The Bodhisattva Path: A Meditation on Soto Zen’s Three Pure Precepts

The Bodhisattva Path: A Meditation on Soto Zen’s Three Pure Precepts July 31, 2020




The Bodhisattva Path:
A Meditation on Soto Zen’s Three Pure Precepts


James Myoun Ford

The three pure precepts of Japanese Soto Zen are also known as the three root precepts, because they sink into the deep soil of the tradition. They offer a succinct summation of the Bodhisattva way. I believe the three pure precepts both describe what the awakened heart looks like and offer a simple, if not always easy path to that awakening of our hearts.

They derive ultimately from the Dhammapada, part of the Khuddaka Nikaya collection that purports to be an anthology of the Buddha’s sayings. Specifically verse 183. In Irving Babbitt’s translation (used by Robert Aitken in his wonderful study of the precepts, Mind of Clover) it reads:

“Renounce all evil;
Practice all good;
Keep your mind pure –
Thus all the Buddhas taught”

For another angle on it, in Acharya Buddharakkhita’s translation available at Access to Insight on the web, the verse is rendered:

To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind – this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

Pretty straightforward. And very much within the Theravada tradition. However, for it to be part of the great way, the Mahayana tradition, it needs a bit of tweaking. As Aitken Roshi says, it needs a “shift from the ideal of personal perfection to the ideal of oneness with all beings.

“And with that the third line is rewritten from a focus on purity or clarity of mind to the great vow of saving all beings.” With that and dropping the fourth line as redundant, we get the three pure precepts. In Aitken Roshi’s version:

Renounce all evil;
Practice all good;
Save the many beings.

I’m also fond of Shunryu Suzuki’s version:

With purity of heart, I vow to refrain from ignorance.
With purity of heart, I vow to reveal beginner’s mind.
With purity of heart, I vow to live, and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

Probably my favorite of the various versions, at least for now, is Daido Loori’s rendition:

Not creating evil
Practicing good
Actualizing good for others.

Let’s look, briefly, at each of these lines.

To cease from evil.

First, that thing about evil. The word is, of course, messy. And for many of us raised within the Abrahamic traditions, and for most of us specifically within Christianity, the word “evil” can be problematic. Merriam-Webster defines evil as “morally reprehensible.” And it is often aligned with another problematic word, “sin.” It implies to the modern ear something objective. For us there are unavoidable echoes of a devil, a tempter laying snares for us all along our lives.

Those of us of a modernist mind, tend not to like that. And, at least in my generation, we prefer words like “ignorance” rather than evil. Just as we prefer sin as “missing the mark.” All, I believe, true. And, I’ll return to that kind of usage. But, also there are things, actions and thoughts that become actions, that damage, that wound, that kill. And, a big part of entering the Buddha way is embracing a fuller view that acknowledges the world we actually occupy. It is a world where joy and sorrow abound, and where everything is connected, and what we do actually matters. There are consequences to every act. Actually, to every thought, because they shapes our perceptions and become actions.

What we do and what we think that leads to actions can, absolutely, can be damaging, wounding, and even kill. So, I don’t see anything “objective” in this. There is no free-floating evil in the air that we might catch like the flu, or coronavirus. Nor is there some objective being out there whispering in our ear, luring us into unhealthy actions. Although it can feel like that. Absolutely it can feel like that.

But the feeling comes from the harsh consequences of our lived lives, not from some outside force. Well, except when we are the recipients of someone else’s bad actions. In the more benign versions, I call that eating someone else’s karma. These things can be bad, broken body and heart bad all the way up to death camp bad. Evil can be an apt term. And, taking the poetry of it, it’s the term of art most of us most find useful.

Then there’s digging into it, and getting past the metaphors, at least a little. Here let’s return to ignorance and missing the mark. And with that how we are caught up in things that might be called evil.

Within the Buddha dharma we tend to understand the impulses that create those ultimately unhealthy actions as the “three poisons,” or the “three root poisons.” The most common framing is “greed, anger, and ignorance.” They are also sometimes called the three demons, which I like if we don’t objectify the demons and put them as forces outside our own hearts

Greed is perhaps the least ambiguous without further analysis. It is the constellation of thoughts and feelings and impulses of desire. It is our longing. Our wanting. And our acting on them.

The second is often framed, and I think unfortunately as anger. We can understand hunger as a natural urge, the thing that lets us know we need nourishment. And we don’t confuse it with obsessive hunger, which is greed. But with anger, there’s a lot of conversation. Particularly as we know there is appropriate anger. Something harmful is done to us or someone else, and anger is a reasonable response. The problem is the same as natural desire becoming greed. When anger becomes free floating, when it becomes, perhaps the best word to describe this is aversion, then we see one of the poisons of our hearts. I’ve found it helpful to say “hatred” for this poison, saving anger for its appropriate use as a rising response to something wrong or unjust. Aversion is perhaps the best word for this feeling and action.

The third term, ignorance also demands some unpacking. While it is less emotional, it also implies some objective lack. Something that can simply be cured by knowledge. That kind of ignorance is real enough. And the fix is learning. But there’s something else that makes it a poison. I’ve come to find it as the constellations of our certainties.

