Sage Wisdom of the Ancients: Zen Guidance and Precepts for Living in Contemporary Times

The Sage Wisdom of the Ancients: Zen Guidance and Precepts for Living in Contemporary Times: The Ten Core Precepts.

by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

The teachings of Buddha came from the earth he sat upon. It is ancient wisdom that existed even before he was born. This writing is reclaiming and reintroducing the age-old wisdom of the Buddha’s precepts for living in today’s world. What is your motivation for what you do in the world and what wisdom underlies your actions?

We are taught to live with what are called precepts or vows.  During the ordination ceremony nuns and monks take these vows, which can number into the hundreds depending on tradition.  Teachers, family, and friends witness the taking of these vows, so that the ordained is held accountable to all and is aware that he or she has entered into a commitment. However, you do not have to be ordained to follow the precepts.

You can think of precepts as sage wisdom from grandparents or wise elders who have awakened to the nature of life. In many cultures, especially Native American, Asian, and African, there are ancient folktales, which demonstrate lessons on ways to live in harmony. There are many Buddhist tales as well. These precepts are similar to the lessons in those folktales. They are meant to assist us in valuing life, not to judge self or each other from a righteous place. They are not principles to measure someone’s flaw or to measure one’s level of spirituality. There is no external punishment for breaking these precepts. Mostly, the precepts are how an awakened person lives, which is to be mindful of the suffering caused by his or her actions. In this way of caring for each other we nurture a spiritually based social justice.

The precepts give you an idea of how one attends to life and to the life of others.  We cultivate, create, and sustain life. We give generously. We have sexual relationships that are respectful of the body as life, a living creation. We offer caring words; we offer timely silence. We stay aware and awake of how we are relating to life. Many of us are afraid. When paralyzed by fear we cannot value life. Fear takes away from being aware of anything other than fear.  Fear takes away a sense of heart, tenderness, and vulnerability. What are we afraid of?

I have thought that I was afraid of other people not being aware of the suffering they cause. I have been afraid of pain that may be inflicted because of other’s unconsciousness and disregard – their disconnection and ignorance. But by being afraid of their ignorance I suffer and then become as disconnected and ignorant of our interrelationship. I cannot follow the precepts without understanding that others are also afraid and in our fear we lose the capacity to value each other. We lose the chance to transmit light in the world.

In following the precepts, we become a transmitters of life light as Sensei Kobun Chino says:

The main subject is how to become a transmitter of actual light, life light. Practice takes place to shape your whole ability to reflect the light coming through you, and to generate, to re-generate your system so the light increases its power.  Each precept is a remark about hard climbing, maybe climbing down.  You don’t use the precepts for accomplishing your own personality, or fulfilling your dream of your highest image.  You don’t use the precepts in that way.  The precepts are the reflected light-world of one precept, which is Buddha’s mind itself, which is the presence of Buddha. 

You may have experienced the actions of one person affecting the whole.  I have experienced this aspect of life many times when I have not remembered to live in harmony with others.  The result was suffering for an entire community, much more than I could have ever imagined.  Fortunately, there is compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  There is mindfulness to assist in valuing life.  There is also the inherent nature of being connected that we cannot completely avoid participating in harming others.  When one is suffering, we are all in the suffering.  If someone is acting in such a way to dishonor life, we are all present for that dishonoring, meaning it is necessary for all to participate in the transformation and healing. With these precepts we practice letting go of “you” and “me” and become us.  Bodhidharma, the sage from India that brought the Buddha’s teachings to China taught, to receive the precepts is to realize Buddha Mind or One Mind, the one mind of selflessness – remembering our connection.

These first five precepts are part of ten precepts. I name and address these precepts as I have lived them in the modern world which is different than the strict monastery rules Buddha set thousands of years ago. We don’t live together in a monastery so I have removed “what not to do” and replaced it with what we can do in the world we live. In order to be love, be in peace we must:

(1) be aware of taking life – Many people practice the teaching of “not to kill” in an honorable and literal way by not eating meat, not killing insects, or becoming a conscientious objector in the face of war.  However, the precept of not to kill in it’s largest context is about imposing death in many ways. We can indirectly be a part of killing. In essence we can be accomplices. When we purchase products such a clothes, jewelry, gas or food we can be attributing to the death of those whose lives are taken so that we have such products. We become part of collective dishonoring of life. Also, we can squelch someone’s life force by our actions. When any one of us causes another human being to tremble we are faced with the prospect of killing another’s sense of survival, which is to present danger or essentially eliminating one’s life force. In this larger view of the teaching we can kill by threatening to harm someone, engaging in verbal and physical abuse, or denying a living being the basic needs of water, food, clothing and shelter.  Some literally take their own lives because it is not valued by them or others. Having an intention to kill, whether we go through with it or not, or a secret desire for someone to die, does not align with cultivating life.  We are to be aware of the many ways in which we may actively take life.  We cultivate life when we let go of all weapons, not just the one’s created for war but the ones we use to hurt others such as hatred. We are to protect the oceans, trees, mountains, forests, wildlife and the air we breathe. We are caretakers who take care by cultivating the innate love many of us spend time seeking from other places.

