The Brahmajala Sutra and the Ten Precepts

by Laura Otto-Salaj, Senior Dharma Teacher

I gave a talk at the Zen Center recently on the Brahmajala Sutra and the Ten Precepts. Included in the talk was another way of looking at the 10 Precepts, by the Zen Peacemakers Order, self-described as a group of “socially engaged Buddhists.” These ways of reframing the Precepts are strengths-based and take a wide view, focusing on ways we can enhance our practice and accept this moment as complete, rather than only focusing on our faults. Members of the sangha attending the talk found them useful, so here they are.

First Precept: I vow to abstain from taking life.

Reframe: Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is.

Second Precept: I vow to abstain from taking things not given.

Reframe: Being satisfied with what I have.

Third Precept: I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.

Reframe: Meeting the diversity of life with respect and dignity.

Fourth Precept: I vow to abstain from lying.

Reframe: Listening and speaking from the heart, cutting off attachments

Fifth Precept: I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to induce heedlessness.

Reframe: Cultivating a mind that sees clearly.

Sixth Precept: I vow not to talk about the faults of others.

Reframe: Bearing witness to the offering of each moment; also Unconditionally accepting what each moment has to offer.

Seventh Precept: I vow not to praise myself and put down others.

Reframe:Speaking what I perceive to be the truth, without guilt or blame.

Eighth Precept: I vow not to be covetous and to be generous.

Reframe: Using all the ingredients of my life.

Ninth Precept: I vow not to give way to anger and to be harmonious.

Reframe: Bearing witness to emotions that arise.

Tenth Precept: I vow not to slander the three jewels (Buddha, dharma, sangha).

Reframe: Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking, and using the resources at hand.

Motivation for Practice

Note: This essay was written by Jorge Arciniegas as a part of his application for Dharma Teacher training.

by Jorge Arciniegas

Motivation for practice is an interesting topic. Looking back through the lens of memory and past experience, I have come to realize that my motivation for practice has been and probably will continue to be an evolving field, a field that moves ever mysteriously like everything else in this universe and that seems to have a sense of purpose and direction. Like the needle of a compass, that sense of purpose and direction is pulled toward the essence of everything by our fours great vows: 

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all. 

Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all. 

The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all. 

The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it. 

Practice, as experienced now, has a tendency to be more and more a continuous moment-to-moment reality, as opposed to a discrete and sporadic event. The sense of practice having an evolving characteristic comes from the fact that in that discrete-to-continuous spectrum I very often find my attention caught in familiar streams of thoughts, feelings and emotions … until a spark of awareness lights up the recognition that I am not those thoughts, feelings and emotions. Perhaps that spark was always there, but during most of my life, so far, I was oblivious to it. Formal practice led me to a precious moment of Grace to experience that spark as the sudden realization that, figuratively speaking, there is a certain distance between the thoughts, feelings and emotions and I. 

Through practice, the very sense of “I” itself continues to vanish. To use an analogy, this vanishing experience is like a flickering light bulb that hasn’t quite burned off. When the old “I” that thinks, feels and suffers seems to be fully in command, the light bulb is on. When the “I” vanishes, the light bulb is off and the same thoughts, feelings and emotions simply happen in the same way in which the wind blows outside. A thought appears and then it disappears. A breeze of air comes and then it leaves. 

If there is a motivation for practice it’s in that space somewhere, to guide the managing, so to speak, of the flickering light bulb. Ultimately, however, the true motivation resides in the complete dropping away of the analogy altogether, in the dropping of every-thing, even this “I”, and in doing so, help this world … Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all … To humbly paraphrase the words of our school’s founder teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, to only go straight keeping don’t know mind, only don’t know, moment to moment and just do it, do it, do it. 

I must say that I’ve been a seeker of something for quite some time. Not knowing what was behind the seeking other than feeling a pull toward something other than “this”, long ago and somewhat unknowingly and haphazardly I stepped on a seeking path. Back then I followed no formal practice and if there was any motivation at all it was simply to alleviate the dread of “this” … Delusions are endless, we vow to cut through them all … 

I think that the power of intention plays a mysterious role and I have come to realize that in spite of all my plans, everything, and I mean everything, in my experience so far happened exactly so as to bring me 

to this very moment, at every moment. Talk about interdependence arising! Not as a concept but as deep unexplainable moment to moment experience. 

When I eventually found ways to formalize a practice, the motivation was quite self-centered as “I” wanted to attain “something”. Of course that seemed quite suitable and indeed it was what worked for me at the time. 

