Esalen Institute: First of two lectures

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Friday, June 28, 1968

I find it's difficult to keep contact with you when I--whenever we talks--I talk, especially when I speak to public, it is rather difficult to follow your understanding—because I’m talking to our own students always, but anyway, I’ll try to communicate with you.

First of all I am supposed to talk about our teaching. Zen is, for you, Zen is some special teaching. But, for us Zen is, Buddhism, and not too special teaching from the other schools of Buddhism. So, if you ask me to talk about our teaching I have to, what I will talk about is mostly teaching of Buddhism started by Buddha and developed by various teachers in India, China and in Japan.

Buddha's teaching put the emphasis on selflessness because even Buddhism it’s--is not special cultural heritage. It is a part of Indian thought. And so before Buddhism there must be some similar teaching or some opposite teaching which form a pair of opposites with Buddhism. As you see in Upanishad there are many similar teaching based on selflessness. Why, I think, why he put the emphasis on selflessness is because people at that time had very difficulty because of the strong idea of self--self.

So Buddha on the contrary put emphasis on selflessness so that there you have more balanced understanding of our life. And for the people who find--who were trying to find out something--a pleasure of life in this actual mundane world, he put the emphasis on suffering, so that they can understand their life from both side. So naturally--even so--his purpose of setting--or his teaching is to form some harmonious teaching. So, sometime he put emphasis on self, you know, instead of put the emphasis on selflessness. He sometime rather emphasis on self.

We call this kind of nature of our teaching is double construction, or double construction [SR groping for word] or double nature of Buddhism. And actually without paradoxical or opposite, two opposite understanding, we cannot think things clearly. And what we think will be clear if we, only when we take at least two opposite viewpoint. Then you will have some reality without being caught by some one-sided idea. But, mostly, in general, Buddha's teaching is based on the teaching of selflessness. But later his teaching was more settled down in some static teaching, like everything changes or teaching of interdependency or teaching of cause and effect.

And in Mahayana we have more advanced philosophical setting of that teaching, like, I don't know how to translating it into English but some teaching you will study by Kegon Sutra or Lotus Sutra. Kegon put emphasis on Jijimuie. Jijimuie is harmony of each being and Jijimuie means harmony with the truth and the phenomenal world.

And Lotus Sutra puts the emphasis on the understanding which you will have after attaining the idea of emptiness or experience of emptiness. This is something like Zen. Zen extended this kind of idea by practice and brought this philosophical teaching into our actual experience and how to bring this philosophical teaching to our life by practicing Zen. And so in Zen school, in short to, you know, to wipe up everything, on the--every dust on the mirror. And to see everything, to see everything on the reflection of the mirror is our way, you know. Or to write to--to erase everything from the blackboard and to write something on it, is Zen.

And we continue this kind of activity, you know, you see, wipe it up, and write something on it, and wipe it up. But, because I try to--from--try to explain it you know, more psychologically or more as a--our human experience, I put it in this way. But actually what we are doing is to continue this kind of effort, you know. This is in other words, detachment.

Detachment means, you know, to release something but, actually we cannot, you know, erase what we did [laughs]. Actually that is not possible. But, you feel as if, you know, you--wipe up everything, and you delude yourself. When you are absorbed completely absorbed in your activity or in your everyday life, you experience this kind of development of our life, our life force in this way.

So, but actually nothing happens, you know, [laughs] even though you study Buddhism. And nothing happens even you practice zazen. But when you feel in that way, in your practice, that is enlightenment, you know. Because mostly it is difficult for us to wipe up everything, you know, from our mind. And actually there is no need to do so, and it is foolish to eliminate all, everything what you have done or result of your previous activity. That is not possible. And it is foolish to try to do that. But there is way to--to develop our everyday life without being bothered by, you know, our previous activity or result of that previous activity. This is how I could explain, you know, how I can explain what I have in my mind about our teaching of Zen.

Now, one by one, according to this little piece of paper? [He says something really fast and you hear the rustle of paper] [laughter] I want to explain this kind of double structure of our teaching. To me everything real could--should be understood in this way. For instance, you know, idea of time has, you know, double structure. One is cont--idea of continuity, it's of course time, you know, continuity. At the same time discontinuity is [laughs] the idea of time. If the continuity of time is the idea of time there is no need to have watch here. When I say it is half past ten, you know, it means that, at that time I have discontinuity of time, my idea of time [laughs] is discontinuity. You know it is, it is not actually half past ten, you know, maybe more, or while I'm watching it, it go more, continuously it's going. But I have to say, you know, as long as I have watch, it is--if someone asks me what time is it, I have to say is half past ten. So that is the idea of discontinuity of time.

