The Precepts

The sixteen steps of the meditation taught by the Buddha can’t be followed successfully by those who ignore the precepts.

Earlier versions of this website put the precepts earlier in the course but feedback told us that many people never completed the entire course because they couldn’t get past the section on the precepts.

A common comment was: “If I have to be a vegetarian, I don’t want to be a Buddhist.”

Or: “How dare you put such nonsense on your website? I have been a Buddhist all my life and I love eating meat! The Buddha ate meat!”

So we now introduce the precepts in the middle of the course.


A view of the Tassajara zendo

Precepts are commandments, not mere suggestions that may be ignored without consequence. A Buddha follows the commandments perfectly and without effort; the rest of us work at it, i.e., practice, until we can do the same. We don’t take the precepts flippantly as mere suggestions unworthy of our serious consideration.

However, the Sanskrit word (sila) that is translated as “precepts” means “calming” or “soothing.” Thus, following precepts is soothing, calming. Rejecting the precepts means that one chooses to be unsoothed, uncalmed. Rejecting the precepts means that one chooses not to awaken, to experience life as one long aggravation, one long battle or confrontation with a hostile outside world.

Those who spend many hours in meditation but who reject the precepts are indistinguishable from those who spend no time in meditation and who also reject the precepts. If meditation has no manifestation in our daily life, it is meditation without wisdom and is utterly worthless. If we live heedlessly, behaving just like a non-meditator, why meditate at all?

The first precept, for some people, is the hardest.

The first five of The Ten Cardinal Precepts are the “lay” precepts; monks and nuns follow hundreds more. They date back to the time of the Buddha and before; the first five, for example, were practiced by the Brahmans long before the advent of the Buddha. However, the first precept as practiced by the Brahmans was restricted to the non-killing of human beings. It was the Buddha who expanded the first precept of the Brahmans to include all sentient beings, not just humans.

The ancient Buddhist masters tell us that there are ten Dharma Realms. The top four are heavenly realms and the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Pratyekabuddhas and Arhats/Arahants of those four realms can never be reborn into the six lower realms (realms ten through five).

Chinese masters teach that keeping the first five precepts ensures that the precept-keeper will at least be reborn in the human dharma realm, which is better than being reborn in the asura realm, which is either one rung down from the human realm or one rung above, depending upon the teacher, or the animal realm which is one rung further down, or the realm of hungry ghosts which is below the animal realm, or the realm of hell dweller which is the lowermost rung, even down from the hungry ghosts.

They further teach that keeping all ten of the precepts ensures rebirth in the Pure Land. The Pure Land is a dharma realm (the fourth dharma realm in the Mahayana order of dharma realms) conducive to spiritual practice, unlike the human realm which sometimes is and sometimes is not. Once the Pure Land has been attained, there can be no further rebirths in the six lower realms and enlightenment is guaranteed. We therefore strive to follow all ten precepts.

When the Virgin Mary became infinitely pure, she gave birth to the Christ. Western theologians can argue at length about whether the conception was immaculate, why God in his infinite power could not just create a Christ from a lump of clay as he did with Adam, thereby not requiring the services of Mary, but Buddhists understand that purity produces perfection and that’s the true meaning of the Bible story.

Whenever a person practices the Ten Cardinal Precepts to perfection, the Pure Land appears, a Christ appears, a Buddha arises. Different cultures use different words and symbols, but perfection is made manifest when purity is attained and attainment of purity flows from following the Ten Cardinal Precepts.

As enunciated in modern terms by the late Roshi Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice and Enlightenment and founder of the Rochester Zen Center, here are The Ten Cardinal Precepts:

  1. I resolve not to kill, but to cherish all life.
  2. I resolve not to take what is not given, but to respect the things of others.
  3. I resolve not to engage in improper sexuality, but to lead a life of purity and self-restraint.
  4. I resolve not to lie but to speak the truth.
  5. I resolve not to cause others to take substances that impair the mind, nor to do so myself, but to keep the mind clear.
  6. I resolve not to speak of the faults of others, but to be understanding and sympathetic.
  7. I resolve not to praise myself and disparage others, but to overcome my own shortcomings.
  8. I resolve not to withhold spiritual or material aid, but to give them freely where needed.
  9. I resolve not to indulge in anger, but to exercise restraint.
  10. I resolve not to revile the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) but to cherish and uphold them.


Taking Precepts at the Zen Community of Oregon

The first precept, the one that drives many people away from Zen practice because they can’t keep it, is a call for not killing.

It doesn’t say not to kill people. It says not to kill, period. See The Lankavatara Sutra.

Again, following a precept results in a calm, soothed mind. The average vegetarian is a little less agitated, a little slower to anger than the average meat-eater. And not even slightly supportive of wars of aggression that the meat-eaters wildly applaud.

Those who do not care about animal life also do not care about human life. They think war is cool and that soldiers are admirable people who “serve” us. But they serve no one but the arms merchants, those who desire the profits that war can generate.

People who eat animals argue that vegetarians also kill carrots, bacteria, etc. and that, therefore, no living being can avoid killing.

