A minimally edited transcript

Esalen Institute: First of two lectures

June 28, 1968

I find it's difficult to keep in contact with you when I talk. Especially when I speak to the public, it is rather difficult to follow your understanding, because I’m always talking to our own students.  But anyway, I’ll try to communicate with you.

First of all I am supposed to talk about our teaching. For you, Zen is a special teaching. But for us, Zen is Buddhism, and not too special a teaching from the other schools of Buddhism. So, if you ask me to talk about our teaching, what I will talk about is mostly the teachings of Buddhism started by Buddha and developed by various teachers in India, China and Japan.

Buddha's teaching put emphasis on selflessness. Buddhism is not a special cultural heritage. It is a part of Indian thought. And so before Buddhism there must have been some similar teaching or some opposite teaching which formed a pair of opposites with Buddhism. As you see in the Upanishads, there are many similar teachings based on selflessness.  I think why he put emphasis on selflessness is because people at that time had great difficulty because of a strong idea of self.

So Buddha on the contrary put emphasis on selflessness, so that you have a more balanced understanding of our life. And for the people who were trying to find a pleasurable life in this actual mundane world, he put the emphasis on suffering so that they could understand their life from both sides. So naturally the purpose of his teaching is to form some harmonious teaching. Sometimes he put emphasis on self, instead of putting the emphasis on selflessness. He sometimes rather put emphasis on self.

We say this kind of nature of our teaching is double construction, or the double nature of Buddhism. And, actually without paradoxical or two opposite understandings, we cannot think about things clearly. And only when we take at least two opposite viewpoints will we have some reality without being caught by a one-sided idea. Mostly, in general, Buddha's teaching is based on the teaching of selflessness. But later his teaching was more settled on some static teaching, like everything changes or the teaching of interdependency or the teaching of cause and effect.

And in Mahayana we have a more advanced philosophical setting of that teaching. Like—I don't know how to translate it into English but—some teaching you will study from the Kegon Sutra or the Lotus Sutra. Kegon put emphasis on Jijimuie. Jijimuie is the harmony of each being, and Jijimuie means harmony with the truth and the phenomenal world.

And the Lotus Sutra puts emphasis on the understanding which you will have after attaining the idea of emptiness or experience of emptiness. This is something like Zen. Zen extended this kind of idea by practice and brought this philosophical teaching into our actual experience—and how to bring this philosophical teaching into our life by practicing Zen. In the Zen school, in short, to wipe off everything, all dust on the mirror. And to see everything, to see everything in the reflection of the mirror is our way. Or to erase everything from the blackboard and to write something on it, is Zen.

And we continue this kind of activity, wipe it off and write something on it and wipe it off. Because I try to explain it more psychologically or more as our human experience, I put it in this way. But actually what we are doing is to continue this kind of effort. This is, in other words, detachment.

Detachment means to erase something, but actually we cannot erase what we did [laughs]. Actually that is not possible. But, you feel as if you wipe off everything, and you delude yourself. When you are completely absorbed in your activity or in your everyday life, you experience this kind of development of our life force in this way.

But, actually nothing happens [laughs] even if you study Buddhism. And nothing happens even if you practice zazen. But, when you feel in that way in your practice, that is enlightenment. Because mostly it is difficult for us to wipe off everything from our mind. And actually there is no need to do so, and it is foolish to eliminate everything you have done or the results of your previous activity. That is not possible. And it is foolish to try to do that. But there is a way to develop our everyday life without being bothered by our previous activity or the results of that previous activity. This is how I can explain what I have in my mind about our teaching of Zen.

Now, one by one, according to this— [he says something really fast and you hear the rustle of paper] [laughter] —I want to explain this kind of double structure of our teaching. To me everything real should be understood in this way. For instance, the idea of time has double structure. One idea of continuity is of course time; at the same time discontinuity is the idea of time. If the continuity of time is the idea of time, there is no need to have a watch here. When I say it is half past ten, it means that at that time I have discontinuity of time; my idea of time is discontinuous. You know it is not actually half past ten, maybe more, or while I'm watching it, it goes more, continuously it's going. But I have to say, as long as I have a watch, if someone asks me what time it is, I have to say it is half past ten. So that is the idea of discontinuity of time.

But, it is not actually so; it is continuous. Time is the idea of continuity. So discontinuity of time and continuity of time—in this way, reality is double. Only by a double structure of our reasoning can we figure out what is reality.

