Do Not Pass Your Days and Nights in Vain

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Sandokai Lecture XIII: “Don't Spend Your Time in Vain”
Monday, July 6, 1970

[This lecture is concerned with the following lines of the Sandokai:

Ayumi wo susumure ba gonnon ni arazu,
mayote senga no ko wo hedatsu.
Tsutsushinde sangen no hito ni mosu,
koin munashiku wataru koto nakare.
(Transliteration by Kazuaki Tanahashi.)


The goal is neither far nor near.
If you stick to the idea of good or bad,
you will be separated from the way
by high mountains or big rivers.
Seekers of the truth,
don't spend your time in vain.
(Translation by Suzuki.)]

Here it says:

Ayumi wo susumure ba gonnon ni arazu,
mayote senga no ko wo hedatsu.
Tsutsushinde sangen no hito ni mosu,
koin munashiku wataru koto nakare.

Ayumi wo susumure ba. Ayumi is “foot” or “step.” Susumure ba: “to carry on.” Susumure ba gonnon ni arazu. Gon is “near”; on is “far away.” Ayumi wo susumureba. Ayumi is actually “practice,” you know. Ayumi wo susumureba gonnon ni arazu.

“There is no idea of far away from the goal or nearer to the goal.” This is very important. When you [are] involved in selfish practice, there is, you know-- you have some idea of attainment. And when you have-- you strive for to attain enlightenment or to reach the goal, you have naturally, “We are far away”-- you know, idea of, “We are far away from the goal.” Or, “We are almost there,” you know. Gonnon: “near” or “far away.”

But if you really practice our way, enlightenment is there. Mmm. Maybe this is rather difficult to accept [laughs], you know. When you practice zazen without any idea of attainment, there is actually enlightenment. Or you may understand in this way like Dogen Zenji explained: In our selfish practice there is enlightenment and there is practice. Practice and enlightenment is two-- a pair of opposite idea. But when we realize-- when we understand our practice and enlightenment as an event in realm of great dharma world, enlightenment and practice is two event which appears in a great dharma world. The both practice and enlightenment is also events, you know, which will have-- which many events in our life or in our dharma world. When we understand in that way, enlightenment is one of the event which symbolize the dharma world, and practice is also an event which symbolize our big dharma world. So there is-- if both symbolize or express or suggest the big dharma world, you know, actually we sh- , there is no need for us to be discouraged because we do not attain enlightenment or why we should be extremely happy with our enlightenment. Actually there is no difference. Both has equal value.

So enlightenment-- if enlightenment is important, practice is also important. We cannot evaluate which is good or bad. When we understand in this way, in each step we have enlightenment. Even though we have enlightenment, you know, there will not be no need to be excited with it. And step by step we will continue endless practice, appreciating the dharma world-- bliss of dharma world. That is so-called-it “practice based on enlightenment”-- a practice beyond our experience of good and bad, a practice which is beyond our selfish practice.

Last night, he [Sekito] said, “Whatever you see, if you,” you know, “that is-- whatever you see, that is dao.” Unless you don't understand in that way, you will not-- even though you practice our practice you will-- the practice not work. And tonight, you know, in this line he says, “If you,” you know, “practice our way in its true sense, there is no problem of, 'We are almost there' or 'We are far away from the point',” it is said. Beginners' practice and great Zen masters' practice are not different. But if you [are] involved in selfish practice, then that is delusion. Mayote senga no ko wo hedatsu. If you practice deluded practice, if you practice our way, you know, in dualistic sense-- practice and enlightenment-- then there is barrier or difficulties of mountain and river-- crossing river or mountain: Senga no ko: This is “mountain”; this is “river”; this is “difficulties.” [Suzuki is presumed to be pointing to characters on blackboard.] You will be, you know, you will have-- you will be separated from the dao by the difficulties of crossing mountain and river: Mayote senga no ko wo hedatsu.

