Esalen Institute, Second Lecture: Observing the Precepts

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Saturday, June 29, 1968

Last night I talked about construction of teaching and our practice in one word -- how to, you know, organize -- organize this dualistic, you know, teaching, or this paradoxical teaching into our actual life, is the purpose of practice -- zazen practice. In zazen practice, as I explained rather symbolically what does it mean to put this legs here and the other leg here. [Demonstrates?] This is, you know supposed to be our activity. This is -- more or -- more or less this is the opposite, this is calmness of mind and this is the activity. This is -- if this is wisdom this is practice. And when we put one leg, left one, on the right side, it means, you know, we don't know which is which. [laughs] So here we have, you know, already oneness, symbolically, here. This side is already activity and wisdom, and hand and our posture. We -- our posture is vertical without tipping left -- right or left, back or forward. This is also expression of the perfect understanding of teaching which is beyond duality of the teaching.

I want to extend this kind of idea into our rituals and -- or precepts. When we extend this kind of practice into relationship between teacher and disciple, naturally we have there precepts, idea of precepts -- how to observe our precepts, and what is the relationship between teacher and disciple. This is also extended idea of -- extended practice of zazen practice. Zazen -- this posture, is not only -- much -- originally maybe a kind of training or something, but it is not just training. It is more the actual way of transmitting Buddha's way to us. Through practice we can actually transmit Buddha's teaching because words is not good enough to actualize his teaching. So, naturally how we transmit is through activity or through contact, or through human relationships. Here we have relationship teacher -- between teacher and disciple. Disciple, of course, can -- will -- must choose his teacher. Teacher should accept disciple when he was chosen -- when he's chosen he should accept him as a disciple. And it is sometimes teacher may recommended some other teacher for, you know, for disciple. Or else, you know, human relationship will not be perfect. So if a teacher think -- if think his friend is maybe more appropriate teacher for him, he may recommend him as a teacher. But, between teacher there's -- there should not be any conflict.

So, it is quite natural for some teacher to recommend some other teacher for some disciple. And once he become a disciple he should try hard to devote himself to study his way. At first -- and because he -- maybe he, disciple may like him, you know, just because -- not just because he want to study Buddhism, but for some other reason he may want to study under him. But it doesn't matter, you know. Anyway [laughs] if he devote himself completely to the teacher he will understand, he will be his teacher's disciple, and he can transmit our way. And teacher should be -- should know what -- how a teacher should be. And teacher -- relationship between teacher and disciple is very important, and at the same time it is difficult for both teacher and disciple to be teacher or disciple in its true sense. On this point, both teacher and disciple should make their best effort. And this is relationship between teacher and disciple. If -- when we have our teacher or our disciple, there we have various rituals.

Rituals is not just training, it is more than that. Through rituals we communicate in its true sense, and we transmit the teaching in its true sense. That is the meaning of rituals. And we have many precepts. And precepts observation is also based on this idea of relationship between teacher and disciple, or between disciple and disciple. Rituals -- to observe ritual or precepts is to understand our teaching in its true sense. We put emphasis on selflessness, so teacher and disciple, as long as they have their observation of rituals or precepts is -- is not selfless, then that is not true ritual. For instance, when we observe one thing together, we should forget, you know, our own practice, we should practice -- when we -- when we practice something with people, you know, it is partly each individual's practice and it is partly -- also, it is also others practice. So, we say, for instance, when we recite sutra, we say, recite sutra with your ear [laughs]. Ear is, you know, to listen to some others', you know, chanting. So, with my mouth we practice our practice, and with my ears we practice -- we listen to other's practice. So, this kind -- here we have complete egolessness in its true sense.

Egolessness does not mean to annihilate or to give up our own practice, you know, individual practice. Egolessness, you know, true egolessness should forget egolessness too [laughs]. So as long as you understand my practice is egolessness, then it means you stick to, you know, ego too -- ego practice too, you know, practice of giving up the ego-centered practice. So, when you practice your own practice with others, true, you know, egolessness happens. That egolessness is not just, you know, egolessness, it is also maybe ego practice. And at the same time it is practice of egolessness. So this egolessness is beyond ego or egolessness [laughs]. Do -- do you understand?

