Buddhism Is Not a Special Teaching; Enlightenment Is Not a Particular Stage

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Wednesday, August 23, 1967
Sesshin Lecture No. 4 [sic]
Zen Mountain Center, Tassajara


Buddhism is not any special teaching, and enlightenment is not any particular stage you attain. When you understand your life completely, that is Buddhism. So, approach to it is not the same, but as long as you study it sincerely, you will reach the same goal. And even though you think you find out some new teaching, but almost all the teaching which we find out is already found out by some teachers in Buddhism. So, Buddhism is the accumulation of our human experience, you may say. So, whatever it is, when you make your effort on it, there is way.

But some—some people always trying to find out some way for himself—some particular way for himself. That is not the true way to study; this kind of idea is utterly wrong. So, we say, “Don't seek for any particular enlightenment,” you see. Enlightenment is not something particular. So, when you start to study Buddhism, expecting that Buddhism will give you some particular teaching, and if you think that is good, you may study, and if you cannot satisfy your expectations, you will give up. This kind of study is not our study.

So here [in the “Genjo-koan”] Dogen Zenji says, “When a fish swims—swims in the ocean, there is no end to the water, no matter how far it swims. When a bird flies in the sky, there is no end to the air, no matter how far it flies. ” When you think the sky or the water is something special and find out—try to find out its end, you cannot, you know. You have no chance to study, because you cannot reach the end of the water or limit of the air. So, he says "No matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air. However, a fish and bird do not leave their elements.” However—fish or bird is not out of the air, you see, or out of the water. Fish—water or air we stud[y]—we want to study is for everyone, not particular things. You cannot live without water or without air.

"The fish and bird do not leave their elements. When the use is large, it is used largely. When the use is small, it is used in the small way.” Anyway, whether you are aware of it or not, you are in the air, and you are in the water, and according to the way you live, there may be a large—or much—or a less water. But the water under the--some limitation is--is not whole water you want to study. But even though it is small amount of water, it is water, and it is the sky.

“When the use is small, it is used in the small way. Though it flies everywhere, if the bird leaves the air, it will die at once.” Our way is like a air or water—our way we study is like a air or a water. So, before you try to figure out what it is, you should practice it, you should live in the water and in the sky, that is how to–how you study Buddhism. Not by trying to find out what it is but – intellectuality, but with all of your mind and body, you should practice our way.

“The bird makes life and the fish – fish makes life. Life makes the bird, and life makes the fish. There are further analogies possible to illustrate.” Bird and life, which is water or sky, is the same thing. So, bird makes life and the fish makes life. Fish is–fish made of water, bird made of water [air?], and life made of bird, and life made of fish. Life and bird or fish, or water and sky, and fish and bird, is not different. “There are further analogies possible to illustrate –” There may be many ways of analyzing this truth.“ – In this way, practice, enlightenment, mortality and eternality – eternity.” So, mortality and —eternity is one, practice and enlightenment is one. Bird and sky is one. In this way we should understand it. So, where you practice it, there is a way, there is enlightenment.

“However[?], if a bird or fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it [laughs], this bird, or this fish, will not find its way or its place. When we find our place at this moment, when we find our way at this moment, then practice follows, and this is the realization of the truth. For the place and the way are neither large nor small.” Our way is—cannot be large—cannot be compared with some other practice. Each practice is perfect, and including everything, and it is[?]independent.

"So, neither subject nor object." There is no subject—subject who practice it or no object who is practiced—which is practiced. "They have not existed from the beginning." They have not existed from the beginning. When you practice it, the reality appears. Reality did not exist before you practice it. “So they have not existed from the beginning, and they are not in the process of realization.” Each moment is realization, and it is not in the process of realization. ??? if you understand? [Laughs] It is not process, you know. But it is, at the same time, process of, you know, changing into some other practice, but although your practice is continuous one, but at the same time it is discontinuous. Today, you know, you have done something [laughs]. What you have done will be continued tomorrow [laughter]. But even though we do not know anything about tomorrow, you know. Tomorrow—when you say tomorrow – the tomorrow is, you know, included in present. You are always—your work has its own tomorrow and own past. Tomorrow what you have done will have its own past and future, you see? What you have done today, tomorrow will be--will belong to past—tomorrow's past. [Laughs] tomorrow is future. So, it is not same. Do you understand? [Laughs.] Not--not same at all. Tomorrow is independent, and today is independent.

There must be some relationship, but although there are relationship, it is not—you cannot compare what you have done today to the—to the things you will do tomorrow. So you must be satisfied what you did— what you did tomorrow—today. Tomorrow you should be satisfied with what you will do tomorrow. So, when you compare what you have done today to the things what you will do tomorrow, that is to compare oil to the water [laughs]. You cannot compare it. Oil is oil and water is water. You cannot say which is better. But we cannot ignore the relationship between the two things, or between many things, but each one is independent. So, each one include everything. You may say what you have done is small, but that's because you compare it. But actually, you should not compare.

