The plethora of acknowledgments for this dense and important book give a sense of what’s to follow: that the dharma is practiced together with all living beings, that the roles of teacher and student, author and reader are transcended. Indeed, when I congratulated Anderson Roshi on what I knew had been years of work, he reminded me—in the spirit of emptiness—of all those who had helped him. The richness of the book stems both from these many relationships as well as Roshi’s own long career, from an early student of Suzuki Roshi to a senior dharma teacher of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Being Upright began as a lengthy project to translate The Essence of Zen Precepts, an interweaving of four diﬀerent texts on the Sixteen Great Bodhisattva Precepts. Its cohesiveness stems from being ordered around the bodhisattva initiation ceremony. This simple but brilliant structure allows for an evolution of complicated ideas. Insights into emptiness ﬂow into the precepts as the precepts ﬂow into one another. In this way, Anderson Roshi shows how the precept of not stealing extends the practice of not killing, and both evolve from the realization of the oneness of life and the lack of separation between self and other.
Roshi’s conviction that the nature of life is selﬂess gives his book power. He sees the precepts as a map of the Buddha mind, that which naturally emerges when all life is seen as mutually supportive. From the insight into the lack of separation between all manifestations of life to that of not leaning into or turning away from suﬀering, one sits upright, one practices the precepts, one becomes a bodhisattva. The precepts are broken when we become ignorant of how the entire universe supports our lives.
Anderson Roshi is particularly eloquent in addressing how we become moved from a conventional view of morality to seeing the ultimate ground for the precepts. For instance, one might break the vow not to be possessive through being stingy, which is “turning away from relatedness to isolation. . . . This is not being upright.” Or on stealing: “You witness a free-ﬂowing giving and receiving between self and other. You understand that everything you see and hear is your self, and thus you forget your limited, independent self, . . . and the precept of not stealing is accomplished.”
Subtle ethical points are also to be expected in such a book. Regarding right speech, Anderson Roshi wonders whether there are times when one should not tell the truth, or whether refraining from the truth becomes a lie by omission. Regarding the precept against the use of intoxicants, he asks whether even by so much as wanting a bit more sunlight in our day, we are living in the mind that turns to intoxicants.
Happily, the subtlety of these reﬂections is explored in Roshi’s storytelling voice. His stories involve encounters between teacher and teacher, student and teacher, student and student. They are prototypical of all encounters in life and often hinge on the pivotal question, “How about you?” Along with more traditional characters, Anderson Roshi includes moving exemplars such as the caretaker of a whooping crane in a zoo, Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and Marlon Brando.
He also recounts personal stories about his teacher Shunryu Suzuki. In one he tells how Suzuki Roshi did his own grocery shopping and always looked carefully at the vegetables to ﬁnd those that were damaged or spoiled. He would select these because “he didn’t want to leave anything abandoned and unappreciated in the market.” Anderson Roshi adds, “Thus I was able to become his disciple.”
This aside reveals a subtext of the book: the author’s candid taking stock of himself in light of the precepts. Many of his stories are about painful moments of moral crises in his sangha and his own life. He teaches that we do not change by deciding to become unselﬁsh or pretending to be selﬂess. The path is not one of restraints of desires but rather of respectfully seeing our destructive impulses so as to realize our original mind that cannot support such impulses. By tenderly inhabiting our body of aﬄictions, we realize their interdependent nature and are liberated from them. So, too, bodhisattvas maintain an intimate dialogue with all things outside themselves and realize the co-arisen nature of reality. From this realization compassion is born.
Anderson Roshi brings us full circle: from compassion we embark on the impossible task of keeping the precepts, and our attempts at upholding the precepts allow us to dance with compassion. The book is a thoughtful challenge to all practitioners to stay with the dance and maintain its circle unbroken.