The precepts of Zen Buddhism derive from the rules that governed the Sangha, or community of monks and nuns who gathered about Shakyamuni Buddha. As the religion of Buddhism developed through the Mahayana schools, the meaning of sangha broadened to include all beings, not just monks and nuns, and not just human beings. Community continues to be a treasure of the religion today, and the precepts continue to be a guide. My purpose in this book is to clarify them for Western students of Buddhism as a way to help make Buddhism a daily practice.

Without the precepts as guidelines, Zen Buddhism tends to become a hobby, made to fit the needs of the ego. Selflessness, as taught in the Zen center, conflicts with the indulgence that is encouraged by society. The student is drawn back and forth, from outside to within the Zen center, tending to use the center as a sanctuary from the difficulties experienced in the world. In my view, the true Zen Buddhist center is not a mere sanctuary, but a source from which ethically motivated people move outward to engage in the larger community.

There are different sets of precepts, depending on the teachings of the various schools of Buddhism. In the Harada-Yasutani line of Zen, which derives from the Soto school, the “Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts” are studied and followed. These begin with the “Three Vows of Refuge”:

I take refuge in the Buddha;
I take refuge in the Dharma;
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha can be understood here to mean realization, truth, and harmony. These Three Vows of Refuge are central to the ceremony of initiation to Buddhism in all of its schools.

The way of applying these vows in daily life is presented in “The Three Pure Precepts,” which derive from a gatha (didactic verse) in the Dhammapada and other early Buddhist books: 

Renounce all evil;
practice all good;
keep your mind pure—
thus all the Buddhas taught.1

In Mahayana Buddhism, these lines underwent a change reflecting a shift from the ideal of personal perfection to the ideal of oneness with all beings. The last line was dropped, and the third rewritten:

Renounce all evil;
practice all good;
save the many beings.

These simple moral injunctions are then explicated in detail in “The Ten Grave Precepts,” “Not Killing, Not Stealing, Not Misusing Sex,” and so on, which are discussed in the next ten chapters.

These sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are accepted by the Zen student in the ceremony called Jukai (“Receiving the Precepts”), in which the student acknowledges the guidance of the Buddha. They are studied privately with the roshi, the teacher, but are not taken up in teisho (Dharma talks), or discussed at any length in Zen commentaries.

Aitken Roshi
Aitken Roshi

I think the reason for this esotericism is the fear of misunderstanding. When Bodhidharma says that in self-nature there is no thought of killing, as he does in his comment on the First Grave Precept, this was his way of saving all beings. When Dogen Kigen Zenji says that you should forget yourself, as he does throughout his writing, this was his way of teaching openness to the mind of the universe. However, it seems that teachers worry that “no thought of killing” and “forgetting the self’ could be misunderstood to mean that one has license to do anything, so long as one does it forgetfully.

I agree that the pure words of Bodhidharma and Dogen Zenjican be misunderstood, but for this very reason I think it is the responsibility of Zen teachers to interpret them correctly. Takuan Soho Zenji fails to live up to this responsibility, it seems to me, in his instructions to a samurai:

The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, as is the one who wields the sword. . .

Do not get your mind stopped with the sword you raise; forget about what you are doing, and strike the enemy. Do not keep your mind on the person before you. They are all of emptiness, but beware of your mind being caught in emptiness.2

The Devil quotes scripture, and Mara, the incarnation of ignorance, can quote the Abhidharma. The fallacy of the Way of the Samurai is similar to the fallacy of the Code of the Crusader. Both distort what should be a universal view into an argument for partisan warfare. The catholic charity of the Holy See did not include people it called pagans. The vow of Takuan Zenji to save all beings did not encompass the one he called the enemy.3

This is very different from the celebrated koan of Nanch’uan killing the cat:

The Priest Nan-ch’uan found monks of the Eastern and Western halls arguing about a cat. He held up the cat and said, “Everyone! If you can say something, I will spare this cat. If you can’t say anything, I will cut off its head.” No one could say anything, so Nansen cut the cat into two.4

Like all koans, this is a folk story, expressive of essential nature as it shows up in a particular setting. The people who object to its violence are those who refuse to read fairy tales to their children. Fairy tales have an inner teaching which children grasp intuitively, and koans are windows onto spiritual knowledge. Fairy tales do not teach people to grind up bones of Englishmen to make bread, and koans do not instruct us to go around killing pets.

