Zen Minus Moral Precepts Equals No Zen

In this post I’m sharing an excerpt from one of my favorite books by Zen master John Daido Loori. It’s a Shambhala Publications book titled Invoking Reality — The Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen.

In this short but powerful book Loori Roshi takes head on the prevalent misconception that Zen practice is just about meditation and satori with no real moral and ethical practice. On the contrary, Loori Rohsi shows that there is no division between awakening, enlightenment, and the moral precepts of Zen; they are, in effect, different aspects of one thing: practice!

I highly recommend Invoking Reality and hope that this excerpt from the first chapter not only inspires you to read the book, but to see how living the precepts can be an unending inspiration to one’s practice.

The Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen

John Daido Loori Roshi
from Invoking Reality — The Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen

“When Zen arrived and began to take root in this country, there arose a misconception about the role of morality and ethics in the practice of the Buddhadharma. Statements that Zen was beyond morality or that Zen was amoral are made by distiguished writers on Buddhism, and people assumed this was correct. Yet nothing could be further from the truth

Enlightenment and morality are one. Enlightenment without morality is not true enlightenment.  Morality without enlightenment is not complete morality. Zen is not beyond morality, but a practice that takes place within the world based on moral and ethical teachings. Those moral and ethical teachings have been handed down with mind-to-mind transmission from generation to generation.

The Buddhist precepts form one of the most vital areas of spiritual practice. In essence, the precepts are the definition of the life of a Buddha, of how a Buddha functions in the world. They are how enlightened beings live their lives, relate to other human beings, make moral and ethical decisions, manifest wisdom and compassion in everyday life. The precepts provide a way to see how the moral and ethical teachings of Buddhism can come to life in the workplace, in relationships, in government, business, and ecology…

The Three Pure Precepts are: ‘not creating evil,’ ‘practicing good,’ and ‘actualizing good for others.’ The Pure Precepts define the harmony, the natural order, of things. If we eschew evil, practice good, and actualize good for others, we are in harmony with the natural order of all things.

Of course, it is one thing to acknowledge the Three Pure Precepts, but how can we practice them? How can we not create evil? How can we practice good? How can we actualize good for others? The way to do that is the Ten Grave Precepts, which reveal the functioning of the Three Pure Precepts. The Ten Grave Precepts are: (1) Affirm life; do not kill, (2) Be giving; do not steal, (3) Honor the body; do not misuse sexuality, (4) Manifest truth; do not lie, (5) Proceed clearly; do not cloud the mind, (6) See the perfection; do not speak of others’ errors and faults, (7) Realize self and other as one; do no elevate the self and blame others, (8) Give generously; do not be withholding, (9) Actualize harmony; do not be angry, (10) Experience the intimacy of all things; do not defile the Three Treasures [Buddha, dharma, sangha].

The Sixteen Precepts—taking refuge in the Three Treasures, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Precepts—are not fixed rules of action or a code for moral behavior. They allow for changes in circumstances: for adjusting to the time, the particular place, your position, and the degree of necessary action in any given situation. When we don’t hold on to an idea of ourselves and a particular way we have to react, then we are free to respond openly , with reverence for all the life involved….

It is one thing to study precepts, but the real point of practice is to be the precepts through and through, to manifest them in our lives. The precepts are the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. The sword that kills is the absolute basis of reality, no-self. The sword that gives life is the compassion that comes out of realization of no-self. The precepts are the sword of the realized mind.

The precepts need to be understood clearly from the literal point of view, from the perspective of compassion and reverence for life, and from the absolute, or ‘one-mind’ point of view. Their richness is wasted if we see them simplistically as a set of rules, a lists of ‘dos and don’ts.’ They are not meant to bind but liberate. In fact, they define a life that is unhindered, complete, free. What the precepts do is to bring into consciousness that which is already there…

When one only reads about Buddhism, one can come to the conclusion that Zen is amoral, that it considers itself above morality and does not address itself to ethical teachings. That is the view of a person standing on the sidelines, only involved intellectually. Those who truly embrace this practice cannot help but see the intimacy between the Buddhadharma and a moral and ethical life. It is intrinsic to the teaching itself. The life of a Buddha is the manifestation of compassion, but if we do not engage it, it does nothing. It all depends on us. To stand on the sidelines merely thinking about practice is self-styled Zen. For the teachings to come alive, they have to be lived with the whole body and mind.

I feel that because we put such an emphasis on the precepts, we have a moral obligation to do something about that misconception concerning Zen and morality. There are thousands of Zen practitioners in our country, many thousands who have received the precepts and taken refuge in the Three Treasures but who don’t really know what they’ve done. They have no idea what the precepts mean….

We live in a time of considerable moral crisis, with an erosion of values and a fragmentation of meaning prevalent throughout the fabric of society. The crisis impacts on us personally, as a nation, and as a planet. The injuries that we inflict on each other and on our environment can only be healed by sound moral and ethical commitment. That doesn’t mean being puritanical. It doesn’t mean ‘moralisitc.’ These precepts have a vitality that is unique in the great religions. They are alive, not fixed. They function broadly and deeply, taking into account the intricacies and subtleties of conditions encountered.

There is so much to learn. The precepts are incredibly profound. Don’t take them lightly. They are direct. They are subtle. They are bottomless. Please use them. Press up against them. Push them. See where they take you. Make them your own. They are no small thing, by any measure. They nourish, they heal, and they give life to the Buddha.”

Click to see other Shambhala books by John Daido Loori:

  Shambhala John Daido Loori Book Catalog


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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

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