With time and Grace, practice is now just practice and I am not sure that I can put a finger on a motivation for it. As I sit in my living room typing these words while looking out the window, there is a tree outside and my dog is resting next to me. Not just that, but there is a sense that the entire universe is right here and there couldn’t possibly be anything missing. This is practice. But “I” am not practicing. Practice just is. It just happens. This very moment is just as it is. But the moment itself is ungraspable. It can only be experienced. There is no one there to do the grasping and there is no-thing to grasp. There is no motivation behind the seeing that sees the tree or the feeling that appreciates this moment. 

Practice is every day, everything practice. Keeping don’t know mind is a pointer. That pointer becomes blurred when “the practitioner” comes in the picture and wants to practice. But that’s ok too. That’s just the way it is and I can only try and try and try, in earnest and with determination. 

Practice brings me back full circle to the same starting point, but oddly enough the experience of it is not the same. At the original starting point “I” would have thought that the four great vows were, at best, a nice esoteric panacea and move on in search of something better. At this new starting point, the four great vows cannot be explained or understood, yet they vibrantly point to an ever present experiential reality that simply is. “I” am not there, but I am at the same ever fresh starting point practicing to save all sentient beings, practicing to cut through all delusions, practicing to learn all teachings, and practicing to simply be just like this, moment to moment and in doing so be of help to others and to the world. 

Questions and Answers

by Frank Pauc

“Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward to what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.”

Jacob Bronowski, from his book, The Ascent of Man

I am actually planning to write about Zen, but I think that the preceding quote from Jacob Bronowski is appropriate, even though he was talking about science, the great passion of his life. Bronowski was a mathematician, and a modern Renaissance man. He loved ideas, but he hated dogma. He particularly loved the pursuit of knowledge.

If I look from Bronowski’s perspective, I can see similarities between science and Zen. There aren’t many similarities because Zen isn’t similar to anything, really. However, they share a few points in common. Both Zen and science are about questions. In both practices, there is a desire to find answers, but the focus is on the questions. During meditation, some people silently ask themselves, “What am I?”, and then respond, “Don’t know.” Scientists ask themselves questions, and if they are honest, they usually shrug their shoulders and say, “Don’t know”. Even if a scientist finds an answer, that answer is simply a door to more questions. Likewise, if a Zen student catches a glimpse of reality, it is only a small step toward a deeper understanding.

A Zen practitioner may have a rare moment of illumination, where his or her view of the world shifts radically. Scientists can have that too. Scientists cling to ideas and opinions just like everyone else. Then somebody comes along and rocks their world. Copernicus tells people that the sun is the center of the solar system, and the effect is the same as when a Zen master screams “Katz!” Einstein explains that all things are relative, and there is a massive paradigm shift. Quantum physics comes along and suddenly light is both a particle and a wave (sometimes, maybe). A scientist with integrity has to be able to let go of ideas, just like a Zen practitioner must. Both types of people have to experience “don’t know”.

Bronowski notes that science is personal. So is Zen. A scientist has to “feel forward” in the unknown. So does a Zen practitioner. This pursuit of knowledge cannot be done vicariously. Each person has to do it on their own. This type of journey can be risky and requires a certain amount of courage. A person who thinks, talks, and acts differently from others is quite often vulnerable. A Zen practitioner and a scientist both are like trapeze artists who perform without a safety net. The safety net is made up of the things we think we know.

Not many people are scientists. Not many people practice Zen. Most people prefer the safety net. They want the security, real or otherwise, of absolutes. They don’t want that tension, that uneasiness that accompanies us when we stand “on the edge of error.” To be honest, I don’t want that either. But I can’t control my curiosity. As someone pointed out, I am a “seeker”. I keep asking.

Most of Bronowski’s family died in the Holocaust. Once again, he spoke about science:

“It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And this was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

I think I will stick with “don’t know.”



In the moment while in jail

by Frank Pauc

“As horrible as jail was, there were some first-rate guys in there.” – Scott Weiland

A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to spend twelve hours of quality time in the Clark County Detention Center. On Wednesday, April 26th, at about 7:00 AM, I got busted, along with six other people, for an act of civil disobedience at Creech AFB in Nevada. We blocked the entrance to the air base, and refused to move when ordered to do so by the Las Vegas police. The cops arrested us and life got really interesting.

What does this have to do with Zen? I think it has quite a bit to do with it. I am almost certain that, if I had not been sitting on a cushion on a regular basis for a period of years, I would probably never have been involved in this situation, and if I had been, I would have dealt with it much differently than I did.

