Practicing the spirit of tradition.
The Buddhist precepts are ancient, and at first glance, some of these vows seem rickety and out of step with our times. Yet my teacher was encouraging me to take the 64 bodhisattva precepts, the highest set of vows a layperson may receive.
These precepts are found in the Brahmajala, the Brahma Net sutra also known as “The Supreme Net (what the teaching is not).” It starts with an amusing story about a cranky man named Suppiya, who follows the Buddha and his disciples around for a long time, relentlessly criticizing them. The guy never shuts up. Buddha’s followers get annoyed, and Buddha tells them not to worry about praise or blame.
Since this is a Buddhist sutra, it then presents some long lists: 62 types of wrong view, based on the six gates (the senses, including mind) and whatever objects they find. It also lists the primary and secondary precepts, and this is where the bodhisattva precepts are found.
Among these secondary precepts is the precept against eating the pungent roots: onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, and some food I have never heard of, but I’m told it sometimes shows up in curry.
The Surangama fleshes out the problem. If you ate these foods raw, it was thought to stir up bad temper. Cooked, they were believed to be aphrodisiacs. So these foods were blamed for making people more argumentative and horny. For people living in early Buddhist communities, this would present obvious problems—particularly for monks—and so the Brahmajala forbade them.
I’ve met Buddhist monks, and even laypeople, who strictly observe this precept along with other dietary restrictions (including vegetarianism). During a period when I was frequently cooking dinners for Providence Zen Center, I bought a cookbook full of vegetarian recipes that excluded onions and garlic. This was regarded as a little bit weird: truth is, sutras notwithstanding, you will find onions and garlic, et al, in most meals served at the Zen center.
The precept has prompted many questions during interviews with the Zen center’s teachers. How does this precept function? Doesn’t desire arise in the mind? If we have no mind, why is it a problem to put garlic in the hummus? It always seemed that people just ignored this precept because it was inconvenient—was this correct? Are we lying during the precepts ceremony when we vow that this precept (as with each and every one) can be so kept?
Even further, what about the Buddha, who ate anything that was offered to him on his begging rounds? There is even a legend saying he ate the finger of a leper after it fell into his bowl (I have my doubts about that one). What about Seng-T’san and his famous Zen poem, stating “The great way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing?”
My mind was ultimately opened up to this precept during a conversation with Judy Roitman, one of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s dharma heirs. In addition to her Zen practice, Judy is a practicing Jew. She shared with me how she relates to some of the very old and challenging aspects of Judaism, like having to read all of that harsh stuff about homosexuality on the day of atonement. She described several things that are still in use, yet do not have quite the same meaning of practical function today that they did in their own era. She described this as a “dialogue with our ancestors,” in which there is respect and deep listening—but we are also allowed to talk back.
Treating the precepts with this spirit, receiving teaching from long-departed ancestors, what use can we make of this precept? Again, how does it function? For my own situation, it seems impractical to go to my mother-in-law’s house and pick onions and garlic out of the food she serves me. As it is, she is very accommodating about my preference for vegetarian food.
Since we are using these precepts as part of Zen practice, we might ask—not to overthink it, but just ask—what is the deeper meaning of this precept, and what are some clear ways to practice it?
Perhaps it is useful to pay attention to what we put into our bodies, and notice cause and effect. What behaviors do I present when I skip lunch? How about when I eat junk food? If I have a glass of wine the moment I come home from work, do I get sleepy sooner? How does that affect my relationship with my spouse?
We can even move on to other stimuli. How about erotic media? News programs that editorialize rather than dispense new information? That probably affects me more than some leeks in my soup. How about gossip? There are precepts about gossip, too. What about gambling? Do these things alter my behavior, and am I aware of the shift when it happens?
There is a middle way between ignoring this ancient precept and observing it so strictly that is creates new problems. For me, my diet has changed since that precepts ceremony, but not because a sutra can tell me to eat this and not that. My diet has changed by itself over time as I vow to pay attention to food, drink and stimuli as they pass through this body.
In Zen practice, we take these precepts not for our own purification, but for the benefit of all beings—which includes us.
Algernon D’Ammassa is an actor, playwright, and teacher. He is a Bodhisattva Dharma Teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen and founder of the Deming Zen Center in New Mexico. He lives in Deming, New Mexico, with his wife and two young children. For more about the center, visit www.demingzen.org.
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