And next line is Tsutsushinde sangen no hito ni mosu. Tsutsushinde is “most respectfully” or “reverently.” “I tell all the seekers of the way.” Sangen no hito means “seekers of the truth.” San is like sanzen, like sanpai? Sanzen means, you know, “to visit Zen masters.” San. Gen is “profound teaching.” Hito means “man.” So “to visit profound teaching” or “to study profound teaching”-- ”those who study profound teaching.” “I say this much to the people who want to visit the real teacher.” Gen is, you know, “profound”-- ”profound teaching.”

Koin munashiku wataru koto nakare. Koin means “sunbeam” or “day and night.” Ko is “beam”-- ”sunbeam”; and in means “shadow.” And koin-- this is one word-- koin means “day and night” or “time.” Munashiku-- ”don't”-- wataru is “to spend” or “to cross”-- ”to pass.” “Not”-- nakare is “not.” Munashiku is “in vain.” Wataru is “to pass.” “Don't pass day and night without doing anything” or “in vain.”

To, you know, to pass day and night in vain does not mean only to, you know, goof off [laughs] without doing anything. It is-- that is maybe, you know, one way of [laughs] passing the day and night without doing anything [laughs], but it does not mean, you know, such a-- what he [Sekito] means is more profound: Even though you, you know, work very hard, sometime you may be, you know, passing your day and-- valuable time without doing anything, we say so. If you don't know what you are doing [laughs], or he is passing his time in vain, he may say, “No, I am striving very hard to make my saving account [laughs] ten thousand dollars” [laughs], but to us, you know, it is just spending his time in vain. It doesn't make much sense [laughs].

Even though you, you know, work hard in Tassajara, you know, in work period, it doesn't mean-- it does not mean you are, you know-- it does not always mean you are spending your time properly-- doing something properly [laughs]. Mmm. [Laughs.] What does it mean then [laughs]? If you goof off [laughs] you are also, you know, wasting your time. Even though you work hard, maybe you are, you know, spending your time in vain. This is maybe a kind of koan for you [laughs].

Do you know what does it mean, “Every day is good day”? [Laughs.] “Every day is good day.” This is famous, you know, koan. “Every day is good day.” It does not mean, you know, don't make complaint even though you have some difficulties: “Even though it is hot, you shouldn't complain. Even though it is cold, you shouldn’t complain. Whatever happened, you shouldn't complain.” It does not mean, you know, something like that.

“Every day is good day.” What it means [is], “Don't,” you know, “spend your time in vain.” I think most people are spending their time in vain. If he say, “No, I am always busy.” But if he say so [laughs], it is sure sign of [laughs] his spending time in vain.

Most people do things, you know, as he know what he is doing, with some purpose. But even so, I don't think they are doing things with proper understanding of their activity. I think still he may be doing things in vain. When you do something with usual purpose, which is based on some evaluation, or useful or useless, or good or bad, valuable or less valuable-- that is, you know, not perfect understanding. You know, if you do things whether it is good or bad, you know, or successful or unsuccessful, out of question. Because you feel you should do them, then that is real practice. Not because of Buddha or because of yourself, or because of the true, or because of for yourself or for others. If you do things for the things, that is true way.

Mmm. I cannot explain so well. Maybe I shouldn't explain so much [laughs]. You shouldn't do things just because you feel good, or you shouldn't stop doing things just [because] you don't feel so good. Whether you feel good or bad, there is something which you should do. Unless-- if you don't have this kind of feeling-- if you don't understand this kind of feeling-- of doing things, you know, whether it is right or wrong, or good or bad-- if you don't understand this kind of feeling, you are not yet started our way in its true sense.

I don't know why, you know, I am [laughs] in Tassajara [laughs]. Not for you or for myself, or not even for Buddha or for Buddhism. I am just here [laughs]. I cannot-- you know, I don't feel so good if-- even when I think I have to leave Tassajara in two-three weeks, I don't feel so good. I don't know why [laughs.] I don't think that is just because you are my students. I don't think so. I do not have any particular person whom I love so much [laughs]. I don't know why I have to be there. I have not much attachment to Tassajara. It is not because of I attach to Tassajara.