First of all, the decision to allow myself to be arrested came purely from the gut. It was not a rational decision, not at all. I had never been busted before in my life. I had rejected the idea of getting arrested before the protest started, and then, literally one minute before the cops came, I decided to stay with the other demonstrators and block the entrance to the base. “Fuck it, I’m not moving.” After that, I didn’t check myself. I let events take their course. I truly doubt that I would have brave enough (or stupid enough) to get myself arrested if I hadn’t been doing some meditation. It was like diving into the deep end of a pool for the first time.

I am not saying that sitting Zen necessarily encourages a person to do crazy things. I’m saying that it helped me to see the rightness of a particular action without excessive analysis. I had definitely weighed the pros and cons of the action prior to making a decision, but all that thinking meant very little in the end. All my fears and worries and calculations were cast aside. It all came together in the moment when the guy standing next to me took my hand and said, “Frank, I’m glad you’re here.” Done.

As I look back at the subsequent twelve hours in custody, I know I felt anxiety, confusion, and pain at times. However, it never seemed overwhelming. I never felt resentment or anger at anybody. Mostly, everything seemed interesting. Even when I was sitting around in handcuffs, I could mentally take a step back and just observe what was happening. I had no idea at all when I would get released, or even if I would get released. Somehow that didn’t bother me that much. My main concern was contacting my wife. Otherwise, I was just there.

Sitting in the holding cell with seventeen other guys was a bit like a good Zen practice. I was in the moment. My mind did not wander. Everything was very real and very immediate. I was focused on the experience. It was intense, but it was okay.

I am not suggesting time in jail as a substitute for sitting Zen, but I think there are some odd similarities. The time in the slammer was a kong-an. It opened my mind to a number of things.

Discussion Notes for “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World”

By Gretchen Neuwald, Dharma Teacher

[We thought we’d share notes that Gretchen Neuwald compiled for a recent discussion of the book, “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World,” by Boshan (translated by Jeff Shore).]

Boshan Yuanali was a Chinese Zen Master of the Ming Dynasty, who lived from AD 1575 – 1630. His two texts, “Exhortation for Those Who Don’t Rouse Doubt” and “Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse Doubt,” have been called some of the most important doctrines of doubt meditaion.

Jeff Shore is a professor of Zen in the Modern World at Hanazono University in Kyoto.

The book “Great Doubt Great Enlightenment” (Seon Masters Gou, Muyeo, Hyeguk, Uijeong and Seoru) was read in concert with Stone’s book and provided a great deal of background on the central role doubt meditation holds in Korean Zen, or “Ganhwa Seon.”

Great Doubt and Ganhwa Seon.  What is Ganhwa Seon?

Arousing great doubt or question in meditation is one of the main techniques used in Chinese Zen. This technique is known as Huatou in Chinese Chan tradition, Wato in Japanese Zen tradition, and Hwadu (Hwado) in Korean Seon tradition.  The translation of “hwadu” literally means “word head” or “before speech” and refers to a phrase or a very short sentence. “Gan” means to observe or see and “Seon” is the Korean word for Zen, so Ganhwa Seon means “investigating Hwadu Zen.” This type of meditation is considered by some to be a shorter, more direct path to enlightenment than other forms of meditation.

Many credit the Chinese Zen master Dahui, (1089-1163), a member of the Linji school, with developing this technique. Dahui used hwadu in part to counteract the intellectualism that had begun to creep into kongan practice. He was also interested in teaching the lay community, particularly the Chinese scholar officials. Their support was crucial  for the survival of his school because these lay officials controlled the appointments of abbots to public monasteries. Dahui maintained that  hwadu meditation “can be carried out by layman in the midst of their daily activities.”

Even though Dahui was the first to formalize doubting meditaion, the first teaching can be said to go back to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (AD 637-713). Huineng taught his fellow student Ming by asking “While not thinking of good or bad, what is your original face (true nature)?” According to the Platform Sutra, Ming got enlightened because of that question.

Zen and Doubt Meditation came to Korea by way of the disciples of Huineng. Korean Zen Master Chinul (1158-1210) is considered to be the most influential figure in the formation of Korean Zen. Like Dahui, he promoted formal Hwadu practice in Korea. He was so successful in popularizing this practice, that it continues to play a central role in Korean Zen today, as it does in China and Japan.

What is Hwadu?

