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Waking up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion

Waking up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion

by Diane Eshin Rizzetto, Charlotte Joko Beck (Foreword by)

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The practice of the Zen precepts can transform our relationship to the world by leading us to a keen awareness of the motivations behind every aspect of our behavior, allowing us to act from the kindness and insight that is our true nature. The precepts are usually thought of as Buddhist moral guidelines—which they indeed are—but they are also far more than


The practice of the Zen precepts can transform our relationship to the world by leading us to a keen awareness of the motivations behind every aspect of our behavior, allowing us to act from the kindness and insight that is our true nature. The precepts are usually thought of as Buddhist moral guidelines—which they indeed are—but they are also far more than that, as Diane Rizzetto shows. They are a form of Buddhist practice that does not necessarily involve meditation. Anyone can do this practice, and it is rich enough to be worked with for a lifetime.

The precepts are traditionally phrased in short statements such as: "I take up the way of speaking truthfully," or "I take up the way of using sexual energy wisely." But Diane encourages us to rephrase them in ways that have personal meaning for us. She advises us to take them on one at a time, beginning with one that has particular personal resonance. The practice then becomes learning to live with the precept until it naturally arises in situations where it applies. We soon learn that the precepts are just about always impossible to fulfill, and that their true function is to teach mindfulness—particularly of our actions and of our interactions with others.

The precepts are ultimately a practice about choice, Diane teaches, about responsibility and being awake to the motivation and consequences of our actions. We all must engage in events as they unfold in our lives, but we have a choice to do this with either intelligence or ignorance. The Zen precepts as presented in this book are guidelines to help us tap the intelligence within.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rizzetto, abbess of the Bay Zen Center in Oakland, Calif., offers a compelling and highly accessible set of teachings on the Buddhist precepts, "guidelines" to everyday thoughts and behaviors that "prod us to wake up and see clearly the reality of... every situation." The first part of the book presents a clear overview of how to actually work with the precepts, as well as some fundamental Buddhist teachings on the illusion of the self and the advantages of resting in the "full experience" of life "just as it is." The bulk of the book is then given to discussions of the precepts themselves, which Rizzetto presents as aspirations rather than prohibitions: "I take up the way of speaking truthfully" instead of the traditional "not lying," for example. Other precepts include cultivating a clear mind and letting go of anger. Rizzetto's discussions are intelligent and compassionate, practical and engaging: while giving pragmatic suggestions, she persistently affirms that the precepts are not about following "some outward moral authority," but rather about engaging "the power of awareness so that we can see more clearly what deeply held beliefs are behind our actions"-a liberating invitation for anyone wanting to break open their usual "reactive thinking" and instead "find real freedom to engage life." (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Rizzetto is the abbess of the Bay Zen Center in Oakland, CA, and, according to the book's publicity, a "dharma heir" to Charlotte Joko Beck, who has contributed a foreword. Religious publishing has proved itself capable of steadily producing translations and interpretations of ancient Buddhist classics, as well as beginners' guides to Buddhist practice and its meaning. The distinctive charm of Rizzetto's book is that she not so much explains Buddhism as applies its precepts to an active, committed, and contemporary life. For Rizzetto, Buddhist awareness implies personal transformation and responsible action. For most collections. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A gem of a book; relevant for all schools of buddhadharma. This work goes well beyond listing and explaining rules to live by. We are given tools of discernment that bring these guidelines to life and make the precepts a far more interesting and creative dharma practice."—Larry Rosenberg, author of Breath by Breath and Living in the Light of Death

"Diane Rizzetto has written a thoughtful, sensitive examination of how to be a genuinely good person in this world. Steering a wise course between recklessness and self-righteousness has never been an easy task in life, and she does a beautiful job guiding that journey."—Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Faith

"A wonderfully honest, wise, and useful book, and an important one, as we find a way to express a spirituality of compassion in our troubled world."—Joan Halifax, Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico

"Waking Up to What You Do , besides being an inviting title, is also an excellent description of what Buddhist practice is fundamentally about. Diane Rizzetto knows this terrain extremely well. She has lived and practiced it her whole life; her methods, insights, and anecdotes invite readers to do the same. This book is about more than just Buddhist precepts. It is a roadmap toward a more awakened and illumined life."—Lewis Richmond, author of Work as a Spiritual Practice

"No aspect of Zen practice is more crucial today than precepts, the bodhisattva mode of expressing compassion and insight in our troubled world. Diane Rizzetto's book provides a good introduction to actual practical engagement in the life of precepts. Her detailed examples from everyday situations clearly demonstrate how to find our own helpful deep awareness."—Taigen Dan Leighton, author of Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression

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Read an Excerpt

Waking Up to What You Do

A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion
By Diane Eshin Rizzetto


Copyright © 2005 Diane Rizzetto
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59030-181-1

Chapter One

What Are the Precepts?