(2) be aware of taking from others without right – Underlining this precept of “not to steal” is dishonesty. Taking can range from applying for a scholarship when you have the money, appropriating another’s culture, exploiting others for one’s own gain, using other’s vulnerable circumstances to benefit yourself, asking too many favors, expecting others to carry you, abusing hospitality, or squandering another’s time, energy and resources or even taking from yourself to make other’s happy. There have been historical times in the world when others have robed groups of people of their land, language, customs, and family for gain. As you can see what is taken can be material or intangible things and it is done in a way you hope no will notice you have taken something that doesn’t belong to you or your culture. Instead of stealing, we acknowledge our mind of scarcity. We cease accumulation of things and people and learn to honor ourselves and offer our gifts as they are. In this way we can offer joy, wisdom, and loving ways passed on from generation to generation. We act with loving grandmother mind to our frail sense of survival.

(3) be aware of using sex and sexuality without a sense of valuing life – In many spiritual communities in the United States little is taught of sexuality and sex in relationship to sacred living. Spiritual communities, including Buddhist ones, rarely offer in-depth guidance on sex and sexuality. Yet, of all the levels of unconsciousness and wrongdoing, sexual dishonor (or misconduct) is the level that is least forgiving. This may be because of several reasons. We are taught to keep sexual matters secret. We are attached to appearing as though we are not sexual like all other animals unless it is for the benefit of bringing a child into the world. Mostly, we have views of a pure self and hold a sense of having never executed or been involved in any sexual dishonor, in thought, speech or action.

Sexual dishonor can have a long list of things from lust (private thoughts or open ones), infidelity, or to sending inappropriate social media, text, or email messages. On the larger scale sexual dishonor includes crimes of rape, molestation, sexual torture, and sexual slavery. Many families have been broken by sexual dishonor and children have suffered from sexual abuse. I breathe in and I breathe out to say I have old past experience of both being assaulted and of being one who has dishonored others. In all cases above, including my own, the first sign of moving into dishonor and devaluing life, is to view another’s body as an object to be used for one’s own desire. In essence, the person is dehumanized in order to justify the abuse. This all done silently and send us down a slippery slope.

Silence or justification about one’s own misconduct, gossip about others, ridicule, jokes about dishonorable sexual acts, slander to ruin someone else’s reputation with stories of sexual abuse, hatred toward the person who is perceived as the perpetrator, and denying the experience of the perpetrated, are all ways in which any act of sexual dishonor is fueled and perpetuated for years. It also drives the circumstances and the individuals involved underground for fear of persecution or being labeled for life.  Along with the misrepresentation of sex and sexuality on films and in books, this may speak to the mountain of sexual dishonor in religious places, in our communities, and homes. We have little sanctuary for healing these wounds. At the same time, we have the wisdom to know when we are deluded by our deluded heart-mind. If you know this you are awake.

In Buddha’s teachings, sexual dishonor is not seen as everlasting simply because there are other practices such as loving-kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Try this: I breathe in and I breathe out, feeling my feet on the ground. Breathing in and Breathing out, letting go of the warm air from my lungs. Breathing in and Breathing out I receive help. Breathing in and Breathing out, I release thoughts of harming self and others.  Breathing in and Breathing out, I value the sound of all heartbeats. Breathing in, Breathing out, I honor the beautiful bodies of everyone and hold sex and sexuality as sacred. Breathing in, breathing out, I am free. Breathing in, Breathing out, I begin again in the renewal and rejuvenation of the next moment.

(4) be aware of dishonest speech Speech that is out of integrity is out of alignment with your heart and with the earth. Speech that is not true is that which protects your image, judges another to ensure your superiority, is filled with inaccuracies so that it fits your story and gets folks on your side, gives unsolicited feedback, or that is derogatory or filled with hatred towards any living being.  Also, speaking with Buddhist (loving kindness for example) or psychological terms during painful situations rings of dishonesty when heartfelt communication or a warm hug is called for. Remember being nice or sounding kind is not always honest. Talking (including asking questions) about sensitive issues about another person who is not present in the room can divide communities or sanghas. These are some of the ways of speaking we could avoid in order to end suffering in our lives and that of others.

