In Zen Buddhism there is the opportunity to make a public commitment which serves to deepen our practice in a ceremony called 'jukai'. Jukai is made up of ju, “receiving/granting,” and kai, “precepts.”
Whenever the subject of precepts come up in a talk, there always seems to be more shuffling going on in people's seats and clearing of throats, maybe due to religious views many people have acquired for different reasons. It's true that in medieval Japan precepts were used in some extent to control the masses and keep order within society as the commandments were in Christianity in the West. For many there's a physical reaction to a perceived threat to their civil liberty.
The 16 Zen precepts are the expression of our awakening nature in the world and our willingness to keep the precepts is our acknowledgment of this. In Zen there's a big deal made about clarifying our intention or aspiration, as this is known to be the first step in making awakening possible.
This commitment is a recognition that we have everything we need already and that we don't need to try to control the world by killing, stealing or lying to attain anything. If we live in an open handed & non-egocentric way we are naturally living in a way that keeps the precepts. We're the living embodiment of them, fully in accord with the ways of the bodhisattva ideal, awakening for the benefit of all.
This intention to my mind, is a good thing however deluded or 'enlightened' we may be. But there's something important that should be said - it's misguided to believe that by trying to keep the precepts this will make you enlightened or for that matter following an eightfold path either, however noble it may be.
That would be like 'putting another head on your head' or like 'painting legs on a snake'. The most useful thing we can do is awaken to our true nature and just do the next thing to be done, then we're much more likely to be effective and of genuine use to ourselves, our friends, family and our community. Nobody likes a do-gooder do they?
In preparation of taking the precepts it helps to engage in a thorough self examination. Through looking deeply inside ourselves we acknowledge our habitual patterns that bring suffering to ourselves and others without judgment and resolve to do better. This is called 'sange' in Japanese, meaning regret/resolve.
It's traditional to make a list of the things we've done that may keep cropping up in our consciousness from time to time & the well worn behavioural grooves that we feel maybe keeping us from being how we might be. All the mean, deviant & perverse stuff that we all have. There can be enormous benefit in speaking this list out to a trusted friend, therapist or Zen teacher and where practical making reparation for the harm we've caused or by simply saying sorry.
The list is then kept to be burnt within the Jukai ceremony. The idea is that once this is done we can let it go, we no longer need to carry around our baggage. What was once in the shadows can never be unseen again and effect control over us. Going forward we don't need to keep making an effort to keep the precepts and choppying the waters of our minds, we can simply get on with living.
Keeping the precepts isn't about trying not to do things. Trying not to do something is an act of aggression towards ourselves - repression, with which I'm sure we're all familiar. Day one of the diet and we're already hankering after chocolate cake, by trying not to think of cigarettes, we see them everywhere.
Practising Zen is being loose and natural and working with ourselves holistically. Through mindfulness our habitual energies are transformed by awareness, there's nothing to do and nothing to become, we already are enough. Through seeing the situation with radical honesty the compassion we need spontaneously arises. As someone said 'How do you know your trainers are worn out? They just are and you put them in the bin'.
It could also be likened to a child who grows out of playing with toys, they no longer serve their purpose as she develops. She may see other children playing with their toys and recognise that they haven't yet developed as she has, it's natural.
A wise man once said 'If you like chips, eat chips'. I think most of us would recognise that there are healthier options, but the self delusion involved in creating a virtuous new identity is more harmful than acknowledging the fact that you want to eat chips again, eating them mindfully and enjoying them. The important bit is seeing the construction of the 'I' who is eating chips whom 'again' seems to occur to and recognising this as a story we are telling ourselves.
It seems that almost all people undertaking Zen practice in the West are adults that are genuine 'seekers of the way' already capable of distinguishing right from wrong. Jukai is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental goodness of our hearts and resolve to put it to use for the benefit of all.