Aligning the Body with the Precepts

Dharma Talk by
Shosan Victoria Austin
President of the San Francisco Zen Center May 19, 2001

This is the beginning of the Spring Practice Period, which Darlene [Cohen] and I are leading. The theme we've chosen is “aligning the body with the precepts.”

The core practice of our lineage is zazen, which is just to sit with perfect attention on posture and breathing, and great, pure effort. Dogen Zenji, the founder of our school in Japan, says that zazen has nothing to do with sitting or lying down. It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss. So, if you think, I'm doing zazen, which is just to sit, and my tolerance for that is twenty minutes, or forty minutes, a day, what about the other twenty-three hours and twenty minutes of the day? I think anyone who practices zazen must eventually have a question like this: Okay, I sit, and, basically, I can sit upright and do my best to have good attention on posture and breathing. Though I don't know about the "pure" part or the "great" part, it certainly is an effort. But what happens now?

The precepts are practices for bringing the practice, the core practice of zazen, into every moment of the day and night. I'll tell you what they are.

To take refuge in Buddha, which is our own true nature and the true nature of everyone and everything which is awake. It is the nature of light.

To take refuge in Dharma, which is the law or the path. It is also the experience of the people who have come before us or of people who are practicing now. You know how somebody says, I made that mistake so you don't have to make it? Luckily there are 2,500 years of people who have made 2,500 years worth of mistakes in Buddhist practice, so we don't have to repeat all of them. We can learn from that. They've had many insights and said wonderful inspiring things, and that's the dharma.

The third one is to take refuge in Sangha. Sangha just means together. Sangha means the community of people who practice, every place throughout space and time. And it also means all the resources that people have put together so that we can practice. This building is part of the Sangha treasure. The many efforts of the people who make this possible are the Sangha treasure. And also, in a wider sense, everyone and everything is interconnected, and no one or nothing could exist without everything else and everyone else. So that's the Sangha treasure too–those leaves out there, the cars going up and down, the bees buzzing in the fields in Marin County, and the pollution and smog in Mumbai right now. Those all support us to practice. That's taking refuge in Sangha.

There are more–vowing the intention to let go of, or not do, evil. Even if we're not out-and-out evil, the intention or vow to refrain from doing things that make more attachment, distraction, dispersal, and disunity in the world. Also, the intention to do good, or the vow to do good, or to live in a way which promotes harmony and unity and peace in the world. Then, also, there is the vow and intention to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings. So those are three more, and, then, that's not all, there's more.

A disciple of the Buddha, intends, vows not to take life. Not to take what is not given; vows to refrain from misusing sexuality or intimacy; to refrain from false speech and to refrain from intoxicating the mind or body of self or others. A disciple of the Buddha intends and vows to refrain from putting other people down, from slander; from praising oneself at the expense of others; from harboring ill will, and from being stingy, and from disparaging Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

So those are the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts. Bodhisattva means “awakening being,” “enlightening being.” Those are the precepts, the guidelines of our lineage, of our school. If you're a monk, you can take many, many more vows. But I won't go into those because that would take the whole time.

Those are the vows, and they can be practiced in three different ways. They can be practiced in millions of different ways, but, today, I'm saying they can be practiced in three ways. One way is literally. If there is a bug in front of you, you have an option of smushing it into little bits or not smushing it into little bits, or you can take the option to let it fly away or crawl away on its own. That's, literally, not to kill.

If there is some beautiful and attractive person in front of you who is extremely desirable, but you happen to know that to relate sexually to them would be using them and not particularly good for you, you have an option there. You can actually, literally, go ahead anyway, or not go ahead anyway. So those are literal and it's very straightforward.

You know if you're in a bad spot and, let's say, there's one person yelling at you from the left, one person yelling at you from the right, and one person threatening you from in front, and there are many things that one could take refuge in at that moment–one's physical strength and background in the martial arts. One could take refuge in one's extremely big and mean brother who happens to be standing six feet away, and one could take refuge in awakeness at that time. So these are literal ways of practicing the precepts. I'm not saying that taking refuge in Buddha means that you don't call on your brother, but, what do you think of first? Where do you go first? That's the literal way of practicing the precepts.

Then there's an ultimate way of practicing the precepts. Let's return to our little bug in front of us. If we should smash that bug into smithereens, the sum total of life in the universe will not be affected at all. Life is not killed. That's an ultimate teaching. Or, that little bug that's crawling in front of you may be a mosquito that's carrying malaria. There may be a child in front of you too. Even if the malaria got the child the sum total of life would not be killed. Actually, if we look at things in an ultimate way, there's no “we,” there's no looking, there's no way, and there's no killing. Killing is empty of killing. Because killing is empty of killing, people can repent of killing. So, that's a very important teaching. It's the ultimate teaching, and that's another way to practice the precepts.

