Receiving the Precepts: How and Why?


Jukai in Atlanta, 2008

Today I’m starting a series of posts on the Zen Precepts, sometimes called the Bodhisattva Precepts. One of our sangha members recently received Jukai, the 5-Precepts ceremony, and that has gotten everybody interested and asking questions about what this means.

To get us started, let’s get an overview of what the Precepts are. The Zen Precepts have three main components: the Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Precepts.

The Three Refuges

  • refuge in Buddha
  • refuge in Dharma
  • refuge in Sangha

These are known as the three jewels of Buddhism and represent three major elements of our practice: the teacher, the teachings, and the community.

The Three Pure Precepts

  • Do no harm.
  • Do only good.
  • Do good for others.

I think of these as the three default Precepts. If you can’t remember any of the others, or you feel there is a conflict between any of the Ten Grave Precepts, these three “trump” any conflict that might arise. What action will do the least harm? What action will realize goodness? What action will help others?

The Ten Grave Precepts

  • Affirm life — Do not kill.
  • Be giving — Do not take what is not freely given.
  • Honor the body — Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
  • Manifest truth — Do not speak falsely.
  • Proceed clearly — Do not cloud the mind with intoxicants.
  • See only your own faults — Do not discuss the faults of others.
  • Know self and other as one — Do not praise yourself at others’ expense.
  • Share generously — Do not spare the Dharma assets.
  • Actualize harmony — Do not indulge in anger.
  • Know intimacy with all things — Do not defame the Three Treasures.

We call these Precepts “grave” in the sense of “to be taken seriously.” They are not rules, and we won’t be struck down by lightning from the heavens if we break them. In fact, that is precisely the power of taking the Precepts: We accept them willingly as a way of life, not because we fear supernatural punishment.

We accept them because they offer us a life of freedom – not “freedom to” like we are used to in the American sense, but rather “freedom from.” Freedom from hurting others, freedom from falsehood, freedom from the poison of anger, etc. They are not “thou shalt nots.” There is a positive side and a negative side to each of them – a “do this” and “avoid that” for each Precept. They liberate us from the harmful consequences of harmful actions, and if we abide by them to the best of our ability, we also have the freedom to live life with a clear conscience.

So what does it mean to “receive the Precepts”? How is that different from just saying “yes, these are a good idea” and taking on the personal practice of not-being-a-jerk? How is upholding the Precepts different from the general intent to be a good person?

The difference? The Precepts are vows. We vow to uphold and observe these Precepts to the best of our ability.  In a number of major Zen ceremonies, they play a featured role, and each time we accept these vows, they become more conscious, woven more deeply into the fabric of our lives. The life of Zen means living by vow; that is, living wholeheartedly with conscious intention to do our very best. No equivocation, no justification. Just being upright, as we are in zazen. Constantly coming back to reality as it is, not as we wish it were.

When the teacher offers the vows she or he adds “Will you observe these Precepts until you realize Buddhahood?” One accepts them by saying “Yes, Sensei.” The Precepts become part of our daily practice when we accept and make them a conscious part of our lives. The teacher says “until you realize Buddhahood” because that is what we practice. We consciously adopt the practices of a realized Buddha. Like anything one practices, the Precepts become more and more second nature, and it becomes more obvious when we break them. This constant process of refinement – for its own sake, not for some expected gain – that is the Bodhisattva way.

Breaking the precepts? That sounds like rules, right? Well, again, these are personal practices we take on. We don’t take anyone else’s Precepts. We don’t seek to control other people’s actions. We walk the razor’s edge of our own lives, constantly testing our deepest motives in relation to the Precepts. Are we using an interpretation of a Precept to justify an action? Are we using a Precept to judge others? If so, we are breaking that Precept. And if we break it, we break it, but in doing so, we also have to accept whatever karma results from our harmful actions. We sit upright and aware in the midst of our imperfections.

So what does it mean to take a vow that you’re definitely going to break at some point? It means we make the effort in good faith. Every time. It makes our actions and motivations more conscious, more observable, not just a generalized intention to be nice, but very specifically.

Our teacher Elliston-Roshi tells us, “We observe the precepts by breaking them.” When I know I have broken a Precept, it really does give me a chance to observe it in action. It’s a reminder for next time of the consequences of an action – not some theoretical sense of guilt for fear of retribution – but a sober, logical acceptance of the reality of my life. Every day.

Zazen is an essential practice, and it allows us to closely observe our own intentions and how we create our own suffering, making us more aware of and compassionate towards the suffering of others. But the Precepts put that compassion into action off the cushion, where the rubber meets the road. Everyone benefits from the Precepts, not only the person who receives them, but the entire community.


Wagesa: received at Jukai

So how does one go about taking the Precepts in our sangha? For lay practitioners (that is, non-priests) there are two successive Precepts ceremonies. The first is Jukai (initiation). The initiate receives a vestment called a wagesa – like a thin stole worn around the neck – as well as Juzu beads and a Japanese Dharma name, usually an aspirational concept that the practitioner strives to realize in everyday practice. The initiate takes the Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and vows the first five of the Ten Grave Precepts. Anyone who wishes to receive Jukai may do so. There are no barriers or prerequisites.

Juzu beads

Juzu beads

After Jukai, the initiate is considered to be a Zen Buddhist, but being a declared Buddhist does not preclude anyone from involvement in any other faith. The Precepts and Zen practice are compatible with all faiths. We don’t worship Buddha after all. Your beliefs are your business. Buddhism is about action and practice, not belief.

Rakusu - vestment received in lay ordination

Rakusu – vestment received in lay ordination

The second Precepts ceremony that some laypeople undergo is Zaike Tokudo (lay ordination). This ceremony resembles Jukai pretty closely, but in preparation for it, the student sews a mini-version of the Buddha’s robe called a rakusu. The teacher creates a certificate of lay ordination on the white silk backing of the rakusu. The student receives it and takes the Refuges and the Pure Precepts, followed by all ten of the Grave Precepts, not just the first five as in Jukai. Lay ordination is not a special status or rank. It signifies a maturity of practice and a role of greater responsibility and service within the life of the sangha. Lay ordination occurs by invitation of the teacher when the student is ready to accept that level of responsibility.

When priests ordain or receive final Dharma Transmission, they vow the very same Precepts as laypeople do, except that the responsibilities are greater, and it represents a lifetime commitment. Again, however, it doesn’t represent greater status or merit.

In future posts, I will address each of these Precepts individually. If you are interested in receiving the Precepts, come talk to me one Monday night after zazen. It is a beautiful way to actualize your practice, but membership in our sangha does not require you to become a Buddhist. There are a variety of ways to practice and participate. All are welcome.


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