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Taigen Leighton
Mountain Source Sangha – January 5, 2002

This afternoon we are going to do a ceremony for receiving the precepts, jukai in Japanese. According to the saying attributed to Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Zen in China, Zen is, “Direct pointing to the mind, beyond words and letters.” Often it is thought of as beyond forms, and about not getting caught up in forms. Yet we are going to be involved with a lot of forms today. I want to discuss what this means in the twenty-first century, here on California Street. I was given this question by a friend who lives in Kyoto, Japan. I wrote to him that we were going to do this ceremony, and he had some interesting responses. He has done some Zen practice, though now he mostly practices playing shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. He spent one summer at Tassajara, but he knows about Buddhism from Japan where he has lived for twenty years or so.

I will read a little bit of what he said. He is talking about his difficulty with all of the forms of Japanese society, not just in Zen or Japanese spiritual practice, but even in his music training. He says, “My point is not to be bitter or belittle, but rather to suggest that American, or rather Western Buddhism stress the Buddhist content or quality, and avoid the attachments to forms which tend to be Japanese, and will unavoidably, I’m afraid, always have an element of illegitimacy to them outside of these islands. What Buddhism needs in the West, or in English, is a kind of immaculate conception, a clean rebirth, without residual taint or perverted antecedents.”

I know some of you have some feelings like that: What are we doing with all these funny Japanese customs? And parts of what we do, in fact originated in Japan. Parts of them are just Buddhist. We might say they are Asian Buddhism and we should get rid of them in America. I partly agree, and partly disagree with my friend Preston. He also says, “The importance of Zen for me is that, like music, it has become anti-, or non-discursive. There’s nothing to say about it any longer. It’s got the swing, as Louis Armstrong used to say. Zen has transcended the Word (which was once with God) and for me that’s great news. The main texts, like the Heart Sutra, say, ‘Enough already.’ All that’s left now is breath, which expresses without language. Of course, ancient Zen heads have been telling us that for years.”

That’s true, ultimately. Prajnatara, the Indian teacher who in our lineage is considered to be the teacher of Bodhidharma, was once asked by a king, “Why don’t you recite Sutras?” And he responded that with every inhale are a hundred thousand sutras, with every exhale are a hundred thousand sutras. Actually, the way he said it was, “This poor wayfarer doesn’t dwell in the realms of the body or mind when inhaling, doesn’t get involved in myriad circumstances when exhaling. I always reiterate hundreds and thousands of such sutras.” So in a way, the Zen scripture is just about silence, and letting go. Our breath teaches us all we need to know. Sitting upright in the middle of our life, it is all right there. All the forms, all the discourses, are just commentaries on silence. It is true that, out of our own silence and breath, we have this wonderful opportunity in America to bring some freshness to Buddhism and to Zen practice.

Yet we also have these traditional forms, even if what we have to impart to each other, to share, discover, and express in our own body and mind is fundamentally silent and goes beyond words. All of these forms, customs, and practices are a kind of language to express what goes beyond language.

When I started doing the Mountain Source Sangha, these sitting groups here in San Francisco, and in San Rafael and Bolinas, it was partly to have a more informal practice place, because going to (San Francisco) Zen Center felt kind of intimidating to many people. They seem to have various strange forms and trappings there, and many of you wanted to just practice without all that. Just sitting zazen and inquiring together about the meaning of Dharma is enough. So why are we doing this fancy ceremony today?

It is important that we keep that informal feeling, so that anyone who wants can just come to our meditation events and just sit. You do not have to know how to follow forms and rituals. That is actually the idea at Zen Center too, but it kind of gets lost because it is so big. But what Preston is talking about in Japanese Buddhism is much, much more formal even than Zen Center. Adrian is with us today, and is going back tomorrow to continue being a resident at Tassajara, which is certainly one of the most formal kinds of practice and ceremony situations in American Zen. But even the Tassajara ceremonial forms are nothing compared to the much longer ceremonies done in Japanese temples and monasteries. Even if we were to follow all of those ceremonial forms as perfectly and wholeheartedly as we possibly could, we would not be Japanese. Don’t worry about it. The forms we do will be American, because we are American.

