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Why Precepts

Updated: May 11, 2021

Some fifty-plus years ago I was a graduate student in organizational sociology. The emphasis was finding patterns across various organization structures. Back then sociology was defined as norms, interrelationship, social structure, and institutions. Anthropology looked at the cultural side of humans related to values, icons, beliefs, language and historical patterns of these conditions and variables. Now sociology and anthropology are more intertwined in social psychology, cultural anthropology and the idea of social-culturalism. The term "mos," was used in both schools of study in the middle 1960:

Mores (Mos.singular) are the strongest of the social norms, which relate to the basic moral judgments of a society. They tell us to do certain things, such as pay proper respect to our parents and teachers. They can also tell us not to do certain things, such as not to kill other human beings or do not indulge into adultery or homosexuality. They are considered more important than folkways or customs, and reactions to their violations are more serious. They are more closely associated with values a society consider important.

I should add that the development of norms is seen as organic or need-based. a norm is a factor of many interrelated things, it is experiential and pragmatic with the goal of reducing suffering within the group. Sound familiar? Precepts anyone?

I recommend two books as one lives and looks into the importance of Precepts in Soto Zen Buddhism. The first is The Mind of Clover by Robert Aitken, and the second is Living By Vow, by Shohaku Okumura. Both are excellent and I suggest Aitken's as a first read then Okumura-roshi.

Buddhism is subtle in many ways. Shakyamuni Buddha sat with what to do next, after becoming awake. This period of time leading up to the first turning of the Dharma Wheel unfolded through his experience with five ascetics with whom he had lived for several years. Remember they followed vows of asceticism:

According to hagiographies of the life of the Buddha, Gautama hooked up with such a group and practiced and mastered the radical ascetic regimen they advocated, to such an extent that he ate virtually nothing and shriveled to nothing more than skin and bones. Finding that he had not achieved his goal through such austerities, Gautama rejected the ascetic path and pursued what he called the "middle way" between the poles of sensuality and asceticism: "There are two extremes, O monks, which he who has given up the world ought to avoid. What are these two extremes? A life given to pleasure, devoted to pleasures and lust; this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble and profitless. And a life given to mortifications; this is painful, ignoble and profitless" (Mahavagga, quoted in Bhagat, p. 161).

What the Buddha had found was a "middle-way" between the extremes of living. Remember ascetics renounced attachment, but to a degree that would eventually lead to their death if continued. This means extreme suffering does not produce enlightenment but death. On the sensuality end we have eat, drink and be merry or perhaps the image of eating and drinking oneself to death.

Now, these five ascetics were also mendicants had a code of behavior that enabled of all things, support for extremism.

What did Shakyamuni see in them that made him seek them out to give his first teaching and then their possible awakening to the life of sangha (recall the legend suggests before he found the ascetics, he had sought out two of his teachers from the last six years but both had died).

If sociology as a body of knowledge suggest "organic rules of engagement of two or more people interacting," then Shakyamuni saw clearly these individuals were the closest in experience to him and possibly, that if anyone could awaken as he had it was they. He saw the importance of a teacher as noted below (the underling in the quote below is mine):

In the first sermon, the Buddha warns these monks over extreme devotion to the indulgence of sense-pleasures as well as self-mortification:

“Bhikkhus (monks), these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. What are the two? There is devotion to the indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, common, the way of ordinary people, unworthy and unprofitable; and there is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy and unprofitable.

“Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (referring to the Buddha himself) has realized the Middle Path: It gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, to Nirvana.

“And what is that Middle Path? It is simply the Noble Eightfold Path, namely, right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is the Middle Path realized by the Tathagata, which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and which leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, to Nirvana.

The question is how to live together as we follow--"The Truths and The Path?" Or, as we live our way. What are the domain assumptions (a 1960 sociological term meaning fundamental interactional guidelines)? In essence, fundamental what rules can we use to help unfold the path of the middle way?

People interacting create a kind of "Indra's Net." Behavior of each generates a body or sense of connectedness. This oneness of group even has a spiritual name in the West:

esprit de corps: the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group.

Sila, is one of the teachings of Buddhism and ecompasses ethics and morale behavior as defined by practitioners. This is the arena of domain assumptions or "Precepts." This truth in advertising is... this is what you do to get what we have type of statement.

It is what we do when we are not on the cushion.

Precepts and vows unfold. That is, we come to inculcate them into our marrow.. Not a hair's width of difference we say. We live precepts by probing, their importance and as Taiun-roshi says often, "we don't realize the meaning until we break the vow." Everyone has a way of life, as people of the Middle Way, precepts are our safety measures. They point direction, identifying possible suffering hazards on the path ahead. Kind of like a Tesla automobile, buzzing, binging, and vibrating if the cars swerves off the path.

Before identifying the precepts taken by us, think of all the teachings as variations of a meaningful life of engaging each moment awake and seeing it through the lens/teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Then we become the teachings, become awake, and become Buddha:

Shakyamuni Buddha encouraged all who wish to become awake to follow precepts/vows of action:



I take refuge in Buddha

the fully Awakened One: By seeing what he did

I take refuge in Dharma

the compassionate Teaching: By looking into the teaching and My experiences

I take refuge in Sangha....

the harmonious Community: By compassionate interacting



The First Pure Precept is not creating evil

Do no harm: By not interjecting suffering

The Second Pure Precept is practicing good

Do only good: By actualizing compassion, loving-kindness, joy and equanimity

The Third Pure Precept is purifying intentions

Do only good to others: By understanding the meaning of Interconnectivity of Dharma



Affirm life – Do not kill: By knowing life is interconnected

Be giving – Do not take

what is not freely given: By "sharing" the Dharma

Honor the body – Do not engage

in sexual misconduct: By not exploiting personal desire

Manifest truth – Do not speak falsely: By clarifying the Dharma

Proceed clearly – Do not cloud the mind

with intoxicants: By addressing self-induced delusions

While add additional precepts part of our practice path also know that within sanghas, other vows may be taken. Dogen for example had members of the sangha take dozens of vows to maintain harmony among members and that practice was always changing:

Dōgen emphasizes that whatever the condition or situation or state of our mind, we just whole-heartedly practice. That’s it, only the reality of right now right here. But we need to practice, based on our bodhisattva vow to free all beings, to be free from our delusions, to study dharma, and to attain buddha’s way.

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them. Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them. The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them. The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.[2]

That is our vow. Usually or almost always our practice is incomplete. We cannot really fulfill those four bodhisattva vows so we need to awaken, we need to be aware of that incompleteness of our practice. Incompleteness is not a bad thing, and to awaken to that incompleteness of our practice is important. That awakening allows us to practice repentance. So as far as we practice based on following our bodhisattva vows, we need to awake to the incompleteness of our practice and practice repentance. Vow and repentance allow us to return to the track we follow to go in that direction, that is, towards buddhahood or nirvana. And when we practice with that attitude, we can find nirvana in each step, each moment.

Finally, knowing what you are getting into is not the same as experiencing what happens when following and not following the precepts.

In practicing what is preached, Inmo, this non-duality becomes the front foot and back foot in kinhin...even the missteps...

108 Bows


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