Delivered at the Village Zendo on November 1, 2018.

When hyenas find a kill, or they kill an antelope, they hunt in small groups—two or three hyenas—but the whole clan shows up to eat together. And it’s a scene of intense competition, which animal is going to get to the carcass first so it can eat the tasty parts, the bowels and the liver. I was reading about hyenas in an article the other day by a zoologist named Kate Shaw. She describes this very strict system of social rank in the hyena clan. She says that rank determines access to food.

A high-ranking hyena can drive a lower ranking hyena off a kill at any time, no matter who hunted or scavenged the meat. Dominance determines who can exhibit aggression toward whom. Aggression is nearly always directed down the hierarchy toward the lower ranking hyenas. And if a hyena disregards this, it’s not taken lightly by other clan members.

High-ranking hyenas, they get more of the antelope. They get to eat the tasty liver. And if a hyena breaks that rule, other hyenas will snarl at it, maybe even bite it and shove it out of the way.

What’s interesting is that this social rank is inherited. The cubs of a high-ranking female hyena are also high-ranking and they also have first access to the kill. And they will also get first dibs on the liver. This high rank partly persists even through adulthood and they’re able to pass that on, if they’re female, to their own cubs. It creates a permanent social class. (I don’t know if this sounds familiar at all.)

So, this is how hyenas structure their society. It’s not how I would design it, if it were up to me, but these are the rules for hyenas.


Humans have a lot of rules around eating, too. When I grew up, it was just me and my mom. My father was absent and I have no brothers or sisters. It was just the two of us. Even so, every night we sat down to dinner together, and the rule is that no one eats until everybody is served. I figured that that was universal when I was a kid. And it is common; that’s how we eat when we’re doing oryoki here. So, I was shocked when I was a kid and I one day went over to have dinner at a friend’s house with his family and people just sat down, filled up their plates and started eating willy-nilly, like they were animals. I could not believe my eyes. I did not know it was possible for human beings to act this way.

But these are just rules. They’re just karma. They’re the product of our causes and conditions; we were born with them maybe, or we learned them from our family or our culture. The purpose of them is to narrow us, to preserve the status quo.


Zen Buddhism does not teach moral rules. We practice precepts, and precepts are very different.

There’s a lot of variations on the list of precepts. Our kind of main list is the “Ten Grave Precepts.” They sound kind of like rules. “Don’t kill, lie, steal, abuse sex or drugs. Don’t insult others or praise yourself. Don’t be angry or stingy and respect Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”

These are guidelines to remind us to be conscious of the ethical content of our actions. By keeping these guidelines in mind, we maintain our awareness of our power, that we have the freedom to harm or to help. Recognizing our power this way makes us greater, not narrower. So great that we come to realize that our size fills the whole universe, and that we can have an enormous impact. Keeping these guidelines in mind helps us to liberate our minds and take responsibility for the power that we actually have.

I’ve been particularly thinking about the precepts in relation to a precepts ceremony that’s going to happen at Sing Sing prison this month. I’ve been going to Sing Sing for almost ten years now. The meditation group there is led by Ryotan Sensei. And in the years that I’ve gone, there’s never been a moment quite like this one. Something really interesting is happening. The men who had been meditating with us the longest are gone now. In the last few years, a couple of them have died or been paroled or transferred to other prisons and a new group of men has stepped up. Now we’ve got an extremely cohesive group of four men who show up consistently. Dragon, Ryan, Shane, and John. Two years ago, Dragon took the precepts, he received the name Ryusho from Ryotan. Ryusho means “dragon voice.” He got a rakusu: he couldn’t sew it himself but we gave him one and inscribed his name on the back. Now, this month, the other three—John, Shane, and Ryan—are all going to have a jukai ceremony on November 18th. The volunteers, like me and Ryotan, are going up to be with them for this. They will promise to uphold all precepts and they’ll receive new Dharma names. And I feel like all of a sudden, they’re going to transform from a group of men who sit Zazen together into something much more like a family.

When a group of people commits to practicing the precepts together as a sangha, they’re like a family, I think. They will never not be related to each other again. No matter what happens. Even if they never see each other again after that day, this can’t be undone. It’s a huge risk. I hope they know what they’re getting into. I know that they don’t and I wish them the best of luck.


One of the younger of the men, John, pointed out to me that, at 28, he is about the same age that I was in 2006 when I took jukai and was named Jiryu. And I was thinking back to that year. I went up to the Grail Retreat Center a week before the ceremony to study the precepts and prepare for the ceremony and read the text. At the time, I was smoking half a pack a day of American Spirit Lights, delicious, delicious cigarettes, in the yellow pack with the Indian chief on the front. So, I knew that I had to quit smoking before jukai. You can get as subtle and mysterious as you want but smoking, it violates the precepts “Don’t be intoxicated” and “Do not kill.”

So, I only brought one pack with me to the Grail. I had intended to stretch it out a little bit … but addicts generally can’t. So, within a day I had finished the pack. With the last cigarette of the pack, I did a little ritual for myself. I took the cigarette out of the pack and went to the backyard of the Grail and laid the cigarette down on a flat tree stump and took a photograph of it. “This is a photograph of the last cigarette that I ever smoked.” And then I smoked it, very mindfully. I felt the hot dry feeling in my throat and tasted the tobacco in my nose. Then when I was done I threw out the butt and the empty pack and donated the lighter to an altar and that was the last cigarette I ever smoked, before all of the other cigarettes I smoked after that.

