February 13, 2017

Shoken, jukai, ordination, and inka shomei in Rinzai Zen: Part 2

Note: this is the second in a series of four lectures on these subjects.

Now in this second talk we come to the ceremony called jukai, which means “to receive the precepts.”

Jukai is the ceremony by which laypersons take refuge in the “Three Treasures” or “Three Jewels”—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and receives the five lay precepts: to refrain from killing, stealing, misuse of sexuality, false speech, and intoxicants. The formal name for this ceremony is zaike tokudo: “staying at home [that is, remaining a layperson rather than ordaining], attaining the Way.”

These five lay precepts come from early Buddhism, and are used in nearly all Buddhist schools. The Soto school of Zen is an interesting exception, actually; jukai in that tradition uses a larger set of precepts, as found in the ceremony for full Zen ordination. The Rinzai school holds to the original five precepts for laypersons. Nevertheless, there is a type of partial lay ordination in the Rinzai tradition called Nyudo, “entering the Way,” which also uses the full ordination precepts without requiring monastic practice or the commitments of ordained persons. Thus, the Rinzai and Soto traditions are actually not so far apart. Certainly, the essential point of jukai is the same in both.

Let's first discuss taking refuge. Like shoken, the entrance into relationship with a teacher, we can say that taking refuge is self-negating in a way. It seems gutsy, and not an easy thing, to “take refuge” in anything.

I commonly hear students say that Buddhist practice does not require belief or faith of any kind. I understand what they mean by that: they are saying that our path is indeed one of practice, of experiential realization, rather than blind acceptance of dogma or reliance on saving grace bestowed by a deity. In Zen, one must experience for oneself what is meant by awakening, and so know within one's own body what the word “Buddha” signifies. However, since in the beginning we may not yet have had that experience, such ideas don't help us much. Therefore, there is a kind of minimal faith we must develop in order to truly take refuge in the Three Treasures.

We must at least believe, for example, that awakening and realization are possible, and that these things have been attained by others. The Buddha – along with all the great patriarchs and masters – stand as examples to us. Reading about their lives, experiences, and teachings, we must come to have faith that the path exists, and that they have actually walked it.

Furthermore, seeing that our own delusion is great and that in many ways we might not have the same natural ability, clarity, or power as those great practitioners of the past, we must come to have faith that we too can nevertheless walk such a path. Of course we often hear things like, “All beings possess the potential of Buddhahood, and intrinsically do not lack the awakened nature,” but just repeating such wonderful-sounding teachings doesn't really give us much faith in ourselves, does it. Again, in the beginning these are just ideas. So when we first come to Zen, even though we may know such conceptual teachings well, we still must take a leap of faith and choose to try practicing with our own bodies, and so to see for ourselves if we can actualize the teachings within our lives.

Of course we do not take this leap alone, since we have our teachers and community to support us. But again, these are minimal kinds of faith that we must develop at the beginning of the path. If at least these kinds of faith arise, then jukai can be appropriate.

Now, even better than what I have described above is this situation: based on actual experience arising within the crucial relationship with a teacher, a student begins to be naturally free of doubt regarding the path. If faith has arisen in this way through direct recognition of our nature, then we will know without question that the Buddha we take refuge in during jukai is precisely this one that sees, hears, thinks, and carries around this body. At that point,we can easily acknowledge the awakened beings of the three times (past, present, and future) and ten directions (that is, the entire universe), and say that we firmly commit to take refuge in them and their myriad Dharma teachings. We will know without any doubt whatsoever that this path others have walked is true and genuine, and that they did not deceive us. We can readily choose to follow their footsteps which, though formerly faint to us, are now becoming increasingly clear. We may even realize that, long before we knew it was so, we have been following them. We are already joined to this Sangha that transcends time and space. If a student arrives at this kind of place, then jukai is really just a formality. It merely seals something which has already happened.

