Pure Silk, Sharp Iron

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Sunday, September 14, 1969


Sunday school-- a Sunday-school girl saw me in sitting, and she said: “I can do it.” And she crossed her legs like this [gesturing], and then said, “And what? [Laughing, laughter.] And what?” She sit like this and said, “And what?” I was very much interested in her question because many of you have same question [laughs, laughter]. You come every day to Zen Center and practice Zen. And you ask me, “And what? [Laughs.] And what?”

I want to explain this point a little bit. I cannot-- I don't think I can explain it fully because it is not something to be-- to ask or to be-- to answer. You should know by yourself. We-- why we sit in some formal position is through your body you should experience something, you know, by doing-- by formal sitting-- something you yourself experience not by mind-- by teaching, but by physical practice.

But to be able to sit in some form and to attain some state of mind is not perfect study. After you have full experience of mind and body, you should be able to express it in some other way, too. That happens quite naturally. You don't stick to some formal position anymore, but you can express same feeling-- same state of mind, or you can convey your mind to others by some way. And even though you do not sit in some certain form-- for instance, in chair, or in standing position, or in working, or in speaking, you can-- you will have same state of mind-- state of mind [in] which you do not stick to anything. This is what you will study through our practice. That is the-- what you will, you know-- that is the purpose of practice.

Yesterday [visitor] Yasunari Kobata was speaking about something about Japanese literature. Of course, Japanese people studied Chinese culture maybe from 600-- six-- 700 [CE], maybe. For a long long time, Japanese people are studying Chinese culture through Chinese characters. And then, as you know, Kobo Daishi started kana hiragana, and then Japanese people established some [of] their own culture. You know, that is how-- it is-- same thing will happen in our practice. After stopping sending any students to China officially, one hundred years after stopping sending official student from government to China to study Chinese culture, at Fujiwara period, especially in Michinaga's time, we had exquisite Japanese culture.

Anyway, we established Japanese-- beautiful Japanese culture in literature and in calligraphy too. After that period, the literature and calligraphy was not so good as we had at that time. He said some of them were too formal, and some of them is too-- this is something which you may not understand-- too-- anyway [laughter] we could see [laughs]-- we can see his ego in his writing or in his work.

Through practice we, you know, get rid of-- for long long practice we get rid of our ego, you know, by training. Training means-- like, you know-- actually, to train in Chinese or Japanese means neru. Neru is, you know-- to refine silk, you know, we wash it many times so that it can be white enough and soft enough to weave. That is neru. This part is thread, you know. To, you know, to refine the material is neru.

Or if we-- sometime we use iron, you know. We-- sometime the character consist of two parts. One part is just pronunciation. The other part is iron. To, you know, train-- not train-- how do you-- what do you say? Hit iron when it is hot-- while it is hot you hit iron like this. And--

Student: “Forge.”


Student: “Forge.”

Forge? No-- forge is different. Forge is to--

Student: To hit the iron and you mold it or shape it-- shape it.

Forge? Oh. To shape. Not to make shape. Just to make iron strong. Forge is to put something iron-- melted iron in something.

Student: Temper it.

Yeah, temper. Yeah. That's the word.

We should hit it and it should-- we should hit it when it is hot, you know. After [laughs] it is cold, even though you hit, it doesn't work [laughter]. Training is something like this, you know. When you are young, and when you have a lot of ego [laughs], when you have a lot of desires-- evil desires, so-- so to say. Even though, you know, evil desire, if you, you know, rub it, you know, and wash it, you will be quite soft, pure white silk. Even though, you know, you have various desires, and too much strength [laughs, laughter], if you hit, you know, if you temper it enough, you will have strong, you know, sharp iron like Japanese sword. This is, you know, how we training-- train ourselves. He said-- I was very much interested in what he said.

After that, there-- after Fujiwara period, in comparison to Emperor Saga's work or Kobo Daishi's work or Tachibana Hayanari's work-- not so good, you know. Some of them is too-- too much ego in it, you know, and some of them are too formal. You cannot see anything-- any characteristic-- any personality in calligraphy. The personality we see in their work should be well-trained, you know, personality-- not much ego in it. The difference between-- you may-- I think you may understand this point: the difference between personality and ego. Ego is something to-- which covers your good personality. Everyone has his own character, but when that character is-- if you don't train yourself, your character is covered by ego and you cannot see-- you cannot appreciate your personality. So in their work, you know, he said, we cannot completely accept-- appreciate their work as he appreciate the calligraphy in Fujiwara period.

That was, maybe, because of war-- civil war. Or too heavy control over people like Tokugawa government. To control people by force-- by some policy or force, is not the way how to train people. The people themselves, you know, try to train themselves, not by government or force or policy.

Fujiwara period we had a lot of freedom. But at that time, there were various scholars and artist who studied arts and philosophy or religion in various way. They tried various way, and they had pretty good teachers. Anyway, this is why we practice zazen. By ourselves and for ourselves we should practice zazen. To give more pressure on yourself, you know, we say-- as Dogen Zenji said: “We settle ourselves on ourselves.” [Laughs.] Actually, Dogen Zenji was born 1200-- right after the Michinaga's time. And he did not care for any fame or profit. And he devoted himself just to the truth. And he thought it may not be possible for people at his time to understand his way. But some other day, in future, someone may understand his spirit and his way. And he-- that is why he wrote so many books for his descendant.

