A Zen’s-Eye View: A closer look at the three pure precepts

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Kuya Minogue

Kuya Minogue

After we have taken refuge in our own Buddha nature, in the teachings of the historical Buddha, and in the community that is committed to living by those teachings, we are ready to vow to let precepts guide our thoughts, words and deeds. A vow is a promise we make to ourselves. Knowing that, we vow to cease from evil, do only good and do good for others. These are the three pure precepts. It is said that any child can know them, but even an 80-year-old sage cannot live them.

The three pure precepts developed from the Dhammapada, one of the earliest Buddhist texts. Over time they have been translated in different ways. I don’t find the terms “good” and “evil” helpful because they sound so fixed, and they reinforce the polarization that dominates our culture. When I think of evil, I think of extreme situations like terrorist attacks or serial killers. If I vow is to cease from evil, it’s easy to think, “Of course I renounce evil. I’m not a terrorist or a murderer.”

To avoid this simplistic thinking, at the Creston zendo we express the pure precepts as: I vow to refrain from all actions that cause harm or create attachment, I vow to make effort to live in enlightenment and I vow to benefit all beings. This wording suggests much more subtle activity. With this wording I have to really examine, and be present with my actions. If I am to refrain from actions that are motivated by selfish attachment, I need to pay a lot of attention to what I am thinking, doing and saying.

The three pure precepts help us to abandon unwholesome states and develop wholesome ones. Unwholesome states come from greed, hate and delusion. Wholesome states come from generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. It is quite simple. Unwholesome actions bring harmful results; wholesome actions bring beneficial results.

Zen practice pushes us to experience the reality of interdependence in every moment. We human beings possess a number of characteristics that separate us from the truth of interdependence. We find the most influential of these characteristics in our brains. To our brains, thinking selfishly is a survival skill. Many Zen teachers have told us that in meditation we are living out our innate enlightenment, but when we aren’t meditating, we need the precepts to help us realize enlightenment in everyday activity.

When we learn to be mindful of the three pure precepts and practice them, we are less likely to cause dissatisfaction and suffering in ourselves and others. Ceasing to do harm, doing only good and doing good for others require a noble effort. These precepts are not an intellectual exercise; they are actions that must be performed.

Suggested practice: For the next two weeks, before speaking or acting, try to remember to ask yourself if your words or actions are based in selfish motivation or in your intention to cease from harm, do only good and do good for others.

Kuya Minogue is resident teacher at the Creston Zen Centre and will be offering classes on the 16 precepts of Soto Zen Buddhism at 7 p.m. Thursday evenings through April 17. For more information, visit www.zenwords.net or call her at 250-428-6500.