An Introduction to Precepts Study

This is the text of a talk I gave at the start of the current cycle of Precepts study, in September 2016.  Much, if not most of it, was shamelessly lifted from the very wonderful talks given by Zoketsu Norman Fischer on the subject; audio recordings of these and hundreds of other talks can be found on the Everyday Zen website.



The Precepts are properly called the Bodhisattva Precepts. The word Bodhisattva literally means “enlightening beings”, beings who work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. As Zen practitioners, our way is the way of the Bodhisattva: all of us are Bodhisattvas in training.

It has been said that Zazen consists of two parts: sitting down, and getting up again and taking our places in the world.  We sit in order to cultivate the spaciousness and stability that makes it possible to practice beautiful conduct. That’s the whole point of practice.

Practice is about beautiful conduct. It’s really about how we live: how we conduct ourselves on a moment by moment basis, through our own lives, and in relation to the lives, and the Life, around us.

And the Precepts simply describe beautiful conduct. They’re not rules about “right and wrong”, but rather the way someone would inevitably conduct themselves from a felt sense of being inseparable from the flow of life.  When we truly know, in our bones and our blood, how deeply our lives are intertwined, it is inevitable that we will aspire to support life in every way that we can. This felt sense is the basis for beautiful conduct.

But of course, all conduct isn’t beautiful; recent (and not so recent) political developments are painful reminders of this. We’re human beings; we get anxious, we get angry. We experience ourselves as separate, and sometimes at odds with, the world, or parts of it.

So the Precepts can also be a lens through which to look, in a way that’s up close and personal, at some of our conduct that arises from a sense of separation and being at odds with the world. The word “Dukkha” – which is usually translated as “suffering” – literally means “a wheel out of kilter”.  When we feel out of kilter, the Precepts can help us name the wobble, so that we can feel into it more closely, and get to know that part of ourselves.  As we view our behaviours through the lens of the Precepts we might recognise some of these behaviours as outdated habits; and it’s more than likely we’ll run into parts of ourselves that are afraid, angry, that feel isolated or in despair.  Bringing these parts into the light of day, where they can be met with compassion, opens them up for healing.

And in the process, we will certainly discover, over and over again, that it’s simply not possible to follow the Precepts in some absolute way, as if they were rules. It’s sometimes really hard to know what’s good or bad, right or wrong – and the longer we live, the more we realise this.  Life is just too messy, too complicated, every situation is unique, and we have no idea how things will actually turn out once we’ve launched an action onto the ocean of life.

So although we may sometimes feel regret, or remorse, for things we’ve done – and may even find ourselves continuing to do – there’s never any need, when working with the Precepts, to condemn ourselves, and certainly no need to condemn others, who are struggling with the same complexities of the world and their own conditioning, just as we are. In looking closely at ourselves, and how we conduct our lives, we simply discover how painful it is when we don’t apply the Precepts. And that can motivate us to try something different: something more wise, more compassionate, more generous – something that looks more at the whole situation rather than just one little part of it that we identify with.

So we just face each moment according to our best understanding, and our vows, and try to see what’s the best way to conduct ourselves right now.  Given who I am, given who you are, given the situation – it’s not always easy to know, but we do our best.  And if we’re lucky we get a little help from our friends, who are on the same path.


Each precept is understood on three levels.

The first is the literal level; the ordinary literal understanding. The first articulation of the Precepts was actually a list of rules – it was the rules that made it possible for a group of young men, monastics, to live and practice together on a daily basis.

On this level, “don’t kill” means literally don’t kill, don’t murder; but considering it in a broader sense, it also means not to kill in other ways: not to diminish anyone or anything, not to undermine someone’s confidence or creativity, but to nurture life. That’s the literal level.

The second level is called the compassion level. At this level, we recognise that the network of causality in this world is complex and subtle; nothing is linear.  “Pick up one speck of dust, and the whole world comes with it”.

