A Meditation on the Three Pure Precepts
James Ishmael Ford
Back in 2002 I gave a talk on Zen’s “Three Pure Precepts,” suggesting they could be understood as a summation of the Bodhisattva way. I continue to feel that’s true. Here it is, with just a few tweaks.
These three precepts are, in our Zen tradition, framed as:
“Renounce all evil, practice all good, and save the many beings.”
Another way of rendering them is “Cease from evil, do good, and do good for others.” Still a third is “not creating evil, practicing good, and actualizing good for others.”
In the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts of Japanese-derived Zen, the Thre Pure Precepts follow the Three Refuges in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And they precede the Ten Grave Precepts: not killing, not stealing, not betraying our bodies, not lying, not becoming intoxicated, not discussing the faults of others, not praising ourselves through abusing others, not being stingy, not indulging anger and not defaming the Three Treasures.
Robert Aitken tells us these three precepts are derived from a gatha in the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings attributed to Gautama Siddhartha, the historic Buddha. The gatha goes: “Renounce all evil; practice all good; keep your mind pure—thus all the Buddhas taught.”
So you can see, as this formula becomes an element of the Bodhisattva Precepts, the gatha is slightly reworked. Aitken Roshi suggests this reflects “a shift from the ideal of personal perfection to the ideal of oneness with all beings.” To do this, “the last line was dropped, and the third rewritten.” Daido Loori Roshi tells us that this new formulation is very significant. “’Not creating evil,’ ‘practicing good,’ and ‘actualizing good for others’” he writes, are the foundation “upon which all of the moral teachings of the Buddha are based. The life of each one of us.” I think this is true.
So, let’s consider how these precepts reveal that liveliness of our way. I suggest they are even more than the foundation of Buddhist moral teachings. They speak to that point in our lives where our formal meditation practice and our insight find vital expression. Now, in some ways they describe a continuum of experience, and I’m going to present them more or less as stages. But, this is strictly a convention, intended to make what is in fact dynamic reality which is fully presenting in all its facets all at the same time, just a little easier to encounter.
The first of these precepts is “ceasing from evil” or “renouncing all evil.” I suggest our instinct for this ceasing or renouncing from harmful behaviors arises as we realize how little we know. We live for just a few years, and over and over we find how we encounter the sheer weirdness of the world. This is the weird of getting hit by a bus as you cross the street or spending a buck and winning the lottery. Neither event is earned in any obvious sense, actually neither making much sense at all.
I believe the Buddha was right. The world is causally connected, everything rises and falls effected or effecting other things. But it is all in a play of cosmic proportions. Everything that happens is multiply caused — various strands coming together into any given moment. To unravel this cosmic ball of yarn hoping to find meaning in any sense accessible to our human perspective, seems to me pretty much beyond us.
The most reasonable response to the vastness, the confusion, the sheer weirdness of it all, is hesitation or uncertainty. After all how can we know what this is about with any certainty? But to feel this uncertainty, this not knowing, and to accept it, is, I find, in fact a small blessing. If nothing else it often keeps us from doing harm. We hesitate, and in that hesitation we do cease from a certain level of evil, of inharmonious action, of doing ill.
If we don’t allow it to paralyze us, to freeze us into inaction, our hesitant actions become actions that rarely cause hurt. Now the danger here is that paralysis. Even not knowing fully, if always seeing through a glass darkly, still we must act in this world. We face choices, and even though our information is far from complete we must act. But with a healthy dose of hesitation grounded in not knowing we will do less harm in life even under the necessity of action. Here a most basic element of the teachings emerges. If nothing else, do no harm. If nothing else, do no evil.
This first sense of not knowing can inform our lived lives, how we treat other people, make social and business decisions as well as political commitments. It speaks to an ordinary morality informed by hesitation and an intuition of harmony. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Within uncertainty, not knowing, it is a seeking of balance.
And if there were nothing more than this, it might be good enough. Certainly good enough for us to live decent and wholesome lives. But then, however, another form of not knowing might and sometimes does arise. This second not knowing is about quest. It is our great seeking. And here we begin to seek the good pointed to in the second pure precept. Here we are firmly on the spiritual way, on the great quest.
