The practice of Zen is often referred to as a form of cultivation. Like growing a garden, where we cultivate by tilling and amending the soil, providing water, locating for adequate sunshine. Then comes planting the seeds, preventing weeds from crowding out the plantings, scavengers from eating the produce, and both from taking over the plot.

In cultivating the Buddhist Precepts, the process may be seen as analogous to gardening. Long before we become aware of something called precepts, the context of their cultivation is already present, just as the soil, sunshine, rain, and adverse, competing forces are already in place, long before we decide to plant our garden.

It is also true that something must have happened to make us decide to attempt gardening in the first place. Our parents or grandparents may have been gardeners. We may not have access to an adequate supply of fresh produce from the local market. We may have concerns over the quality of the produce we find at the local market, including whether it contains preservatives or residual pesticides, or is not really fresh enough. Or we may just think it is the cool thing to do.

Once the garden is underway, we confront the unromantic realities. Gardening is hard work. We have to make decisions regarding what to do about weeds, insects, and other bothersome realities that are working against the success of our project. The process of discovery often involves more negative surprises than positive ones.

The parallel to practice of Precepts should be obvious.

The first set of Precepts in Zen, called the Three Pure Precepts, are very generic and broad-based: Do no Harm; Do only Good; Do Good for Others. The first may be regarded as the Mother of all Precepts, and is shared with the American Medical Association, amongst others; the second is the flip side, raising the koan-like question of what is good, really, versus what is harm? and the third is the altruistic, universal vow of the Bodhisattva, to help all others first. All other Precepts, Vows, and Rules and Regulations (S. vinaya; J. shingi) amount to variations on doing no harm, in all the various situations that arise in daily life.

The Repentance and Refuges verses in Zen are also regarded as Precepts; so in all, with the following ten, there are sixteen in Master Dogen’s protocol. Which, we understand, he could not have been given in China, as they did not do them that way. He apparently adapted them, as he did other forms of practice, to suit the needs of his students.

The form in which we receive the Precepts in our lineage tradition is based on those that Master Dogen administered to his monks. These are referred to as “The Precepts of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.”

But we have adapted a dual expression of each, stating the positive aspect of each first, followed by the prohibitive, or negative admonition. The first may be considered an affirmation that we hold dear; the second a prescription for how we are to actualize the first part. Both are subject to wide latitude in interpretation, and revision over time, with accumulated experience. Their true meaning is revealed, not obvious.

1. Affirm life—do not kill. As soon as we take this Precept, which seems simple enough, we begin to see all the various and sundry ways that we are contributing to killing in the world. The obvious instances of our diet consisting of animal products, or gardening and lawn care supplemented by the use of insecticides and week-killers, begin to pale in the context of ever-widening ripple effects around our consumption of products and packaging that result in whole islands of plastic polluting the great oceans of the earth, with the concomitant pollution from the manufacturing and shipping processes of international trade.

The fact that we are only one individual person, who can do only so much to stem the rising tide of intractable waste all over the globe, is countered by the fact that as one of seven billion (and counting) such individuals, we are that much more responsible for doing something—anything—to mitigate the unnecessary level of cavalier abuse of our world.

2. Be giving—do not take what is not freely given. When we make a commitment to giving versus taking, we face a similar dilemma: to determine what it means—that something is, or is not, freely given.

If we negotiate a deal—say buying a house; or the contract for our employment, or that for someone we hire—don’t we want to get the best deal we can, even though it means denying something the other party wants? Is that not taking what is not freely given?

The resources of the Earth are finite, but America consumes far more than its fair share, as determined by population alone. Is that unbalanced ratio freely given?

3. Honor the body—Do not engage in sexual misconduct. What does it mean to honor the body? What is misconduct, in this arena? Objectifying one’s partner—whether male or female—is certainly one form of misconduct, sexual or otherwise. To take an example from another area of behavior, in order to wage war on those who are different from us, they have to be objectified as the enemy; i.e. dehumanized.

