A minimally edited transcript

What is Soto and what is Rinzai?

Sunday, July 21, 1968

1— I don't think [laughs] we can reach a conclusion.

I was asked to talk about something like sectarianism. What is Soto and what is Rinzai? Or, what is the attitude as a Soto priest to other schools of Buddhism? This is the subject I was given to speak about. But this is not so simple a question. It is a very big problem.

First of all, we should understand why we have so many schools of Buddhism. As you know, various schools arose in Buddhism.  Of the various schools which we have now, almost all the schools are of Mahayana Buddhism. So-called Theravada Buddhism is not just the Hinayana school or Theravada school. The scholars of Hinayana Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism know what is Mahayana. Intellectually, or so far as the teaching is concerned, there is not much difference between all the Buddhists. I think most Buddhists understand not only the teaching of their own school but also the teaching of various schools too.

So, so far as the understanding goes, actually there is no particular school. But, Zen Buddhism is very different from the other schools of Buddhism. The other schools of Buddhism put emphasis on understanding, but we Zen Buddhists put emphasis on practice, actual practice.

So, Zen Buddhism is something different. And, why Zen Buddhism arrived in China is something very important we should know. Before Bodhidharma came to China, there were many schools of Buddhism already. There were Pure Land schools, and Tendai schools, and San-lun, and some other schools of Zen. And almost all the scriptures were translated. And Chinese people studied Buddhist philosophy very hard and established a pretty well-organized understanding. And, according to their way of understanding, there were many schools of Buddhism. And, they put emphasis on some scriptures which were told by Buddha.

Those who thought the Kegon Sutra was the best of all the sutras, theirs was the Kegon school. Those who thought the Lotus Sutra was best established the Tendai school. And those who thought the three scriptures of Pure Land were the best of all the teachings, they started the Pure Land school. But, all those schools were based on the philosophy of Buddhism.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the teaching is not just teaching. It is something more than that. But, they did not come to the turning point where they should switch over from intellectual understanding to actual practice. Even the Pure Land school was not completed like the Pure Land school in Japan established by Shinran.2  I don't say they do not practice zazen, or they do not practice various rituals, and they do not attain enlightenment by practice.

But, their practice is something different from our practice or from Bodhidharma's practice.  What is the difference is—as long as we expect perfection or enlightenment, the practice is involved in dualistic understanding. We are not perfect, but by practice or by believing in the teaching of Buddhism, we will improve our understanding. And, eventually we will attain perfection.

But according to even Mahayana schools, it is not so easy to attain perfection.  According to the Tendai school it is necessary to spend many, many kalpas of time. And, unless we continue our practice many, many kalpas of time, for those of us who are not perfect, it is not possible to attain enlightenment. That was their understanding. And, in some schools like Kegon, this kind of many, many kalpas of time of practice was a kind of teaching, they established, another version of practice as a teaching.

In the Shingon school, they understood many, many kalpas of time as our evil desires. Not actually so long a time of practice. This is another interpretation of our evil desires. Because our evil desires are so deep, it is necessary for us to practice so many kalpas of time. So, instead of emphasizing practice, they put emphasis on our evil desires [laughs]. And that is rather dangerous, you know. So unless they are a good teacher, this kind of understanding will create a big problem for a Buddhist.  Instead of saying so many kalpas of time of practice, they put emphasis on the deep and great problem of evil desires.  According to Buddhism or Buddha's teaching, evil desire itself, if we understand it properly, is enlightenment itself, buddha-nature itself.

So buddha-nature and evil desires is one. Originally it is one. So according to Shingon, with this kind of interpretation, evil desires and enlightenment is one. This is a kind of teaching. With this teaching, they replaced so many kalpas of practice into a kind of understanding of evil desires we have.

So, in this way, even our practice was replaced by a teaching. And this kind of interpretation of so many kalpas of practice happened in the Kegon school too, although they noticed that just intellectual understanding actually does not help us. As long as we have the idea of buddha-nature as a goal of practice, something to attain, our practice will be dualistic.