Hmm. Anyway, I am not seek -- I am not, you know, expecting anything in future or in term of monastery or Buddhism. But I don't want to, you know, live-- I don't want to live in the air. I want to be right here. I want to stand on my feet, you know. The only way to stand on my feet is when I am Tassajara I should be at Tassajara [laughs]. That is the reason why, you know, I am here. I want to be here. That is the most important thing for me: to stand on my feet and to sit on my black cushion. I don't trust anything but [laughs] my feet or my black cushion. This is my friend, always. My feet is always my friend. When I am in bed, my bed is my friend. There is no Buddha, or no Buddhism, or no zazen. If, you know, you ask me, “What is zazen?” you know, my answer will be, “To sit on black cushion is zazen,” or “To walk with my feet is my zazen.” To stay at this moment on this place is my zazen. There is no other zazen.

When I am really standing on my feet I am, you know, not lost. So, for me, that is, you know, nirvana, for me. So there is no need to travel, to cross, you know, mountain or river, for me. I am right here on the dharma world. So I have no difficulty to cross mountain and river. That is how, you know, we do not waste our time. Moment after moment we should live on this moment, right here, without sacrificing this moment for the future.

At Sekito's time, there were, you know, naturally, you know, especially Zen Buddhism is very poliminous [polemical], you know. The background of the teaching is always some discussion or a kind of fight. Especially in Chinese Buddhism you can see this kind of context in their teaching. And talking about various way of practice and various way of understanding of Zen. They were lost in dispute [laughs]. There were many schools of Zen. But because they were involved in some kind of right teaching or wrong teaching, or traditional teaching or some heretical teaching (heresy), they lost their main point of practice. So that is why he says, “Don't spend your time in vain,” sacrificing their actual practice for some idealistic, you know, practice, to attain some perfection of what kind of understanding is traditional understanding told by the Sixth Patriarch-- compiling, you know, Sutra of Sixth Patriarch in their own way [laughs], and [saying], “This is the Sixth Patriarch's way. Those who do not have this book is not,” you know, “the descendant of the Sixth Patriarch.” This kind of, you know, understanding of Zen were prevail [prevalent] at that time. That is why he says, “Don't,” you know, “I reverently say to the seekers of the profound way, don't spend your time in vain.” It is, you know-- what it means is very profound. Without being, you know, caught by some idea, you know, some selfish understanding or practice or teaching-- to follow right practice is our way. [Tape turned. Sentence completed.]

This kind of practice is called “polishing tile practice” [laughs]. Tile. “To polish tile practice.” Usually, people may polish a mirror, you know, because if you polish it, you know, it will be a clear, good mirror, you know. To have clea- -- why you polish it is to have clear surface of the mirror. But if someone start polish a tile [laughs], you know-- for the people who understand why we polish a mirror is to have a mirror-like complete, you know, shiny surface of it. So if someone start to polish a tile, you may laughed at him.

So to polish tile is-- to make good tile is to polish tile. And to polish mirror is to have actual mirror is why we polish a mirror. [Someone may say,] “Oh, this is just a tile. It cannot be a mirror.” You know, that is the practice [of those] who easily give up their practice because he thinks, you know, “Anyway, I cannot be a good [laughs] Zen student. It may be better to give up without polishing it, without sitting zazen.” Without realizing, tile is, you know, valuable-- sometime much more valuable than a mirror, because a mirror is too expensive for the roofing [laughs]. No one can, you know, afford to make a roof by mirror. Tile is very good for to make our roof. So tile is also important, as mirror is important to see, to look yourself into it. That is “tile-polishing practice.” Mazen, we say.

As you know, there is a famous story between Baso, the grandson of the Sixth Patriarch, and Nangaku, a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch. Baso, you know, was practicing zazen. Nangaku, the teacher-- who passed, you know, by-- asked him:

“What are you doing?”

“I am practicing zazen to be a buddha.”

“Ah, that's very nice of you” [laughs, laughter], “trying to be a Buddha.” And the teacher [Nangaku] picked up a tile and started to polish it [laughs].

So Baso asked him, you know, with some curiosity, “What are you doing?” [laughs, laughter].

He [Nangaku] said, “I want to make this tile a mirror.” [Laughs.]

