A minimally edited transcript

everything itself is buddha

Evening Sesshin Lecture
Wednesday, December 6, 1967, Lecture B

We say everything has buddha-nature, so we have to treat everything as a buddha. To say “everything has buddha-nature” is not appropriate, because if I say everything has buddha-nature, then buddha-nature and everything are dualistic. Actually, everything itself is buddha. “Buddha-nature,” we say, but this word is not so appropriate. If I say “buddha-nature,” it looks like we have many natures: human nature, buddha-nature, and the nature of animals. But, what we mean by buddha-nature is not some special nature in comparison to other natures, or human nature—human nature itself is buddha-nature. So there is nothing but buddha-nature.

When we say, “Everything has buddha-nature,” this is already wrong. But tentatively, we must say everything has buddha-nature. For instance, I have two eyes. You say I have two eyes. But in Japanese we do not say I have two eyes. We say, “There is two eyes.” The meaning is different, and in Chinese characters, the word “have” means “skin,” which is part of our body. So, when we say “I have two eyes,” it means our eyes is a part of us. And, we do not say even “I.” “There is two eyes,” we say. So, we do not say I: Me ga futatsu arimasu. Mimi ga futatsu arimasu. Kuchi ga hitotsu arimasu.1 “There is one mouth. There are two eyes.” And, “There are two ears.” It means, “I have two eyes.” And, “I have one mouth.” And “I have one nose.”2 And that “have” means a part of us. It means “flesh” or “skin.” So, when we say “Everything has buddha-nature,” what we mean is not so dualistic.

Everything has buddha-nature,  and tentatively because there is no other way to say it—we should say everything has buddha-nature, even though it sounds very dualistic.  According to Dogen Zenji, to say “a part of it” is not perfect enough. Buddha includes everything. Whatever there is in this world, that is a part of buddha-nature. If there is something outside of buddha, that is buddha too [laughs]. So it includes everything. Because it includes everything, it is independent being in its absolute sense. Even though you accumulate things one by one, it will not result in buddha. If you divide buddha in various ways, that is everything we see.

But according to Dogen Zenji, a part of it is not perfect enough, because if we say “part of it,” the relationship between things is ignored already—“I am part of.” “I am a member of our family”—if you say so, the relationship between you and your brother is not expressed well. It is ignored. So, Dogen Zenji said everyone is not a member of, everyone is family itself, because if someone is missing, that is not a perfect family anymore. So, the relationship between our members in families is more than the members.

So, that is why I must say “everything has buddha-nature” is not a perfect expression of the teaching. Dogen Zenji says, you must treat everything—or he says you must treat a grain of rice as if it is your own eyes.3 Eyes are part of you, and so is the grain of rice.

As you know there is a famous story.4 If you go to Eiheiji, there is Half-Dipper water bridge: Hanshakukyo [so named] because Dogen Zenji used to bring back the leftover water to the river. After he used half a dipper of water, he took it back to the river again [laughs]. At Eiheiji we never wash our face with the basin full of water. We use just seventy percent of water in our washing basin. And, when we empty it, we do not empty water this way [away from the body]. We empty it this way [toward the body] [laughs]. If you empty it this way, you must be very careful [laughs]. If you are not , we know what will happen to us. So anyway, we will have to empty it very carefully. We treat things very carefully. And we respect things very much.

In your framework of the economic world, to consume things will encourage the provision of  things [laughs]. So to use many things will help the circulation of money. For this economic reason, you do not treat things so well. Nevertheless, I found your cups are very thick because you will break them [laughs]. If they were as thin as we have in Japan, one dozen cups would be destroyed every day [laughs, laughter] in your kitchen. So, yours are very thick, but ours are so thin. It is easier to handle if it is thin. But you have to treat them very carefully.  Because we treat them very carefully, there is no need for our cups to be so thick.

And, usually we treat things with both hands. Sometimes some beginners will carry their eating bowl [laughs] in one hand like this. It looks very strange [laughs], like a pumpkin [laughs, laughter]. We always carry things, if possible, with both hands. And, you carry many things in one hand at once. We do not carry so many. We will carry one by one, going back and forth [laughs]. This is more-or-less the Japanese way.

Why we do that is not the question. It is not just to save money, and it is not just to be economical. Right now it is a kind of Japanese habit, but this kind of idea originated from Dogen Zenji's way. When we appreciate smaller things rather than big things, our mind is always directed toward trivial matters rather than something great. And, we do it without asking why. We just do it because we respect it. It is even more than respect. To respect things is something dualistic. “To be one with it,” we say. When we become one with it, there is no idea of big or small. Smaller things are easier to be one with, and simpler things are easier to practice one of than duality. We do not even figure out why we do this.

So this is a matter of sense. This kind of sense is created with our way in our practice over a long time. So, it is rather difficult for you to observe our way, I think. Nowadays young people come and practice Zen in a Zen temple over summer vacation. If I tell them to observe our way, they ask me why [laughs]—like you do, you know. And it is rather difficult to explain why [laughs], because we do not do it with some reason. This is just habit. Habit is very important. So, to observe the way until it becomes a habit in you is very important.

Sometimes I am amused at myself [laughs] to observe Japanese ways in America. When I go to the grocery store, I usually buy the worst fruit or oldest [laughs] vegetables. If I see something good, I look under it to find something bad. And why I buy something—it’s the worst one—because I feel very sorry [laughing, laughter throughout story] for the worst one. This is a habit, and I pay the same amount of money. So, at the store they are interested in my way of buying. “Why don't you take this one? This one is better,” they say. “No, I want to buy this one.” And they say, “Why? Why?” I say, “I don't know why.” And, I amuse myself with my habit. I have a very funny habit. But, I couldn't get rid of my forgetfulness. I tried pretty hard, but I still forget.

