Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

July 1969
San Francisco



In-- in America, between Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen there-- there must be some clear understanding of-- of the two, or relationship of the two. Dogen Zenji's, you know, problem of, or koan was, “If we have buddha-nature,” you know, “why we should practice zazen?” That was his, you know-- that is why he went to China. All-- all-- in all the scriptures say that everyone has buddha-nature. If so, why we should practice zazen?

And Soto more put emphasis on the statement that we have buddha-nature. And Rinzai put emphasis on practice to attain enlightenment, you know. If we have buddha-nature, like Soto student says, why is it necessary [laughs] to attain enlightenment? And usually, you know, people understand that “we have buddha-nature” means that potentially we have buddha-nature. We have buddha-nature within ourselves, but that nature-- buddha-nature is covered by many things: many evil desires. Or because of the bad karma we cannot, you know, reveal-- we cannot realize buddha-nature. But if we practice zazen, or if we get rid of evil nature, the buddha-nature, which is innate nature, will reveal itself. Usually people understand in that way. But, as the Sixth Patriarch said, that is annihilism [nihilism?]. But anyway, people understand in that way to explain why we must practice zazen.

But this understanding is not true understanding, even according to usual understanding of sutra. There are many, you know-- we try to understand Buddhism just our ordinary way of thinking-- ordinary [way]. That is maybe why we cannot understand what-- why Dogen has to go to China to understand that point. If he understand in that way, you know, it is-- for him it was not-- there was no need for him to go to China. You know, if-- by practice, by our practice, by stopping all sort of evil desires, and we will attain enlightenment, and we will have no trouble, you know, and our buddha-nature reveal itself because there is no evil desires which covers our innate nature. If he understand in that way, there was no need for him to go to China.

But that was not, you know-- that kind of understanding is just, you know, usual understanding which you can accept it intellectually, but you cannot accept it emotionally in its true sense, you know. Your mind says you are-- you think, you know, or you can explain why we should understand-- we should practice zazen intellectually. But actually if you try to attain enlightenment in that way, you will be discouraged, you know, because it is not possible to annihilate all evil desires you have. One student out of thousand, you know, cannot [can?] attain enlightenment in that way. So naturally Dogen Zenji, you know, didn't-- couldn't satisfied that kind of answer. So he actually went to China, not because of study of philosophy of Buddhism. He wanted to have complete-- he wanted to accept Buddhism as his own teaching. He was very sincere person. He couldn't satisfy-- he couldn't be satisfied with the usual, you know, intellectual, philosophical understanding of Buddhism. Although he was the eminent philosopher, he was-- he is actually very profound-- established very profound philosophy-- Buddhist philosophy. But even so, he couldn't satisfy with his philosophy of-- philosophy-- Buddhist philosophy, and he went to China. And after he received transmission from Nyojo Zenji,1 he, you know, described this point from various point.

So he is the one who, you know, understand-- understood what is enlightenment and what is real practice. What do we mean by-- what does the Sixth Patriarch or old Zen masters mean by practice and by enlightenment? This is the point he-- Dogen Zenji strived for to explain. And he thought people of his age-- of his time will not understand this point fully. And he wrote his understanding for his descendant, who may understand his point.

This morning I want to briefly, you know, explain this point: enlightenment and practice, you know. What is enlightenment and what is practice? The enlightenment-- according to Dogen Zenji, enlightenment equal practice. We use, you know, soku. Soku means, you know, “equal,” but not just equal. When you say “equal,” you know, although-- two side of the equal, you know. Although it looks-- there looks like different, but if you change, you know, form, two things is equal as, you know, as you solve the problem of algebra, you know. If you change the form, both side is equal. But when we say equal without changing [laughs], you know, anything, that is equal. If, you know, practice and enlightenment is same if, you know, if you attain enlightenment, that is equal. Practice and enlightenment is-- are equal, same.

But when we say soku, “equal,” it means that without changing [laughs]-- without changing form it is equal. They are same. This is rather difficult to understand. Practice equal enlightenment. [Laughs.] It means that the other side of, you know, practice is enlightenment, and the other side of the enlightenment is practice. He understood in that way. So there is no need to change the practice into enlightenment, or there is no need to change enlightenment into practice. Without changing, practice and enlightenment are same. That is his understanding of our practice.