True, but there is a difference between killing a sentient being with a central nervous system that can feel pain and killing a carrot that has no central nervous system and therefore no means for feeling pain.

Meat-eaters like to say: “You can’t hear the broccoli scream,” as if killing a broccoli plant is the same as killing a cow, a pig, a chicken, a turkey, a fish, or a human being. Nice try, but a broccoli plant is not a sentient being.

I was surprised a few years ago by an article that appeared in a scientific publication, announcing that scientific studies had concluded that fish feel pain when hooked and yanked by their lips out of the water onto land. They didn’t know that?

So the animal killers argue that Buddhism teaches that all things are one, that there are no distinctions between life and death, killing and non-killing, and so on.

They argue that a liberated mind could kill a cow or a human without karmic retribution, by maintaining a pure mind, just like killing an ant as one walks down a sidewalk absorbed in meditation and generating thoughts of goodwill towards all living things. That’s correct.

A completely unintentional killing creates no karmic retribution. If I encounter a bear while walking through the woods with a camera, and the bear takes one look at me and dies of a heart attack, I have not committed an intentional killing. But to suppose that an animal eater who knows about slaughter houses kills unintentionally is ludicrous. No one who condones slaughterhouses by purchasing their products has a liberated mind.

Phony enlightenment is what Japanese Buddhists practiced during the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing). They beheaded people with “the life-giving sword.” They were merely sending the Chinese off to a better world. “We kill them because we love them so much,” said a Japanese commander.

The argument that it is OK to kill people because they are merely being sent to a better world has a major flaw. The same flaw exists in the argument that it is OK to kill animals for food because Buddhists are free of distinctions such as good and bad, right and wrong.

Only an enlightened Buddha has transcended right and wrong. The rest of us have not and therefore have no license to kill. And no enlightened master chooses to kill people, animals, or insects.


Master Hsing Yun, Founder of Fo Guang Shan (Buddha Light Mountain)

But the Buddha ate meat! Of course he did; he was a beggar, a mendicant who ate whatever was placed into his bowl. He would not eat the body of an animal if it had been killed for him; he merely accepted whatever leftovers people gave him.

When we walk into a grocery store, we are not beggars who have to go to the meat freezer in the back of the store.

Although it is true that a broccoli plant, like all plants, lacks a central nervous system and thus lacks the ability to feel pain (we hope), nothing in the universe, not even an inanimate object, is dead.

Ever wonder why rocks are so highly esteemed in Zen? They are esteemed because they exist in the realm of formlessness (the third world referred to in Buddhist sutras and chants that mention the three worlds). The realm of formlessness is the last realm before Nirvana. Stones have transcended sense desire (the first world) and the desire to live in the world of form (the second world, reached only through the jhanas). A stone has not attained Nirvana because Nirvana is inherent in all things and the world of formlessness is not Nirvana. But rocks are closer to Nirvana than those of us mired in the first world. Stones are also closer to Nirvana than the dwellers of the second world. So Zen practitioners admire rocks.

The Buddha taught that there are no two things – the life/death dichotomy, the form/emptiness dichotomy that we perceive, simply doesn’t exist. That’s the meaning of the enigmatic Heart Sutra, perhaps the most famous of the Mahayana texts. (The Heart Sutra is chanted daily in almost every Zen monastery, temple, or meditation practice center in the world.)

How could the life/death dichotomy not exist? The Buddha spent forty five years of his life explaining that only suffering arises and only suffering passes away.

This thing we call “living” is just a string of thought moments. There is no thinker of the thoughts. No one has ever entered into existence from somewhere outside of existence. There is no outside of existence and every one of us is unborn.

As The Diamond Sutra explains, no independent being has ever entered into existence and thus no independent being can exit that which was never entered.

In the early years of World War II, before U.S. involvement, the Japanese bombed many Chinese cities and towns. Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud), who lived to be nearly 120, the teacher of master Hsuan Hua, founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, lived in one of those towns. Witnesses reported that bombs landing near the Master’s house fell silently, like snow flakes. Not a single one exploded.

Hsu yun

Master Hsu Yun


Even a bomb knows when it is in the presence of a Buddha.

Years later, after founding The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas near Ukiah, California, Master Hsuan Hua visited a student who neglected to tie up his dog. The dog rushed up to the Master, and came abruptly to a stop. He bent his front legs and dropped his head, performing a bow.

Even a dog knows when it is in the presence of a Buddha.

When the venerable Dau Sheng spoke the Dharma, dull rocks nodded their heads.

When Zen masters advise us to shun meat and fish eating as a part of our compliance with the first precept, we should at least be as smart as a bomb, a dog, or a dull rock.

For more information, see The Food Revolution.

Thanks to Frank Tedesco, Ph.D., of True Dharma International, I got to attend a lecture by Will Tuttle, Ph.D. in February, 2015, and to learn about his book, The World Peace Diet: Eating For Social Health And Spiritual Harmony.

Being a vegetarian, or better yet, a vegan, is not just a Buddhist stance. All Jains and many Hindu sects have long been vegetarian. Even Christians are slowly coming around. See the Christian Vegetarian Association.

We Buddhists are delighted to see that some Christians understand that “dominion” implies “stewardship,” and is not a green light to kill.

