Lotus Sutra, Lecture No. II-3

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

October, 1968
Zen Mountain Center


I already explained nature of Nirmanakaya Buddha and Sambhogakaya Buddha. The Nirmanakaya Buddha comes out of this world to save sentient being, with vow—vowed that he save all sentient beings, not by karma, but by vows he appear in this world, and practice Boddhisatva’s way and attain enlightenment as Buddha did, and save all human being. So, he is called as a incarnated body. He changes, you know, his form in various way, sometime bodhisattva, sometime buddha. And to help people, he takes various forms. So, in its wide sense, everything are—is Nirmanakaya Buddha, but in its narrow sense those who appear in this world—instead of come—by vow is called—are called Nirmanakaya Buddha. And Sambhogakaya Buddha is the Buddha which is the original source of Nirmanakaya Buddha—Nirmanakaya Buddha gives a birth to—a birth to Nirmanakaya Buddha. So original source of Nirmanakaya Buddha is Sambhogakaya Buddha.

To explain what is Dharmakaya, it is necessary to explain what is Sambhogakaya Buddha more, I think. Then naturally you will understand what is Dharmakaya Buddha. Dharmakaya Buddha is called fundamental undeveloped Buddhakaya—fundamental undeveloped Buddhakaya. And its nature, you know, is—when we say nature, you know, in Buddhism—when we say—when we say undeveloped body or fundamental body, it means that it is—it is original source itself. It is, you know, another—another interpretation of same thing. But when we understand it—something which is very calm, which is not in activity, we call it Dharma Body. But Dharma Body does not actually remain in calm and inactive—it is not inactive. It is always active, but when we, you know, understand in two ways activity and not act—or undeveloped nature, then we have two understanding for one reality. So, we call it—in this case we call it is Dharma Nature. Dharma Nature is—means something in action. Dharma Body means something which is not activity, or which is not developed, but it has potentiality. But it—all the nature is—exist in Dharma Body as a potentiality. So, we have two understanding for one reality. One is Dharmakaya. The other is Dharma Nature.

Sambhogakaya Buddha is—when we understand reality, something which is—action we say—in activity, we say that is Dharma Nature. The Sambhogakaya Buddha is a Buddha who realized this Dharma Nature in activity or as nature. As something which has nature, that is Sambhogakaya Buddha. And when we understand the reality which has something—potentiality, various potentialities, to act or to develop various way, that is called Dharmakaya Buddha.

Sambhogakaya Buddha is, figuratively speaking, maybe like the sun, you know, like the sun [laughs]. And how, you know, Sambhogakaya Buddha realize—become Sambhogakaya Buddha is, instead of, you know, instead of observing things objectively, he understand his Buddha nature which is always in activity within himself, of course figure—figuratively speaking. So—so he may see, when he—but like the sun, although he is not trying to shine everything objectively, illuminate everything objectively, he is actually illuminating everything. So, he is actually helping others without trying to help. So why he could—he can illuminate everything is, he has originally that kind of power, or potentiality. But for Sambhogakaya Buddha the most important thing is to see, or to attain enlightenment inward. So, to illuminate—illuminate himself, or to acquire enlightenment is his way—instead of illuminate objective world. Because I speak, you know, so his purpose is instead of to observe things, you know, respectively, one by one, he observe his nature within himself. If he observe—when he observe his inward, inside world, you know, as the sun, he find himself as earth, you know. That earth nature would be the universal. This earth is also earth, and the sun will be also earth. So, everything is earth, so [laughs] there is no difference between objective world and subjective world. To be enlightened, you know, in his inward nature is to be enlightened outside objective world.

So, for him whole world is his in—inside world, subjective world. When he reach this kind of world, we call him Sambhogakaya Buddha. And his world is limitless. It include the sun and stars and everything. So, his virtue is limitless, and his wisdom also is limitless in—he is omniscient one who knows everything within himself, as a being within himself. For him there is nothing without—without his being. That is Sambhogakaya Buddha.

But this Buddha is, you know—when we understand reality in this way, our understanding include everything. And reality which include everything in—and developed as a—and developed reality, then that is Dhamakaya Buddha itself, Dharma itself, being itself.

