Think the Unthinkable

Shunryu Suzuki Transcript

Monday, December 4, 1967

Afternoon Sesshin Lecture, Lecture A
Monday, December 4, 1967


To talk about merit of Zen for beginners is like to count other’s treasure. So we do not talk about the merit of Zen. The only way is to devote ourselves to simple practice with hard effort. What I have told you—the point I have told you is not to mix up true zazen practice with some other practice like busy[?] or something—something intellectual —because the way we study is quite different. Intellectual study or physical or emotional friend—a special friend also. In those activity or in those study, our effort is directed to attain something. But in zazen practice, our effort is directed to opposite way. To forget or to stop all the thinking and to resume our original—the most, inmost content of our mind, before thinking—before we feel something. The way is quite different so you should not mix up zazen practice with some other practice. In that—in Zen there are many functions, as you know, to use, to give a shout like KAAA-tsu!!!1 [laughs] like a thunder. Or to whack it, or to see, you know, it. This kind of way—there are many kinds of way. But those activities are based on the power of tanden or hara which you get by our usual practice. That is why in this sesshin especially we concentrate to have more power in your tanden or hara. We say, kikai2 tanden. Ki means maybe spirit. Kai means sea. Tanden is here [belly]. So [hits stick on tatami or something] our power, or hara should be like sea. This is the most important practice for oriental arts even. All the oriental arts is function of our tanden, hara.

When your mind is directed to outward you lose your power in your tanden. When your effort is concentrated inward, you have power within yourself, and everything becomes a part of your hara. If you hear the bell from outside, that sound at the same time arise from your hara or tanden. So sound does not come from outside. It comes rather from inside, and you hear your own sound. Nothing exists outside of yourself because your mind covers everything. So whatever you do, that is your own activity. There is no duality in your activity.

To study something is to find out what you have learned before. To hear something is to hear what you have studied. And in this way your mind always develop itself by itself. Nothing from outside comes into your mind. All the activity is the self-activity of your own mind. Yesterday I said I would rather be a rock on top of the mountain than to be a lion or tiger in the mountain, or bird. You may say, a rock is motionless and a rock has no feelings, but if you feel—if you see the rock, directly like[?]—it is very many things. Even a rock on the top of mountain, there will be moss on it. Even though there is no moss but natural color of the wood will tell you many kalpas—the story of many kalpas of time. Even though you smooth a stone by machine, you cannot make a rock on the top of mountain. You cannot make it. It is more than a living being. And if you practice our way in its true sense, even though as teacher’s activity in sesshin, we can communicate with each other. I think you say—you also said—the yuben3 [eloquence] is silver, silence is gold.

In Zen we say a silent—a silent talk of Vimalakirti.4 His silence is more than yuben talk. What will—we will acquire by our practice or function of our tanden is sometimes very subtle, subtle enough to catch. Where a smallest sound, and sometimes the mind will pervade in the great universe. Actually, because it is so subtle and fine activity that–because it is so subtle it can cover the whole world. To appreciate smallest trivial thing for you—actually how to appreciate—how to have the—how to have our—how to make our life in a cosmic scale. If your mind is always caught by big or small, then that mind cannot catch anything. One is the mind, subtle mind. You may say, mind which is soft and tender. I don’t mean tender—by tender I don’t mean some emotional feeling—some, you know, subtle–subtle but feeling will be obtained by our practice. And so the mind we will obtain by our practice is something which is very subtle and at the same time it is very great. This kind of mind is the mind—is Zen mind. There have—have been many misunderstanding with the power of hara. The power of hara is not be—necessary be some supernatural power. The power of hara is not something which you can be proud of—which you can obtain by hard practice or, you know, the effort directed—or effort—through the effort, or through the dualistic effort. This mind is beyond our dualistic mind, so you cannot explain it, what it is, by words. The mind which would be understood before you explain about it. This kind of mind is true mind. But you know, many people misunderstand this mind for the supernatural power. Or—. To some extent you can develop your power of hara so that you can show the power to others. But by hara we do not mean this kind of hara. The power which you will obtain by true practice is the mind of hara we need. Here again, it is necessary to switch over your usual way of understanding to the opposite way of usual understanding. Without working toward outside, to work inward without trying to achieve something—to forget—to stop our mind which is working always outward. This is the most important point in Zen.