Silence and body language can also convey harmful communications such as rolling the eyes, turning away, glaring, or tapping one’s feet while a person is talking.  Likewise, when silence is in place of the need to speak one’s truth, this is a harmful silence. Sometimes words can separate you from your heart-truth so it is best to wait until your emotional charge is not what’s speaking but rather the wisdom coming from the emotional charge.

Wise speech is difficult because we don’t know what will surface in life and we are uncertain as to what will be communicated in the moment. To ease the difficulty some rely on communication techniques. Although some techniques of wise speech can work for some situations, such techniques may fail when the circumstances do not fit the technique or lack a heartfelt response to the situation.

Communication is crucial to sustaining the harmony already inherent in our interrelationships.  Buddha’s truth was demonstrated by how he lived his life, which emerged in what he eventually communicated with others. However, our truth is not Buddha’s truth. Our truth emerges when we awakening to our own life. Truth, along with integrity, emerges from experiencing suffering and discovering the way out.  The truth that emerges in such a way will come through in how we take action in the world, especially how we speak. With this precept we are called to discover our deepest unspoken truths.

(5) be aware of what causes a loss of alertnessSpecifically, the Buddha was referring to the use of intoxicants or any substances that would alter consciousness and cause confusion. Literally, in today’s time, this could be over use of alcoholic beverages, the misuse of legal and illegal drugs, sex as an intoxicant, over use of social media and TV, shopping, music that stimulates thoughts that cause suffering, or over use of sugar and salt and on. Even in what appears to be good such as meditation, yoga, or spiritual rituals can turn into cravings or addictions if mistaken for an external elixir of comfort or sedation from the chaos of life. Once the habit is developed the awareness of life is lost – life is on automatic and the commitment to being alert and aware is lost.

At the heart of the matter, being aware of how you consume. Or you trying to eliminate discomfort or create the missing pleasure of life when there are times are difficult. The ever-increasing extreme situations such as homelessness, financial decline, a decline in mental and physical health, also lead to intoxicating actions. When one does not feel welcomed in a society or has lost a sense of belonging there can be a need to numb the feelings of a prolonged situation. Addiction can occur when a person has talents that don’t fit the workplace or a person may have been shut out of the full benefits of life in the midst of systemic oppression.  In such cases, there is an insurmountable need to restore dignity (personally and collectively) and to discover the pain underlining habit and addiction.  Most important is to be gentle in the discovery of such pain and not exacerbate the condition of intoxication with impatience.

Breathing in and breathing out, I am anxious. Breathing in and breathing out I am aware.

(6) be aware of discussing the faults of others – If you find yourself engaging by talking about someone’s faults you are essentially putting yourself on a pedestal—expressing your superiority. And we all know what happens if we are standing high on a pedestal. It can be quick out from under you by another person that is talking about your faults. We are all born into this world and will die and therefore we are all on the same path of awakening. To discuss the fragility of one’s human condition for the sake of being perceived as more enlightened or realized is a mistake and a trick of the mind. Maybe you have heard of the old sage advice, “If you have nothing to say good about a person it is best to say nothing at all.” It is best to wait until love arises in your heart, so that it arises in your speech. See yourself as human as the next person. If someone has fallen down we help pick them up without judgment. We all have cracked places. This is being human.

(7) be aware of pride – Pride leads to a sense of a good and noble self that is free of any human frailties. Individual pride or collective pride movements are meant to empower those who are treated as if inferior to another. In recent times, pride movements created by groups who espouse hatred are meant to sustain superiority and dominance over by any means necessary and has nothing to do with empowerment. Being puffed up or proud begins with discussing the faults of others. This leads to slander if the discussions about someone’s faults is held publicly or in the open. Slandering goes beyond the person and dishonors the ancestors and the Earth we share with each other. Slandering breeds hate. Hatred destroys communities, families, society, and ultimately humanity. This destruction begins with the feelings of pride and the simple act of slandering. Therefore, the way to liberation is to understand that our abilities and capacities are not measured by pride but by how we take action in the world.

(8) be aware of owning the wisdom – This precept is often stated as avoiding being avarice/stingy or possessing the Buddha’s teachings. This is because all that materializes in life comes from the earth. No one can own that which comes from the earth. The teachings of Buddha come from the earth. We do not own them. We did not create the grass beneath our feet. We can’t own it. We do not even own our very lives. If so we probably would eliminate old age, illness and death. We are all receivers of wisdom. Any effort to cut someone off from realization is fruitless effort. We are to give freely—which in this precept means to share the wisdom that arises from our life experiences. We let it go and not use the wisdom to think so highly of ourselves, who withhold it from those we feel are not worthy.

