164 – Gratitude as a Dharma Gate
165 - Los Preceptos Morales Budistas como Práctica para Estudiar la Vía

The Buddhist precepts aren’t just guidelines help us live moral and beneficial lives, they are also practice tools for studying the self. And, as Zen master Dogen wrote, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.” When we’re tempted to break precepts, it’s a sign that our “small self” has arisen, and we have the opportunity to observe what’s happening and explore new ways to respond.



Apologies for the long time between my last episode and this one, I was busy planning and participating in an Extinction Rebellion nonviolent civil disobedience action on March 27.th If you want to see some press coverage of this action and see me chained to a big pink boat while wearing my priest robes, check this out: Climate activists in Portland chain themselves to boat on Morrison bridge.


Quicklinks to Article Content:
Buddhist Precepts as a Practice
Brief Review of Moral Precepts in Buddhism
Moral Precepts in Soto Zen
Precepts as a Practice for Studying the Self (and the Buddha Way)
Mahayana Precepts as the Behavior of a Buddha
The Urge to Break a Precept Is the Arising of Small Self
Precepts as Every Moment Practice Opportunity
Precept Work, Karma, and Studying the Self
Receiving the Gift of the Precepts


Buddhist Precepts as a Practice

In this episode, I’m going to be talking about the Buddhist moral precepts as a practice for studying the Buddha way. They’re not just a way to constrain our behavior so we don’t make a mess of our lives, although they definitely serve that purpose as well. 

Just to review for a second, when I talk about “practice,” what I mean is something we consciously choose to do in order to relieve suffering and cultivate wisdom and compassion. Something we choose to do with our body, speech, or mind. Those are the three venues for human action in the Buddhist view: body, speech, and mind.

Practice can entail formally Buddhist activities such as meditation, chanting, study, etc., but it can also be much more personal or subtle. For instance, you might have a practice of picking up your teacup with two hands, or centering yourself in your breath when having a difficult conversation, or shifting your mind to gratitude when you’re starting to feel irritable, or something like that. 

Specifically, I want to talk about the precepts as a practice for studying the Buddha way. According to Dogen in Genjokoan:

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.”[i]

We’re not going to get everything Dogen talks about in that passage today, but we’ll explore “studying the self.” I could have said the precepts are a practice for studying the self, and I think they are, but that can sound limited. It’s not about studying the self in some self-improvement project kind of way. Rather, this study is a gateway to the whole of the Buddha way.


Brief Review of Moral Precepts in Buddhism

Just to review for a moment, I have done several podcast episodes so far on the moral precepts of Buddhism:

In episodes 22&23 – How Buddhists Should Behave: Evolution of the Buddhist Precepts, I talked about the history of moral precepts through the ages in Buddhism, including the emphasis from the very beginning on the importance of ethical behavior, starting right off with the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. There are eight aspects to the Buddhist path according to that Eightfold Path, and three of them have to do with moral action, or ethical behavior: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. In original Buddhism, these were pragmatic recommendations. Moral recommendations were based on the incompatibility between, on the one hand, selfish or destructive behavior that generated negative karma, and spiritual practice on the other hand, which required calm and concentration for mindfulness and meditative concentration. The ethical guidelines, you might say, weren’t so much of a moral injunction as a practical one.

When the Mahayana arose and added to Buddhism the commitment to the welfare of all beings as being inseparable from our own liberation and practice, then the precepts take on another dimension.

In episodes 60&61 – Taking Refuge and Precepts: The Significance of Becoming a BuddhistI talked about how formally vowing to make the precepts part of your life and to do your best to follow them is the entry gate to formally becoming a Buddhist. Episode 60 describes my own lineage approach to the precepts (Soto Zen), including the ceremony of receiving the precepts and formally becoming a Buddhist. Episode 61 describes lay vows in a Theravada community and a Vajrayana community, and talks about the importance of vow.


Moral Precepts in Soto Zen

A bit of precept history: Originally there were five lay precepts which correspond to the first five of the ones that we use in Soto Zen. Then monastics had hundreds of precepts governing their lives. In China, Mahayana developed a set of 58 Bodhisattvas precepts which were taken by both laypeople and monastics. The monastics would take the hundreds of Vinaya precepts and also take these 58 bodhisattva precepts. Then Zen master Dogen established the Soto Zen lineage in Japan and innovated by having both monks and laypeople take only the 16 Bodhisattvas precepts. They were even scaled down from the 58 Bodhisattva precepts.