This is also true in observation of precepts. If you observe precepts, you know, that is not true observation of precepts. You -- when you -- as -- when you observe your precepts without trying to observe precepts, then, you know, that is true observation of precepts. So, we say, in observation of truth -- precepts, there is positive way of observation, and negative way of observation. And to observe and not to observe, there must be, you know, four ways. But those four ways, should be -- should not be different. To observe precepts is -- should be not to observe precepts at the same time. Not to observe precepts means not just observing precepts but when you do not try to observe it, then there you have both observation of truth and not observation -- not observing precepts. So, one is positive and one is negative. Looks like so, you know, but in its true sense, anyway we have to observe it and our inmost nature, you know, help us to observe precepts.

So, when we understand our precepts from our -- some point of inmost nature that is not observation of truth -- precepts. It is, you know, the way as we want to do, or way as it is, and there, there is no precepts, you know [laughs]. Precept is not necessary. So, we are not observing any precepts. But, on the other hand, inmost nature is so, but we have on the other hand, the opposite nature, or, you know, we are double nature, so on the other hand we want to observe precepts or we -- we feel we have to observe it, you know, and we feel the necessity of precepts which will help us, you know.

So when we are helped by precepts, that is the coming out of the -- the blossoming of the -- blossom of the true nature. And when we understand precepts in negative sense, prohibitory -- as a prohibitory sense, that is also expression of true nature. But that is negative way of expression of our inmost nature. So precepts observation has two side, one is negative and the other is positive. And we have choice, you know, to observe it and not to observe it. This is some other -- different way of analyzing the way of observing precepts.

We -- when we cannot observe, ten or more precepts, then we have to choose some precepts which is possible to observe. And we have this choice. It does not mean -- precepts observation is not some set up -- is not rules set up by someone, you know. It is the expression of our true nature. And so, if something wrong with our expression of the true nature, you know, Buddha will say that is not the way. That is wrong way. Then you will have, you know, precepts.

So, rules is not first, but the actual event or fact is first. So this the nature of precepts, so we have chance to choose, you know, our precepts. If you go this way, you know, you will have some precepts, and if you take the other way, you will have some other precepts. So whether you go this way or that way is up to you. So if you go this way you have some, if you go the other way you will have some other precepts, because precepts is not something set up -- is not set-up rule by Buddha. So, this is actually the extended practice of our zazen practice.

Not rules, in its true sense. When we say rules, rules is for everyone. But our precepts is not for everyone. It is -- the precepts is his own way of observation of our practice. This is the characteristic of Buddhist precepts.

We have chance to, you know, choose precepts. And precepts observation is both negative and positive. Both expression of our true nature. And it has prohibitory meaning too. Who prohibit -- prohibit, you know, some conduct is up to your teacher. Teacher, you know, knows whether his way is good or bad, you know, which way is more appropriate to him. Before you are not familiar with our way you should depend on your teacher, [laughs]. That is the best way. So, in this case we have prohibitory precepts. But when you become familiar with your way, you have more positive -- you will have more positive observation of precepts.

If we start to talk about precepts, I think we have to explain our, you know, sin or guilty conscience too. This guilty conscience or idea of sin is, I don't know, Christian, you know, way of how you think about things. But Buddhist thinks our -- by nature, you know, as we say Buddha Nature. Buddha Nature is universal nature to everyone, and that is more good nature [laughs] than sinful nature. That is our understanding of our nature. And, in its true sense it is not either good nor bad, that is complete understanding. But, in its usual sense it is more good nature rather than bad nature.

And, how sinful or guilty conscience appears in our mind is because of karma, you know, because of our accumulation of personal or social karma -- activity.

[Tape turned over]

Accumulation of unappropriate way of observing our way will result some power, you know, which drive us to wrong way. That it is our idea of sin or karma. And karma is not just, you know, what you did, but also it is more personal. One way it is social, and on the other hand it is more accumulated. It is not just created by our body, this body, but our ancestors or our before life, you know, created by our former life.

If -- when we understand sin or karma in that way, it is rather difficult to surmount, you know [laughs] to [one word unclear] it just by our confidence or decision. It is more than that. So in this point, I think there is some similarity of Christian, you know, sin and our idea of sin. Both for us and Christian, this idea of sin is something inevitable and something impossible to get out of it. This is, you know, the idea of karma or sin for us.