Sometimes the phrase “sexual greed” is used in Buddhist teaching, meaning the mistake of regarding sex as another form of consumption, the mindless pursuit of pleasure, regardless of consequences. Overeating would be another form of not honoring the body, leading to obesity and other physical disorders.

4. Manifest truth—do not speak falsely provides an interesting twist on what is sometimes expressed as “do not lie.” To manifest truth is not the same as to speak the truth. In fact, we can easily make the case that it is impossible to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Speaking falsely, of course, goes to the matter of intent. We cannot but speak falsely, in the sense of the incomplete nature of expression itself. But we do not have to intentionally distort the truth, when we know better.

5. Proceed clearly—do not cloud the mind with intoxicants is similarly different from some of the usual interpretations of this Precept. This is usually understood as being temperate in drinking, or more extremely, a teetotaler lifestyle, total abstinence from drinking alcohol.

But alcohol is only one of a smorgasbord of intoxicants on offer. They range from the long list of substances considered addictive, to such insubstantial obsessions as status, prestige, power, and all the other social dimensions, imaginary or not, that can be addictive. Beyond that, Buddhism holds that we are addicted to life itself—the pleasures of the senses, most notably, as well as those of social standing.

Master Dogen reminds us that when we take the tonsure (shave the head), we are already intoxicated. That is, to put it succinctly, it is all addiction. Indulging in addictive substances or other forms of addiction is “adding a head upon a head.” Since we are already addicted, whatever we think is our addiction, is only the tip of the iceberg.

6. See only your own faults—do not discuss the faults of others. The true meaning of this Precept is not simply to avoid gossip, but if we insist on finding fault—ours and others—to see them for what they really are.

This may be best illustrated by an example from the story of Huineng, Sixth Patriarch in China. He was apparently rather abrupt in his style, and did not suffer fools gladly.

When a young monk visited and, after going through the requisite circumambulations and prostrations, began to expound the doctrine of “double vision,” or some such; metaphor familiar at that time. After listening for a few minutes, Huineng suddenly interrupted him, saying “Stop spreading that dirt around here,” or words to that effect. Then he told the monk he would explain this doctrine to him—that he had this double sight. He said “I see clearly my own faults; I do not see the faults of others!”

Taking him at his word—even though he had just seemed to fault the young monk, in cutting him off so abruptly—what does his declaration mean? If he does not see the faults of others, but clearly sees their behavior, how, then, does he see it? As their suffering, perhaps?

Seeing only your own faults is a tall order, in the culture of blame avoidance we see all around us today. We are blindest, perhaps willfully so, to our own weaknesses. Or at best, shy about admitting to them. But the good news is that we are also blindest to our own strengths.

7. Know self and other as one—do not praise yourself at others’ expense. This one is clearly related to the prior one. However, we can praise ourselves to ourselves, in a way that no one else can hear. We can do so in a way that is subtly based on our perception of the faults of others, without ever discussing them out loud. Of course, we witness people in the public realm doing so on a daily basis, apparently without being fully aware, themselves, that this is what they are doing. But then, this is discussing the faults of others, and by implication, praising ourselves by comparison. 

Of course, situations arise at home, in the workplace—and yes, even in the rarefied atmosphere of a Zen center—that people’s behavior may become disruptive to the harmony of the group, whether family, colleagues, or Sangha members. In which case, we cannot simply ignore it, or try to sweep it under the rug. Behavior must be discussed, and confronted, in order to reestablish and maintain harmony, necessary to the smooth operation of the household or office place, and absolutely essential to Zen’s “harmonious community.”

But behavior does not have to be approached as the fault of the person behaving that way. 

8. Share generously—do not spare the dharma assets. Sparing or not sparing the “dharma assets” may be a confusing construction, and it does tend to involve different strokes for different folks. For priests and disciples on the formal, lay training path, it means dedicating time and energy to the propagation of Zen. For members and newcomers to Zen, it means dedicating time an energy to training in meditation, and to study of buddha-dharma, but also contributing financial support, and in-kind donations, to their local training center.

