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New Moon Ceremony

April 25, 2012

by Stephen Damon

On Monday evening, our sangha held its first New Moon / Full Moon ceremony which provided us with a great occasion to confess our ancient twisted karma, take refuge in The Three Treasures, and reaffirm our committment to the three pure and ten prohibitory precepts, together as a sangha. Since Monday I’ve talked about the ceremony with a couple of our members who all agreed that it opened them to a deeper sense of practice.  So, I’d like to continue those conversations, just a little bit.

It is an ancient ceremony, rooted in pre-Buddhist India, of Vedic lunar sacrifices performed on the nights of the new and full moon. It has been transmitted, with lots of changes and developments, from India through China to Japan and finally to America as Ryaku Fusatsu,. “Fusatsu” means, “to continue good practice.” So we vow to continue the bodhisattva practice, the lifeblood of the buddhas and ancestors, from moment to moment to moment; we are bodhisattvas in training.  We vow to work for the enlightenment of all beings, no matter how hard it is, and no matter how long it takes.  All of our everyday activity, every detail, is done in solidarity and communion with all sentient beings.

The sixteen bodhisattva precepts are more than rules to live by. They go to the heart of our practice, which is to see things as they really are, and to act accordingly. In this light, our practice  is about conduct; how we live on a moment-by-moment basis. It’s about how  we conduct ourselves in relation to the precious teaching that has been handed down to us as well as about how we conduct ourselves in relation to our own life and to the lives of those around us.

Each of the precepts must be taken as literally as possible, but by doing so we need to be aware of their ultimate nature, which cannot be categorized in anyway.  On the deepest level, the precepts disappear and there is only our true nature, unconstrained by anything. But the only way that our nature can be manifested is in our everyday actions.  We are not really talking about distinct levels of reality.  No, we are taking about different perceptions of things as they are.  Our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us are manifestations of different aspects of ourselves.  Dogen said, “To study Buddhism is to study the self.”  I would add that to “study the way in which we understand the precepts is really a study of the self.”  Everything comes back to us, as we are, moment after moment.

Banjan in a commentary on the first prohibitory precept, not to kill, says,

“Living and dying are not before or after. Just not taking life is manifesting the whole works. When we understand that life is the manifestation of the whole works, the words ‘to kill’ and ‘not to kill’ are used as they are understood in the world. When the three worlds are only mind, all things have true marks, and to kill and not to kill are beyond their literal meaning. … In all versions of the Mahayana precepts, not killing is found. Each instance of not to kill is not with reference to beginning and end, but is just not to kill. Not to kill is mind only. Not to kill is the three worlds. Not to kill is sentient beings. Not to kill is not to kill. Not to kill is one precept. Not to kill is ten precepts…”

Thus, the first precept becomes a koan, helping us to see that life and death are truly indivisible. Life and death is one thing. Time passes and every moment we are born and die to that moment. At the end of life, we do not enter something apart from life; we enter time beyond time, and space beyond space, that has been with us even before we were born. This is the ultimate understanding of our life. As bodhisattvas in training we strive to make the conduct of our lives manifest this truth, moment after moment. This is an essential part of our practice.

Of course, following the precepts needs to be part of our daily practice, but we take the occasions of the new moon and the full moon to synchronize our practice with the cosmos.  In a way, it’s a way to see ourselves from a point of view “other than that of the earth.”  it’s a way of seeing ourselves from another dimension of reality. 



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