Taking the Precepts in Gibberish

This week I was chatting with a new Buddhist friend, and I kept making jokes about how I was breaking precepts-- by gossiping, or creating divisions in the sangha, which aren't technically precept violations in the Soto Zen tradition (but are in others!). Over the course of the conversation, I kept adding to the list of my imagined precept violations.

"Sorry," I said finally. "I actually don't know what the precepts are."

"That's because you took the precepts in gibberish," he said.

I've received the precepts four times in gibberish: twice in Japanese and twice in Tibetan (from Tibetan Rinpoches in America and India, when I was in college). I wonder how much difference language makes. Because the precepts are something we work with and evolve, break and renew, ingest and digest on a very personal, individual level, language matters. I think saying the precepts in our own language (or at the very, very least, understanding what we are saying) matters a great deal.

But in another sense, I don't think language matters so much. The hard-line, conservative view of the precepts is that it doesn't matter if you're aware of the meaning or not; it doesn't matter if you believe in them or not. As in zazen, you sit and this is in itself enlightenment. Sutras abound with descriptions about how simply the act of receiving the precepts is the basis of our enlightenment. In this view, receiving the precepts does the work for you. There's some doctrinal debate about this, of course. According to Buddhist studies professor William Bodiford,

Kyogen [Dogen's disciple] argued in traditional Tendai fashion that the bodhisatva precepts are not merely precepts but actually embody the essence of the Buddha. Kyogo asserts that in contrast to the Hinayana precepts, which just control our karmic actions, the Mahayana bodhisatva precepts describe buddha nature (i.e., reality) itself. The Mahayana precept "not to kill" should be interpreted not as a vow against killing, but as a realization of living enlightenment that clears away the "dead," static entities of our illusions (Zen in the Art of Funerals). 
This is pure esoteric-mumbo-jumbo gold. All this time I thought I was just vowing not to kill mosquitos! Turns out it's not about not killing, but about not needing to not kill because I'm already enlightened! Screw you, mosquitos! Wait, what? Ugh. That's not right.

The more I read about the religious culture Dogen was born into, which was heavily seeped in the esoteric Tendai view of original enlightenment (as articulated by William Bodiford's explanation above), the more I understood how I could have been allowed to receive the precepts in Japan (and ordain!) without actually knowing what I was saying. My silly precept story starts to make more sense. If I could add a footnote here I would mention that the precepts are the same whether you are ordaining as a lay person, a monk-nun-priest, receiving dharma transmission (!), getting married, or you are dead and somebody is doing your funeral. It's all the same precepts. But what I am talking about below is my first encounter with the Sixteen Bodhisatva precepts as a lay person.

This is my story:

About four months into my stay at the monastery, I was told there would be a "sewing sesshin" during which we would sew all day for a week. I dutifully showed up and sat down. A couple old ladies from the village had been invited to come help us. There was some chanting and bowing, and then somebody handed me a few small pieces of black fabric, and taught me how to sew back-stitch. For a few days I just sewed the pieces like I was shown, alongside a bunch of really cheerful old Japanese women who laughed merrily at my terrible stitch-work.

A few days later, one of the resident nuns mentioned that I would probably take Jukai since I was sewing a rakusu. I did not know what that was.

One evening I was washing the dishes in the kitchen when the abbot of the monastery manifested next to me, drying dishes. I'd never seen him in the kitchen before, and I think I never saw him there again, but there he was, busily wiping down plates and bowls.

Eventually he asked me, "Do you want to do Jukai?"

"What's that?" I asked.

He said, "Receiving the precepts."

"I've already taken the precepts from another teacher, is that okay?"


"Okay," I said.

And that was that. I assumed there would be some kind of formal teaching or class about the meaning of the precepts, but there never was. A few days before the ceremony was supposed to take place I marched to the abbot's room and knocked on the door. He let me in and made me tea. I asked him to explain the meaning of the precepts. He scrunched up his face and winced.

"Hmm, very difficult to translate." He pulled out a book in Japanese and started leafing through it. "Hmm, too difficult to translate. Why don't you ask Hobai?" Hobai was an American man who practiced at Zen Mountain Monastery and could read classical Japanese.

I asked Hobai for the meaning of the precepts and he printed them out from the ZMM website. Those precepts are:

The Three Treasures
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

The Three Pure Precepts
Not Creating Evil
Practicing Good
Actualizing Good For Others

The Ten Grave Precepts
Affirm life; Do not kill
Be giving; Do not steal
Honor the body; Do not misuse sexuality
Manifest truth; Do not lie
Proceed clearly; Do not cloud the mind
See the perfection; Do not speak of others errors and faults
Realize self and other as one; Do not elevate the self and blame others
Give generously; Do not be withholding
Actualize harmony; Do not be angry
Experience the intimacy of things; Do not defile the Three Treasures

I took one look at this and said, "These aren't the real precepts."

By the way, I am a brat. By "real," I of course meant "Japanese." Japanese= real! Obviously! Hobai sighed and very kindly spent the next several days translating the precept for me from the classical Japanese. When he finished he handed me a piece of paper and laughed, "There you go! No sex, no sake." That's basically the language that's used. Don't kill. Don't lie. No sex. No sake.

Concerned, I stopped the abbot in the hallway. I think I was really thinking about sex, but I asked about alcohol.

"I don't think I can stop drinking alcohol," I said.

"Well, don't drink too much," he offered.