Before I go into precepts as a practice, I’m going to list the precepts we use in my particular Soto Zen lineage for you so you have some context. This list of 16 precepts  includes the three refuges in buddha, dharma, and sangha (it’s a little strange for a refuge to be considered a “precept,” I think, but there it is), three pure precepts, and ten grave precepts. In my Soto Zen lineage, we use versions of the precepts created by Kannon-Do Zen center called the “Clear Mind Precepts:” [ii]

I take refuge in the buddha,

I take refuge in the dharma,

I take refuge in the sangha.

The next three we call the pure precepts, and we say they pretty much cover everything. This really would be all that you need to guide your behavior, but we break it down into the ten grave precepts because people need more guidance and detail. The three pure precepts are:

Cease from harm – release all self-­attachment.

Do only good – take selfless action.

Do good for others – embrace all things and conditions.

Then things get broken down more specifically in the ten grave precepts. The “Clear Mind Precepts” are cool in that they phrase the ‘do not’ part and then they have a positive phrasing of what the precept is about.

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.[iii]


Precepts as a Practice for Studying the Self (and the Buddha Way)

Precepts are a practice – specifically a practice for “studying the Buddha Way.” As Dogen says in Genjokoan, to study Buddha Way is to study the self.

I could have called this talk, “The Buddhist Moral Precepts as a Practice for Studying the Self” but I didn’t want it to sound too limited. Studying the self can be misunderstood as a process of understanding or improving this limited self as opposed to a gateway to the whole of the Buddha way. At the root of our problems – dukkha, all unskillful and selfish behavior based in greed, ill-will, and delusion – all of this arises from our delusion about self. This delusion about our self-nature is that we believe, as I’ve talked about many times, we must have an enduring, independent, inherent self-nature, or self-essence, as opposed to being boundless, empty, interdependent, and dependently co-arisen.

After all, Dogen continues: To study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things.”

Mahayana Precepts as the Behavior of a Buddha

In Mahayana Buddhism the precepts took on a different dimension than they had in earlier Buddhism. Besides being practical injunctions for providing a good, essential basis for your spiritual practice and to cease generating negative, troubling karma, they became a description of enlightened behavior.

The idea is that if you were a Buddha, if you truly understood reality – if you understood your self-nature, interdependence, the impermanent and fleeting nature of this life, the precious opportunity of being a human being – it would not even occur to you to break the precepts. They wouldn’t be rules to constrain your behavior, the precepts would describe your natural behavior.

Our goal as practitioners – our goal if we are on the Buddhist path – is to extend our sense of connection and intimacy out as far as we can. Our sense of intimacy and identification should not be limited to our own bodies, or even just our own families, but should extend to non-human human beings, even all of life, all that exists. A Buddha is unthreatened by anything because she perceives not-two. She perceives that she is not separate from anything and therefore almost perceives all of it as her own body.

(Just a caveat that I’d like to say that compassion is the trump card when it comes to keeping the precepts. On occasion, there might be an example where breaking a precept might be more compassionate than keeping it. An example might be self-defense. You, as a being, are not excluded from consideration when you are acting. You are deserving of compassion as well. If you defend yourself and perhaps kill someone,  you are doing it for compassionate reasons. Or, perhaps you euthanize a pet that is in pain and you are doing it out of compassion. Importantly, this doesn’t mean there are no karmic repercussions for your action. There will be. Even if you killed someone in self-defense, that is going to change your life forever. There are going to be lots of negative traumatic results from that. But ultimately you can make an argument that it was done out of compassion and therefore you were keeping the precepts at a deeper level.)