Now, as I said last time, in Rinzai Zen they put the emphasis on-- on kensho. To put emphasis on kensho means actually to put emphasis on our practice. To encourage our practice, they put emphasis on kensho. But actually, kensho is not the actual goal of practice. Practice itself is important. Kensho is just candy. [Laughs.] You strive for candy, and you make good practice. That is why Rinzai put the emphasis on kensho.

Soto put emphasis on practice, you know. Forgetting all about our practice is shikantaza, as you know. We, you know, forget all about kensho and fully devote ourselves to practice. So actually [laughs] both Rinzai and Soto put emphasis on-- in actual practice. And if you talk about, you know, kensho in Rinzai school said, small enlightenment-- numberless small enlightenment and several big enlightenment. What does it mean? Small, you know, numberless enlightenment [laughs], and big, several enlightenment. If, you know, enlightenment is a goal of practice, one enlightenment will be enough [laughs]. Why do they want so many, numberless, numerous enlightenment? And several big ones? [Laughs, laughter.] You know, it is, you know-- it is just words, just means of encouraging people to follow Buddha's way, to continue our practice forever, from beginningless beginning to endless end, we should follow Buddha's way because Buddha's way is the true way. And for Buddhists, there is no time to stop our effort to save people and subjectively to save ourselves. That is why we decide, you know, we have four vow.2

I think it is necessary both for Rinzai and Soto to have this kind of clear understanding of our practice or Buddhism. Forgetting all about the fundamental teaching of Buddha, just to put emphasis on Rinzai or Soto means nothing. As you know, in all religion the most important point is to have conviction to follow the truth. That is, in other word, faith, or to believe in, or to trust in the truth whatever happen to us. That is our basic attitude of-- basic attitude for human life.

So for Rinzai or Soto-- for Rinzai because, you know-- Rinzai people-- because we are not sincere enough, you know, they put emphasis on kensho. But Soto put emphasis in attitude or belief. So naturally Soto is more rigid in our practice, or more formal, you know. If you, you know, if you-- to have strong conviction to follow the truth means try to have strong faith or to-- in our buddha-nature, and to have determination [to] try to follow the truth or try to help people. So naturally, instead of putting emphasis on kensho, we Soto students should follow rules of monastery or rules of our life.

So for Soto students, it-- we put-- it is necessary for you to organize your life so that you can practice zazen well. For Rinzai students, it is necessary to realize, to reach the point where you don't mind your everyday problem so much, so that you can easily follow the Buddha's way. That is more Rinzai way.

Soto way-- nowadays we have, you know, many Soto followers in Japan and many priests. But originally Dogen Zenji try to-- tried to have just several sincere students. We say “one by one,” or “half by half” [laughs]. He said one or half by one or half [laughs]. Half by half. [Laughing.] Half is enough if he is sincere.

So, you know, the relationship between teacher and student should be very close. We say if one is someone's disciple one should, you know, make calligraphy exactly the same as his teacher, you know. You sign, you know-- in America you have signature. By your handwriting is your signature, but it doesn't work so- -- in Japan. We put the emphasis-- we practice calligraphy so hard that one can imitate someone's calligraphy exactly the same as [laughs] your friend does or your teachers-- your teachers does.

That much, you know, close relationship is necessary, but not by imitation but from bottom of your heart. So how you, you know, learn Oriental-- Japanese-- Oriental culture is to imitate, you know, his teacher's way. And when you are able to, you know, imitate his way, like his own calligraphy or way, you can, you know, establish your own way after you are able to imitate his teacher's way. And after you acquired fully his teacher's way then, if necessary, you know, you should create your own form of calligraphy. But not before [laughs] you can fully-- you can imitate his way exactly the same.

My teacher is not, you know, my father-- was not my father. But people said when I laugh, you know [laughs]: “You must be,” you know, “your teacher's,” you know, “secret boy” [laughs, laughter], because the way you do something, way you laugh, way you speak, and way you make your voice [are] exactly the same as your teacher. So your teacher must be your father,” they said-- some-- not every one of them, but some people said. That is more Soto way.

