164 – Gratitude as a Dharma Gate
166 - The Wesak Ceremony: Celebrating and Expressing Gratitude for Our Teachers

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 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 talk: Precepts as a practice, not just as a way to constrain our behavior so we don’t make a mess of our lives. Although they definitely have that purpose as well!

Review – What do I mean by “practice.” Generally: Something we consciously choose to do in order to relieve suffering and cultivate wisdom and compassion. Body, speech & mind…

“Practice” can entail a formally Buddhist activity such as meditation, chanting, or study. It can also be more personal or subtle, like a practice of picking up your teacup with two hands, or centering yourself in your breath when having a difficult conversation…

Specifically: precepts as a practice for studying the Buddha Way = (starting by) studying the self

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]

Brief Review of Moral Precepts in Buddhism

My podcast episodes so far on the moral precepts of Buddhism (or you can search for “precepts” on zenstudiespodcast.com):

22&23 – How Buddhists Should Behave: Evolution of the Buddhist Precepts

History of moral precepts through the ages, including the emphasis on from the very beginning ethical behavior in Buddhism (starting with 8-fold path’s Right Speech, Action & Livelihood)

Original Buddhism: Pragmatic recommendation based on incompatibility with selfish/destructive behavior and spiritual practice, particularly the calm and concentration needed for mindfulness and meditative concentration, and stopping the generation of negative karma

Mahayana: Adds commitment to the welfare of all beings (seen as inseparable from our own liberation)

60&61 – Taking Refuge and Precepts: The Significance of Becoming a Buddhist

#60 describes our lineage approach to the precepts, including the ceremony of receiving the precepts and formally becoming a Buddhist

#61 describes lay vows in a Theravada community and a Vajrayana community, and talks about the importance of the practice of vow

Moral Precepts in Soto Zen

Overview: Originally 5 lay precepts and then monastics had hundreds governing their lives… Mahayana developed a set of 58 bodhisattva precepts taken by both lay and monastics (monastics still took the hundreds of Vinaya precepts)

Overview in my lineage: Dogen established Soto Zen lineage in Japan, innovated by having both monks and lay people take only the “Sixteen” Bodhisattva Precepts (3 refuges, 3 pure precepts, 10 grave precepts, which I’ll get to in a moment)

In my Soto Zen lineage we use versions of the precepts created by Kannon-Do Zen center[ii] (called the “Clear Mind Precepts”).

16 precepts = Three Refuges; Three Pure Precepts; 10 Grave Precepts

I take refuge in the buddha,

I take refuge in the dharma,

I take refuge in the sangha.


Cease from harm – release all self-­attachment.

Do only good – take selfless action.

Do good for others – embrace all things and conditions.


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 as a practice – specifically as 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 just 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 – is our delusion about our self nature (enduring, independent, inherent self-nature as opposed to boundless/empty/interdependent/dependently co-arisen)

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

(Note: original Buddhism = precepts very practical, rules created as people make mistakes)

Mahayana: Precepts become very idealistic, description of enlightened behavior

If you were a Buddha, truly understood reality, 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 would not be rules to constrain your behavior, the precepts would describe your natural behavior)

Examples: Killing (except perhaps in clear self-defense, only excuse for breaking precepts is compassion – including compassion for self – where keeping the precept may do more harm than breaking it, or be of less benefit) – in order to kill, we cut off; reject, not-self, devalue the form of life we are killing… Goal is to extend our sense of connection and intimacy out as far as we can… A Buddha is unthreatened because she perceive not-two (we are not threatened by a part of our own body)

From Uchiyama’s commentary on the Dogen’s “Bendowa” or “The Wholehearted Way” (as response to the question, “Is it necessary for those who focus on this zazen to observe the precepts strictly?” First Uchiyama refers to a text called the “Comments on one mind precepts,” which is attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Bodhidharma. 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, true self nature is boundless and we can’t actually cut anything off from ourselves. We may think we can, and 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 buddhanature, with reality itself. So we violate this precept not only literally when we kill something, but as soon as we long for the extinction of something… not just about our behavior but about the state of our heart and mind, our whole understanding of our relationship to the rest of the world…

Stealing – Unless is something we need to survive, why are we stealing (overtly or subtly, by gaming the system to get more than we would otherwise, or more than our share, or more than is sustainable)? Self-concern, greed, fear of lack… A Buddha gets 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?!