But, it is not actually so, it is continuous--time is, the idea of continuous. So discontinuity of time and continuity of time, in this way, real, you know, reality has double. Only by double structure of our reasoning we can figure out what is reality. And self is also--selflessness and self is same thing, you know, not different.

According to Buddhism, the basic teaching maybe for, which settled, more logically, it's everything changes. This is basic teaching of Buddhism and because of this teaching his descendants or his disciples treated Buddha as a teacher of heaven and earth, you know. He is not only a teacher of this world: he is a teacher of heaven. Because even though you go to heaven this teaching, that everything change, will not be different, you know, is also true in heaven. So he is called a teacher of heaven and earth because of this teaching that everything changes. And this is the basic foundation of Buddhism--Buddhist teaching.

So, if everything changes, you know, how about yourself? You know, self is also changing. If so, you know, even though we say self, there's no such substantial being as self. Self is as, I--we learned last night--we have learned last night, a self is not--tentatively we call our function of mind and body--self. But there is no such thing as self. This is also true with Buddhism. So we say, we put the emphasis, as long as everything changes self cannot be exception.

And the teaching of suffering comes from this point, from this teaching too. We, you know, although everything, including self, changes always, we expect, you know, everything not to change, you know. [Laughs] This is also true. [Laughs] This is also double structure, of our, you know, nature. In one hand everything changes and on the other hand we try not think everything changes. And so there we have suffering, you know. When we expect things not to change, but actually [laughs] everything is, everything betrays our hope [laughs]. That is how, you know, we suffer.

But if we understand the reality that we hope everything not to change is true and that everything is changing is also [laughs] true [laughs]. So if we accept, you know, the two side of the one reality then there is no problem. When you say everything change, "oh, it's okay" [laughter]. When someone says everything does not change, "oh, that is true, that is okay" [laughter]. When you could accept in this way, even for a moment, [laughs, laughter] that is enlightenment.

And, enlightenment will happen to you, you know, when you are very, very, very truthful to the fact, you know, or truthful to, not--if truthful to--although you are not truthful toward reality or fact from both sides, but even, you know, if you are very truthful to one sided view of life, you know, then you have chance to attain enlightenment, you know. And whether you attain enlightenment or not, you know, this is true [much laughter].

So other intellectual, intelligent people, you know, there will not be no need to [laughs] attain enlightenment. Little by little, you know [laughs] you break into this pattern of--this way of thinking, and you will more get accustomed to this kind of--way of life or understanding of life and some day you will actually experience, or you will enjoy this kind of paradoxical world. So enjoyment, you know, we mean is very much different from the enjoyment made by the people who just dwell on one-sided view, one-sided understanding of life. This is completely different. You know, we, so Buddhists are in one hand they are very--sometimes they are very--they look very joyous people. And on the other hand they are very, you know, dismal and gloomy people. [Laughter] We are very gloomy. This is also double structure.

One person express, you know, their feeling in two different way. That is possible, you know. He may be very strong and tough in one way, but on the other hand, he may be very gentle and very soft. My teacher used to give us some--refer to, some--refer to a famous, the most, you know, the best sword maker, Masamune.

One day Hiroshimai[?], you know Hiroshimai, not sword maker but spear--spearhead maker, visited him--but spear or lance, visited him. Fortunately or unfortunately, you know, Masamune was not there, was not at home. So Hiroshimai asked his wife to show him some of his sword. And she brought a small sword, as long as this [he gestures length] sword, you know, and he was watching it, but he did not, his expression was not perfect, he’s wondering, you know, if he is--this is good or bad. He is wondering about it. So wife asks him if there something wrong with his sword, and if he has some criticism please tell her, she said. And Hiroshimai, you know, take out the spearhead from his pocket and putting his sword on the floor and when he, you know, dig like this, big hole, you know, was on the sword Masamune made. His wife was amazed [laughs] at his, you know, strong power, strong quality of the spearhead. And Hiroshimai went back. But his wife promised him, as he was going, to come again to--and to meet her husband. And one week, after one week or so, he came back. And Masamune was not moved a little--was not moved even a little. And he, you know, he asked him to show him, you know, his spearhead. And he was watching it. And Masamune said, give me that, I want to see your spearhead. And as soon as he receive it, he draw--drew his sword and cut his--cut the spearhead in two with that sword which had big hole in it [laughs, laughter]. And he said, you know, your spear is not available to the battle field. Because if you need to, if this spearhead, this spearhead will be easily cut, so this is rather dangerous, he said. Masamune's, you know, sword has double structure. It is soft, so it is not easily be cut, but it is sharp enough to cut everything. So this is one of the example of double structure or double nature of the reality.

This is also--this--you know, is also selflessness. When you--when the meaning of selflessness is to annihilate all the evil desires or then to give up the idea of fame or profit--if that is selflessness, that is one-sided idea. So, selflessness is also means strong self. The toughness of the self and which is always free from personal attachment, which is immutable, that is self--selflessness.