But the point is to give up selfish, you know, way as much as possible. Not completely, because it is not possible to give up our selfish idea. And we know that is impossible. We continue our practice forever. But you may say if it is not complete-- if it is not possible to complete it, it does not mean to try to, you know, try to annihilate evil desires. But it is not so. That is not Buddhist understan- -- Buddhist effort. Even though it is not possible [tapping table with each word], if it is right we should follow the way. It is not a matter of possible or impossible. Even though it is impossible, if it is right, or if we want to do it, we should do it. We should try to-- at least we should try to do it.

Maybe both Rinzai way and Soto way is necessary, I think. If, you know, I want you to be completely Soto students or Soto disciples, I will not allow you to have long hair [laughs]. I wouldn't. At first even, you know, that much, you know, confidence is necessary. If you want to follow Buddhist way from the starting point, that is more Soto way. “Even though you don't like it, you should do it!” Do you understand? That is Soto way. Rinzai way [is]: “Practice zazen! Practice hard until you have kensho! Whether you have long hair or dirty shoes, it doesn't matter. Practice zazen hard!” [Taps stick three times.] That is more Rinzai way. If y- -- he attain enlightenment, he will not matter whether his hair is long or not. Whatever costume-- in whatever costume he is, he [it] doesn't matter.

But Soto way is: “Why do you-- don't you shave your hair if you are Soto student?” [Laughs.] That is difference. So whether you like it or not, we will force you to [laughs, laughter]-- we will put you in square box! [Loud laughter.] Instead of, you know, putting emphasis on enlightenment or kensho. Same thing, you know.

So in Rinzai way there is more freedom, maybe. In Soto way we don't have freedom until you have complete freedom, until you feel freedom in your everyday life. So, you know, if you stay in Soto way for several years, you know, strictly observe Soto way, you will not have not much problem in your --

[Sentence not finished. Tape turned over.]

-- in its true sense, giving up self-centered activities.

So we should not, I think, be-- we shouldn't be too much attached to Rinzai, or idea of Rinzai or Soto. But we should know that-- we should know the point. I think this is, in this sense-- when we understand this point, I am very much grateful for Dogen Zenji who found-- who was sincere enough to found out this point clearly. And, according to him, there is no Soto or Rinzai or no Zen even. We are all Buddha's disciple. That is enough, he said. He is-- he was a person who [was] sincerely devoted [to] Buddhism and wanted to be a good Buddha's disciple. Fame or rank was not his point, or how many students he has, that was not his point. To be a good disciple even, you know, he-- no one knows where he is, who he is. That is not his point. And he wanted to be a good disciple. And he want-- but he wanted to help real disciple. He doesn't mind how much, you know, student he has. If he-- if he has one good disciple, that was enough for him. Or even though he hasn't no disciple, maybe that was-- he will not regret for that, because he wrote so many things for his descendants, who may understand his way. Usually even priest-- even a priest are very much attached to his achievement, in its worldly sense. Because of him, I think, we came to this kind of understanding of Zen.

We say, you know-- last year at Tassajara, Peter [Schneider] asked me to speak about non-sectarianism [laughs]. And after I gave lecture, he said: “That is sectarianism!” [Laughs, laughter.] Maybe our sectarianism is non-sectarianism: sectarianism of non-sectarianism. [Laughs.]

And he [Dogen?] says, also-- people may say, you know, “Zen,” but no patriarchs said-- called themselves Zen master. Even though people said “Zen,” there is no need to-- to be or to call ourselves Zen. We are not Zen Buddhist. We are just Buddha's disciple. If you, if-- to understand Buddhism in that way, or to understand Zen in that way is sectarianism, we are very sectarian. But it is not so, actually. At least we have sincere enough or honest enough to accept his teaching, giving up our selfish viewpoint or criticism.

Thank you very much.

1 Tiantong Rujing (Tendō Nyojō): 1163–1228

2 "Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them," etc.

Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Sara Hunsaker. Checked by Bill Redican (2/24/01).

File name: 69-07-00: Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen (titled by pf) (Verbatim) Footnotes restored 11/13/2020. was-1 and endsatend why1?-check orig

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