The Buddhist precepts came about originally as rules to govern the community of monks and nuns who gathered together to realize a life not dominated by senses, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. The precepts they followed included very precise instructions for daily encounters-such as not handling money, not eating certain foods, and not touching people of the opposite sex-and were intended to support the monks and nuns in their monastic practice. Later, as Buddhism spread into lay communities, the precepts were broadened to include people who had not undertaken such austere forms of practice. Today, the precepts are also taken by people who live their lives driving the freeways, doing time in prisons, and changing baby diapers. For some, the precepts are viewed as a preliminary step in becoming a Buddhist practitioner. For others they are taken only for the duration of a meditation retreat. In the Zen tradition, taking the precepts is made formal in the ceremony of Jukai, in which a student is initiated as a lay Buddhist practitioner. Jukai is from the Japanese, and means to receive the precepts. The form of the preceptsreflects time, place, and the conditions present, and they vary slightly from tradition to tradition. Nevertheless, their essence remains constant.

A Beacon Light

A precept can be thought of as a beacon of light, much like a lighthouse beacon that warns sailors that they are entering dangerous waters and guides them on course. It can show us the way but also it warns us to Pay Attention! Look! Listen! Sometimes we will change course, other times, if we must reach shore, we will proceed with caution. Say for spine time, you've been considering ways in which you take what is not freely given to you, and one day you're standing in line at the supermarket and notice a twenty-dollar bill on the floor by your foot. You bend over to pick it up, thinking, I can easily take this for myself without anyone noticing. Then you remember the precept I take up the way of taking only what is freely given. The precept signals to watch yourself: Pay Attention! Look! Listen! So instead of pocketing the twenty-dollar bill, you take in the person in front of you as part of the whole picture, and you ask if she's dropped some money. Your action considers and therefore responds to much more-the person who dropped the twenty dollars, their families or friends, and the other people in the line.

The precepts are offered and received as tools to help free us from domination by the ever-changing stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. They mirror and guide us through our strongest desires, our deepest fears, our greatest accomplishments. They turn awareness toward the ebb and flow of our personal physical and psychological experiences. They're like a firm but compassionate hand on the shoulder that points to the unending dance of cause and effect that helps us understand that no result comes about completely independently. The apple I had with lunch came about because of the seed within its core with the design of apple in its genetic structure. Together with the soil, water, and sun, apple comes into shape-round, red, tart, and juicy. How it finds its way into my mouth coines about because of the hand that picked it from the tree, the truck that was driven to the supermarket, and on and on. Can we pinpoint one cause, one effect? We can only know that in every seed there is a fruit and that in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "the end preexists in the means." It would do us well to consider this carefully when we choose to take hurtful action. Used skillfully, the precepts can, pebble by pebble, boulder by boulder, bring down the walls of separation and reveal our connection to loved ones and enemies alike. They reveal our connection to not just people and animals, but to the blade of grass under our foot, the river filled with plastic bottles and chemicals, the delicate sway of ecological balance, our leaders who bring us in and out of war and declare our nations' friends or foes. They reveal the ways in which we fall into vicious cycles of thinking and acting, causing suffering to ourselves and others. They are never intended for us to view these actions as moral defects but rather as the root or source of suffering.

A Sign above the Door

You might also think of a precept as a sign above a door that reads "Enter Here." As I sat silently in front of my office desk after storming out of the kitchen with the sink full of dirty dishes, the sign above my door read I take up the way of letting go of anger. It was an invitation to enter and explore. The Enter Here sign signals a point of entry from which we can begin to explore more deeply our habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. These patterns have been deeply ingrained into our daily lives. The precept invites us to enter and to meet the intention of our actions open and honestly, thus gaining access to some of our most difficult issues. It is not a directive to berate ourselves for our behavior, but to face squarely the consequences of our actions on ourselves and others.

To enter the exploration of a precept can be a scary move for some of us, and we may try to find all types of ways around it, but it helps to take whatever tiny steps we can to meet ourselves squarely. So when we find we've lied about something to cover a mistake we made at work, or we didn't speak up when we could have clarified the truth, the precept of speaking truthfully reminds us that this is our point of entry. This is the doorway through which we must pass if we are to truly know and be at peace with ourselves.

A Riddle

The precepts are also a riddle of sorts, an unsettling question that denies us easy answers. Is it always wrong to lie? How do we live our lives without killing? What happens when the rules fail and the answer isn't clear? There is an old Zen riddle that goes something like this:

You're sitting in the forest when you see a rabbit run by. A moment later, a hunter comes up to you and asks if you've seen a rabbit, if you answer "yes," you will indirectly contribute to the death of rabbit. If you say "no," you break the precept not to lie. What can you do? Most of us figure it would be better to save the rabbit and break the precept about lying. But, what if you see three hungry children following the hunter? Then what would you do?

