Saturday, September 4, 2010

Taking the Precepts

I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in dharma.
I take refuge in sangha.

On Aug. 21, with six members of my sangha, I underwent lay ordination, jukai, and took Buddhist precepts. We entered the zendo, where 50 of our friends, family members and sangha members sat as audience, in a procession with the music of inkans, clappers and drum.The ceremony was one of great formality and theater, as we seven sat on our cushions in front of the altar. In addition to our teachers, Tony Patchell and Darlene Cohen, there were about six other Zen priests in attendance, in full robes. We chanted, bowed, moved carefully and with awareness.

But underneath all of the ceremony was a bubbling joy, an effervescent excitement. It was irrepressible. Early on, Darlene blessed the room with holy water. She bent over a cup of water, murmuring very soft incantations. The entire room hushed, straining to hear her. Then she dipped a pine sprig into the water, and walked over to the altar, spraying droplets on the altar. She then came in front of those of us going through jukai, and sent water in our direction. As she flung water from the pine bough towards me, it caught me full in the face. She smiled impishly and said, "Ah, direct hit!" The entire room broke into laughter.

As we moved from that point into our vows, taking the 16 precepts, the energy of the room, of our practice together, of that afternoon, carried us. First we recited the three treasures, named above, each one three times. Then we went through the three pure precepts: Do good. Avoid doing evil. Work for the benefit of others.

Finally, there are the 10 grave precepts: 1) Do not kill. 2) Do not steal. 3) Do not misuse sexuality. 4) Do not lie. 5) Do not cloud the mind. 6) Do not speak of other's errors or faults. 7) Do not elevate the self above others. 8) Do not be withholding. 9) Do not be angry. 10) Do not defile the Three Treasures.

Our teachers asked us question after question, querying us, will you uphold these principles? And we would respond: "Yes, I will." Always, always, three times for each concept.

The repetition, the vocalization of vow in front of those we love, had a profound and deep affect on all of us that day, I think. I know it did on me.

I have been living a life committed to the path of Zen Buddhism for some time now. But on that Saturday in August, when I spoke my vows aloud, I affirmed my belief in a new way, with a renewed vigor. And I now feel more centered within my practice than ever before. It is easy to discount ceremony as pomp and frill - but there is something to the magic that happens when a group of people gathers together and performs a ritual act. Lives can and do change.


  1. this made me feel so emotional! I haven't taken the precepts yet... but I feel so excited about one day doing that.
    thankyou so much for sharing - i loved the atmosphere described!

  2. Buddhism is for many an ethical life accompanied by yogic exercises (meditation), & that is obviously well & good. But I feel that ceremony, ritual, liturgy –– all with histories going back to ancient times & reaching deep, deep into our psyches, down where the archetypes are alive & well, benefit us all. Welcome! xoxo zt

  3. I'm surprised about the "Don't be angry" one. For me, taking all of my feelings, including anger, as important information has been deeply healing for me and reduced my tendency to have depression. Being told not to be angry feels stifling to me--like a judgment of that emotion--which sometimes is the signal that my boundaries have been crossed, that I need to take care of my safety or well-being, etc. I'd love to hear your thoughts about that.

  4. Alison - Re: anger - My teacher Darlene, especially, is a big proponent of feeling anger. This precept is not meant in any way to mask or hide or avoid the feelings of anger. She particularly cautions against "skipping to a higher consciousness" by moving directly to empathy or "oh, I am so serene." It's important to recognize anger when you experience, and let it move through your body. What the precept is about, for me, is not living in the anger. Not holding onto it, and making it a place that I cling to. Does that help?

  5. Yes, that does make sense and seems like a healthy way to try to live.