I quit and I started, and I quit and I started, year after year. Whenever I fell off the wagon I felt so guilty. I felt like such a bad boy for breaking the rules.


There’s a couple of delusions going on in there. A couple of questions I should have asked myself when I was feeling like a bad boy. One of them is, “Whose rule is it?” When a hyena gets out of line and goes for the liver when it’s not its turn, the dominant hyena growls at it. It’s the dominant hyena’s rule.

But whose rules are the precepts? They’re a tool we use to break out of our narrow ways, to upend the status quo. There’s nobody laying them down for us.

The other question that I should have asked myself was, “Who is it, that is a bad boy when I start smoking again?” We all know this teaching, but it takes so long to really get it. The longer I practice the clearer it is to me that I am not a single permanent thing that can make a promise and keep it, like flipping a switch. I’m an event in the universe that is the consequence of physical and spiritual powers and forces that have led to this moment. I can make a promise, but it’s like a candle flame that promises that it will shine steadily forever. A second later, a puff of wind and the flame can’t help but flicker. And it’s going to go out in a minute anyway. Particularly when I’ve been addicted to something, no promise that make is as powerful as the forces that are affecting me, you know? “I” am not in charge a lot of the time, whatever I mean by that.


But nevertheless, I do make my life an expression of the precepts. How is that possible?

The monk Dogen wrote:

Ordinarily, your thinking scatters, like wild horses. And your emotions run wild like monkeys in a forest.

If you can make those monkeys and horses, just once, take the backwards step that turns the light and shines it inward, then naturally you will be completely integrated. This is how we, who are ordinarily set into motion but things, become able to set things into motion.

That’s what I’m talking about. Taking a step back, shining a light onto the workings of our own minds so that we see what we are controlled by. That is how we gain the power to not be set into motion by things, but to set things into motion. When we do that, we don’t have to be like wild animals, like monkeys, like hyenas. So, that’s really the question to ask when we practice. “What’s controlling me?” By paying attention, can we behave differently? Can we break out of the rules that are keeping us on these narrow paths? Can we use the tool of the precepts to break open these walls that are keeping us small?


That’s how I finally quit smoking. It took me five years. And now I am certain, really, I will never smoke again. And for me the important thing was to realize that the precept were not rules that I should obey in order to be a good boy. What the precepts are pointing to is my own power and freedom to express my wisdom in my actions and make my life an expression of those precepts. With that realization of the power that I have, that finally set me on the right path that broke my addiction.

Dogen says, about this precept of not being intoxicated, or “Don’t abuse drugs,” he says:

Drugs are not brought in yet. Don’t let them invade. This is the great light.

The wisdom that is revealed by not being intoxicated is ancient. In this moment when we’re paying attention, that ancient wisdom is here. The drugs that are brought in, in the next moment, they don’t have to be. If we hold our attention for just a moment longer, the light will shine.


It’s extraordinary to me to watch John, Dragon, Shane, and Ryan realizing this liberation. I’ve known them all for a while, some of for many years, and I can see the breaking-free. I can see them using the precepts to express their wisdom. It’s incredible because the environment they’re in is not about breaking free, obviously. It’s rules. The moral philosophy of Sing Sing Correctional Facility is about as subtle as a hyena clan. “These are the rules and if we catch you breaking them, we will snarl and bite at you. So, be a good boy.” And that enforces the hierarchy. Yet somehow, despite the literal and figurative walls imposed on them, they’re taking these precepts as their own. They’re not agreeing to obey them, they’re using them to express their wisdom. This really is incredible to see. I don’t understand it. And if they can do it, we can.

We all have a responsibility to do it as meditators, because there are too few examples of living as an expression of the wisdom of the precepts. We definitely don’t see it in our leaders when we read the news: We don’t see examples of wisdom in action.

Take your pick, but the thing that’s really sticking in my mind right now is Brett Kavanaugh. Despite the pace of events, I still haven’t forgotten watching his testimony. I watched Christine Blasey Ford and then I watched him, and I will never forget that snarling little hyena cub. He’d been plausibly—anybody should agree—plausibly accused of hurting at least one woman. And even if I believe that he forgot that he’d done it, he definitely knew that he drank so much in college that he could have done something like this and forgotten it. And yet he denied that, and he denied the possibility that he’d done anything. He threw a temper tantrum, as if he’d been caught with his hand in his mom’s purse, and he said, “No, I’m a good boy. They started it, it’s not me. You can’t prove it.”

Fifty senators said, yep. Great. You’re right. You deserve to be one of the nine people who makes the final decisions of the great legal, and therefore many of the great moral questions of our nation, because you have proven that you understand the rules in the same way that we do. That because you are the cub of a dominant hyena, like your parents and their parents before them, you get the liver first. And if anybody tries to shove you out of the way, they deserve to be punished. Good enough for us.


So, that’s rules. That’s how rules work. Rules preserve the status quo. Rules are used to keep us narrow, so we don’t get out of line and we don’t upset the hierarchy. And by practicing the precepts together, we are showing the wisdom of the opposite way of being. The great way of being. The way of being that expands and embraces the entire universe. We can use the precepts in this way to realize our power and then to take responsibility for our power. Take responsibility for the magnitude of the effect our actions have, how harmful or helpful. It’s a great responsibility, but we can bear it together, because those of us who practice the precepts together are family.


Image: Het Leven der Dieren, A. E. Brehm 1927