The Buddhist precepts are rules to help you live the Buddhist life. I did a ceremony to receive the Buddhist precepts from my Zen teacher exactly ten years ago today. I thought this might be a good day to write a bit about it here.
In Zen Buddhism there are sixteen precepts. They're known as the “bodhisattva precepts”. The idea in Buddhism is that the precepts are guidelines to help live the best way. There are no sins in Buddhism, but there is right action and wrong action. Breaking a precept is not a sin, but it might result in some bad effect depending on the situation.
For the record, the sixteen precepts are broken down into three groups. Here they are in the way my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, interprets them. The first three are known as the three devotions. They are devotion to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
The next three are the three universal precepts. They are to observe the rules of society, to observe the moral rule of the universe, and to work for the salvation of all living beings.
Those first two groups are a bit abstract. The next group are most concrete. They're known as the ten fundamental precepts. They are: don't destroy life, don't steal, don't desire too much, don't lie, don't live by selling liquor, don't discuss failures of other Buddhists, don't praise yourself or berate others, don't begrudge the sharing of Buddhist teachings and other things, don't get angry, and don't abuse Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
You can can follow the precepts without doing a formal ceremony. But if you've access to a teacher, you can do a ceremony to formally receive the precepts if you want. After that, you’re officially a Buddhist monk or nun, or layman or laywoman, depending on how you feel about it.
For me, taking the precepts meant some kind of a commitment to Buddhism. I was raised as a Catholic, but lost interest in religion in general when I was a teen. It was no big deal and I didn’t worry about it very much. But after doing Buddhism for a while I felt a bit different. I used to hear Gudo Nishijima talk about “the Buddhist truth”, but I always presumed there was no such thing. But after a while Buddhism began to make some sense. I wasn’t sure how to follow up on it though, so I started thinking about taking the precepts. I’m not entirely sure why, but it seemed like a good idea. I’d been studying with Nishijima for a couple of years and I figured it might make some difference to me.
But I wasn’t exactly sure about turning Buddhist. And I didn’t want to start asking Nishijima about it and then back out. So I waited a while. Then one guy I knew from Nishijima’s Saturday meetings told me Nishijima was planning to do the precepts ceremony for another student, named Denis. I figured he might be able to fit me in at the same time. I decided to ask him about it and I tried calling him one morning at his zazen dojo. I dialed the number and waited and waited, but no-one answered. I tried again a few minutes later. This time I let the phone ring. Eventually a German woman who was staying at the dojo answered. I asked for Nishijima, but she told me they were doing zazen in the zazen hall (zendo) and to call back later. I felt really stupid. The phone was right next to the zendo. Nishijima and the others would have had to listen to the phone ringing for a few minutes while they were doing zazen. I hoped they didn’t mind. Anyway, I called back after lunch and asked Nishijima about it. He said okay and told me to do it the same time as Denis. It was going to be held on January 15 at Nishijima’s dojo. The dojo was in a place called Moto Yawata on the outskirts of Tokyo. The plan was to meet there at about 10 and practice zazen together and then do the ceremony.
So that was it. The arrangements were made. All I had to do was show up and do the ceremony. But I was still having doubts. I was real wary of religions, and even though Buddhism felt different I wasn’t entirely convinced. And those doubts weren’t going away easily. One time I was listening to one of Nishijima’s talks at one of his meetings in Tokyo with about 10 or 15 other people. Some people in the room seemed like dedicated Buddhists who had been studying for a good few years. They had shaved heads and were wearing a rakusu, which is a kind of bib your teacher gives you when you receive the precepts. All of a sudden I started thinking “who are these people, and what am I doing here?” I felt like getting up and leaving. I didn't though, and after a few minutes I just forgot about it.
The day for the ceremony, January 15, finally came round. It was a Thursday. Normally I’d have work that day, but at that time January 15 was a national holiday in Japan. It was called “coming of age day”. It was the day when people celebrate becoming 20 years old, after which they're legally adults. Nishijima usually arranged to hold any ceremonies on national holidays so they didn’t interfere with people’s work. Doing the ceremony to become a Buddhist on “coming of age day” felt like a nice touch too.
