Sunday, August 14, 2011

Precepts as Liberation: The Freedom of Boundaries

Precepts Renewal Ceremony at the Red Clay Sangha
Please join me this morning in the renewal of the sixteen (16) Bodhisattva Precepts. Ryaku Fusatsu from San Francisco Zen Center

Precepts as Liberations
Precepts have been somewhat neglected in the early establishment of Buddhism in America (with the exception of the Thich Nhat Hanh lineage where they are paramount). This is especially true in Zen schools where they are treated as metaphysical expressions of reality and even koans, but is also true in the true in the Theravada schools, which tend to be more literal. In a recent Buddhadharma magazine discussion panel of Zen/Tibetan/Theravada on precepts it was the Theravada practitioner who replaced the words “morality” and “ethics” with “integrity” as a less menacing word. It is even common to take them only for the duration of a retreat.

Why does it seem so troubling to us in America to come upon rules in our supposed new and improved spiritual paradigm? And why should we rail against the very thought of our wonderful new spiritual power and freedom including boundaries? Perhaps it is in our very DNA to rebel against this as we all recent descendents of those who gave up everything to come here in search of a new life and way of living. The very concept of externally-imposed morality and ethics makes us cringe.

So as rebellious and revolutionary Buddhists in a Judeo-Christian society we find ourselves back in the same difficulty of having a set of rules passed down to us by an unseen master. We also have great ceremony and liturgy surrounding these to give them a sense of devotion. What gives?
Trust in the Community

If we are to trust in the teachings of the Buddha and practice together as an harmonious community we must have shared values and rules. Even the simplest actions such as walking in a circle require a rule if we are to avoid bumping into each other. We have many of these conditional rules (how to walk, how to boil water, on which side of the road to drive) and an exhaustive list would be infinite. The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts form a compact grouping that we can use to inform our actions in accord with our intentions.

By promising to each other that we will observe these precepts (and atoning when we fail to keep them) we are free to express our humanity completely within the community. We know that, even if we make mistakes, this is our shared vow of being a refuge, a place of safety and community of intentional action. Specific atonement is especially important as it can help everyone learn more about the workings of Karma and the Precepts.

This can be particularly helpful when we seek to exact revenge for injury or create stories to justify harmful actions. Most of us know by the time we reach adulthood that revenge only makes us feel worse and creating justification simply feeds delusions and creates more suffering. This liberation from the snowball effect of karma can be wondrous if we let it manifest.

Choosing a Path
Precepts are in some ways the roadmap to the Path leading to Liberation and Cessation of Suffering. While we should not mistake the map for the territory, neither do we want to negotiate it without a map. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will do.” Placing bounds on our path lets us move freely within it while still making our way towards the destination.

Staying on the Path with Difficulties
Their very existence as Precepts gives us a type of liberation in knowing that they aren’t that simple (otherwise they wouldn’t need to be spelled out). Which is not to say that we can simply let them slide, but must forgive ourselves when we try but fail (and try again). Shunru Suzuki said that life is a long series of mistakes. But no one would know that they were mistakes without the aspiration.

How We Really Want to Live
If we look closely at the Bodhisattva Precepts of Zen Buddhism, we see that they are all something we actually want to do anyway. The first three – the Treasure Refuges – give us safety and protection in an unsure world and declare our direction and path. The second three – the Pure Precepts – simply declare our intention to act in the direction of goodness without leaving us stranded in indecision. And the final ten – the Grave Precepts – give us some signposts and reminders for how to manifest those intentions in reality.

When I look at any of these precepts from an abstract point of view, I can easily say “of course I don’t want to lie”. Then I do something dumb, and want to avoid looking foolish, and trip over the precept (usually compounding the error by adding in the seventh). Then I wind up needing to atone for not only the something dumb but the lie as well.

If I can allow myself to look foolish at times (as is warranted by any normal human who makes mistakes), while I cannot escape the consequence of the mistake, I can avoid the karma of the lie. Many Buddhist teachings suggest that intention does count as regards karma. So the lie creates even larger consequences than the original mistake. And who is it that doesn’t want to look foolish here?

Imagine how free you would feel if you simply had no inclination to see anyone else’s faults or praise yourself while putting them down. Imagine anger not being present. Desire removed from its pivotal point of control of your life.

By observing the precepts we can be “liberated” from ourselves, freed from the effects of ego attachment, clinging, craving, greed, anger and delusion.

Baizhang’s Fox
I’d like to leave you with a koan commonly associated with the precepts (this can be found in The Heart of Being by John Daido Lori):
“Every time Baizhang, Zen Master Dahui, gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Baizhang asked, "Who is there?"
The man said, "I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha. One day a student asked me, 'Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.' Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body." Then he asked Baizhang, "Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?"

Baizhang said, "Don't ignore cause and effect."

Immediately the man had great realization. Bowing, he said, "I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will stay in the mountain behind the monastery. Master, could you perform the usual services for a deceased monk for me?"

Baizhang asked the head of the monks' hall to inform the assembly that funeral services for a monk would be held after the midday meal. The monks asked one another, "What's going on? Everyone is well; there is no one sick in the Nirvana Hall." After their meal, Baizhang led the assembly to a large rock behind the monastery and showed them a dead fox at the rock's base. Following the customary procedure, they cremated the body. 
That evening during his lecture in the dharma hall Baizhang talked about what had happened that day. Huangbo asked him, "A teacher of old gave a wrong answer and became a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn't given a wrong answer?"

Baizhang said, "Come closer and I will tell you." Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang's face.

Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, "I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!” 

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