As long as it is dualistic, it takes time until we attain perfection.  But, actually it is not possible [laughs]. But, even if we understand that it is possible, it takes so many kalpas of time or else we cannot attain enlightenment. That is the dead end of [laughs] Zen Buddhism—that was, actually.

But Bodhidharma's understanding of Zen is quite different.  Let me put it this way: The difference between Bodhidharma's practice and various Mahayana schools of practice, even though they practiced Zen, the meaning of practice or way of practice or content of practice, was quite different.

According to Bodhidharma, buddha-nature is not something to be attained by practice. According to other schools of practice, or understandings of practice, the practice is to attain enlightenment. That is why that practice eventually comes to a dead end. And there is no way to go back, or to have another version of practice, or to substitute actual practice for the intellectual understanding or teaching of Buddhism.

For Bodhidharma, our practice is quite independent from the various teachings. Our practice is independent from Buddha's teaching. Although we accept Buddha's teaching, our practice is not something based on some teaching. Our practice is based on our original nature—buddha-nature. Even if Buddha did not appear in this world, we all have [laughs] nature, you know. And, we should start our practice because of our true nature which Buddha found.

So, in this sense, Buddha is the founder of Buddhism, but we do not depend on Buddha's teaching which was told by Buddha. Our practice does not depend on it—because our practice depends on Buddha's true nature as long as there is no difference between our buddha-nature and Buddha's buddha-nature. There is no need for us to depend on his teaching, but directly we should practice as he did. That is the starting point of Zen Buddhism. And that is Bodhidharma's Zen.

So, it is not, that after you practice so many kalpas of time, you attain enlightenment, but that the practice is based on our true nature, which is always within us. Because of our true nature, we practice zazen. The meaning of practice is completely different from the practice of other schools. Do you understand this point?

For other schools, the practice is the means of attaining enlightenment. To attain enlightenment, we practice zazen. But a characteristic of Zen is that without depending on teaching, because of our buddha-nature, starting from buddha-nature, we practice zazen. It’s the opposite. Not to attain enlightenment, but to experience the enlightenment—to have enlightenment experience. To express our true nature, we practice zazen.

In this way you will have ten powers [laughs]. I explained what are the ten powers [of a bodhisattva].  If the ten powers are the powers you will attain by practice, I don't know when you will attain it [laughs]. Those ten powers are to some extent the power you have already. If you understand what the ten powers are, that is the power you have already. Because of your idle practice you cannot [laughs] bring it about fully. But, it is not something which you attain, but something which you have already. And this is, for the beginner, a kind of belief. For some good students it is not just belief; actually you feel it in its true sense. Something you have, and something you found, not as a goal, but as an actual power you have. This is the difference.  

So, for us there is no dead end. We say, even though there are innumerable sentient beings, we vow to save them [laughs]. That is our vow. This vow is not based on the possibility of attaining or saving all of them. But to make our best effort to express our true nature, we vow to save them all. And, if it is impossible—if there are innumerable people—our effort will be endless. In this way, we understand our practice and our vow. And, our evil desires are inexhaustible, but we vow to put an end to them [laughs]. This is something which you should do, which your buddha-nature asks you to do. Not something which you should promise to do [laughs]. Something which you should do day by day, every day.

This is the main difference between the zazen practice of other schools of Buddhism and Zen Buddhist practice. Before I talk about non-sectarianism [laughs], I must take pride in my sectarianism first. And how my sectarianism is non-sectarian [laughs, laughter]. It is the next thing I should try to explain. But right now, we should establish ourselves in a firm foundation. And, we are talking about the universal foundation to every school.

This kind of understanding is true with the Shin school in Japan too. Before Shinran, to repeat Amida Buddha's name was a kind of practice, to be saved by Amida Buddha. So, if we wanted to be saved by him, we should repeat it, many, many times. That was the idea of repeating Amida Buddha's name. But, according to Shinran, because we are originally saved by Amida Buddha, even if you say it once, that is enough [laughs], according to him. If you are aware of your true nature, that is enough.