In fact, for such a person, it may be that declaring refuge in the Buddha will seem sort of ridiculous, as much so as declaring that one has decided to stand upon the earth and below the sky. It may be that taking refuge in the Dharma, the teachings, will seem akin to saying that one's eyes are horizontal and nose is vertical. It may be that taking refuge in the Sangha, the community of realized noble ones, will seem superfluous since we already entangle eyebrows not only with the Buddhas and patriarchs, but with all creatures, the mountains and rivers, all things and phenomena, without exception. All of this being as it is, jukai in such cases is not a big deal at all.

So I hope it is clear that in Zen, taking refuge in the Three Treasures is ideally a bit more than just saying, “I revere the person Shakyamuni who lived in the 5th century BCE; I have learned about and accept the Buddhist teachings; I go for guidance to the community of practitioners.” At the very least, jukai should mark the arising of a kind of faith in the path, and faith that despite great delusion we will be able to walk the path. But it is even better if such faith blossoms from an actual recognition that one's own nature is not different from what we call “Buddha.” For that reason, shoken is more important in Zen than jukai, and in many cases may come before it. As I said in the first talk of this series, jukai is not required to practice Zen. What is required is that, through the “direct pointing” and instruction of our teachers, we enter the gate of Zen awakening which is the recognition called kensho. Having done this, we can begin the true Zen practice which takes that recognition as its basis. Naturally at such a time we will understand finally what “Buddha”, “Dharma” and “Sangha” mean, and what “taking refuge” truly signifies.

Now, let's discuss the five lay precepts received in jukai. Regarding precepts, I should begin by pointing out the obvious: as the precepts are a human creation, not commandments received from a god or supreme being, they can and will shift according to culture, era, and individual context. It is important, I think, to stress this especially in the West, where the religious traditions within which many of us were raised (or at least, the cultural backgrounds colored by these traditions) are enmeshed with absolute, dualistic views of good vs. evil, of pure spirit/soul vs. impure matter/body, of discomfort with sex and with the feminine, and so on. Furthermore, those are traditions that hold out a threat of eternal condemnation and suffering as the consequence for breaking absolute, divinely ordained rules.

But our approach is different. As human rules, precepts are things we are meant to use as human beings, that is, as normal, deluded, flawed people. Precepts are tools, and like all tools will be useful in some situations but not others. In general we can say that if there is no problem, a precept might not be needed. If I do not have a problem with stealing or getting drunk, for example, what possible use is taking precepts addressing those concerns? There is no need to do so. How do the precepts support our practice? How do they help create conditions conducive to the experience of clarity, the non-harming of self and others, the dissolving of habitual delusion, and the eventual recognition of wisdom? These are the questions which should frame our practice of the precepts, rather than concerns of breaking or keeping rules.

And, they are a practice. Each of the precepts is a teaching device to which we must give life through repeated examination. Each precept has a common meaning, as well as a hidden or inner one. The function of this inner meaning is, in fact, to directly point out to us our own nature. It is that intrinsic wisdom which is the essential point of Zen, and so it is that which we must call the source of true morality. If we can approach the precepts from this standpoint, then truly we may be able to use them properly, rather than be used by them This is the most important function of precepts in Zen.

Finally, there is one more thing we must say about precepts in general. It is that, ultimately, they are mostly impossible to keep. There is always some standpoint from which it may be said that we are all breaking all of them, all the time.

The precept against killing, for example, is completely impossible. Why do I say this? It is simply because by living at all, we unavoidably kill. As living beings we consume life, and there is no way around this. It is of course easy to see this in the act of eating meat; even if one has not actually killed the animal whose flesh is consumed, it is clear that meat or fish we purchase for ourselves was in fact killed for us, and so we cannot deny that by doing so we support and encourage the actual acts of slaughter. Is being a hunter worse than this, when it may be said that hunters at least most often try to kill their prey quickly and mercifully, rather than within the mechanized horrors of factory farming or industrial fishing?