And the disciple Baso asked him whether it is possible to, you know, make tile a mirror.

He [Nangaku] said, “Well [laughs], you said,” you know, “you are practicing zazen to be a buddha, but buddha is not always someone who attained enlightenment. Everyone is buddha. Whether they attained enlightenment or not, they are buddha. You said, 'To be a buddha,' but to be a buddha sometime means to practice.”

His [Baso's], you know, answer was, “I want to be a buddha by practicing-- by sitting practice.”

And so he said-- teacher [Nangaku] said, “You said, 'practice in sitting position.' But Zen is not,” you know, “always-- to sit in sitting position is not Zen always. Whatever you do, that will be zazen.”

So he was lost, you know. Baso was lost. “Then what will be the appropriate practice?” [he asked]. And so he explained-- he asked without explaining to him, he asked, “If a cart does not go,” you know, “which would be the appropriate way: to hit a cart or to hit a horse?” [Laughs.] “Which will be the appropriate [way]?” But he couldn't answer because the disciple Baso was still involved in practice to attain something.

So he [Nangaku] continued the explanation of the practice. In short, I cannot translate it literally, but what he said was, “If you think [by] whipping a cart or horse, you can,” you know, “drive a cart is [you are] wrong, because cart and horse actually is not separated, is one.” To whip a horse means to whip a cart, you know. And if you whip on cart, naturally horse will go [laughs], because they are one.

So to practice and enlightenment is one, like a cart and horse is one. So if you, you know, practice actually physical practice, as a practice, that is also enlightenment. And that you practice Buddha's practice, of course, that is enlightenment. But actually that is practice too. We call practice based on enlightenment is “real practice which has no end.” We call enlightenment which started with practice, which is one with practice, is “beginningless enlightenment,” because, you know, if someone start practice, there is enlightenment. Where there is practice there is enlightenment. Where there is enlightenment there is also practice. There is no enlightenment without practice. If you don't stay on this spot realizing your position, then you are not practicing our way. So if you are wasting your time or if you are trying to sacrifice your present practice for future attainment, that is not real practice.

Sekito actually was the direct disciple of the Sixth Patriarch. He knew the Sixth Patriarch's way-- practice very well. So when Kataku Jinne and his disciples started to denounce the Northern school of Jinshu, he [Sekito] felt bad about them attaching to some, you know, idea, and denouncing, you know, superficially, without realizing what is real practice. (The Hoku-shu Zen [was] Jinshu's practice.)

This kind of-- this understanding is extended-- succeeded by Dogen in Japan, and Dogen extended his idea more widely and not just, you know, logically but more emotional way-- more, with more feeling and more poetic way through his tenacious, you know, thinking mind.

So some people may say Sandokai is not so good, you know, because it is so philosophical. [Laughs.] It may be so, you know, if you don't understand the background of his [Sekito's] teaching, and if your mind does not penetrate through his words. We say to read back of the paper, you know, not printed characters, but the other side of the book. You may feel in that way. But this is actually very important, you know, work-- Sandokai.

Do you have some questions?

Question/Answer Session
SR: Hai.

Craig Boyan: I don't understand all the vows we make.

SR: Mmm? Vow?

Craig: Well, I understand what you said tonight, but, you know, in the light of what you say, you know, I don't understand all the vows and stuff. Like, if there's no sentient beings to save, why do we say how we “vow to save sentient beings?” It seems like a big joke to me.

SR: [Laughs.] Because your practice is, you know, always confined in realm of, you know, why we practice zazen. What does it mean, by your practice. Anyway, actually, you are practicing very good. Why do you practice your practice so good? [Laughs.] I don't understand. [Laughs.]

Craig: It doesn't feel very good to me.

SR: [Laughs.] Yeah. Anyway, you are doing well. [Laughs, laughter.] Because, maybe, because I give lectures, you know, my lecture will, you know, will be some enticement [laughs, laughter]. May be better not to hear my lecture-- just practice zazen.

Craig: I don't mind zazen so much, but I kind of-- I don't like to make promises that I don't understand.