Only when we reach this kind of understanding, Buddhism becomes a teaching for everyone—to save every one of us. It is easy maybe to repeat Amida Buddha's name by mouth. It is also for Pure Land students or the Pure Land school, everyone can practice it. It is quite different from zazen. Everyone can do it. And, religion should be for everyone—not just for men, or for someone who can cross their legs in the lotus posture. What will they do if they cannot cross their legs [laughs, laughter]? Because of this point, many people say Zen is not for everyone [laughter], and Zen is just for [laughs] men and not for ladies. Maybe the Pure Land school is better [laughs] because a religion should be for everyone.

So if zazen were one of the means to attain enlightenment, only a few people would be saved by Zen. But, according to Dogen Zenji, Zen is no such thing. Zen is for everyone, whether you can cross your legs or not. Everyone is a Zen Buddhist as long as they have buddha-nature. This is the difference.

Only when we understand zazen in this way, Zen is for everyone. And, if I say the Rinzai school varies from our viewpoint, how do we understand the Rinzai school from our viewpoint? In the time of the Sixth Patriarch, there [laughs] were no koans. Koan study started in the Sung Dynasty. If koan study is the only way to study Buddhism, the Sixth Patriarch or Bodhidharma was not a Zen master [laughs, laughter].

I don't say koan study is not good, but if you think koan study is the only way to study Zen, you cannot explain why Bodhidharma or the Sixth Patriarch did not use koans [laughs]. So, Zen is not just koan study. Of course, there is some weak point or blind angle, for every practice. The weak point of koan practice is it is a substitute for the teaching. A koan is a kind of teaching, and koan practice is the means to attain enlightenment. If it is a means to attain enlightenment, there will be many steps. So that is why they say until you pass so many numbers of koans, you cannot get inka.3  There would be many stages like a stepladder.  Let me put it this way: whether it is koan study or shikantaza, if you practice it, you will make some improvement. So in this sense there are many steps.

But in Soto—in shikantaza—there are no steps, because we are expressing our true nature through practice. We already have innate nature. And, what we should do is to express it. So there are no steps. As long as there are many steps, then there will be some who can climb up so many steps, and some for whom it will not be possible to climb even one step. If the practice is this kind of practice, that is not for everyone. Because we have originally true nature, our practice is based on a kind of experience for a good student. For a beginner it is a kind of dream. Our understanding of practice is that it is the expression of our true nature. Whether our practice is good or bad, as long as we have true nature, every practice should be true practice. Even if you cannot cross your legs, if you have this kind of understanding, your everyday life is zazen practice. We understand zazen in this way. This is our understanding of koan practice from our viewpoint.

Anyway, the nature of practice is completely different. Not the same thing. Completely different. This is what I want to say first of all. And, what is our attitude towards Rinzai? Or, what is their understanding of Soto? “Soto is sleeping zazen” [laughs]. “They understand that they have originally buddha-nature. So whether they practice hard or not, whether their practice is good or bad, originally there is no difference [laughs].” So, “They are not so sincere in their practice.” Maybe that is true. That is, what Rinzai students may say about our practice.

For Rinzai students, it is necessary for them to continue practice forever—not only aiming at enlightenment but also as an expression of their true nature, or with gratitude for attaining enlightenment, or appreciating a former teachers' effort to transmit Buddhism to us. They should continue their practice, and they should transmit their practice to their descendants. In other words, their practice also should be continued forever. There is no time to rest on the black cushion, even if they attain enlightenment. And, I think many good Rinzai teachers put emphasis on the practice after kensho, after enlightenment.

And, we Soto students should practice more sincerely, like the effort Rinzai students make, even though they may practice hard because of the candy [laughs] of enlightenment. Anyway, they are practicing very sincerely. So that is good example for us. And Soto students like to talk about zazen. Rinzai students do not talk so much about zazen. They give you a koan without any explanation, and they ask you to give an answer to it. That is their way.

