The Buddhist Precepts
Two Practice Foundations
There are two main foundations of practice in Soto Zen: Zazen meditation; and the Buddhist Precepts.
Zazen is central. Through a regular meditation practice you become increasingly familiar with what it feels like to be still, grounded. As that grounded mind becomes more clear, close and familiar then more of what you do in life becomes meditation. Your life can be an act of meditation, an expression of the mind of meditation, an expression of what lies 'beneath' the mind of busyness, confusion and distraction. Being more present and aware within whatever is going on now, you can be less caught up in your fears and expectations. Living less on autopilot and more able to see what's needed, more able to function with wisdom and compassion, qualities which arise naturally if you just let them.
The Buddhist Precepts
All Buddhist traditions have 'Precepts'. The Precepts could be looked at as a list of moral rules to follow: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not get angry..... But that's not quite enough. Some would be impossible to follow completely. Could you never get angry? In fact the word precept is the English translation of the Sanskrit term pratimoksha, which literally translated means 'that which liberates'. So a better way of thinking of the precepts is as advice that liberates you from discontentedness and confusion.
Another way to look at the precepts is that they're a description of enlightened action. If you were a Buddha then you would act more like this.... We try to follow the precepts and learn from them because that helps us to know ourselves more thoroughly, act in a more helpful and useful way, and recognise what we need to let go of in order to allow our inherent enlightened nature, our Buddha Nature, to express itself through our actions. We train ourselves by trying to follow the precepts, and are taught by seeing the areas where we don't.
Different traditions translate and codify the precepts in slightly different ways. In our tradition we have Ten Major Precepts, these are further summarised by the Three Pure Precepts. We add three more to include the Three Treasures, which are themselves a summary of all of Buddhist practice. In total sixteen precepts, although the Ten Precepts are what most Buddhists in our tradition would call 'The Precepts'.
It's always worth reminding ourselves that there can never be just ten precepts, or sixteen, or five. They're always an attempt to point more broadly to the underlying reality of being, to our undivided nature, always complete, nothing lacking.
The Three Treasures
We take refuge in the Buddha
We take refuge in the Dharma
We take refuge in the Sangha
This is a summary of Buddhist practice. To take refuge in the Buddha is to recognise the innate Buddha nature of ourselves and all beings. To take refuge in the Dharma is to learn from Buddhist teaching, or any teaching that points to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the reality of this moment. To take refuge in the Sangha is to learn from others, in particular those following the same practice, as support, encouragement, and as an example. There's a sort of mutual recognition of what practice is, and that you're doing it, that happens within sangha. This recognition helps make the practice real, lived, and known.
The Three Pure Precepts
Cease from evil
Do only good
Do good for others
These three precepts summarise the Ten Major Precepts. To cease from evil is to refrain from unwise action. In this context use of the word 'evil' does not imply the extreme that we might normally associate with the word. We refrain from unwise action, focus ourselves more on being of use, "doing what this moment requires of us", and in particular helping other people as well as ourselves. Doing good for others helps keep us looking outwards, facing reality, and not locked into our own more limited world view.
The Ten Major Precepts
Do not kill
Do not steal
Do not covet
Do not say that which is not true
Do not sell the wine of delusion
Do not speak against others
Do not be proud of yourself and devalue others
Do not be mean in giving either Dharma or wealth
Do not be angry
Do not defame the Three Treasures
Many books have been written about the precepts, unpacking meaning and relevance. For now all I'd say is that it's important to understand that the precepts are not a simple set of rules to be followed. They are not meant to be just simplistically interpreted. They can instead be applied in more subtle ways to the situations we find ourselves in and help us see more deeply the implications and consequences of our actions. They help us to see, let go, and live from a deeper place.
For example few people would need a precept on killing to stop them engaging in murder. So why is this considered so important that it's the first major precept? What else do we kill without noticing, thinking, realising? Someone else's hope? Opportunity? Ourselves slowly through bad habits? How far can you take this before the precept becomes impossible to keep? Where will you draw the line between perfection and practicality? Are you willing to keep looking, noticing, letting go, and adjusting your behaviour?
Can you really stop ever being angry? Probably not, but you can learn that when anger arises you don't need to act on it. You can feel it, recognise what's going on for you, and as best you can let go. Get to know yourself more thoroughly, and let some of those tight knots loosen up a bit, let some air in, breathe, live. If you can keep on doing this, as the precept encourages you to, then things will change for the better. It will liberate you from suffering.
When considered in a more subtle or detailed way, each of these Precepts is actually the same, pointing to the same thing. The precepts are a description of Zazen, of meditation in action, of enlightened action, of enlightened mind.