And how to get out of it is to -- last answer is by our practice. But before we go to the last answer, where we have no idea of good or bad, sinful or not sinful. There we have to go pretty long way [laughs] in our practice, we should, you know, little by little we should improve ourselves. Even though you attain enlightenment in some sense, but you cannot change your karma as long as you live here. So, we have long way to go.

So, this impossibility of solving our problem of sin we have vows, you know, as a bodhisattva. Even though our desires are innumerable we vow to cut it, you know, put and end to it. Something like this, you know. Even though our way is [un]attainable [note 1], we want to attain it. This is the vow we should have forever. And in this way, Buddhist way will -- will have its own life. If Buddhism is some teaching which is attainable, you know, if you attain it that's all [laughs], there's no Buddhism, there's no need to study Buddhism. But fortunately, it is [un]attainable thing [laughs], so we have to strive to attain it. And here we have, you know, double structure. One is, it should be, you know, we should attain it, but on the other hand it is something [un]attainable. And, how to solve this problem is to practice our way, day by day, moment after moment. To live on each moment is the last answer.

When we satisfy with our attainment, moment after moment, with some improvement, we have there composure of life. We have satisfaction. So in our way, there is no idea of complete success, you know, complete enlightenment. And yet we are aiming at, you know, we have some ideal, but we should note that, we -- ideal is something which you can’t reach, you know -- because you cannot reach, that is ideal. So, ideal is ideal, and reality is reality. Now, we should have both reality and ideal, or else we cannot do anything. So ideal and reality, both ideal and reality, will help our practice.

And we should not treat ideal or reality something desirable or something not satisfactory. We should, you know, accept ideal as ideal, and reality as reality. So even though our practice is not perfect, you know, we should accept it, without forgetting -- without rejecting ideal. How to do that is to live on each moment. On each moment we include reality and ideal. So everything is included on each moment. So, there's no other way to be satisfied with what we have on each moment. That is only approach to the ideal.

And we have -- we understand Buddha as the ideal, as a perfect, you know, one. At the same time, we understand him as a -- one of the human beings, you know. Although we have ideal, there is no need for us to be bound by ideal. The same thing is true with rituals and precepts. There is no need to be bound by precepts, and there is no need to be bound by -- to observe, you know, our rituals as some formality.

And in Soto practice, you know, we do not put too much emphasis on enlightenment, you know. When we say enlightenment, you -- we mean something perfect, you know, perfect stage, you will have -- you will attain. But actually [laughs] that is not possible, you know. [1st tape ended here] As long as you experience it in term of good stage or bad stage, high or low stage. That is not perfect enlightenment. So we do not, you know, expect anything perfect, but we do not reject it. We -- we have it, always have it, but ideal is ideal, and reality is reality, and in our practice we have to have both side again. This is original nature of Buddhism.

It may be necessary to talk about repentance too, when we start to talk about precepts. Repentance, you know, or teacher you know -- let’s understand in this way -- teacher will point out, you know, some mistake of a student. The way he point out the student mistake is very difficult one, you know, how he points out his mistake. Because teacher does not understand, that is his mistake, you know. If a teacher understand something what his student did is mistake, he is not a true teacher. He should understand on the other hand it is the expression of his true nature, so we should respect, you know. If we respect our student’s true nature we should be careful how to point out.

In scripture five points is pointed out. One is you have to have -- you have to choose the chance [laughs], you know, point out to the student. At least it is not so good to point out his mistake in front of many people, you know. If possible he should point out his mistake personally in appropriate time. This is the most -- this is the first one. And second one is he should be -- just a moment, last one is -- he should be truthful to his disciple. He should not point out his mistake. Just he himself think, you know, that is his mistake, but he should respect why -- he should understand why he did so, so he should be truthful to his disciple. That is the second point.

And there are three more. I will say -- what I’ll say is will not be in order, but fifth one is to point out his mistake by com -- compassion. He should be one with -- compassion means to be a friend of disciple, you know, not as a teacher. As a friend he should point out -- he should advise -- he should give some advice. That is the last one.