I want to talk about the meaning of the different elements in this ceremony we are doing this afternoon for the people who are taking refuge. Of course we do this together, so essentially we are all doing the ceremony, whether you are actually one of the direct participants or not. It is important to look at what this means to us in California in 2002. One thing that is really wonderful about Buddhism in America is that there are all kinds of different styles from Asia. There are very good teachers from the Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, Burmese, and Thai traditions, many different flavors. It can be very confusing, but it is also a wonderful opportunity.

We do not have to worry about creating an “American” form. That will happen naturally over time. These traditional forms are expressions of practice over centuries and centuries, so naturally they evolve. But people are also experimenting, trying many different things. That is healthy. There is a highly respected American Zen teacher who never mentions the word Buddha. Basically, her practice is zazen, but she never uses that word, and there are no Buddha statues. She is very bright and insightful. But that is still one kind of form. There is also a highly respected American teacher in a Tibetan lineage who has an office in Los Angeles. Maybe he has a Buddha somewhere in his office, I don’t know. But there are none of the trappings or robes or anything. It is more like a therapist’s office, and people go in and sit on the couch and talk with him. That is another kind of form. These are the forms of no-form. But whatever we do, there is some form, always. We cannot avoid it. So the point is, how do we find our own way as people in California in 2002 to play with these forms and express them, and use them as a language to find something about the reality of our own practice and dharma?

There is one modern branch of the Soto Zen tradition that just focuses strictly on zazen. But another branch very much focuses on attention to forms. It is not about the particular content of the forms how you bow, or what direction you’re facing. There are all kinds of detailed intricacies in the formal eating practice, such as whether you pick up the spoon or the chopstick first. But just to pay attention to the details of the form, and to perform each action beautifully, wholeheartedly, with great care, is part of Soto Zen. We sit upright in zazen, and express our inner dignity through this mudra, or posture of upright sitting. Dogen is said to have claimed that dignified manner is itself the whole of the Buddha dharma. Taking care of some form is how we express our fundamental connection with Buddha, our fundamental dignity and integrity and wholeness. How we find it in ourselves, and allow it to express itself in our body and mind is one aspect of these forms.

The forms we are going to do this afternoon, taking refuge and taking precepts, appear in most of Buddhism. In Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism as well as Zen they take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This basic practice is in many different branches of Buddhism. It is not that people who do this are better practitioners than people who do not. Some American Zen people believe that all of these robes and accessories produce a kind of hierarchy and division. If so that is a problem, but this ceremony is really about finding our own way to express something very deep. But I know very fine long-term Zen practitioners who, as a form, do not take refuge, and have their own particular style. That may be all right too.

The householder ordination ceremony we will perform this afternoon is called Zaike tokudo in Japanese. Zaike means householder, or person in the world. Tokudo means attaining the way. To do this ceremony in some sense is to attain the way, to accomplish the way. In our lineage we receive the same sixteen precepts, and do close to the same ceremony, whether it is for householder or priest ordination. In the Japanese lineages we are lay priests, not monks as in the Theravada, or Chinese and Tibetan lineages. The same ceremony happens during Dharma transmission, and for head monks of practice periods, like at Tassajara or Green Gulch. So there may be different levels, but actually it is the same ceremony of taking refuge and precepts. For weddings and funerals it is also basically the same ceremony.

Maybe most of you know that Zen is kind of boring. We just do the same ceremonies over and over. Maybe you believe there is a difference from one period of zazen to another. But on some level it is just this same thing, whether you are sitting in a chair, kneeling, or sitting cross-legged, just being there, and upright. And yet this steady “boring” persistent presence connects to something deep, and wonderful. This ceremony is a way of expressing and celebrating our gratitude for that; a way of sharing our joy in this practice we do together.

