Raven 118: The Moral Basis

Dogen (1200-1253), selecting from earlier sources, instituted the 16 Precepts of Zen: three Refuges, three Pure Precepts, and ten Grave Precepts. The Refuges and the first five Grave Precepts constitute the "Eight Streams of Merit" (Theravada Scripture, Angutarra Nikaya 8.39) common to all branches of Buddhism. The Brahmajala ("Brahma Net") Sutra -- a Mahayana text dating back at least to the 5th century CE -- includes the five Angutarra Nikaya precepts and adds five more to make ten Grave Precepts. The Pure Precepts also come from the Brahmajala Sutra. The 16 precepts are:

Three Refuges:
  • Take refuge in the Buddha
  • Take refuge in the Dharma
  • Take refuge in the Sangha
Three Pure Precepts:
  • Do not create Evil
  • Cultivate Good
  • Benefit Others
Ten Grave Precepts:
  • Respect life – Do not kill
  • Be giving – Do not steal
  • Honor the body – Do not misuse sexuality
  • Manifest truth – Do not lie
  • Proceed clearly – Do not cloud the mind
  • See the perfection – Do not broadcast others' misdeeds or faults
  • Realize self and others as one – Do not praise yourself by comparison with others
  • Give generously – Do not withhold
  • Actualize harmony – Do not vent anger
  • Experience the intimacy of things – Do not defile the Three Treasures
Zen has these precepts, and others (e.g. "The Four Bodhisattva Vows"). A precept is:
"1. a commandment or direction given as a rule of action or conduct. 2. an injunction as to moral conduct; maxim. 3. a procedural directive or rule, as for the performance of some technical operation" (Random House Unabridged Dictionary).
So Zen's precepts articulate the moral component of Zen.

A moral component isn't the same as a moral basis. The basis of Zen is direct experience of oneness, nonseparation, and impermanence. Precepts are upaya ("skillful means") -- tools for our practice.

Some questions for exploring the case below:
1. When Porcupine says, "empty," do you interpret him as agreeing with Raven (that Zen is empty of any moral basis)? Or is he disagreeing with Raven's answer, calling it empty?
2. Relatedly, if Magpie wouldn't say, "empty," do you think that's because Magpie believes Zen does have a moral basis? Or, rather, would it be because Magpie wouldn't see Raven's "none whatsoever" as empty?

Porcupine came by for another special meeting with Raven and asked, "Does Zen have a moral basis?"
Raven said, "None whatsoever."
Porcupine exclaimed, "Empty! Empty!"
Raven said, "That's not what Magpie would say."
Porcupine bowed down and touched his face to the ground.
Raven asked, "Why do you bow?"
Porcupine said, "Magpie is bowing."
Raven put her beak to his ear and said, "See me after the talk tonight."
The mountain pass is unexpectedly steep and icy.
Or maybe the car keys aren't where I was sure I left them.
Certain people are such blind fools.
The demands of the day surpass reasonableness.
This is me, bowing --
Bowing gratefully to the difficulty.
Case adapted from Robert Aitken; introduction and verse by Meredith Garmon

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