It is, you know—our way of understanding things—excuse me, it is like zazen. It is exactly the same as our zazen. We say, “Just sit” [laughs]. What does it mean, “Just sit?” Just sit means, you know, when we say, “just sit,” it include actually all the activity, all the potential activity which we have. But we remain in inactive state, but we have potential. So, in this sense, our practice include everything. But act [actually]—when we sit, we are just sitting, one—each one of us sitting.

And each one of us, so, is Dharmakaya Buddha. But we have potentiality. Or actually, within ourselves, even though we are sitting and take breathing, our heart is acting, so we are also Sambhogakaya Buddha. We understand reality in this way.

So, Sambhogakaya Buddha or Dharmakaya Buddha is the source of all buddha which exist before Buddha. And so, he is eternal, perpetual being, in this sense. So, we call it “tathata1” or “shinnyo” in Japanese. And this sutra, which was originally—this sutra is the sutra which described this kind of reality, world of tathata. That is why this scripture is told in this cosmic scale. So, in short, Lotus Sutra is the sutra which is telling us about what is tathata.

This[?] in other words, we say, “jisso,” reality—how everything exist in realm of reality, or in realm of tathata. So, what is told in this sutra, in short, is, everything is—everything resume this world of tathata. And this is, in one word, this is what was told—what is told in Lotus Sutra. Or how things exist in this world. Of course, it is described very dramatic way, but what it means [laughs] how things exist in this world—in this dharma world, or in this tathata, world of tathata. So, dramatic—dramatic version of tathata is the purpose of—of this sutra.

This point should be, however, important, you know. This sutra is—was told by Sambhogakaya Buddha, with his wisdom, to save all sentient beings, not by—not with substantial idea, but rather dramatic, figurative way, parable. By a parable this sutra tells us how Dharma Nature—what is Dharma Nature. And especially this sutra put emphasis on Dharma Nature instead of Dharma Body because Dharma Body is not something to—explicable. You cannot, you know, talk about Dharma Body, because it is something which—it is something beyond our world, beyond our wisdom, beyond our understanding, you see. That is why we say Dharma—Dharma Body—body does not talk. My mouth does talk, but my body doesn’t talk, Dharma Body.

It is the source of—. Dharma Body—when we say body, the body is source of—it is just a source of activity, but not activity itself, you see. But without source—without the source, there is no activity. And when there is activity, there should be source, but source does not always expect any activity. You can think, you can have the idea of thought, your body, without activity, you know. There is something which is not in activity—that is body. But actually, there is no such thing [laughs]. Whatever [laughs, laughter] it is, it has some activity. Even a stone has some activity [laughs]. There is no such thing. So, we cannot talk about the body itself. So, what shall I do? [Laughs, laughter.] If I talk about something, that is already Dharma Nature, you know? How dharma goes, you know, what it is like. When I say, what is— it is like, that is Nirmanakaya Buddha, you know. Objectively speaking, that is form. More subjectively speaking, it is nature—its nature. But what is the source of nature? No one knows [laughs]. We know it, but we cannot say anything about it. If you say something, it is not body. It is nature. Or it is attribute of the body. So, we do not talk about, you know, what is Dharma Body. But we understand that there must be some source. That is Dharma Body, and Dharma Nature, and dharma attribute, dharma form of—form and color of— outlook of dharma, a nature of dharma, and dharma itself. Dharmaka—Nirmanakaya Buddha, Sambhogakaya Buddha, and Dharmakaya Buddha. Did you understand?

Nirmanakaya Buddha, it is the form of dharma, and Sambhogakaya Buddha is the nature of dharma. And Dharmakaya Buddha, Dharma Body, which is beyond our words, which we cannot describe about it. So, in this Lotus Sutra, what is Dharma Nature is told by this sutra, and when we listen to it, we will understand what is Dharmakaya Buddha and who was Nirmanakaya Buddha, Shakyamuni.

And this—the only way to talk—I said there is no way to talk about Dharma Body, but yes—no, there is no way, but—[laughs] if you allow me to speak [laughs, laughter] about something, you know, about Dharma Body, we call it “truth itself.” Truth. Truth is, you know, is something which you cannot see. You can see the apple, you know, but theory of, you know, gravitation, you know, you cannot see it. But there is some theory, some truth. So, nothing happens just by accident. When something happens, there should be some reason, caused by Dharma. So, in this sense, it is—may be Dharma Nature, close to Dharma Nature. But we can understand in some way, you know, we can figure out some rules. So that rules, or truth, is sometimes in Buddhism called Dharma itself. So that is why we call it Dharma Body. Dharma Body. It is, you know, source of all the truth.

