"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 warns us to Pay Attention! Look! Listen! Sometimes we will change course, other times, if we must reach shore, we will proceed with caution," writes Diane Rizzetto, 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 elsewhere throughout the United States.
In this edifying work, which focuses on eight of the ten precepts, Rizzetto shows how these Buddhist principles can be used as tools to help liberate us from our thoughts, feelings, and sensations; bring down the walls of separation which keep us isolated and alienated from others and from the world; and reveal the ways in which our reactive behavior causes great unrest and suffering in our lives. The precepts help us recognize the importance of choice, responsibility, and the consequences of our actions.
There are chapters on each of 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. In her discussion of "Speaking of Others," Rizzetto writes:
"Studying the ways in which we discuss the faults of others can reveal much about the ways in which we place walls between ourselves and the world in general. When even the more subtle self-serving intentions are added onto the words we convey about other people, we distance ourselves both from them and ourselves. By creating this separation, we encourage the specialness of me. Feelings of inadequacy, imperfection, fear, and shame may be temporarily assuaged, but they are only pushed aside to reappear at another time. We deeply harm them when we speak of others in degrading ways, and we harm ourselves as well because we deny acceptance, compassion, and generosity as part of the fullness of life."
So much precious time and energy is expended in the ego's efforts to rise above others by putting them down. An antidote to this behavior is to take a hard look at our own behavior whenever we criticize another or speak poorly of them.
Looking down on others or feeling morally superior to them is often a challenge for those of us involved in antiwar activities. The author observes:
"During the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh spoke before a liberal, politically active audience in Berkeley, California. When asked about taking political action, he told the audience that taking action was important, but more important was to try to remember that they are not helping bring peace as long as they place themselves in a morally superior position. He reminded us that we can be very good at writing letters but very poor at opening our hearts and minds to those who oppose us."
Good advice and very hard to practice, given the deep feelings we have on these highly charged political issues. Rizzetto does a fine job explaining the precepts in the Buddhist tradition and makes it clear that they are important guidelines for all of us.