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What are the Bodhisattva Precepts? And other Frequently Asked Questions

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 We’ve been talking about the Bodhisattva Precepts, a set of 10 guidelines that have been passed down for centuries. We’re feeling indebted to our many spiritual friends and dharma guardians who have kept these fresh and living over 2600 years.

But what are the Bodhisattva Precepts? Are they like the Ten Commandments? If I take them, do I have to get rid of my leather shoes? If I take a dharma name, does it replace my given name? And if I wanted to, how do I participate in a ceremony to receive the Precepts and a dharma name?

Here’s a few answers to some of your questions! What else are you curious about? What other info do you have to share about taking the precepts from our varied Buddhist lineages?

The Ten Bodhisattva Precepts

Frequently Asked Questions about the Bodhisattva Precepts

by Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda

All opinions expressed below are Mushim’s and no one else’s. You may get different answers if you ask these questions of different people.

Are the precepts rules or commandments?

No. They are time-tested guidelines that we continually investigate through our contemplation and spiritual aspirations and experience. They lead to spiritual liberation and point in the direction of a more peaceful, harmonious, and courageous life.

Is receiving the precepts and a Dharma name a form of ordination?

You may hear receiving the precepts referred to as “lay ordination” in some Buddhist groups. I prefer not to use that term because it can create confusion and division. Receiving the precepts does not mean you are ordaining as religious clergy, either lay or monastic. It does signify that you commit to living an intentionally spiritual life, to reducing harm, and to trying to pitch in and help as much as you can. Buddhist bhikkhus/bhikshus (monks) and bhikkhunis/bhikshunis (nuns) receive several hundred precepts.

If you receive the precepts and a Dharma name, please do not use this to separate yourself from others or to feel that this makes you special or more spiritual. It does not. In fact, the Dharma name is meant to remind us that we can live as a manifestation of universal self, or nonself (anatta, anatman). My Dharma name, Mushim (romanized originally as “Musim”), is a Zen term that can be translated as “no heartmind.” It comes from the line in the Heart of Wisdom Sutra that states: “No eyes no ears no nose no tongue no body no mind.” Maybe I would feel more proud of myself if I had a name like “Shining Golden Wisdom Wind,” but, in fact, I was given the name No Mind. I am happy to be a part of the Heart Sutra and I hope one day to fulfill my name through my practice. When we become our Dharma name we become a universal citizen, free to go anywhere and at home anywhere we go.

Is drinking a beer or glass of wine a breaking of the precept about intoxicants?

 Intoxication means that our mind becomes clouded and our better judgment may become obscured to a greater or lesser extent. There are many forms of intoxicants, including certain ideas and emotions.

Any form of intoxication which leads us to harm self or others or the environment is something we can look at more deeply, assess the effects and consequences, and make a decision about how we will behave in the future. What do we need to do in body, speech and mind to cherish all life?

We investigate the effect of intoxicants on ourself and then we make decisions about what to do and what not to do. It’s pretty simple. Something you may wish to practice is to be alert to noting how you feel when you are rested, you haven’t ingested any stimulants or depressants, you feel calm and yet observant and tuned-in, and you are open to seeing what is good and what produces happiness and contentment for you and others in the present moment. These may be only fleeting moments at first, but use your mindfulness to catch them. Experience the “flavor” of a state of clarity of mind that does not depend on excitement to be productive and enjoyable.

How about eating meat or fish, wearing leather, etc.?

here is diversity of view and practice on this point, worldwide, among Buddhists, both lay and monastic. In some Buddhist cultures, laypersons practice being vegetarian on new moon and full moon days. Some Buddhist monasteries are always vegetarian or vegan, while others are not. Some monastics are prohibited from wearing leather shoes and leather garments. What people eat is tied closely to culture and tradition as well as nutritional needs, which vary.

As far as I know, the one rule that is hard and fast is that monastics cannot eat meat from an animal that was killed expressly in order to be served to them.

We can refrain from judging others’ cultures and traditions and nutritional needs while at the same time looking at ways in which we can decrease harm and cherish life through what we eat and wear and, for that matter, all of the manufactured and harvested products we use daily or occasionally.

If this is all about me and changes I might make in my life rather than telling someone else what to do, do the Precepts ignore issues of social justice and systemic change?

