Real Precepts Are Beyond Words
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Given July 2, 1971, City Center and published in the Fall, 1990, issue of the Wind Bell (San Francisco Zen Center)

When I say "precepts," what you will think of is something like the Ten Commandments or the grave Prohibitory Precepts. But Zen precepts are not like that. To start with, the phrase "Zen precepts" means understanding zazen. So another interpretation of zazen is the precepts. Using words, we explain what Zen actually is. The purpose of receiving the precepts is not just to remember what you should or what you should not do. The way we observe precepts is by practicing Zen, or by extending our practice to our daily life. So our idea of precepts is completely different from the usual understanding of precepts.

The foundation or true meaning of the precepts is based on the various ways of understanding the one reality which is always with you, the reality which is not divisible into three, or sixteen, or ten. Tentatively, we divide. We explain from various angles. But that is just words. Real precepts are beyond words. We cannot talk about it. If we talk about it, already it is no longer the precepts. So if you think the meaning of the precepts is just to observe various rules, your understanding is very far away from the true understanding of the real precepts.

The first of the sixteen precepts we observe is the one reality which cannot be divided into three or sixteen. It is the precept of one reality. You may call it emptiness or you may call it the absolute. That is the first precept we receive and observe. All the precepts start from this precept. Without understanding this precept, our sixteen precepts don’t make any sense.

Whatever there is in this world or this universe, whatever kinds of rules we have or whatever kind of truth we can observe, all those are included in this big scale of the precepts. We understand the precepts in various ways. Scientists understand in their own way and religious people understand in a religious way. There must be various ways of understanding it. But what we study, what we observe, is the one precept. That is what we receive when we receive the sixteen precepts. You may understand, then, that how you receive the precepts is to just practice zazen, just to be yourself. Then you can observe the precepts.

It looks like I am talking about something like heaven, but it is not so. I am talking about each one of you, and myself, and about water, and about stuff. When stuff is really stuff, stuff includes everything. When you just practice zazen on your black cushion, your practice includes everything and you practice zazen with Buddha, with the patriarchs, and with all sentient beings. That is what I repeat, over and over. Whether your practice is good or bad, it doesn’t matter. If you accept your practice as your own, then that practice includes everything. At that time, you have the precepts which include everything, as absolute being includes everything.

We say that something which includes everything is the absolute. But, actually, it is more than that. It is beyond our understanding. You may think that if you add up all the beings which exist in this universe that that is the absolute. But it is not so because the absolute cannot be understood by your mind. Something which you understand is already not absolute, because your mind limits the real understanding of the absolute. When you don’t understand and just sit, when you become just a stone, or stuff, then you include everything. That is our zazen practice. This is such an important point for us. If you lose this point, you will easily be caught by some idea, or some experience, in your practice. "My practice is good, very good. Recently I saw Buddha in zazen. [laughs] All the Buddhas came to me and admired my practice." We are laughing, but that kind of practice exists and some people practice this kind of practice very sincerely. It is good practice, but even so, the practice of just sitting is beyond comparison. Just to sit is much better than to see all the Buddhas in the world. Do you understand why? That is the point, to know what an important practice it is just to be yourself.

Before I could read English, Alan Watts (helped me to express this), "When stone is completely stone, that is real stone." He put this Zen expression into words. When a stone is a stone through and through, that is really a stone. Not only is it really a stone, but when it is really a stone, it includes everything. When it is not a stone, someone may kick it , but when it is really a stone, you cannot do anything with it. When a stone is really a stone you cannot pick it up. Even though you think you picked it up, it is still part of the universe. You cannot pick up the whole universe. If you say you can pick up the whole universe, where are you? If you are a ghost, you are outside the universe, where are you? If you are a ghost, outside the universe, that is just delusion. Nothing exists outside of the universe. All that exists is within the universe. So, thinking that you picked up a stone is a big delusion. Stone is still stone. You cannot do anything with it. If you understand this point and sit zazen, that is how you receive the precepts. This is the only way to observe perfect precepts. There is no other way to observe the precepts. This is called the indivisible precepts.

