Nausea at the precepts

So here we are, living our lives in the burning house, meditating, walking, doing our retreat jobs, all in the burning house. But if the way out is our self and there really is no self ….

In an interview I get the chance to ask Reb at last. We are sitting facing each other in the library with the great trees and Gaia House’s lovely garden outside the windows. He is attentive, alert and his eyes seem to contain the whole universe.

“So who gets out of the burning house?” I ask him.

“The one who made it” he says in a matter-of-fact tone. I’m shocked. He’d already said that there is no creator, no maker of the universe.

“But no one made it” I protest “Wasn’t it just made by the whole universe tangling things up together?”

“Yup” he says “and that who gets out – the whole universe gets out.”

“So the white bull and the computer that never crashes are all a con too?”

“Yup”. He smiles.

I am so relieved I want to hug him. I feel such a weight of confusion clear away as we go on to explore the parable and its strange implications.

But this con is a serious one – not just for me I realise as the retreat draws to its close. On the last night there is a ceremony in which four people take the precepts. I notice there are a few visitors and even some children sitting at the back of the hall to watch them take this great step in their lives. I begin to feel uncomfortable.

The whole process is done with precise coordination and seriousness, with the four lined up in front and Reb presiding. It reminds me of going to church but without the lovely music and beautiful surroundings. Here are four people, with deadly seriousness, dressing up in special robes and taking vows that are – by any normal standards – completely ridiculous. Not killing is fine unless you accept that by simply being alive and eating food you are responsible for others dying. Not intoxicating oneself or others is fine if you really think you’re going to live without drink, smoke, or any interesting drugs for the rest of your life (and don’t count tea, coffee, or those nice cold remedies that send you off into a woozy sleep). I suppose not misusing sexuality is fine if you have a clear idea of what use and misuse are in the case of sexuality. But I shiver at the whole idea of taking these sacred vows, and intending to become a Boddhisatva and live your life forever more for all others.

Worse than the impossible vows is the apparent clash with everything we have been learning. Didn’t Reb say that the mind of intention is wrong mind? Why then pile on all these intentions? Haven’t we been learning that we are nothing other than all beings in the first place, so vowing to work for all beings is superfluous. Hasn’t he explained that the inside and the outside of the burning house are really one and the same, and the promised mega-computers and fancy vehicles are just a trick to lure the children out? Why then dress up in fancy robes, put silly bits of cloth round your neck and make all these promises?

I didn’t want to be there. I really, really didn’t want to be there watching all this yuk unfolding …

With my new found tendency to notice pride I realised that at least part of my revulsion was due to pride. I didn’t want to spoil the occasion for others by creeping out. So I stayed, and watched, and listened, and wished I didn’t have to. I remembered Reb’s book on the precepts and how he make sense of them all but I went off to bed understanding for the first time in my life what it means to have a bad taste in one’s mouth from something that never touched a mouth.

The next day a lot became clearer, and I’ll write about that soon.

16 Responses to “Nausea at the precepts”

  1. charliefoo Says:

    A traditional Zen ceremony at a Zen retreat? Whatever will they think of next.

  2. stellar75 Says:


    If there’s one thing I appreciate about Zen it’s the way it wholeheartedly embraces paradox and uncertainty: Form is emptiness, etc; koans; the “here’s the answer, but remember…that answer is completely wrong” type of thing. While I think it’s this sort of aphoristic obtuseness that makes Zen seem overly cute and a little bloody-minded to those who haven’t looked into it, it eventually (and surprisingly!)–as you know–starts to make a lot more sense, once you’ve sat with it a while and really parsed it out. And even if it doesn’t, it often turns out to be productive in some strange, unforeseen way. I always appreciate the general lack of answers, rather than the big capital A Answer.

    I do wonder–and I really don’t know the answer to this–if, like the resolution to the creator vs. lack-of-creator “burning house” question, it might be possible to make a similar (il)logical leap towards balancing out the fundamental impossibility of the vows? I often wonder if elements of practice, like the precepts, are just a way to draw your attention to that impossibility and, if that’s the case, how do you act? Koans-to-live-by…more unresolvable problems to keep you mindful and on your toes when there’s a mosquito interrupting your morning coffee and you just happen to have a copy of the newspaper in your hand.

    …And yet, deep down, the intention vs. no intention thing still completely stymies me.

    And…all of that said…I still feel sort of sickly when I come across this stuff in person.

    I had a similar queasy feeling once when I was reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh which laid out the ‘Five Mindfulness Trainings’ and overall they’re pretty innocuous–a fairly intuitive set of principles that I more or less agreed with and that were a little bit more gently worded than the precepts you’ve mentioned–but then I got to the fifth precept, an admonition not “to ingest…items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations,” and alarm bells began going off in my head. This seemed like an infuriating, unnecessary and, actually, an almost dangerous way to try and live your life… A type of self-censorship that began to sound a lot like everything I think needs to be avoided re: religion. A this-is-right-and-this-is-wrong commandment, no matter who or where or what you are. But does one apple spoil the barrel? I dunno.

