Receiving the Zen Precepts

“Vast is the robe of liberation, 
a formless field of benefaction;
I wear the Tathagata’s teaching,
saving all sentient beings.”
from the Boundless Way Zen liturgy book

The Precepts of skillful action are the moral and ethical teachings of the Zen Buddhist tradition. They’re not rules to be followed, but suggestions on how to navigate the difficult and messy business of being human in this human world. They describe how to fully actualize the absolute truth of interconnection and oneness in the relative of world of this and that. Moreover, the Precepts are among the Buddha’s clearest suggestions about how to find liberation right in the middle of our everyday lives.

The ceremony of formally receiving the precepts is called “Jukai,” and takes place twice a year. People who have received the Precepts wear a “rakusu” (pronounced “rock-su”) during zazen, the black bib-like garment that is a miniaturized version of the Buddha’s robe, the robe of liberation. In this ceremony, each person receiving the precepts has the opportunity to read a sentence or three about each of the sixteen precepts. In this way, the ceremony is extremely powerful, communal, and inspiring. If possible, you should attend at least one Jukai ceremony before receiving them yourself.

Receiving the Precepts is not something we do when we believe we will never act against them, but is itself an expression of our bodhisattva aspiration to return, again and again, to our intention to let Precepts guide our lives.

The process of aspiring to be guided by the precepts, falling short of our aspirations, and atoning for the harming karma we create is the essence of Zen. This three-part process (aspiring, falling short, and atoning) is the heart of practicing Zen in our everyday off-the-cushion lives.

If you’re interested in taking the Precepts, you can inquire about this in dokusan with any of the Boundless Way Zen transmitted teachers. Most people sew their rakusu themselves, and there are sangha members who can help with this, including by providing you with a kit to get started.

You can find two Precepts recitations in the Boundless Way Zen liturgy book.