Great Plains Zen Center
The Buddhist Precepts

The Buddhist Precepts

In our Buddhist tradition, we emphasize three basic areas of practice: precepts (kai), concentration (jo), and wisdom (e). Without all three of these, our practice is not well balanced. They are all actually aspects of living fully awake, being present with what is, and being harmonious with the lives around us. The precepts help us with the practicality of being harmonious with all of those around us in our actions, words, and thoughts.

The Buddhist precepts are both a lens through which we can see our life but also reveal what is true about life. There are different ways to understand the precepts and our appreciation of them changes over time. We may find that behavior we once took for granted in our lives is no longer acceptable to us, as the effect it has on those around us becomes more evident to us. So when we undertake the precepts, we are not agreeing to a fixed set of beliefs. We are agreeing to bring constantly renewed awareness to our lives and our relationship to others in our community. We agree to let this awareness guide us into greater harmony and change us continuously. Just as a hawk soaring over the field can clearly see in detail what is happening on the ground, so the precepts give us a spacious and ever-deepening view of our own lives and impact. So no matter what our level of practice, the precepts are an important component.  Learn about the monthly Day of Reflection practice to assist you in making the precepts part of your everyday life.

What are the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts?

In the early days of Buddhism, the Buddha developed guidelines for his followers to discourage behaviors that promoted self-centeredness and divisiveness. These empirically-derived rules became known as the Vinaya and were designed for the monastic Buddhist community. They are still conferred in the Theravadan monastic Buddhist community today.  Later a set of precepts were compiled by the co-founder of the Japanese Zen School, Dogen Zenji, based on precepts found in the Brahma Net Sutra. Dogen Zenji gave these 16 precepts to his followers and they continue to be handed down to both ordained and lay Zen practitioners today.

The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts (Busso-shoden-bosatsu-kai ) consist of Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), the 3 Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Precepts. These are the precepts given in our Buddhist tradition when we undergo the ceremony (Jukai) to formally become a Buddhist.

The sixteen Bodhisattva precepts are more than rules or admonitions. As Roshi Joan Halifax states so eloquently, “ When we receive the precepts today, whether we are monks or lay people, we let them open our lives to a deeper truth that we are not separate from each other. Through living the precepts, we can discover that we are linked by the bonds of suffering as well as the bonds of enlightenment, and in this way, recognize that we share a common body, a common life, and a common aspiration for happiness and peace.”

The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts

The Three Treasures

I take refuge in the Buddha. I vow to embody Oneness, the awakened nature of all beings.

Taking Refuge in the Buddha means trusting our enlightened or awakened nature as our true teacher. Instead of believing all of our delusive thoughts and ideas, we commit to letting them go, relinquishing them, to not knowing. From the place of not knowing, we see the world clearly. In a world where we are taught that we should always know the answer, trusting in not knowing seems counterintuitive at first, but this is the great gift of Buddhist teaching: that life is impermanent, constantly changing and there is actually nothing to hold onto to begin with.

I take refuge in the Dharma.  I vow to embody Diversity, the ocean of wisdom and compassion.

Taking refuge in the Dharma means taking refuge in what is: in each thing exactly as it is functioning together with all things according to the law of cause and effect. The Dharma is like a vast ocean of wisdom and compassion, revealing all with perfect clarity. To take refuge in the Dharma means to take refuge in bearing witness to all that is. The word Dharma also refers specifically to the Buddha’s Teaching, which ultimately means seeing everything as it is.

I take refuge in the Sangha. I vow to embrace Harmony, the interdependence of all creations.

Taking Refuge in the Sangha means recognizing the interdependence of all creations: recognizing that each thing in its uniqueness is part of a whole. We cannot exist apart from everything else, so our well-being and that of all others is intimately tied together. The word Sangha is commonly used to indicate a community of people practicing together. When we do practice together to realize the Buddha Way, we do in fact become aware of the common body, life, and aspiration that we share.

The Three Pure Precepts

The Three Pure Precepts (practiced in some Mahayana schools of Buddhism) are said to be the basis of all Buddhist morality:

First, Ceasing From Evil
Second, Doing Good
Third, Doing Good for Others

The Three Pure Precepts originated with this verse from the Dhammapada (verse 183):

To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas. In Mahayana Buddhism, the last line was revised to reflect the bodhisattva’s vow to bring all beings to enlightenment.

Ceasing from Evil  

This is the foundation of Buddhist teaching. We refrain from harming ourselves, other people, animals, air, water, and the earth herself by embracing interdependence, oneness, and integration. When we see ourselves as separate, we cultivate the ground for the three poisons – greed, hatred, and delusion – and an approach to life that is fearful, dominating, and selfish.  An important part of this precept consists of recognizing the harm that we are causing through unawareness.

Doing Good

To practice good means to uncover and to act from the kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity of our awakened nature.  At the root of doing good is bearing witness to the joys and suffering in life and to strive to see clearly without judgment or attachment. We are most effective and helpful when we start by simply being fully present to bear witness rather than coming forward with our ideas about how to fix a situation we have not fully seen.

