Zazen and the Precepts

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group


After I ordained, I had this recurring thought that zazen and the precepts were somehow the same, or that they had similar functions in my spiritual life. I thought, “well, zazen and precepts are the same, I don't know really what that means, but it sounds pretty good”. Only more recently, this idea has resurfaced and some connection between zazen and the precepts became more apparent. I would like to explore the connection between zazen and the precepts from several perspectives: First, from the perspective of emptiness, and in this section discuss what has been termed “causal power”. Second, from the perspective of karmic seeds, and finally, tying it all together from the perspective of cause and effect.


Zazen and the precepts share common ground in the Zen admonition of “not moving”. Not moving doesn't necessarily have anything to do with physically moving or not. Not moving means staying with our intended practice rather than being pulled or pushed by the various states (or objects) of mind which arise. Not being pushed or pulled means staying present with a state of mind without acting on it.


When we sit zazen regularly, we eventually notice that our states of mind come and go, that they are impermanent at a very fundamental level. We eventually realize that in the comings and goings of these states of mind, that any state really has no ability to sustain itself without our attention. It only lasts as long as we hold onto the thought. This is what is called “emptiness” in Buddhism. Emptiness means that a phenomenon is insubstantial and is empty of the ability to sustain itself. Rather than believing that states of mind come “out of the blue”, we see that they arise and decay based on causes and conditions. When we have developed confidence (or faith in) that our objects of mind are empty of the power to sustain themselves, it is easier to practise not moving. How do we develop this faith in not moving?


In zazen, when we notice and let go of our tendency to superimpose a “non-empty” conceptualization on our experience, we can begin to see the conditionality of phenomena we experience. To make an analogy, if we are up inside a cloud and moving within the cloud as the cloud itself moves, we might presume that the cloud is a vast permanent entity, maybe having the perception that the entire universe is made up of this cloud. However, if we let go of being in the cloud and are on the ground watching the cloud, we can see how it arises, floats across the sky and eventually dissipates, we see its conditional existence. When we are “moving” with a phenomenon our ability to perceive cause and effect is obscured. When we are grounded, it becomes easier to see the conditioned existence of phenomena.


In zazen, our karma tends to come to us by way of the various states of mind which arise without our conscious effort. In our everyday lives of activity, we tend to go to our karma and act out motivated by habituated patterns. The precepts offer, like zazen, a way to engage the reality of just this present moment. The precepts offer us a way to “not move” in the face of our karmic impulses. A good way to understand this is to relate it to the Buddhist teaching on “storehouse consciousness” and “seeds.”


In Buddhism, there is a teaching that all moments of experience leave an impression in an unconscious aspect of our mind called the “storehouse consciousness”. These impressions or traces of past actions are called seeds. These seeds manifest at a later time when the proper conditions come about. Just as a seed from a poplar tree won't grow into an oak tree, these mental seeds will always manifest the type of activity which first planted the seed in our storehouse consciousness. When one of these seeds manifest, we may, through ignorance, take it for being an inherently existent object, or simply by blind habit energy, and follow the impulse (that is “move”) to act on that seed, then that action causes more seeds to be deposited in our storehouse consciousness for another go around. However, if we resist the impulse to move when a seed manifests, then the karmic energy carried by that seed gets burned off without producing new seeds of that type. In this way, we can loosen the stranglehold of habituated patterns on our life. So, in zazen, when we don't move, we are actually allowing a little bit of our karmic load to be lightened. In terms of emptiness, when we don't move in zazen, we are realizing the emptiness (or the dependent nature) of the karmic impulses which have governed our acts of body, speech, and mind.


So, through “not moving” in precept practice in our everyday lives, allows seeds to arise and get burned off without generating new seeds to replace them. When we act wholesomely in the face of our unwholesome tendencies, this is having deep faith in cause and effect and the empty, dependent nature of our karmic impulses. Very often our habituated patterns are based on egocentric impulses, which, because they are based on the notion of a self eventually will bring suffering to ourselves and others. However, notions of self and circumstances which arise in our everyday lives are empty as well. “Not moving” with the precepts gives us an opportunity to clarify this emptiness for ourselves in the context of the everyday activity of our lives.


These seeds, whether they are karmic impulses, emotions, or other states of mind, are empty of what could be termed “causal power”.1 That is, phenomena do not cause other phenomena (nor do phenomena cause themselves). This means that if you feel your face itch during zazen, the itch does not “cause” you to scratch. Itchiness may act as a condition for the arising of the impulse of wanting to scratch, but it cannot “make” us scratch. Similarly, our karmic impulses, states of mind, or “seeds” cannot make us do something when they manifest in our consciousness. This can be a powerful lesson when it is applied to working with the precepts.


