Obon days

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Thursday Evening, August 12, 1971
Zen Mountain Center


Tomorrow-- tomorrow is the thirteenth, is it? In Japan tomorrow is-- tomorrow-- 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th-- is Obon -- Obon days. We say Obon. At some place, we observe it July 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th. Thirteenth is the-- thirteenth-- [on the] evening of the thirteenth, old souls are supposed to visit their family-- old family. And 16th is the day old souls leave their old family.

Why we observe two months? Before we observe it in the moon-- by the moon calendar [July], but recently we observe it by your calendar [August]. That is why we observe, you know, sometime-- in some place, July. Somewhere-- in some place, August.

This is-- this kind of observation started even before Buddha. Before Buddha-- in India, they were-- people were concerned about their future generation. And if they do not have their children, they worried very much. And they-- they thought they are not faithful enough to their ancestors.

This kind of, you know, idea is also true in China, and maybe after Buddhism [was] introduced to Japan. Japan [was] also concerned about their generation-- future generation. It is Chinese custom. And after Chinese, you know, culture were introduced to Japan, they started to write Japanese history, something like China. Nihon-shoki. Before Nihon-shoki we have Kojiki. Kojiki was written by Japanese, purely, of course, by Japanese, but only-- mostly Japanese-- according to Japanese custom and thought. But Kojiki was written after Chinese culture was introduced, and Kojiki was written something like Chinese history.

But anyway, Japanese families [2-4 words] were very much concerned about their future generation. So even Brahmin-- after finishing their duty as a Brahmin-- Brahmin, as you know, is the highest class of four classes in India-- after Brahmin finished their duty as a Brahmin, as a leader of-- religious leader of Indian people, they started-- some people started-- started family life, household life again. Mostly Indian people started religious life after finishing household life. To finish their household life means, maybe, to have children and to raise children, and they left their home-- home.

But Buddhist, you know-- when Buddha-- Buddha's disciple-- after Buddha's disciples became-- came to Buddha, they didn't have their children, of course. So they may be, you know, con- -- still they may be concerned about their children, and according to Indian old custom, it is, you know-- if they do-- they do not have their children, their ancestors will suffer in-- in-- in their future life. So this kind of-- I think, this kind of cultural background-- because of this kind of cultural background, Obon festival started.

As you know, Obon festival--

As you know, there were two leading, famous disciple of Buddha. One is Shariputra, and the other is Maudgalyayana: Mokuren-- Sharihotsu and Mokuren in Japanese. Shariputra and Mokuren is good friend from their young age. Maybe came from same district of India.

Shariputra was a kind of alert, learned philosopher. And his father Vanganta-- his father Vanganta was a ronji. Ronji means-- scholar-- anyway scholar, who argued-- who make an argument with other-- argument with learned fellows. So every king had ronji, and Vanganta was one of them.

And Bimbi- -- King Bimbisara gave one village to him for his learning. But he [Vanganta] was defeated by Desa [or Desha], who came from another country-- who visited Bimbisara's country, and Vanganta [was] defeated by him in discussion or, you know, argument-- philosophical dispute. And he lost his village-- and he had to leave his village. And instead, Desa became ronji of the Bimbisara-- King Bimbisara. And Desa gave his daughter to him, and that was Shariputra's mother.

Do you know some sparrows [?]? We have many sparrows here. I-- I haven't seen the bird who-- who comes in autumn. And he-- he eat mostly frogs and some insects. Very strong bird, and his-- his eye is very sharp-- sharp, and he is singing something like ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki [laughs]. Do you know that bird? Do you have those-- that kind of bird? And he imitate various kinds of birds. He sing in various way to attract other bird, to catch him-- to catch other bird. So attracting bird by singing, they catch small birds. Not big birds-- maybe as big as this [probably gestures]. That is shari. And his mother was like a-- has sharp eyes like shari. So after that bird, her [his] mother was called Shari. And because Shariputra is daughter-- a boy of Shari, they-- people called him Shariputra. But his proper name is after Desa. Upadesa is proper name.

But anyway, he was-- at-- when he became sixteen, he was already a very learned scholar, and his father's disciples became his disciples. And Mokuren was-- was his good friend, and both Shariputra and Mokuren studied more under Sanjaya Velannhiputra. He was one of the six Indian scholars. At that time there were six outstanding scholars, and he was one of them.