The profound aspect of “not killing” is beautiful described in Uchiyama Roshi’s commentary on Dogen’s “Bendowa” or “The Wholehearted Way,”  he comments on Dogen’s response to a question: “Is it necessary for those who focus on this zazen to observe the precepts strictly?” Uchiyama refers to a text in his commentary called “Comments on the one mind precepts,” which is attributed (probably apocryphally) to Bodhidharma, but it’s still a beautiful text. The Comments on the one mind precepts says:

“Self nature is wondrous and imperceptible. Within the everlasting dharma, not arousing the view of extinction is called the precept of not killing.”[iv]

Uchiyama then comments:

“Self nature is what I call the reality of life. Since the reality of life cannot be grasped by words, it is said to be wondrous and imperceptible. Within this world, in whatever situation, everything is the reality of life. The reality of life cannot be killed by any means. The precept of not killing means that since all beings are in the reality of life, we cannot kill anything. When you don’t awaken to the reality and kill some creature, it is a violation of this precept.”

This is getting pretty subtle and turning the idea of a moral precept on its head. In other words, in reality, our true self nature is boundless and we can’t actually cut anything off. We can’t actually get rid of anything. We’re part of a seamless whole. All you can do is perhaps cause a change in the state and status of something, but you haven’t really gotten rid of anything. We may think we can get rid of something, and then the thought of extinction, of wanting someone or something or some situation to stop being arises in us. This thought is a delusion at odds with our buddha-nature, with reality itself. Therefore, we violate this precept not only literally when we kill something, but as soon as we long for the extinction of something.

This isn’t only about our behavior, but about the state of our heart and mind, our whole understanding of our relationship to the rest of the world. Another example would be stealing. Again, unless we break the precept out of compassion because it’s something that we need in order to survive (most of the time, that’s not the case), why are we stealing or cheating or grasping at more than would otherwise come to us? Why are we overtly or subtly gaming the system, getting more than our share, more than is sustainable? It is usually self concern, greed, and fear of lack. A Buddha would not be tempted to steal. A Buddha would get satisfaction from much deeper, unconditional sources.

The Bodhidharma one-mind precept says:

“Within the ungraspable dharma, not arousing the thought of gaining is called the precept of not stealing.”

At this level we say it’s impossible to keep the precepts perfectly… how long can you go without a thought of gain?!

What about lying? Usually, we are lying to protect the self in order to preserve our reputation, avoid the consequences of our actions, avoid uncomfortable conversations, or make people think better of us. A Buddha would be more thoughtful in her actions and won’t have anything to hide. Plus, there’s no selfish concern in a Buddha motivating her to hide from the consequences of her actions. You learn from having to face the consequences of your actions. Honesty leads to greater intimacy, greater peace within ourselves.

The Bodhidharma one-mind precept says:

“Within the inexplicable dharma, not speaking a single word is called the precept of not speaking falsehood.”

We have to speak, so it’s impossible to keep these precepts perfectly. What does this mean? It means recognizing that words cannot possibly capture reality. Every time we begin to speak, we are departing somewhat from the truth.


The Urge to Break a Precept Is the Arising of Small Self

In terms of practicing with all of this, the urge to break or bend a precept equals the arising of small self. We use the term “small self” to refer to this illusory and problematic sense of self, and use the term of something like “true self-nature” or buddhanature to refer to the reality of our experience as individuals; we’re very real, just not in the way we usually think. Our true nature is boundless, flowing, ungraspable, lively, intimate.

To return to the topic at hand, this arising of the small self: We assume there’s a little homunculus inside us who’s looking out for us, and there’s this small self who ends up feeling greed or grasping, aversion, fear, or delusion. Actually, if you look really closely, the arising of small self is nothing other than the arising of grasping, aversion, and delusion.

A note about delusion here: Delusion is not just innocent ignorance. You can’t be blamed for that. Delusion in the Buddhist sense is a willful ignorance, clinging to ignorance out of a selfish agenda. There’s a basic response that, frankly, natural selection has bred into us. It’s perfectly natural for an organism – it’s not only natural, it’s necessary – for an organism to have responses to things such as attraction, grasping towards something that’s positive like food or an opportunity for sex, and aversion from flames or snakes. The delusion is maintaining a sense of self that makes a coherent story about our world. We’re not to be blamed for having feelings, but they end up being problematic if we believe them to reflect reality in some enduring or essential way.

The very aspiration to follow the precepts gives us a background, a reference point, a structure which highlights these arisings of small self, these arisings of grasping, aversion, and delusion. Not having practiced with the precepts or having not vowed to keep them or anything, you might notice your rising of small self anyway, but I suspect it would be because you actually have your own set of moral and ethical principles that you live by, whether you have formalized them or not. Your active greed, aversion, and delusion are set against those principles or aspirations.

