A Happy Life: Precept Practice

We’ve been using Diane Eshin Rizzetto’s excellent book, Waking Up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion in our current precept study for Wild Fox students and for those in the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training.

I think I can speak for the group and say we’ve found considerable utility in Rizzetto’s working of the precepts. She’s very grounded, in-the-world, and has a keen eye for the psychological or moral aspect of the precepts. The book also includes many student voices and leaves me with a sense of how this work was a collaborative effort more than any work I can recall.

So I recommend studying her perspective and integrating it into precept work.

A couple points here to intended to complete or balance what she offers.

First, Rizzetto offers new renderings of the precepts and naturally, they emphasize the aspect that she and her students seem most interested in. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

I find versions are much like commentary on the precepts. Here’s one:

I Take Up the Way of Taking Only What is Freely Given and Giving Freely of All That I Can.

Here’s a more bare-bones translation:

Taking up the Way of not taking what is not given.

The bare-bones proto-precepts, imv, include the moral (perhaps what Rizzetto calls “intellignce”) and compassion aspects of the precept and also invite the koan of the fundamental perspective. In addition, each precept in the proto version is impossible. And it is on that ground that we vow to actualize it.

The fundamental perspective is a key piece of what Zen has to offer to the conversation about ethical living. And despite what is often said about the fundamental and how it is often abused to justify harmful behavior, I find it to be the most practical and intimate aspect.

Finally, I notice in Rizzetto’s commentary that the precepts are used to identify with precision a person’s negative aspects. I.e., practice in order to be a better person. That’s one way to work.

Another is to view the precept as a call to manifest the truth of this moment – even to enjoy the truth of this moment. For example, here’s Dogen’s poem for the above precept :

The self and things of the world are just as they are.
The gate of emancipation is open.

Dogen’s reading of the precept is that “things cannot be taken.”

I’m reminded of Spinoza making a similar point: “Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but is virtue itself; nor do we delight in blessedness because we restrain from our lusts; but on the contrary, because we delight in it, therefore we are able to restrain them.”

The proto-precepts provide for more diverse, thicker interpretations, including the Rizzetto versions, but the Rizzetto versions (and other modern renderings) may not encourage the same diversity or breadth of meaning. And in most things, I lean toward enhancning the opportunities for those who come after us to realize and make manifest this one great life.

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  • Kevin Knox

    Forgive the Theravadin fundamentalism, but the actual precept (from the time of the Buddha) is “I won’t take that which isn’t giving” or, even more concisely. “no stealing.” I’ve read Rizzetto’s book and like it, but as the end of the day there’s a lot to be said for taking the Buddha at his word rather than recasting things to suit things the Buddha never taught (such as Buddha nature, basic goodness, self-esteem and many more).

  • Harry Bradley

    “I’ve read Rizzetto’s book and like it, but as the end of the day there’s a lot to be said for taking the Buddha at his word…”

    Hi Kevin,

    Maybe you would do us (or me, at least) the service of saying the lot to be said. What is it? Why should I take the buddha’s word for it over, say, Jesus’s, Muhammed’s, Doctor Phil’s, Bodhidharma’s, Billy Graham’s etc etc? Presumably a lot of people find their words to be valid on the matter of conduct too.

    Or maybe, more precisely and quantifiably, why do you take the Buddha’s word on the matter of your own conduct over the many other people’s? Providing this may make for a more persuasive argument.

    Thanks and Regards,

    Harry.


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