To repeat something is not so difficult. If you repeat it, it will be a part of you, and this is how we observe our way. Here at Tassajara you do not pass a big pickle dish. You divide mine and put it in front of me. But if you passed our pickles in one big dish starting with me, I would always eat [laughs] the worst part [laughs], and in the monastery, the last one will eat the best part.

This is our way and our habit. No one asks us why. But one time, when I was young, some person explained why. He said, “You should cultivate your virtue. You should accumulate merit. If you do not eat—if you give others the good part of the pickles, you will accumulate merit. That is why you should take the worst part of the pickles.” And, I thought, then I would rather take the best part [laughs, laughter] to save others—[laughs, laughter]—to let them accumulate more merit. I don't want to accumulate merit for myself. I didn't try this, but I thought so. Really, I thought so.

So there is no reason, actually. If there is some reason, as already said, you will be punished [laughs] by it. But, we cannot believe in punishment either. The reason why is everything has buddha-nature. That will be the final answer. And, the best way to understand what is buddha-nature is just to practice our way and treat things very carefully. Because even though everything has buddha-nature it does not mean you can mix up everything.

As Dogen Zenji said in his Instructions for a Cook,5 “Something which should be put in a higher place, should be put in a higher place. Something which should be in a lower place, should be in a lower place.” Everything has its own function and virtue. So, we should treat things according to their virtue. Only when we treat them according to their virtue, everything will have the same value. Because water cannot be exchanged for fire, fire has its own virtue and water has its own virtue. So, water should be in the kettle, and fire should be under the kettle. If everything is in its own place, everything has the same value, he says.  We should not mix up everything.

Everything has absolute value because of its differentiation from each other—because it is different from others. If everything is the same, they will lose value. They should be different. Because it is different, it has value. So, to mix up everything is to kill buddha-nature. There is no more buddha-nature. When one is a teacher, he should be a teacher. When one is a student, he should be a student. But it does not mean a student cannot be a teacher. So, we’d rather put emphasis on validity than universality. We acknowledge differentiation, or we appreciate differentiation, rather than universality. The validity will be acknowledged when the absolute value reveals itself in some special thing which is different from other beings. When you put emphasis on universality, everything loses its own value. When you mix, male and female and divide in two [laughs], you will lose your life. A man should be a man, and a woman should be a woman because man and woman are different. There is value and there is life.

So, we’d rather put emphasis on the difference between each being. Although we put emphasis on difference, we do not discriminate which is better. It is different, but both have the same value or absolute value because it is different. When you put emphasis on universality, it means you are killing things. At least the value of things will be ignored. The true value of each existence will be ignored. It is like seeing many mountains in one view. You can see many mountains,  you will enjoy seeing many mountains, but when you are interested in the sight of the mountains you see, the value of each mountain will be ignored. If I call you by the name  “human being—Hi, human being!” [laughs, laughter], your character will be ignored. Everyone is a human being. We don't know whether [laughs] you are man or woman or young lady or old lady: any human being [laughs]. It doesn't make any sense. If you are called by your name, you will be happy.

So, universal value is something very vague, and not distinctive, and not interesting at all. Only when you appreciate many kinds of things which are different from each other, will you have a happy life. You will enjoy our life. This kind of thing is quite obvious. There is no need for any interpretation or philosophical discussion about it. It is actual truth. But, there are various ways of life, and there are misunderstandings with your life, so there must be some philosophy as a background of this kind of teaching. That is why we find our teaching pretty difficult, especially when studied intellectually. The best way is just to practice until you understand it. This method is a completely different method:  forcing some way on us.

In our practice we do not like to be caught by some rules. Nevertheless, we make our best effort to observe our way. When we make a best effort to observe our way, there are no more rules. The rules are part of us. Whether the rules are part of you or not will be checked by your teacher [laughter]. Even though you are observing our way, if the rules are not a part of you, he will see it. The point is your sincerity, not form. We rather put emphasis on each one's own way.

Here in Tassajara, I think you have a difficult time observing our way, which is not familiar to you. But, I want you to observe it first of all, and then you can discuss about our way. So observation is first and discussion is next.  If you discuss, I think [laughs] your discussion will not result in the same idea we have had. So, if you practice it, and if you find some problem, I want you to discuss about that problem. This kind of discussion is very important, I think. Especially as this kind of idea is quite new to you. By discussion you will have a chance to explain why you observe our way. So, others will be interested in our way.

Without the experience of observing it, to discuss our rules is not right, because we put emphasis on our experience, not intellectual discussion, whether this is the Japanese way [laughs] or American way. We have not much idea of Japanese or American way. Whatever way may be good [laughs]. The American way, I think, or our way. So, we should find out. We should try to improve our way, and we should develop our way. This is bodhisattva's mind or spirit.

1 "There are (ari) two (futatsu) eyes (me). There are (ari) two (fusatsu) ears (mimi). There is (ari) one (hitotsu) mouth (kuchi)." Suzuki-rōshi also discussed this topic in a Sandōkai lecture (SR-70-06-20). Japanese phrases were graciously translated by Yōkō Hanabusa.

2 Suzuki-rōshi probably meant to say "mouth."

3 In Tenzo Kyōkun, quoting Baoning Renyong (Honei Ninyū)—c. 11th century Linji (Rinzai) master.

4 Hanshaku-kyo: a bridge beyond the entrance gate of Eihei-ji. See also Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: "Nirvana, the Waterfall," p. 92, and SR-69-08-01.

5 Tenzo Kyōkun.

Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Adam Tinkham and Bill Redican (4/4/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (10/2020).

Audio & Other Files | Verbatim Transcript | Back to top of page