And also, selflessness and self is the same thing, not different. According to Buddhism, the basic teaching that is settled more logically is that everything changes. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism, and because of this teaching his descendants or his disciples treated Buddha as a teacher of heaven and earth. He is not only a teacher of this world; he is a teacher of heaven. Because even if you go to heaven, this teaching, that everything changes, is also true in heaven. So he is called a teacher of heaven and earth because of this teaching that everything changes. And this is the basic foundation of Buddhist teaching.

So, if everything changes, how about your self? Self is also changing. If so, even though we say self, there's no such substantial being as self.  As we have learned last night—tentatively we call our function of mind and body: self. But, there is no such thing as self. This is also true with Buddhism. We emphasize that as long as everything changes, self cannot be an exception.

And the teaching of suffering comes from this point, from this teaching too. Although everything, including self, changes always, we expect everything not to change [laughs]. This is also true [laughs]. This is also a double fact of our nature. On the one hand everything changes, and on the other hand we try not to think everything changes. And, so there we have suffering, when we expect things not to change, but actually [laughs] everything betrays our hopes. That is how we suffer.

If we understand the reality that we hope everything is not changing is true, and that everything is changing is also [laughs] true; if we accept the two sides of the one reality, then there is no problem when we say everything changes, “Oh, it's okay.” [Laughter.] When someone says everything does not change, “Oh, that is true. That is okay.” [Laughter.] When you can accept in this way, even for a moment, [laughs] that is enlightenment.

Enlightenment will happen to you when you are very, very, very truthful to a fact. Even if you are not truthful toward reality or a fact from both sides, but if you are very truthful to a one-sided view of life, then you have a chance to attain enlightenment. And whether you attain enlightenment or not, this is true. [Much laughter.]

So other intellectual, intelligent people, there might be no need to attain enlightenment. [laughter] Little by little you break into this pattern, this way of thinking, and you will get more accustomed to this kind of way of life, or understanding of life, and some day you will actually experience, or you will enjoy, this kind of paradoxical world. The enjoyment we mean is very much different from the enjoyment meant by people who just dwell on a one-sided view—a one-sided understanding of life. This is completely different.  Buddhists on the one hand sometimes look like very joyous people. On the other hand they are very dismal and gloomy people. [Laughter.] We are very gloomy. This is also double structure.

One person expresses their feelings in two different ways. That is possible. He may be very strong and tough in one way, but on the other hand, he may be very gentle and very soft.

My teacher used to refer to the most famous, the best sword maker, Masamune.

One day Shihero [Hiroshimai], a spearhead maker or lance maker, visited him. Fortunately or unfortunately, Masamune was not there, was not at home.  So Hiroshimai asked his [Masamune’s] wife to show him some of his swords. And she brought a small sword, as long as this sword [he gestures length], and he was watching it, but his expression was not perfect. He was wondering, if this is good or bad. He was wondering about it. So the wife asked him, is there something wrong with his sword, and if he has some criticism, please tell her. And Hiroshimai took out a spearhead from his pocket and put the sword on the floor, and when he dug into it like this [makes gesture], a big hole was in the sword Masamune made. His wife was amazed at his strong power, the strong quality of the spearhead. And Hiroshimai went out. But his wife promised him, as he was going, he could come again and meet her husband. And after one week or so, he came back, and Masamune was not moved even a little. And he asked him to show him his spearhead. And he was watching. And Masamune said, give me that, I want to see your spearhead. And as soon as he received it, he drew his sword and cut the spearhead in two with that sword which had a big hole in it. [Laughs, laughter.] And he said, your spear will not be available on the battlefield if you need it because this spearhead will be easily cut, so this is rather dangerous. Masamue's sword has a double structure. It is soft, so it is easily cut, but it is sharp enough to cut everything. So this is one example of double structure or the double nature of reality.

This is also selflessness. When the meaning of selflessness is to annihilate all evil desires or to give up the idea of fame or profit—when that is selflessness, that is a one-sided idea. Selflessness also means a strong self. The toughness of the self and that which is always free from personal attachment, which is immutable, that is selflessness.