And [after] six week of studying under him, they become a leader of [the disciples of] Sanjaya Velannhiputra. They were so alert. And-- but they didn't [weren't] satisfied with their teacher. And he-- they promised that if one of the two find out some good teacher, they will inform each other and study under the better teacher.

At that time, Buddha was [at] Rajagaha, and one day Shariputra went out of the-- went to the Rajagaha and saw one of his-- one of Buddha's disciples, Assaji. Assaji [was] wearing, you know, at that-- Assaji [was] wearing robe neatly, and walk slowly and calmly, and with-- full of dignity. So Shariputra was very much interested-- impressed by him.

He asked, “Who is your teacher?” And Assaji said, “My teacher was,” you know, “Gautama Buddha.” And so they become Buddha's disciples. But pretty soon they become also one of the leading disciples of Buddha too.

Mokuren is noted for his power of walking-- power of walking fast. In old time, someone who-- who has strong foot-- they were very much, you know, respected. [In] my father's days, in Japan there were no train. Yest- -- my father’s-- [in] my grandfather's day they have no train. So mostly they walked. I was told many interesting stories how fast someone walked [laughs]. Do you-- do you have that kind of story in America? Back and forth, they visit-- went to some mountain and chanted on the mountain and came back-- come back to the home-- to their home-- something like that. Some-- some monks-- do you know I-- you may not know the Hakone Mountain. It is maybe fifteen-- fifteen miles, you know. To go up to the mountain it takes more than seven miles. And to come down, it is seven miles. So [it is] maybe nearly the same distance to-- or from here to-- from here to-- what was the name of the-- one by here-- what do you call it-- oh, I thought that someone may know-- last village.

Student: Jamesburg.

Hmm? Jamesburg. Maybe same distance-- maybe fifteen miles? Oh. Everyday, you know, Yoki Zenji-- Nishiari Zenji, from-- oh, more than that-- from that mountain-- Hakone Mountain is already fifteen miles. And from Mishima to-- Mishima is the town where Ryutakuji is, where Nakagawa Soen Roshi is. From Mishima to Hakone it may be-- it is five miles or more, maybe. And so maybe almost twenty miles-- more than twenty miles.

Nishiari Zenji, you know, getting up early, and left Odawara and went to-- oh, no, no [corrects self]-- get up early and left Mishima and studied-- went to Odawara, and chanted sutra-- morning-- attended morning sutra-- morning chant, and attended lecture, and came back in the same day in the evening-- walking fifteen miles walk-- back and forth, maybe. I don't know if everyday, but they say-- they said every day. And there are many stories like that.

So, in India, at Buddha's time, there must be some strong fellow, you know, who could walk so fast. Mokuren was famous for his strong walk-- walk, and he appeared at various places all of a sudden [laughs], like, you know, as if he fly through the sky to the other place. He was famous for that. But, of course, he was very famous scholar too.

And origin of the story [of] Obon is, one day he [Mokuren] went to-- because of his strong, mysterious power of flying or walking, he could saw [see] his mother in hell. And his mother was almost skin and meat-- and bone: the strong suffering of the hell. And he was very-- very much strucked [stricken] by the sight of his mother’s suffering. He came back to Buddha and asked him how to save him-- save her. And Buddha said, “As people do, it is good idea to make offering to” Buddha-- not to Buddha, but to [laughs]-- he himself is Buddha-- ”to make some offering to priests or monks.” On the day of-- the last day of the training period, it is fifteenth of-- July fifteenth. So giving various-- offering various fruit and vegetables-- fresh vegetables, and many other things like something to sleep on, or some medicine, and beautiful flowers, and some-- some-- something which is-- which give good smell or a fragrance, and candle, incense. Maybe those offering, they had a kind of festival, and priests-- monks and priests chant sutra or give some sermon to the people. That was what they did-- in that way, [1-3 words], old way of-- old custom-- old usual custom. But idea is different but what they did is nearly the same.

And in China when, you know-- Liang-- Liang Dynasty-- maybe it is 500-- Bodhidharma went to-- Bodhidharma went to China [in] 520. Just-- I think just before Bodhidharma went to China, that king, Butei, started this Obon holiday. And in Japan it was-- we started maybe 1263, the time of Fuko emperor. Since then we-- we are observing Obon [1 word: Foyo?] each year.

