If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts. When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves.
--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
At SFZC's Young Urban Zen practice group, we often discuss the Buddhist precepts, and there seems to be wide agreement within the group that it's hard to follow them. Perhaps the biggest reason for this difficulty is that it's not clear what the precepts really mean: are they strict rules, or just suggestions to try out? Are they ideals to work toward, or the natural expression of wise understanding?
Growing up in our society, being pressured to accept the authority of teachers, police, experts, and preachers, it's easy to
think of the precepts as rules that must be
followed to avoid punishment or to attain some idealistic goal like salvation or enlightenment. This way of seeing the precepts probably alienates people or inspires the impulse to rebel against them. For those who decide to stick it out, taking the rule-based approach channels a
lot of energy into a struggle between desires and ideals.
The big problem is that these attitudes are not self-sufficient. In both cases the focus is external: rebelling against some outside authority or seeking to conform to some outside ideal. By focusing on something outside the mind, both of these approaches distract us from the reality that we play the dominant role in shaping our own lives.
That means when there are problems, we probably created them.
Sure, there are events beyond our control that take us by surprise, but even then we have a lot of responsibility. We're responsible for our reaction. Our reaction is capable of turning a little problem into a big one, or a big problem into a huge one, and that means we still have a lot of power in these situations. We can use an obstacle or a painful situation as an excuse for giving up or doing something dishonest, in which case the problem grows, or we can stay calm and take a moment to learn from the situation, in which case it can become an opportunity in disguise. At the very least, the original problem can fizzle out without being compounded.
More importantly, there are countless actions that fall completely within our control. The consequences of these actions are entirely our responsibility, and it's misguided to look for a solution to them outside the self. If we've spent a lifetime spinning a web of "innocent" little lies to impress people, then today our social landscape will be filled with deception, secret dislike, awkwardness, and disconnection from people we want to be friends with. It's painful to admit that it's our own fault, but how else can we take charge and make improvements?
The situation is further complicated by the sheer size of this web we've been spinning--a lot of lies can be told in a lifetime. It's impossible to keep track of all of them, so we also struggle against forgetfulness, and we think someone else caused the problems. But even if we don't remember the actions that brought about our present day problems, the problems are still ours to deal with.
Getting out of this mess can begin by considering the meaning of Suzuki Roshi's statement quoted above. See if it's true. See what a self-sufficient mind really does. With a self-sufficient attitude, look at how your innermost urges lead to actions that lead to situations. Is that process getting you what you really want? It's up to you to find out. That's the first step in taking charge of your life.
We don't need permission to take charge of our own lives; we can and must do it ourselves! That means getting over the old habits: blaming, making excuses, running away, rebelling. In a self-sufficient mind, there is no room for blaming other people or for blaming one's situation. There is no role for rebellion, since you'd only be rebelling against yourself. Likewise, there can be no conformity, not even to the precepts--they are just tools for creating the life you want.
In short, there are no rules. Your experience is simply a reflection of your actions, good or bad. If you are tired of being lied to, then stop lying. If you are tired of being cheated, then stop acting out of greed. If you seek peace, then forgive. If you seek love, then love.
It really is that simple. But knowing where to start is not simple. That may be the reason we need the precepts.