Of course, Rinzai has some shortcomings, as we have. And, at the same time, they have good points as we have. But, Zen priests and Zen students should not lose the key point of why Zen is an independent school of Buddhism. Why it is necessary for us to have this kind of understanding of Buddhism. If we lose the key point in understanding of Buddhism, it is not even Hinayana school [laughter]. It is not even religion. It is a kind of exercise instead [laughs]. It is not religion. It doesn't help us in its true sense.

In China for a long, long time, 400 years or more, there were not so many teachers who understood this point. That is why Dogen Zenji wanted to come back to Japan, because he couldn't find any good teachers in China. But fortunately he met with Nyojo Zenji,4 who had a perfect understanding of Buddhism. So, Dogen Zenji became his disciple. Not as a disciple of the Soto school, but one of the disciples of Buddha. For Dogen Zenji, his teacher Nyojo Zenji was the only teacher who understood what Buddhism is in its true sense. What was the mercy of Buddha in its true sense? He was the only one.

So he became his disciple. That is why Dogen Zenji did not like to use the name of Soto. In China, the Soto school is one of the five schools of Zen. But according to Dogen Zenji, this understanding should be the understanding of all the schools of Zen as long as they are descendants of the Sixth Patriarch or Bodhidharma.

Originally, there should not be so many schools of Zen. It should be one school of Buddhism. Even though their way of practice is different, the key points should be the same. That was Dogen Zenji's understanding of Nyojo Zenji. For him, Nyojo Zenji was Buddha himself, or the Sixth Patriarch himself, or Bodhidharma himself. So, for him there were no five schools. For him there was no Rinzai or Soto.

He respects various teachers who belong to Rinzai's lineage. He doesn't mind whether he belongs to Rinzai or Soto. If he is good, he is a descendant of Bodhidharma, and the Sixth Patriarch, and Buddha. That is his non-sectarianism.

If people say, because we stick to this key point [laughs] that is Soto—that is [laughs] maybe all right. For them to say, “He is Soto,” it is all right. But we have no sectarianism. We believe in Buddha's religion that saves all sentient beings—not just the selfless, good, good student [laughs]. That is our understanding of Zen.

So, it is not a matter of Rinzai or Soto. Soto is a school which puts emphasis on the transmitted buddha-mind and practices our way as the expression of our transmitted mind, or to develop a buddha's mind. The way we practice may not be the same, but whatever we do is the expression of our true nature. If I say just “expression of true nature,” it is quite simple. How we express our true nature is the thing I was explaining in my previous lecture.

In short, I think there must be various schools of Buddhism. There must be. But, it is necessary to have mutual understanding. And, it is necessary to know the positions of various schools. What position does one school have in the history of Buddhism, or in the actual activity as a religion? What kind of good points and bad points? And, what kind of responsibility every religion has?

The most concerning point for us is not teaching, but practice.  We cannot practice many things at the same time [laughs]. So we should stick to one practice. And, with full understanding of our practice, as a Soto student it is necessary to stick to shikantaza.  Sometimes to practice a koan or to understand a koan will be helpful. But, the key point should be shikantaza, or Dogen's zazen, or Bodhidharma's zazen, or Buddha's zazen. This point is very important, and all the practice or all the power you will have by zazen practice should be based on this understanding, or else your practice will end in a dead end. It will create more problems for you.

Our practice is like water. Water is necessary for everyone. Even though wine or lemon juice tastes good, or ice cream is good [laughs], if you always take ice cream or lemon juice, you cannot survive. So you should not forget water. Our practice is like water. People are liable to forget [laughs] why water is so important. [You can find it everywhere [laughs]. So you do not appreciate water so much.5] But if you forget water, you will eventually get into some trouble. You should not forget water.

This is my understanding of sectarianism and Dogen's non-sectarianism. Dogen's sectarianism can be non-sectarian with Christianity or some other religions  too.  If you have this kind of understanding, Christianity is all right. Soka Gakkai [?] may be all right [laughs, laughter]. Maybe [laughs, laughter].