Doing Good for Others

Actualizing good for others is the life of the Bodhisattva. By taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and following the Buddha Way, we offer people the opportunity to discover their true nature. Dogen Zenji said that service for the welfare of all beings must be engaged in a spirit of oneness and without a desire for some return or recognition.  An important part of this precept is to see others as ourselves. When we see them as other, we approach them with our biases and beliefs or we distance ourselves from them or do not see them at all. We must vow to invite all hungry spirits, even those who hinder the Way, into our lives and commit our energy to healing of the earth and all of its inhabitants.

The Ten Grave Precepts

There are many ways of looking at the 10 Grave Precepts, all of which are important. The first of the 10 Grave Precepts is non-killing. We can look at the precept very literally, i.e. not killing means to literally avoid killing anything, even tiny bugs. We can look at the precept according to the person, place, amount, situation, i.e. it is necessary to kill some micro-organisms to protect our own life. We can consider what interpretation of the precept most raises the mind of compassion and reverence. For example, killing an animal who is in extreme pain might be the most compassionate thing to do. We can look from the perspective that by not being awake we are killing the life of the Buddha. We can also look at these precepts in both a negative and positive way. For example, the positive way of looking at not killing is to respect all life and recognize the complete interconnectedness of all life.  We find that all perspectives are important at different times to have a balanced and grounded approach to the precepts.

1. Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is

This is the practice of Non-killing. I will refrain from leading a harmful life and from encouraging others to do so. I will live in harmony with all life and the environment that sustains it.

2. Being satisfied with what I have

This is the practice of Non-stealing. I will refrain from taking anything not given and from encouraging others to steal. I will practice contentment by freely giving , asking for, and accepting what is needed.

3.  Meeting the diversity of life with respect and dignity

This is the practice of Chaste Conduct. I will refrain from unchastity and from creating the conditions for others to be unchaste. I will give and accept love and friendship without clinging.

4. Listening  and speaking from the heart with clarity and kindness

This is the practice of Non-lying. I will refrain from lying and from creating the conditions for others to lie. I will see and act in accordance with what is. I will compassionately and constructively speak the truth as I perceive it, deceiving and harming no one.

5. Cultivating  a mind that sees clearly

This is the practice of Not Being Deluded. I will refrain from intoxication and other forms of  deluding the mind and from encouraging others to be deluded. I will embrace all experience directly.

6. Bearing witness to the offering of each moment with equanimity

This is the practice of Not Talking About Others’ Errors and Faults. I will refrain from talking about others’ errors and faults and from encouraging others to do so. I will acknowledge responsibility for everything in my life.  I will hold all beings in equal regard and practice inclusiveness.

7. Speaking what I perceive to be the truth with humility and without guilt or blame

This is the practice of Not Elevating Myself and Blaming Others. I will refrain from elevating myself and blaming others and from encouraging others to do so. I will not compete with others or covet recognition but  I will give my best effort and accept the results.  I will freely acknowledge others’ accomplishments.

8. Being generous

This is the practice of Not Being Stingy. I will refrain from fostering a mind of poverty in myself and others and I will use all the ingredients in my life. .

9. Transforming suffering into wisdom

This is the practice of Not Holding On to Anger.  I will refrain from creating the conditions for others to be angry.  I will not harbor resentment, rage, or revenge. I will recognize and express my emotions as part of my practice.

10. Honoring my life as a source of wisdom and compassion

This is the practice of Not Speaking Ill of The Three Treasures. I will refrain from speaking ill of The Three Treasures and from creating conditions for others to do so. I will recognize myself and others as manifestations of the Oneness of Buddha, the Diversity of Dharma, and the Harmony of Sangha.

The Three Zen Peacemaker Tenets

The Zen Peacemaker Order developed the Three Zen Peacemaker Tenets not only as a basis for social action but fundamental principles of how to live our lives.

  1. I commit to Not-knowing by giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe.
  2. I commit myself to Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of the universe.
  3. I commit to Taking Action that arises from Not-knowing and Bearing Witness.

The Zen Peacemaker Day of Reflection Vows also include the Four Commitments and Bodhisattva Vows:

In renewing The Ten Precepts, I now extend these into the sphere of the Four Commitments:

I commit to

  1. a culture of non-violence and a reverence for all life,
  2. a culture of solidarity and a sustainable and ethical economy,
  3. a culture of inclusiveness and equal rights for all, and
  4. a culture of appreciation and respect for the earth that sustains us all.

Now, with all Compassionate Beings throughout all space and time, I renew the Bodhisattva Vow to serve all beings.

Precept Practice

Because there is a lot in each precept, many people like to pick one precept to focus on for a day, a week, or a month, and then pick another rather than trying to work with it all at once. We find that each precept really contains all of the others. So in going deeply into practice of any of the precepts, we find the others also present. To support the practice of the precepts, it is important to maintain regular sitting. Sitting helps us to be open, aware, and see more clearly. It also helps us to simply pay attention and be present in our lives. We cannot observe the precepts if we are not present and aware of what we are doing, saying, and thinking.

While we will never be able to follow the precepts perfectly, we can vow to follow the precepts to the best of our ability. The precepts help guide us into an ever deeper awareness of our underlying connectedness and help us to live in greater harmony with ourselves, each other, and the earth that sustains us.

Learn more about the Day of Reflection practice that takes place the third Sunday of the month. You may wish to download a pdf of the Day of Reflection Vows.