Read the Article in the San Francisco Chronicle


Waking Up to What You Do: A Zen Practice For Meeting Every Situation With Intelligence And Compassion

By Diane Eshin Rizzetto

Questions and Answers

1. The title of your book is “Waking Up to What You Do” what you do mean by that?

No matter who we are, no matter what our background, whether or not we have a spiritual practice, whether we live on a mountaintop or drive the freeways, as human beings we can’t escape the fact that we must engage in events as they unfold in our lives and make choices about our actions. The question is how will we do that? When we wake up, we begin looking into what goes on in our choice of action. We wake up to our habitual reactionary patterns of behavior and how they blind us to the reality of whatever situations life sends our way. The Zen Buddhist precepts are tools to help us wake up to what we do.

2. For those of us not steeped in Buddhism, what are the precepts?

There are ten Zen Buddhist precepts. In the book I talk about eight that I feel are most relevant to non-monastic, every day practice:

1. I take up the way of speaking truthfully
2. Speaking of others with openness and possibility
3. Meeting others on equal ground
4. Cultivating a clear mind
5. Taking only what freely is given and giving freely of all that I can
6. Engaging in sexual intimacy respectfully and with an open heart
7. Letting go of anger
8. Supporting life

The precepts are simple yet extremely effective tools by which we can wake up to the intentions and consequences of our actions and in doing so lead us in to a full more compassionate and sensible way of being in this world. They include what it means to speak truthfully, what it means to let go of anger and what it means to engage in sexual intimacy responsibly and with an open heart.

3. How do the precepts deal with everyday situations?

How we hold on to anger in our relationships, on our jobs, the way we drive the freeways; how we might engage in sexual intimacy whether we’re in a long-term relationship or not; how we measure ourselves against others and how we take what isn’t ours to take and hold back from giving freely. They also ask us to face our position on larger issues like violence, euthanasia, abortion and so forth. These are just a few that are very relevant to all of us no matter what our life situation.

4. Can you give an example of how this might work for a person working with the precepts?

There’s a story in the book about a man who had an ongoing difficult situation with his sister who keeps coming to him for money, and he complains to his wife that his sister “is such an irresponsible screw-up”. He realizes this is a “reaction” and has frozen his sister in a negative way. Using the precepts “Speaking of Others with Openness and Possibility” and “Meeting Others on Equal Ground” he discovers he has defined how she “should be”, that she should always take care of herself and be self-sufficient. He begins realizing he holds this same belief about other people and himself. Delving deeper he realizes his reactive thinking is a way to avoid the pervasive sadness and fear that is connected not only to his sister and him, but his sadness and fear for others in the position of not being able to care for themselves --- i.e., homeless, orphans, starving people around the world.

5. What is the process that one goes through in understanding the motivation and consequences of our actions?

Begin by waking up to what we're doing- just watching without guilt. This is the first level. Then we spiral a little deeper, using a meditative inquiry to find out what beliefs, patterns of thought, are fueling that behavior. Finally we spiral deep enough to see that it's a behavior that we address not just towards others but also ourselves. This leads us to the discovery and acceptance of others and ourselves. Quite different from some of the more traditional guidelines for behavior that may drop us into negative thinking, blame and guilt. This is not the intention of the Buddhist precepts. The intention is to wake us up to our action but in doing so, bring us in direct awareness of the loving, compassionate and wise intelligence that every person on the planet has the potential to tap.

6. Why did you write the book?

After many years of discovering the impact that the precepts have had on shaping my own life and that of my students and witnessing and seeing the dramatic difference in our lives when we learn how we deal with the difficulties in our life rests in our choice of action, I wanted to make these teachings accessible to anyone, whatever their background, whatever their life situation-whether they drive the freeway everyday or live on a mountain top. So the book presents honest, real life circumstances, some from my own life and many from my students lives that you and I can connect with easily.

7. Why did you choose to offer the precepts as aspirations instead of prohibitions as one might find in a more traditional rendition?

The power of working with the precepts lies in their capacity to point us toward our natural propensity to take action out of our love and concern for one another or what is described in Buddhism as our innate wisdom and goodness. The prohibitory expression of course has some usefulness in providing some parameters for our behavior, but I want to encourage people to go beyond the just don’t do it! As aspirations, the precepts invite us to willingly grapple with the slipperiness of what’s the best action to take given the circumstance of any given situation.

8. How do the precepts differ from other way of looking at our behavior, for example the Ten Commandments?

There are many systems for exploring our reactionary behavior. I only present one here—the Zen Buddhist precepts whose purpose is to wake us up to what we are doing, not what we shouldn’t be doing. They hand over to us authority, responsibility and choice for our actions.

9. How can working with the precepts help us in a world that seems overridden with forces based on greed and ignorance?

The precepts can serve as an anchor in a troubled world by giving us direction, if only to stop, look and listen, to what we’re doing as we go about our most ordinary activities of living—buying our groceries, correcting our children, facing the homeless person on the street, and so on. The precepts won’t fix all the troubles in the world, but each of us can take the responsibility to cultivate the ability to be aware and awake so that we deal with everyday situations by making choices that are responsible and sane. If just a few people did this in every community, there’s no doubt it will have a very powerful effect on the rest of the world.

10. Who can benefit from working with the precepts?

Anyone who is willing to do the work of facing themselves squarely.

To learn more about the Bay Zen Center please visit their web site at

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