So sometimes, not to kill one thing is to kill something else. In fact, it’s impossible not to kill; even the most scrupulous organic farming, even the life of the strictest vegan, involves the deliberate or accidental killing of living things.  So at this level we vow that when we have to break Precepts, it’s always from a place of compassion. Our lives are actually full of rules, from the law of the land, to the rules of our communities, our workplace, and our own families, not to mention the internal requirements we have of ourselves.  So part of this vow is to break those rules when it is necessary in order to be kind.

The third level is called the ultimate level; this is the ineffable, mysterious level.  I’m not at all sure I understand this, but I will offer you my very imperfect understanding, which is twofold: First, when your life flows from an awareness of the indivisibility of all things, and the sacredness of all things, rules just get in the way.  Spontaneous right action occurs.  We’ve all had moments like that.

Second, every ethical value contains a paradox. How can we support life when to be alive is to be dying?  How can we speak truthfully when the truth can’t be contained in words?  This is sometimes called the koan level of the precepts; it’s the level of engaging with the impossible, just like when we vow to save all beings, or to end all delusions.  It’s impossible, and that’s what we do.

One of the things we become familiar with in the process of studying the Precepts is our tendency to make sense of things without all the relevant information.  In fact, we never have all the relevant information, but our minds are designed to connect the dots and fill in the blanks, compulsively making meaning based on the tiniest smattering of information, combined with what our unconscious – our working model of the world – already “knows”.  It takes some discipline to slow down and let ourselves not know, because it’s uncomfortable to not know, and we have to build up some tolerance for the cognitive discomfort of not knowing.  Sitting Zazen is helpful in this.

Another way of looking at this is “Where do we take refuge?”  Do we take refuge in our beliefs, in our stories about how things are, which is to say: the way we are accustomed to connecting the dots?  Or can we open our perspective to something more spacious and mysterious, that includes more of the world.

Traditionally, the first three Precepts are the Refuges:

I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in Dharma.
I take refuge in Sangha.

The Pali word translated as “refuge” is Sarinam; it means protection or shelter.  The English word refuge means “to fly back” – to return, to fly back home, to our actual true home, to our true nature.

Buddha is not a thing; it’s the essential nature of existence itself, beyond projections, desire, and wish.  It includes and embraces everything: all the coming and going, arising and passing away.  To take refuge in Buddha is to recognise this as our true home –  as what we most deeply and truly are – and to return to it over and over again, as the primary commitment of our lives.  We turn the mind around, from where we habitually and unconsciously take refuge – in our beliefs, in our entanglements, all the things we grasp at, both inside and outside – and find that we can appreciate all those things as forms that arise and fall away, without having to be caught up in them. We can take shelter in the only thing that’s reliable – our own true nature – and it’s a continual, never-ending, commitment and process.

If Buddha is this naturally arising undivided awareness, Dharma is what we’re aware of: the reality of life as it is.

In a more narrow sense, Dharma refers to the teachings; the guidance we receive from teachers who can remind us of what we are, and who help us to return.

And if we’re open to it, we receive teachings all the time, from everyone and everything. There’s a beautiful poem by Dogen called the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, about the teachings of the Mountains and Rivers, based on a poem by an 11th century Chinese poet, Su Shi, that contains the lines:

The voices of the river valley are the [Buddha’s] tongue,
The form of the mountains is his pure body.
All night long, thousands of Sutras.
On another day, how can I tell them to others?

Sangha is the community of practitioners.  In most countries of Asia, the word Sangha refers to monks and nuns, people who have taken formal vows of renunciation.  But in contemporary Zen, we understand Sangha to include not only those we practice with in a formal way, but also the web of causality that embraces everything that is, not only practitioners but all human beings; not only human beings, but all living beings; not only living beings but all sentient beings: stones, trees, mountains and rivers – these are all members of the Sangha.  To embrace all of life — all that is — as our own life is, in the widest sense, to take refuge in Sangha.And it’s quite natural for us to forget about all this; that’s just what it’s like to be human: we forget. People are walking, perfect miracles, and at the same time so tragically messed up.  They can be counted on to be fear-driven, to act not from their best selves, but from some part that is out of kilter.  Normal, everyday consciousness is a state of forgetfulness of who we are.

So we need to be clear about where we aspire to take refuge, so that we can recognise when we take refuge somewhere else, and remind ourselves and each other of who we really are, and what’s important.