I am not here saying it is wrong to eat meat; the Buddha and early Sangha were not strictly vegetarian, though the Buddha did forbid monks from killing animals for food, and from eating meat specifically killed for them. Some of the purposes for such rules are perhaps obvious and not so mysterious, given that the monastic order he created depended on alms from the surrounding community. What I am saying, though, is that eating meat or fish is participation in killing, and that unless one is truly a mendicant in the manner of the early Sangha—whose members begged for food, eating whatever they were given without discrimination and without preference for or the purchasing of meat— then one is indeed a party to killing. So, in that case the one choosing to eat meat must look at the truth with clarity, and decide what is best for oneself. Whatever the decision, one must try to see how it can fit with practice, and how to integrate it within practice. At the very least, for example, someone choosing to eat meat could say the mealtime mantra for the dead animal or fish, and in so doing generate an intention to encompass those creatures within one's path, just as they are joined to one's body when eaten.

Now, my vegetarian and vegan friends will here perhaps think they have chosen a superior path, but of course farming of any kind kills infinitely more living creatures than all the slaughterhouses and nets in the world. “But, these are just insects and other such things, unintentionally plowed and crushed in the act of tilling and harvesting...they are not higher animals,” is the usual reply. I find this line of reasoning odd, however, when I hear it from persons who simultaneously criticize “speciesism.” The fact is that in the Buddhist view these are all sentient beings. It is true that in the Buddhist teachings, human beings have been considered higher in a way than animals, and the killing of a human life viewed as a crime in a manner that killing other creatures is not. But again, it would be disingenuous for someone avoiding meat for ethical reasons to use such arguments. And finally, what of the lives of plants—living things that research increasingly suggests possess a kind of sentience? Can one avoid killing these and still eat?

So, perhaps I have made my point. In one way or another, we are all killing something and are parties to killing, all the time, every day, if we eat...no matter what our diet may be. In fact, we kill constantly simply by walking around on the earth with two feet. How many small creatures have I inadvertently crushed in this way? How many creatures died in the production of the goods I buy, or the extraction of resources upon which my modern life depends? What kind of burden upon other living things have we all been our entire lives?

Allow me to be the first to confess, then: I certainly killed today. I am truly sorry that my existence causes other creatures to suffer and perish, and so I try my best to minimize it. That way to minimize it may be different at different times, in different contexts, and according to different conditions. But I try my best. And above all, I try not to avoid looking at it, or to forget this fact that my life is fueled by other lives, and that those consumed lives make it possible for me to practice. Knowing this, I resolve to not waste those sacrifices, and not to waste my life which they have made possible.

But, it does not stop there. As I mentioned, there is an inner meaning to each precept. I therefore must confess that there were many times today—again and again—when I, unable to actualize the seamless upwelling of liberative wisdom which is the Zen path, fell back into my old dualistic, deluded ways of seeing. At those moments, in fact, it is true that in a way I killed the people I saw, I killed the trees and plants, I killed every object I encountered, I killed the entire universe, and I killed myself. Is this not also a truly grave offense? In fact, it is just this offense which has thrown me again and again back into the ocean of samsara, from beginning-less time until now. Today, like all of my days, I committed it constantly.

And so it is with all the precepts. If I am working with the precepts, it is my practice to look at myself carefully in this way, to recognize that I am constantly failing, and to resolve to do my best even when it seems impossible.

I may ask myself: did I steal something today? Did I benefit from the theft of anything, anywhere, from anyone? And further, did I fall into the delusional concept of ownership, of there being “things” I could possess, or of being one who possesses?

Did I misuse sexuality? This does not just mean “Don't sleep with someone who is bound to or under the guardianship of another,” the common meaning of this lay precept.  Did I fall into dualistic fixation upon or attachment to anything at all—my phone, my creature comforts, a person I love, my habitual dislikes, my comforting routines, my closed-mindedness or prejudices, the stifling yet oddly soothing contraction of view that seems to be taking root as I get older? Where am I attached, and to what have I become addicted?