Dogen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen, explained this point. You should not think firewood becomes ash. Firewood does not become ash. You should not think firewood becomes ash; firewood has its own period, and ash also has its own period. And ash has its own past and future. So does firewood. So firewood is independent and ash is independent. When we understand self in that way, that self includes everything: its own past and future and everything which exists with firewood or ash. But it does not mean to have some substantial idea of ash or fire. It is not a substance, but something named ash includes everything and is related to everything. This is also the understanding of reality and understanding of our self. Only when we understand in this way, can we understand Buddhism. And not only Buddhism, I think. I hope your understanding will be available to understand your life and to understand others’ lives and to understand science and everything.

When we just rely on one-sided understanding we lose the purpose of our study. So to study Buddhism—according to him [Dogen], Buddhism means here, not only Buddhist teachings, but everything—is to study ourselves. And to study ourselves is to forget ourselves. And to forget ourselves is to be enlightened by things we study. Something we study will teach us something which is real and true. So he said, to study ourselves is to be enlightened by everything. And this enlightenment goes forever, in this way, wiping away the enlightenment and having enlightenment again. In this way this enlightenment procedure will go on and on and on, and you will understand everything in its true sense.

So this is what is reality according to Buddhism and what is the teaching of selflessness of Buddhism. And, this selflessness is one of the three important banners or seals for Buddhism: [first] that everything changes, that everything has no ultimate nature. When we say so, it includes many things. There is nothing that is perfect also. Nothing is perfect is meant by this teaching of selflessness. We think it is possible to attain or to get in contact with something, to understand or to grasp something perfectly, to attain some stage of perfection. But according to Buddhism that is not possible, [laughs] it is not possible.

When you understand that is not possible, that understanding is [laughs] perfect [laughter] understanding, and that is enlightenment. We understand; that is the second point.

And [third] when we realize or when we have this enlightenment or as long as we have this enlightenment, then here we find nirvana right here in this moment. That is the three seals of Buddhism.

If some teaching has—whatever the teaching is—if that teaching has those three elements, that is Buddhism. So we call it the three important seals of Buddhism. And this basic teaching will be extended to the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Holy Path, which was told by Buddha when he saved five of his men who escaped from the castle with him. That this world is a world of suffering, what is the cause of suffering, the way to get out of the suffering, and what is Nirvana. Where do we attain Nirvana? Where is Nirvana? This is the Four Noble Truths. But those teachings are a different version of one truth. And whatever the way of understanding of our life may be, if we do not miss this point, that is Buddhism. If we are certain or clear on this point, that is Buddhism. [Whispering]

Student: What are the Four Noble Truths?

SR: Maybe better to take some pause. And if you have questions, please ask us.

Student: What are the Four Noble Truths?

SR: The Four Noble Truths are that this world is the world of suffering.

Student: That’s number one?

SR: Yeah. And the cause of suffering.

Student: That’s two?

SR: Two. The third one, way to have liberation from it, way to get out of it. And Nirvana.—

[end of side one of tape]

[Beginning of side two]

SR: Enlightenment or Nirvana. Nirvana is a Sanskrit word.

Student: That’s three, isn’t it?

SR: No four.

Student: Fourth is Nirvana.

SR: Fourth is Nirvana.1

Student: And the way you get out of it is the third truth?

SR: Yeah, the third one. Cause of suffering is the second one, that this world is…  Maybe better to explain more at this point. Origination of suffering—that something exists here is already suffering. For me that I’m here is suffering [laughs, laughter]. And how you take this suffering is the point [laughs]. I think you will have a clear picture of the cause of suffering. That I’m here is suffering, and maybe it is joy too [laughs]. It is an honor to be here, and it is a kind of joy. Joy is also suffering [laughs]. Not only after I have joy, but simultaneously I suffer too. I have to suffer. Because I suffer I have joy. So, things have suffering and joy at the same time. Two sides of one coin.

So, how we get out of it is to have wisdom, to see things as it is. That is not possible by your thinking, that is not possible. But your thinking will help. When you think from various angles, then thinking will help. But actually we have to fight it out [laughs]. If you want to have sudden enlightenment, you should fight it out. If you are not concerned about—if you do not want to feel that you are fooled by something, then you should try for it little by little according to your wisdom or thinking. The wisdom we mean sometimes is wisdom followed by teaching. Wisdom sometimes is direct understanding, or to have direct contact with reality is wisdom.

