not Killing

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the everlasting Dharma, not giving rise to concepts of killing is called the Precept of Not Killing.”

Dogen Zenji said, “The Buddha-seed grows in accordance with not taking life. Transmit the life of Buddha’s wisdom and do not kill.”

The Second Grave Precept: Not Stealing

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the unattainable Dharma, not having thoughts of gaining is called the Precept of Not Stealing.”

Dogen Zenji said, “The self and the things of the world are just as they are. The gate of emancipation is open.”

The Third Grave Precept: Not Misusing Sex

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the ungilded Dharma, not creating a veneer of attachment is called the Precept of Not Misusing Sex.”

Dogen Zenji said, “The Three Wheels are pure and clear. When you have nothing to desire, you follow the way of all Buddhas.”

The Fourth Grave Precept: Not Lying

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the inexplicable Dharma, not preaching a single word is called the Precept of Not Lying.”

Dogen Zenji said, “The Dharma wheel turns from the beginning. There is neither surplus nor lack. The whole universe is moistened with nectar, and the truth is ready to harvest.”

The Fifth Grave Precept: Not Giving or Taking Drugs

Bodhidharma said “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the intrinsically pure Dharma, not giving rise to delusions is called the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs.”

Dogen Zenji said, “Drugs are not brought in yet. Don’t let them invade. That is the great light.”

The Sixth Grave Precept: Not Discussing Faults of Others

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the flawless Dharma, not expounding upon error is called the Precept of Not Speaking of Faults of Others.”

Dogen Zenji said, “In the Buddha Dharma, there is one path, one Dharma, one realization, one practice. Don’t permit fault-finding. Don’t permit haphazard talk.”

The Seventh Grave Precept: Not Praising Yourself While Abusing Others

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the equitable Dharma, not dwelling upon I against you is called the Precept of Not Praising Yourself While Abusing Others.”

Dogen Zenji said, “Buddhas and Ancestral Teachers realize the empty sky and the great earth. When they manifest the noble body, there is neither inside nor outside in emptiness. When they manifest the Dharma body there is not even a bit of earth on the ground.”

The Eighth Grave Precept: Not Sparing the Dharma Assets

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the genuine, all-pervading Dharma, not being stingy about a single thing is called the Precept of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets.”

Dogen Zenji said, “One phrase, one verse – that is the ten thousand things and one hundred grasses; one dharma, one realization – that is all Buddhas and Ancestral Teachers. Therefore, from the beginning, there has been no stinginess at all.”

The Ninth Grave Precept: Not Indulging in Anger

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the selfless Dharma, not contriving reality for the self is called the Precept of Not Indulging in Anger.”

Dogen Zenji said, “Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is an ocean of bright clouds. There is an ocean of solemn clouds.”

The Tenth Grave Precept: Not Defaming the Three Treasures

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the One, not holding dualistic concepts of ordinary beings and sages is called the Precept of Not Defaming the Three Treasures.”

Dogen Zenji said, “The teisho of the actual body is the harbor and the weir. This is the most important thing in the world. Its virtue finds its home in the ocean of essential nature. It is beyond explanation. We just accept it with respect and gratitude.”

May our intention equally extend to

Every being and place

With the true merit of buddha’s way.

Beings are numberless;

I vow to save them.

Delusions are inexhaustible;

I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless;

I vow to enter them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable;

I vow to become it.

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