One problem, though, was the weather. It can snow in Japan in January, and sure enough it snowed the day of the ceremony. It snowed really hard too. There were a couple of feet (or at least 5 or 6 inches) of snow on the ground so it was going to be tough getting to the dojo. Nishijima wasn’t staying at the dojo that day either. He had a house in Tokorozawa on the other side of town where he stayed with his wife. He used to only stay at the dojo at weekends. He was going to have to make his way through the snow to the train station and try to make it to the dojo. He was 78 then, so it was a lot to ask.
I should have called up Nishijima and asked him to cancel the ceremony. But for some stupid reason I decided to head off for the dojo. It was kind of dumb. It was going to take hours to get to the dojo, and Nishijima could easily have slipped and fallen on the way. I guess I must have been really nervous about the whole thing and just got carried away. I walked through the snow to the train station and waited for a train. Eventually one came, and I made it to the dojo at around 11. Denis showed up a while later and eventually Nishijima too. He had walked through the snow from his house to the local train station, caught a train to Moto Yawata station near the dojo, and walked from there to the dojo. Not bad for 78. Most people wouldn’t have bothered. It helped dispel my doubts. He’d made a big effort to get there.
The original idea was to do zazen and then do the ceremony. But we were running late so we went straight up to the room to hold the ceremony. The place was freezing. I was still nervous about the whole thing and would’ve liked to do some zazen to settle my nerves first, but we didn’t have time. Nishijima changed into his formal robes and a few of us set up the room for the ceremony.
The person who does most of the work during the precepts ceremony is the teacher. He repeats each precepts three times, and asks the recipient if they can keep it until the end of their life. The recipient says “Yes, I can”. One part in the precepts ceremony that felt important to me was these four lines the recipient says towards the beginning:
"Our wrongs which we have committed in the past,
All came from eternal greed, anger and ignorance.
They were the products of body, speech, and mind.
So now we confess them all."
I’d done a lot of things in my past that were definitely “wrongs” that came from "eternal greed, anger and ignorance". I felt like I was getting a fresh start.
Towards the end of the ceremony the teacher says “You should do your best to keep these precepts”. That’s the basic idea. You’re not expected to spotlessly keep the precepts, just do your best. After that, the recipients do three prostrations and then walk up and sit on the teacher’s chair. The teacher walks round the chair a few times saying that the person receiving the precepts is at the same level as Gautama Buddha and is a child of Buddha. When that’s done the receivers get a rakusu and a certificate from the teacher.
When you receive the Buddhist precepts you also receive a Buddhist name. It's usually chosen by your teacher, but you can sometimes choose it yourself if you like. There’s cloth on the back of the rakusu where the teacher writes your Buddhist name, the date and the teacher’s name. The certificate has the same things written on it. Nishijima also wrote the Japanese version of this poem on the back of the rakusu:
How great is the clothing of liberation,
Formless, field of happiness, robe!
Devoutly wearing the Tathagata’s teaching,
Widely I will save living beings.
This poem is taken from a chapter titled Kesa-Kudoku (The Merit of the Kasaya) in Dogen’s book Shobogenzo. Dogen heard a Chinese monk recite it before he put on his Kasaya when he visited China. The Kasaya (or Kesa in Japanese) is the Buddhist robe that’s worn by most Buddhist monks and nuns regardless of which branch of Buddhism they belong to. The rakusu is considered to be a small version of the Kesa.
After myself and Denis received our rakusus, the ceremony ended. We took a few photos, and then went downstairs for a quick cup of tea, and headed home. One of the photos is at the top of this post. Nishijima's in the center, with Denis on the left and me on the right.
So that was it. I’d taken the precepts and gotten my rakusu and certificate, and had a Buddhist name. I had formally turned Buddhist, although I didn’t feel any different. But I felt very grateful to Nishijima for the trouble he went to. There was no money or reward involved for him. He did it because he believes in Buddhism.
The next time I met Nishijima was a few weeks later at one of his talks at Hongo-sanchome. I was on my way into the zazen room. I thanked him for doing the ceremony. He didn't say anything, just shook my hand really strongly and gave me a big, big smile.