The Precepts of Zen decrypted

The Precepts of Zen

What are the Precepts? In short, they are a monastic community (sangha) code of ethics. Depending on the community, and one’s position in the community, there can be 5, 8, 10, or 16 Precepts that one adheres to.

Some communities have additional rules of behavior and conduct that monastic monks/nuns adhere to as well. Theravada monks follow 227 rules, and Tibetan monks follow 253.

Zen monks follow the 10 Bodhisattva Precepts that supersede the monastic rules.

In contrast, Christians follow the 10 commandments, and Jews follow the 613 commandments in the old testament.

Brahmajāla Sūtra

The original precepts come from the Brahmajāla Sūtra, also called the Brahma’s Net Sutra. This sutra is also in the theravada Vinaya.This sutra introduces Vairocana (The buddha of the “unborn, undying” – emptiness/void) and his relationship to Gautama Buddha. It also states ten major precepts for Bodhisattvas and the 48 minor precepts to follow to advance along the bodhisattva path.

To note: The precepts in the Brahmajāla Sūtra are for those who take the Bodhisattva vows, and of the ordained monks and nuns. The laity is not holden to these precepts, or if they do, they may only take a few of them as they choose them.

Who takes the precepts

Anyone can become a disciple of Buddha (bhikkhu) by simply standing up before the assembly and taking the first five precepts, and by doing such one becomes an ordained disciple of the Buddha. The later five precepts are aspirational and are recited before meditation when commencing a meditation retreat or an intensive like Rohatsu, a seven-day event.

In Japan, this ceremony is called Jukai and is the ritual entrance ceremony that Zen disciples (monks) take and receive a Dharma name.

To make it clear, in Zen, as in most all Buddhist traditions, once you take the precepts you are an ordained member of the Sangha. Those that wish to live a monastic life, cloistered, in poverty to receive alms, is their choice – however, one must adhere to the precepts to remain a member in good standing in the Sangha.

Here in the west, the precepts are offered at the end of retreats, and dharma names given to those who take the precepts. In the west, there is no head shaving but there is the wearing of robes, with ornaments. In Japan, those that go through juki shave heads and wear the traditional monk robes.

The Investigation

In my comparing the common English Zen version of the ten precepts and the Brahmajāla Sūtra, where the precepts are derived from, I noticed that the precepts are divided up into two sections. The Zen precepts are also very abbreviated, compact and cryptic, and written in a ceremonial sort of tone of authority. When we look at the precepts in how they are to be read, we see them in a very different light and a realistic view.

The first five precepts are about types of activities people may engage in to gain money, and those ways tend to create havoc and generally bring hateful attention to those who engage in them.

The last five are about the qualities of that a person must uphold to be considered righteous and upstanding in society.

The First Precept of Brigandage

“A disciple of the Buddha shall not himself kill, encourage others to kill, kill by expedient means, praise killing, rejoice at witnessing killing, or kill through incantation or deviant mantras. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of killing, and shall not intentionally kill any living creature for these reasons. As a Buddha's disciple, he ought to nurture a mind of compassion and filial piety, always devising expedient means to rescue and protect all sentient beings. If instead, he fails to restrain himself and kills sentient beings without mercy, he commits a Parajika (major) offense.”

Many people interpret this precept to be one of pacifism and vegetarianism (No Killing), however, in reading the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra we gain clarity that the precept is about cruelty, the lust for killing (as in a brigand), and killing as means to control sentient beings, and extort them for money.

Nowhere in this sutra or the Buddhist canon is it forbidden to eat meat, to defend oneself, your family, or your community.

The Second Precept of Thieving

“A disciple of the Buddha must not himself steal or encourage others to steal, steal by expedient means, steal by means of incantation or deviant mantras. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of stealing. No valuables or possessions, even those belonging to ghosts and spirits or thieves and robbers, be they as small as a needle or blade of grass, may be stolen. As a Buddha's disciple, he ought to have a mind of mercy, compassion, and filial piety, and always help people earn merits and achieve happiness. If instead, he steals the possessions of others, he commits a Parajika offense.”

Taking from others that what is not FREELY given is universally considered an evil action. In reading the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra, we find that this precept is about Piracy, Thieving Rings, and Kleptocracy (rulers who steal from the people). Furthermore, this precept forbids grave robbing.


The third precept of Prostitution

“A disciple of the Buddha must not engage in licentious acts or encourage others to do so. [As a monk] he should not have sexual relations with any female -- be she a human, animal, deity, or spirit -- nor create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of such misconduct. Indeed, he must not engage in improper sexual conduct with anyone. A Buddha's disciple ought to have a mind of filial piety -- rescuing all sentient beings and instructing them in the Dharma of purity and chastity. If instead, he lacks compassion and encourages others to engage in sexual relations promiscuously, including with animals and even their mothers, daughters, sisters, or other close relatives, he commits a Parajika offense.”

