To Polish a Tile

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

September 1, 1967 [8-31 is Thursday]
Los Altos, Calif.


Zen story or Zen koan is very difficult to understand before you understand what we are doing moment after moment. But if you know exactly what we are doing moment after moment it is not so difficult to understand. There are many and many koans. Recently I talked about a frog (several times). Whenever I talked about a frog they laughed and laughed. When you come and sit here you may think you are doing some special thing while your husband is sleeping you are here practicing zazen. And you are doing some special thing and your husband is lazy. That is -- maybe your understanding of zazen. But look at the frog. A frog also sits like this but it has no idea of zazen. And if you watch what he does -- if something annoys him he will do like this (making a face). If something to eat comes he will eat (imitating a frog snapping at an insect) and he eats sitting. Actually that is our zazen. We are not doing any special thing. We should think that we are doing some special thing.

This is the famous koan: Nangaku the disciple of the sixth patriarch, and grandson of (Nangaku), disciple of -- grandson of Nangaku was Basho, so Basho is the disciple of (Nangaku). Basho was sitting practicing zazen. He was a big man of great physical build. When he talked his tongue reached to his nose. His voice was loud and his zazen must be very good. And he was sitting like a great mountain. And Nangaku saw him sitting like a frog. Nangaku said, “What are you doing?”. “I’m practicing zazen.” “What is the purpose of zazen?” “I want to attain enlightenment and want to be a Buddha”, the disciple Basho said. Do you know what the teacher did? He picked up a tile and he started to polish it. (Here, to polish tile -- do you know in Japan, after we put tile into kiln -- or after taking out the tile from the kiln we polish it to make it-- that is the finish. Then you will have beautiful tile.) So Nangaku picked up a tile and started to polish it. But Basho, his disciple, saw him and asked, “What are you doing?” “I want to make a tile a jewel”, he said. “How is it possible to make a tile a jewel?, the disciple said. “How is it possible to become a Buddha by practicing zazen?” Nangaku said. And the disciple started thinking about what his teacher said. But the teacher continued his instructions. “Do you want to attain Buddhahood? There is no Buddhahood besides our ordinary mind. If you want to practice zazen, zazen is not -- true zazen is not a matter of sitting or lying down. Whatever you do, that is zazen. When a cart does not go which do you whip, the cart or the horse? Which do you whip?” the master asked.

Anyway, this may be difficult to understand, to explain. There are too many technical terms like practice or Buddhahood. But anyway what he means is whatever you do, that is zazen. If your husband is in bed, that is zazen. You should understand in that way. But the usual understanding is: “I am sitting here and my husband is in bed.” If you understand our zazen in this way, to sit here, that is not true zazen. You should be like a fog, always. That is true zazen. Even though you sit in cross-legged position, the cross-legged position is not zazen. What is zazen than? Here Dogen zenji says, “When Basho, the disciple, become Basho (we say horse-master) -- When the horse-master becomes the horse-master, Zen becomes Zen.” When his zazen becomes true zazen (here true zazen means zazen which is not just to sit in cross-legged position) zazen is beyond being in bed or sitting in Zendo Basho becomes Basho and Zen becomes Zen. That is true zazen. Then what is true zazen which is not just in cross-legged position -- which is not to be in bed. What is true zazen? What do you mean by Zen becomes Zen and you become you? You become you is a very important point. You become you. When you become you, even though you are in bed, you may not be you most of the time. Even though you are sitting here, I wonder whether you are you in its true sense. So to be you is zazen.