How do we solve this riddle? How do we solve the question of whose responsibility it is to wash the dishes in the kitchen sink? This riddle is no trick question challenging us to come up with an enigmatic answer. Rather, it intentionally stumps us as a way of challenging our usually prescribed answers about when it's right to do this or that. It places the responsibility for action directly where it belongs-in our ability to see and respond to events and situations with clarity and intelligence.

Should/Should Not

Engaging them skillfully, we find the precepts are tools of discernment encouraging us to take action that arises out of clear seeing. Unlike commandments or rules by which we judge ourselves, they prod us to wake up and see clearly the reality of each and every situation and to take appropriate action accordingly. The precepts can also be described as keys that, if used skillfully, can help us unlock the closets we don't want to open-closets that hold what we don't want to face and closets that hold our deepest potential. They can point us toward exploring the moment when things aren't the way we want them to be. 'They are aspirations that help us take appropriate action. I view the precepts as tools that help us turn inward, unlocking our deepest human capacity for love, empathy, fairness, and joy. These are traits that can be found in our most ordinary, everyday living. The precepts direct us not toward an abstraction with which we measure our self-worth, but they engage us in action that reveals all the goodness we are capable of in ordinary, everyday situations, including our disappointments.

The precepts also remind us that our actions are sometimes fueled by the desire to serve only ourselves, often at the expense of others. It's what we often do: we think self-centered thoughts, and we act on them. Blaming or hating ourselves for this is of little use. What can be of great use, however, is to acknowledge that to err is human and that wisdom and compassion are not limited to the gods. This is a first step toward identifying and letting go of the defenses that stand in the way of our taking the actions that spring from our connections to one another. To act in this way, of course, is not always so easy so we look to the precepts as fundamental human values for guidance. Committing ourselves to explore and abide by these human values can be a way to remind us of what we so easily forget when we're scared or angry: that we can never take action that does not affect everyone, including ourselves.

The Precepts

I Take Up the Way of Speaking Truthfully.

I Take Up the Way of Speaking of Others with Openness and Possibility.

I Take Up the Way of Meeting Others on Equal Ground.

I Take Up the Way of Cultivating a Clear Mind.

I Take Up the Way of Taking Only What Is Freely Given and Giving Freely of All That I Can.

I Take Up the Way of Engaging in Sexual Intimacy Respectfully and with an Open Heart.

I Take Up the Way of Letting Go of Anger.

I Take Up the Way of Supporting Life.

For those of you familiar with the traditional order of the Buddhist precepts, you will note that they are worded and ordered a little differently from how you might expect. However, if you are interested in following a more traditional order, there are many excellent sources by contemporary teachers. The order I have chosen is that which most accurately reflects the one most commonly discovered by my students. Because this book is for a general audience, many of whom will have no experience or knowledge of formal awareness practice, I have also chosen to discuss just eight of the traditional ten prohibitory Zen precepts. The other two precepts-Not Sparing the Dharma Assets and Not Defaming the Three Treasures-the reader will notice are nevertheless discussed indirectly within some of the other precepts. When my students study the precepts with me in person, we include all ten of the Zen precepts.

Voicing the Vow of the Precept

There are several ways in which a person may express her intention to live her life wholeheartedly from within the guidelines of the precepts. Over the years, and especially with the writing of this book, I struggled with the question of whether to phrase them as prohibitions or as aspirations.

As a Prohibition

As a prohibition, the precept is expressed as a vow to refrain from a specific action-"I vow to not take what is not freely given," or "I take up the way of not taking what is not freely given." This form can be useful in providing clear parameters for our behavior. It is meant to support us and keep us on track when we stray into muddled thinking.

Some time ago, after using my credit card to pay for some purchases in a store, I walked out of the store without checking the receipt. Halfway down the block, I took a look and noticed that I was charged seven dollars for a seventy-dollar purchase. The store clerk had made a typo and the number 0 was missing. Within five seconds I watched my mind do a jig as thoughts arose: Oh, oh, a mistake. I could just keep walking. Who'll know? I'd save myself sixty-three dollars. Then the precept entered: Wait a minute, that's taking what's not freely given. You have to go back. So I did. The direction was clear and prohibitive-don't steal!

As an Aspiration

Another way to voice the precept is as an aspiration: I take up the way (or vow) to take only what is freely given and give freely of all that I can. In this case, the emphasis is on what we aspire toward, instead of what we try to refrain from. I have chosen to use this type of wording in this book because I think it more accurately expresses the spirit in which I work with the precepts-as pointers, directing us toward our natural propensity to take action out of love and concern for one another. Secondly, when voiced in the prohibitive form, it seems more likely that we will rely on them as an outer authority that judges and keeps score. Lastly, it has been said that the best way to learn something new is by doing it. Although I am not suggesting that we simply change our behavior without some insight into what's behind it, I have found that the best teacher is what we experience when, for example, we give freely all that we can.