Then, you know, Nature—when we say “Nature,” Nature is, of course, Truth. But Nature is something— include what we see, you know. But Truth is not in—in its strict sense, Truth is not something which we can see. You—we figure out in this way. Buddhists figure out in this way. Because many people may ask us, “What is dharma?” [Laughs.] “What is Dharma Body?” so we must say something about it, so we—we try to [laughs], you know, figure out what we should say about it. So, in this case, we makes very, you know, difficult explanation. If I—if we don't say anything, “He doesn't know anything [laughs] about the Dharma Body [laughs]. He is not so good teacher,” [laughs] you may say so [laughs]. We—I must make some narrow escape [laughs, laughter]. How to do it is to talk about, you know, [laughs] some Truth, what is Truth [laughs, laughter]. Nature and Truth is not exactly the same. You know, Truth is nearer to the, you know, Dharma Body. Pretty close to the Nature, but it—the idea exist just in between Nature and Dharma Body.

So, we— “dharma” means, you know, sometimes teaching, sometimes reality, sometimes it means being, just something, just there[?]. And in comparison to truth or “ri.” Ri means “truth.” We say “ji,” event or being, something which exist, like a stone, that is ji. And—or something like water. And ri means water, not nature, but how water become water from air, you know. To be water—be water there is some truth, you know, thoroughly [?]. How air become water. So, water—another side of the water is truth, and that truth is not something which we can see. But nature of water you can see it, you know. It flows from high place to a lower place.

And in Japanese—or Japanese rendering of truth is ri—ri, and Japanese rendering of various beings is ji. Ji and ri. And this is very important, key technical words when you talk about Buddhism. Ri and ji. Ri— when we realize ri in its true sense, we are Sambhogakaya Buddha. When we observe things like we observes—observe objective world, and when we want to help people being involved in objective world, or more materialistic world, we are Nirmanakaya Buddha. How to help others as Nirmanakaya Buddha is to take various form and to give them some handy help, aid. How to help others as Nirmanakaya Buddha. But as Sambhogakaya Buddha we should know our nature. And we should realize that there is no “I” or no “you”—it is all one being. When we realize this nature, which is universal, we can help others without trying to help others, because whatever we do, that is our activity.

You know, you are a part of me, you know. When we reach this kind of understanding, when we become Sambhogakaya Buddha, when you practice zazen, you know, you have no “you” or no “others”; your practice include everything. So, everything will take place within yourself. So, for him there is no objective world anymore. So, without trying to help others, you will help others anyway. That is Sambhogakaya Buddha.

So, the way to help others, or the way we preserve our teaching, or way we practice Buddhist way is different—there is difference between Nirmanakaya Buddha and Sambhogakaya Buddha. But when we realize that we are all—should be—we are—our practice include everything, why don't we include a Nirmanakaya Buddha? Shakyamuni Buddha is included in our practice. So, all the Shakyamuni buddhas, and all the Nirmanakaya buddha which was told by Shakyamuni Buddha, all at once will attain enlightenment, when we practice zazen [laughs]. Do you understand? So, Nirmanakaya Buddha is within ourselves.

But before we reach this kind of understanding, Nirmanakaya Buddha is just a hero [laughs, laughter]. You know, he has no eternal life. He is one of the great heroes in our history. But when we understand Shakyamuni Buddha as the Sambhogakaya Buddha or Dharmakaya Buddha, for the first time, he has perpetual life. This is a more traditional understanding of Buddha. And actually, this kind of understanding was supported by Buddha when he was alive, although it tooks pretty—several hundred of years before we understand who was Shakyamuni Buddha in reality. But that—this kind of understanding, which was accomplished by their disciples, gave him—gave Buddha a new life, and made him perpetual Buddha. So, Buddha in this sense is called Tathagata.

