Ethical Principles


The community life of San Francisco Zen Center is an integral part of our practice and is based on the sixteen bodhisattva precepts. In order to help create a supportive, harmonious and safe environment within our sangha for everyone's practice, we have outlined the significant ways in which these precepts guide and inform our community life.

The sixteen Buddhist precepts are so intimate a part of Zen practice that they have traditionally been called the "blood vein" of the ancestral lineage. The precepts can be understood and interpreted at many levels. They can be understood as supports for the practice of awakening, as the arena of that practice, and as the expression of awakening itself. While Mahayana precepts are sometimes understood from relative and sometimes absolute points of view (for example, that the precepts are never fully accomplished or that they are always fulfilled), no Zen practice can exist without basing one's actions on the sixteen bodhisattva precepts.

There are four caveats that will aid in understanding the intended scope of this statement. First, these principles have been developed in response to specific historical problems and concerns which have arisen in the sangha. As our community changes and evolves, it may be necessary to modify or add to these principles. Second, this statement does not attempt to cover questions of personal conduct that do not have a direct bearing on the community. Third, these principles are not intended to limit our understanding or to be a definitive reading of the precepts. Fourth, these principles do not supersede specific practice center guidelines; rather they are intended to complement and support them.

For reference: Conflict Resolution, Informal and Formal Complaint, and Ethical Review Processes

The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts

The sixteen bodhisattva precepts are an intimate part of Zen practice, helping to create a supportive, harmonious and safe environment within our sangha for everyone.

The Three Refuges

We take refuge in Buddha

In taking refuge in Buddha, we acknowledge the Buddha Nature of all beings. While there are different levels of religious and administrative authority within Zen Center, the sangha recognizes that fundamentally everyone is equally the expression of Buddha Nature.

We take refuge in Dharma

In taking refuge in dharma, we acknowledge the wisdom and compassion of the bodhisattva way of life. It is through this Dharma that we embody, express and make accessible the teachings of the Buddha as conveyed to us through the lineage of the Soto Zen School by the founder Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and other teachers. Realizing that our understanding and practice of Buddhism is one of many approaches, we also acknowledge and respect all other expressions of the Dharma.

We take refuge in Sangha

In taking refuge in sangha, we acknowledge the central role that community life has in our practice. Because part of taking refuge is the offering of refuge, we aspire to create an inclusive environment for everyone's engagement in the Bodhisattva Way. When our diversity appears to separate us, our practice is to engage in a careful process of recognizing, understanding, and appreciating our differences. In so doing, we affirm and respect our differences and similarities in gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political belief, and physical abilities and appearances. In creating an inclusive sangha, it is essential that we encourage open, ongoing communication among all residential and non- residential sangha members, and that any ethical concerns or conflicts which arise are fully heard and addressed by the Zen Center community in an appropriate forum. To facilitate this, San Francisco Zen Center members are encouraged to study the religious and communal contexts, reasons, and limits for authority and decision-making at San Francisco Zen Center.

The Three Pure Precepts

The three pure precepts are inseparable from the bodhisattva practice taught at San Francisco Zen Center. They represent the aspiration of every bodhisattva.

To do no evil:

To do no evil means to refrain from causing harm to oneself, to others, to animals, to plants, to the earth, to the waters and to the air.

To do good:

To do good means to uncover and to act from the loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity of our awakened nature. In our effort to live ethically, we embrace and rely upon the time-honored Mahayana practices of confession, repentance, atonement, and reconciliation.

To save all beings: 

To save all beings means to offer people the opportunity to discover and express their awakened nature. In creating this opportunity we recognize the importance of maintaining a balance between an individual's negotiation of the way and San Francisco Zen Center's collective religious and institutional needs. When there is a perceived conflict between these, the process of open communication and clarification is a practice of "saving all beings."

The Ten Essential Precepts

The ten essential precepts are inseparable from both Buddha Nature and our relations with each other. They are the strands of Indra's Net.

1. A disciple of Buddha does not kill but rather cultivates and encourages life.

This precept expresses the bodhisattva’s intent to live compassionately and harmlessly. When understood in its broadest context, not killing can also be understood as not harming, especially not harming the body or psyche of another.

Thus, physical violence and abusive behavior (which includes physical threats, extreme displays of anger and maliciousness) are a kind of “killing.” In cultivating life we encourage open inquiry into and discussion of the dharma and into the sources of religious and institutional authority at San Francisco Zen Center.

In keeping with the aspiration of harmlessness, all firearms and other weapons designed principally for taking life have no place within these practice places.

We also acknowledge our role, either directly or in complicity with others, in the killing of other forms of life. As a sangha, when institutional questions of killing animals, plants and insects arise, we must carefully consider our real needs and our bodhisattva-inspired responsibilities to work for the benefit of all beings.