People who start practicing with the Buddhist precepts are often shocked to notice, once they start really making a conscious choice to observe their own behavior through the lens of the precepts, how often they are breaking them. My dharma teacher, Kyogen, would say that when you set an intention it is followed by an equal and opposite reaction (kind of like a behavioral law, mirroring the law of physics). You intend to not indulge anger – and then here comes the anger!

There are different levels of precept keeping and breaking, which probably became obvious from my previous description of the Bodhidharma one-mind precepts and how it’s essentially impossible to keep the precepts at the subtlest level. We should remember that there’s also the very basic literal physical level. For instance, the “do not kill” precept is fundamentally, “don’t kill other people.” That’s highly recommended. Then you might extend that out to other creatures, but eventually, if you include plants and insects and bacteria, we cannot live without killing something.

When we must kill, then, how do we do so mindfully and with compassion? Precept practice can get quite complex. It never ends up being: “Well, here’s the set of rules and now everything’s simple. If you just follow these rules, everything will be great and you don’t have to worry about anything. Any time you encounter a decision point, the precepts will tell you what to do.” Sadly (or fortunately?), that’s not actually the case with Buddhist precepts.

In terms of the “do not kill” precept, at the very subtle level of cutting off and rejecting anything, we break this precept often. Then you get to the later precepts on speech, on not being stingy, on not indulging anger – these are very, very challenging. Basically we find that we break the precepts or are at least tempted to break the precepts all day long, especially if you start looking at them in those subtle ways.


Precepts as Every Moment Practice Opportunity

This means the precepts are an awesome opportunity as long as we use them as a practice and not as a bludgeon to beat ourselves up with. We don’t actually end up spending all that much time sitting meditation or doing dharma study or doing other formal aspects of our practice. The precepts, however, are all about relationship. They apply throughout every moment of our day as we go about our lives, giving us countless opportunities to notice the arising of small self. The urge to break a precept, or noticing we’ve already broken, one is a mirror or a red flag: Notice! Pay attention!

It’s not fruitful to use this red flag in order to notice how terrible we are and thereby try to wrestle our terrible small selves into submission. There might be a time to do this when it’s necessary to prevent imminent harm by restraining ourselves at a physical, literal level so we don’t lie or slander someone or punch someone or reach for that drink, even though we know we’re an alcoholic. There is a time and a place for trying to literally keep the precepts and wrestle ourselves into doing so, but most of the time our urge to break a precept is more subtle than that.

Often, we’re reflecting on a situation where we’ve already broken the precept, such as reviewing an unskillful conversation where we criticized others and thereby puffed up our sense of self. In the practice, we simply turn the light of awareness on what’s happened or what’s happening.

The precepts describe the behavior of a Buddha. If we’re truly awakened to reality, we don’t break the precepts. Therefore, our precept breakage highlights where we have not yet awakened to reality, the reality of the nature of self, of the boundless and interdependent and impermanent nature of existence.


Precept Work, Karma, and Studying the Self

If we react and judge immediately when we notice we’re not yet a Buddha and try to excise the evil from within us, we won’t be able to see clearly. If we can see clearly what’s going on, we have a chance of learning, of waking up.

First we notice, usually, as we start to practice like this, after our karma has played out our habitual patterns. Then we reflect, reviewing what happened in our minds: “What went on? What triggered this? What was I thinking?

Over time, we notice as we’re breaking the precept, but we can’t really stop ourselves. Then if we keep going, if we keep trying, we start to notice as the urge to break a precept arises, but we still can’t quite stop our behavior. Eventually we notice ahead of time and there’s a little space for us to make a different choice.

As our ability and willingness to shine the light of awareness inward grows, we become more and more able to follow our behavior over time and see the consequences. We notice how lying or being stingy or indulging anger leads to negative consequences for self and other, and not just intellectually. We viscerally experience it. We also notice the rewards when we’re able to make different choices.

Without the conscious practice of mindfulness, or shining the light inward, or precept practice, or however you want to phrase this, we’re often caught up in our habitual behaviors and the light isn’t shining inward on our choices, words, thoughts, feelings, or behavior. The light is usually shined outward on what we’re reacting to or what we have opinions about or what other people are doing. Practice is a really deliberate choice to turn and look at what is going on within us.