This kind of thing is not something I should talk about, but something I must show you [laughs], you know, by my everyday life, which is not so good [laughs]. And I am afraid you will study only my, you know, weak point [laughs]. I think Zen Center is developing pretty well, but we are not, you know, not yet completely on the track. We should know why we should practice zazen, and we should be able to acknowledge something really good from something which looks like good [laughs]. There is a big difference something which looks like good and which is very-- really good. Unless you train yourself by hard practice, you have no eyes to see; you have no feeling to appreciate something which is very good. Only when many people have this kind of eye to see or feeling-- to feel something good, will we not [sic] have really good teachers and students. This is a mutual practice, as Buddha said. That Buddha was great is because people were great. When people were not ready, there will be no Buddha [laughs]. That is very true. I don't want every one of you to be a great teacher [laughs]-- I don't. But most of us must have to [two?]-- must have eyes to see which is good and which is not so good. This kind of mind will be acquired by practice.

Another thing he said was-- no, he didn't, you know, say actually in this way, but-- he said perhaps even in Fujiwara period Japanese people did not completely-- were no so good as Chinese people-- Chinese culture in calligraphy. He was talking about-- mostly about calligraphy. As you know, Chinese people, you know, use always brush more than Japanese do. And Chinese people-- in China they have various brush. And we Japanese has-- have no material to make good brush. We have many bamboo [laughs], but we have not much sheep or various animal --

[Tape turned over. Sentence was probably not finished. Original transcript continued with: “from which to make brushes.”]

-- of it.

So our-- Japanese people's training in calligraphy cannot be so good as Chinese people. That will be the reason-- main reason. But before-- before [Japanese] people master Chinese calligraphy completely, they started already some unique-- unique calligraphy to Japanese people-- Japanese-- as a Japanese calligraphy. This point is very interesting point. Before Japanese people completely study Chinese way, Japanese people already started his own way too-- Japanese way too. Maybe that is the destiny of the, you know, some people who was born in some particular place.

But Buddhist has been-- have been very sincere about his point. That is why we have transmission. Especially Chinese master put strong emphasis on transmission. And Japanese people-- Zen students or teachers-- put emphasis on transmission. That is a reason why is to master, you know, teacher's way completely. And-- and then you should be free from it. That is very hard practice. That is why it takes so long time to be a Zen master. It is not knowledge. It is not some power. The point is whether he is trained enough to make himself pure white material and very sharp iron. At that time, without trying to do anything, you will have-- you can express your true personality in its true sense. If we cannot see any personality in his work, or in his personality, means that he is not yet eliminated his habitual way.

You know, my habit [laughs], you know, is absentmindedness [laughter]. So naturally I am very forgetful [laughs]. Something wrong with my, you know, with my brain, maybe, or this is my inborn tendency. I worked on it pretty hard. I started to work on it for-- when I went to my teacher. Thirty-- I was thirteen years [laughing, laughter]. I was very forgetful, even when I was thirteen. It is not because of old age that I am so forgetful. Not because of my memory, you know; that is my tendency. I worked pretty hard on-- on this, but I couldn't do anything about this. But while I am doing this, you know, I became more and more-- I could get rid of my self, you know-- selfish way of doing something. If the purpose of, you know, practice-- training is just to correct our weak point, I think it is almost impossible to renew or to correct your way-- habit or way. It is almost impossible. But it does not-- even so, it is necessary [laughs], you know, to work on it, because if you work on it, your character will be, you know, trained and your ego will be got rid of.

People say I am very patient, but actually I am very impatient character, you know. My inborn character is very impatient. But while I am working on my forgetfulness, now I don't try to [laughing]-- to correct it. I gave up. But I'm-- I don't think I-- my effort was in vain, because I studied many things. I have to be very patient [laughs], you know, to correct my habit. And I must be very patient when people criticize me, you know, about my forgetfulness. “Oh! He is so forgetful. [Laughing.] We cannot rely on him at all. What should we do with him?” And teachers scold me, you know, every day: “This forgetful boy!” [Laughs, hits stick on table several times.]

But I didn't like to leave him, you know. I want-- just I wanted to stay with him. I-- I was very patient whatever-- with whatever he says-- he said. So I'm-- I think I am very patient with some others' criticism about me. You know, whatever they say, I don't mind so much. I am not so angry with them. Actually, if you know how important-- how important it is to train yourself in this way, I think you will understand what is Buddhism. And this is the most important point in our practice.

As Buddha said: Nin-- nin is patience, endurance, virtue of endurance-- is greater than virtue of observing all the precepts we have. The virtue of endurance is greater than the merit of asceticism. That was what Buddha said. I think this point is very important for our practice, especially, I think, for American students.

Thank you very much.
Source: City Center transcript entered onto disk by Jose Escobar, 1997. Transcript checked against tape and made verbatim by Bill Redican 8/4/00.

File name: 69-09-14: Pure Silk, Sharp Iron Not Always So, p. 89, (Verbatim) added from orig for t-named 14plus

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In Wind Bell, Vol. 26, issue 2, 1992