The next three Precepts are known as the “Pure Precepts”.  They are basically (in the simplest rendering):
I vow to refrain from evil.
I vow to cultivate goodness.
I vow to live for the benefit of all beings.

Everything’s in there, but they’re a little too general to give you much traction in working with them.



And so we come to the ten “Grave”, or “Prohibitory” Precepts, which have been condensed into eight for the purpose of this course of study.

1. Not to tell lies.

2. Not to publish other people’s faults.

3. Not to extol oneself and slander others.

4. Not to use intoxicating drinks or narcotics, nor assist others to do so.

5. Not to take what is not given.

6. Not to commit or participate in unchaste conduct.

7. Not to be angry.

8. Not to lead a harmful life nor encourage others to do so.



We’re not just studying the Precepts as a theoretical exercise, nor even as a psychological exercise.

Dogen said “Ordinary people are pulled by their karma; Bodhisattvas are led by vow”.

There’s a lot of confusion about the term karma.  There’s a popular misconception that it’s a sort of cosmic system of rewards and punishments, and that if you act harmfully, you’ll be punished – if not in this life, then in some future life.

If we think about this a little more deeply, a different picture emerges:  What we identify as “myself” is simply the sum total of causes and conditions, both now and in the past.  We have certain behavioural tendencies – including habits of thought – simply by virtue of the millions of years of evolution that produced the life forms that we are.  And we have other behavioural tendencies – including habits of thought – as a result of our personal histories.  We find ourselves, in every moment, situated in a complex and subtle web of influences, most of which is completely beyond our awareness, let alone our control – and any action we take reverberates in turn through that web so that we can’t possibly know the ultimate outcome.

All of this is karma.  Karma means “action”.  It’s the sum total of all the actions, now and in the past, in this vast, indivisable, always changing, universe.

But here’s the thing: as human beings, we have the possibility of setting a course through it all. We don’t have to passively go with the flow like a dead fish, acting out all the impulses rising up out of our conditioning, being pulled this way and that.  As human beings, we have the capacity to find a Polestar, an orientation point that allows us to transform the “given” of conditioning into a path.

I particularly like the metaphor of a Polestar, because it illustrates the difference between a vow and a goal.  A goal is something you hope to achieve; it’s a place you can arrive at – so you either get there or you don’t, and then it’s done, and you’re onto the next thing.  A Polestar is an orientation point; and vowing is dedicating yourself to that.  Vow is dynamic, it’s not just setting your course but continuously moving along it, wholeheartedly.

Vows are actually impossible to achieve. To take the Bodhisattva Vows as goals that could be achieved, is delusional. “Beings are numberless, I vow to liberate all of them?”  “Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to overcome all of them?”  Who do we think we’re kidding?  So a Vow is not a Goal.

A Vow is also not a promise.  A promise is something made to someone else, some sort of Authority, even if it’s masquerading as an inner Authority, like a New Year’s Resolution.  If we keep a promise, we’re good kids; if we break it, we’re bad.

A Vow is a grown-up thing. It’s you, as an adult, standing up in the world and conducting your life according to all the wisdom and compassion, including compassion for yourself, that you can muster in any given moment.  And the next moment, and the next – each moment a Dharma gate, each moment a new chance to realise liberating action.

As we make the shift from being pulled by karma to living by Vow, it’s not that karma disappears.  It’s still there, and it’s powerful.  It’s guaranteed that we’re going to continue to make mistakes and do things we find regrettable.  When we chant “delusions are inexhaustible”, it’s the truth.

The question becomes: Where do you turn, where do you take refuge? Knowing that both your conditioning and your Vow are there, where do you commit yourself?  To your karma, or your Vow?  Your karma may be the storyline of your life, but what is your life about?

The Precepts are vows. The meaning of these vows opens up to us as we move into them, exploring them in our own lives, from our own perspectives.  As they open up, we grow into them, and the purpose of this group is to support each other in growing into our vows.  I hope – actually I know – that we will all learn a lot from each other.

So let’s start by reflecting on what brought us here, what is your deepest wish?  What is your life about?