Many religions have initiation rituals in which adherents formally commit themselves to their tradition – baptism, confirmation, and Bar or Bat Mitzvah, for example. Buddhism has rituals for becoming a Buddhist which usually involve “taking refuge” in the three treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), but beyond that vary widely. I introduce this tradition and then describe this ritual at my own Zen center. Next week I’ll describe rituals at a local Theravadin center, and a Vajrayana center, and talk about three main motivations people have for taking lay vows in Buddhism.
This week I’ll describe the practice of formally making vows to commit yourself to the Buddhist path as a lay person. What’s the significance, how do you do it, and why?
I’m not sure all forms of Buddhism offer this option, but most do, and it usually includes publicly “taking refuge” in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). Beyond the act of taking refuge, however, the ways people take formal vows varies quite a bit among the different forms of Buddhism. I’ll start by talking about the overall tradition of lay vows. Then, in order to give you a sense of what this practice can look like, I’ll describe how people formally become Buddhists at my own Soto Zen temple, Bright Way Zen. Then, next week, I’ll give you an overview of what they do at two other Buddhist centers in my area – one Theravadin, and one Vajrayana, and wrap up by talking about what motivates people to take this step.
Lay Vows in Buddhism
Many religions have initiation rituals in which adherents formally commit themselves to their tradition once they come of age, or as adults – baptism and confirmation in some Christian churches, and the Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Judaism, for example. The common aspect to these rituals is that someone chooses to meet the requirements of their religion – often involving some amount of study and preparation, and the willingness to live according to their tradition’s principles – and then formally and publicly joins the religious community. Note: Here I’m talking about lay initiation, not ordination as a monk, nun, priest, or other clergy.
Buddhism has its own initiation rituals, all of which have their roots in the actions of the Buddha himself over 2,500 years ago. As I discussed the Episode 17, the Buddha first welcomed lay and ordained people who wanted to study and practice with him by having them “take refuge” in the “Three Treasures” or “Three Jewels” of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In Episode 2 I cover the Three Treasures in detail, but in brief, the Buddha is the historical person who discovered and taught this way of practice, the Dharma is the Buddhist teachings and practices, and the Sangha is the community of Buddhist practitioners. Taking refuge in these things means you turn toward them in times of difficulty and rely on them for support and guidance in your spiritual practice.
Over time, some lay practitioners – also called “householders,” those who have not left home to become ordained monastics – also chose to live according the five precepts of not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not lying, and not using intoxicants.[i] The Buddha taught these precepts as the minimum standard for moral behavior, and emphasized that such behavior was a prerequisite for any progress on the Buddhist path.[ii]
From the beginning of Buddhism, then, there have been lay people who have felt called to formally commit themselves to Buddhist practice through making vows (or, in the case of committing to specific, preset vows such as the refuges and precepts, we call it “taking” vows). Taking vows has never been required, and there’s no suggestion in Buddhism that failing to formalize your commitment excludes you from the rewards of practice – that is, of course, as long as you actually practice. The choice to take vows – as a lay person, or as a monastic – is viewed as entirely up to you. True, deep and committed practice is strongly recommended, and making vows is seen as a powerful part of that practice because of the clarity and motivation it can lend to your efforts. In the end, though, no one can make you – or even pressure you to – practice because the essence of practice is about what happens in your own mind.
Now I’m going to talk about how modern, Western lay Buddhists continue the tradition of taking vows and formalizing their commitment to Buddhism. Every sect of Buddhism, and often every lineage within a particular sect, approaches lay vows somewhat differently, so it’s impossible for me to make my presentation comprehensive! However, I thought I’d give you a sense of what’s typical, as well as a sense the variety of ways, by describing the traditions at three different Buddhist centers in my area. First, my Soto Zen temple, Bright Way Zen, and then a Theravadin Buddhist center and a Tibetan Vajrayana center.
Taking the Precepts in My Soto Zen Lineage
At Bright Way, people have an opportunity to take vows and formally become Zen Buddhists once a year. We call the ceremony in which people do this “Jukai” (this is a Japanese term; ju is receiving, and kai is the precepts), and it involves taking what, in Soto Zen, we call the “sixteen bodhisattva precepts.” The first of these “precepts” are – rather oddly – none other than the three refuges of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, so essentially what people in our tradition do is take refuge and then vow to follow thirteen precepts. The first of those thirteen moral precepts are what we call the three “pure” precepts, which are: 1) cease from harm, 2) do only good, and 3) do good for others. My teachers always said, that’s really all you should need to regulate your behavior… but, humans being what we are, we need a little more specific guidance.