But, they will not understand [laughs], this point. If they could understand our point, whatever the religion is, that would be very helpful. This is my non-sectarianism. So my sectarianism is sectarianism and non-sectarianism [laughs]. Both. Do you understand? You cannot say it is non-sectarian, because I am a very proud sectarian [laughs].

You cannot change my understanding. No one can change it [laughs]. The only way is to change their understanding [laughter]. But you only get frustrated [laughs, laughter]. Even so, I do not reject any understanding. And, it does not mean for me there is nothing to study [laughs]. I have to study a lot of things, but there is no need for me to change my foundation of religion.

Because of this foundation, I feel free to study many things. If I lost this foundation, I would be a very bad sectarian [laughs]. Because I feel some easiness, I have no fear of losing my way. Whatever I study, it is all right.

Do you have some questions? Hai.

Student A: Do you and Yasutani Roshi6 and Soen Roshi7 have the same foundation?

SR: Oh yeah, Yasutani Roshi. We talked about this point, and he agreed with me. He knows what is Soto and what is Rinzai. Hai.

Student B: You were talking about non-sectarianism in Sung China. What does it mean in America?

SR: In China?

Student B: In America?

SR: First of all, you have no tradition of Buddhism—there is no Buddhism yet.  We are starting to establish some Buddhist activity here. And, intellectually you study many things, and you have various understandings, and I think some of you already studied under many teachers. So the situation is quite different. In Japan, most Soto students study Soto only. Between Rinzai and Soto today, some Rinzai students study Dogen Zenji, and we study Rinzai practice too. But, mostly a Rinzai student is Rinzai, and Soto students from beginning to end are Soto students.

But here, the way you study is not the same as we do in Japan. And this situation is something like the situation when Zen Buddhism started in China after the Sixth Patriarch. They recommended their students to some other teachers. Actually there was not much sectarianism, but there were various kinds of practice or ways of giving instruction. I think we are in America in the same situation as they had in China.

So, I think it is necessary for teachers to have closer relationships with each other, and to help students, exchange students, or have discussions with each other. Or else we cannot help students.  If I say we should practice just Soto or Rinzai [laughs], they don't know what to do. So, students should choose their way. And, we should encourage students to find appropriate teachers. This is, I think, absolutely necessary for us as teachers. Hai.

Student C: If we feel that it is just a matter of different students needing different methods of instruction to understand the same foundation, then there really isn't any cause at all for controversy, and it can be just as fluid as possible. Am I correct?

SR: Yes, I understand in this way, and I think Nakagawa Roshi is also very much like a Soto teacher.  He understands Dogen Zenji very well, and Yasutani Roshi originally was a Soto teacher. For some reason he became independent from Soto. There was a good reason for that. That is just a matter of activity, not a matter of understanding. So, I don't think there is any problem. Hai.

Student D: I have two short questions. The first one is, you said that it's impossible to attain enlightenment, and that didn't sound too good. So I thought [laughs, laughter], well, maybe you meant that it's possible to attain enlightenment, but we couldn't say that we'll attain anything. Is that what you meant? [Laughs, laughter.]

SR: No. In its usual sense, people think, “I attained enlightenment” [laughs]. That  doesn't make much sense. They feel that way. It is true that you reach a step. This is what I'm always talking about [laughs]. Whatever it is, that is Buddha himself. And, however it is complete, that is not Buddha himself.  As long as it is something which we can understand or which we can see because it has some form or color, that cannot be absolute. We have this idea.
Usually you do not have this idea, so you stick to enlightenment. Even though you think you attained enlightenment, that is not the absolute itself or buddha-nature itself. It is something—some expression of buddha-nature.