“They have not existed—existed from the beginning, and they are not in the process of realization.” They are not in the process of realization. Do you understand? Your practice—practice is not process of [laughs] realization. So, will you give up? [Laughter, laughs.] If your practice is not in process of realization [laughs], better to give up, if there is no hope [laughs, laughter]—if there is no hope [laughs]. You see this kind of practice is not our practice. Even though you practice our way whole lifetime, some may attain enlightenment and some may not [laughs]. You see? If so, do you give up your practice?

When I say some may and some may not, it means—some may—when I compare someone's practice to the--the other's practice, they're different. But your own practice itself is independent and perfect, originally. So, what is wrong is the comparison [laughs]. You are limiting your value of—actual value of your practice. Your small mind limits—give limitation to your true practice, that is all. So, it is not the practice which should be—which is—it is not the practice that you—that is good or bad, but it is your understanding—because of your understanding, you make practice good or bad. So, in this—so we say do not seek for some particular enlightenment, you see. You should satisfied with your practice, and you should practice hard moment after moment. Then there is enlightenment.

“Thus, in our practice of Buddhism, when we gain one truth, we master one—that one truth. In our practice of Buddhism, when we gain one truth, we master that one truth. And if we encounter one activity, we complete that activity. Here is the place, and here leads the way." Where there is place, there is a way. That is complete practice, without saying this is good or bad practice. When you encounter one activity, you should do it with your best effort. That is Dogen[?].

Therefore, he says, “Understanding is not always possible because it is—understanding is not possible because it is simultaneous with the complete attainment of the Buddhist—Buddha's teaching.” The complete attainment comes simultaneously, at the same time, when you practice it. So [laughs] it is not possible to understand what it is, you know. If it comes one by one, in different time, you will have chance to see what is Buddha's teaching and what is practice, actual practice. But when it comes at the same time [laughs], you know, when you are practicing it, there's already attainment. So, there's no way for us to know it, the other side, which is the attainment—what you have attained.

When you are busy in working on something, you know, it—it is not possible to see what you have done. If you want to see, you have to stop doing it [laughter, laughs] watch, then will you know it--what you have done. So, it is not possible to see what you have done. Even though you—it is not possible, when you have done something, there is attainment [laughs]. There's no doubt in it, so—but usually we are very curious [laughs] about what you have done [laughs]—we have done. That is all right. But when you see it, you are already put your practice in limitation, and you compare it to some attainment. And you—sometime you will be—when your attainment is better than what you did, or than someone attained, you will be pleased with it [laughs]. But if it is not, you will be discouraged. But that is not because your attainment is not good enough—is not perfect.

“Understanding is not possible because it is simultaneous with the complete attainment of the Buddha's teaching. Do not suppose that what we realize is knowledge in the term of concept.” So, what you have, in term of knowledge about what you have done, is not the same as you realized it. “Though we have already attained supreme enlightenment, we may not necessary see it. Some may, and some may not." This is very important point and the secret of the teaching. “Don't suppose that what we realize is knowledge in term of concept. Though we have already attained supreme enlightenment—." The secret attainment, attainment which is more than you understand—secret attainment, he said, cannot be seen by you. How does it appear to you is not necessary be the same way.

As you know, we live in the world of mostly perception. So, ??? it is difficult for us to be satisfied with everything, when you—your understanding accord with the things you see or you think. But we have to know that when we see or when we think, everything you see or everything you think is under some limitation. You are not seeing or thinking about the thing itself. This point should be remembered. So, what you see, what you understand, in term of concept, is not always truth. This is the secret of Buddhism. This point should be remembered completely.

So don't be disturbed by the idea you have in your mind. But it does not mean that you can ignore your thinking. Thinking should be systematic, and should be right. But even though it is right, that is not complete. And what you think is right is not always right. But most people attach to the truth you have, you understand, and so the confusion arise from this hasty understanding. This is very, very important point.

I will continue one more lecture about this fascicle, and after I completed this fascicle of Genjo Koan, Realization of—what does he?—Truth, Reverend Maezumi will give us some lecture. And it may be a good idea to have some discussion with you sometime, so that you can discuss many things with us. And we have Dr. Stunkard there, and many good teachers here, so discussion will be very good, I think, I hope. Thank you very much.

Previous version (Un-verbatim PDF) transcribed by Brian Fikes. Text reformatted and notes amended by Bill Redican 2/20/02. New version based on transcript on Engage Wisdom by Shundo David Haye and made verbatim by Peter Ford 5/2022.

File name: 67-08-23: Buddhism Is Not a Special Teaching; Enlightenment Is Not a Particular Stage (Verbatim) Original transcript edited by Brian Fikes.

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In Wind Bell, Vol. 40, issue 1, 2006