Therefore, the three pure precepts are followed up with the ten “grave” precepts, the first five of which will seem familiar (note that at some point, in adapting to western sensitivities, someone in my lineage added a positive phrasing of each precept to the prohibitive part):
- Do not kill – cultivate and encourage life.
- Do not steal – honor the gift not yet given.
- Do not misuse sexuality – remain faithful in relationships.
- Do not speak dishonestly – communicate truthfully.
- Do not become intoxicated – polish clarity, dispel delusion.
- Do not dwell on past mistakes – create wisdom from ignorance.
- Do not praise self or blame others – maintain modesty, extol virtue.
- Do not be mean (stingy) with dharma or wealth – share understanding, give freely of self.
- Do not indulge anger – cultivate equanimity.
- Do not defame the three treasures – respect the buddha, unfold the dharma, nourish the sangha.
Why do we take more than five precepts in my lineage? Without going into too much history, our version of precepts evolved in Mahayana Buddhism, in China. I discuss this process in Episode 23 (Evolution of the Buddhist Precepts Part 2), but essentially the Chinese Mahayanists wanted precepts for their monastics and lay people that reflected their ideal of the bodhisattva, who doesn’t just practice for their own liberation, but is motivated by compassion for others. So, in China there evolved “bodhisattva precepts.” Our ten grave precepts match the ten major bodhisattva precepts from the Brahmajala Sutra, which was composed in China around the 5th century.[iii]
Our “Jukai” Ceremony
We’re having a Jukai ceremony at Bright Way Zen this Sunday, May 20th. Six people will be taking the precepts for the first time. They’ve all been practicing Zen for at least a year, and have studied the precepts in detail – and actually, precept study is something we do together as a community every year, in the spring, for a total of 10-12 weeks. The six new “preceptees,” as we call them, have all made the formal request to “receive the precepts,” and I, as a Zen teacher with Dharma Transmission, am empowered to give people precepts.
The Jukai ceremony is about 30 minutes long, and many of the preceptees will have invited friends and family to witness in addition to the regular members of our community. In the ceremony, each preceptee will clearly state it is their wish to become a Buddhist and then will receive a wagessa. Wagessas are small garments, strips of cloth bound at the end with a decorative knot, that people will subsequently wear around their necks when doing formal Zen practice, as a symbol of their vows. Then the preceptees, as a group, vow to take refuge in the three treasures, and to follow the precepts. Anyone in attendance who wishes to renew their vows can also chant along. At the end, instead of the teacher and attendants formally processing out of the meditation hall, everyone applauds the new preceptees and gives hugs.
One of the other things people receive at our Jukai is a ketchimyaku, or a lineage document. It has Shakyamuni Buddha’s name at the top, and then lists every generation of Buddhist – or later, Zen – ancestor through the centuries, right up to me, and then it has the new preceptee’s name at the bottom. All the names are connected by a red line symbolizing the “blood” of the ancestors. Traditionally, this is a document hand-copied on silk by monastics for Dharma Transmission, but since medieval times ketchimyaku have been given to lay people at Jukai as a way to help them feel connected to the lineage.[iv] Fortunately, we print them on nice paper rather than having to write out the whole thing for everyone, but I will be spending a number of hours between now and Sunday calligraphing the preceptee’s names on these documents, and sealing them in red ink with traditional stamps.
In our Zen center communications, we clearly announce the opportunity for people to take Jukai every year, and I would say that we encourage people to take the step but don’t pressure anyone to do it. There are plenty of regular, participating members at our Zen center who have not done it, and sometimes it takes people many years to decide to take the step. Notably, however, our Zen center bylaws – at least at this point – stipulate that you need to have taken Jukai to serve on our board of directors, so the vows are seen, at least when it comes to practical Sangha management, as being indicative of the depth of commitment you have to our particular lineage and Sangha. If someone who has taken Jukai later moves too far away to participate in our community, or even drifts away from Zen practice, we still see them as carrying their vows with them wherever they go.
[i] Precepts and Lay People in Theravadin Buddhism
[ii] Buddha’s First Teachings on Moral Behavior
[iii] The Brahmajala Sutra, or the Sutra of Brahma’s Net
[iv] Bodiford, William. Soto Zen in Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press: 1993.