Spiritual knowledge is a powerful tool. Certain teachings of Zen Buddhism and certain elements of its practice can be abstracted and used for secular purposes, some of them benign, such as achievement in sports; some nefarious, such as murder for hire. The Buddha Dharma with its integration of wisdom and compassion must be taught in its fullness. Otherwise its parts can be poison when they are misused.

“Buddha Dharma” means here “Buddhist doctrine,” but “Dharma” has a broader meaning than “doctrine,” and indeed it carries with it an entire culture of meaning. Misunderstanding of the precepts begins with misunderstanding of the Dharma, and likewise clear insight into the Dharma opens the way to upright practice.

First of all, the Dharma is the mind, not merely the brain, or the human spirit. “Mind” with a capital letter, if you like. It is vast and fathomless, pure and clear, altogether empty, and charged with possibilities. It is the unknown, the unnameable, from which and as which all beings come forth.

Second, these beings that come forth also are the Dharma. People are beings, and so are animals and plants, so are stones and clouds, so are postulations and images that appear in dreams. The Dharma is phenomena and the world of phenomena.

Third, the Dharma is the interaction of phenomena and the law of that interaction. “Dharma” and its translations mean “law” in all languages of Buddhist lineage, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese. The Dharma is the law of the universe, a law that may be expressed simply: “One thing depends upon another.” Cause leads to effect, which in turn is cause leading to effect, in an infinite, dynamic web of endless dimensions. The operation of this law is called “karma.”

Many people feel there is something mechanical in the karmic interpretation of the Dharma. “Cause and effect,” however dynamic, can imply something blind, so it is important to understand that “affinity” is another meaning of karma. When a man and woman in Japan meet and fall in love, commonly they will say to each other, “We must have known each other in previous lives.” Western couples may not say such a thing, but they will feel this same sense of affinity. What we in the West attribute to coincidence, the Asians attribute to affinity. “Mysterious karma” is an expression you will commonly hear.

Affinity and coincidence are surface manifestations of the organic nature of the universe, in which nothing occurs independently or from a specific set of causes, but rather everything is intimately related to everything else, and things happen by the tendencies of the whole in the context of particular circumstances. The Law of Karma expresses the fact that the entire universe is in equilibrium, as Marco Pallis has said.5

This intimate interconnection is found in nature by biologists and physicists today as it was once found by the Buddhist geniuses who composed Mahayana texts, particularly the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) and the Huayen (Garland of Flowers) sutras. These are compendiums of religious literature that offer important tools for understanding the Dharma, and thus understanding the precepts.

The Heart Sutra, which condenses the Prajnaparamita into just a couple of pages, begins with the words:

Avalokitesvara, doing deep prajnaparamita,
clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty,
transforming suffering and distress.6

Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Mercy, who by his or her very name expresses the fact that the truth not merely sets you free, it also brings you into compassion with others. In the Far East, the name is translated in two ways, “The One Who Perceives the [Essential] Self at Rest,” and “The One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World.” In Japanese these names are Kanjizai and Kanzeon respectively.

Kanjizai, the one who perceives the self at rest, clearly sees that the skandhas, phenomena and our perceptions of them, are all without substance. This is the truth that liberates and transforms. Kanzeon, the one who perceives the sounds of the world in this setting of empty infinity, is totally free of self-preoccupation, and so is tuned to the suffering other creatures. Kanjizai and Kanzeon are the same Bodhisattva of Mercy.