To give a concrete example, let's take the precept of not intoxicating mind or body of self or others. Usually, this refers to taking intoxicants like alcohol or drugs. However, it can be taken to mean any activity which medicates and insulates us from being present for the moment. It could be shopping, a relationship, watching TV, or tuning out on an iPod. In any case, we turn to a medicating activity because we believe at some level it has the power to alleviate the discomfort or dissatisfaction we are experiencing. When we make a habit or an addiction of this activity, we begin give the activity an increasing amount of power and importance in our lives.


We may begin to believe that the impulse to act out in this way has some “causal power” to compel us to do something, or it appears to have a “life of its own”, and that we have no power over its arising or decay. This is one way to practise with the passage in the Heart Sutra which reads:


all dharmas are marked with emptiness: they do not appear nor disappear, are not tainted nor pure, do not increase nor decrease


Of course, phenomena like urges to act out come and go (at a conventional level), but it is a mistake to assume that the urge has its own inherent power of arising. The arising of an urge is empty of a causal power of “inherent arising”. Rather, it is simply a dependent phenomena. The precepts remind and guide us to reaffirm the truth of no this no inherent arising. With the precepts we can stay in the experiential truth of an urge just being an urge, a dependent, transitory sensation. It doesn't have to mean anything like an imperative to act out.


There is a deep relationship between emptiness and dependent arising or the law of cause and effect. It was our Zen Ancestor Nagarjuna who highlighted the equivalence of emptiness and dependent arising. Phenomena which arise dependently are empty [of a substantial, inherent existence] and are thereby dependent on conditions and causes. Conversely, if we assert, even unconsciously, the inherent existence of phenomena, the consequence of this is that we deny, and become blind to, the dependent nature of phenomena as well as the law of cause and effect.2


Dogen placed great importance on cause and effect. Dogen, in fact, devotes a fascicle in the Shobogenzo to this topic (Shinjin Inga (Deep Faith in Cause and Effect)). In this fascicle he writes referring to those practitioners who have ignored or misunderstood cause and effect,


It is pitiful that these fellows, without clarifying cause and effect, have uselessly idled away a lifetime in a state of confusion. In learning in practice the Buddha-Dharma, the first priority is to clarify cause and effect. Those who negate cause and effect are likely to beget the false view that craves profit, and to become a cutter of good roots.3


Notice that Dogen points out that in both learning and practising the Buddha-Dharma, the first priority is to clarify cause and effect. As Dogen-zenji teaches the oneness of practice and realization, having deep faith in cause and effect means practising or manifesting directly deep faith in cause and effect. You can't have real faith without practice and you can't have real practice without faith. In the Extensive Record of Dogen (Eihei Koroku), Dogen writes, “Students of the way cannot dismiss cause and effect. If you discard cause and effect, you will ultimately deviate from practice-realization.”4 Being intimate with the precepts is being fully in the stream of cause and effect and is necessary for effective practice.


Many people who are new to Zen have the opinion that sitting zazen is the “main thing” in Zen and that that ethical practice of using the precepts is somehow secondary. Another common view is that Zen is “beyond good and evil” and that ethical practice is not necessary or even counterproductive because such ethical considerations are mired in dualism and delusion. While it is good to start sitting zazen for any reason which resonates with us, eventually, as we continue to practise, we may find the need to acknowledge that these views deny cause and effect. In Soto Zen, the precepts are not a set of rules to follow, imposed from “the outside.” Rather, they are recognized as the profound practice of a bodhisattva and hence in Soto Zen we receive the Bodhisattva Precepts. In Soto Zen, both priest ordained and lay people take the same precepts, which is different from other forms of Buddhism. In Soto Zen there is the teaching that the desire to practise the Bodhisattva Precepts arises naturally when someone awakens to the reality of dependent arising or emptiness. To actualize Zen practice in our lives outside of formal zazen practice, the precepts are an equally important component in actualizing Buddha. Thank-you.

Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2017

1Garfield, J. L. Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross Cultural Interpretation, pp. 24-45.

2Garfield, J. L., Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, p.69, XXIV:16-18:

If you perceive the existence of all things

In terms of their essence,

Then this perception of all things

Will be without the perception of causes and



Effects and causes

And agent and action

And conditions and arising and ceasing

And effects will be rendered impossible.


Whatever is dependently co-arisen

That is explained to be emptiness.

That, being a dependent designation,

Is itself the middle way.

3Nishijima, Gudo & Cross, Chodo Master Dogen's Shobogenzo Book 4, p. 194. The term “cutter of good roots” refers to icchantika – one who pursues desires to the end and has no wish to attain buddhahood.

4Dogen's Extensive Record, Dharma Hall Discourse 510, translated by Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, p. 454