Then something shifted. Ashoka changed. He took Buddhist vows and publicly expressed his repentance. He atoned and declared that he would never draw his sword for any reason. He vowed to devote his life to nonviolence. He entered the practice path of mindfulness, self-control, serenity, and wisdom. Not only did he renounce war, he also established a government that for three hundred years would have no need to exercise force in instituting laws. Education flourished, health care improved dramatically. Ashoka’s history is especially remarkable because all of these changes occurred at the zenith of his power. He could easily have continued his campaign. Yet he saw something—something about the true nature of power, that made him renounce war and violence and turn to peace and nonviolence. If this shift happened once, it can happen again.

It is also fascinating in Ashoka’s case that the bordering countries did not take advantage of his pacifism. They did not attack. There were no internal revolts within the empire. His was a very peaceful and enduring reign. The moral and ethical teachings of the Buddha have been around for twenty-five hundred years, yet even among Buddhists there are very few who are aware of their existence, much less their application. In these days when the breakdown of social values and a general discontentment with our way of life is so distressing to so many, the Buddha’s teachings are an especially important gift that Buddhist practitioners can bring to the West.

Because of the extent and accessibility of all types of communication, there is a window of opportunity open to make this wisdom available to a great number of people. It can be communicated in ways that are accessible and relevant. Most important, though, Buddhist practitioners must take responsibility for manifesting these teachings in their lives, and must recognize their manifestation in others’ lives as well.

All of the Buddha’s teachings are really none other than the precepts: the vow to give life to the Buddha, to return to the heart of being. Any time we renew our precept vows, we renew our ability to practice them more vigorously. Practicing them does not mean never violating them. It means practicing them, and like practicing the breath, we are always starting new, starting fresh. This is right action. When you practice the precepts, you create an energy around you that is palpable to others.

This practice is contagious. Zazen is contagious. Living the precepts is contagious. Realizing the ground of being and actualizing it in our lives is contagious. Your practice transforms not only you but all those who come in contact with you. We have a wonderful gift at our disposal in these teachings of the Buddha; we should vow together that this gift will continue to heal and nourish all beings for countless generations to come. In making that vow, we realize the Buddha’s precepts, we realize the heart of being as our own heart, the heart of all beings.

John Daido Loori, Roshi (1931-2009) was the founding teacher of the Mountains and Rivers Order and Zen Mountain Monastery, where he served as abbot until his death in 2009. He is the author of numerous books, including The Eight Gates of Zen and The Zen of Creativity.

From The Heart of Being: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen Buddhism. Copyright © 2009 by Dharma Communications.