“Bodhisattva” is a compound Sanskrit word that means “enlightenment-being.” There are three implications of the term: a being who is enlightened, a being who is on the path of enlightenment, and one who enlightens beings. The whole of Mahayana metaphysics is encapsulated in this triple archetype. Avalokiteshvara is the Buddha from the beginning and also is on the path to realizing that fact. Moreover, this self-realization is not separate from the Tao (“the Way”) of saving others. For you and me, this means that saving others is saving ourselves, and saving ourselves is realizing what has always been true. As disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, we exemplify these three meanings. Senzaki Nyogen

Sensei used to begin his talks by saying, “Bodhisattvas,” as another speaker in his time would have said, “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

Learning to accept the role of the Bodhisattva is the nature of Buddhist practice. Avalokiteshvara is not just a figure on the altar. He or she is sitting on your chair as you read this. When you accept your merciful and compassionate tasks in a modest spirit, you walk the path of the Buddha. When the members of the Zen Buddhist center act together as Bodhisattvas, they generate great power for social change—this is the sangha as the Buddha intended it to be.

The Hua-yen Sutra refines our understanding of the Bodhisattva role in presenting the doctrine of interpenetration: that I and all beings perfectly reflect and indeed are all people, animals, plants, and so on. The metaphor is the “Net of Indra,” a model of the universe in which each point of the net is a jewel that perfectly reflects all other jewels. This model is made intimate in Zen study, beginning with our examination of the Buddha’s own experience on seeing the Morning Star, when he exclaimed, “I and all beings have at this moment attained the way.”7

You are at ease with yourself when Kanjizai sits on your cushions—at ease with the world when Kanzeon listens through the hairs of your ears. You are open to the song of the thrush and to the curse of the harlot—like Blake, who knew intimately the interpenetration of things:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appals;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.8

We are all of us interrelated—not just people, but animals too, and stones, clouds, trees. And, as Blake wrote so passionately, what a mess we have made of the precious net of relationships. We rationalize ourselves into insensitivity about people, animals, and plants, forging manacles of the mind, confining ourselves to fixed concepts of I and you, we and it, birth and death, being and time. This is suffering and distress. But if you can see that all phenomena are transparent, ephemeral, and indeed altogether void, then the thrush will sing in your heart, and you can suffer with the prostitute.

Experiencing emptiness is also experiencing peace, and the potential of peace is its unfolding as harmony among all people, animals, plants, and things. The precepts formulate this harmony, showing how the absence of killing and stealing is the very condition of mercy and charity.

This is the Middle Way of Mahayana Buddhism. It is unself-conscious, and so avoids perfectionism. It is unselfish, and so avoids hedonism. Perfection is the trap of literal attachment to concepts. A priest from Southeast Asia explained to us at Koko An, many years ago, that his practice consisted solely of reciting his precepts, hundreds and hundreds of them. To make his trip to the United States, he had to receive special dispensation in order to handle money and talk to women. Surely this was a case of perfectionism.

Hedonism, on the other hand, is the trap of ego-indulgence that will not permit any kind of censor, overt or internal, to interfere with self-gratification. The sociopath, guided only by strategy to get his or her own way, is the extreme model of such a person. Certain walks of life are full of sociopaths, but all of us can relate to that condition. Notice how often you manipulate other people. Where is your compassion?

In the study of the precepts, compassion is seen to have two aspects, benevolence and reverence. Benevolence, when stripped of its patronizing connotations, is simply our love for those who need our love. Reverence, when stripped of its passive connotations, is simply our love for those who express their love to us.

The model of benevolence would be the love of parent toward child, and the model of reverence would be the love of child toward parent. However, a child may feel benevolence toward parents, and parents reverence toward children. Between husband and wife, or friend and friend, these models of compassion are always in flux, sometimes mixed, sometimes exchanged.

