No Precepts Observed, No Broken Precepts

I’m out of the monastery! And I’m in America! The land of vice and fun, apparently, especially if you are in your twenties. America’s a very easy place to have fun. I’m starting to remember why I went to a monastery in the first place. 

In Japanese, the a word for monastery that gets used sometimes is “sourin” (僧林)which combines the character for “monk” with the character for “forest.” The implication is that a monastery is a place where everyone lives closely together and helps each other grow up straight, like trees in a forest. Like trees packed together, there’s nowhere really to go except up (morally and spiritually). My experience in the monastery— and I’m sure I’m not unique— is that it’s very, very easy to observe all the precepts in that kind of environment. If you’re actually following the schedule and doing what you’re told, it’s basically impossible to break precepts, because bad behavior is impossible: there’s no sex (because everyone’s too tired, and/or another nun, and sex just isn’t the point anyway), no alcohol (except for that one time we made pickled plums and then boiled down the excess to make rum… but that was for the sake of not wasting!), no drugs, and it’s pretty hard to do things like lie or steal, because what would you even steal? 

My experience of this, though, was that all of this morally upright behavior was going on subconsciously. I was never aware of it. There was never a point when I thought, “Wow, I feel so calm and peaceful because I’m observing all of the precepts perfectly.” I don’t think it works that way.

There’s a story that Aoyama Roshi would often tell to explain a good relationship to precepts. A monk goes to his master and says something like, “Master, you are so incredibly enlightened. How many precepts do you observe?” The Master says, “I don’t observe any precepts.” The monk is incredulous and says, “How is that possible?” The Master replies, “I don’t break any precepts.”
Within the Zen tradition, “No precept observed, no precepts broken” is supposed to be the best attitude to take towards precepts. It’s also the hardest, because it’s a slippery slope. Personally, it’s easy for me to fall pretty quickly into “no precepts observed.” There has to be a line drawn when I actually am observing precepts. Otherwise I’m just breaking precepts.

But what does “observing precepts” mean, anyway? For me, it inevitably begs the question, “What are the precepts?” Considering how many translations and interpretations there are of the precepts out there, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question. The translation I received of the precepts before I received them was pretty straight-forward, and went something like this: 
  • Do not kill
  • Do not steal
  • Do not misuse sexuality [actually, for the record, I believe in Japanese the precept is to not have sex]
  • Do not lie
  • Do not drink alcohol
  • Do not speak of others’ faults
  • Do not elevate the self and blame others
  • Do not be stingy
  • Do not give rise to anger
  • Do not defile the Three Treasures

Even within this pretty straight-forward, conservative translation of the precepts, there’s a lot of room for questions. Like: what the hell is “not misusing sexuality?” What is “defiling the Three Treasures?” Before I took the precepts for the first time, I remember looking at this list and asking my teacher about the “alcohol” precept. I’d seen him drink alcohol myself after memorial services, and drinking is pretty common for Japanese monks especially after ceremonies. I also knew I probably wouldn’t be able to observe this one.

“I can’t follow this,” I told him. “I don’t think I want to stop drinking alcohol.”

“Okay,” he said. “Just don’t drink too much.”

Precepts in Zen are weird. They’re weird because they exist as rules but they are simultaneously invitations to explore for myself what I believe ethical behavior is on my own terms. But I think I like it that way.

In “Buddhism Without Beliefs,” Stephen Bachelor writes about how the “Four Noble Truths” are actually injunctions to act, not simply dogmas to be followed. He reminds us that the Buddha instructed us to “understand” suffering, “let go” of craving, “experience” the cessation of craving, and “cultivate” the Eightfold Noble path. The emphasis is on action, not belief. He uses an example from Alice in Wonderland: 

There is a passage in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in which Alice enters a room to find a bottle marked with the label "Drink Me." The label does not tell Alice what is inside the bottle but tells her what to do with it. When the Buddha presented his four truths, he first described what each referred to, then enjoined his listeners to act upon them. Once we grasp what he refers to by "anguish," we are enjoined to understand it—as though it bore the label "Understand Me." The truth of anguish becomes an injunction to act.

I have to think that the same thing is true with the precepts. For me, the precepts are not only guidelines, but invitations. For a precept to be alive in my life and practice, I have to examine it again and again. I have to look at it constantly, and ask, “What is this?” And maybe this means I will “break” precepts in the process of coming to understand what they are. But then I can see and feel the repercussions and know for myself. Then the precepts become alive, and personal, and particular. 

This is not to say that I think it’s okay to go out on a coke-fueled killing spree just so I can understand what “do not kill” means. And an attitude of moderation (“don’t drink too much”) doesn’t really work for the precepts about anger, or killing, for example. But I do think the precepts are most alive when they are being questioned, when they are in dialogue with lived experience. Making ethical choices based on external systems of value (societal norms, religious doctrine), seems to me like an insufficient way of going about things because it means I would be using someone else’s definition of reality and someone else’s experience instead of understanding for myself what is good and useful. I do think, though, that I can use these external rules or guidelines as something that I am in dialogue with, and which help me strengthen my own internal moral system. Because it’s the internal moral system, the one which operates regardless of external norms, that I want to cultivate and strengthen. 

So right now, the way I think I want to honor the precepts is by having conversations about them. This is how precepts are alive to me— not by observing or breaking them, but by picking each one up and asking, “What is this?” 


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