by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Part XIX
The Letter of the Precepts

From these Precepts comes forth such a wind and fire that all are driven into enlightenment when the flames are fanned by the Buddha's influence: this is the merit of non-action and non-seeking--the awakening to True Wisdom.

--Great Master Dogen
Shushogi ("What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment")

The Lifeblood of the Buddhas

In Soto Zen, the Precepts are called "the Lifeblood of the Buddhas." Lay trainees receive the Precepts from a monastic Preceptor upon formally becoming a follower of the Buddha. Monks receive the Precepts from their master when they are ordained, and again at Dharma Transmission.

Formally receiving the Precepts is an important event in the life of the trainee. And it is an important step in taking the Precepts to heart. But truly taking the Precepts to heart so that, as Rev. Master often said, they become our "blood and bones"--that is the work of a lifetime.

We are always volunteers in training. The Precepts are not forced upon us; they are not commandments. The Precepts are often expressed very simply in the form of an imperative statement: "Cease from evil," for example, or "Do not kill." This is the form used in the ceremonies in which the Precepts are given and received. But after the recitation of each Precept, the person receiving the Precept is asked, "Will you keep this Precept or not?"--So we are given an opportunity to volunteer to take each Precept.

There are stories of people being given all the Precepts except one because they do not believe that they are able to keep that Precept. This usually seems to have been connected with the way in which a person makes a living. For example, a man who kills animals for food might ask to take all the Precepts except "Do not kill." Again, a woman who has been sold into prostitution might ask to take all the Precepts except "Do not indulge [or misuse] sexuality" (a Precept that is sometimes expressed more generally as "Do not covet"). In traditional societies, it can be very difficult, even impossible, to change occupations, especially in the case of people who might be living in some degree of slavery. Buddhism has always been a pragmatic and non-judgmental religion, and monks will seek ways to help people do their training within difficult circumstances.

I have a favorite way of thinking of the Precepts that strongly emphasizes the voluntary taking of the Precepts to heart. I do not remember the source of this way of taking the Precepts. The general form is as follows: "I undertake the rule of training [or Precept] to . . ." Here are some examples: "I undertake the rule of training to take refuge in the Buddha;" "I undertake the rule of training to cease from evil;" "I undertake the rule of training to refrain from speaking against others."

Who are the Precepts For?

The Precepts are for one person. If I take the Precepts to heart, then I am that one person. If you take them to heart, you are that person. If everyone in the world takes them to heart, each person is that one person.

"Each man his karma makes and must carry for himself."--I can only do my own training. Whether or not any other person in the world takes the Precepts to heart is not my business. If I try to make it my business, I will immediately fall into fault-finding, which is non-Preceptual action. When I act non-Preceptually, I hurt myself.

The above does not mean that I do not wish for all beings to know the benefits of training in the Precepts: I do wish for this. And it so happens that when I walk the path of the Precepts myself and do not worry about others, I help this wish come to pass, for all Preceptual action makes merit available to the Eternal to use for the genuine good of all.

Above all, the Precepts are for every being who recognizes that he, she, or it needs the gift of the Precepts.

Another And

We need the true spirit of the Precepts and we need the letter of the Precepts.

We undertake training in the Precepts in order to be true to our own True Nature. This "being true to our own True Nature" is the spirit of the Precepts, and it is not so easy to do. We need all the help we can get. The various formulations of individual Precepts, and various compilations of Precepts, passed down through the centuries embody deep insight. Why would we not treasure them and try to put them into practice?

Some Buddhist sects formulate individual Precepts in ways that emphasize certain aspects of their general meaning. For example, the Precept often rendered along the lines of "Do not use substances that adversely affect the mind" or "Do not misuse alchohol and drugs" is expressed in Soto Zen as "Do not sell the wine of delusion." Again, the Third Pure Precept, the most ancient wording of which may be "Purify your own heart," is expressed in Soto Zen as "Do good for others," reflecting the Mahayana emphasis on the Bodhisattvic nature of training.