One of the first parts of the taking refuge ceremony is receiving a dharma name. My dharma name is Taigen Shizan, which I received from my teacher, Reb Anderson. It means Ultimate Source; Smooth Mountain. It has been a wonderful koan for me. What does this mean that it is my name? These names have something to do with how we are as spiritual beings, what our practice is, and also what our practice can be. There are particular traditions about how we generate these names. I have enjoyed giving the names for the ceremony today (with good help from a few people), including considering the Japanese characters and their sounds. For my name Smooth Mountain, “smooth” is also a verb, meaning to polish the mountain. This is a challenging practice, and takes a long time. There are still rough edges, and probably always will be. It is interesting to see yourself grow into the name, and see different aspects of the name over time.

Then there is receiving Buddha’s robe. Each of these four people today have sewed a rakusu. And this larger okesa, or monk’s robe, I sewed myself as well. The smaller rakusus are basically the same form as this larger okesa. There is a symbolism to them. They are patch-robes, originally in India made from patches of discarded cloth. They would take cloth that was used to wrap bodies in the charnel ground, for example, and dye them one color. Patched together they look like a rice paddy to Asian people. The point is that the robe represents the simplicity of our life, just patching things together. Such robes are worn by monks in all of Asian Buddhism. You can see little differences in the Tibetan robes, or the Korean, Japanese, or Thai robes, but the similarities are very clear. For example, the monks’ robes are always worn over the left shoulder. I guess in China or Japan they started wearing these smaller symbolic robes, called rakusu in Japanese. Although they are supposed to represent simplicity, maybe one symptom of what Preston is reacting against in Japanese Buddhism is that you can go to priest stores in Japan and get very elegant, fancy brocade robes; both for rakusus and the bigger okesas with beautiful pictures of dragons, clouds, and so forth on them. It’s really funny, because the original point of these robes was just simplicity.

There is a story about Ikkyu and robes. He was one of the great figures of Japanese Buddhism, a Rinzai master who lived in the fifteenth century and was famed for being wild and outrageous. He is still beloved in Japan for his straightforward honesty. He eventually became abbot of Daitokuji, a great Rinzai Monastery in Kyoto, but he proclaimed that his practice was hanging out in brothels and drinking in taverns. He was a total scandal. Ikkyu once went on begging rounds to some wealthy patron’s house wearing ragged clothes, and they had the servants throw mud on him and kick him out. Later these same people were having a benefit feast for noted priests and he received an invitation. He went wearing his most elegant robes, and of course they invited him in, bowed down to him, and wanted to give him many fancy delicacies. So he just took off his robes and put them on a post and said, “Why don’t you bow to the robes, not me. You don’t care about me, you just care about these robes.” And he walked out. So again, these robes are practice forms, and we have to examine how we treat them, and whether or not we use them as expressions of the real teaching.

I first received householder or lay ordination more than twenty-five years ago in New York with a fine Japanese Soto teacher, Rev. Kando Nakajima. That first rakusu, store-bought from Japan, was brown. We did not yet have the practice of sewing them ourselves. When I came to San Francisco Zen Center a few years later they had this color code, common to a lot of Soto Zen, with blue for laypeople, black for priests, and brown for people who have received Dharma transmission. When I arrived at San Francisco Zen Center Baker Roshi was abbot, and he was the only person who was supposed to have a brown robe then. Not knowing any better, I just wore my rakusu. It took him a year to get me to take it off (although he never asked directly). Eventually I received a blue rakusu from Reb, then a black rakusu when I became a priest, and an “official” brown rakusu two years ago. I have sewed three of them. Now that I have Dharma transmission I can wear my first lay rakusu again, which I do sometimes. Fortunately, there are numbers of people with Dharma transmission at Zen Center now.

We use these robes, and all of these forms, as a way of expressing and supporting our practice. But it is important not to be caught in attachment to the forms, or to use them to enhance some idea of rank or status. Attachment to ritual is considered one of the five hindrances. So there is a subtle dance as to how to use these forms without being caught by them. We should use the forms as a language to express our deep appreciation and gratitude for the teaching, for the people who have passed that down to us, and for the possibility of actually just sitting upright and meeting our lives.

