Preparing to Take the Precepts

I’ll be taking the Five Grave Precepts this coming October. I worked up the nerve to ask my teacher Hogen this weekend (after a bit of prodding from Sherri). After asking why I would like to take the precepts and considering my response, Hogen said he’d be happy to give me the Precepts.

A bit of background is necessary here for non-Buddhist readers. The five grave precepts of Buddhism are as follows:

  1. I will be mindful and reverential with all life, I will not be violent nor will I kill.
  2. I will respect the property of others, I will not steal.
  3. I will be conscious and loving in my relationships, I will not give way to lust.
  4. I will honor honesty and truth, I will not deceive.
  5. I will exercise proper care of my body and mind, I will not be gluttonous nor abuse intoxicants.

During the Precepts Ceremony you state your intention to whole-heartedly abide by the above precepts. You do this publicly in front of your teacher, your parents (when they can be present) and the Sangha (Buddhist community). The Precepts Ceremony is a pretty big deal. It serves as one’s first major commitment to Buddhist spiritual and ethical practice. In addition, it’s the first step towards receiving and becoming part of the thousands-year-old Buddhist lineage. This is why it was necessary I ask permission to receive the precepts. They aren’t simply available for the taking. A teacher must evaluate his student and determine if he or she is ready to receive the precepts.

I should take the opportunity to distinguish the Five Precepts ceremony from that of Jukai. Jukai is the ceremony in which one receives the 16 Lay Precepts and formally becomes a Buddhist (complete with dharma name). The Jukai and Five Precepts ceremonies are very similar and often occur at the same time (in receiving Jukai you also re-take the Five Grave Precepts). But Jukai is more extensive and more significant. I’ll write more on this topic at another time (either when Sherri takes Jukai this fall, or when I’m closer to taking it myself).

Now that I have permission to receive the Precepts, I have a number of tasks to complete over the next six months. The first is to really study and sit with the Five Precepts. Part of this study includes writing a brief statement about what each precepts means to me. Another part of this study requirement is to participate in dicussion groups about the Five Precepts.

The next requirement is to hand sew my wagessa. A wagessa is a thin strip of fabric symbolizing the kesa. The kesa is the “bib”-like outer robe worn by Zen priests. Lay people who have taken Jukai wear something similar, called a Rakusu. Both the wagessa and kesa symbolize the original robs worn by Buddha. I will sew my wagessa and then turn it into my teachers who will present it to me during the Precept ceremony. Afterward, I’ll wear it during zazen and other Sangha functions.

And the final requirement is to attend a Beginner’s Mind Retreat at Great Vow Zen Monastery. A Beginner’s Mind retreat is a weekend retreat that serves as an introduction to Sesshin practice. A sesshin is a period of intense meditation that usually takes place over 5 to 10 days and includes 8 to 10 hours of zazen each day. Sesshin practice is essential to Zen Buddism. The idea behind sesshin is that it takes a signifcant amount of sustained, continuous meditation in order to quiet the mind sufficiently to experience deep awakeing. Sesshin also includes work practice, dharma talks, breath practice through chanting and is typically conducted in noble silence.

Taking the Precepts is not a requirement for studying Zen, having a skillful meditation practice or even participating in a Buddhist community. I could do all of those thing without taking the Precepts. So why am I doing it?

I’m taking the Precepts specifically to uphold, affirm and support my practice. In Buddhism, there is something called the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is, of course, the original Buddha, but also represents that each of us has it within us to be a Buddha, to be an enlightened being free of suffering. The Dharma is the whole body of Buddhist teaching from the Buddha and subsquent great teachers. And the Sangha the community of practicing Buddhists. It’s essential to Buddhist practice to take refuge in, up hold and seek guidance in these three things.

Taking the precepts, for me, is a way of taking refuge in these three treasures. By taking the precepts I’m taking refuge in and showing respect for the all three of the treasures. For the Buddha by recognizing my own buddha nature and attempting to obide by the ethical guidelines inherent in this nature. For the Dharma by recognizing the dignity and being humbled by the tremendous lineage and teachers offered to me during the ceremony. And to the Sangha by publicly stating to my own Sangha that I will be an ethical member of that community.

In short, I see taking the precepts as an essential next step in my spiritual development.

I’ll keep writing here about my process in working with the Five Grave Precepts and my experiences with the Beginner’s Mind retreat (which should happen mid-June, just before my 29th birthday).

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