At Tassajara in my last lecture I talked about Zuigan addressing himself. Zuigan, a Zen master always was addressing himself. “Zuigan! Hai! Zuigan! Hai!” Of course he was living in his small Zendo. Most of the time no one was there and he was practicing zazen alone. He was addressing himself. “Zuigan! Hai! Zuigan! Hai!” He knows who he is, but he lost himself. Whenever he lost himself, he addressed himself. “Zuigan! Hai!” If we are like a frog we are always ourselves. Even a frog sometimes loses himself and he does this (making a face) and if something comes he will eat it (snapping). So I think a frog is always addressing himself. I think you should do that also. Even in zazen you will lose yourself. When you become sleepy you lose yourself. When your mind starts to wandering about you lose yourself. When you become painful, “Why are my legs so painful?”, you lose yourself. So you should do like a frog. This is zazen. When you become you, Zen becomes Zen. If you do not lose yourself there is no problem what-so-ever. Because you lose yourself the problem you have will be the problem for you. When you are in the midst of the problem, when you are a part of the problem, or when the problem is a part of your there is no problem because you are problem itself. The problem is you, yourself. If so there is no problem.

When your life is always a part of your surroundings then there is no problem. In other words when you are called back to yourself, right here, there is no problem. When you start to wandering about in some delusion which is something apart from you, yourself, then your surrounding is not real any more and your mind is not real anymore. So you, yourself is deluded, and your surrounding is also a misty, foggy, delusion. So once we start wandering about in the midst of delusion there is no point for us, there is no end to the delusion. One after another you will be involved in deluded ideas. Most people live in delusion. You are your surrounding, problem or how to solve the problem, but to solve the problem is to be a part of it. To live is actually to live in problems-- or to be one with the problem. So which do you hit, the cart or the horse? Which do you hit you, yourself, or problems? If you start wondering which you should hit myself or my problem then that means you have started to wander about. But when you hit -- hit a horse, the cart will go because cart and problem are not different. So when your zazen becomes true zazen then you are you. When you are you there is no problem of whether you should hit the cart or the horse. So when you or whether you should hit the cart or the horse. So when you practice zazen part will practice zazen and everything else will practice zazen. Even though your husband is in bed he is also practicing zazen. When you practice zazen. But when you do not practice true zazen then in your zazen there is your husband and you, yourself which is quite different from each other.

So if that is your understanding of zazen, that is not zazen. So if you have true practice everything is practicing our way. So that is why we should call -- we should always address our self -- like a doctor (tapping himself). This is very important. This kind of practice should be continued moment after moment incessantly. So we say, ‘Before the night -- when the night is here the dawn comes.’ It means there is no gap between the dawn and the night. Before the summer is over, autumn comes. So, like Dogen zenji says, ‘Before -- a charcoal -- firewood does not become ash. There is no gap between charcoal and ash.’

In this way we should understand our way. And in this way we should understand our life and we should practice our way in this -- with this understanding. And we should solve our problem in this way. Just to work on the problem -- if you are always working on the problem, that is enough. When you are polishing the tile, that is our practice. The purpose of practice is not to make a tile a jewel. So as long as you are sitting, that is practice in its true sense. So it is not a matter of whether it is possible to attain Buddhahood, or if it is possible to make a tile a jewel. But just to work, just to live in this world with this understanding is the most important point, and that is our practice. That is true zazen. So we say, ‘When you eat, you eat’. You should eat it, you know. Sometimes we don’t eat it. Even though we are eating, our mind is somewhere else. You do not taste what you have in your mouth. So I say, ‘Oh, I am sorry but soon you will see the bright sunrise every morning and beautiful sunset in the evening, every evening, but right now perhaps you -- under your situation it may be impossible to see the beautiful sunset or bright sunrise, or beautiful flower in your garden, and it is impossible to take care of your garden, but soon you will see the beauty of the flowers and you will cut some flowers for your room.’ When you start to do this kind of thing you are alright. Don’t worry a bit. It means when you become you, yourself, and when you see things as they are, and when you become at one with your surrounding, in its true sense, there is true self. There you have true practice; you have the practice of a frog. He is good example of our practice. So when a frog becomes a frog, Zen becomes Zen. When you understand a frog through and through, you attain enlightenment. You are Buddha. And you are a good wife or good daughter. That is zazen.
Los Altos box transcript. Exact copy entered onto disk and emailed to DC by GM 02/18/2009. Hard copy marked as ‘original’ in type at top of first page.

File name: 67-08-31: To Polish a Tile Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p. 80, (Not Verbatim)

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