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Jukai – Prelude and Fugue

Updated: May 26, 2023

The Prelude – Taking Refuge


I first heard of Jukai sometime after arriving at the Zen Center of New York. I understood that it was the ceremony of becoming a Buddhist. But when it came right down to taking Jukai, I didn’t think of it that way. I thought of it as Taking Refuge. That for me, rather idiosyncratically it seems, was the heart of the ceremony.


Buddham Saranam Gacchami.

Dhammam Saranam Gacchami.

Sangham Saranam Gacchami.

Taking Refuge in the Buddha.

Taking Refuge in the Dharma.

Taking Refuge in the Sangha.


“Taking Refuge in…” was the way I thought of it. Bernie preferred alternative language: “Being One with the Buddha in the Ten Directions. Being One with the Dharma in the Ten Directions. Being One with the Sangha in the Ten Directions.”


It meant the same thing.


This was something I knew I could do, Taking Refuge. I had already done it, in my mind, in my heart, while I was still sitting with Kyudo Roshi at the Soho Zendo. During my mid-life crisis, searching for inner peace, I had found the Soho Zendo. I had created a mantra for myself: “Without inner peace, nothing else matters; with inner peace, nothing else matters.” Sitting weekly at the Soho Zendo, sitting daily on my cushion at home, attending sesshins with Kyudo twice a year, I was catching a glimpse of inner peace.


What is inner peace?


Not perpetual bliss but faith in the face of turmoil that this too will pass. Whatever “it” is, I will be able to sit through it. Maybe not in a 30-minute sitting period, maybe not in 2 periods, maybe not in a day or a week. Maybe at some point, I will have to go on an extended retreat – in the earliest years, I always pictured the Zen Mountain Monastery although now I think of Upaya, -- for as long as it takes. Eventually, I will sit through it. That was my Refuge.


That was my Faith, sitting through whatever arises.


That was a very strange experience, that experience of Faith. Until then, until I said that to myself, I had no idea what faith was. I had grown up without faith. “Faith” was never spoken of in our house. I still have no certainty that I am using the word correctly. In that faith was the inner peace.


Without the words and without even realizing it, in taking Refuge, I was embracing impermanence. There is great comfort in knowing that the “moments” of suffering in my life will pass; the “bad times” will not last forever.


I always knew there was an obverse. The “good times” will not last forever either. That is my koan now.


The good times, this wonderful life, will not last forever.


“Appreciate your life.” Maezumi Roshi said this over and over again.


Appreciate your life.


Appreciate its impermanence.

This does not mean simply to appreciate your life today because it is going to end, to live in the moment, for the moment, although that too is a good idea.

Appreciate your life because it is impermanent.

Appreciate your impermanence.


The Fugue – Taking the Precepts



Quite literally, Jukai means to give/receive the precepts. “Kai” is the precepts. Literally, in taking the precepts one is accepting them as the guideposts to follow on the path to enlightened behavior. In our Jukai class with Roshi Jishu, we spent time bowing to each of the ancestors in our lineage, and we supported each other in sewing our Rakusus which we understood to be representative of the Buddha’s robe. But the bulk of our time was devoted to the study of the precepts.


We worked with each of the Ten Grave Precepts, one at a time, spending the first week or two between classes reflecting each evening on the ways in which that precept had arisen during the day. Then we each wrote a reflective essay, using our journaling as data. Our assignment was to look at this raw material from multiple points of view. From the Hinayana perspective, we worked with the precepts literally. From the Mahayana point of view, we worked with the precepts metaphorically. From the Buddhayana point of view we worked with the precepts from the perspective of the Absolute. We also looked at our raw material from the points of view of each of the Three Pure Precepts.


There are two different ways in which the relationship between the precepts and enlightenment are understood in Zen. In a very straight forward way, the precepts can be looked at as guideposts on the pathway to enlightenment. This is probably the way they looked to me at first. The Ten Grave Precepts do, after all, look so much like the Ten Commandments. If I had thought about them this way very long, I probably couldn’t have done Jukai. I was too much the rebel. I didn’t like being told what I couldn’t do. “Don’t eat this, don’t eat that,” was not for me, although I had spent a couple of years not eating mammals.

Fortunately, Bernie and Jishu offered an alternative view. At least, I took it as an alternative. With Jishu’s guidance, I was using the precepts to increase my self-awareness, to pay attention. For instance, during the month of Non-Killing, I was journaling each night the ways that killing and non-killing, literally and metaphorically, had arisen during the day, swatting flies as well as killing time.


For me, this was a wonderful practice. Precepts were tools for mindfulness rather than rules of conduct. Working with the precepts in this way seemed to be deepening my practice, expanding my peace. This way seemed to be supported by Dogen Zenji who had taught that when one achieved Enlightenment (whatever that meant), one’s behavior was naturally consistent with the precepts.


I loved this way of working with the Precepts. I could take Jukai, take Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha without having to beat myself up all the time for “bad” behavior. For years now, I have taught the Precepts in this way.


Now I am wondering, “Have we gone too far in working with the precepts as tools for mindfulness?” Maybe we should also be working with them as rules of behavior. Since Tokudo, I have had some interesting experience in working with Precepts as rules of conduct. Here’s one of them.


This story begins immediately after my Tokudo ceremony. Three of us took Tokudo together, and Jishu suggested that we all go out afterwards for a celebratory meal at a near-by restaurant with our guests and other members of the Sangha. I was excited. It felt like a graduation of sorts. I had a great time.


A couple of days later, I got a call from a Dharma friend, Claude Thomas. Claude told me that he thought I drank too much at the party, that I had a drinking problem. It was hard for me to dismiss what he said. Claude had come back from Viet Nam with all kinds of substance problems, had struggled to overcome them, and was then working with other vets who were still struggling with their addictions.


Was I drinking too much?


This wasn’t the first time I’d had this worrying thought. When I was in social work school, during a presentation on Alcoholics Anonymous, a classmate shared ten questions. “If you answer, ‘yes’ to any one of these, you have an alcohol problem.” I had laughed. Everyone I knew in college would have answered “yes” to at least six.


“I don’t need to drink,” I said to Claude although I knew that that’s what everybody said.

“So don’t have a drink for a year,” said Claude.


“Ok.” I stopped drinking. I became aware of how central my glass of wine had become, driving home from work, thinking about what wine I would have and then remembering that I wasn’t drinking.


In not drinking, I became aware of the attachment.


Only twice during the year did I allow myself exceptions, both times at dinner in Manhattan with old friends who I hadn’t seen in years. And then after each exception, I went back to non-drinking. After eleven months, I allowed myself to end my abstinence practice. But this precept practice made a difference. The Tokudo party had not been such an exception. There were probably occasions most months, sometimes more than once in a month in which I drank too much. I have gone back to enjoying my glass of wine but there is moderation now where there once was excess.


I am wondering now, when preparing for Jukai, could I have worked with the precepts as both tools for reflection and rules of conduct? Did it have to be either/or?


Or was I not ready for that then?


Would the precepts as rules have seemed way too Puritanical?


Would they have scared me off?

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