Lotus Sutra, Lecture No. II-7

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Fall 1968
Zen Mountain Center


Yesterday I told you about Ajnata-Kaundinya [repeats different pronunciations], and he is one of the five earliest disciple1 of Buddha. As I told you, when Buddha gave up a practice of asceticism, they went to Deer Park. And they practiced—continued asceticism at Deer Park. And after he—Buddha attained enlightenment, he came to Deer Park. And he—Buddha at that time told about four noble truths, and dana-prajna-paramita, and shila-prajna-paramita. And he said, if you practice shila-paramita, you will have good future life, he thought—instead of saying you will attain enlightenment. It’s—it means that, at that time, he still applied—when he tell his own teaching, he applied some religious understanding of common people in India at that time.

According to Buddhism, if you practice shila—precepts, not because to have a good future life, but because we attain enlightenment in this life. This is actual Buddha's teaching.

I think it’s—it is necessary—it is better for us to study more about what he told here about Four Noble Truth and eighty—Eight Holy Path. Four Noble Truths are—one is teaching that this world is full of suffering. This is one: suffering, and cause of suffering, and way to attain liberation from suffering, and nirvana. That was your Four Noble Truths. According to Buddha's teaching, this world is full of suffering. But in Mahayana teaching which developed from these Four Noble Truths or eighty—Eight Holy Paths, this world is the world of—the world where we find realization or nirvana within each self. This is Mahayana teaching. In—according to Mahayana this world is not the world of suffering, but according to Hinayana, or according to the teaching, which Buddha told for the first time to the five disciples, this world is full of suffering.

Actually, this world is full of suffering, and suffering and our life is coexistent, you know. Where there's life, there's suffering. And suffering and life is synonymous [laughs]. And this teaching is very important because when you think you have no problem, that is [laughs] big—the biggest problem [laughs]. You know, if—at first, you know, someone who has—at first you will have stomachache, but when your stomach is pretty bad—worse, you have no ache. So that you have suffering is good, but that you have no suffering is more serious [laughs]. So, as long as you have problem, you have a pretty good student, promising student. And if—if you have no suffering, [laughs] you are, you know, hopeless [laughs, laughter]. So, first of all, you know, Buddha, you know, you say you have no suffering, but that is suffering. That is the great problem. In this ways, he started his teachings.

Student A: ???, Roshi, what do you mean by suffering? How we tend to suffer?

SR: Suffering—various problems. You know, suffering—he explained furthermore about it. To—to live in this world—when we live in this world we have—when you came to this world for the first time, that is—that was suffering; when you come out, you know, from narrow place, [laughs] you had great suffering. That is one. And you will become more older and older, like me. That is suffering too. And you will have sick, you know—sickness; that is suffering. And you will die; that is suffering. So, when you appear—when you come to this world, you have already, you know, very good future, you know, to—to die[laughs], to have some sick, and to become old [laughs, laughter]. So, he says, you know, you have this world—human life is a life of suffering.

Student B: Roshi, if—if we have suffering and we—problems and are able to feel some confidence that we can take it, is that still hopeless? [Suzuki laughs.] Then, it doesn't seem to be quite so much of a problem anymore. When it seems that I can't take it, then it seems like an insurmountable problem.

SR: Yeah. And he, you know, this is four suffering. And we count eight, four more. The—the next one is you will meet someone or you will live—you have to live [with] someone who you do not like [laughs]. And you will be separated, you know, from someone who like you—who you like very much, who you love. It looks like very true [laughs]. You cannot leave, you know, someone who you—you love the most. And you will meet someone—you will meet one—you have to leave someone who you do not—to whom you like. And you will have—that you have five skandhas, you know, is already suffering. That you have eyes, that you have nose, that you have mouth, that you have ears, and that you—you can think, that you can feel, and that you can some idea—you can have some idea, that you can know who is Buddha, it is already suffering [laughs]. What do you think?

Student: Roshi?

SR: Just a moment. And, you know, you cannot get what you want. This is also true because—so—and in one word, why we suffer is—this is more, maybe, more developed, or advanced, sort of more conclusive understanding, but, in—in short, we care for some substantial, concrete things, rather than when everything is changing. You know, everything is changing, but we care for something—we do not like everything changes. We want them to be more substantial and concrete. That is the cause of suffering. So suffering is coexistent with our human life.