After my students have explored a particular precept for some time and have developed some clarity around their behavior, they voice the precept in their own words. For example, one student who was practicing with the precept taking only what is freely given and giving freely of all that I can voiced it this way:

At times when I feel I am entitled to what others want, need, or own, I resolve to hold this hard ball of entitlement, of separation, to fee! its texture, and to wait until its nature is clear before taking action.

Over the years, I have found that as I go through this process with my students, revisiting the precepts myself, the wording has deepened along with my understanding of the ways the precepts play themselves out in my own experience.

The precepts encourage us to go beyond the just don't do it. They invite us to willingly grapple with the slipperiness of what's the best action to take given the circumstances of any given situation. They direct us toward considering what conditions are present here and now. Sometimes the best thing to do is lie. Sometimes it's best not to lie. It's not so hard a decision if a lie will clearly save the lives of innocents. But what about the more difficult times when the water grows muddy, and we're not so certain? When we take up the way we accept the uncertainty as part of our lives and return to open inquiry into our actions, from moment to moment, day to day, year to year. So I have chosen to express the precepts as much as possible from aspiration-from the strength, caring, and clarity that reveal themselves when we come to know our selves intimately.

I Take Up the Way: The Vow

We may have all types of ideas about vows or taking vows. But a vow is simply a heartfelt intention to be open, honest, and responsible. Intention. That is the key to the vow. Although you may not necessarily be taking a formal vow to take up the way of a precept, it is useful to discuss a little about what it means to make this type of commitment.

Recently, I attended a wedding ceremony in which the couple took the precepts as part of their vows. I overheard a young man standing close by say, "Whoa! There's no way I could commit to all that stuff!" This is not an unusual reaction even after my own students have decided that working through the precepts is a direction they want to take in their lives. Some of them become a little queasy around the idea of taking a vow. They may think, What if I can't do it? Or sometimes they feel they may be scrutinized by those close to them every time they have a glass of wine or chill out by watching TV, wondering, Will people think I'm using substances to cloud my awareness? Vows are not useful when we use them as yardsticks to measure ourselves and others, thinking, 1 don't gossip about others the way she does, so I am a better person. But vows can be very useful in helping us view the precepts as a serious commitment in our lives. Vows can keep us on the track of making responsible choices, like a double line on a winding country road or even a rein to pull us in when our thoughts are galloping toward hurtful actions. So whether one is reading this book in preparation for taking the precepts in a formal way with a qualified teacher, or one is simply considering them more informally, they can be useful in pointing us to the ways in which we get caught in our self-centered thinking.

It is useful to compare the precept vows to wedding vows. Whether in precepts, practice, or in marriage practice, vows are useful for articulating commitments. They act as reminders to return over and over to being awake and taking responsibility for our actions. Just as marriage vows don't guarantee that we won't shoot off some ugly words over a sink full of dirty dishes, precept vows don't guarantee that we won't pocket the spare change from the store clerk's miscalculation. The precepts don't guarantee we won't harm ourselves or others. They are not prescriptions on how to become perfect; they express an aspiration and commitment, as in a marriage, to do our best. Sometimes we express it reluctantly, sometimes painfully, but always with strong intention to see how we hurt others in our insistence that people and events go the way we want them.

A vow is not a forecast of the future. A couple at the altar may have many aspirations about their marriage, but who can tell where it will all go? So too, in taking up the vows of precepts, we really don't know what path they will take us down. We don't know what they might unearth about ourselves, or what deeply held but hurtful beliefs they may challenge or pry loose. In a sense, we are also taking a vow to be willing to face the unknown. So in taking up the way of the precepts, we look to them to help us in facing our blind spots.

Vows simply present our commitment and willingness to persevere. In a marriage, it is one kiss, one meal, one little tiff at a time. Every step, every new day of a relationship is itself the destination and allows the relationship to continue. The vow offers a stick-to-it-hess that helps us be open and honest about whatever conditions life presents to us. Whether we are faced with sticking it out with a difficult partner, with a job that doesn't suit us, with caring for an aging parent, commitment can be the slender thread that allows us to hang in there. And if we hang in there, practicing awareness as best we can, we have the opportunity to learn something very valuable.

Does taking up the way mean we should never have a jealous thought? Never fantasize? Never stretch the truth? Of course not. It just means that we meet these actions as our teachers offering insight into what it really means to be a happy, loving, open individual.


Excerpted from Waking Up to What You Do by Diane Eshin Rizzetto Copyright © 2005 by Diane Rizzetto. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Diane Rizzetto is the Abbess and Guiding Teacher of the Bay Zen Center in Oakland, California. A dharma heir of Charlotte Joko Beck, she teaches extensively in Europe, as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout the United States.

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