Now in the irony of our human condition it is a quest for the certain. Our human minds long for certainty. We desire it as much as we desire food or sex or love. We want to know. It is the secret contour of our minds, and it is our possibly unique gift among the animals, this ability to parse out meaning. The shadow of this, of course, is that we need meaning so badly that if we don’t find it, we oftentimes are ready to manufacture it.
So, we find ourselves ready targets for the merchants of meaning: politicians, preachers, ad men: the whole gaggle of people who are selling. And we often find ourselves all too willing buyers. But, if we resist, and instead continue listening, continue watching, continue questing, we can find ourselves on an authentic spiritual path. It is the way of the good. But, it isn’t an easy way. Nor is it a way that denies any single aspect of our lives.
The English poet John Keats, I think, sings to us of this when he writes. “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”
This second hesitation is about what Keats calls soul making. Here we find the possibilities of this spiritual journey of minute examination, of not turning away, of facing life and all that it is full on. This all becomes an alchemical process, where that very weirdness, that very sadness and pain which seems to mark so much of our existence becomes the fire that burns away dross. Here, within the heat generated by our full-hearted consideration, in the very burning, we begin to discern something. It is soul making. We are not talking here about some thing, but rather a perspective, about a way of engagement. This gold that is revealed is our true nature.
There is a trap here: when we begin to notice the gold, we might actually not accept it. The path of not knowing as a kind of uncertainty itself may romance us. We may cling to our not knowing and never arrive at any goal. (“His mind was so open, his brain fell out.”) And it is here we encounter the temptation to renounce kensho; that is, our own direct experience of the great matter. This not knowing is, after all, in many ways, the path fully manifest. But, in other ways we have not actually made our way to the farther shore.
We need to continue. We need to even hesitate about our hesitation, to let go of the certainty of uncertainty. We need to continue into not knowing. This is something of a conundrum, no doubt. But if we do, at that moment when we let go even of our uncertainty, the way becomes wide.
This is an old path we’re walking, and there are many guideposts along the way. If we check in with friends who’ve also walked this way, if we’re careful and attentive, we discover how can discern the shape of our possibility, and find our direction. Here is the place of our sanghas, and here we find our teachers and companions become our counselors and guides.
Commenting on Keat’s perspective which is the relentless letting go that takes us to this place, the contemporary spiritual psychologist Thomas Moore, who also has some insight into our Zen way, writes how “Knowledge is not always the adding on of information and skill; sometimes it involves the loss of both. (This) knowledge (that is wisdom) is not always a matter of becoming smart and intelligent; it could be the discovery of one’s foolishness and ignorance.”
And, even as we find ourselves on a spiritual quest, we also find ourselves doing things that alleviate the suffering of others. These may be small as common courtesy, or grand as social activism. Here at this level of uncertainty, the uncertainty of quest, each action begins to take on the cast of holiness, of the good.
There is a book about the American Jesuits called Passionate Uncertainty. I really like that phrase: passionate uncertainty. It speaks to our path into not knowing, into the deep places, into the realm of the dynamic possible. And here I find myself caught by a passage in the Hebrew Scriptures, the one with the beginning that Christian ministers tend to like so much, Isaiah 6:8-13:
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” (That’s the part ministers like so much.) It speaks; I think, to that call we all have who begin to walk this way, this spiritual path. It is a call to walk with others toward a mysterious not knowing. It’s a powerful statement, and a hint of the naturalness of our way.
After all, this is supposed to be about our real nature, our authentic selves. And if this is true, then insight into it is not limited to the direct heirs of the Buddhadharma. Rather it should be something all human beings across the globe can find. It’ll take on cultural trappings, of course. It will be clearer or less so in various presentations. But, there should be many authentic hints on the way, coming in just about any religion. And here may be one.
So, the Isaiah text continues. “And God said, ‘Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and (instead) turn and be healed.’”
Here we find ourselves facing the possibility of that turn, the chance of walking in a new way. We see, but we don’t necessarily understand. We give up the truths of our senses; we give up the certainty of our thoughts. And in this moment of surrendering our certainty about what is and should be, we find that very turn as a deep movement of the heart. This not knowing is an ever-deepening knowledge of connection.