That is the first teaching he told us—he told to the five disciples. Pretty [laughs] strong teaching, you know. And you cannot deny it; it is very true. And no one can help you, you know, because as long as we care for some—something concrete, something substantial, something more materialistic, when in reality everything is changing, including ourselves. So, in this sense we cannot rely on even ourselves. But still he says, you should—only thing you can rely on is you. You exist right now—this is more advanced, you know, way of explaining, but Buddha says you cannot—you should rely on yourself. That is only one thing you can rely on. But anyway, first teaching is that this world is full—full of suffering.

And next teaching is cause of suffering. Cause of suffering is—what is the cause of suffering? The cause of suffering is self-centered idea. One[?] self which thinks everything is constant, and including ourselves, everything is constant. And everything is enjoyable, and everything has self-nature, and everything is substantial. When that is, you know, the cause of suffering because of this kind of understanding, or because of those element—because of this kind of understanding which has those four elements, we suffer. Cause of suffering.

And how to get out of it is the way to attain renunciation. And this is also his third teaching. And the second one cause of suffering, and that we have suffering is the relationship between two teaching is one is cause and one is effect. That we have suffering here is effect, and the cause is—reason why we suffer is that we have in your mind the four elements of ???, eternity, and element of enjoyment, and element of self, and element of substantiality—we suffer. That is cause of suffering. So here he has, you know, teaching of cause and effect. This is cause, and this is effect. Effect is suffering. The cause is the four elements which consist of—of which our mind is consist.

This is his teaching and when the—what is nirvana? Nirvana is well attained when we know this cause and effect. How suffering is caused, and what is the reason of suffering. Then we will be free from suffering. That is the Buddha's teaching, Four Noble Truth.

Student __: Roshi.

SR: Hai.

Student: Which one of these is the Eightfold Noble Path?

SR: Eightfold Noble Path is, you know, the—when we explain the—how to—how to attain nirvana. That is the first to the third.

Student: The third one.

SR: Third one. The first one is suffering, and cause of suffering, and way to, you know, attain renunciation, and nirvana. So, Eight Holy Paths is the third one.

And the first one of the Eight Holy Paths is Right View. Right view is to know the cause and effect, to—to have perfect understanding between cause and effect—how suffering is caused. And what kind of cause we have for result—for the suffering, you know. That is Right View: to—to—to see “things as it is.” When we see things as it is, we know—we will know that how we cause—we create suffering for ourselves, you ???. If you see things as it is, you know, nothing is constant, everything is changing, and so everything has no self-nature. So, you cannot enjoy your life, you know, as you thought—as you expected. You expected our life to be very enjoyable [laughs, laughter]. But actually, you know, everything's changing. “Oh my [laughs], that is—that was not true,” you may say.

So, when you see things as it is, you know, you can—you have to change your understanding of this life completely. When you change your understanding of life completely, that is nirvana. There's no problem. And to attain nirvana—how to attain nirvana is the Eight Holy Path, starting from Right View, right understanding of our life. It mean to understand our—to have right understanding is to know cause and effect—what is the cause of the suffering, and what is suffering. So, starting from Right View, you should—we should see things as it is.

So, in Mahayana practice—dharma practice the six—Mahayana bodhisattva have six practice. One is dana-prajna-paramita, to give things, material and teaching, to help people, dana-prajna-paramita. And precepts, prajna—prajna-para [shila]. And to be patient [kshanti-paramita], to wait, you know, not through limiting ourselves, but to extend our practice to—to two directions, past and future. So, we in—so that is why we say, you know, our desires are—sentient beings are innumerable, our desires are but[?] [in]exhaustible, you know. When we extend our practice, you know, there is—that is a practice of patience. And practice of constant effort—constant effort [virya-paramita]. And this practice should be extended in two ways. And wisdom—to have wisdom [prajna-paramita]. And to have good meditation [dhyana-paramita]. That is bodhisattva's six practice.

And here—in, you know, in Buddha's first teaching—or in Buddha’s first teaching, when he told Eight Noble Truths, the first one was the Right View. Right View is equivalent teaching to the right almsgiving— right giving. You know, if you want to help people by giving some teaching or material, you should know [laughs] whether he want it or not, [laughs] and you should know what is the most appropriate thing for him to give, and what is the right time, you know, to give. This is also Right View. And if you want to give something, you should not give just, you know, as you give some candy to a dog, you know [laughs]. Even a dog, he—if he doesn’t want it, he will not take it. So—[possible gap in audio here].

