DharmaBum: Taking Precepts & Living at The Cambridge Zen Center
by Kathy Park
In August of this year, I took the ten precepts to become a Dharma Teacher in training at Providence Zen Center. In our zen tradition as in most Buddhist traditions, taking precepts is a step in making our comittment to practice and use our life to help all beings. There are many stages of taking precepts, from the first five up to becoming ordained as a monk or nun. As lay practitioners we are able to take up to 48 Bodhisattva precepts. When we begin our practice and feel more familiar with our direction, we take the first five precepts.
I vow to abstain from taking life.
I vow to abstain from taking things not given.
I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.
I vow to abstain from lying.
I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to produce headlessness.
At first some of the precepts can seem difficult to keep. And how can I be perfect and keep all of them any time, any place, any situation?
The idea of "commitment" can seem challenging. But that's why our practice itself is such good medicine for our thinking mind. And, as Zen Master Seung Sahn always says, "Only do it!" So “only do it” means lets not check whether we are perfect, or that we can keep each precept anytime, any place. It means that we merely make an internal decision to only try, and to keep trying nonstop. Having this trying mind itself opens up our true self so that faith and courage to "Only do it" becomes stronger and stronger. So this vow is very important.
So this vow is very important.
At every precepts ceremony we are given a little burn on our forearm with the incense stick as an initiation of having taken the precepts. When the incense burns our skin, our mind is completely clear for that instant, and no thinking arises. Taking precepts is our vow to return to this moment constantly, momen to moment. Every time we forget, we can look at our arm, and remember our vow, and this brings us back to the mind of clarity.
To become Dharma Teacher in training, we also take the following five precepts:
I vow not to talk about the faults of others.
I vow not to praise myself and put down others.
I vow not to be covetous and to be generous.
I vow not to give way to anger and to be harmonious.
I vow not to slander the three jewels, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.
When I took the ten precepts, it became clear that the latter five were very pertinent to my current life situation. I live at the Cambridge Zen Center where we practice and live together, all 35 of us. Living at the Zen center means being with others who also make the commitment to practice the Dharma and are willing to share the process with all that it entails. Zen Master Seung Sahn says we are like potatoes in a big pot filled with water. Stir them and shake them, and they all clean each other by bumping into each other. Practicing together is not complicated. It's simply showing up to practice together. When our karma appears, that's when the precepts remind us of our vows.
When we move into a zen center, often times we experience our likes and dislikes, and what we think is right or wrong more strongly . That's because we find ourselves living with not just "I, my and me", but with about thirty-five other "I, my and me"s. But because we are practicing together, sometimes the "I, my, me" s become thirty-five Buddha nature faces all connecting in harmony.
During our last three-day Yong Maeng Jong Jin retreat (which in Korean means " to leap like a tiger while still", I had a very wonderful experience of together action working in our practice. On the last day of the retreat,as usual we had to wake up for bows at 4:30 a.m. Only, the electricity went out and everything was pitch black and silent. The mind is funny when conditions change. Either we are receptive to the changes, or we become uncomfortable, not willing to accept them, and make reasons for blaming our conditions not making us happy. Of all things, I was thinking with some irritation
or "What shall we do if we have no heat?"
or "When will it come back on?"
So many "what if's" came through my head in the first five minutes of a groggy wakeup .
"The vaccuum cleaners won't work - uh oh..I can't do the laundry...."
Naturally, the wake up was a little staggered, but thankfully the bell was rung, the moktak was hit, and everyone found their way to the Dharma room. Then we bowed with the candles lit on the altar. The Dharma room glowed with a wonderful and warm light. As we recited our Four Great Vows, the space felt more intimate. No "what ifs appeared, and everything “as is” was perfectly fine. My groggy morning karma reminded me of the just taken ten precepts, especially the one about not giving way to anger and to be harmonious. This is especially true when I simply realize that this irritation or anger came from nowhere, is completely empty, and created by my little, fearful, thinking mind alone. Thanks to the candle lights, the darkness was dispelled.
By chanting time, it dawned on me that a long time ago when electricity was not available, this was how morning practice was everyday, in warm candlelight. By sitting time, the darkeness began to transform slowly into light in the greatest, clearest silence in a long time. We sat until the chukpi clacked sharply three times and by then, the room was freezing, but inside I felt happy that I wasn't alone, but in a room full of friends feeling cold together. Very quickly the hot oatmeal came for our formal breakfast. That and the hot soy milk poured over with honey and granola was the best breakfast in Cambridge ever! By work period, the woodfire stove was ablaze in the dining room and the rest of the morning's walking meditation periods were a warm pleasure as we walked around the stove. With many hands all the things got done, everything eventually got taken care of.
Someone called the electric company and informed us that the power wouldn’t be back on for another four hours. Five minutes later, it came back. The sudden humming of refrigerators, the heaters, the laundry machines, and the relieved energy of people was a surprise. It was as if the silence had gone the moment the lights came back on.
No lights, no power, was a good experience. It's magic was in the lack of sounds, lack of necessities. And that lacking them, we are still complete.
By living and practicing together after a while our karma of many likes and dislikes, good and bad judgements slowly melt and our minds become clearer as practice works like Irish mist. Irish mist is like dew that just keeps falling but invisible to the eye. Only after a while, can we feel our whole bodies are wet and soaked through. Our practice works this way.
But we have to do it.
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