Not at all. There are many socially engaged and social justice Buddhist groups and initiatives, worldwide. Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to Buddhist-based social action. My own rule of thumb is that if I think something is useful and good, I try to share it with others (if they want it to be shared with them – always good to ask first!). So, when I was raising a young child, I took everything I was learning about child development, language acquisition, literacy, life skills training, etc. and put this learning to work by volunteering in the Oakland Unified Public Schools. I learned a lot as an OUSD volunteer over eleven years, and I hope I helped some of the kids along the way.

If you’re a social justice activist on the front lines, doing amazing and powerful systemic change work, that’s great! If you’re not, have confidence in the “little things” you are doing to contribute toward a more just and peaceful society and a healthier environment. Don’t become a victim to “comparing mind,” thinking you should be doing something more or something different if you are doing your best.

What happens if I break a precept?

According to the law of karma, which simply means causes and conditions and consequences or effects, if you have caused harm you have the choice to be responsible for addressing that harm or to go into denial or try to run away from the consequences. This is not a judgment about being in denial. A Dharma friend of mine began to experience severe and chronic pain due to an irreversible medical condition which led to them being unable to do their job or to sit or stand. This was so shocking and horrible that this person went into a period of denial. Looking back, they said that denial protected them until they could adjust to the new reality and start to deal with it. We don’t need to judge whether anyone else is keeping or breaking the precepts. We practice self-focus, and we practice self-forgiveness. We fall down and we get up. We go on and hopefully we start to gain some wisdom and spiritual maturity along the way. This is not an easy, hygienic process. It is organic and funky. And that’s okay.

The classical language says that all beings are owners of their own karma. When you take responsibility for the consequences of your actions of body, speech and mind, you take responsibility for the karma you create.

If I break a precept, do I have to report it to the Teacher or Teachers who administered the precepts to me?

No. This is all about you, not anyone else.

How do you define “misusing sexuality”?

Causing harm to ourself or others through our sexuality.

After I receive a Dharma name, do I have to use it all the time instead of the name I currently use for myself?


However, it may be a useful spiritual exercise to look at the ways in which you may be attached to your current name. There is a reason why, in many spiritual traditions, rites of passage such as various levels of ordination may be accompanied by a change in name.

In the Buddhist point of view, we are continually experiencing rebirth, always changing. Receiving a Dharma name shines a light on the transformation of our karma (the reasons why we were given our legal name at birth, the causes and conditions that led to our family name and our family of origin historical circumstances, etc.) into Dharma (penetrating wisdom, great compassion).

How can I abstain from clinging to anything, even the Dharma?

That’s a good question. Investigate it through living your life and studying what happens when you hold on tightly to concepts, ideas, beliefs, and values to the extent that you may invalidate, be ignorant of, or even aggressively attack others’ concepts, ideas, beliefs and values.

Not clinging to the Dharma or the precepts doesn’t mean saying, “Oh well, anything goes. It doesn’t matter what I do or think or say. After all, everything is intrinsically empty. I’m not clinging to anything.” That is a misunderstanding of this precept.

Of course we need stars to steer by, and we do have positive values that guide our choices and to which we want our actions to align. The precept about not clinging asks us to examine closely how we may fixate on anything, even something that is “good,” and, as Bhante Henepola Gunaratana said in his description of mindfulness, then through our fixation unintentionally segregate that thing from the rest of existence. When we don’t cling, we flow. The challenge is usually to learn how to flow more with things and emotions and people and situations that we find difficult and unpleasant or terrifying or boring. It can be helpful to remember that, according to the law of impermanence (anitya, anicca), everything changes. Sometimes we like it, sometimes we don’t like it, but regardless of our like or dislike (or not knowing), everything changes. As is said in California, go with the flow.

Are there different translations and interpretations of these Ten Bodhisattva Precepts?

Yes. We do not need to judge any other Buddhist group’s way of writing down the precepts or interpreting how to keep them. This is an expression of diversity.

What is the most important Precept?

The first one. All the precepts flow from the first precept and flow back into the first precept.

If I don’t want to receive the Precepts on Dec. 2, will there be another opportunity?

Most Buddhist groups will administer the precepts. You may call various temples and centers and inquire about their requirements. December 2, 2012 will be the first time that the Bodhisattva Precepts are administered at East Bay Meditation Center but will probably not be the last time.

Can I receive the Precepts more than once?

Yes. It is beneficial to receive the precepts with our Dharma friends and other invitees witnessing our commitment. You also can administer the precepts to yourself, anytime and anywhere. Make a wallet card and carry it with you!