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“Waking Up to What You Do,” by Diane Eshin Rizzetto

Waking up to what you doParami reviews a new book highlighting that ethical living does not consist of following rules, but rather involves taking awareness into the moment before action so that we can choose how to respond creatively.

Waking Up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation With Intelligence and Compassion, by Diane Eshin Rizzetto

“A precept can be thought of as a beacon of light, much like a lighthouse beacon that warns sailors that they are entering dangerous waters and guides them on course. It can show us the way but also warns us to Pay Attention! Look! Listen! Sometimes we will change course, other times, if we must reach shore, we will proceed with caution,” writes Diane Rizzetto, the Abbess of the Bay Zen Center in Oakland, California.

This book is an introduction to the ethical precepts of Zen Buddhism as practiced by Rizzetto and her students and she makes them very accessible for practice in daily life. There are 10 precepts and she chooses eight of these and reframes them as “tools of discernment encouraging us to take action that arises out of clear seeing.” The precepts are illustrated with many examples both from Rizzetto’s own life and practice and from the lives of her students, taken from teaching situations. This brings the precepts to life in a way which I think most people will find helpful although personally I thought that the analyses could have gone a bit deeper. I think this is a book which will best serve people who are recent to Buddhist practice and who are trying to find ways of turning theory into practice.

Before approaching the precepts individually, Rizzetto gives an explanation of the whole idea of precepts, emphasizing that they are neither rules nor commandments but discussing them as a “riddle of sorts… challenging our usually prescribed answers.” This addresses the very important area of personal responsibility and the fact that Buddhist ethics are “mind-based.” On this topic, Rizzetto makes it clear that we are working to change our state of mind and she connects our behavior to the practice of awareness. To aid this she includes a simple awareness meditation practice as a useful appendix to the book.

There is an interesting suggestion made of how to pause in the moment of awareness before action. This Rizzetto describes as “the dead spot.” While at first I didn’t find this phrase especially inspiring, on reading the relevant chapter a couple of times I did appreciate the sense of stillness that she is evoking in using this metaphor (it comes from an interview with a trapeze artist that Rizzetto once read).

“Our dead spots can take many forms,” she writes.

“They can occur at the time of major events, like changing a relationship or a profession. It can be the loss of a loved one or indecision over what action to take when faced with a job choice.

“Whatever it is, no matter how big or small, the dead spot appears when we cannot engage in our habitual way of holding and grasping for the bars, either because we are forced to let go or we willfully launch ourselves into midair.

“Life pries our fingers loose and no matter how much we try to avoid it, we end up in the suspended moment, not knowing what comes next.”

According to Rizzetto, it is in this “dead spot” of awareness that we can be fully present to ourselves and from that awareness we can choose to act creatively. And the precepts help us to make our way skillfully in that moment.

Rizzetto then goes on to explore individually each of the eight precepts that she has selected for discussion. These have been chosen, as has the order in which they appear, based on her teaching experience. She has chosen those which most often come up in the lives of her Zen students and that are therefore almost certainly most relevant to her readers. Personally I had to make a bit of an effort to relate to the rather culturally specific nature of some of these examples. Having said that, some of the stories were certainly of more universal interest: problems with mothers; kids who scream in your ear; spouses who leave the sink full of dirty dishes.

As is usual in all traditions of Buddhist practice, the chosen precepts cover behavior of body, speech and mind.

I also found interesting her attempt to link our ethical practice to world situations, though again I would have enjoyed a deeper exploration of this. However, perhaps this book is not the place for such depth but works best as a practical manual for life. She particularly touches this question of social application in the chapter on the precept she translates as I Take Up the Way of Supporting Life.

Overall, I think the book will be helpful to those struggling to establish a Buddhist practice in the midst of their everyday life and, as such, it is useful and timely. A book, of course, can only help us so far and perhaps the most interesting observation is the need to have someone to help guide us in our practice. As a teacher Rizzetto obviously listens hard to her students and helps them to find the relevance in their own lives for the Zen practice she teaches. While examples can be helpful and even inspiring, at the end of the day I think there is no substitute for finding teachers or fellow practitioners who can help us make sense of the beauty of the Buddha’s teachings in our lives and in the world we live in.


Parami Parami is a member of the Western Buddhist Order and is involved full-time in helping people prepare for Ordination.

She is based at primarily at Taraloka, a Buddhist women’s retreat center, but travels extensively to teach, lead retreats, and facilitate workshops.

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