In some traditions, the number of Precepts formally taken by the laity is different from that taken by monks. And some traditions may have Precepts that are absent in other traditions.

Such formal differences are not in themselves important. The ways of expressing and grouping Precepts may differ: Preceptual Truth is always the same. In other words, the letter of the Precepts may vary, but the spirit of the Precepts is immutable.


When we take the Precepts to heart, we are drawn to consider the motives and impacts of our actions. Every Precept is a window into our own heart.

If we allow the Eternal to lead the way in this self-examination, we avoid turning it into self-blame. Guilt makes us more desperate; it does not help us see clearly and make wiser choices.

How do we "allow the Eternal to lead the way in self-examination?"--By keeping our focus on maintaining a meditative attitude of mind and heart. In this way, we stay sufficiently still and open to recognize Preceptual teaching when it arises naturally in the course of daily life. In other words, to fully make use of the gift of the Precepts, we need to practice meditation.

Flashing Lights

How does Preceptual teaching arise naturally in the course of daily life?

Imagine that you are driving down a long winding mountain road in dark and dangerous conditions. You have to do the drive; there is no getting out of it. But others have gone before you, and some of them have placed flashing yellow lights at the most dangerous curves in the road.

These flashing lights have built-in sensors and sophisticated electronics and software. Each light knows the speed you are going and the conditions of the road. The light flashes faster and brighter when your need is greater (when you are going too fast and/or the road is wet or icy) than when you are in less danger.

When we take the Precepts to heart, they function like these flashing lights. Man gave us the Precepts, but the Eternal uses them to signal us when we are in spiritual danger, and adjusts the signal to our exact need. No one drives the dark, winding road of life without having hair-raising moments, but we do much better driving when we pay attention to the signals that are the Precepts.

UnBuddhist Even if True

During her retreat and kensho in 1976-77, Rev. Master came to understand the Precepts in new depth and and clarity. My frequent references to her Commentary on the Precepts in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom (Plate XII; first edition Plate VIII) is proof enough of the reverence with which I regard this teaching.

One aspect of the deepening of Rev. Master's understanding was expressed in a phrase that she began to use, "UnBuddhist even if true."

If I dwell on difficult and painful events with a downward-looking attitude of mind, I may be convinced that I am seeing the truth. And, in fact, my recollection (and/or analysis) of events may be perfectly correct, as far as it goes. But if I am looking down, I am not seeing the Buddha Nature of the events. Therefore, my dwelling on the events will constitute non-Preceptual mental action even though the recollection (and/or analysis) is true. In such a case, it can be said that I am wallowing in a lesser truth and failing to see the greater Truth.

If I go down this path, I will quickly fall into fault-finding. Perhaps I will then reinforce the problem by speaking against others--saying something true, but not True. This is a path that begins in truth with a small 't' and ends in Misery with a big 'M.'

In such a case, I need to do more than keep the letter of the Precept, "Do not say [or think] that which is not true."--I need to turn within and find the generous-hearted, upward-looking attitude that originates in the Buddha Nature. In other words, I need to keep the true spirit of the Precepts.

The Precepts

The Precepts as practiced in Soto Zen are divided into three groups: the Three Refuges; the Three Pure Precepts; the Ten Great Precepts.

The Three Refuges:

Take refuge in the Buddha.
Take refuge in the Dharma [the Buddha's Teaching].
Take refuge in the Sangha [those who follow the Buddha's Teaching].

The Three Pure Precepts:

Cease from evil.
Do only good.
Do good for others.

The Ten Great Precepts:

Do not kill.
Do not steal.
Do not covet.
Do not say that which is not true.
Do not sell the wine of delusion.
Do not speak against others.
Do not be proud of yourself and devalue others.
Do not be mean in giving either Dharma or wealth.
Do not be angry.
Do not defame the Three Treasures.


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