This goes to the first of the Six Perfections (S. paramitas) of Zen and Buddhism, known as generosity (S. dana), or charity. Ordinarily, charity is identified with the activity of those giving financial or in-kind donations to those in need. But in Buddhism, the monks or nuns—in lay practice, the priests and disciples—are practicing charity by accepting contributions from the donors, which will support the ongoing propagation of Zen, or the buddha-dharma. The dana of those in service to the Sangha consists in the time and energy they expend.

9. Actualize harmony—Do not indulge in anger. Note that the operative word here is “indulge.” Feeling anger is not the same as indulging it. Indulging means that we feel justified in feeling anger, or we blame others for the anger we are feeling. Which, in some degree, may be rationalized, but it does not do much good in dealing with the reality of the present moment, and may in fact make things worse, as we can all testify.

Actualizing harmony, then, would include feeling angry. It is okay to feel anger; anger is not always ego, and it is not always wrong. Kids run in the street, mom is angry. It arises from fear, a felt threat, whether real or not, to something that we hold dear. Anger in Sangha practice often arises when two different people hold two different opinions about the best way to practice or present buddha-dharma. Each party to the conflict may be doing their level best to protect the dharma as they see it, but they may be wrong in opposing each other.

Fortunately, our zazen practice helps us develop patience on the cushion, if for no other reason than that we must confront our own frustration, and sense of flat-lining or plateauing, without giving up and running screaming out of the zendo. As we develop patience with ourselves, we have more patience for others. If you cannot be patient with yourself, you cannot be patient with others, though you may be able to put up a good front. Which only internalizes the problem. Eventually we may come to the ability to “watch the anger arise,” and old Zen saying. If we are watching it arise, we are not yet caught up in anger, and less likely to react in doing something through body, mouth, or mind, that we may regret.

10. Know intimacy with all things—Do not defame the Three Treasures. At first glance, these two affirmative and prohibitive statements seem disconnected. What does not defaming the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha have to do with intimacy? We should understand intimacy in the Buddhist, not the personal, sense. Intimacy with all things means closeness in time and space, the non-duality of self and other. In this kind of knowing, it is impossible to defame the Three Treasures, as it becomes manifest that all things partake of the buddha-, dharma-, and sangha-natures. This is the most intimate, super-personal side.

On the social side, not defaming the Three Treasures would suggest that, if we find ourselves in the precarious position of representing Zen to the public, for example, that we would assiduously avoid even the appearance of anything approaching misuse or disrespect of the Zen community, and protect its harmony with might and main, even to the point of sacrificing our personal harmony. Same for any confusion or distortion we might inadvertently seed in people’s mind regarding buddha-dharma.

The first Five Precepts, in the Matsuoka lineage, are given to candidates for Initiation into Soto Zen (J. jukai tokudo), while the Ten Precepts total are reserved for the first formal stage of training as a priest, which we call Discipleship (J. zaike tokudo). Other lineages differ. But the receiving of Precepts is regarded similarly in all sects of Zen, as a living act of commitment to examining our life, and penetrating to its depths.

The meaning of the Precepts evolves over time, maturing with our practice. Like everything else in Zen practice, “The meaning does not reside in the words but a pivotal moment brings it forth” (Precious Mirror Samadhi). Hopefully, for those of you who have gone through Jukai in the past, this has become clear. For those of you who are planning to do so this year, may it come to pass soon.

The only other point I would like to make about the Precepts, is that they are not something new or different, really nothing special. You already harbor precepts about killing, lying, stealing, et cetera, which may be inchoate, and may not be fully conscious. When you go through the initiation ceremony, it raises your own precepts to the level of conscious awareness, perhaps for the first time. You may find that your preconceived precepts do not match those of Zen Buddhism. In the difference you will find the critical sameness.