It is common practice in many Buddhist traditions for members of a dharma community to take the precepts, also known as the Buddhist vows, at some point in their practice. In some organizations, that’s the very first thing you are invited to do when you walk in the door. At CityZen, the timing is by individual choice, often when one decides that this flavor of doing the dharma is the right fit for your spiritual awakening and that you’d appreciate the sangha's recognition and support in this adventure.
The Mahayana Buddhist precepts consist of three parts: Three Refuge Vows, Three Pure Vows, and the Ten Bodhisattva or Grave Vows, though they are sometimes referred to differently. As a shorthand reference, we call the year-long preparation that leads up to the ceremony of taking the precepts, Taking Refuge.
Preparation for the Refuge ceremony includes:
• Studying the precepts in a group setting
• Composing personal responses to each vow
• Sewing a rakusu (also known as a kesa, or Buddha’s robe)
• Making a commitment to the ongoing health of the CityZen community
The Refuge ceremony involves, a public recitation of your responses to the vows, receipt of an inscribed rakusu by CityZen teachers and a dharma name, and a reception by the sangha or dharma community.
At a certain point in Zen practice the issue of integrity arises. We begin to consider how it would be if we viewed wisdom and compassion as the central compass point in our life and made a commitment to lessening the suffering of our self and others. In Taking Refuge it is said that our usual wandering about comes to a close and the journey of wandering about in earnest begins. Hakuin’s clear injunction points the way, “here effect and cause are the same; the Way is neither two nor three; with form that is no form, going and coming, we are never astray; with thought that is no thought singing and dancing are the voice of the Law.”
We honor the three treasures
and are grateful for this food
the work of many hands
and the sacrifice of other life.
The vow of not killing might also be kept in another way – through noticing our tendency to kill another person’s speech or thought by interrupting them before they are finished speaking. Men seem especially prone to this unconscious habit when in the company of women.
When we view the vow of not killing in this expanded way we will find that it’s more about taking the time to notice where the life of the moment resides rather than imposing our own will or making prohibitions on ours or other’s actions. When we naturally choose to uphold life rather than to just avoid the negative, to refrain from killing – this is the dharma way of maintaining the spirit of the vow – no matter how imperfectly we perceive the result. When we bring this positive spirit into any activity, that’s upholding the vow not to kill. Not judging or forming opinions about how well we or others keep the vow is also staying true to the spirit of Taking Refuge.
When we bring the spirit of the vow into any activity, that's keeping the vow. Not judging or forming opinions about how well we or others keep the vows is also staying true to the spirit of the task.
We can’t keep a vow from a distant or separate stance, or from within an idea or concept, we have to live it to see it through. Ultimately, there's no way to know whether we're making the right choice or not, life is far more subtle and mysterious for such easy conclusions. But we can notice — as we bring other people and beings into our awareness — our actions start to reflect this recognition. We may start having fewer complaints about how things are or see that there’s a newfound kindness in our attitude towards our fellow beings – that some of our usual forms of suffering have lessened. And that is something of value.
Acknowledging our connectedness informs our choices and actions as a fundamental fulcrum to responding with compassion in any circumstance. In the way of the Mahayana this is known as the Bodhisattva Path. It’s good to remember that we Take Refuge from within a dharma community; it’s not done by our efforts alone. The dharma community supports us and provides a home for our refuge to flourish. In gratitude, we make a commitment to support the teaching and our dharma home.