We say Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I have been talking about the Buddha precept, which cannot be divided into three. The next one is the Dharma precept which is the law of the universe. There is some way in which things are always going. If you throw something up, it will eventually come to the earth because of the law of gravity. So there are some rules in the way things exist. So if we say rule, or law, that rule or law includes everything. Nothing is free from that law. That is Dharma. You may say you have complete freedom., but if you exist outside the law, you are a ghost. That is your own delusion. Actually nothing exists outside of the rules. That is why the second precept is called the pure law, or pure precept. "Pure" means non-dualistic. When something is in duality, it is not pure. Usually, when you say "pure," it is the opposite of "impure." And when you say "good," "good" is the opposite of "bad." Good and bad are a pair of opposites. Then there is already separation. When we say "pure," it means non-duality.

When you sit, if you say, "My practice is good," that is already dualistic. Whether you say "good practice" or "bad practice," you are right there, sitting. You cannot say good practice or bad practice. There is some reason why someone’s practice is the way it is. If someone cannot sit with a straight back there is some reason. So you cannot say good or bad. That is how he or she practices zazen. For her there is no other way to sit. She is making her best effort, and she practices zazen just to make her effort. She is sitting to be a complete being. She is sitting, not to attain enlightenment or to keep from falling into hell. She is just sitting. No one can criticize her practice. If she criticizes her practice, she is not making her best effort. When she is making her best effort, she cannot criticize, and she will not feel regretful about her practice. That is her own practice. To continue this kind of practice, day after day, is the way we exist, how we live as a good Buddhist. That is how we keep our precepts.

Anyway, there are some rules, and some reason why each person exists here. There is some reason why a plant is a plant and a star is a star. So when you say Dharma, Dharma includes everything. Dharma is another name of the Buddha, the absolute one.

The third one is Sangha precept. "Sangha" means to be harmonious. Buddha and the law of the universe are not two. When Buddha and the law of the universe are not two, and when someone who is practicing zazen, Buddha and his law are one, that is complete harmony. It is more than harmony – it is actually one. So, we say the precepts cannot be divided into three, but we can explain it in three ways. My practice, my zazen itself, is the precepts. That is one interpretation, one way of understanding the precepts.

There are rules you know. If I do something good, the result will be good. You cannot escape from the law of karma. If you understand it in that way, then that rule, or that law, includes everything. We say, "the law of karma." You cannot escape from karma. Nothing can escape from karma. There is always some rule. The rule is how everything exists, so it is the same thing as Buddha himself. When we say "Buddha," Buddha acts with karma, by karma, or for karma. So karma and Buddha are the same. And I, as Buddha’s disciple, am always one with Buddha. We cannot escape from it, so we call it the indivisible precept. We cannot divide it into three.

Now you are listening to my lecture, and you may study many Buddhistbooks. The books you read are not Buddhism itself, but an explan-ation of this truth. "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." If we explain it like this, it is the study of the Prajna Paramita group of sutras. If we put emphasis on how to be Buddha, or why we are Buddha, then that is the study of the Lotus Sutra.

What you study by doing koans is the relationship between our practice and reality. We have a glance at truth, or enlightenment, or Buddha, which is always one, which is not divisible, and which cannot be explained in words. Through koan practice, you will have a glance at the truth, "Oh, this is reality!" That is koan practice. Whatever you say, whatever you write, it is one of the ways to put reality into words. If you are an artist, what you work on is how to convey your understanding of the truth.

The study of Buddhism, of course, is included in our study of precepts. To observe the precepts is not just observing ten prohibitory precepts, "do not kill," "do not steal," etc. Those are precepts, but, even though you observe the ten precepts completely, that is not how you observe our real precepts. So we are not interested in explaining the two hundred and fifty, or more, precepts....Anyway, the point is not to observe those precepts one after another. The point is how to be yourself... Then you have the precepts.... So the best way is just to be you yourself, then the precepts are with you always.

People may ask, "What are you doing at Zen Center?" "What kind of practice do you have at Zen Center?" There may be many ways, but, in short, to be oneself is the purpose of our practice. How to be oneself, and how to keep the precepts, Buddha’s precepts, is our point of practice. Those are the three indivisible precepts: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

The next one – I’m not continuing my lecture anymore (laughs) because you may get hungry if I continue. The other three are the Three Collective Pure Precepts – collection of all the goodies. Those are another three precepts. How about it? "Collection of all the goodies precepts," (laughs) and we have ten more. Those are the Ten Prohibitory Precepts. Altogether, there are sixteen precepts, and we tentatively explain the framework of Buddhism by the explanation of the precepts. So the precepts are not just rules. They are a direct explanation of our life and Buddha’s teaching and zazen practice. That is why it is important for you to receive the precepts.

Thank you very much.

Transcribed by José Escobar

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