CEASE FROM EVIL: A Reflection on the First Precept of Zen Buddhism

CEASE FROM EVIL: A Reflection on the First Precept of Zen Buddhism January 7, 2023




A Reflection on the First Precept of Zen Buddhism

James Ishmael Ford

Today we’re inaugurating a series of reflections on Zen’s precepts. From one angle we can consider them the moral or ethical container of our spiritual discipline. But, really, it’s more complicated than that. Different Zen communities approach the precepts in different ways and with different numbers. Five, ten, fifty-six, and more, as examples. As you may know Empty Moon is a hybrid community deriving ultimately through a reform of Japanese Soto Zen.

Our reforms have several aspects. A critical one is moving from a focus on a professional community of practice, monastics and priests who have spent a significant period of formation as monastics, to a practicing community centered in householder life. We have some among us who ordain as priests, but we see that as a special calling of ministry; and there is no privileging nor difference in our approach to the fundamental matter. And so both householders and clergy may and do end up as spiritual directors among us.

In practice, it means our shared meditation discipline, Zen does mean meditation, is found first in the home as a personal practice, then with our community and with retreats as regularly possible. We respect, but do not offer ango or other monastic style practices.

The other principal distinction of our reform movement is an unapologetic emphasis on awakening. Zen literally means meditation. But the point of Zen is awakening. Zen is about setting the broken heart at ease, finding our true home, knowing the deep truths of the assertions of the ancient Zen masters and adepts for ourselves. You and me.

The founder of our style of Zen is the Japanese master Daiun Sogaku Harada Roshi, who taught in the first half of the twentieth century and is the source of several constellated lineages. Ours traces through one of his successors, Hakuun Yasutani Roshi who made the great shift to emphasize householder practice, and then derives through the American Zen master and social justice activist Robert Aitken. Thanks to him, and as well to the other lineage we blend in as Empty Moon through the English Soto priest Houn Jiyu Kennett, we hold up and practice with the Sixteen Bodhisattva precepts of the Soto school.

The precepts are part of a three-legged stool of our Zen lives, together with awakening, and our meditation disciplines. Personally, I find each thing is expressed within the other two. So, awakening is found within meditation and the precepts; meditation is found within awakening and the precepts; and the precepts are found within awakening and meditation. They point and support and correct. Taken together they offer the shape of a whole spiritual life.

And so, the precepts. When counting sixteen precepts, they’re divided into the three pure precepts, then the three refuges which we find as precepts, and then the ten grave precepts. In this series we’re going to look at each one of them.

We begin with the three pure precepts.

They are also known as the “three root precepts,” because they sink into the deep soil of our tradition. They offer a succinct summation of the Bodhisattva way, which is a collaborative path, where we leave no one behind. 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, which is itself part of the Khuddaka Nikaya. The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings that purports to be the direct teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha of history. It might even be true. We can be certain they are of venerable antiquity and have been thought to be his direct teachings by many, many people. They are foundational to the tradition.

The source for the three pure precepts is verse 183 of the Dhammapada. In Irving Babbitt’s translation (which was used by Robert Aitken in his wonderful study of the precepts, Mind of Clover) the verse 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, which I found on the web at Access to Insight, 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. The path of the elders, which is today mostly found within south and south eastern Asia.

However, for it to be part of the great way, the Mahayana tradition, the family of which our Zen school is a part, 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.”

This is the core difference between the ways these two traditions, Theravada and Mahayana approach the problem of our ancient wound, and its healing. So, as the roshi notes, “the third line is rewritten from a focus on purity or clarity of mind to the great vow of saving all beings.”

And with that, dropping the fourth line of the Dhammapada verse, as redundant, we get our 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.

I’m also very fond of Daido Loori’s rendition:

Not creating evil
Practicing good
Actualizing good for others.

Perhaps my favorite these days is a gloss by my friend Clyde Grossman.

Do no harm.
Be generous.

Today let’s reflect on that first of the precepts.

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 raised 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 objectively wrong. For us there are unavoidable echoes of a devil, a spiritual and maybe even physical tempter laying snares for us all along the course of our lives.

Those of us of a modernist and or naturalistic inclination, tend to find such a being highly unlikely. And so, at least in my generation, we prefer words like “ignorance” rather than evil. Just as we prefer to define sin, drawing on one ancient usage, as “missing the mark.” All, I believe, true.

But. There is a big caveat in our lived lives. 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 of who we are, a view that acknowledges the world we actually occupy. It is a world where joy and sorrow abound. It is a world where everything is connected. And it is a world where what we do actually matters, certainly in the sense of the observable fact that what we do has consequences. There are consequences to every act. Actually, to every thought, as well. Because our thoughts become actions, sometimes internal, reshaping our sense of who we are, as well as in the external sense of touching and affecting other lives.

What we do and what we think that leads to actions absolutely can be damaging, wounding, and even kill. Still. Me, I find 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 it is usually going to be more healthy to assume those thoughts and impulses are ours. Yours and mine.

Our feelings arise within the mix of actions and consequences of our lived lives, not from some outside force. Well, except when we are the random recipients of someone else’s bad actions. It isn’t necessary to see the world is trying to teach us lessons when something bad happens. Actually, telling people they should find a lesson in some of the terrible things that happen is not only wrong, it can be cruel.

In fact much of what we experience is just the world doing the world’s things. And while everything is ultimately connected, for our individual purposes, you know your life and mine, they might as well be random. Someone is speeding and their car hits us as we are walking across the street. 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. Here evil can be an apt term. And, taking the poetry of it, evil is the term of art most of us most find useful for the worst things that happen to us.

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.” Another root in our lives. And sometimes the “three demons.” Demons again. It is a good image. The most common framing for these poisons, and sometimes, demons, are “greed, anger, and ignorance.”

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, as I said, 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 usually confuse it, at least in our minds, with obsessive hunger, which is a face of greed.

Similarly, 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 hunger or any other 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 myself to say “hatred” for this poison, saving anger for its appropriate use as a rising response to something wrong or unjust. Although aversion is perhaps the best word for this feeling and action.

The third term, ignorance also calls for 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 to that one is learning. But there’s something else that makes it a poison. And from a lifetime of investigation, 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. And, well, math works. But when our perceptions of the way things are harden and are not open to challenge from better information, then, well, we’re lost in pretty bad 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.

There are, it seems, three ways to engage this precept. They’re also the three ways one engages koans. And, perhaps like koans, the precepts are assertions about the real bound up together with invitations to stand in that place. To know. To taste. To experience.

From a literal perspective, the perspective of everyday life, if you can’t do anything else, try not to do evil. Exercise a little restraint. At the very least, put it off. Check in with friends. Get help. This is the real where what we do matters.

From an absolute perspective, that place where everything is bound up together, where we can say all things are one, or in our preferred Zen usages, all things are empty or boundless; each of these things, grasping and aversions and certainties, have no substance. It’s important to know this as well. Not as the only truth, but as a profound and necessary truth. It gives everything in our lives perspective.

And, finally from a compassionate perspective, the Bodhisattva perspective, the perspective of noticing we’re all family, and we’re all in this together, the precepts warn us of our shadows, while inviting us to something larger. Here not doing evil shifts and changes and calls us into new directions.

Ceasing from evil, grasping, the constellations of greed, becomes generosity. Ceasing from evil, aversion, the constellations of separation and resentment and hatred, becomes clarity. And, ceasing from evil, certainties all the constellations of certainty become endless curiosity, the not knowing that our tradition tells us is most intimate.

So, cease from evil.

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

Thank you.

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