A minimally edited transcript

We practice zazen so that we attain selflessness

Sunday, August 3, 1969

As most of you know, this is Yoshimura Ryogen Sensei.1 Ryogen Yoshimura Sensei. In the Japanese way we say the family name first, so Yoshimura Ryogen. Yoshimura is the family name. Ryogen Sensei, or Yoshimura Sensei. He arrived at San Francisco as our teacher, or as our friend, March 27?

Off-mike: Yes.

March 27. And mostly he has been in San Francisco. I think he came here once? Twice?

Off-mike: Twice.

Twice. Most of you, I think, know him. But as some of you may not know him, I think it is better to introduce him to you. Thank you very much.

Last night I talked about the teaching of selflessness and the teaching of suffering too—not completely, but briefly about what is our suffering. It may be better to explain about selflessness more, because that is a very important teaching which is directly related to the teaching of Zen.

We practice zazen so that we attain selflessness. This is very important and a very subtle thing, the matter of self. We don't know where our self is, but it is very tenacious, as you know [laughs]. Even though you think you are pretty well, it is not so. What selflessness means, why we say “selflessness,” is because each one of us is not a substantial being. You think you are here, but there is no such thing as “you” existing here. You are not a ghost, but [laughs] at this moment, at this place, you exist here, but you don't exist here so many times. It is just a tentative being which is always changing. We know that by here [possibly pointing], but it is almost impossible to get rid of this idea of self or feeling of self.

To have good understanding is easy, we say, but to have right feeling or to accept it completely emotionally is very hard. Even though you know it, actually you have no feeling of it. Emotionally you don't accept it.

So, it is easy to get rid of the idea of self intellectually, like breaking a small lock. It is not so difficult to break a small lock. If you hit it with a big hammer, it is quite easy. But, it is difficult to get rid of a habitual way of thinking, or habitual way of understanding, or emotional feeling of it. It is as difficult as to break a lotus root [laughs]. To break a lotus root is quite easy if you do it right. You’d think I have a diamond. I break it in two like this. But string is still here in between, and even though [laughs] you pull as much as you can, string always follows. It is so hard—like to break a lotus root in two. I think that is very true.

Dogen Zenji was so kind to explain this point in one of the fascicles of Shobogenzo, “Sansuikyo” the Mountain and Water Sutra.2 Mountain—what is mountain? What is water? We think we know what is a mountain and what is water. Of course you know. Water for human beings is of course water. But for the people in hell water is blood. For fish or for dragons, who live in water, it's a beautiful palace [laughs]. And for human beings, that is water.

He says a dragon or a fish understands water is blood or their own home, but they don't understand the palace for them is water for human beings. But, you think you know what water is. You are not like a fish, or like a dragon, or like a hungry ghost. “I know water.”  But Dogen Zenji says you don't know [laughs] water. You are almost as ignorant as a dragon or hungry ghosts in heaven. Even though you say you know what water is, Dogen Zenji said you don't actually know what water is.

I think that is why you don't understand why he took leftover water, and returned it to the river.3 Maybe he knows what water is, but we don't know what water is, maybe, according to him. Do you think [laughs], “What is water then?” He says, “You don't know [laughs] what water is. You are almost as ignorant as fish.” So, he says mountain is mountain and water is water. This is a point we should study or understand even in an intellectual way.

I explained last night how everything exists in this world. The teaching of how things exist in this way is the teaching of interdependency. [Brief exchange off-mike.] Teaching of interdependence. I explained last night, but it may be better to repeat it.

That something exists means that some other thing existed in a timespan before. Because something existed before, something else exists later here. Because this exists, or because that exists this exists here. And, that something exists here means, at the same time, some other thing in space-span exists. That I exist here means you exist here at the same time. And, that I exist here means my father existed. Because my father existed, I exist here. In this way, we are closely related to something else. We cannot exist just as an independent being from others. It means that, that something exists here, the rest of things exist here. And, many things existed in past time.

So, if water is here, it means that mountains exist, and fish exist, and stones exist, trees exist, frogs exist, stars exist, moon, and milky river, and everything exists. So, we said that water exists, you may say that. When water exists, everything is water. The water is representative of the whole world. So, the whole world is water. Nothing can compare to water because water is closely related to other things. So, actually water may not be water. But, if we say, “This is water,” the rest of things can be the same thing. May be that water too. Just for convenience sake, we name it “water,” that's all. When we reach this kind of understanding, even intellectually, we may be said to have understood what Dogen meant by “water.”

You exist here, helping. But actually, there is no borderline between you and me. For me, you are everything. As long as I am here, you are everything. Like for water, everything is just water, just for water. For your husband, you are everything [laughs]. There is nothing but you for your husband right now. When you reach this kind of understanding, you will live in this moment in its true sense. As long as you understand things in terms of duality, “I am here, and he is there,” there's no relationship between you and others.

