Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the Zen Precepts

There are three ways of working with the Zen precepts:  as guideposts left us by our ancestors, as mirrors for our behavior, and as paradoxes or koans for deepening our Dharma practice.

photo courtesy James Cordova
When we first begin working with the precepts, many of us approach them as rules of behavior, similar to what we learned as children in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Ten Commandments.  While this may have some validity, the effect of using the precepts in this way can be quite constricting to our practice.  We become victims of the mind of right and wrong, and put ourselves into the wrong column on the great list of do’s and don’ts leftover from early religious training.

To understand that the precepts were developed to meet actual conditions in the lives of our ancestors in the Dharma allows us to see them in a different light.  Each time someone did something or said something that created difficulties in the community, the Buddha and his followers and descendants created a precept to help future students.

Each time we encounter a situation that produces suffering in others, or in ourselves, we may try to trace back all the causes and conditions that created the situation.  At a certain point in our practice, we begin to understand that tracing all of the causes and conditions is impossible.  We may be able to discern a few, or even many, but not all of the events that occurred in the past that have lead to this moment.  This is one helpful way to understand the workings of karma in our lives – that there is definitely a law of cause and effect, but one cause does not create one effect.  Numberless causes contribute to each effect.  And numberless effects stem from each cause.

This is where the precepts become helpful.  Someone else, not necessarily wiser than we are, but with the benefit of long experience of life and the mind, has seen patterns of cause and effect that are consistent.  Certain thoughts, words and behaviors seem to lead to certain effects that are damaging and cause suffering.  Avoiding these simply makes sense.

Of course, in order to do this, we have to have faith in the perceptions of our ancestors.  In Zen we value the path of self-discovery, so one way to develop faith in the precepts is not to follow them, and see what the consequences are.  “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” as William Blake advises.  Wisdom develops in some of us through this stubborn path of trial and error.

A short-cut might be to simply follow the precepts.

In working with the precepts as koans, we begin by considering them as described above:  first as literal guideposts, handed down as gifts from our ancestors.

After that, we look at the precepts with the eyes of limitless compassion, recognizing that all beings create suffering, mostly through ignorance, and rarely or never on purpose.  Everyone kills, lies, steals, and on and on.  We see ourselves and others "breaking" the precepts on a regular basis, and we meet this human activity with a spacious, never-ending  and somewhat sorrowful understanding.

And then finally we look at the precepts through the lens of emptiness, thusness, shunyata, in which there can never be any right or wrong.  

We discover that we may have a preference for one of these three views, in which case, it is important that we cultivate the other two, until all three ways of understanding human behavior through the precepts become one, and we learn to live in an ever-shifting reality of human aspiration, error and the all-encompassing dharmakaya that surrounds and is everything.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Surprise of the heart

Lake Como between cypresses

In case 47 of the koan collection the Book of Equanimity, a monk asks Great Master Zhaozhou, "What is the living meaning of Chan Buddhism?"  And he replies, "The cypress tree in the garden."  Another master,  Zhenru Fang, when still a student, once woke from a dream with this story in his mind.  He went to his teacher who asked him how he understood Zhaozhou's meaning, and Zhenru replied, "All night the bed mat's warm -- as soon as you awaken, dawn has come."

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that a holy teaching is "an occasion when the heart surprises the mind."  The stories and sayings of our Zen ancestors can seem remote and strange.  But when we pause, just for a moment, and simply see what is here, bypassing the filter of the discursive mind, things become clear.  Trees declare it, and the warmth of the bed and the light of dawn speak of it.  When there is nothing in the way of this clarity, life reveals itself.

Wansong comments on this case: "The cypress tree in the garden, the wind-blown flag on the pole -- it's like one flower bespeaking a boundless spring, like one drop telling of the water of the ocean."    

The tree, the bed, the dawn light -- let your heart be surprised by what is right here, and the words of the ancient masters come alive, personally and immediately.