Hwadu is a short question or phrase that is used as a subject of meditation to focus the mind and arouse doubt. Hwadu’s are based on the encounters between Chinese Zen masters and their students (public cases known as kongans), except hwadu’s are shorter phrases than the actual kongans.

A hwadu is used to cut through the pathways of language and thought so that you awaken to your original mind. In Hwadu practice, you investigate and focus on the doubt sensation brought on by the hwadu. You, the practitioner, do not try to answer the question intellectually or with conceptual thinking. Instead, you bring your whole being to focus on the doubt brought on by the question. If you continue to hold this doubt, it will cause the cessation of thought. In continuing to take up the hwadu, unceasingly, it will build and build until it forms a great mass or “block of doubt,” in which you “can’t go forward, can’t go backward.” Once you become one with this doubt and completely surrender to it, it is said to  “explode.”  At this point, your mind opens and you obtain your true nature.

Some examples of hwadu’s are: “What am I?,” “What is this?,” “Dried shit stick,” “Original face?,” “What is Mu?”  Whatever the hwadu, they all point to the same thing, the one big question-  the question of our ultimate reality.  “What is life and death?,” “Why do I suffer?”- all boil down to “Who is this asking this question” or “What am I?” And isn’t this the very question, that brought us to this practice in the first place? So holding this question, this sensation of suffering or dis-ease, keeps us in beginner’s mind and reminds us of the pressing matter of our own life and death. As Chinese master Gaofeng states “The thousand doubts, the ten thousand doubts are just this one doubt. Resolve this doubt and no doubt remains.”

The intensive nature of this practice might seem more suitable for monastics, but Dahui maintained just the opposite. He said that monks like himself, “are on the outside breaking in; lay people are on the inside breaking out. The power of the one on the outside breaking in is weak; the power of the one on the inside breaking out is strong.” Dahui and other Zen masters stress that it is important to carry the hwadu in daily life- eating meals, going to work, talking with friends; however, you may be unable to take up the hwadu when concentrating wholly on a task. In that case your mind should naturally return to it when the task is finished. (Zen Master Seung Sahn compared taking up Great Doubt to a hen sitting on her eggs or a mother whose son is away fighting in a war.) Both Dahui and Boshan stress the importance of seeking the guidance of a good Teacher and Dharma friends when embarking on this practice.

So in today’s discussion we will be using the book “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World” that offers the translation and commentary of two short texts authored by Boshan (1575-1630), one of the leading Zen masters if the Ming dynasty. The texts are “Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Rouse Doubt” and “Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse Doubt.” Boshan like many Zen masters, took the name of the mountain, Mount Bo, where he was active. He is also known as Wuxi Yaunlai and Dayi.

Boshan left home as a teenager to study and practice Buddhism. After five years of intensive study, he received full ordination. He then became the student of a very demanding teacher who consistently rejected Boshan’s insights. One day, while sitting meditation on a rock, he heard a crash from a statue falling nearby and had a sudden realization. The following year he was greatly awakened when watching a person climb a tree. After taking Bodhisatva precepts, he taught at several monasteries before settling at Mount Bo. He was one of Wuming Huijing’s four Dharma heirs. He died in 1630, leaving behind several Dharma heirs and lay disciples.

Boshan wrote these “Exhortations,” part of a much larger work, when he has 36. In his writings he emphasizes the importance of great doubt:

“In Zen practice, the essential point is to rouse doubt. What is this doubt? When you are born, for example, where do you come from? You cannot help but remain in doubt about this. When you die, where do you go? Again, you cannot help but remain in doubt. Since you cannot pierce this barrier of life and death, suddenly doubt will coalesce right before your eyes. Try to put it down, you cannot; try to push it away, you cannot. Eventually you will break through this doubt block and realize what a worthless notion life and death is—Ha!  As the old worthies said: Great doubt, great awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening.”

The Times They are a Changing

By Mike Zinke, Bodhisattva Teacher

Times were much simpler when I was young. People were either a Republican or they were a Democrat. Occasionally you might find someone claiming to be an Independent but everyone just kind of figured an Independent was someone who hadn’t decided who to vote for yet. I remember my dad was a Republican and my mother was a Democrat. That’s about all I knew really as politics wasn’t discussed a lot in the house. My parents just accepted that they disagreed on who should run the country. For most of my adult life I was fairly ambivalent about politics. A friend talked me into helping hand out flyers for Jimmy Carter once but other than that I didn’t get too involved and didn’t give it much thought. Well, there was one time when the Mayor of the town where I grew up (population 2,000) paid my friend and me to sneak around at night and put his bumper stickers on cars. I think we got a nickel for each car we tacked his name on. Hey, times were tough and I was about 12 at the time.