Lying – Protecting self in order to preserve reputation, avoid consequences of our actions, avoid uncomfortable conversations, make people think better of us… First of all a Buddha will be much more thoughtful in her actions and won’t have so much to hide! Plus there is no selfish concern for self that motivates her to hide from the consequences of her actions (plus you’ll learn more by facing those consequences). Honesty leads to greater intimacy, inner peace with ourselves…

The Bodhidharma one-mind precept says:

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

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

The urge to break or bend a precept = the arising of small self. (We use the term “small self” to refer to this illusory and problematic sense of self, and “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… but to return to the topic at hand…)

Arising of small self = Arising of greed/grasping, aversion/fear/ill-will/hate, delusion (there being a subtle or overt aspect to delusion which is willful, it’s not innocent ignorance, it’s a clinging to ignorance out of a selfish agenda) – all of these have to do with our sense of an enduring, inherent, independent self-nature coming into contact with a world which is hostile or lacking

The very aspiration to follow the precepts gives us a background, reference point, structure which highlights the arising of small self

You might notice anyway, but even without the precepts it probably would be because you have your own set of moral/ethical principles you want to live by, and your reactive greed, aversion, and delusion are set against those

People who start practicing with the precepts often are shocked to notice, once they start observing their own behavior through the lens of the precepts, how often they are breaking them!

Kyogen: set an intention – followed by equal and opposite reaction (like behavioral law of physics)

Different levels of precept keeping and breaking: Very basic, literal, physical (this is important – we start here at first!) e.g. not killing human beings.

Then you might extend that out to other creatures, and because we can’t live without killing something, how do we do this mindfully, with compassion?

Then: Cutting off/rejecting people at a more subtle level, or aspects of our experience… Subtle violence, internal and external… So the opposite end of the spectrum is watching our hearts and minds carefully (as the Bodhidharma verse says, “holding no thought of killing is the precept of not killing.”)

Then you get to the later precepts on speech, not being stingy, not indulging anger – these are very challenging!

Basically, we break the precepts all day long, especially if you start looking at them in these more subtle ways.

Precepts as Every Moment Practice Opportunity

But this means the precepts are an awesome opportunity, if we use them as a practice and not as a bludgeon to beat ourselves up with.

We don’t spend much time sitting, 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 have already broken one) is a mirror, a red flag, a notice: pay attention!

Not (generally) in order to notice how terrible we are and thereby try to wrestle our terrible small self into submission. (We only do this when it’s necessary to prevent imminent harm – restraining ourselves at that 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…)

Most of the time, our urge to break a precept is more subtle than that, or we’re reflecting on a situation where we’ve already broken the precept (e.g. reviewing an unskillful conversation where we’ve criticized others and thereby puffed up our small self)

We just turn the light of awareness on what’s happened, or what’s happening. Remember: the precepts describe the behavior of a Buddha. If we have truly awakened to reality, we do not break precepts. So 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 impermanence nature of existence…

Precept Work, Karma, and Studying the Self

If we react and judge and immediately try to excise the evil from within us, we will not 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 after our karma has played out; then we review what happened in our minds. Over time, we notice as we’re breaking the precept but can’t stop ourselves. Then we notice as the urge to break a precept arises but we still can’t 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 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). Then we notice the rewards when we’re able to make different choices.

At first, or at times, precept work may seem very… practical, nitty-gritty, all about karma, slow, challenging, like a daunting self-improvement project…

But the idea 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?

My example of giving up anger in a very specific circumstance… as an experience of not-self/no-self…

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]

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 other seems rather obscure (what are they about?) or not so important (e.g. why a whole precept about not praising self or blaming other?)

Guidelines versus rules: In Buddhism we have no external authority judging us. Guidelines may sound wishy washy, like we don’t think it matter very much if you break the precepts, but using the term acknowledges that short of the rule of law and effective enforcement of that law, I can’t make you do anything. Practice is up to you…

The precepts are something we choose, something we ask for; in our Jukai ceremony, we “receive” the precepts, and the teacher who has received them from another, and been empowered to pass them one, gives them to you. They are 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
166 - The Wesak Ceremony: Celebrating and Expressing Gratitude for Our Teachers