So water is not just water. If I drink a cup of water, the water is everything for me right now, as long as I am drinking it. With this kind of feeling and spirit, you have to drink water, and you have to treat others. There is no separation between us.

If you say “star,” star is only one being which includes everything. If you say “mountain,” mountain includes everything. For mountain, everything is just for itself. Do you understand? And if you reach this kind of experience by practice, you are said to have been practicing zazen. Do you understand?

So, there is no wonder why Dogen Zenji says, “Water for you is just like water for fish,” because actually a fish doesn't know what water is. Even though you said you know what water is, you don't actually know what it is. And you have no feeling of real water. That is something which has very little to do with [1-2 words?]. You do not appreciate water. So there is no wonder why he couldn't help to return the leftover water to the river. Okay? [Laughs.] There's a big, big difference—even in the Kegon Sutra. So, how we exist in this world is very miraculous. Even though you can reach the moon, you cannot explain this point.

The Kegon Sutra, says, “I am Vairocana Buddha,4 who is sitting in the big miraculous shape of a lotus named Lotus Seed. And in the Lotus Seed there is a big lotus. And the lotus has a thousand leaves.” Do you say “leaves”?

Students: Petals.

“Petals. A thousand petals. And I incarnated into a thousand buddhas and sit in each petal of the lotus. And then in each petal there is—” how many there [laughs]? “There are a hundred million Sumeru Mountains,5 and a hundred million of Four Seas, and a hundred million worlds called Naiyenbudai.”

So it makes how much world there is. And, in each world there is a Bodhi tree. And, under the Bodhi tree there is Bodhisattva Shakyamuni practicing zazen to attain enlightenment. And after he attains enlightenment, he will tell you the true law. And that is very true. I don't know how many beings are in this world. We don't even know how many stars there are in this cosmic world. I think much more than one hundred million worlds or earths, and that is very true.

And in each world there is Shakyamuni Buddha, who knows the truth, who knows what is water, what is this Bodhi tree, what are petals of a lotus. This is just a way of expressing the truth, but actually we cannot figure out how things exist in its true sense. That is actually the teaching of selflessness or teaching of interdependency.

Only when you understand our world in this way will you be free from suffering. So every existence is just for you. If you ignore this fact, that is ignorance [laughs]. You ignore the truth. You ignore this fact. Even though you cannot describe it, it is true.

And, now I think I have to explain the Four Noble Truths: how we should get out of suffering. The Four Noble Truths are: first, all existence is suffering. Second, what is the cause of suffering? The cause of suffering is that because of our ignorance, we do not know how we exist here. So the cause of suffering is illusion or ignorance and desires based on ignorance. There is nothing wrong to have desires, but if the desire is based on ignorance, it is like driving a car when you are drunk [laughs]. You don't know where to go with the desire. It is good to have a brand new car. That is okay. But you must drive the car pretty well. You shouldn't be drunk. The cause of suffering is illusion and desire based on ignorance.

The third truth is nirvana. What is nirvana? Nirvana is the realm of being free from suffering. When we understand the “things as it is,” like I explained—when we understand the teaching of interdependency, then we are in the realm of nirvana.

The fourth one is the means for attainment of nirvana—how to attain nirvana. And, how to attain nirvana is the practice of hasshodo, or the Eightfold Noble Path. This6 was the first teaching which was told by Buddha after he attained enlightenment. How we suffer, why we suffer, and the cause of suffering. He pointed out the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering is ignorance, illusion. And, he pointed out that if the cause of suffering is illusion or ignorance, to get rid of ignorance or to have wisdom is the way to attain enlightenment. The cause of suffering is directly related to the result of suffering which is resulting from the cause which is ignorance. So, the cause of suffering is here, and the end of suffering, the result of ignorance is suffering.

There is immutable truth between the cause of suffering and suffering. And this is the teaching of cause and effect. You cannot get out of the course of cause and effect.

The only way to be free from suffering is to transmute ignorance into wisdom. That is the only way. Or, to replace ignorance with wisdom. And the relationship of wisdom and ignorance is the same. It is two sides of one coin. Suffering and the relationship between suffering and nirvana are also two sides of one paper. It is actually one, but because of our ignorance we cannot see the other side of the wood [?],7 like we can see the water, but we do not actually understand what water is, like Dogen Zenji pointed out.

Now the practice of how to attain nirvana. This is what I 've been talking about for three lectures. Four lectures are not the teaching of Zen. In its wider sense it is teaching of Zen, but in its narrow sense those lectures are lectures about Buddhism in its wide sense. Those teachings are called teachings for shravakas,8 or Hinayana Buddhists, or Theravada Buddhists. But they are true for every Buddhist.

And the Eightfold Noble Path is: One is correct view. Second is correct thinking. Third is correct speech. Correct action. Correct livelihood. Correct endeavor. And correct memory. And correct meditation. Those are the Eightfold Noble Path. Here it says “correct,” but there is no other word for this. In Chinese or in Japanese we use “right”: right thinking, right speech, right view, right activity, right livelihood. In this way, we use “right.” But this “right” is not the “right” in terms of right and wrong. This is more than that.

