The precepts were originally the rules for the community of Buddha's original followers. Whenever you have a group of people living together, there will always be issues, disputes, and problems. Rules help keep the society running smoothly.
At one time there were hundreds of rules, but they have basically been pared down to the main 16.
First are the Three Devotions:
- Devotion to Buddha; the founder of Buddhism
- Devotion to Dharma; the Universe itself
- Devotion to Sangha; our companions in life
- Observance of rules; follow the rules of society
- Observance of morality; act appropriately in all situations -- act right
- Salvation of all living beings; we are all elements of the Universe
- Don't destroy life
- Don't steal
- Don't desire too much
- Don't lie
- Don't live by selling liquor
- Don't discuss failures of Buddhist priests and laymen
- Don't praise yourself or berate others
- Don't begrudge the sharing of Buddhist teachings and other things, but give them freely
- Don't become angry
- Don't abuse the three supreme values; Buddha Dharma, and Sangha.
During the ceremony you do a bunch of prostrations and repeat a bunch of stuff three times, and then finally you receive your rakusu and your Buddhist name and a copy of the Buddhist lineage from Buddha down through all his disciples, with your name written in last.
Nishijima-sensei made an appearance and he really is a pleasant little guy. Whole thing took about 40 minutes, but add an hour to that to fold up all the robes and put away the alter table and other apparatus.
Buddhism is the ultimate self-help methodology; it's all up to you. There are others to guide and help you, but ultimately you sit on your cushion every day and it's you and your thoughts and your life. It's your responsibility to deal with your own issues and live as you choose. Some people choose to hide from reality through alcohol or drugs or television. Some people make everything someone else's fault; mean boss, uncaring parents, uncaring society. Certainly there are people in the world who aren't helping you, and there's nothing you can do about them. You can, however, do something about how you live your own life.
Someone asked me "how can you be so positive all the time?" which I thought was a silly observation, since I don't think I'm a happy, bubbly optimist. I am a realist though; I know what I can and cannot do. I get upset when things don't go my way or when someone isn't helping, and then I do what I can about it; I get my job done, I cover for the other person, I try to make it right. Not because I'm the hero or want all the praise or because I'm always the smartest but because that's the right thing to do.
And if it's say something at work, I do my job and when I'm done I go home and play with my daughter or go into the dojo or sit in zazen or look at stupid crap on the internet.
It's my life, I can think it's miserable and everyone's out to get me, or I can make the best of it and deal with it and have as much fun as I can.
Zazen is just a way of forcing you to sit quietly, you and your thoughts, to realize that all the crap inside your head is just yours; no one stuck a syringe full of bad thoughts and jammed it into your brain. You put those thoughts into your head, you're the only one who can deal with them and take them out.