Cultivating a Relationship with the Precepts

From a talk given by Cathy Wright on Nov. 22, 2015

The Ten Grave Precepts are a practice and a lifestyle. Becoming aware of them, exploring them, and upholding them puts into practice what we experience for ourselves in meditation. As we stay consistent with our practice, we answer these precepts from a different layer of silence. How we settle our minds, or don’t settle our minds, on the zafu gets reflected in how we engage with our friends, our family, and those that we conflict with. The Ten Grave Precepts are a lens to look through when dealing with the world.

Thus to have a meditation practice in tandem with studying the Ten Grave Precepts is a very special interaction. It is a special look at how one has a relationship with one’s self and how this self gets replaced by the world and its ten thousand things, its bushes and grasses and clouds and stones and people and cars and flowers and garbage and life and death.

Without the Precepts, we would lose a valuable Zen compass on what to do when we get up from meditation and walk out the door. Zen places a strong emphasis on seated, silent meditation. No music or candles, or paintings of the Buddha to look at. We look at a wall. We sit with eyes open. hands resting on our lap. And we don’t move.

Each breath confirms our place in the moment as an eternal being with a mortal body. We learn more about our life, our mind, and our way of being judgmental than we ever could imagine at the start of this path.

And then, we step outside and are asked to love, not to lie, not to gossip, not to kill. These are big qualities. How are we doing with these?

Let’s go back onto the meditation cushion for a moment. What else is going on besides looking at the wall and following the breath? Is there something else at work here, round after round?

I think so. I think to know how active and obsessed the mind is, is the first step in hearing from another place. For then, it is possible for something to dawn on us, something that we can be clear about, something fundamental to zazen: to know we are turning away from our restless mind. This is a huge thing to become aware of and to turn toward something other than this. For herein lies the place from which we learn our own answers to the precepts. From the deep places we touch in silence we rub up against our limited ways of being.

With the practice of zazen, the Ten Grave Precepts spring us into existence with all things. The Dharma wheel turns ceaselessly. No one puts it in motion, no one is here to stop it. No one but you and I and the birds and the mountains to keep it rolling. It is from this place, this continuous turn of the Dharma wheel, that a particular precept in your blood and bones churns you up and shakes you awake from sleep-land. One precept jumps from the ground like the first flower in spring and taps you on the shoulder. One precept falls from the sky like the first snowflake of winter, and this precept grabs you like nothing has grabbed you in years. It gets your attention, your eyelids pop wide open, your mouth wants to speak but you know you are caught and quietly close your lips.

And then it begins. The zazen practice, the Buddha-Dharma-Sangha triple treasure, takes over, and you find your way out of the fog of forgetfulness and neglect, and you come forth with the arms of the universe.

When you know this place for yourself, you share the joy that overcomes you. You embrace the precept of the day, the precept of your life, and jump in with both feet. You shake the bejesus out of your sloth and arrogance. You know exactly how to answer, how to respond, and you do it.

I know for me, since sitting zazen, what the greatest pain is. I thought it was the stabbing knife pain between my shoulder blades during the long days of sesshin. Then later on, I knew it was the knee pain. The burning, aching, screaming pain of the knee not being able to sit one more second.

But now I believe differently. The greatest pain of all is the pain of separation, the pain of separation between me and you. The separation between me and you is so great, it stabs the heart with a sharp blade and it is nothing I want to hold onto anymore. To work with the precepts from separation does not liberate their unifying potential. To work with them from the silence that is touched in zazen liberates the precept right up to the level of replacement.

We can work with that. This silence is something other than our restless mind. This quiet, active commitment that occurs each time we take our zafu seat. This stopping and sitting zazen takes the wind out of the emotional energy of separation.

And when this process of losing our separation from each other is underway, the Ten Grave Precepts meet us on new ground. We are more able to sift through our life and see where the precepts are guiding us or tripping us. Which ones have been in the dark? Which ones need some attention? Which ones have changed in the last year, the last ten years?

What I have learned in these years of sitting, going to dokusan, attending sesshin, and engaging in the forms of the temple, is it is following the precepts that have been my best mirror to how it has all – not just Zen, but my entire life – been going.

Because, in the end, no precept has been easy to follow. No precept has a right and wrong line so I know where to stand. Yet there is a precept buzzer, and it goes off each time the line is crossed.

Who pushes this buzzer? We do. I do. You do. I know instantly I have acted from separation due to the intensity of the judgment passed on myself or passed on another. When the precepts are actively looked at, reviewed, felt deeply, daily, monthly, yearly, there is a transformative force that grows and reworks us from the inside out. Then I am you, and you are me.

This is a special, extraordinary, and at the same time ordinary relationship indeed. A fresh relationship reflects the natural state of no yesterday, no tomorrow and no today, a relationship that is worth cultivating for the love of it all.

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