I recall being asked by a friend “What is Zen practice?” In attempting to answer quickly (as I was trying to get home at the time) and without too much thought I answered “Dancing in the grey” and left. Despite myself, I enjoyed this answer. It was far better than answering “The wind in the pines” or “Joshu eats a nut” …
By dancing in the grey, most Zen practice revels in a lack of absolutes (although I do admit that a few exist … maybe … probably). I was criticized in the past for “sitting on the fence” and not properly taking sides in an argument but the fence itself is arbitrarily placed and not absolute – what purpose is there in placing so much emphasis on delineations. It only serves as a divider between “us” and “them”. That sort of delineation is an illusion – but one that many follow as absolute. This eventually brings to light a constant criticism of Zen – its inherit or doctrinal immorality. Since there are no absolutes then there are ethical rules to obey – no ethical boundaries to hedge us in. Yes and no.
The Buddhist precepts are a primary aspect of Zen practice (along in varying degrees with meditation, chanting, study and work) but they are too often compared with 10 Commandments of Judeo-Christian fame. The precepts, however, differ in that they are recommendations towards a happy, fruitful life and not commandments that if broken will lead you to eternal damnation. More of a road-map towards the Bodhi-mind and less of a checklist towards heaven. Practitioners are encouraged to take an active role in applying the precepts to their lives, understanding that Buddhas have those precepts internalized – it’s part of what makes them a Buddha. They don’t follow or obey the precepts, they are the precepts. We then use our own inherit compassion tempered by acquired wisdom to apply the precepts in our lives. They are affirming as well as condemning – all dependant upon the particular practitioner’s needs and experience. They don’t stay absolute they become internalized and remain in flux along with us.
In that way the precepts allow us to dance in the grey – to revel in our ability to see past the relative – to understand that the absolutes that we have put so much faith in are really just illusions as we practice to realize the Bodhi-mind. What that is … I have no idea. There are no guarantees in Zen. Just practice compassion, wisdom and slow down the train from time to time. And when you have time blow the whistle – its fun.
I listed two of my favorite renditions of the 10 Grave Precepts below. They are the One-Mind precepts as outlined by Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen who brought Zen to China in the 5th century and Dogen (the 13th century reformer and founder of Soto school of Zen Buddhism).
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the everlasting Dharma, not giving rise to the ideal of killing is called the Precept of Not Killing.
Dogen: The Buddha seed grows in accordance with not taking life. Transmit the life of Buddha’s wisdom and do not kill.
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the unattainable Dharma, not having thoughts of gaining is called the Precept of Not Stealing.
Dogen: The self and things of the world are just as they are. The gate of emancipation is open.
Not Misusing Sex
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the ungilded Dharma, not creating a veneer of attachment is called the Precept of Not Misusing Sex.
Dogen: The Three Wheels are pure and clear. When you have nothing to desire, you follow the way of all Buddhas.
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the inexplicable Dharma, not preaching a single word is called the Precept of Not Lying.
Dogen: The Dharma Wheel turns from the beginning. There is neither surplus nor lack. The whole universe is moistened with nectar, and the truth is ready to harvest.
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the intrinsically pure Dharma, not giving rise to delusions is called the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs.
Dogen: Drugs are not brought in yet. Don’t let them invade. That is the great light.
Not Discussing Faults of Others.
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the flawless Dharma, nor expounding upon error is called the Precept of Not Speaking of Faults of Others.
Dogen: In the Buddha Dharma, there is one path, one Dharma, one realization, one practice. Don’t permit faultfinding. Don’t permit haphazard talk.
Not Praising Yourself While Abusing Others
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the equitable Dharma, not dwelling upon I against you is called the Precept of Not Praising Yourself while Abusing Others.
Dogen: Buddhas and Ancestral Teachers realize the empty sky and the great earth. When they manifest the noble body, there is neither inside nor outside in emptiness. When they manifest the Dharma body, there is not even a bit of earth on the ground.
Not Sparing the Dharma Assets.
Bodhidharma. Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the genuine, all- pervading Dharma, not being stingy about a single thing is called the Precept of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets.
Dogen: One phrase, one verse–that is the ten thousand things and one hundred grasses; one dharma, one realization–that is all Buddhas and Ancestral Teachers. Therefore, from the beginning, there has been no stinginess at all
Not Indulging in Anger
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the selfless Dharma, not contriving reality for the self is called the Precept of Not Indulging in Anger.
Dogen: Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is an ocean of bright clouds. There is an ocean of solemn clouds.
Not Defaming the Three Treasures
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the One, nor holding nihilistic concepts of ordinary beings and sages is called the Precept of Not Defaming the Three Treasures.
Dogen: The teisho of the actual body is the harbor and the weir. This is the most important thing in the world. Its virtue finds its home in the ocean of essential nature. It is beyond explanation. We just accept it with respect and gratitude.