(9) be aware of anger – Anger can be cultivated to be an illuminating emotion or it can destroy you and everything around you. When anger arises we are caught in what we think is real. We are caught on one end of an idea, a view, a way of thinking, that we feel needs defending or paid attention. Our anger may be not having control or power over something or someone. Our anger can also be grief, disappointment, shame, embarrassment, or anger at having to give when you feel you have very little to give. Wherever anger arises, if cultivated without seeing what it is trying to reveal, will only breed more anger. If our anger is viewed as a sacred balm of fire in our hands, we can shape it by prayer, meditation, or compassion. We can transform it to be extremely beneficial.

(10) be aware when you disrespect the teacher, the teachings and the community practicing the teachingsBuddha called these three things the three treasures, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The word Buddha means awakened one. There were many Buddha’s in Shakyamuni’s time of all ethnicities, genders and class. Even Jesus would be considered a Buddha in Shakyamuni Buddha’s time. Dharma means teachings and Sangha is the community that learns the teachings together. Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are not own by Buddhism. These are Sanskrit words that were used in ancient times to describe spiritual communities.

Although there was much debate among wisdom teachers in ancient times, disparaging or disrespecting the three treasures was looked down upon. To openly speak against the wisdom of the great sages without any study or cultivating of one’s own wisdom was to be purely righteous. The righteous and the arrogant are experienced as off putting to say the least. What do you feel you are right about—always? Explore this notion.

Meditation without some spiritual foundation is take on practice based in what you feel is right. There are safeguards against this for practitioners of Buddha’s Way. We take refuge in the wisdom of the teacher, the teachings and the life in community. What do you mean by taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha?

In order to give full devotion to ending suffering there is taking refuge. Taking refuge means giving full devotion of your life to the Buddha way, which includes the three treasures know as Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. When you take refuge you are establishing trust in the treasures, the gifts of life. To disrespect these three treasures is to  loose sight of a well worn path to liberation.

If you are entering Buddha’s way you take refuge in Buddha (the awakened state or the teacher), Dharma (the teachings) and Sangha (the community). Taking refuge does not mean that you run away from the world into the meditation hall or to sit quietly in your bedroom when times are hard.  It doesn’t mean to stay away from certain kinds of people or places.  In the days of Buddha and in some traditions still today, taking refuge has a more literal meaning for monks and nuns who live together in a monastery.  However, throughout the years, as the practice has taken shape according to those who don’t live in a monastery, the action of taking refuge has broadened.

As followers of the Buddha, when we say, “I take refuge in Buddha as the perfect teacher”, we are honoring (not worshipping) Buddha as a great teacher. At the same time, we are not taking refuge in Buddha the human being, but rather devotion to the essence of the being, which is the essence of awakening.  You awaken to what is teaching you about life.  Buddha clearly saw the nature of things.  He did not see with his eyes.  He did not use his feet to find the path. He did not formulate an intellectual awareness while probing the mysteries of life.  He simply allowed himself to be a vehicle by which unadulterated wisdom poured forth.  This was awakening.   So, when we take refuge in Buddha we are devoting ourselves to awakening in such a way.

When we say, “I take refuge in Dharma as the perfect teachings,” we are taking refuge in what Dainin Katagiri Roshi called good medicine ­– the teachings. Dharma is the path of life. At the same time, we are taking in all of life as teachings, secular and sacred, difficult and easy.  Often, we discriminate between what we want to happen in our lives and what we don’t.  Even though we know better, we expect nothing challenging to happen and literally insist on a problem free life.  I’ll never forget complaining about the trouble in my life when a Zen teacher told me that the trouble was also the dharma of my life.  Whether it is precisely Buddha’s teachings or life teachings, the lessons can be dull or sharp and they come and go.

I do experience meeting the Dharma as something that you don’t do once.  It occurs as often as one is awakened to the suffering and joy of life.  So, sometimes I say that I heard the Dharma from my mother first, when she said something like this at a time when I was disappointed by our church members, “You can’t look at other peoples’ lives and decide if you are going to pray or not.” In other words, if I judge a spiritual or religious practice by its people, I would never practice because there are no perfect people.  It was a lesson I have held unto until today.  That human beings are human beings and that other people have very little to do with how far I go down a chosen path of compassion.  On the other hand, I might say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was my first Dharma teacher.  His message of non-violence and peace sank deep into my eleven-year old heart, especially at a time when four little girls my age had been bombed to death in our country in 1963 because of the color of their skin.