This precept is often murkily translated, and subjected to the politics of the times, and locality. When reading the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra, we can clearly see that this precept is about Prostitution, in that women who are Buddhas disciples (Nuns) shall not engage in the practice of prostitution, and men who are disciples (Monks) shall not have sexual relations with prostitutes. Furthermore, disciples shall not run prostitution rings, teach prostitution, or engage/encourage/teach any sexual depravations (masturbation, fetishes, and beastility). In short, disciples are not to profit in any means or manors from prostitution or sexual degeneracy in any manner. In Japan this precept is only interpreted as to not turn the temple into a brothel, and ordained females are not allowed to use prostitution as a means of gaining alms.


The fourth precept of Thespianism

“A disciple of the Buddha must not himself use false words and speech, or encourage others to lie or lie by expedient means. He should not involve himself in the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of lying, saying that he has seen what he has not seen or vice versa, or lying implicitly through physical or mental means. As a Buddha's disciple, he ought to maintain Right Speech and Right Views always, and lead all others to maintain them as well. If instead, he causes wrong speech, wrong views or evil karma in others, he commits a Parajika offense.”

This precept is often grossly intercepted as to not lie in any circumstances, however this is not the case. In looking at the original Chinese Brahmajāla clarity is found in that the disciple is to not speak presumptuously, that is to say to speak on things they have no knowledge about in regards to the teachings of Buddha, or to speak and teach false teachings of the Buddha, or encourage others to do such. This precept eludes to not being a thespian, for such is a known position of speak presumptuously and engaging as such as a disciple brings confusion to the teachings.

This precept includes: Confidence men, scam artists, and actors — all who play to be someone they are not, claiming to have abilities that they don’t have.


The Fifth Precept of Vintner

“A disciple of the Buddha must not trade in alcoholic beverages or encourage others to do so. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of selling any intoxicant whatsoever, for intoxicants are the causes and conditions of all kinds of offenses. As a Buddha's disciple, he ought to help all sentient beings achieve clear wisdom. If instead, he causes them to have upside-down, topsy-turvy thinking, he commits a Parajika offense.”

This precept is often murkily interpreted, and subjected to the politics of the times. In looking at the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra more clarity is gained, in that this precept is saying that disciples are not to engage in drunkenness or encourage drunkenness as a teaching of Buddha. Just as disciples are not to turn the temple into a brothel, nor can they turn the temple into a beer hall as a vintner.

In recent times, the fifth precept forbids the use of psychedelics and intoxicants as a means of ‘spiritual practice and attainment’. Use of such is considered False Meditation and False Enlightenment and those who engage in such practices cannot be considered disciples of the Buddha.


The Sixth Precept of Bravery

“A disciple of the Buddha must not himself dwell on the 5 cardinal offenses or 4 grave offenses of Bodhisattvas, bhikkhus, and bhikkhunis, nor encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of dwelling on the offenses of the assembly. As a Buddha's disciple, whenever he he hears of the laymen, bhikkhus, and bhikkhunis saying that the Buddha's teachings are illegal, the disciple should instruct them with a compassionate mind and lead them to develop wholesome faith in the Mahayana. If instead, he dwells the faults and misdeeds that occur within the assembly, he commits a Parajika offense.”

This precept is often crudely interpreted as: Do not defame the sangha, and can be used to hide and squelch the misdeeds of the teacher and/or the followers of the teacher. In looking at the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra more clarity is gained as to the true nature of this precept in that the disciple is to not harbor or obsess in the offences of others, or allow other in the community to justify the 5 cardinal offenses or 4 grave offenses as righteous and legal. This precept is essentially about fear, cowardness and not defending or standing one’s ground – Be BraveThe five cardinal offenses within Buddhism are:

  1. Intentionally murdering one’s father,
  2. Intentionally murdering one’s mother,
  3. Killing an Arhat or Bodhisattva (any fully enlightened being),
  4. Shedding the blood of a Buddha, or
  5. Creating a schism within the Sangha

The community of Buddhist monks and nuns and lay persons who try to attain enlightenment. The four grave offenses are those that would cause a monk or nun to be expelled from their sangha and include killing another human being, having sexual intercourse, stealing, and lying about their spiritual attainments and experiences or insights.