This morning I-- we talked about Obon [1 word: Foyo?] in Japan and [1 word]. And they say if you observe it, it may be very dangerous [laughs], because we have to fire-- you have to have fire for the souls-- old souls, you know. In Japan, we invite-- we make our gate bright-- burning-- burning pitch-- cut pine pitch as long as this [gestures?]. And we welcome old souls. So we cannot observe it anyway. We just say, “Maybe so.” [Laughs.] But it is a kind of Buddhist, you know, tradition to observe Obon [1 word: Foyo?].

Since I came to America, I noticed many Japanese customs, you know, which is very different from American way. When I was [in] Japan, I think that [those customs] was quite usual, but if you see Japanese custom from America, it is-- what they are doing in Japan is very, you know, special and maybe interesting, you know. But it is, maybe-- it is very difficult to apply it.

Anyway, we have Obon festival. We start from-- from [for] tomorrow I start-- I studied little bit about Obon. When-- in China it was started [in the] fourth year of Emperor Wu or Butei, and in Japan [in] 1266 it was started.

And [it is] about, you know, Indian old custom, to be very much concerned about future generation. There is, you know, famous Mahabharata-- Mahabharata. It is old old-- Indian-- Indian verses. In Mahabharata, explaining the meaning of putra-- putra like “Shariputra.” Putra means-- putra-- the root word of putra is Put. Put is a kind of hell, where their father or their mother is, maybe. A kind of hell. So it is their duty to save their mother-- their parents. How they save their parents is to have children. If you have children, they will be, you know, saved from the hell. That is the root word of-- of putra. Shariputra, you know, putra. And there-- in dictionary there are many similar stories, which is-- which is-- which are found in old Buddhist-- Buddhist scriptures. So most likely those festival started before-- even before Buddha. Buddha tried this kind of custom.

Do you have some question? Hai.

Student A: Roshi, how do the parents-- how do you-- how do Buddhists learn how to celebrate Obon or to save the suffering of their parents?

SR: In-- in Japan?

Student A: Yeah. I am thinking also--

SR: Oh. Yeah.

Student A: -- about their not taking up the [2-4 words].

SR: Buddhist are ordained-- if you become or if you receive ordination, that is the best, you know, way to help their parents. We have that kind of idea: not only your parents, but nine-- nine ancestors. If you-- one-- your father is one, you know, your grandparents is two-- in that way nine ancestors will be saved. If one become a priest, that is [1 word]. So for-- we have Buddhist-- a priest visit their fa- -- members' family-- family shrine and chant sutras. And in-- in each family, they offer many things. And in some family they will make special altar for the family ghosts [laughs], who may-- who may come with their-- with many souls.

So we help-- help people to observe Obon festival-- Obon service. That is what we do-- what priest does, you know.

SR: Some more questions? Hai.

Student B: Roshi?

SR: Hai.

Student B: I think it's in Buddhism we have the [3-4 sentences unclear].

SR: You know, you say so, but if you have two parents, you know-- you have two parents, and you have four grandparents, you see? Two have two, and eight, sixteen [laughs]. Soon it will be a big, you know, a great number of people. You may think, you know, we human beings started by two, you know [laughs]. I don't know which is true. If you think more about it, you know, you cannot say that is explanation or to-- to have special idea of-- about our parents. So we have-- we are-- we-- anyway, we are one in [1-3 words]. Even it is so, you know, if you-- if you pick up one, it included, you know. That is proper understanding.

So it looks like we pick up just my parents, you know-- I pick up just my parents. But it is not-- our true understanding is not so. And so we say that is-- Buddhists do not have idea of soul as usual people understand what is soul. Our understanding of soul is different. It is a kind of big mind. But even though it is big mind, it is at the same time our-- each one’s own -- [Sentence not finished. Tape turned over.]

-- mind, you know. If you think each one’s mind does not exist at all, that is one of the heresy. If you ignore each one's own mind. And if you ignore the big mind that is also the heresy-- heresy. So we must have, you know, complete understanding of the reality. Do you understand?

Usually, you know, you will fell [fall] into, you know, danken or joken. Joken means to believe in something which exist forever, constantly, like emptiness or something. Danken means to believe in each existence. It looks like-- to him it looks like separate, independent being. So dan is, you know, “cut.” Dan is “to cut.” So each one will be cut from the rest of the being. That is why we call it danken.