Anyway, we cannot explain it in one word. So “right,” here, it means to have good understanding or, if possible, perfect understanding of the four teachings of:  teaching of everything changes; teaching of selflessness; teaching of everything is in a state of suffering; and teaching of nirvana.

To have correct understanding of these is right understanding. As you have understood what water is. When you reach this kind of understanding, that is right thinking, right view, right viewpoint. Not a partial, one-sided view, but correct view or right view. And right way of thinking. It is not just thinking, but it is wisdom itself. And, if you think accordingly, that is right thinking, and right speech. Right speech does not mean to give a speech in terms of right or wrong, good or bad. Right action. Right action should not be one-sided action. We should speak impartially always. And the fourth one is right livelihood. It wants some explanation. And, it gives us a very good suggestion what is right livelihood. Of course, this is for monks.

What is, then, wrong livelihood? To cultivate land for a monk is not right livelihood. But this is like a kind of precept for Indian monks. There are people who enter religious life after finishing their family life. And they are supposed to be supported by people—not only their family but also people in their town.

So, after they enter religious life, they are not supposed to cultivate land or cut wood for a fire. They should not practice compounding. They should not compound medicine, even. And they should not study astrology. [Laughs, laughter.] They should not speak by proxy for another. You should not be an attorney [laughs]. You should not practice charms, you know, magic. And you should not be a fortune-teller. You should not [laughs] tell fortunes for others. You know — [Sentence not finished. Tape turned over.]

…is what will be a monk—what kind of personality is the ideal image of monks. They should not pray for some magical powers. They should not fascinate people by some extraordinary way [laughs]. Only by his own personality, only his own everyday life, he should be a monk. Do you understand? They should not take some different activity. They should be plain, common, ordinary people, and they should be a good friend of others. And ,sometimes they should be even a teacher of others, without having this kind of charm. This is how a monk should be—how a Buddhist should be.

If you understand the teaching of interdependency, or if you understand what is water, actually, you will easily understand what will be right livelihood for a Buddhist. Okay? You should remember this. I don't prohibit those things, but you should know the image of a Buddhist. What will be a Buddhist? In this way, Buddha had many disciples.

Do you know Manjushri? He was a very alert fellow. How he joined Buddha's order is when he saw Buddha's disciple early in the morning on the street, walking straight, calmly, and gently. And he was struck by his appearance. When he just saw him, he was fascinated in his trueness, not because of some magical power. And, he decided to join Buddha's order.

In this way Buddha obtained many disciples. He did not play any magic. He did not say anything strange or special. The teaching he told for us is a very usual teaching. It is very wide and big. If you try to understand it, it is bottomlessly big. But he did not tell us anything strange. This is right livelihood. I think this is very important, especially for you who want to be a pioneer of American Buddhism in its true sense. You should not depend on some power, or some wisdom, or some particular knowledge or study.

And right endeavor. This is also important. [Laughs.] It is rather difficult to have right endeavor. In short, when people get up, you should get up. When people eat, you should eat. That is right endeavor. You should not get up too early or too late.

And right memory, to remember something which is important for our practice. And the last one is right meditation. Before Buddha, people practiced zazen in various ways, with various aims. But, Buddha's meditation is completely different from those meditations. I think there is no need to explain about this.

Okay? I think you will trust [?] everything [laughs, laughter].

You cannot use what you have now. Even though you know many things, you should not use it, and just to sit is what you should do. Just to know what is meditation, what is water [laughs], why you came here—that's all what you should know. And, in this way, if you continue your practice, you will be a good Buddhist in its true sense.

Oh! [Probably finds out the time. Laughs.] I thought it was too early to stop.

Before, I used a big towel. [Laughs, laughter] I better change over.

1 Soto monk who came from Japan to San Francisco in 1969 to help Suzuki. (See Wind Bell, 1970, Vol. IX, No. 1, p. 30.) He died at a young age after returning to Japan.

2 See also Lecture SR-69-08-07 and SR-71-07-24.

3 Referring to the story of Dōgen respectfully returning the unused half of the water in his ladle to the river at Hanshaku-kyo, a bridge beyond the entrance gate of Eihei-ji. (See also "Nirvana, the Waterfall," in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p. 92, and Lecture SR-69-08-01.)

4 One of the five transcendent buddhas.

5 In traditional Buddhist/Hindu cosmology, Mount Sumeru (Meru, Jap.Shumi-sen) is regarded as the center of the four continents (i.e., the world-system or universe) as well as the largest entity in that universe.

6 The Kegon Sūtra.

7 If "wood" is correct, Suzuki-rōshi may be referring to tamban-kan, carrying a board on one's shoulder in such a way that one cannot see the other side.

8 shrāvaka (San.): literally, "hearer": originally, one of Shākyamuni Buddha's students or students in general.

Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Sara Hunsaker and Bill Redican (3/6/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (1/2021).


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