Therefore, taking refuge in the Dharma is to relate to everything no manner how tragic and in so doing everything in life becomes the path by which we discover our true nature.  We cannot rely on books and teachers to guide us on every step of the path.  Through a direct experience of our own life, not just the Buddha’s, we come to an awakening steeped in living.

When we say, “I take refuge in sangha as the perfect life,” we are embracing spiritual friendship and the community of those who have devoted themselves to the teachings of Buddha.  We say perfect life because to be a part of a community (any community) is to be fully supported on the path of liberation.  Community is an expression of our interrelatedness.  When the Buddha spoke of sangha he was addressing the monks and later the nuns.  Today, sangha includes all communities, lay and ordained, that practice the Buddha’s teachings together.

In sangha everyone has come together with an expressed willingness to deal with their suffering and its impact on others.  There is an expectation that all will be good in the Neverland of meditation. We expect the ground beneath the sangha to be stable and strong. When in truth we are together in the confusion and challenge of living awake.  One day things are one way and the next a relationship has changed, you feel you’ve made mistake, you begin to blame the discomfort on the forms, the sangha members, or the teachers.  Given all experiences are valid they still need investigation.  This investigation can be carried out in the midst of the troubled souls you have chosen to commune with.  You could leave and find another sangha, but what happens for you when the earth begins to shake beneath it in the same way as the sangha you left.

Many who take on the practice decide to avoid sangha by practicing alone.  Then perhaps their workplace, family, or other communities serve as sangha.  However, the difficulty in such sanghas is the path of awakening is different than dharma or there is no effort on the part of others to walk a path of awakening with you.

In sangha you are reminded that you are not alone in the journey.  At the same time, I have felt alone in sangha.  I have felt different than the others and many times this difference stands out in a way that is uncomfortable.  Then it is time to remember that everyone’s path is different.  There is no one with exactly the same path as my own.  So, how do I respond to the uncomfortable situations?

Our sangha friends are there to assist us by reflecting back to us the ways in which we respond to the events of life.  This doesn’t mean that these friends are to sit in judgment around our actions but by living fully on the path we support our living there as well.  When they falter, we are there to witness the faltering and sense the familiarity of their situation in our own life.

Many have said to me that they do not need a sangha. My response has been, “Then where are you going to go when you are fully liberated? Who will know and understand the journey you have taken and your vow to be awake?”


Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts for Liberation



Common meaning – [a word not in the general population] one who thinks about others salvation and not just their own

Buddhist meaning – one who lives by vows and refrains from entering nirvana until all can enter

Zenju Osho’s view – one who takes action to end suffering for all of humanity…no one left behind



Common meaning: rule, instruction, moral conduct, order, or commandment

Buddhist meaning: the foundation for the walk on in the way of Shakyamuni Buddha

Zenju Osho’s view: Grandmother wisdom for co-existence with everyone and everything



Common meaning: the act of being freed from a captivity (slavery, imprisonment, etc.)

Buddhist meaning: to free oneself from clinging to the feelings and perceptions that cause suffering

Zenju Osho’s view: to realize the freedom we inherited at birth


The Sixteen Precepts

Three Refuges

  1. We take refuge in Buddha
  2. We take refuge in Dharma
  3. We take refuge in Sangha


Three Pure Precepts

  1. To do no evil
  2. To do good
  3. To save all beings.


Ten Essential Precepts

  1. A disciple of Buddha does not kill but rather cultivates and encourages life.
  2. A disciple of Buddha does not take what is not given but rather cultivates and encourages generosity.
  3. A disciple of Buddha does not misuse sexuality but rather cultivates and encourages open and honest relationships.
  4. A disciple of Buddha does not lie but rather cultivates and encourages truthful communication.
  5. A disciple of Buddha does not intoxicate self or others but rather cultivates and encourages clarity.
  6. A disciple of Buddha does not slander others but rather cultivates and encourages respectful speech.
  7. A disciple of Buddha does not praise self at the expense of others but rather cultivates and encourages self and others to abide in their awakened nature.
  8. A disciple of Buddha is not possessive of anything but rather cultivates and encourages mutual support.
  9. A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill-will but rather cultivates and encourages lovingkindness and understanding.
  10. A disciple of Buddha does not abuse the Three Treasures but rather cultivates and encourages awakening, the path and teaching of awakening and the community that takes refuge in awakening.


Suggested Books

Being Upright: Zen Meditation and Bodhisattva Precepts –  by Tenshin Reb Anderson

Waking Up To What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion  – by Diane Eshin Rizzeto



(revised 9/30/2020)