Dogen the founder of Soto School of Zen explained this point. You should not think firewood, you know, become ash. Firewood does not become ash. You should not think firewood become ash, firewood has its own period and ash also has its own period. And ash has its own past and future, so does firewood. So firewood is independent and ash is independent. When we understand self in that way, you know, that self include everything: its own past and future and everything which exist with fire or ash. That is--but it does not mean to have some substantial idea of ash or fire. It is not some substance, but it's something ash--something named ash, include everything and related to everything. This is also the understanding of reality and understanding of our self. When we--only when we understand in this way, we can understand Buddhism, not only Buddhism. I think, I hope, your understanding will be available to understand your life and to understand other’s life and to understand science and everything.

When we just rely on one-sided understanding you will lose the purpose of our study. So to study Buddhism to, according to him, to study Buddhism is--Buddhism means here, not only, you know, Buddhist teachings, everything, to study everything is to study ourselves. And to study ourselves is to forget ourselves. And to forget ourselves is to be enlightened by things we study, you know. Something you study will teach me [laughs]--teach us something, you know, which is real and true. So he says--he said, to study ourselves to be enlightened by everything. And this enlightenment goes forever, in this way, wiping the enlightenment and having enlightenment again. In this way this enlightenment procedure will go on and on and on, and you will understand everything in its true sense.

So this is what is reality according to Buddhism, and what is the teaching of selflessness of Buddhism. And this selflessness is one of the three important banner or seals of Buddhism, that everything changes, that everything has no ultimate nature. When we say--say so, it includes many things. There is, nothing is perfect is also. Nothing is perfect is meant by this teaching of selflessness. We think, you know, it is possible to attain or to get contact with something, yeah, to understand or to grasp something perfect or to attain some stage of perfection. But according to Buddhism that is not possible, [laughs] it is not possible. When you understand that is not possible, that understanding is perfect understanding [laughs] and that is [laughs] enlightenment. [Laughter]

We understand, that is the second point and when we realize or when we have this enlightenment or as long as we have this enlightenment, then here we find nirvana. Right here in this moment that is the three seal--seals of Buddhism.

If some teaching or if some teaching has whatever on the teaching its--if that teaching has this—those three element, that is Buddhism. So we call it the three important seals of Buddhism. And this basic teaching will be extended to the Four Noble Truths or Eightfold Holy Path which was told by Buddha when he saved four of--five of his men who escaped from the castle with him. That this world is world of suffering, that this world, that, what is the cause of suffering, and the way to get out of the suffering and what is Nirvana. Where we will attain Nirvana? Where is Nirvana? This is Four Noble Truths. But those teaching are a different version of one, you know, truth. And main--whatever the way of understanding of our life may be, if we do not miss this point that is Buddhism. If there is no--if it is--if we are certain or clear on this point that is Buddhism. (Whispering)

Student: What are the Four Noble Truths?

SR: Maybe better to take some pause. And will you, if you have questions please ask us. Dick will…

Student: What are the Four Noble Truths?

SR: The Four Noble Truths are that this world is the world of suffering.

Student: That’s number one?

SR: Yeah. And cause of suffering.

Student: That’s two?

SR: Two. The third one is way to have liberation from it, way to get out of it and Nirvana, and (no [whispered])--

[end of side one of tape]

[Beginning of side two]

SR: -- Enlightenment or Nirvana. Nirvana is Sanskrit word.

Student: That’s three, isn’t it?

SR: No, four.

Student: Fourth is Nirvana.

SR: Fourth is Nirvana.

Student: And the way to get out of it is the third truth?

SR: Yeah, the third one. Cause of suffering is the second one, that this world is--maybe better to explain more at this point. Origination itself is, you know, origination of suffering, you know, that something exist here is already suffering, for it—for it--for us--for me that I’m here is suffering, [laughs, laughter] and how you take this suffering is, you know, the point. [laughs] I think you will, you know, you will have clear picture of, you know, cause of suffering, you know. That I am here is suffering, and maybe it is joy too. [laughs] It is honor to be here. And it is a kind of joy. Joy is also suffering. [laughs] Not only after I have joy, but simultaneously we--I have suffer too, I have to suffer. Because I suffer I have joy. So, things has two, you know, suffering and joy at the same time. The two side of one coin.

So, and how we get out of it is to have wisdom, to see things as it is. That is not possible--by your thinking that is not possible. But your thinking will help you know, when you think from various angle, then thinking will help. But actually we have to fight it out -- [Laughs]. If you want to have sudden enlightenment, you should fight it out. And if you want to--if you do not concerned about--if you do not want to feel that you are fooled by, you know, something, then you should strive, for it little by little according to your, you know, wisdom or thinking. Wisdom we mean--sometime wisdom, we mean—we mean it wisdom followed by teaching. And wisdom sometime is direct understanding, but to have direct contact with the reality is wisdom.