Certainties as those axioms of our lives that rule how we see the world. Like grasping and aversion there is an angle on this that we need. Without some perspectives, some sense of how the world is, we’re lost. But when those perceptions harden and are not open to challenge from better information, then, well, we’re lost in even worse ways.

In the ancient Buddhist mandala of the world near the center these demons are portrayed as a rooster, a snake, and a pig. When they are actualized in our individual lives, they keep the wheel of suffering, the wheel of delusion rolling along. For human beings grasping, aversion, and certainties are the substance of dukkha, the great hurt of our lives.

From a literal perspective, if you can’t do anything else, try not to do evil. From an absolute perspective, each of these things, grasping and aversions and certainties, have no substance. And, from a compassionate perspective, they warn us of our shadows, while inviting us to something larger.

Ceasing from evil, grasping becomes generosity. Ceasing from evil, aversion becomes clarity. And, ceasing from evil, certainties become endless curiosity, the not knowing that our tradition tells us is most intimate.

A magical thing. A human thing. And, the heart of our practice.

And, here we come to the second line.

To do good.

Here, we find what happens as we turn our hearts into the ways of generosity and clarity and curiosity. The technical term that we translate as “good” is kusala. It is usually translated as “skillful,” and is the opposite of the term that we normally translate as “evil,” akusuala. Unskillful, or lacking skill. While I believe there’s a lot to be said for the richness of the terms good and evil, the poetry matters; they also imply essences, which is the great cognitive trap of our human minds. Equally true, and while perhaps not as heartful, “skillful” and “unskillful” at least avoid that trap of literalizing something that is more a process.

Here we see some of the actual practice of our practice. What does doing good, what does being skillful mean for us, both on the pillow, and off? On the pillow it is taking that monkey mind as it wanders in the many directions gently by the hand and returning to the fullness of the moment. Off the pillow it is conforming our actions to the ways of presence and care. It echoes that original line about clearing the mind, that sweeping of the heart, that joining with the world fully and without reservation.

It is the way of care and respect.

I find it interesting how we are woven out of all these things, and also how our personalities tend to lead with one or another. So, I’m a pretty pure greed person. You can see my struggles with this on my body. I can recall a friend of mine, an old Zen hand, when he was told by a teacher that he was a pretty good example of a hate person. And how his immediate response was an explosive “I am not!” He laughs, knowingly as he tells it. We do get ignorance led people on the spiritual path, for sure. But there appear to be fewer of them, and they like other occupations. Politics for one.

Whatever, we’re all born to the flesh, and we are subject to the causes and conditions of our lives. And, we always find an invitation not away from who we are but through who we are. And that flows like a river into the great ocean and takes us to the secret of our Bodhisattva vow, our original vow.

To Save the Many Beings…

Once upon a time, long ago, and far away. Or, maybe it is in a future place. And, possibly it’s happening right here now.

There was a person. (Please insert your name here.)

After aeons of existence, or maybe it was at the beginning of time. She had lived as flowing energies, as minerals, as plants, and as animals. He had been a he many times. She had been a she. Gender and the flow of gender. Peasant ground down by labor. Tyrant oppressing all for power. Lover, many times a lover. A hater. Too many times hating. Oh, and sparks of joy. And intimate moments.

And from that place. Or, maybe it was at the beginning of that place. She, he, the words describing you are all so inadequate, has many names, you use one right now, but there are others, among the most ancient let’s say infinite light, or, if you prefer, infinite life. Infinite life made a vow.

And that vow was to not pass into the great boundless, into the traceless, until everyone and everything could come along. The Bodhisattva vow.

It’s a bit of an inside joke, however. Because we’re already, all of us, in all our joy and suffering, we’re all already there. Here.

But, there’s a boatload on not knowing that truth. And not the good not knowing, the not knowing of hurt, of desire, of hatred, and, of knowing all sorts of things that are not true.

So, you vow, you vowed, you will vow.

For us all to go together.

We call this urge, which is natural as the quenching of thirst bodhichitta. It is a passionate wish to realize our true nature for the sake of the many beings. Of course, that desire for ourselves is bound up in this. We are each of us equally partners in the great mystery. But we all go. Or, none do.

We all are. Or, none of us is.

Barbara O’Brien in a reflection on the Three Pure Precepts calls us to something Hakuin Ekaku, the Eighteenth-century Rinzai priest and reformer of the koan path to which we are heirs, tells us ‘From the sea of effortlessness, let your great uncaused compassion shine forth.”

It’s actually as easy as falling off a log.

Barbara, the author of the recent and wonderful history of Zen, Circle of the Way, tells us how this third of the three precepts can be “expressed in many ways – ‘embrace and sustain all beings;’ ‘actualizing good for others;’ ‘live to benefit all beings;’ ‘be lived for the benefit of all beings.’ The last expression points to effortlessness — the liberated mind naturally and spontaneously gives rise to beneficence. The selfish, ignorant, attached mind gives rise to its opposite.”

And that’s it. Those are the three pure precepts. The Bodhisattva way. The Bodhisattva vow.

For those with the eyes to see, our way is revealed. The great way. The intimate way.

Thank you.


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