Seeing compassion in this detail enables us to understand love as it is, the expression of deepest consciousness directed in an appropriate manner. Wu-men uses the expression, “The sword that kills; the sword that gives life,”9 in describing the compassionate action of a great teacher. On the one hand there is love that says, “Don’t do that!” And on the other hand, there is the love that says, “Do as you think best.” It is the same love, now “killing” and now “giving life.” To one friend we may say, “That’s fine.” To another we may say, “That won’t do.” The two actions involved might be quite similar, but in our wisdom perhaps we can discern when to wield the negative, and when the positive.

Without this single, realized mind, corruption can appear. I am thinking of a teacher from India who is currently very popular. I know nothing about him except his many books. His writings sparkle with genuine insight. Yet something is awry. There are sordid patches of anti-Semitism and sexism. Moreover, he does not seem to caution his students about cause and effect in daily life. What went wrong here? I think he chose a short cut to teaching. My impression is that he underwent a genuine religious experience, but missed taking the vital, step-by-step training which in Zen Buddhist tradition comes after realization. Chao-chou trained for over sixty years before he began to teach—a sobering example for us all. The religious path begins again with an experience of insight, and we must train diligently thereafter to become mature.

One of my students taught me the Latin maxim, In corruptio optima pessima, “In corruption, the best becomes the worst.” For the teacher of religious practice, the opportunity to exploit students increases with his or her charisma and power of expression. Students become more and more open and trusting. The fall of such a teacher is thus a catastrophe that can bring social and psychological breakdown in the sangha.

This is not only a violation of common decency but also of the world view that emerges from deepest experience. You and I come forth as possibilities of essential nature, alone and independent as stars, yet reflecting and being reflected by all things. My life and yours are the unfolding realization of total aloneness and total intimacy. The self is completely autonomous, yet exists only in resonance with all other selves.

Yun-men said, “Medicine and sickness mutually correspond. The whole universe is medicine. What is the self?” I know of no koan that points more directly to the Net of Indra. Yun-men is engaged in the unfolding of universal realization, showing the interchange of self and other as a process of universal health. To see this clearly, you must come to answer Yun-men’s question, “What is the self?”10

Do you say there is no such thing? Who is saying that, after all! How do you account for the individuality of your manner, the uniqueness of your face? The sixteen Bodhisattva precepts bring Yun-men’s question into focus and give it context, the universe and its phenomenon. But while the crackerbarrel philosopher keeps context outside, Yun-men is not such a fellow.

Still, cultural attitudes must be given their due. As Western Buddhists, we are also Judeo-Christian in outlook, perhaps without knowing it. Inevitably we take the precepts differently, just as the Japanese rook them differently when they received them from China, and the Chinese differently when Bodhidharma appeared. Where we would say a person is alcoholic, the Japanese will say, “He likes saké very much.” The addiction is the same, the suffering is the same, and life is cut short in the same way. But the precept about substance-abuse will naturally be applied one way by Japanese, and another by Americans.

It is also important to trace changes in Western society coward traditional matters over the past twenty years. The Western Zen student is usually particularly sensitive to these changes. Christian and Judaic teachings may seem thin, and nineteenth-century ideals that led people so proudly to celebrate Independence Day and to cheer the Stars and Stripes have all but died out.

I don’t dream about the President any more, and when I talk to my friends, I find they don’t either. The Great Leader is a hollow man, the Law of the Market cannot prove itself, and the Nation State mocks its own values.

This loss of old concepts and images gives us unprecedented freedom to make use of fundamental virtues, “grandmother wisdom” of conservation, proportion, and decency, to seek the source of rest and peace that has no East or West. It is not possible to identify this source specifically in words–the Zen teacher Seung Sahn calls it the “Don’t-Know Mind.” He and I and all people who write and speak about Buddhism use Buddhist words and personages to identify that place, yet such presentations continually fall in upon themselves and disappear. We take our inspiration from the Diamond Sutra and other sutras of the Prajnaparamita tradition, which stress the importance of not clinging to concepts, even of Buddhahood.11

Wu-tsu said, “Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. I want to ask you, ‘Who is that other?’”12 After you examine yourself for a response to this question, you might want the Buddha and his colleagues to stay around and lend a hand. Perhaps they can inspire your dreams, and their words express your deepest aspirations; but if they are true servants, they will vanish any time they get in the way.