Ironically it seems only to be found as we surrender our knowing of isolation. We seem to have spent much of our lives building barriers between us. “Good fences make good neighbors,” they say. And sometimes that’s true. But, they also cut us off from each other, from our neighbor, from our kin, from our deepest reality. At this point we might encounter the reality of our true nature. And this true nature is completely, totally, absolutely one. Or, as we prefer to say within most Buddhist circles, it is all empty.
Embracing this kind of not knowing, one that includes even our certainty of isolation, we allow ourselves something new. It is that reality of our connection, of our deep connection, each of us with the other. And it is a healing. And so we find this way ultimately is about healing.
But still the path continues. If we avoid the traps of clinging to the ordinary uncertainty, or to the spiritual uncertainty, we may stumble into a third kind of uncertainty.
The Isaiah text continues. “Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’
“And God said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitants, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth [turpentine-tree] or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.’ The holy seed is its stump.”
We have to surrender it all. We have to give up everything, every precious thing we cling to. The holy seed is the stump. When we let go of our knowing, of our certainties, then we are like a seed. We will have revealed the most basic, the most essential aspect of who we are. And it is like a seed.
Another teacher I’ve found helpful along the way is In T. S. Eliot. In his Four Quartets, in “East Crocker,” Eliot sings to us.
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
It is at this moment we begin to discern that third kind of not knowing. Here the hurt of our hearts begins to heal, here as we forget our sorrows and even our joys. They become subsumed into something, into a not knowing that beckons us from before the creation of the stars. Here in this kind of uncertainty we can truly discern who we are, why we are, what we are.
It isn’t the certainty of the politicians or bishops or elders or ad men. It isn’t the certainty of gurus or roshis or senseis. It isn’t my certainty. It isn’t anyone else’s wisdom. There isn’t room for that here. It is your knowing, your tasting for yourself, your divine uncertainty. And divine becomes an appropriate term, so long as we allow it to burn away too. This is the most precious thing we can find; it is the pearl of great price.
But, again, it isn’t a thing.
It is the realm of heaven, it is the western paradise, it is peace. And it is within us, and it is among us, too. As we’ve surrendered our certainties, particularly the ones about our isolation, we can see this realm, this kingdom –this field of not knowing– as our home.
Now the truth is, we can’t cling to even this. There is a natural rhythm to life, and it will take us full circle. We find the place of true not knowing, which is our taste of heaven, our anchor and our compass. And then we must continue on, we must return to the world of sorrow and joy.
Hence in that wonderful map of the way, the ten bulls, we find the ultimate enlightenment is a picture of a fat guy returning to the village. My favorite form of the caption for the tenth circle, is “returning to the marketplace with bliss- bestowing hands.”
Now, as we come to this not knowing, our actions are even more graceful. We act with a knowledge that the other, and I mean each and every other from a mote of dust, from the ebola virus, to ourselves, to the stars spinning in the great night: we are all bound together in the mystery of this not knowing, of this uncertainty.
Realizing our intimacy our actions become actions for others. Our good is the good of those healing hands, reaching out. It isn’t something grand or out there; this action of healing hands. It is what you and I were born for. It is the reaching out of one human being to another, of one creature rising out of the mystery to another.
It is the mystery to which Sharon Olds points in her poem “The Line.” I really like this poem. For me it summarizes the Bodhisattva way. I believe it speaks, it sings, it points to our path.
When we understood it might be cancer,
I lay down beside you in the night,
my palm resting in the groove of your chest,
the rachis of a leaf. There was no question of
making love: deep inside my body that
small hard lump. In the half-light
of my half-life, my hand in the beautiful
sharp cleft of your chest, the valley of the
shadow of death,
there was only the present moment, and as you
slept in the quiet, I watched you as one watches
a newborn child, aware each moment of the
miracle, the line that has been crossed
out of the darkness.
This, I suggest, is something we can all live and die with. This not knowing is, in fact, the way of love. And it is the teachings of the Buddhas and ancestors from before the ages and will continue until all beings realize their true nature, and come to peace.