Joken means to understand things [are] just one, which exists forever. That is joken-- idea of constancy. They do not-- really want change of things. They do not realize things which change. Do you understand? That is Buddhist understanding. So if you think Buddhists do not have any idea of small mind, you know, it is one-- one of the two heresies-- heretic understanding.

Buddhism go-- should go over this kind of one-sided understanding. And Buddhist understanding should include both side. Did you understand this point? This is very important point-- a good question. But most Buddhist, may, you know, some Buddhist stick to the idea of oneness, and the other will stick to the idea of many things which changes. And they do not-- they do-- they do ignore the what is changed. If they do not ignore the fact things change, they cannot ignore the idea of oneness.

Student C: Experiencing another person is the same thing as [1-2 words]. If there is no “I” to experience small mind, how can we experience anybody else's small mind?

SR: Huh?

Student C: If there is no “I” to experience small mind, then how can-- then how can there be any--

SR: No eyes?

Student C: I-- you know, I-- ego?

SR: Oh, “I.”

Student C: “I” in that sense. [2-3 sentences.] I mean, can there be any experience of anybody's small mind?

SR: Through-- through-- only way to experience big mind is through, you know, small mind. Do you understand? There is no approach to the big mind. When you understand-- when you, you know, have a cup of water which is same as all the water, you know, then you will know what is water, which is same as water in the stream. It is like to-- to put the water of ocean in-- in small cup. We cannot experience how great that water is, but if you dip it in a small cup and have it, then that experience is experience of great ocean. It is [4-8 words]-- something like that.

So because you try to understand it just by thinking, you cannot understand it. This kind of thing should be accepted by actual zazen practice, shikantaza, or experience of enlightenment. Do you understand? [Student laughs.] Maybe you don't. [Laughs, laughter.]

If you can, you know-- I am just explaining it, you know, so that is-- you have that kind of criticism. I am explaining it, bringing the truth to the words. What I am talking about is words. But you will understand what I am talking about, maybe. Okay? Good.

So purpose of-- most important point of practice is to experience things directly, one by one. And one experience should be whole universe. To experience one-- one right now-- to experience one right now on this moment is to experience whole world. So this is the only approach to the emptiness. This is very important point. That is why we practice. This is the point of practice. Okay? Very important point. Maybe you-- you must think about it over and over, you know, over again [laughs]. It is comparatively easy to realize things are one. It is comparatively easy, or easy to accept, you know.

Maybe I-- when I was maybe about twenty-six-- -seven years old, you know, I had some discussion with my master about this point. At that time, I could accept that things are one. But it is, for me, it is very difficult for me to treat everything different [laughs]. That was very difficult practice for me. To treat things one by one, and to-- to treat one thing means to treat everything-- all the rest of things. That much care should be paid when you treat one thing.

So even though you realize things are one, that is very, you know, very, you know-- kindergarten [laughs, laughter] understanding. And then you start how to treat things one by one, each different way, with full care. That is, maybe, I think your practice, you know.

Shinku-- we say-- shinku-myou. Have you heard of-- this is very important technical term-- shinku-myou? Shinku is “emptiness,” you know, “real emptiness.” And myou is “every existence”-- in emptiness, shinku-myou.

Unless you get through the idea of emptiness, you are not Buddhist. But if you stick to the emptiness, you know, if you cannot realize things happen in sheer emptiness, you are not Buddhist yet. Shinku-myou. Things, we say, should be something which arise from emptiness.

I didn't expect you to ask that kind of question [laughs, laughter] after my talk.

So even though you sit, you know, and watching something like sunflower [laughs]-- someone was looking, you know, in front of sunflower-- watching the sunflower in hot sun, and I tried. It was wonderful, you know. I feel whole universe in the sunflower. That is my, you know, experience, but I don't know how someone [else] experienced sunflower meditation. [Laughs.] Whole universe is there in-- in the sunflower. It is not so simple [laughs]-- very, you know, wonderful, wonderful complicated feeling. You can see whole universe in a small flower. If you say, “Oh, this is sunflower which doesn't really exist” [laughing], that is not our zazen practice.

Source: City Center transcript by Barry Eisenberg. Entered onto disk by Jose Escobar, 1997. Transcript checked against tape and made verbatim by Bill Redican (10/19/00). Miyagawa Keishi-san kindly provided assistance with the translation of Japanese terms.


File name: 71-08-12: Obon days (titled by pf) (Verbatim) Q & A after lecture.

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