When he—when Buddha told this kind of teaching to his disciple, his teaching looks like more negative, but what he really meant by his teaching was more hard. The other side, which is Mahayana, Mahayana-like side. And when Mahayana teachers became proud of his way of understanding of Buddha’s teaching—when they become pride of—they had—they took some pride in their understanding, discriminating Hinayana [laughs], you know, saying, “That is Hinayana.” That is not, according to great teachers, is not true Mahayana, true Buddhism. True Buddhism should not be like that. True Buddhism should understand two ways: Right View and Right View which was told by Buddha or which was understood by him—direct disciples of—of Buddha, and the teaching of Mahayana or practice of Mahayana to give and to help others. It’s same thing—same quality, not different teaching at all. When we understand Buddha's teaching from two side as Buddha's disciple understood Buddha, and as Mahayana teachers understood his teaching, then that is true teaching of Buddha. That is true if there is—if Mahayana teaching is our very best teaching, Mahayana teaching should be that kind of teaching, not the kind of teaching which discriminate Hinayana or Mahayana. So actually, those teaching is not only Hinayana teaching, but also Mahayana teaching.

And he told at that time—and here is some interesting, you know, two kinds of—version of a same—in some—as some scripture. When one of the—when Buddha told his teaching for the first time to the—for the five disciples. Assaji—Assaji here in Lotus Sutra, Ashvajit—Ashvajit. I didn’t—I didn’t figure out who it was. But this is mostly spelled by A S S A J I, instead of A S V A J I T, Assaji.

Yesterday I told you that Shariputra—when Shariputra birth in Rajagrha—he was born in—near Rajagrha—Oshajo in Japanese. And he—when Buddha came to Rajagrha with five disciples, and at that time perhaps he had more disciples. Like at that time his family became his disciple. His son, his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his aunt [laughs, laughter] all were [laughs, laughter] converted to Buddha's [laughs] Buddha’s disciple. And some more famous teachers, you know, converted to Buddhism—converted and joined his order. And Shariputra—when Shariputra saw him as a quite different, you know, person. He is not a usual one. And Shariputra was wise enough to see through, you know. He thought he must have good teacher when he behaved like that as a quite young man. So, he asked him, “Who is your teacher?” And, “My teacher is Buddha—Shakyamuni Buddha.” And he—Shariputra asked again, “Then what, in short, what was—what is his teaching?” And the teaching is here, you know. One version is, “Every being comes—has its—comes from its own cause. And when cause is—cause is empty, the—every being is empty.” When the cause is understood to be empty, that is Tao, that is a way. That is a eight—is another of Eight Holy Path. He—my teacher tells us like this: “Although I am not quite young and I haven't study so long, but in short, his teaching is like this.” This is one version.

And another version is cause and effect is the source of various being—causality is the source of various being. Therefore, everything has no self-nature and empty. And the—everything comes out from its proper reason, and Buddha tell us what is the reason, and he told us—he tell us how to destroy the cause of suffering. And this, you know, rendering—this version very similar to, you know, the Four Noble Truths and very—very much like Mahayana teaching, which is the teaching of emptiness, especially this, you know, the—this listener in this case is Shariputra, who has great teacher of—the most eminent teacher of Buddha. And who understood his—Buddha's teaching more philosophical profound way. So, this rendering is something like in the Four Noble Truths, and at the same time something like form of teaching of form of emptiness, emptiness is form. It should be like this, you know. Hinayana teaching and Mahayana teaching should not be two different teaching. But some of them thinks, “This is Hinayana teaching, and this is Mahayana teaching,” but that is a great mistake. Anyway, he told Ajnata-Kaundinya and Assaji and the other three disciples this kind of stuff[?]—and this kind of teaching.

Student: About 10 minutes.

SR: Hmm, let’s spend too much time again. Not much question. Hai.

Q: Maybe this is a problem, maybe not, but if one of the causes of suffering is seeking permanence, not changing, and not—not accepting the changing world and our changing self. Yet, isn't there an element of this in the teaching in the way out also, in saying, “Look, here are the Four Noble Truths, unchanging, true, permanent. This is the way it is, you must accept these.”?

