December 3, 2017 was a very auspicious day for me. I will remember it as the day that I finally became a “real” Buddhist, never mind that I have been doing some of the work on my own for over a decade.
What do I mean that I became a “real” Buddhist? I mean, I had previously spoken the formula for taking refuge, only alone and in the privacy of my own home. It’s kind of hard to take refuge in the sangha with little or nothing in the way of sangha, so for the longest time, I dealt with imposter syndrome… I claimed it, but I didn’t feel it.
As a member of the Korinji Rinzai Zen Monastery community, I learned of the upcoming opportunity to take jukai, or lay precepts, ceremony in December 2017. Had I not been so excited about finally having an opportunity to take refuge in a sangha (community of Buddhists), I would have realized that this was to be done as part of zazenkai, a meditation retreat, but I digress. More on that later.
Taking refuge is roughly equivalent to conversion, in that by participating in the ceremony you publicly avow yourself to be a follower of the traditions. Jukai, though, is more than just saying “I’m a Buddhist now” it also includes taking a vow to live by a set of guidelines or precepts. These are similar to the 10 Commandments for Christianity, the 613 Mitzvot for Jews, or the Noble Instructions and Five Pillars of Islam. In Buddhism, there are several different sets of precepts or vows, each with it’s own context and intent.
The jukai that I participated in included the 5 Lay Precepts, since this was for the community, not the priesthood. Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism’s precepts are not enforced by a divine power, but rather they are incumbent on the individual to keep them. It’s all on “you” to do. Fortunately, the precepts are not hard and fast rules, but rather guidelines. When taking Precepts, the individual (at least the lay individual, not sure about the monastic precepts) is free to skip any of them if they wish.
The Precepts are not hard and fast required rules. They are specifically stated to be guidelines that should adapt and bend to circumstance as necessary. Its up to the layperson taking the precepts how to interpret them and how to abide by them. Also, there is no chance for absolution if you break the precepts. You’re a grownup, you knew what the rules were, and you have no choice but to deal with the consequences of your own actions.
The Five Lay Precepts:
From now until the end of my life, I take…
- Fusessho Kai (不殺生戒): the precept to not kill another human
- Fuchuto Kai (不偸盗戒): the precept to not steal
- Fujain Kai (不邪婬戒): the precept to not engage in sexual conduct
- Fumogo Kai (不妄語戒): the precept to not lie
- Fuonju Kai (不飲酒戒): the precept to not take intoxicants
Now, about the zazenkai that I didn’t realize I was signing up for. Zazenkai is a short retreat in which a period of time (In this case, about 4 hours) is dedicated to concentrated zazen (seated meditation). Prior to this, my longest solo session of zazen clocked in at about 30 minutes, and that was HARD. Alone, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and towards the end of my occasional 30 minute sessions, my “monkey mind” was like a toddler hyped up on sugar and puppies: All over the place and not making any apparent sense.
Anyway, I walked into the building with no “knowledge” and no real frame of reference. I felt awkward because I didn’t know the protocols, etc, so I hung back and watched as things got set up. Meido Roshi (the abbot of Korinji), we were told, was running late and we would start without him being present. Everyone took a seat on a set of cushions, incense was lit, the clappers were struck, and meditation began.
For me, though, this time was entirely different from what I had experienced on my own. This time, instead of being filled with doubts (“Am I doing this right? Am I messing things up? Why am I even doing this at all?” etc), my mind was calm. I counted my breaths, acknowledged stray thoughts, and calmly let them pass away peacefully. The difference of training with a community is vastly different from training solo and unguided.
We completed the first meditation and the leader had us stand and perform some stretches to work the kinks out. You’d be surprised how physically demanding it is to sit still for an extended length of time. After a couple of minutes, she called us back into focus and seated. More incense was lit, the clappers were struck, and we began a second session. This time, I was much more relaxed and at ease. I was able to watch my breaths more easily, as well as being less distracted than I was in the first sit. Before I knew it, the bell was struck and we were given a short break, with an admonition “No talking!” but to stretch, walk around, get a drink and use the facilities as needed.
By this time, Roshi had arrived, in full regalia. I had never seen a Buddhist monk up close and in person before, but I had seen pictures of Zen monastic robes before. It was interesting to see how they flowed as he moved around.
Soon, we were called back to the zendo, or meditation room, to resume our positions and have the final meditation session. Breaths were counted, thoughts passed by, I discovered how much easier it is to sit when you fully relax your shoulders (I had ben hunching them up unconsciously). At some point, I realized that most of my awareness of the outside world had faded into the background and all that was left was the breath. In, brief pause, out, (1), brief pause. In, brief pause out (2) brief pause, over and over until I reached 10, then starting at 1 again. Until the bell was rung, eyes were opened, and we were given another brief break to stand and stretch.
Once we were refreshed and stretched out, the jukai ceremony was held. I believe it was a full 11 of us who took precepts together, and there was a little bit of teasing and joking from Roshi before we got down to business. Some instructions were given, chants were chanted, words were recited, and we were all presented with our 戒名 (kaimyō) or precept name. It was explained to us that the precept name could be used or not, as we each see fit, and was intended to be either a reminder or challenge (again, as we each see fit) to guide our practice.
The kaimyō that I was given means “correct mind” but, as Roshi explained, is much more than just what the English words mean. I have a lot to live up to.