Did I tell the truth today? If I hold up this teacup and say to you, “This is a teacup!”, is that the truth? Or is it the most outrageous lie, and one which utterly kills the cup?

Did I get drunk today? Am I not constantly drunk on the intoxicant of ignorance? Am I not high on my few, feeble glimpses of wisdom, using them to bolster rather than dissolve habitual views? Is it not true that I am, in fact, wandering in a sort of ultimate, endless bad trip of the delusion called “self vs. other”?

In Rinzai practice, at some point in our training we have the chance to look at precepts in a profound manner like this, by taking each up as a koan. But there is no need to wait for those koan, or even for jukai. You can practice with the precepts now by asking yourself such questions.

I hope each of you will consider deeply what it means for you to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and what it means to take up the practice of the precepts by examining not only one's actions of body and speech, but crucially also of mind and intention. Taking refuge and the precepts are tools that must support the ultimate aim of our practice: to embody awakening.

You may have grasped by now, actually, that to call precepts “rules” is really not correct; they are more like lenses, revealing to us our fixations that give rise to unskillful—perhaps even mindlessly harmful—patterns of thought, speech and behavior. It can be said that someone who has utterly embodied awakening, and brought all the activities of body, speech, and mind into accord with it, is never apart from the essence of the precepts. It can also be said that the precepts, if they are misused or become themselves objects of fixation, should be completely smashed. There are even cases in which I might advise a student to break a precept intentionally, if indeed adherence to it revealed a brittle fixation. Breaking or keeping a precept is not the point; the point is what such breaking or keeping reveals, and how we could direct our practice in response to that.

As for myself, since I am just a normal, deluded practitioner, I can just say that taking up practice of the precepts, like most practices, involves a process of failing constantly, and of just trying again and again to do my best.

We should remember that Hakuin said that it would be better for some practitioners to go to a gambling house—where at least they will engage in activity with their whole beings and with great energy—than to practice quietly in a dull, torpid state no matter how admirable that may appear. In this vein, I would say that from the standpoint of practice it is much better to be actively engaged in many arenas of life, and to be willing to fail again and again while tumbling headlong like a boulder down the path. To strictly and precisely observe precepts, but to do so timidly, without energy or freedom, is to miss their function as liberating tools. I have heard that Tanouye Roshi once said that it was easier to train a student who was “an asshole” than it was someone who possessed a mild, nice personality; the former at least had a kind of native energy, and would eventually learn refinement. The latter, however, would find it challenging to ever develop the intense energy that successful practice requires. This is also interesting.

In any case, whatever our characters and predilections, I think it clear that a useful sixth precept might perhaps be to abstain from taking oneself and one's practice too seriously.

Unlike some other Buddhist paths, Zen is not a path of renunciation, but rather of encountering all things with enjoyment and inner freedom. To succeed in such a practice, and in fact to manifest any practice worthy of being called “Zen” at all, we must give free rein to our energy, burning brightly like roaring bonfires. If we think that it is wisdom to become like cold, lifeless ashes, then no matter how holy we might appear it cannot be called authentic Zen.

If we can use something like jukai—taking refuge in the Three Treasures and taking the five lay precepts—to guide the direction of our fiery energy, to stoke the fire of our training, and to reveal our sticking points, then these tools will be useful. Using them, we can make our bodies and lives like kilns, which do not dampen the fire contained within but in fact concentrate it. If, on the other hand, we set up precepts as rigid rules reflecting our own fixations—perhaps because we so crave for someone to tell us how we should live and what we should do, rather than to ourselves be courageously responsible for navigating the confusion and constantly changing contexts of real life—then it may be better not to receive them at all. In such cases it is likely we will misuse them to dampen the fire of our practice, and the Buddha in which we purport to take refuge will remain something far, far away.

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