So, this is, you know, at the same time development—history of development of understanding of Buddha, and at the same time, true understanding of his teaching. He did not, you know, stick to the words he told. He was like a great doctor who, you know, gives his patient prescription—prescription, you know. According to the people, he gave various prescription. So that is just, you know, prescription, and he didn't—he has—he did not have any idea of giving same prescription [laughs] to various patient. You know, what he told us for him [was] like a, you know, paper. Hai, hai, hai. [Making gestures.] [Laughs, laughter.] That is actually, you know, what he did and what he understood how he should help others. But why he was Buddha is because he is Enlightened One. He was illuminated—his own nature, Dharma Nature, and everyone's nature. So, he knows who he is. And for him there is no disciple, or there is no objective world. So, he says all the being—sentient being is his son, part of him. That was Buddha, you know. So only when we understand Buddha in this—as Sambhogakaya Buddha or Dharmakaya Buddha, Buddha became real Buddha.

There will not be—since we have arrived at this kind of understanding, there will be no need to talk about what is, you know, Theravada Buddhism or what is Mahayana Buddhism. All the Buddhism, whether it is Theravada or Mahayana, it is one whole Buddhism. This is how we transmitted his teaching from Buddha to us. And the purpose of this scripture is to—to describe our Dharma Nature.

So, no time for question?

Student: A few minutes, yes. We have about seven minutes for questions.

SR: Hai

Student A: I have two questions. We read about certain masters who, upon attaining complete enlightenment, are able to direct their future rebirths, in other words, to return to help all sentient beings, coming back through a vow rather than through karma. Would a master, let’s say a master who’s living in this century, who could do that, be a Nirmanakaya buddha?

SR: ??? It—he knows, you know? Actually, he knows. It’s a former life and future life, you mean? Since I don't know it, you know [laughs] my former and future life, I cannot say he was, you know—I cannot—for sure I cannot say he was or he was not, you know. If I really know, you know, then I can say, “Yes!” [laughs]. When myself doesn't know [laughs], how [laughs] is it possible to say, “Yes, he was!” you know? According to the teaching, he is real master. According to our more traditional teaching, he was, I think. I can say so.

Q: Then I'm confused about the meaning of the word “buddha,” because we talk about the last buddha being Shakyamuni and the next buddha being Maitreya. Do we understand that Bodhidharma, his understanding a lot, did he become a buddha, or the Sixth Patriarch or Dogen Zenji? Can we say that those people attained complete perfect enlightenment?

SR: Mm hmm.

Q: Then what is different? Why do we not speak of them as being buddhas and also rather than Shakyamuni and Maitreya?

SR: Why don’t we call Zen Buddha?

Q: Why don’t we call Bodhidharma or the Sixth Patriarch or Dogen Zenji?

SR: Dogen Zenji Buddha? We say, you know—if we, you know— “Buddha” or “zenji” or “busso.” “So” means patriarchs. Patriarchs and buddha is same. But, you know, to—the way we call is different, but same.

Q: Then why—

SR: And we—excuse me. Same words, you know. “Buddha” —what we mean by “buddha,” what we mean by “patriarchs” is the same. When we, you know, point out, one by one, as a successor—successive, you know, teacher, we call them, you know, patriarchs—one, two, first, second, third. But they are all buddha—buddhas. So, not different, but way we call is different.

Q: Then what—

SR: If, you know—Hmmm?

Q: What is the meaning of Maitreya, the coming buddha?

SR: Maitreya Buddha is the buddha who will come. There will be—there must be future buddha too. We call him by name of Maitreya. You know, Buddha attained enlightenment and saw his Dharma Nature, and he became the Nirmanakaya Buddha. And also, he knew the source of his buddhahood. And he said—he recognized himself as a—the seventh, you know, patriarch—seventh buddha. Before Buddha there were seven. But seven is just, you know, [laughs] not just seven, but many. But he didn't say, “I am the first one.” He acknowledged many buddha before him. And he is a one—one of the many buddha, and he may be—he is Maitreya Buddha also.

1 Tathātā: Sanskrit, suchness, thusness


This transcript is a retyping of the existing City Center transcript by Brian Fikes. It was not verbatim. The City Center transcript was entered onto disk by Jose Escobar, 1997. It was reformatted by Bill Redican (7/17/01). Verbatim version by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford 9/2022 based on Engage Wisdom audio.


File name: 68-10-00-B: Lotus Sutra, Lecture No. II-3 Wind Bell: Teachings from the San Francisco Zen Center, p. 3, (Verbatim) Q & A after lecture. Edited by Brian Fikes. Removed "[There is some theory of how air becomes water.]" 3-5-2015 by DC.

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In Wind Bell, Vol. 8, issue 3, 1969