That was the best explanation I ever got. That was the teaching about precepts. The night before the ceremony, I turned in my rakusu to the abbot to sign and authorize. I had sewn my rakusu at the same time as an older, Japanese monk. He vehemently hated sewing, and so he had left most of the sewing to the old Japanese ladies. Because of this, his rakusu was really well-made. Not knowing the back-story, the abbot assumed that the better quality rakusu was mine (because I'm a girl?), so he wrote my name on the Japanese monk's rakusu, and gave my rakusu to the monk. The rakusu I wear today is actually the rakusu of a middle-aged Japanese monk named Jitsugai. I'll probably end up his mother in my next life.

The ceremony happened, and I received my new name, Gesshin, which I continue to use. But the precepts are still a question mark for me. I still wonder: what is the power of ceremony? What does it mean to promise something you can't understand? What is vow? I have never related to the precepts as "vows." Maybe I should.

Partly because of writing this, I decided I would like to do the precept ceremony again. It's been about five years, and a lot has changed for me. So I made the calls and it looks like I'll receive the precepts again this December. Only this time around, I'm insisting on saying the words in English. I'm going to translate the precepts from Japanese, and my teacher even agreed to say his lines in English, too. I'm excited. How often do we get to write our own vows?

Part of me keeps waiting for the teaching, the teacher, the external source of clarity, to show up and tell me what's right, and what to do, to shoot some magical transmission juice on me, but this never happens. Instead, I am always in the position of translating my own tradition, of creating my own clarity and meaning. Sometimes it feels very lonely, but other times I think this is the reality of existence (and practice) for everyone. We can always only ever practice our own practice. With some help.

I will be literally translating my own precept ceremony from Japanese to English, and I'm starting to wonder if this is actually what's going on all the time, anyway. Even for people who receive the precepts in their own language, there is always some kind of interpersonal translation going on. We hear "do not abuse sexuality" and our brain goes "Whaaaa?" and then spends a long time figuring out what healthy, consensual and ethical relationships are for us. We hear "do not give rise to anger" and then think "Okay, sure, good plan" and two hours later loose our shit when a friend is late. This compels us to return to the drawing board to figure out a way to work with anger that works for us. For some people, dealing with anger is easy. For some it's not. For some people, not lying is difficult. For others, honesty is easy. Everyone's relationship to precepts is unique and individual, and the work we do is only ever our own work.

Even though the precepts are something we symbolically "receive" from an outside source, nothing is actually passed between student and teacher. Nothing is transmitted. This is because we are already basic goodness and inherent enlightenment. Personally, I view the precepts as pointing us back to where we already are, an external sign that say, "Look inside!" When I give up anger and clinging, when I stop bitching about other people, when I remember that oh yeah, I don't want to have sexual relationships that make me feel confused and icky, there is a feeling of tremendous relief. This relief is the feeling, for me, of returning to what I already know to be true about myself.

I don't think there's some kind of magical "vow juice" that shoots out of the preceptor for us to mindlessly ingest. The only power the precepts-- or any of this practice-- has is the power we give it, the meaning we make of it. This is why I have such a high tolerance for teachers, ceremonies, and ritual; they're inherently devoid of meaning until I create my own, through and with those external points of reference. It's an exchange between target and source language, between teacher and student, between external and internal. It's not entirely "mine," but it's also not something that's directly passed into me.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe somebody really is squirting invisible, magical vow juice. But I doubt it.


  1. Question for you, Gesshin: why translate them from the Japanese? I realize that you just spent considerable time studying the Japanese language, and this I'm sure is an excellent challenge for your new language skills, but the gentleman who translated for you in Japan I'm sure did a good job; I personally prefer the ZMM vows to "no sex, no sake", and I'm sure you do too.

    Ok, maybe you will translate them, and then take vows closer to what you have already worked out for yourself? I'm curious, about what your thoughts are here.

  2. excellent read and exploration of the precepts.thank you for your great storytelling talents.
    i think you've got it. this is it:
    your words:
    Even though the precepts are something we symbolically "receive" from an outside source, nothing is actually passed between student and teacher. Nothing is transmitted. This is because we are already basic goodness and inherent enlightenment. Personally, I view the precepts as pointing us back to where we already are, an external sign that say, "Look inside!" When I give up anger and clinging, when I stop bitching about other people, when I remember that oh yeah, I don't want to have sexual relationships that make me feel confused and icky, there is a feeling of tremendous relief. This relief is the feeling, for me, of returning to what I already know to be true about myself.

  3. Haha! Great story!

    But I don't think I'm completely satisfied with saying that practice is devoid of meaning except that which we give it.

    In a metaphorical sense I think I'm a believer in the invisible vow juice, if I can let it refer to all the inarticulated things outside of words that still goes on between people. You don't need to make sense or even say anything at all, there are still unhearable juices there flowing. Maybe it works just as well to take the percepts in gibberish because conventional language is, at best, nothing more than a support system for a more general process that happens in our interactions with others? A little bit of it we can probably call body language, another bit we might call social intelligence, but a lot of it is probably completely unnameable...

  4. A friend of mine drew my attention to BJ Miller's Ted talk, What really matters at the end of life. In particular, I thought you would enjoy this:

    "Over Zen Hospice’s nearly 30 years, we’ve learned much more from our residents in subtle detail. Little things aren’t so little. Take Janette. She finds it harder to breathe one day to the next due to ALS. Well, guess what? She wants to start smoking again — and French cigarettes, if you please. Not out of some self-destructive bent, but to feel her lungs filled while she has them. Priorities change. Or Kate — she just wants to know her dog Austin is lying at the foot of her bed, his cold muzzle against her dry skin, instead of more chemotherapy coursing through her veins — she’s done that. Sensuous, aesthetic gratification, where in a moment, in an instant, we are rewarded for just being. So much of it comes down to loving our time by way of the senses, by way of the body — the very thing doing the living and the dying.



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?

Burn It All Down