I remember people could actually talk about the issues without causing arguments or fights to break out. People just accepted that others might have differing opinions. Now we are experiencing the most divided times I can remember. Somehow we have gone from that simpler time to a ridiculously complex time where people don’t talk with you about their political beliefs, they talk to you about them – they are not expecting a response from you. If you were to disagree, the probable outcome would likely be an argument and hurt feelings.

I’m not sure of how we got to this point but it seems like everyone is angry at everybody for no apparent reason. Some contributing factors may include the highs and lows we all experienced in the past several months with the political news, terror scares, shootings in Milwaukee, rising crime, the economy, etc. We try to process all this information but after a while it’s like your mind says “enough already” and wants to stop but the urge to know what’s going on still remains. Zen Master Dae Kwang says our minds are like a calculator, storing data, storing data, storing data on and on until we finally hit the Clear button by taking time out to sit and clear our minds. We know through all of our meditation practice that when thoughts enter our mind we look at them, realize where they came from and then let them go but it seems like the data being sent from various sources has increased its speed from 16 Mbps to 50 Mbps and continues to increase so much that the Clear button is being worn out.

Compounding the issues with the data onslaught are the new terms ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’. So with all the data flooding the airwaves we now don’t know what is real and what isn’t. We try to sort it out, we try to discuss things with others but we find that difficult as well because everyone holds onto their own opinions very strongly and engaging in a normal discussion isn’t likely. My wife, Kathy, and I also have found it odd that many people now simply assume that you hold the same view on today’s issues as they do and freely, often too freely, espouse for their causes without knowing, or asking about, your views. On several occasions we have both had experiences with people, some of whom we didn’t even know, simply start telling us their opinions on everything from gun control, Obamacare, religion, immigration, politics, and a host of other subjects while making the assumption we held the same opinions, for or against those issues, as them.

So, how do we deal with everything that is going on in today’s world? How do we deal with people that feel the need to pour out their feelings on different subjects while assuming that we have the same feelings? How do we discern alternative facts from facts and fake news from real news? How do we calm others when the stress of current issues causes them to suffer?

I think our Zen practice can help us cope with today’s issues in several ways. Of course we all know one basic teaching of Zen is that all things are impermanent and will eventually change and/or go away. When we spend a lot of our waking hours worrying about the issues we disagree with and wanting them to change then we, of course, cause our own suffering by having desire for things to change immediately and allowing those concerns to overrule our daily activities. When others engulf us with their opinions and assume that we share the same opinions instead of trying to convince them to see our viewpoints we should simply smile and acknowledge their statements knowing that to disagree would be fruitless and would lead to an argument. Later you can use subtlety in your actions to support a correct view and weave around the disagreement and probable argument. Somewhere in the past years of Zen practice a knowledgeable teacher told me that everyone is right and everyone is wrong. We must understand that others have differing opinions and we must accept that their opinions belong to them. We don’t preach to people about our beliefs or try to persuade them to convert to our beliefs. Instead, we show our beliefs through our actions.

When we practice Zen we work on showing compassion for other people. When we show compassion for others we are setting examples that will eventually be adopted by others for them to also show compassion through their actions and so forth – like a domino effect. All actions are dependent upon other actions (dependent origination – this exists because of that and that exists because of this) good actions help foster other good actions and that is our goal in this practice.

We know what has happened in the past is already over and can’t be changed, we know that we have no control over the future so we must look at the present moment with our practice. How do we help others? How do we cope with all the issues in today’s environment? There are many ways including protests, petitions, etc., but most importantly we must continue with our Zen practice – more now than ever.




Welcome to our new Web Site

Welcome to our new web site. We have decided to go completely digital and will no longer be publishing a paper copy of the “Moon on the Water” newsletter. (We do have an archive of published copies of “Moon on the Water” which you can find here.) Instead of publishing paper copies of the newsletter, we will be publishing blog articles (like this one) which we hope will be more timely, responsive, and definitely less expensive to deliver. While we understand that some of you may prefer a paper copy of the newsletter, we have found that most people now prefer just checking it out online. The medium has changed from a hard-copy newsletter format to digital content, so if you want a hard-copy, you should be able to print out the blogs from your device.

Thank you for your support and understanding!

Pete Neuwald, Abbot, Great Lake Zen Center