Chapter One: The Nature of the Precepts
We all have our inadequacies, our insufficiencies, our fear and tremblings. That is why, in part, we need to formulate what each of you already has—a vow, a great vow. This vow will see you through the dark night before the moon has risen, the bridge collapsed and the river wide and strong in its flow. Our vow, the precepts are a lantern, a light which will guide you to the nearest town of friends and fellow practitioners.
For some, the great vow is articulated: it is to save all beings, or to live a life of kindness, or to do no unnecessary harm. Others of you have not formulated the vow into words…it is an image brought to mind or a feeling sitting in the heart or belly. Any of these ways, or others, are fine….as long as you can locate it, touch it and lean into it on a daily basis. Of course, sometimes you will forget but that is why daily sitting, a daily practice and community are so important. They help us to activate, to actualize right recollection or correct remembering which is one of the facets of the 8 fold path.
Our vow, and the precepts, always put us into the middle of life, they place us into the world of joy and pain, of love and hate, of struggle and comfort. Initially, the vow or the precepts might feel somewhat alien, out there, but over time, they become like a compass which continually points to true north. The precepts, in time, begin to live us, move us and direct us. Over time, we notice that the precepts (vow) are continually showing themselves and calling for us to (ful)fill them just as they can, if we let them, fill us.
During the last year, as I was studying the precepts with 6 others who were preparing to do jukai (formally taking the 16 Bodhisattva precepts), I noticed in some of the readings the vows or precepts were called guidelines. This is OK as long as we take ‘guideline’ to mean “a cord or rope to aid moving over a difficult point or to permit following a particular course.” The vows or precepts are not recommendations, suggestions or benchmarks. They are much tighter than that, much more specific and demanding. They are not wishy-washy or willie-nillie. The precepts (vows) are both our intention and aspiration and in many ways, they are our hope for the world and its many beings. The precepts are the pathway to waking up and the expression of that. The precepts are both the path to realization and realization itself. To not kill, to not steal, to not lie is the pathway to realization because they clarifiy our behavior and conduct from mistaken views and habits but are, at the very same moment, a direct articulation, a direct presentation of the mind of realization. A guideline draws us to…but it is also already drawing from…. the place which is no place at all. The precepts are like a compass, like a sounding bell ringing the entire universe, like a hermit thrush continually calling, continually imploring, continually inviting.
The precepts are like nature which is so generous in her giving; in her giving of rain, wind, sun and soil; in her giving of climate which feeds, clothes and sustains us. Even in the dead cold glare of Winter she gives—she gives stars and moonlight, she gives a stillness and quiet that is almost unending. And yet, though she gives unrestrained and unbounded, we are stingy in our acceptance. We immediately raise umbrellas in her rain, we turn away from the bracing wind and we ignore the long lone call of the dawn’s first red-tail. Please allow yourself to open, to open to the precepts, to vow which knows the way home, which is home. The precepts allow us to see through the restraining views of culture, family and self to the boundless season which cannot be repressed, subdued or contained. Each one of them cuts away the superfluous and the unnecessary, leaving only that which is…so.