In Zen we consider morality (Sanskrit: sila, also translated as “discipline”) as the foundation of practice. It is a key factor contributing to our strongest zazen (meditation) because in refraining from causing harm we will find our sitting less likely to be compromised by feelings of guilt or shame or by attachment to thoughts springing from greed, ill will, or delusion (the “Three Poisons”).
The sixteen precepts of Buddhism may also be considered as an outline descriptive of our Buddha Nature, or True Self. They describe how we would conduct ourselves if we were fully enlightened. Even if none of us has reached that point of realization, upholding those precepts fortifies our faith in our original enlightenment, and as such we are less likely to see ourselves as “unenlightened,” a perception that obstructs our awakening.
The first three of the sixteen precepts are the Three Refuges: taking refuge (or placing one’s faith) in buddha (not just the historical Buddha, but our Buddha Nature), in Dharma (the truth, or teaching), and in Sangha (the community of practitioners). These are considered the most important of the Precepts, and mark one’s initiation in the Way. The next three Precepts, the Three General Resolutions, describe in broad terms our commitment to not causing harm. Finally, the subsequent Ten Cardinal Precepts further articulate, in terms of body, speech, and mind, the General Resolutions that precede them.
The essence of Zen is not about morality, but is a method by which we can see into the source of all morality, irrespective of place and time. To use a Zen saying, “Zen is above morality, but morality is not below Zen.”
The Three Refuges
I take refuge in Buddha, and resolve that with all beings I will understand the Great Way whereby the Buddha seed may forever thrive.
I take refuge in Dharma, and resolve that with all beings I will enter deeply into the sutra-treasure whereby my wisdom may grow as vast as the ocean.
I take refuge in Sangha, and in its wisdom, example, and never-failing help, and resolve to live in harmony with all sentient beings.
The Three General Resolutions
I resolve to avoid wrong.
I resolve to do good.
I resolve to liberate all living beings.
The Ten Cardinal Precepts
- I resolve not to kill, but to cherish all life.
- I resolve not to take what is not given, but to respect the things of others.
- I resolve not to misuse sexuality, but to be caring and responsible.
- I resolve not to lie, but to speak the truth.
- I resolve not to cause others to abuse alcohol or drugs, nor to do so myself, but to keep the mind clear.
- I resolve not to speak of the faults of others, but to be understanding and sympathetic.
- I resolve not to praise myself and disparage others, but to overcome my own shortcomings.
- I resolve not to withhold spiritual or material aid, but to give them freely where needed.
- I resolve not to indulge in anger, but to practice forbearance.
- I resolve not to revile the Three Treasures [Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha], but to cherish and uphold them.