2. A disciple of Buddha does not take what is not given but rather cultivates and encourages generosity.

This precept expresses the bodhisattva’s commitment to live from a generous heart rather than from an avaricious mind. At a personal level, avaricious behavior harms the person who steals; on a community level, stealing can harm or even destroy the opportunity and the environment for Zen practice. Those who handle sangha funds or other assets also have a special responsibility to take care of them and avoid their deliberate misuse or misappropriation, both of which are institutional forms of stealing.

In addition, we recognize that the misuse of authority and status is a form of taking what is not given. Within the complex life of the sangha various hierarchical levels of authority and seniority play a role in some situations and not in others. It is particularly important that individuals in positions of trust do not misuse their status or authority as a way to achieve special privileges and consideration or otherwise control or inappropriately influence others.

3. A disciple of the Buddha does not misuse sexuality but rather cultivates and encourages honest and caring relationships.

The San Francisco Zen Center leadership recognizes that sexuality is as much a part of the field of practice as any other aspect of our life. Acknowledging and honoring our sexuality is part of creating an environment where conscious, mindful, and compassionate relationships can be cultivated.

Everyone coming to San Francisco Zen Center in any capacity has the right to be free from sexual harassment*, including not being shamed for their sexual lives or orientation. “Misusing sexuality” is causing harm to self or others through the way we express our sexual energy. In order to avoid unintentional harm, we strive to understand the impact our sexual behavior has, not only on ourselves and our sexual partners, but on all our social and sangha relationships. Continued expression of sexual interest after being informed that such interest is unwelcome is “misusing sexuality.”

Because we acknowledge intimate relationships as part of Zen practice, we expect students living residentially at San Francisco Zen Center to discuss with residential teachers any intention they have to begin a new exclusive/romantic/sexual relationship.

The San Francisco Zen Center's leadership is committed to the following guidelines in order to avoid the harm and confusion that can result from relationships which entail power inequalities. Consultation with leadership is required when people of unequal status or authority consider engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship. Sexual or exclusive relationships that involve teachers in the community with their own students are rarely able to happen in a healthy way, and are therefore strongly discouraged.

(1) An adult within San Francisco Zen Center who engages in sexual behavior with anyone who is a minor (under 18) is misusing sexuality*. Full responsibility for avoiding such relationships lies with the adult.

(2) Any teacher or practice leader who has an established student–teacher relationship in which a risk of becoming romantically involved has arisen, must suspend the teacher–student relationship during the period of consultation with senior leadership.

(3) Any senior dharma teacher, abbot or abbess, visiting teacher, tanto, corporate officer, or director finding themselves attracted to and considering acting on, or expressing their attraction to, either residential or non-residential students or guests at SFZC must discuss the attraction with their own teacher as well as the Abbots Group (the Central Abbot, the Abiding Abbots of Green Gulch Farm and City Center, and the Abiding Teacher at Tassajara). The recommended courses of action or consequences determined by the Abbots Group will be considered final.

(4) A San Francisco Zen Center practice leader, priest, or senior staff member who is considering forming a sexual relationship or expressing this interest with someone living or practicing at San Francisco Zen Center where the relationship entails unequal levels of authority and influence, must discuss the potential relationship not only with their teacher but also with the practice leadership of the temple where they are in residence. The recommended courses of action or consequences determined by the practice leadership will be considered final.

(5) The Six Month Guideline: Restraint regarding sexual behavior for new students is supported by the guideline to not begin an intimate or exclusive relationship within the first six months of residency. Senior students are requested to follow this guideline which allows a new student time to settle into residential practice without having to deal with romantic relationship issues. Any students who find themselves attracted to another student within this time frame must talk to the practice leaders. The recommended courses of action or consequences determined by the practice leadership will be considered final.

California State Definition of “Sexual Harassment”*

California State regulations define sexual harassment as unwanted sexual advances, or visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This definition includes many forms of offensive behavior and includes gender-based harassment of a person of the same sex as the harasser. The following is a partial list of prohibited behavior:

  • Visual conduct: leering, making sexual gestures, displaying of sexually suggestive objects or pictures, cartoons or posters.
  • Verbal conduct: making or using derogatory comments, epithets, slurs and jokes. Verbal abuse of a sexual nature, graphic verbal commentaries about an individual’s body, sexually degrading words used to describe an individual.
  • Physical conduct: touching, assault, impeding or blocking movements.
  • Offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors.
  • Making or threatening retaliatory action after receiving a negative response to sexual advances.

*In addition, sexual activity with a minor may be a violation of California Penal Code Section 261.5 and a person convicted of such a crime is subject to criminal and civil penalties.

