Suzuki Roshi once said, “This is the ultimate fact: I am here.” Indeed, one can rely upon perhaps little else. Life changes.

Like most people, in the past nine years I have seen plenty of change: I have lived in five different cities, gotten married, then divorced, went to graduate school, then graduated, worked on two entrepreneurial ventures (neither succeeded), and had at least four different jobs. One of the only constants through all this change has been Zen practice — sitting, staring at the wall, counting breaths.

By this description, it sounds crazy. But Zen is, in one sense, the scientific study of Suzuki Roshi’s “ultimate fact.” It provides a set of tools and methodologies for its careful dissection. Who am I? What is here? But it also provides more than this. After all, every good scientist needs a lab coat, and in the Zen tradition, receiving a rakusu through the ceremony of Jukai is like earning a lab coat with your name embroidered on it.

For some students of Zen, waiting nine years to receive Jukai might seem like an eternity, because it is not until having completed the ceremony Jukai that one can officially call oneself a “Zen Buddhist.” But I have always been a bit of a late-bloomer. I also have a tendency to squirm a bit when confronted with lofty titles and ill-defined labels. Receiving Jukai after eight years of admittedly half-assed practice and one year of truly sincere practice doesn’t seem so bad. And so, as of this week, rakusu in hand, I can now officially say that I am a Zen Buddhist, with all rights and privileges thereto pertaining. And it feels good.

A sizable part of the Jukai ceremony involves the receiving of the what are known as the Bodhisattva Precepts, of which there are sixteen in total divided into three categories: the Three Jewels, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Precepts. We say “receive the precepts” because in a way they are truly a kind of gift. To the uninitiated, however, they may just look like a boring list of commandments. The Ten Grave Precepts, for instance, can be written in hyper-abbreviated form as:

  • Not killing.
  • Not stealing.
  • Not engaging in sexual misconduct.
  • Not lying.
  • Not taking intoxicants.
  • Not speaking of others’ faults.
  • Not blaming others.
  • Not being greedy.
  • Not indulging in anger.
  • Not defiling the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).

Again, on the surface this may seem like not much of a gift — nothing more than a bunch of rules to follow. But looking more deeply we may see them for what they truly are: guidelines for living compassionately, ethically, responsibly. In short, they are tools to help you live life well.

One of my favorite poems by poet Gary Snyder is his piece on the Buddha Dharma entitled “Avocado.” In it, he likens the Dharma to an avocado, calling the “great big round seed” in the middle your “Original Nature:”

Pure and smooth,
Almost nobody ever splits it open
Or tries to see
If it will grow.

Hard and slippery,
It looks like
You should plant it — but then
It shoots out thru the
fingers —

gets away.

As Dharma, the Precepts are like this. Grab them too tightly and they slip through your fingers. Better not adhere to them unquestioningly, or follow them too hard or too fast because you may lose sight of their true meaning. So instead, during Jukai, we vow to “uphold” the Precepts, which I take to mean judiciously apply and study, but also question.

We often think of Zen practice as simply the practice of “doing the next thing.” When we walk, we walk. When we eat, we eat. Then we wash our bowl. I like to think of Zen not as simply “doing the next thing,” but instead as “doing the next right thing.” How do we know what is right? Mindfulness helps us pay attention to what must be done next; the Precepts help us see how to do it ethically, sincerely, skillfully. They help us to see what is right. This is what you advertise when you wear a rakusu: that you vow to do the next right thing, saving all sentient beings.

Dawn at the zendo,
coyotes howl, stomachs groan —
hungry samadhi.