But we don’t understand why being kind to animals, to the earth, and to the body, is a “witness to the love and compassion of Christ.” Christ did not invent love and compassion and teachers who lived many generations before Christ taught love and compassion. Christ does not own love and compassion so why do Christians witness the love and compassion of Christ?

The second, third and fourth precepts are self-explanatory and easily understood. But not so easily followed.

The fifth precept is closely related to the first because it also refers to what we ingest. In the fifth precept we find the Buddha’s instruction to refrain from taking substances that impair the mind such as intoxicating drinks or drugs.

Tea is the traditional drink of Zen, but caffeine can disrupt meditation for people who are sensitive to it. We can find a source of tea that has either been de-caffeinated or better yet, one that is without caffeine from the beginning, like Roibos (red tea from South Africa).

If we drink caffeinated coffee, we can gradually change to decaf and after awhile, drop the coffee and focus on tea, soy, almond, or rice-based milk, fruit juices, and water. We can break our soft drink habit if we have one. If we drink beer, we can switch to a non-alcoholic beer and then gradually cut it out as well so that we can live simply with water, tea, and other non-dairy drinks.

A smoker has a hard time practicing zazen as well; if we smoke, we must stop.

Those who eat animals, drink caffeinated products, smoke, or take drugs other than caffeine and nicotine cannot make it to the end of this program. A pure, undefiled mind cannot reside in a defiled body.

Even those who drink water and tea without caffeine have unstable, wildly veering minds that careen from one excitement to the next; caffeinated minds are even crazier. Those who imbibe caffeinated drinks and soft drinks and booze of any kind are just making a difficult situation worse.

Caffeine and nicotine, like alcohol, are drugs. As the Buddha always said, don’t take anything I say in blind faith; always test it and see for yourself. The Buddha knew that those who take intoxicating drugs were setting up just another roadblock against awakening. So try it and see; as we transition from caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and animal food, our sitting will become easier.

It may take a few weeks or even months to make the transition, but we can do it.

The final five precepts are also quite clear and require little or no elaboration. When we open our mouth to speak of the faults of others, mindfulness of the sixth precept should cause us to maintain noble silence. When we feel inclined to praise our self while blaming others, mindfulness of the seventh precept should have the same effect. Mindfulness of the eighth precept will guide us when confronted with a situation where we should give or withhold spiritual or material aid.  The ninth precept reminds us to walk away from anger and the tenth precept tells us to be happy all day long because we have learned the buddhadharma and have joined a sangha of fellow travelers who support us as we support them.

If we feel that the precepts present an almost insurmountable barrier, let’s consider the heroic example of Tz’u-ming, a tenth century Chinese master.

He would sit and meditate outdoors in the cold of northern China for days on end. When he felt drowsy, he would stab his thigh with a sharp tool known as a gimlet so that he could stay awake to meditate more. For Tz’u-ming, Zen was not a hobby to be casually approached or practiced half-heartedly.

Empty Field Farm Zendo snowy

Empty Field Zendo

We can follow the example of Tz’u-ming or the example of the average American Zennie who treats Zen practice as just one of the many things he or she likes to do. We can watch American Idol or we can sit in a snowy field and jab ourselves whenever our zeal fades.

Note that all ten of the Precepts include the word “not.” They tell us what not to do. Recognizing that, Roshi Kapleau has added a positive step to each of them (animal food is not served at the Rochester Zen Center).

Hsuan hua

Master Hsuan Hua

Sakkaya ditthi is the belief in an independent self. It is listed in the suttas as the first of the ten fetters that bind us to existence in the world of sense-desire. Following the precepts helps to loosen the fetter of sakkaya ditthi.

Major practice hint: Read the hyperlinked article on sakkaya ditthi over and over until it soaks in. Written by the venerable Ajahn Sumedho, it is one of the most important publications in the history of the world, not just the history of Buddhism.

Ajahn Sumedo

Ajahn Sumedho

Ironically, a self-centered desire to get benefits from practice is sakkaya ditthi and a sure guarantee that no benefits will be received. The practice must be approached with a wholesome mind, a relaxed mind that wants only to practice Zen for the daily satisfaction of practicing, not to get a future reward for an illusory self.

The practice is not separate from awakening. As Master Hakuin said, when we sit in meditation, we are doing what a Buddha does.

Sitting in meditation, zazen, is the easiest part of Zen practice. The hard practice comes during the school or work day. The moments between formal sittings, chanting practice, prostrations and the like are when we must learn to carry our Zen practice with us. It is during the moments of our daily life that we must learn to walk in Zen.

And if we are not holding the precepts, we are just wasting our time. Three of the folds of the eightfold path are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. If we ignore the precepts and the moral folds of the eightfold path, the time spent in meditation is just as well spent watching sports on TV.

The Budddha also taught that upholding the precepts prevents us from being re-born in any of the evil dharma realms, i.e., the dharma realms of hell dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals or fighting titans. Being re-born as a human is not a wonderful thing since it obviously subjects us to random tragedies but it beats re-birth in the four evil realms below it so keeping the precepts is really the least we can do.

Mindfulness of the Mind