Seeking the Buddha's Way
Becoming a Buddhist (whatever that means to you) traditionally entails "taking refuge" in the Three Jewels - the Buddha as an example, the teachings that lead to clarity (the Dharma), and a community of people who wish to support each other's growth (the Sangha). This is typically done in ceremony, where people take the Five Precepts (see below for details, but in short, to refrain from killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and becoming intoxicated).
The Five Precepts are not rules to be followed from an external source of ethics; they are not a set of "thou shalts." They are instead a set of questions for us to ask ourselves regularly. What is the correct action to take in any given situation, given the relationships involved? This brings us into contact with our lives, and leads to take more care of others and ourselves. It also can lead to more subtle examinations. For example, the precept against killing seems very simple to understand. But if my daughter comes into the room and says, "Hey Dad, look at this!" and I say, "I can't right now...I'm too busy," is that a form of killing?
People may choose to take the Five Precepts for many reasons, but a typical one is that they want to make a personal commitment to trying to be more present and take more care of their lives. This is often done in a public ceremony. This is similar to a marriage ceremony - the commitment is entirely personal, but it is spoken in a public ceremony so that the couple can feel the support of the community to support them in their vows.
People who wish to broaden their focus to also support the community, may take the Eight Precepts of an Oblate (details below). This is similar to becoming a Deacon, in that your practice of care now includes the broader sangha.
Setting Foot on the Path
A practitioner who decides to dedicate oneself to Buddhist practice typically does so by taking the Five Precepts in a ceremony.
The First Precept: I vow to support all living creatures, and refrain from killing.
The Second Precept: I vow to respect the property of others, and refrain from stealing.
The Third Precept: I vow to regard all beings with respect and dignity, to use sexuality wisely, and refrain from objectifying others.
The Fourth Precept: I vow to be truthful, and refrain from lying.
The Fifth Precept: I vow to maintain a clear mind and refrain from harming myself or others with intoxication.
Taking the Five Precepts means recognizing the importance of practicing and making practice part of everyday life. It means joining a family of other people who have made the same decision, practicing with, and being supported by them. When taking Five Precepts, the practitioner will receive a Buddhist name from the Guiding Teacher.
If students live near a Zen group, they can frequently join others in formal meditation and will find great support practicing within a community of other Zen students. If students live at a distance from a Zen group, they will find it helpful to come to intensive retreats periodically as well as to participate via zoom.
The new student should obtain a purple yungasa, which is a ceremonial cloth (similar to a stole), representative of Buddha’s robe, which is worn over the robe or lay clothes. (See your local Guiding Teacher to arrange the purchase of robes and kasas.) If a yungasa is not possible to purchase, a purple or deep blue 108-bead mala may be used.
It is customary (but not required) to offer a gift to the head preceptor and/or other teachers after a precepts ceremony. This is the Buddhist practice of dana, a Sanskrit/Pali word meaning "generosity." Should you offer something and how much? In the Dana Sutta, the Buddha says, "the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified." Therefore, we encourage you to only give something that fits these criteria - your mind is glad, clear, and gratified. (For more on dana in Buddhism, see here and here, not affiliated with the Ames Mahasangha).
Oblate (Anāgārika / Anagāriya)
Since the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, lay ministers have served an important role in the spreading of the Dharma. The first notable lay minister was Vimalakirti, and his story is contained in the Vimalakirti Sutra. In the Pratimoksha, an Oblate is a person who feels a strong calling to Buddhist practice and lay ministry. It is a status between monk and layperson where one takes on the Eight Precepts. Oblates wear a green yungasa, and may wear grey robes.
Oblates are individuals, either laypersons or clergy, normally living in general society, who have affiliated themselves with a monastic community of their choice. They make a formal, public promise to follow the Eight Precepts. Oblates do not constitute a separate religious order as such, but are considered an extended part of the monastic community.
Role of the Oblate (Anāgārika / Anagāriya)
Oblates often feel a calling to work directly in ministry with the marginalized, the poor, the sick, the dying, the bereaved, the hungry and the imprisoned. Oblates may work in dharma centers, temples, or other Buddhist organizations, where they provide basic instruction and organization in between visits by teachers or monastics. They are not considered teachers but are senior students who help to run the center and lead group practices, along with both providing pastoral care to and officiating ceremonies for their congregants.
Oblates may work as interfaith ministers in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, prisons, private colleges and universities, private secondary schools, airports, corporations, etc. They would obviously be available for people in these organizations who identify as Buddhist, but their primary purpose would be to serve anyone who comes to them, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. In this sense, they would be like any other interfaith minister.
The Eight Precepts (includes the first Five):
The Sixth Precept: I vow to be kind to others and refrain from being boastful and self-centered.
The Seventh Precept: I vow to be generous, to be grateful for what I have, and refrain from yearning for things that do not belong to me.
The Eighth Precept: I vow to promote harmony and refrain from acting in anger or hatred.
There are two important aspects of becoming a Oblate:
- The first is demonstrating an intention to live in a clear, generous, and compassionate way through the example of the student’s everyday life.
- The second is realizing the responsibility and relationship to the Sangha by giving back to the Sangha. This is fulfilled through giving talks, instruction and helping the Zen community with unique skills and energy.
When preparing to become an Oblate, one should obtain a Green Oblate's yungasa. In addition, the Oblate may dress in Buddhist "Short Robes" while performing formal Buddhist work. (See the Guiding Teacher to arrange the purchase of your yungasa and robes).
Students who wish to enter into a life of service can also consider ordination.