Precepts 8: The Round Up
**Precepts 8: The Round Up**
We have two wings that keep our practice flying. The first is compassion, the other is wisdom. The precepts offer ways of refining and constructing both of these wings. They offer the possibility to study our actions and their effects. Along with the action we name as stillness.
There is another level the precepts work on – the transcendent level. The Lotus Sutra delivers us to this place. We think the world is just this world, but the Lotus Sutra says everything is interconnected through space and time in ways we can barely imagine. This is the koan level of the precepts.
The Flower Sermon
Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching. But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water. The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbolized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching.
When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak. “What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.” Mahakashyapa became Buddha’s successor from that day forward.
The Buddha had been asked by his sangha to teach on interdependence, and instead of speaking he reached for a flower. As the Buddha looked at the flower he smiled (wasn’t he holding the whole world in his hand?), and Mahakasyapa smiled right along with him. He saw what the Buddha saw. (It takes a Buddha and a Buddha to realize this moment. The flower is also a Buddha.) The Buddha announces that no one understood the teachings except M, and so M received the transmission of the whole of the dharma outside the scriptures. This is akin to the koan level of the precepts.
There are 3 levels to the precepts. The literal level, the compassionate level and the koan level. The literal level of the first precept, ahimsa or non-harming, is simply: don’t kill. The compassionate level is: how do you act that out? How can we live with and for others? And the koan level wakes you up to the mysteries of life. It’s the level where the cooling breeze of enlightenment is always blowing.
M understood the koan level of the Buddha’s flower sermon. The precepts are not a matter of complete understanding, or of following eternal moral laws (do this, don’t do that). Behind the precepts is the koan level, a deep and mysterious level. This is symbolized (in The Lotus Sutra) by the mirrored parasol where everyone can see themselves reflected in mirrors that carry reflections from one spot to every other. We are all part of each other. Nothing essential here or there, only conditions arising.
Note that in Mahayana Buddhism, teachings are not delivered with words, but embodied, performed, lived.
In receiving the precepts you are receiving the truth of your life: that you are a Buddha. The precepts show us the power of our actions, and the power of sitting still. To see clearly, to speak with kindness, each gesture carries an infinite echo, touching everyone around us. In a way, you could say that sitting meditation is only about the precepts, and that the precepts are an activity of the Buddha. If you are living your life with an understanding of the precepts, then you are a Buddha.
Of course, it’s impossible to maintain the precepts. No matter what you do, you will wind up taking life. But you have to take the next step. You have to turn the page. Walk through the next door. How do we take the next step? With the lens of the precepts firmly in place.
In medieval Japan when crops failed, bad spirits were often blamed, and monks were summoned to offer precepts to the demons. This is the shamanistic level of the precepts. When things are not going well, can we give precepts to all the winds that are moving through us?
The precepts are not about sin or any ideas of purity. “Water that is too clean has no fish.” Therefore you should always maintain a measure of grime in your practice. Check out the lakes in Algonquin Park – those pure blue sparkling waters – but there are no fish there, mainly because of the acid rain. The water of your practice need a bit of grit so that life can grow.