And this direct contact--to have direct contact with the reality is Zen practice. So in zazen, we try not to think. I have to explain it later, I think. About our practice. [Baby crying in background.] But this is idea [break in recording]

[The following section was only found on a different audio file by Engage Wisdom in 2021]

Moderator: Dan?

Dan: I was going to save this question because that's for you or roshi personally, but it's so relevant to the discussion now that I'd kind of like to share it. I'm one of the students at the Zen center who's seeing the Gordian union [Gordian knot?] and what Suzuki mentioned. And, I've run across …

Student A: To prove the devil ???. To me it sounds like a rather an anomaly. Can you be a Catholic and an Episcopal at the same time or? [Laughter]

Dan: I don't know, let's say it's this and that. Whether it's ???. I've reached a very strange ground concerning the self. Because through sitting—I haven't been sitting long, perhaps a year, a year and a half--but through sitting I've been losing some distinction between what goes on inside myself and what goes on outside. And, in lots of ways this is very beautiful; you walk through a field and you feel that the field is a part of you, rather than experiencing the field separately. But, recently I've gotten to a place where it surprises me when somebody talks to me because I don't think they can see me because I identify with the air in the room, rather than as having a face. And, this is—it's interesting, it's a—in one way it's very beautiful, in another way it's very frightening because it makes it hard to deal with people, and to consider myself as an entity. And so I've reached the sort of ground where, where my concept of what Buddhism would stress is that keep on going, that this is a partial state of selflessness, and that it's okay. And where the analyst would say, you must establish an identity. You must establish a self. And, I'm very confused because…

Student A: Oh, I don't think that should be confusing, should it? [General laughter.]

Student B: Stay away from atlases??? [General laughter.]

Dan: What I feel about it is that they are talking about the same thing. Um, Sterling Bunnell talks about the self as a kind of, the deepest self as a kind of flower or a centrage[?] that you gradually build up. You build up your defenses and your outer self, and then gradually as you gain strength inside, you disregard your defenses and your small self. And, uh, Buddhism as I understood it, uh, is the same thing although they would say that there is no—that the inner self includes everything, so there's probably no use talking about it. But it's in that in between ground that a lot of us fall and that get lost and confused, and that I've come to the point where I'm somewhat—every time I sit, I'm very afraid because I get more and more into the losing identity. How is this so? What, what? Uh, if we're working on it, maybe evolving, some sort of growing from both--both systems? What sort of view would you suggest? What? Where were we?

Suzuki: ??? suggestion you know? One is--one include, you know, naturally the other if it is right experience, you know. If it is not, this is—that experience is not perfect experience, you know. It is some distortion of emotional or intellectual or—some distortion is ornate you know. If it is true experience it—that experience includes the other. And, if that is not—if you have some doubt or, or if you are not—if you cannot accept your experience as a true experience, it's better to be concentrated on—to identify yourself—to nothing [laughs] nothing. You are nothing. That is the side to--the other side of the true experience. Then there is no problem, you know, no danger. But if you try to identify yourself with some, you know, experience, you know, in term of right or wrong, perfect or imperfect, there is danger. So, the best way is, you know, to identify yourself to nothing, no form, or no teaching. Just sit. That is why we call it shikantaza , or just sit, without no purpose of sitting, without trying to do anything. That if you have—if you get accustomed to this kind of practice, naturally you will have, you know, satisfaction in—with your practice, with your experience, whether—which you couldn't accept before. So, we are discussing now how to right identify ourselves, but what I am—I am suggesting now is not to try to identify yourself—to something. If you are trying to do it—why don't you try to identify yourself: nothing? Actually you are—we are nothing. We don't exist, so it's all right. But, if you want to, you know, understand yourself more in term of some feeling, or of good or bad, or in term of right or wrong, perfect or imperfect—that is possible too when you, your practice is mature. When you do not rely on anything. Then you can resolve. As long as you have, you know, something in your mind, your practice is, tend to be wrong practice or distorted practice.

Transcribed by Shinshu Roberts circa 2004. She got the tape from Michael Wenger and didn’t realize that it was the first of Shunryu Suzuki’s Esalen lectures. Might be from a different tape. Was labeled “At Sonoma Mountain Center, no date.” Should be checked against the audio in the archive of this date which is a copy of the commercial tape. - DC Checked against copy of Esalen audio and made some changes in 1998 and made verbatim by Katrinka McKay 1-18-15. Re-transcribed and final section added, 11-3-2021 by Peter Ford, Wendy Pirsig, and Shundo David Haye.


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