    (Am I going on too long?…Are you conscious right now?)

    This obviously goes back to my earlier question–which I’ve taken this particular post to be a sort of answer for–i.e. how much do you accept from the standard, historical practice and where do you draw the line? Where does the line between what are useful, day-to-day tools for a Zen practice–which you might not be able to recognize as such before you’ve tried them–where does that end and silly religiosity begin? (…Traditional incense was literally made from bull shit…)

    In the end, I’m sticking with it and I’m trying to relax a little because, as time goes on, I really do keep thinking that, whenever I’m in some situation where I come up against some element of the practice that makes me want to pick up my zafu and run for the door, that something or someone is probably going to eventually come along and let me know that there’s nothing to worry about, because it’s just another part of the con as well.

    We’ll see.

  3. zensquared Says:

    Well, the precepts ceremony has struck me as a weird primitive rite, what with the repetitive chanting and the burning of flesh …

    What you wrote also reminded me of the Diamond Sutra. The noble son or daughter who sets out on the bodhisattva path makes a vow to liberate all beings, says the Buddha. But in the very next breath, he says there are no beings. There are no beings. Who, then, is liberated? No one. And who liberates them? Again, no one. It’s not a trick. It’s pointing the way toward integrating reality (real reality) with the everyday world.

    As for the precepts — sometimes we break them. Sometimes when we break them, we have to stare something in the face and ask why we did that, when we knew it was wrong. But other times we break them and it is exactly the correct thing to do in that situation.

    So why take precepts? You might as well ask: Why vow to liberate all beings when there are no beings to be liberated?

  4. tenzenbookblog Says:

    That’s exactly what I’m asking. I may be childishly rebelling against doing something that would have value or make sense in the end – but my response to these vows remains revulsion.
    On the other hand my response to your question is to want to work harder – to see more clearly the liberation at the boundary of beings/non-beings.

  5. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Thanks for this comment which I somehow missed when you posted it. And thanks for the “Are you c …?” reminder. No I was unmindfully miles away.
    I think we are all circling around some of the same issues from various directions, as in your question about how much to accept of a practice evolved in different times and circumstances. Yes, the ceremony felt to me like “silly religiosity” but too heavy and depressing to treat as just “silly”.
    I read yesterday in a book about Dogen’s Being Time something about “You must take hold of your life and ….” And I thought “What ??!!! – Who is to do this ????” but it led me into deeper inquiry and I suppose you and I do much the same – note these difficulties but still continue to practice.
    Perhaps my next post provided some kind of perspective on this.

  6. zensquared Says:

    I heard a very knowledgeable man in the Theravada tradition criticize koan practice in a way that, to me, made him sound very small-minded. He has a great respect for all things Buddhist, it seems — except koan practice and “dharma combat.” He once said to me, “Oh, I’ve heard them through the door in koan interviews in your school — shouting and banging sticks!” His tone indicated that he thought it quite ridiculous.

    I can appreciate how what he observed struck him as pointless or even silly. But when you have experienced it — when your mind has been shaken off its hinges just once in a koan interview — you understand what it’s for.

    If you don’t want to take precepts, just don’t take them. But you can probably extend your compassionate mind out to understand the people who do take them.

  7. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Indeed I can. And in the past I have simply avoided attending these events. But this time Reb encouraged us to come and said it was very important. So I went.
    After the retreat was over I had a long talk with him about this. He took it quite seriously and said that he had not really thought it through and had not in any way intended to put pressure on people like me to be there if we did not want to. He also said that he knew there were several others in the group who did not consider themselves Buddhists and did not wish to take the precepts, and that he would have had to organise something else for us to do for that evening. I thought we would have been happy to go and meditate in some other room for an hour or two.
    So I think it was having to be there and watch and feel so very uncomfortable that made me want to write about it and find out what others think.
    Also it does raise some very interesting questions about how one teaches something which can never be captured in words or rituals.

  8. zensquared Says:

    I’m fascinated that you have been practicing Zen meditation and participating in koan study for so long, and yet you do not consider yourself a Buddhist. As someone who was utterly non-religious until about the age of 45, I can certainly understand an aversion to religious rituals such as singing and chanting. But you do light incense. Do you bow to your teacher at the beginning and end of an interview? Are these not also rituals?

    One of the reasons I never followed my best friend into a Tibetan practice is that the elaborate trappings of the Tibetan practice totally put me off. Zen is more straight to the bone, in my view, and that made it easier for me to follow a Zen practice.

    Here’s the question I have for you: What’s the difference between practicing Buddhism and being a Buddhist?

  9. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Ah, there’s a question. And if you’ve read the book you’ll know that John criticised me for making that distinction. He says “You state you are not a Buddhist and thus do not encounter the paradox that experienced Buddhists should know, viz – that they are ‘not-Buddhists’. … by adopting this self-definition, you create a dualism of which you remain unaware.”
    So nah-nah to me.
    Actually my reasons are much more pragmatic and worldly. I am well known as an atheist. I am involved with humanism, and I argue vehemently against religions of many kinds. Anyone who knows something about Buddhism would not see a problem in this, but others would. If I said I was a Buddhist they might infer that I had joined a religion and was therefore completely hypocritical.
    Maybe I am?