We need archetypes, as our dreams tell us, to inspire our lives. As lay people together, we do not have the model of a priest as a leader, but we follow in the footsteps of a few great lay personages from Vimalakirti to our own Yamada Roshi, who manifest and maintain the Dharma while nurturing a family.

The sixteen Bodhisattva precepts, too, are archetypes, “skillful means” for us to use in guiding our engagement with the world. They are not commandments engraved in stone, but expressions of inspiration written in something more fluid than water. Relative and absolute are altogether blended. Comments on the precepts by Bodhidharma and Dogen Zenji are studied as koans, but our everyday life is a great, multifaceted koan that we resolve at every moment, and yet never completely resolve.


1See Irving Babbitt, trans., The Dhammapada (New York: New Directions, 1965), p. 30.

2D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (New York: Pantheon, 1959), pp. 114-115.

3Takuan Zenji echoes Krishna’s advice to Arjuna:
These bodies are perishable, but the dwellers in these
Bodies are eternal, indestructible, and impenetrable.
Therefore fight, O descendant of Bharata!
He who considers this (Self) as a slayer or he who thinks
That this (Self) is slain, neither of these knows the
Truth. For It does not slay, nor is It slain.
“Bhagavad Gita,” II, 17-19
Lin Yutang, ed., The Wisdom of China and India (New York: Random House, 1942), p. 62.
The separation of the absolute from the relative and the treatment of the absolute as something impenetrable may be good Hinduism, but it is not the teaching of the Buddha, for whom absolute and relative were inseparable except when necessary to highlight them as aspects of a unified reality.

4See Koun Yamada, Gateless Gate (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1979), p. 76.

5Marco Pallis, A Buddhist Spectrum (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), p. 10.

6Robert Aitken, Taking the Path of Zen (San Francisco: Nort Point Press, 1982), p. 110.

7Koun Yamada and Robert Aitken, trans. Denkoroku, mimeo., Diamond Sangha, Honolulu & Haiku, Hawaii, Case 1.

8William Blake, “London,” Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonesuch Library, 1961), p. 75.

9Yamada, Gateless Gate, p. 64.

10See J. C. and Thomas Cleary, The Blue Cliff Record, 3 vols. (Boulder and London: Shambhala, 1977), III p. 559.

11See Edward Conze, trans., Buddhist Wisdom Books (London: Allen and Unwin, 1975), pp. 17-74; and D. T. Suzuki, trans., Manual of Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1960), pp. 38-72.

12Comments attributed to Bodhidharma and comments by Dogen Zenji, which appear in each of my essays on the Ten Grave Precepts were translated by Yamada Koun Roshi and myself from Goi, Sanki, Sanju, Jujukinkai Dokugo (Soliloquy on the Five Degrees, the Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Precepts) by Yasutani Hakuun Roshi (Tokyo: Sanbokoryukai, 1962), pp. x–xvi; 71–97. These comments were also translated by Maezumi Taizan Roshi in the pamphlet Mindless Flower, published many years ago by the Zen Center of Los Angeles and now out of print. I have used Maezumi Roshi’s work as a reference in revising the translations that Yamada Roshi and I made originally. The comments attributed to Bodhidharma are believed by modern scholars to have been written by Hui-ssu (ancestor of the T’ien T’ai school of Buddhism) and adopted later by Zen teachers. I have retained the legend that Bodhidharma wrote them; after all Bodhidharma himself is something of a legend. Legends fuel our practice. My reference is a personal letter from the Hui-ssu scholar Dan Stevenson dated August 22, 1983.

From The Mind of Clover, © 1984 by Robert Aitken. Reproduced with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 

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