To—I will recite the first paragraph again. First paragraph of Fukanzazengi. [Reading from Reiho Masunaga’s translation, but Suzuki changed and left out some words5].

The true way is universal, so why are training and enlightenment different? The supreme teaching is everywhere, so why study the means to it? Even truth as a whole, is clearly apart from the dust. Why adhere the means of wiping away? The truth is not apart from here, so the measure of training are useless. But if there is even the slightest gap between, the separation is as heaven and earth. If the opposites arise, dualistic mind arise, you lose the Buddha mind. Even though, you are proud of your understanding and have enough enlightenment, even though you gain some wisdom and supernatural power and find the way and illuminate your mind, even though you have power to touch the heavens, and even though you enter into the area of enlightenment, you have almost lost the living way to salvation. Look at the Buddha. Though born with great wisdom, he had to sit for six years. Look at Bodhidharma who transmitted the Buddha mind. We can still hear the echo of his nine-year wall gazing practice. The old sages are very diligent. There is no reason why modern man cannot understand it. You should quit following words and letters. You should withdraw and reflect on yourself. Withdraw means to change the direction of effort. Not outward but inward. You should with—withdraw and reflect on yourself. If you can cast off body and mind naturally, the Buddha Mind emerges—emerges. If you wish to gain quickly, you must start quickly.

And he explains carefully how to sit.

In meditation you should have a quiet room. You should eat and drink in moderation. You should forsake myriad relations—abstain—relations abstain from everything. Do not think of good and evil. Do not think of right and wrong. Stop the function of mind, of will, of consciousness. Keep from measuring memory, perception, insight. Do not strive to become the Buddha. Do not cling to sit or lying down.

In the sitting place, spread a thick square cushion and on top of it put a round cushion. Some meditate in Paryanka, sitting cross-legged and others in half Paryanka, half lotus. You must prepare by wearing your robe and—and belt loosely—wearing—by wearing your robe and belt loosely. Then rest your right hand on your left foot, your left hand in your right palm. Press your thumbs together. Sit upright. Do not lean to the left or right, forward or backward. Place your ears in the same plane as your shoulders, your nose in line with your navel. Keep your tongue against the palate and close your lips and teeth firmly. Keep your eyes open. Inhale quietly. Settle your body comfortably. Exhale sharply. Exhale—sharp—sharp—exhale, not sharply but—I don’t know what to—Exhale sharply. Move your body to the left and right. Then sit cross-legged steadily.

Think the unthinkable. How do you think the unthinkable? Think beyond thinking and unthinking. This is the important phase of cross-legged sitting.

Think the unthinkable. Think unthinkable. You must think unthinkable, means think, you know, think not about something, you know. Usually when you think, you think about something. But thinking mind—if your thinking mind directed opposite way, that is to think unthinkable. Your mind is still clear, but there is no object.

The sun is not, you know, shining, only the earth, you know. The earth—if the earth it happen to be here, the sun will [laughs] shine alway—on our earth. Think unthinkable is—is—your mind is—must be like the sun. It is shining, but it is not shining some particular thing. It is more than think about it something. In this way, your mind, your function of mind, picked in your practice. So he said, "Think unthinkable. How do you think the unthinkable?" How do you think the unthinkable? And this is very interesting word. How do you think the unthinkable? The sun is not shining some particular thing. So the sun is just the sun. It is not trying to shine anything. It is right there. Just there. But someone happens to appear near the sun, it will shine some object. That is, you know, how the sun shines everything.