The Seventh Precept of Resignation

“A disciple of the Buddha shall not praise himself and speak ill of others, or encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of praising himself and disparaging others. As a disciple of the Buddha, he should be willing to stand in for all sentient beings and endure humiliation and slander -- accepting blame and letting sentient beings have all the glory. If instead, he displays his own virtues and conceals the good points of others, thus causing them to suffer slander, he commits a Parajika offense.”

This precept appears to corresponds with the 6th precept, yet in closer examination of the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra we clearly see that this precept is speaking to the aspect of resignation, and not flouting their discipleship or claiming of being persecuted for being a disciple in lands where such may be illegal or ridiculed. To resign is to not hold position, posture or notions over a thing, person or situation.

Other interpret this precept as “Don’t be pushing down others to make yourself look tall”


The Eighth Precept of Compassion

“A disciple of the Buddha must not be stingy or encourage others to be stingy. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of stinginess. As a Bodhisattva, whenever a destitute person comes for help, he should give that person what he needs. If instead, out of anger and resentment, he denies all assistance -- refusing to help with even a penny, a needle, a blade of grass, even a single sentence or verse or a phrase of Dharma, but instead scolds and abuses that person -- he commits a Parajika offense.”

This precept is often intercepted as: Do not be stingy, and can be, and often is, used to bully alms from the laity. In closer examination of the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra we clearly see that the precept is about Compassion for the disciples and even for the non-disciples who are in need. Furthermore, it is about teaching the Dharma rather than scolding those who commit one of the five cardinal offenses or the four grave offenses.

The ninth precept of Relinquishment

“A disciple of the Buddha shall not harbor anger or encourage others to be angry. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of anger. As a disciple of the Buddha, he ought to be compassionate and filial, helping all sentient beings develop the good roots of non-contention. If instead, he insults and abuses sentient beings, or even transformation beings [such as deities and spirits], with harsh words, hitting them with his fists or feet, or attacking them with a knife or club -- or harbors grudges even when the victim confesses his mistakes and humbly seeks forgiveness in a soft, conciliatory voice -- the disciple commits a Parajika offense.”

In closer examination of the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra, this precept is about Relinquishment of concepts that bring intense emotions, and to relinquish those feelings, concept and notions. Thus the disciple confesses what they harbor to the very thing that brings up the intense emotions, and surrenders to relinquishment and is no further harboring that what perplexed them.


The Tenth Precept of Faith

“A Buddha's disciple shall not himself speak ill of the Triple Jewel or encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods or karma of slander. If a disciple hears but a single word of slander against the Buddha from externalists or evil beings, he experiences a pain similar to that of three hundred spears piercing his heart. How then could he possibly slander the Triple Jewel himself? Hence, if a disciple lacks faith and filial piety towards the Triple Jewel, and even assists evil persons or those of aberrant views to slander the Triple Jewel, he commits a Parajika offense.”

This precept is often intercepted about not slandering the Three Jewels (The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Shanga) but that is a crude understanding. In a closer look at the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra we find that this precept is about FAITH, in where as those lacking of faith have doubts about the Three Jewels, and about oneself.


Conclusion

As I have gone through the original Chinese Brahmajāla Sūtra I started to realize that the 10 Bodhisattva Precepts that are commonly published are incorrect, and wrongly interpreted. This may be due to sectarian dogmatism, laziness, and ignorance. There are many ways to look at philosophy; A positive liberating view, or a negative authoritarian view. The intent of the precepts is clear for those who wish to ponder each one. The first five precepts are prohibitions, the last five precepts are aspirations.

  • Don’t be Brigandage, (no being a brigand and killing/threat of killing people for alms)
  • Don’t be thieving, (No being in a thieving ring to steal or threaten to steal to gain alms)
  • Don’t be prostituting (turning the temple into a brothel or gaining alms through prostitution)
  • Don’t be a thespian (thinking you know something is true, when it is not. Claiming attainments when you don’t have them).
  • Don’t be vintner (don’t turn the temple into a beer hall or brew intoxicants for alms)
  • Don’t be fearful (Be brave and stand your ground)
  • Don’t be arrogant (Resign all your worldly attachments)
  • Don’t be indifferent (Have compassion)
  • Don’t be possessive (Relinquish your worldly ways)
  • Don’t be doubtful (Have faith)

As you yourself ponder the precepts, you will come to your own understanding and view of them too..and that when you own the precepts, not just tout them or hold them in a Pius manor.

Clearly, the first five precepts are to not turn the local population against you, and hunt you down! The first five precepts if engage in will tarnish the teachings, the teacher, and those who are disciples

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Otomo

Non-aligned Zen Teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada USA Youtube Channel Website