Let me see. And the fourth one is, he should -- mmm, I forgot [laughter]. You know, very similar but little bit different [laughter]. How different is very, you know, very delicate. Excuse me [laughs,laughter]. I went maybe wrong direction [laughs, laughter]. And he should, you know -- when he talk about his disciple’s mistake, he should use most gentle and most calm mind. With his calmest mind, with low voice - he should not shout [laughs, laughter] very delicate [laughs]. Something like truthfulness, but here the scripture, you know, put emphasis on calm gentle attitude of talking about someone’s mistake. So here you will understand the relationship between teacher and disciple. Teacher is also his friend, and his teacher.

Oh, and the fourth one [laughs] -- fourth one is very difficult struggle [laughs] trip. The fourth one is for the sake of, you know, to help student, we should give him, you know, advice or point out his mistake. So even though he want to talk about, you know -- his student wants to talk about his mistake, you know, or some -- even though he make some excuse, you know, for what he did, we should not treat it, you know, easily. Teacher should be very careful [laughs] how to treat it, and if teacher thinks he is not serious enough, then you shouldn’t listen to him [laughs. You should -- you should ignore it until he become more serious. That is to give advice for sake of -- only for sake of student -- helping student. So we should not be always easy with the student. Sometimes we should be very tough [laughs] with the student, or else we cannot help him in its true sense. This is the fourth one, and it is described in this way. To help student we should give some instruction.

So it is not so easy problem, you know. To be a teacher, to be a student, is, is not at all easy, and we cannot rely on anything, even precepts. We should make our utmost effort to help with each other. And in ritual observation too this is also true. We do not observe our precept just to -- for sake of precepts, for perfection of rituals. There were famous Zen master, maybe about seventy years ago he passed away, maybe fifty, or maybe forty years ago, and he had very good disciples. And they were so sincere students that when he lived with students in poor monastery in -- near Odawara City. It is near Tokyo, but the Odawara City is not so big city, and they were very poor, but disciples wanted to buy a bell, you know, to chant, and asked him to buy some bell for the temple, and he was very angry [laughs] when his students asked him the bell: "Why? What is the intention of reciting sutra? You looks like recite sutra because people in the town may appreciate our practice. If so, that is not my way. We have to practice for our sake not for others. So if you chant -- if you can only chant sutra that is enough. There is no need to buy bell so some others can hear it. That is not necessary," he said. But by rules -- we have some rules, you know in chanting. Without bell actually that is not perfect ceremony. But if we, you know -- our intention of chanting is not right, even though form is perfect, it is not our way. There is rules, but actually there is no rules [laughs]. Rules is, you know, like precepts. We have precepts, but no precepts. Precepts should be set up according to the circumstances. That is why we have chance to choose our precepts. In small monastery, there is small, you know -- suitable precepts for the monastery. So you may say our way is very formal, but there is some reason why we should be so formal. It is not just formality, and even though we have 250 precepts or 500 precepts it doesn’t mean we should observe one by one all of them. This is our way of observation, our way of practice.

First part up to “1st tape ended here” Transcribed by Shinshu Roberts circa 2004. She got the tape from Michael Wenger. They obviously didn’t realize that it was Shunryu Suzuki’s Esalen lectures, this being the second of two. Might be from a different tape set, as she only figured out this was another lecture because of the opening line and this lecture was presented in the transcript she typed as a continuation of the first lecture which was labeled “At Sonoma Mountain Center, no date.” The lecture does continue from the point that her tape stopped. Ed Brown’s slightly edited transcription was used from that point to the end. – DC Checked against copy of Esalen audio and made some changes in 1998 and made verbatim by Katrinka McKay – 1-18-15. Whole transcript revised Jan. 2023 by Shundo David Haye.


File name: 68-06-29: Esalen Institute, Second Lecture: Observing the Precepts Not Always So, p. 85, (Verbatim) Esalen Institute: Second of two lectures. Changed "And true (two?) of that and not true (two?) of that, there must be, you know, for our ways. But those four ways" to "And two of that and not two of that, there must be, you know, four ways. But those four ways" 3-4-2015 by DC.

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In Wind Bell, Vol. 31, issue 2, 1997