So how—how do you think the unthinkable? There is no way. How? How is the way. Because we don't know how. You know, how? So there you can put anything, you know. How? This way is how. That way is how. All the way is how. This is how. This is how. It is like a fact. Cat is fact. Dog is fact. What is there? You know, you ask people. That is fact, you know. Fact may be a mouse, a cat, a bat. So how or what means—. What it means is very deep. How do you think the unthinkable? This is not just, you know, a question. It is a strong statement. How do you think the unthinkable. This is not interrogative. It is strong affirmative sentence. How do you think the unthinkable. Unthinkable thinking is how.

You first way you—think, that is how. That is the unthinkable. But you have no notion of thinking about anything. That is our practice. "How do you think the unthinkable. Think beyond thinking and unthinking." Think beyond thinking and unthinking. Your thinking should be beyond I think or I don’t think. It must be right there always. "This is the important phase of cross-legged sitting." We sit in this way. This is how different it is our practice. That is why we should practice zazen. And you should not neglect our zazen because you think something else is more important. Why something is important for you is because of this practice. So if you forget all about the practice, you lose your life. Whatever you do, it doesn't work. You will insist it works. You lose yourself. You are no more. You vanished [laughs] world. If the earth says, I don't want the sun [laughs], what will happen to it? There is no other way, binds[?] from the cosmic world. Because—because of this unthinkable thinking we exist, we can think, we can live. Without this unthinkable we cannot think. It's changing into delusion. If you insist on it, you—it means you are involved in dark deep delusion.


1 I think that even though it may be difficult to actually hear the exact exclamation, he is probably saying “katsu” かつ (perhaps the kanji is 活, which means “energize” in this case). But, as you have undoubtedly experienced, a priest overseeing a sesshin may well say the word with great emphasis — and in such a case, it might sound like: “KAAAA-tsu”. - Fred Harriman

2 Shunryu is saying “kikai tanden." While “tanden” 丹田 in the vernacular is often used in place of “hara” 腹, in Chinese medicine there are potentially other “tanden”. Shunryu appears to be getting technical by specifying “kikai tanden" 気海丹田 in identifying a location of the body that is not only important for identifying one’s most “original” thoughts (one’s most “honest” or “true” thoughts), but it is also important in centering one’s self for physical and spiritual strength when practicing the martial arts such as kendo. There is only one “kikai” 気海, and it is in the hara 腹, below the navel. So he is trying to be more technically precise in identifying the tanden that he wants the practitioners to pay attention to. He explains the meaning of “kikai” 気海 as 気 = spirit, and 海 = sea (ocean). Perhaps he sensed that he might be getting a little technical, and he left the subject with a cursory description of the kanji, and he brings the attention back to the word “hara” 腹, which is more colloquial but not as precise as “kikai tanden”気海丹田. - Fred Harriman

3 This is a translation of the English proverb: Speech is silver, silence is golden. Suzuki Roshi translated the Japanese version into English again. Yuben is eloquence. -Shohaku Okumura

4 Suzuki Roshi is talking about the story of entering the dharma gate of non-duality from the Vimalakirti Sutra. There is a famous phrase from the story: Yuima no ichimoku rai no gotosi means Vimalakirti's silence is like a thunderclap. Probably he is saying, Vimalakirti's silence is louder than Manjushri's talk. -Shohaku Okumura

5 See Audio & Other Files for more on Fukanzazengi with Masunaga's translation and Suzuki's changes delineated.

Source: Engage Wisdom provided audio, 2021. Verbatim transcript by David Chadwick and Peter Ford (12/1/2021). Japanese and some other corrections by Fred Harriman, 12/12/2021.

File name: 67-12-04-A: Think the Unthinkable (titled by pf) (Verbatim) 2021 newly discovered tape. Afternoon Tassajara sesshin lecture. Changed "fast" to "fact" (multiple times) 12-28-2021, DC.

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