The next part of the ceremony after the robes is receiving the precepts. The sixteen bodhisattva precepts all come forth from taking refuge in Buddha, and then taking refuge in Dharma and Sangha. This means directing ourselves to Buddha. These precepts are not commandments or rules, but guidelines or tools to use as supports for practice. For me it was very helpful to take refuge and receive these precepts. But just to hear about them is also supportive. Just be aware in your life that: a disciple of the Buddha does not kill; a disciple of the Buddha does not take what is not given; a disciple of the Buddha does not misuse sexuality; a disciple of the Buddha does not lie; a disciple of the Buddha does not intoxicate mind or body of self or others; a disciple of the Buddha does not slander; a disciple of the Buddha does not praise self at the expense of others; a disciple of the Buddha is not possessive of anything; a disciple of the Buddha does not harbor ill will; a disciple of the Buddha does not disparage the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

These are not rules, but descriptions of our true awakened nature. They are guidelines to help us express in the world how we are, most fully, when we direct ourselves toward buddha. On one level we understand the precepts in terms of conventional ethics and morality. It is vitally important to pay attention to them in that sense. But each precept also has many levels. “A disciple of the Buddha does not kill” also means that a disciple of the Buddha encourages life and vitality, for oneself and for others. One modern American version of the precepts by the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh elaborates the ten into fourteen precepts. He talks about not killing in terms of our responsibility to discourage killing in the world, including warfare and the development and sale of weaponry. The practice of precepts is to see how they are not simple instructions or solutions, but complex koans to help us keep returning to Buddha. We try to encourage life, vitality, energy in ourselves and in others. We try not to hurt life. This is actually how we are when we are expressing our innermost buddhaful self.

All of these precepts are ways of attuning ourselves, finding our center, our upright posture. While sitting in zazen we sometimes lean forward, sometimes lean back, or to the left, or right. In zazen we continuously keep bringing ourselves back to what is our center. What is our upright, alive, energetic, calm, still, body of Buddha, right now, right here? In the same way, the precepts are guides in posture. Sometimes they are most helpful when we feel that we have broken one. Was that the truth I was telling? Maybe that was not quite the truth, but I actually needed to say it to not hurt somebody’s feelings. Maybe that was more fully the precept, even if it was not fully the truth. But am I telling the truth to myself when I think that? We do not have to be neurotic about the precepts, and constantly ponder if we are right or wrong in doing them. They are simply questions and reminders to help us see our true direction.

The next part of the ceremony has to do with lineage. The people taking refuge today will all receive lineage papers, called kechimyaku, literally “Blood Vein.” This document has Shakyamuni Buddha’s name at the top, and then all the teachers traditionally considered the ancestors of Zen in India. Modern scholars have proven that these are not accurate historically. But they are great Indian teachers who the Chinese imagined were the lineage of personal teaching. And even if we no longer know their true names, the teaching and practice somehow survived thanks to teachers and students in every generation. The diagram continues to Bodhidharma and the Sixth Ancestor in China, and then through various Chinese teachers to Dogen, and various Japanese teachers to Suzuki Roshi. And then at the bottom is my teacher and then my name, and after my name on the bottom is the new Dharma name of each person who is taking the precepts today. From below their name continues the red line, the blood vein that runs through each name, back up to the top to Shakyamuni Buddha. This is because each of you, right now, is exactly the person who is keeping Shakyamuni alive.

This is a living tradition. This is the point of what Preston was saying about not getting caught in mere Japanese formalities. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I am talking about this today so that you will have some sense of the meaning of this ceremony. If it is only some antiquated, mysterious hocus-pocus Japanese form, then we should not do it. We perform these ceremonies, these prostrations, or chants, and we wear rakusus or okesas if that fits for us personally, as a way of expressing something of the depths of our experience when we are sitting zazen.

We can create new forms too, hold Dharma picnics if we like. But the traditional forms have been kept alive for a long time. We do not know when they actually started doing it exactly this way, but they have evolved over many centuries. We receive the forms from the tradition, and then it is up to us to see how to use them. I hope that the ceremony this afternoon will be helpful and inspiring to those of you who are participating, but also to those of you who are here to lend your support and witness. It is something that we actually all do together. All of you have helped me to share this with the people who are taking refuge today.