4. A disciple of Buddha does not lie but rather cultivates and encourages truthful communication.

The precept “not to lie” is particularly important for the community life of a practicing sangha. While ethical transgressions can involve any of the precepts, many of these difficulties would not arise were there not an element of deceit involved. Lying to oneself, to another or to one's community obscures the nature of reality and hinders the intention of bodhisattva practice. Within our community life, lying can also entail the deliberate withholding of information.

Open and direct communication is essential in our work and practice together. We are each entitled to straightforward, complete information when we request feedback regarding our behavior, standing, or performance within the community. We can expect, upon request, for this to be given by appropriate persons in the spirit of honesty and compassion.

Students at San Francisco Zen Center should feel that they can carefully explore the dharma and study the self in an atmosphere of trust. Teachers and practice leaders shall not disclose information they receive in dokusan or practice discussion when confidentiality is requested and agreed to, unless serious harm may result to individuals or to the sangha if the information is not disclosed.

Even when there is no specific request for confidentiality, such information is not to be shared casually under any circumstances by either of the people involved in the conversation. In the collaborative teaching process at San Francisco Zen Center, however, consultation among teachers regarding matters that are not strictly confidential may be appropriate, particularly where residential students are involved. All those who engage in such consultations should make every effort to ensure it is done in a sensitive, fair and respectful manner.

5. A disciple of Buddha does not intoxicate self or others but rather cultivates and encourages clarity.

Bodhisattva practice occurs within the context of clear presence and mindfulness and a state of mind that is not conditioned by intoxicants of any sort. When enough clarity is lost it is all too easy to break the other precepts. Furthermore, it is our intention for San Francisco Zen Center to be an environment that supports those who are attempting to live without intoxicants.

Therefore, alcohol or drug intoxication within San Francisco Zen Center is inappropriate and is cause for concern and possible intervention. When any resident is involved in abusive or addictive use of intoxicants, it is important to remember that release from all attachments lies at the heart of Buddhist practice and he or she is expected to seek help with the counsel of a practice leader. Because denial is frequently a symptom of addiction, the sangha is encouraged to help addicted persons recognize the need for help.

6. A disciple of Buddha does not slander others but rather cultivates and encourages respectful speech.

This precept arises from a bodhisattva’s efforts to build social concord and understanding. False and malicious statements in and of themselves are acts of alienation from oneself and others.

The consequence of slander is often pain for others and divisiveness in the community. Where the intention to slander does arise, the effort to understand its roots is an expression of this precept.

7. A disciple of Buddha does not praise self at the expense of others but rather cultivates and encourages self and others to abide in their awakened nature.

While rejoicing in one’s wholesome qualities and deeds is a time-honored Buddhist practice, praising oneself or seeking personal gain at the expense of others arises out of a misunderstanding of the interdependent nature of self. Within the institution of San Francisco Zen Center it is sometimes necessary to criticize the action of certain individuals or groups; when doing so one should pay particular attention to one's motive and to the specific content of what is said and to whom it is said.

8. A disciple of Buddha is not possessive of anything but rather cultivates and encourages mutual support.

All positions including that of the abbess or abbot, are for the support of everyone’s practice and awakening. Neither the resources of San Francisco Zen Center nor any position within the organization are the possession of any one person. It is not appropriate for anyone, especially a teacher, to use his or her relationship to San Francisco Zen Center for personal gain or fame at the expense of the sangha or the practice-intention of its members.

In the spirit of non-possessiveness, decision-making bodies should make decisions together in a cooperative and accountable manner, and with a wholehearted effort to consider all points of view. It is particularly important that the organization’s finances, decision-making structure, and minutes of major decision-making bodies be made available in an accessible and understandable form.

9. A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill-will but rather cultivates and encourages loving-kindness and understanding.

The harboring of ill-will is a poison for individuals and for the community. Even more corrosive is the harboring of ideas of revenge. San Francisco Zen Center sangha members having conflicts or tensions with others or with decision-making bodies should attempt to resolve them with anyone directly involved in a spirit of honesty, humility and loving-kindness. However, if informal resolution is not possible, mediation should be sought as a way to clarify the difficulty.

10. A disciple of Buddha does not abuse the Three Treasures but rather cultivates and encourages awakening, the path and teaching of awakening and the community that takes refuge in awakening.

As the three treasures are inseparable from one another, awakening informs our practice and our community life, practice informs our community life and our awakening, and our community life informs our awakening and our practice. To abuse any one of the treasures harms the other two. To acknowledge our transgressions, to seek reconciliation, and to renew our commitment to the precepts is the working of Buddha Nature and re-establishes our place in the sangha. When the sangha is complete the Triple Treasure manifests.