At first or at times, precept work can seem very practical, nitty gritty, all about karma or habitual condition patterns. It can seem slow and challenging, like a daunting self-improvement project. However, part of the goal is to open up to the greater implications of everything. Why is giving up our self-absorption so rewarding? Why does killing hurt us as well as others? There’s a way that when we want to break a precept but we move as much as we can toward Buddha behavior, toward acting in accord with the reality of interdependence and not-self, we actually get a taste of not-self. We get a taste of emptiness, of liberation.

My real-life example: I don’t tend to get furious at people (usually just at inanimate objects), but there was a situation in my practice long ago where somebody did something that upset me very much. It was about how the Dharma was being presented publicly. I thought what I witnessed was wildly inappropriate and the person was violating some very important guidelines in how we present the Dharma. When I encountered this situation, I was furious, but I was in a group of people. I was sitting and I was supposed to stay and participate, but I couldn’t take it. I got up and went for a walk and I knew the walk was going to start relieving the feelings of anger.

I walked and reflected, thinking, “Okay, this situation has been going on for a while, the world hasn’t ended because of it. I have some time.” I talked myself down into not indulging my anger, as the precept says. As I watched the anger start to dissipate, it was fascinating. There are few things that our small self identifies as being real as much as anger. Our body and mind says, “This is a real threat!” We have such a sense of concreteness and reality, which is why one translation of the Bodhidharma version of this precept is:

Bodhidharma precept:

“Not substantializing the ego is called the precept of not being angry”[v]

My Zen center’s translation:

“In the realm of the selfless dharma, not contriving reality for the self is the precept of not indulging anger.”[vi]

As I released my anger, I also released myself. It was very instructive. It wasn’t just about the moral that you shouldn’t be angry. It was an opportunity for studying the Buddha away.

Each time we surrender our greed, aversion, delusion, we challenge our sense of small self. We gradually become familiar with the sense of small self – able to notice when it arises, and what the repercussions are. And eventually we’re able to see the small self – contrary to ideas about how important it is, how essential, how enduring, inherent, independent it is – is nothing but the arising of greed, aversion, and delusion. It’s a phenomenon we are better off without!

Then we become more able to experience what Dogen talks about, when we forget the self and are actualized by the myriad things. Rather than defending and fighting for the well-being of this small self in a world that’s hostile and lacking, we start to participate joyfully in a universe where we can’t hold on to anything but that’s part of the fun.


Receiving the Gift of the Precepts

The precepts are a time tested set of ethical guidelines. When we first start practicing with them, some of them may make sense to us, while others seem obscure. What are they about? Or they might not seem very relevant or important. Why a whole precept about not praising self or blaming others? Over time, I like to say that we get converted to the precepts more fully, one by one. Like my example with anger and seeing the self melt away as the anger was released: “Oh, now I see why that matters so much!” You can take the precepts, you can start following them, without necessarily understanding how all of them function. You simply become willing to engage them.

Sometimes we call the precepts guidelines versus rules, and this is because in Buddhism we have no external authority judging us. “Guidelines” may sound wishy washy, as if we don’t think it matters very much if you break the precepts, but using this term acknowledges that – short of the rule of law and effective enforcement of that law – I can’t make you do anything. You can’t make me do anything. Especially when it comes to the internal aspects of this practice. It’s up to us.

The precepts are something we choose, something we ask for. In our Jukai ceremony of formally becoming a Buddhist, it’s said we “receive” the precepts from a teacher who has received them from another teacher. They’ve been passed down through the generations and are given to you as a precious practice.



[i] Okumura, Shohaku. Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2010.
[ii] https://kannondo.org/
[iii] https://brightwayzen.org/practice/taking-the-precepts/
[iv] Okumura, Shohaku, and Taigen Daniel Leighton. The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dogen’s Bendowa with Commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing,1997.
[v] Ibid
[vi] https://brightwayzen.org/practice/taking-the-precepts/text-of-precepts/


164 – Gratitude as a Dharma Gate
165 - Los Preceptos Morales Budistas como Práctica para Estudiar la Vía