And to have direct contact with reality is Zen practice. In zazen, we try not to think. I have to explain it later, I think, about our practice. [Baby crying in background] But this is the idea.

[The following section was only found on a different audio file by Engage Wisdom in 2021]

Moderator: Dan?

Dan: I was going to save this question because it's for you or roshi personally, but it's so relevant to the discussion now that I'd kind of like to share it. I'm one of the students at the Zen center who's seeing the Gordian union [Gordian knot?] and what Suzuki mentioned. And, I've run across …

Student A: To prove the devil ???. To me it sounds like a rather an anomaly. Can you be a Catholic and an Episcopal at the same time or? [Laughter]

Dan: I don't know, let's say it's this and that. Whether it's ???. I've reached a very strange ground concerning the self. Because through sitting—I haven't been sitting long, perhaps a year, a year and a half--but through sitting I've been losing some distinction between what goes on inside myself and what goes on outside. And, in lots of ways this is very beautiful; you walk through a field and you feel that the field is a part of you, rather than experiencing the field separately. But, recently I've gotten to a place where it surprises me when somebody talks to me because I don't think they can see me because I identify with the air in the room, rather than as having a face. And, this is—it's interesting, it's a—in one way it's very beautiful, in another way it's very frightening because it makes it hard to deal with people, and to consider myself as an entity. And so I've reached the sort of ground where, where my concept of what Buddhism would stress is that keep on going, that this is a partial state of selflessness, and that it's okay. And where the analyst would say, you must establish an identity. You must establish a self. And, I'm very confused because…

Student A: Oh, I don't think that should be confusing, should it? [General laughter.]

Student B: Stay away from atlases??? [General laughter.]

Dan: What I feel about it is that they are talking about the same thing. Sterling Bunnell talks about the self as a kind of, the deepest self as a kind of flower or a center that you gradually build up. You build up your defenses and your outer self, and then gradually as you gain strength inside, you disregard your defenses and your small self. And, Buddhism as I understood it, is the same thing although they would say that there is no—that the inner self includes everything, so there's probably no use talking about it. But it's in that in between ground that a lot of us fall and that get lost and confused, and that I've come to the point where I'm somewhat—every time I sit, I'm very afraid because I get more and more into losing identity. How is this so? What, what? If we're working on it, maybe evolving, some sort of growing from both--both systems? What sort of view would you suggest? What? Where were we?

Suzuki: ??? suggestion you know? One is--one includes naturally the other if it is right experience. If that experience is not perfect experience, it is some distortion of emotional or intellectual or—some distortions are ornate. If it is true experience that experience includes the other. And, if that is not—if you have some doubt, or if you cannot accept your experience as a true experience, it's better to be concentrated on—to identify yourself—to nothing [laughs] nothing. You are nothing. That is the other side of the true experience. Then there is no problem, no danger. But if you try to identify yourself with some experience in terms of right or wrong, perfect or imperfect, there is danger. So, the best way is to identify yourself as nothing, no form, or no teaching. Just sit. That is why we call it shikantaza, or just sit, without any purpose of sitting, without trying to do anything. If you get accustomed to this kind of practice, naturally you will have satisfaction with your practice, with your experience, whether—which you couldn't accept before. So, we are discussing now how to rightly identify ourselves, but what I am suggesting now is not to try to identify yourself as something. If you are trying to do it—why don't you try to identify yourself: nothing? Actually you are—we are nothing. We don't exist, so it's all right. But, if you want to understand yourself more in terms of some feeling, or of good or bad, or in terms of right or wrong, perfect or imperfect—that is possible too when your practice is mature. When you do not rely on anything. Then you can resolve it. As long as you have something in your mind, your practice tends to be wrong practice or distorted practice.


1 Suzuki's order is not the same as Buddha's in which 3 is nirvana and 4 is the path.

Transcribed by Shinshu Roberts circa 2004. She got the tape from Michael Wenger and didn’t realize that it was the first of Shunryu Suzuki’s Esalen lectures. Might be from a different tape. Was labeled “At Sonoma Mountain Center, no date.” Should be checked against the audio in the archive of this date which is a copy of the commercial tape. - DC Checked against copy of Esalen audio and made some changes in 1998 and made verbatim by Katrinka McKay 1-18-15. Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (5/2021). Re-transcribed and final section added, 11-3-2021 by Peter Ford, Wendy Pirsing, and Shundo David Haye.


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