SR: Umm hmm. That is [laughs] when you find out, you know, that kind of teaching which cannot be changed, [laughs] which is always true—always—always true, and your, you know, your desire will be at peace by finding something, you know, which is true and which is universal and which is eternal. In this sense we call—we say Buddha's teaching is eternal teaching. But it does not mean something which was told is eternal [laughs]. Something which is told in this sense is eternal. The way you—the way he understand things was true—is true—always true. So, Buddha himself did not say, “What I said is always true.” Like, you know, Claude [Dalenberg] the other day said, you know, that Buddha said, you know, “If you go to mountain and find out something, some good place to build building, or like Church Creek or, you know [laughs], Horse Pasture, you know. You will after you come—come back to your monastery, you will tell your teacher, 'Here is good place to practice our way. Let's, you know, build monastery there. Then many people will go.' That is my way,” he said, you know. “I am—I am not provided any land—I didn’t provide any land like that—any holy place like that. But it was there, I just found it [laughs] accidentally. People are very much interested in that place, so that is why [laughs] I have so many students.” He—he understand in that way. But, you know, what he—he did not do anything; but teaching is—was there before he thought about it or before he found out. That is his understanding of the teaching. So, he didn't stick to his teaching or his being. You should—if he died, he said, there is no need to have a big ceremony. That is why, you know, Buddha had eternal life. He didn't stick to anything, but he stick to one eternal teaching which give a birth to Buddha. In this way Buddha's disciples understood him. So, that is why Buddhist—Buddhism has perpetual, you know, life. So that—what you mean is very true, you know.

Q: Although the paths to this place are changing and are different, and to use that metaphor, the place is unchanging.

SR: The metaphor is, you know, he is not someone who provided that form ???.

Q: But then there is still this element of satisfying our need or desire for something, some “thing,” not a—not a complete material thing, but something.

Suzuki: Something, yeah, that is our nature, you know, which is not good or bad. You cannot say even good, you know. [Laughs] if you say, “It is good,” you know, it is almost dying [laughs] already because you stick to it—you may stick it—stick to it. If it is not good or bad, you know, you may not stick to it. This is, you know, Buddhist understanding. Hai.

Q: After you spoke about the Four Noble Truths, you said that—that there were four other types of suffering: when you are separated from someone you loved, and when you had to live with [Suzuki laughs] someone you didn't like. Where did those teachings come from?

SR: Where?

Student: Yeah.

SR: From where? To a sutra?

Q: Yeah.

SR: It is—this kind of statement is stock words, you may say, you know. In every—in—in various sutra in this form, you know, the teaching is repeated. Hai.

Q: It says here, they’re talking about the Four Noble Truths, that, “When the creatures in this world delight in low and contemptible pleasures, then the—then the Buddha who always speaks the truth indicates pain is the first truth, and—and desire is the origin of pain, and the third truth is the path, is always try, unattached, to suppress desire.” Now, do you think that’s a good teaching for us at this—at this time? Always try, unattached, to suppress desires.

SR: [Laughs] that may not be possible [laughs, laughter]. You know that when we stress, you know, our pract[ice]—when we encourage—when they encourage us to—to control our desires, you know, and to have good understanding of our nature or suffering, they put it in that way. So, it—it is, you know, we call it “annihilate” or to “suppress” or “annihilate.” But it is not so, metsu[?] means—mets[?]—mets[?] means annihilate. When you complete annihilate it, it is empty, you know. But that emptiness is not empty. That everything is changing, and it has no self-nature, so we call it “empty,” you know. But things it desires are here [laughs], but it is not dead, it is working. So as long as it is—it has some past and future, and it is, you know, always acting, this is not—it doesn't exist in the same way. So, to see things as it is, as it goes, so desires you have will not exist in the same way. But you—because you think, “I—what shall I do with—with my desires, you know?” [Laughs, laughter.] That is [laughs] desires which is not empty, which is not changing. But even though you, you know, [laughs] you fasten[?], you know, if hard[?] like this, it is changing. So, in one or two years, it will disappear [laughs, laughter]. If you understand in that way, that is true meaning of emptiness. Not get rid of—without getting rid of it, to have proper understanding, it is the way to attain emptiness. That is the teaching of emptiness. So, emptiness and to completely cut off or to annihilate, is—one is more substantial way of expression or narrative way of expression. The other is more, you know, more objective, calm, understanding. So called it “to see things as it is.”

So [laughs] if you read this sutra literally, you will not understand it properly. But this sutra is told in various way, back and forth; it's for sometimes this way and sometimes the other way. That is why this sutra is valuable, not, you know, simple sutra. So, after all, the—this—this—this sutra[?] could be very artistic or poetic. Some part is not so, but it’s ending some big, you know, artistic work.


1 Ājñāta-Kaundinya, Ashvajit (Assaji), Bhadrika, Mahānāma, and Vāspa.

This transcript was a retyping of the existing City Center transcript. 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 created 7/2023 by Peter Ford based on Engage Wisdom audio.

File name: 68-10-00-F: Lotus Sutra, Lecture No. II-7 (Verbatim) little higher voice. Q & A after lecture.

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