SR: “Make promise.” Our promise, you know: If sentient beings are number -- numerous, you know, numberless, or desires are numberless-- sentient beings are numerous, you know, it is-- you cannot say, “I vow to save them” or “I vow to put an end to them.” It is, you know, it is very silly. It doesn't make any sense [laughs]. This is true. I agree with you. It doesn’t make any sense.

But still you do it. Why? You don't feel so good if you don't work for others. Our practice is not just to s -- we say, you know, we make four vows just, you know, in that way. But what we really means is more than that. But tentatively or for sake of sake of convenience, we, you know, say in that way just four.

But I feel in this way, really, truly, you know, it is lucky that we have, you know, inexhaustible desires and numerous sentient beings to save. And each of them is almost impossible to save them in term of, you know, “I save you” [laughs]. You cannot save in that way. But whether it is possible or not, to continue this kind of practice is our vow. Anyway, whether it is possible or not, out of question. Whether this is Buddhist way, or Bodhisattva's way, or Hinayana way, or Mahayana way is out of question. Anyhow, do it! That is our vow.

Craig: When I-- I mean, when I don't-- it seems cheating, you know. I mean, when I promise to do something, it seems, you know, I need to have some meaning. If it doesn't have any meaning, I won't say it. If it doesn’t have any meaning to me, I can't say it.

SR: Your arrogance. That is your arrogance.

Craig: I don't know. Maybe. But--

SR: Even though you cry, that cry doesn't make any sense. You're still-- your practice is still based on some selfish practice. You don't give up yourself. You have to suffer more and fight more with yourself. With yourself. No one to fight with-- nothing to fight with. Fight with your selfish practice until you give up. That is most important point for real students. You shouldn’t fool yourself. He doesn't want to be fooled by our teaching, or Zen, or something like that. That is right. You shouldn't [be] fooled by anything.

Craig: Well, what do I do at the end of lecture? I can't-- I-- you know, everybody will say the four vows, and I won't believe them. I--

SR: You don't have to believe in [them] literally, you know. Because various teachers and numerous people, you know, repeat it in that way, that is why you should do it. That's all. If, you know, they are cheating themselves, you know, you should be cheated, you should be fooled by it with all sentient beings. That you cannot do that means you want to be some special person. That is good, you know. That much spirit we should have. But the answer is, you know, that is not the way. You know, answer is very cold. Cannot be sympathetic with your, you know, practice. Some great teacher will give you some candy. Go and get candy.

Craig: It's not like that, Roshi. I mean, I just-- maybe part of it is, but I still don't understand. I feel very-- I don't feel right. Even if the whole world is fooled, if there is something I don't believe, or I don't understand--

SR: “You don't understand.” How much truth you can understand by your small mind? And you should know the limit of your thinking mind.

Craig: But-- I forget--

SR: What you see, you know, actually, you see various color, but how many colors do you see by your eyes?

Craig: But I can't--

SR: How much sound you can hear? You only think, you know-- your thinking mind works dualistic only. You have no words to explain this kind of reality, you know. If you understand our teaching through those characters, it is almost impossible. This is just suggestion. You see? So because you stick to my words, or by scriptures, or you think scriptures should be something perfect, more convincing-- you think in that way, but first of all, you know, we have to confess what I'm talking is not right. What I'm saying is not always true. I am suggesting something more than that. That's all. So to, you know-- that is even-- not only Buddhism, but Confucius says, you know, “If it is,” you know-- ”If someone want to fool you,” you know, “you should be fooled by him.” That is very important.