    You ask easier questions. Yes I bow before and after my daily meditation. I think of this as bowing to the world. I bow to teachers as well and have no problem if I respect them and it seems appropriate.
    Really it was the vows that upset me so – the impossibility and ridiculousness of them – not the ritual.

    as for singing – well here’s a thing. Every year we have a big Christmas party and we sing all those wonderful old Christian carols in our house. I love singing.

    Aren’t we humans complicated !!!

  10. zensquared Says:

    Ha ha! Thank you for your answer! I’m on page 118 of your book, so not finished yet.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that you might one day re-examine religion and what exactly it is that you have argued vehemently against. Belief systems that are completely irrational? Okay, you are a scientist, and that makes sense. But as for the precepts, let me offer one case.

    I vowed not to take “that which is not given.” This is merely an English translation, and who knows how many variations there might be. But that’s the way it was worded when I said it. Now, I haven’t considered stealing anything since I was 12 and shoplifted candy bars. But after taking precepts, I find myself considering some situations in my life in a new way.

    Am I making an assumption about what I am permitted to “take”? (And taking can be defined rather broadly.) In some cases, I find myself asking for permission when I would not have done so before.

    Is it all right with you if I do this? Do you mind if I take that?

    And here’s what’s really cool: My asking sometimes surprises the person whom I ask. That’s when I observe the outward-reaching ripples of my actions.

    Without my having taken “impossible” precepts, this experience would not have occurred.

    The very impossibility of the precepts creates an endless series of koans where I (and not some ancient monk) am the actor and the one acted upon.

  11. tenzenbookblog Says:

    I think you may well be right about re-examining religion. Having changed my mind in a big way about the paranormal I am quite prepared to believe something similar might happen again. I have even thought that I might come to think that meditation is a complete waste of time and start investigating all the false claims and abuses of power that go along with it.
    Imagine the story – sceptic Blackmore turns her guns on the Zen she has practiced for 30 years 🙂
    But now that I am just in the middle of writing the bits about Buddhism and meditation in my consciousness textbook I find the evidence seems ever more convincing for profound brain changes after long meditation, not to mention insights into illusion that match up with the science we are learning. Interesting.
    But back to your main point. I have also been thinking about your example of taking that which is not given. At first I took this, as you do, as a positive outcome of taking the precepts but as I thought more about it I concluded that this same effect can come from practice and study without making any such commitment. Indeed I can think of similar, if less dramatic, effects in myself. The big problem for these promises or intentions is this – they mean making a decision about the future; they imply the same self in the future who is to be bound by these intentions. There is no such continuing self and to bind a present fleeting self to some idea of a future continuing self seems all wrong.

  12. zensquared Says:

    I guess we could look at the precepts as two things that are one, and one thing that is two. You can take precepts and then use them because you took the vows. Or you can not take precepts and then use them anyway.

    In the Kwan Um School of Zen there is this instruction regarding the precepts:

    “Know when to keep them and when to break them, when they are open and when they are closed.”

  13. zensquared Says:

    Oh, and about the brain science — from what I have read, the evidence is by now overwhelming that meditation practice produces physical changes in the brain tissue, in the firing of neurons, neural nets, etc. Of course one sees startling evidence when observing the electrical activity of mature Tibetan-trained monastics (they of the 10,000-plus hours of meditation). But I have also read that researchers can hook up Western non-monastics who have practiced regularly for many years (like you, Sue) and observe clear differences between “your brain on meditation” and someone else’s brain without the same history of meditation practice. So that bridge has been burned, so to speak.

  14. puerhan Says:

    Hi, I have read some of your blog posts and articles and the excerpt of TZQ in NCF40. I am quite interested in your statement:

    “The big problem for these promises or intentions is this – they mean making a decision about the future; they imply the same self in the future who is to be bound by these intentions. There is no such continuing self and to bind a present fleeting self to some idea of a future continuing self seems all wrong.”

    I think there is something about vows being bigger and more far-reaching than the “self”. So making a decision about the future does not necessarily imply the same self in the future, but rather that the same intention will carry forward in the universe. As the self is re-constructed over and over the vow will play a (consciously chosen) part in each reconstruction, rather than (unconsciously chosen) karma / samskaras. In this context the vows can go beyond death (moment by moment and of the human body) and beyond an individual. An example of this can be seen in Master Sheng Yen’s final words and the Sangha’s commitment to seeing his great vows continue.


  15. TenZenBook Blog « Nöyrtymisharjoituksia Says:

    […] […]

  16. tenzenbookblog Says:

    The email informing of this message was stuck in my spam folder. I have no idea why! So I never saw it until now.
    You have really made me think with this one. What you say gels with what I have learned from Sheng Yen in the past. Should this make me reconsider all I said, and felt, about those vows? I am off on solitary retreat tomorrow and I dare say this will prompt some thoughts during that week. thank you.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: