A minimally edited transcript

The first teaching

Saturday, August 2, 1969

I'm afraid I am making you hotter [laughs] because I cough, and my lecture is maybe pretty difficult to understand because of my English especially. Last night my skeleton of the lecture was like this [laughs]. Can you read it?

We have four or three series of Buddhist teachings. The teaching that [laughter] everything is changing is in Japanese, shogyo-mujo1, or Chinese, shogyo-mujo. This teaching can be understood in two ways: One, the teaching as the law of the truth. This teaching is always true, whether we observe it or not. If everything is changing that means non-substantiality. There is no substantial being. We are only beings composed from various elements. So, we are non-substantial beings. (a) Non-substantiality.

(b) As the presupposed teaching of selflessness. The teaching of selflessness is the teaching that everything changes. And the teaching of selflessness, the second one, is the second of the four important teachings. The four teachings are: teaching that everything changes, teaching of selflessness, teaching of suffering, and teaching of nirvana. Those are the four important teachings of Buddhism. So we call them “four seals of Buddhist teaching.”

And this teaching is presupposed for the second teaching of selflessness because everything is a composed being. There is nothing which is understood to be “self.” That is a teaching of selflessness.

Usually, if we say selflessness, you may understand that that is the teaching about human beings who are very selfish. But actually, not only human beings but also everything has no self. So, the actual teaching for human beings, that everything is changing, could be applied for human life: (a) to be free from attachment. (If everything is changing, then there is nothing which we can attach to, actually, so this is for human beings the teaching of non-attachment.) (b) idea of fate (free from idea of fate). And, (c) to make our best effort in each moment. So the only way for us is to make our best effort in each moment, because that which actually exists is we in this moment, because we will change into something else in another minute. The only way to reach reality is to make our best effort in each moment. This is actually the fundamental framework of Buddhist teaching.

The second teaching is extended from the teaching that everything is changing. And this is the teaching of selflessness, (a) in time span; (b) in space span. In time span, because we are changing moment after moment, so there is nothing to be called self. In space span we are interrelated with many things. We cannot be completely independent from other beings. So, in space span, we should understand that everything has no self.

(a)—(b)—(c):2 in the way of change, nothing permanent is involved. In some religions, something created us. We do not understand in that way. Everything is changing. Then you may ask, Who makes us change? We do not have any idea of something like God, who makes everything change. We have no idea of somethingness whatsoever. So, we are including everything [laughs]. Everything changes. There is nothing which does not change. So, that is why people call Buddhists “atheists.” We have no idea of a God which is absolutely permanent and which has almighty power. We have no such idea. In the way of change, nothing permanent or absolute is involved. So, in short, we do not have any idea of a deity which is permanent.

This is the teaching of selflessness as a true law of the truth. And, when we apply this teaching to our everyday life, it is also the teaching of non-attachment or the teaching of emptiness. We studied about this for a pretty long time: emptiness, emptiness, emptiness. “Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness.” And then put emphasis on this emptiness. And, this is what we were studying in the hot weather [laughs, laughter] last night. And I was making my best effort, drinking so many—oh!—so many cups of water.

I think let's take it easy [laughter] this morning.

The third teaching is a pretty hot teaching too. The teaching of suffering. Everything suffers. Even when it is not so hot, we suffer. If we know why we suffer, we will have some way to be free from suffering. This is important. Because we believe in the theory of cause and effect, if we can get rid of the cause of suffering, we will be free from suffering because suffering has some cause for it. And, there is a complete relationship between cause and effect. We cannot change the result. If we have some certain cause, we will have its effects accordingly. This is our belief. No one can change the law of cause and effect. If you eat too much, you will have a stomachache. No one can change it. And if you have bad karma in previous life or a past life or in past time, you will have a bad result. This is Buddhist belief. But anyway, here we should know why we suffer—the teaching of suffering. And when we know why we suffer, we will know how to get rid of the cause. And, we will know how to change—how we could improve our lives.

Actually, the reason why we suffer or the cause of suffering is ignorance. Ignorance means we do not know the true teaching that everything changes and that everything has no self. Because we do not know anything about those teachings, we suffer. Actually, everything changes, but we expect things not to change.

For instance, I am changing every day. I'm not young any more. I feel as if [laughs] I am quite young, and I expect you to treat me as a young boy [laughs, laughter]. But, you know, I am not young at all, and next year I shall be much older. I feel as if I am always young like this or like I was 40 or 45 years old. As I expect you to treat me as a young boy, or as I expect me to be always young when I see myself in the mirror, I shall be very discouraged. [Laughs, laughter.] That is suffering. [Loud laughter.] You don't know this kind of suffering because you are too young. But, for you, there is particular suffering. That suffering is suffering because you have too much energy [laughs]. To have too much energy is also suffering.

There are many sufferings, but the cause of suffering is—we actually don't know much about that. Jane [Schneider?] said this morning, to me, Alan Watts, who is very famous, as you know, said ignorance means “ignore-ance,” to ignore. Intellectually we know everything changes. But actually we don't like things to change. To ignore the truth is ignorance. Maybe so. I thought he said, “ignore ants.” [Laughs, laughter.] There are many ants. So, I thought he said to “Don't kill ants! Ignore ants!” But ignorance.

We should not ignore the truth. And, we know that we should not ignore the truth, but still, we are always trying to ignore the truth. Truth, we think, should be true without us, not with us. That is usually how we feel. The matter of birth and death is inevitable for human beings. We know the truth of birth and death. But, we think as if that truth is for someone else, not for us. With me, I feel as if I will live forever. Even though we see someone is dying, we don't feel that matter of birth and death is universal suffering for us. And, someone may feel, “Oh, this is terrible,” when their friend dies. “Oh, this is terrible,” for you. But, someone else may not feel so serious even if his friend died. If your direct relative dies, you will be shocked. Or, even if your direct relative dies, you may not feel so bad. But, when you are dying, you will feel terrible. [Laughs.] That is the human way, and that is true for almost all human beings.

So we count four sufferings or eight sufferings. If we count the suffering of birth and death, suffering of illness, suffering of old age. I think birth and death, is two, actually. So suffering of birth. Birth must be a great suffering for us, even though we do not remember. It must be a great suffering for the baby and for the mother. So suffering of birth, suffering of illness, suffering of old age [laughter], and suffering of death. The next suffering for me will be the suffering of death. That is four.

And there are some more. We counted just four. But actually there are many, many sufferings. The suffering of being separated from someone who you love. That is one. The suffering when you meet someone who you don't love. That is actually [laughs]—actually very true. I don't know why, but if you think over and over you will find who should be blamed for it. Anyway, we suffer for meeting someone we don't like, that is the next one. And suffering when you cannot gain that which you want. This is very true too. That is, if you think over and over about it, you will find out why. It is, in short, because you expect things too much. And, you expect something which is not permanent to be permanent. That is another reason, maybe. In this way, you will find many reasons why you cannot gain what you want. And, the last one is we suffer because of our own vitality, or the unbalance of vitality, or the difficulty of controlling our desires and vitality.

Those are another four sufferings. So we say four sufferings, or eight sufferings. Suffering of birth, suffering of illness, suffering of old age, suffering of death, and suffering of being separated from someone who is loved, and suffering of meeting someone who you do not love, and suffering when you cannot have what you want, and suffering of the unbalance of vitality. Those are eight sufferings.

But in short, those sufferings come from ignorance. The fundamental suffering is caused by the idea of self, self which we have subjectively and which we have objectively. We think everything is substantial, everything exists just as you see it. But actually it is not so.

Something you see is created by yourself. If you do not see anything, there is nothing actually. Because you see something, there is something. So, in one sense, we are creating things by our eyes or by our ears, by our five sense organs. There is nothing which is purely subjective or objective. Something that exists is subjective and also objective. This is very true. You may say that is not true, but actually it is so.

You may say objective being is something which really exists, and subjective being is something which you yourself created. But actually, for us something that exists is very subjective—maybe 80% or 90% subjective. And it means that, at the same time because of ignorance our subjective function of five sense organs creates things. We don't know why, but human beings creates many things—not only spaceships [laughs], but always we are creating something.

I have a scroll done by a famous Zen master.3 It says, “a piece of stone in the air.” It says “piece”— “a stone in the air.” Actually there is no stone in the air. You may find some electric bulbs, but there is no stone in the air. But we see various stones. Something subjective—something which we create in the air. That is something which we see. This is very true even though your scientific mind will not accept it. Actually there are many things—many difficulties which we create.

So I say “homemade” difficulty [laughs, laughter]: difficulties created by yourself. “These are the cookies I made. Please have one. They are very good.” [Laughs.] I don't know if everyone would think they are good. At least you think they are very good. Maybe so, maybe not so. I don't know. That is very true.

But, you think the cookies you made are the best. [Laughs.] And there is no “just cookie.” Cookie is something—maybe always the best cookie, whatever cookie it is. The cookie is always the best cookie, especially when you make it. [Laughs, laughter.] When someone else makes it, especially someone who you don't like makes it, that is always a bad cookie. So cookies are always “good cookies” or “bad cookies.” [Laughter.] Not “the cookie”— “just cookie” doesn't exist.

So “cookies” are very subjective [laughs, laughter]—subjective view. Maybe 1% of it is an objective cookie, but 99% of cookies [laughter] are subjective cookies. I think Buddha was very wise to say: “We create things, and all being is created by ignorance.” We ignore the truth. You may ask then, “Who created that ignorance?” The phenomenology of ignorance which was created in endless—no, beginningless time. We don't know when it was created and who created it. We don't suppose something or someone created it. We have no idea of—are not interested in who created it or how it was created. Yes, we are interested in how things are created, but we don't say who created. This is the difference between Christianity and Buddhism.

So as a Buddhist, it is all right to say, “I don't know. I don't know who created the ignorance.” That is quite all right for us. If you are Christian, you shouldn't say so [laughs, laughter]. If you say so, you are not Christian anymore. You should say, “God created it.” And then you will ask why he created it. [Laughs, laughter.] There is no end.

So it may be better to say, “I don't know.” [Laughs, laughter.] And, I may ask you, “Why do you ask such a question?” That will be my question for someone who asks me. This kind of discussion should be continued sometime when it is not so hot.

What was I talking about? [Laughs, laughter.]

Anyway, because of ignorance everything exists. This is another translation of the teaching of selflessness. That you ask why we have ignorance means you are trying to figure out which substantial being must have created ignorance. We Buddhists are more interested in how everything is going on, like science, not who created. How everything is actually going on is the main point of Buddhist teaching.

We do not seek what exists besides the phenomenal world. In Western thought, there is the idea of absolute. But actually, we don't have the idea of absolute like you understand by absolute. For us, the word “absolute” is another interpretation of each phenomenal being. So absolute and phenomenal being are two sides of one coin.

There is no absolute beyond our phenomenal world. This is also a point you should always remember. When you study Eastern thought, you should put this point always in your mind, or else you will not pass a koan [laughs]. You will always fail to pass koans because you stick to the idea of absolute, absolute, absolute, absolute, and ignore the reality—ignore your human life.

We say “ignorance,” but to know that we are ignorant is wisdom. To know what is ignorance is wisdom. And that you don't know what is wisdom is ignorance. If you know we are ignorant, and we are creating things because of our [Sentence not finished. Tape turned over.] — enlightened with this wisdom, we will reach the stage of kendo. Kendo means the first stage, the stage in which you have right understanding of reality or real life.

And so, real life we mean is life of ignorance, and life of wisdom. And, wisdom and ignorance are also two sides of one coin. So, we say if you know the cause of suffering, which is ignorance, you will know how to attain perfect understanding.

Buddha said, “Because A arises, B arises. And because A exists, B exists.” Because A arises, B arises, you may say. Actually he says B is extinguished, but it is the same thing. It is the truth of cause and effect in a time span. Because I arise here, I will die someday. Because A arises, B is extinguished. And because I exist, you exist at the same time. If I don't exist, you don't exist. For you, if you don't exist, I don't exist.

Actually I cannot be separated completely from you [laughs], physically and spiritually. If I say something you will understand it. So in the space-time span, we are related crossing. We cannot be independent. This teaching is called the teaching of interdependency. Vertically and horizontally we are closely related, and we are all interdependent beings. That is another interpretation of how we exist and how we suffer. And actually it is the teaching that everything changes and of selflessness. Nothing to be called “self” in particular, because we are completely related to each other. So, Mahayana teaching concludes this thought in this way: “One is all, all are one.” One is all. That I exist here, everything exists. That everything exists means I exist here. So, I or everything else is another interpretation of one reality. So in reality, one is all and all is one.

So far this is maybe an intellectual understanding of the truth because actually even though we understand in this way, we ignore [laughs] our understanding and stick to the idea of self. “I— I— I,” we always say, “I— I— I,” —ignoring how everyone else will be. That is actually true. I am sorry to say so, for me and for you, but it can't be helped.

If you have this kind of wisdom, you will completely understand why we suffer and how we could get free from suffering. To know the cause of suffering is to attain the way to be free from suffering, the way to get rid of suffering. And, Buddha concludes in this way: “There is no other way to get out of suffering for us. The only way to get out of suffering is to know, to have wisdom, or to know what is the cause of suffering.” Before Buddha, people offered sacrifices to divine beings sometimes to be born in some wonderful world. But, the act of sacrificing something cannot result in us to be born in some other world. If we kill some animal, the animal may suffer, and we will suffer too. That is true. That is a true course of cause and effect.

And we offer some money to Buddha to improve our health, [laughs]. “Buddha help me. I will offer a million dollars to you. [Laughs.] So please help me.” But it cannot be—we cannot be helped in that way because the course of cause and effect is wrong. The only way to get free from suffering is to know the real cause of suffering and, knowing what is the cause of suffering, trying not to do something which will cause suffering. That is the only way to get out of suffering, according to Buddhists. So, we have no miracles at all [laughs] because we believe in the truth of cause and effect, and we strictly observe the true course of cause and effect. And, if we mix up the course of cause and effect, that is called “violating one of the precepts,” kaigon suke.  

That is the teaching of suffering. I think next time, or tomorrow,4 I must explain the teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

So tonight we studied what is suffering, and what is the cause of suffering, and we referred to the teaching of interdependency. The teaching of interdependency is arising from conditional causation. Everything arises from conditions and not from being spontaneous or self-condition—has no separate and independent nature. Nothing has independent nature. This is the teaching of interdependency.

Oh. [Laughs, laughter.] I have no time to drink. [Laughter.] Excuse me.

1 Shogyō-mujō-ge: A sūtra verse on impermanence (e.g., in Nirvāna-sūtra):"All things are impermanent; they appear and disappear. When an end is put to this appearance and disappearance, then the bliss of nirvāna is realized."

2 It sounds like Suzuki-rōshi is counting down a list from (a) to (c).

3 Kishizawa Ian-zenji. [Discussed in Crooked Cucumber, p. 382.]

4 Lecture SR-69-08-03.

Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Sara Hunsaker and Bill Redican (3/5/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (1/2021).


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