Craig: Even though practice is greater than words, still, in the small world of words, I don't feel strong enough yet to be inconsistent, you know. I don't feel that I can say, “Well, I don't see that light there,” you know, because I do. I mean, it may be ignorance or something, but it seems like it's there to me. And in order to be kind of what I feel is straight or clear-- if I say to you, “I don't see that lamp, Roshi,” then something funny happens inside of me, you know. And sometimes that same funny thing happens when I say the vows, because I think, “Oh, okay, I vow to save all sentient beings.” But then something is going on inside me, you know. There aren't any [2-3 words unintelligible]--

SR: Yeah, I understand that. You know, we priest always put our hand together when you eat. How many times you put your hand together, you know. How many times you put your hand together in Tassajara, you know? I didn't like it at all, you know. I felt as if I am fooling myself [laughs], and, you know, I didn't feel so good. But as I had to, you know, I did it, that's all. But now I understand, you know, because I understand how foolish I am. I have not much strong spirit [laughs] as I had before. So I understand. But still, you know, truth is truth. I cannot agree with you now. Maybe if I were to be your age, I can agree with you. I could have agreed with you quite easily, and you would have been a great friend of mine, but now [laughs] I ca [partial word-- probably “can't”] [be] your friend. Hai.

Student B: Roshi, do you think that we have any choice? For instance, I am here at Tassajara.

SR: Mm-hmm.

Student B: Am I here at Tassajara by my choice, or am I simply here at Tassajara?

SR: Well, that's-- the answer for that is, you know, your buddha nature brought you here at Tassajara. That is my answer. Your choice is not-- you ch -- . I think that was not comp , you know, your choice, you know, completely. Maybe your choice, you know, twenty or thirty percent your choice. But most of the reason for your [being] here is something more than that. That we hear Buddha's teaching is, you know, because of our previous study. And wisdom seek for wisdom. We are listening to the teaching which we have listened or have had studied under many teachers in my past life. Dogen said so. Wisdom seek for wisdom. But, you know, even though you feel, you know, “I am feeling this way right now, one hundred percent,” you may say so, but actually that voice is now covers all of your being or character. But actually it is a little tiny part of you saying so, and you feel as if your whole body is saying so. That's all. That is, you know, so-called-it-- Ahh. Maybe I shouldn't explain [laughs] so, you know, so much in traditional way.

Student B: Well then, if I were, say, to become buddha, would I have anything to do about it? Or would I have anything to do with it? Would I have anything to do with it?

SR: Mmm. First of all, you know, try to forget yourself, and rely on your true voice-- nonverbal voice-- voiceless voice. And you listen to “tongueless speech,” we say. Don't listen to my words. [Laughs.] Ahh. Think about this point, you know, and-- . Hai.

Student C: Will I hear your stick on my shoulder tomorrow?

SR: Hmm?

Student C: In the morning-- in the early morning, will I hear your stick on my shoulder?

SR: Mm-hmm. Stick?

Student C: Will you hit me with your stick tomorrow morning?

SR: Okay. All right.

Student D [Roovane ben Yumin]: Roshi? Is the voice-- whose voice is it that we listen to?

SR: Mmm! Your voice and Buddha's voice. That is, you know, what Sandokai is talking about. You think sometime [it is] your voice, but that voice is Buddha's voice. But you think in that way, you know, from one-sided feeling. You think you are here. You think you are, you know, Roovane, but [laughs] actually it is not so [laughs, laughter]. No, not at all. If I think I am Suzuki, you know, if someone call me “Suzuki” I [laughs] feel very funny. “Oh [laughs], is this Suzuki?” [Laughs.] “Oh no, I,” you know-- first reaction is, “No, I am not Suzuki.” [Laughs.] Hai.

Student E: Roshi, this may be a good gassho [presumably bows], and someone may look at me and say, “Oh, this is good gassho.”

SR: Mm-hmm.

Student E: But there may be a cold heart behind this gassho.

SR: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Cold heart or warm heart out of question. [Laughs, laughter.]

Student E: The [laughs] gassho is a good one [said as an aside]. Is it still good gassho [addressed more loudly to Suzuki]?

SR: Perfect! [Laughs, laughter.] [End of tape. Not clear if Q&A session continued.]
Source: City Center transcript entered onto disk by Jose Escobar, 1997. Transcript checked against tape by Bill Redican 8/8/01.

File name: 70-07-06: Do Not Pass Your Days and Nights in Vain Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, p. 161, (Verbatim) Q & A after lecture. Changed "Student A" to "Craig (Boyan)" 10-13-2022.

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In Wind Bell, Vol. 23, issue 2, 1989