A third way to practice the precepts is with skill in means. So, again, if there's a mosquito crawling in front of us, and it’s the kind of mosquito that transmits malaria, and there's a baby in front of us we can decide: Gotta save the baby–smash. With a moment of respect: Please, mosquito, become Buddha. We can do that. We better be very careful about the motivation of our skillful action, because, if the motivation is deluded, then the activities that we think are skillful would not be skillful.

For example, consider “racial purity” in World War II. My family are holocaust survivors. Because of misguided motivation about racial purity, many of my family members were killed, and my family has been affected even to this day. That's an example of a highly deluded motivation applied with incredible skill. That's the one that everyone always brings up, but there it is. There are also good and pure motivations that can be applied with skill. So one of the best ways to check what one's motivation is, and whether it's appropriate or inappropriate, is to check it out with other people, and, particularly, with dependable people.

Those are the precepts and some of the ways that one can practice them. This practice period Darlene [Cohen] and I have chosen to focus specifically on, “how do we, as human beings with human bodies, align our bodies with the precepts?” The Buddha's teaching is that these precepts are normal and natural ways for people to behave when delusions, distractions, and misguided or evil motivations are cleared away. These are the ways that people will normally and naturally behave. It's very easy to think or say that we're practicing the precepts, but can we put our bodies, can we put the body, in this space of practicing with the precepts? So that's what we want to focus on for six weeks.

In zazen we sit upright. Do you want to try this? If your legs are hurting or tired, please just rest them for a second, and we'll start fresh. Please adjust your legs so that they're pretty equal on the two sides. If you're sitting in a chair, let your two legs be in front of you, the feet firmly on the floor. If you're sitting on a zafu or on the floor, just put your legs in some position where they will be stable for a little while. Even if one knee is up and other knee is down, the thighs can be relaxed and stable right there.

Adjust your body so that the weight is equal on the two sitting bones. Sitting bones are those hard things that are meeting the cushion; be equal on the two. Notice if one feels flat and wide and the other feels pointy. If one feels pointy, you're probably doing this [demonstrates] a forward and backward, or backward movement in relation to it. Particularly if you're a little forward, it'll feel very pointy. And if you're doing a side to side movement in relation to it, it will feel flat. For instance, on the side with the leg that is more turned out, the sitting bone will feel flatter. On the side with the leg that's more forward, the sitting bone will feel more pointy. So adjust the legs so that they're pretty equal.

Now, from there, lift the side of the body up. The side of the body is from the sitting bones all the way up the sides of the body, all the way up to the sides of the chest. I mean the back of the chest, too. Some people will lift like this [she shows front only lifting] but the back chest also needs to lift, and the shoulders can come down. Some people try to use the shoulders to lift the chest, but you don't have to do that. You can let them come down. The spine actually ends up near the ears, and this part is tricky because it tends to fall forward. So, can you let your spine, and the sides of the body all the way up to the sides of the neck–which guides the spine–can you let that lift, too? Bring the ears over the shoulders. Again, if your head is forward, the front of the face will feel heavy. If the head is backwards, the back of your head, or the back of your neck, will feel heavy or tight. So you might want to nod “yes” a couple of times and find a place where your head is balanced over your shoulders and there's a kind of equal feeling on the front and the back of the neck. Let the curves of your body be natural, the curves of the spine be natural, but long. If the sides of the body are supporting you, that's exactly what will happen.

Then adjust your hands in the mudra. You can bring them to the level...there's some place between your belly button and your pubic bone that will feel just right. It'll feel warmer or more electric or something. That's the place. Of course, if you have wrist problems, just sit with your hands in the front, with the palms up.

This is alignment. This is aligning the body with gravity and with the earth. Sitting bones are aligned with the earth, and the body is aligned with gravity straight up and down. Sitting bones are touching down and the body is lifting up and away from that contact with mother earth. To practice alignment isn't hard for a second or two, but if you notice that as soon as you start listening again, or as soon as you get a little bit distracted, do you notice how a shoulder blade might pop out, or you might not be aligned on the two sitting bones, or, if you're very attentive, your eyes might lead your head to go forward? That happens with some people. So notice what happens. Just be silent for a couple of breaths and notice what happens.

Don't look at anybody else, but how many people in the room felt a hair's breadth’s deviation from the perfection of alignment that you had a couple of seconds ago? You don't have to look, but I can tell you that it was quite a few people, and it's completely normal, and that's what happens. So to align the body we actually have to search out how we lose the alignment. Does that make sense to you? It's not like a search and destroy mission. It's more like a search and penetrate mission.

Anytime you notice that you're out of line, or out of tune, you can look to see what happened there. It’s the same thing with the precepts. Anytime we notice that we're out of tune with life, or with anyone or anything around us, we can check to see whether we have harmed, or misused, or disparaged, or praised, or intoxicated, or any of those things. Do you see what a powerful tool the precepts are? To align the body with the precepts we need to be practicing the precepts of body, speech and mind equally. That's what we're trying to do here. [To be continued.]

© Copyright Shosan Victoria Austin, 2001

Zen Talks Page Home Page