I was talking with a guest, and she had very good understanding. I was amazed [laughs, laughter]. We had been talking about maybe thirty-forty minutes, standing under the trellis.
She said, we are an ornament of “it,” instead of saying buddha-nature. First of all, she said, she was thinking about the word for buddha-nature. And she said “it”—we are tools of it. That was what she said—tools of it. And I said, “Yeah, maybe tools of it.” And, actually we say, “We are ornaments of it,” [laughs]. We have various forms and colors, and by our body and mind we give various ornaments to Buddha to eat. We are ornaments of it, and she completely understood about it. And, she said we are not even a part of it [laughs] because we change it [laughs]. We are just tentative ornaments of it [laughs]. I don't know how she keeps this kind of understanding. It is unusual. She was German, and she has some difficulty in pronouncing English words like philosophy [laughs]. And, she did not believe in so much philosophy. But, she wanted to figure out what “it” is. And she said, “I am an ornament of it.”

And—oh—first of all she said, “I am not I. I am it,” [laughs], she said. “I am it.” Not “me,” “it.” That was what she said, before we said much. “I am not I, but it.” And she started to talk about the relationship between “I” and “it.” And, “I am an ornament of it, a tool of it.” And, I said maybe we say ornament of it. “Yeah, that's better,” she said [laughs].

And, the next question was, what is, then, karma? Karma. That was the second question. And, I said karma is if you do something it will leave a result. And, that result will cause some activity. In this way, our activity will continue. And here we started to talk about the eternal. We didn't say “eternal present,” but cause and effect, cause and effect, cause and effect. And it is karma, and it is also the eternal expression of each being or actually an ornament of it. In this way we are free from karma. And yet we cannot get out of karma. [Laughs.]  Fortunately, we could communicate this kind of [laughs] thing. I was rather amazed. And, she is from Redwood City. I don't know what was her name. She was the lady who was sitting right there. She is a very fat lady, wearing something like this. Do you remember her?

Student E: Was that today, Roshi?

SR: Today.

Student E: Because I remember.

SR: Her blouse was trimmed like this.

Student E: White blouse with red—

SR: Red.

Student E: —An Indian kind of braid.

SR: Oh, yeah. No, white on white. And there was red or—[laughter]—not like this, but like this [laughter]. That was a good design for her, I thought [laughs], because it divided her big body in two [laughs, laughter] small pieces [laughs, laughter]. More beautiful in that way. And, her friend was waiting for her because they were leaving.

Student F: Roshi, she told me that she felt very awkward about doing zazen and doing the services and bowing. She said she was a little bit frightened. Because at every move of your hands or bowing or turning, she said she felt it meant something, but she couldn't understand it. But, I think she was very interested to know about it.

SR:  I think she may come back [laughs]. Her understanding is very good. I don't know. Yeah. Her practice is not so good [laughter]. And it may be very difficult for her. And, if she starts some diet [laughter]. Some questions?

Student G: She just said she was very pleased to be able to talk to you and somewhat surprised that she was able to.

SR: [Laughs.] Oh.

Student F: She also wanted to know how come so many people about 25 or 36 years old are trying something like this?

SR: Oh yes! Yeah. Why do you have so many young students? What is it—oh yeah, that was [2-3 words]. And then we started something about the teaching. How come? And, she was very much interested to see so many young students here.

[Chant follows.]

1 Opening words were not recorded, but the remainder of the sentence sounded like an aside to a student rather than the beginning of the lecture.

2 Shōnin Shinran (1173–1262). Student of Hōnen. Founder of Jōdō-shin-shū.

3 inka (Jap.): seal of confirmation.

4 Tiantong Rujing (Tendō Nyojō): 1163-1228.

5 These two sentences are not on the currently available audio.

6 Yasutani Hakuun-rōshi: 1885-1973. Student of Nishiari Bokusan-zenji and dharma successor of Harada Sōgaku-rōshi. He is known for his synthesis of Sōtō and Rinzai practices—especially for using kōan practice with Sōtō students.

7 Nakagawa Sōen-rōshi (1908-1983): Rinzai master. Dharma successor of Yamamoto Genpō and abbot of Ryūtaku-ji monastery near Mishima. In the West, he taught in the United States and Israel.

Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Adam Tinkham and Bill Redican (3/21/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (11/2020).


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