A minimally edited transcript

our way to attain liberation

Monday Evening, August 18, 1969

SR: Tonight I want to discuss our way to attain liberation or enlightenment. When you study Buddhism through teaching or reading scriptures, it looks like Buddhists have some special way of thinking by which we attain liberation, that if we understand Buddhism, and if we take the Buddhist standpoint or Buddhist way of thinking, that is the way to attain liberation.

Do you hear me?

Various Students: Yes.

SR: Okay? [Laughs.] Most people may understand in this way. If so, there would be no need to practice zazen. But it is necessary. And why it is so is the point of my discussion tonight.

When the Sixth Patriarch attained enlightenment, his teacher Konin1 thought it might be dangerous for him to accept disciples because of the situation of the country at that time, when China was culturally divided in two, North and South, and partly because the Sixth Patriarch was an unknown disciple. He was just one of the many disciples, while Jinshu2 —the head of the group—was very famous. And, if people knew that Hui-neng received transmission from the Fifth Patriarch and became Sixth Patriarch, some people might get angry with him.

So he segregated himself at the seashore, and he worked with fisherman. And when he appeared for the first time at some temple, several disciples were discussing seeing a thin flag was—what do you say? Flapping?3

Students: Waving?

SR: —waving in the wind [laughs], and some disciple said, “Because wind blows, the flag is waving.” Some said, “Because the flag is waving, we know that the wind is blowing.” They were arguing about it. Maybe it means that the flag is each one of ourselves, and wind may be our objective world or our surroundings. Because surroundings are not good, we are not so good [laughs]. Or, because we are not so good, we will make our surroundings something which is not so good. There may be two ways of understanding our life. They have been in dispute for a pretty long time.

And the Sixth Patriarch appeared, and while listening to them said, “It is not because of the flag or because of the wind that we see the flag is waving. But, because of our mind the flag is waving and wind is blowing.” That was his answer for that. And he said so very definitely. So, they thought he may be a great Zen master, and that was the beginning of his life as a Zen master.

It may be interesting to think about the opinion that a flag is waving because of the wind. Or, that because the flag is waving, we know that the wind is blowing. Or, because our mind is waving, so the flag is waving.

Actually, in Buddhism we have those three understandings. As the Sixth Patriarch said, the two opinions—because of our surroundings, or because of our environment, or because of society we change, or if we are strong enough we can change our surroundings. This is true. What the Sixth Patriarch said is that actually in Buddhism we do not discuss anything when nothing appears in our mind. Whatever it is—that the thing exists means that we exist, that our mind exists. And, when our mind sees something, it starts to exist. There is some reason why we say so, but most people think things exist whether we observe them or not.

Maybe so, but what we discuss is something which has something to do with our mind, to do with ourselves. When we discuss something in the objective world which exists independent from our mind, it is more of a scientific discussion, not a religious discussion. Whatever it is, we discuss things as things which have something to do with ourselves. That is the Buddhist way of discussing. And that was actually the answer of the Sixth Patriarch. Because that flag is waving means our mind is waving. We treat things—understand things—as something which is something to do with ourselves. This is pretty close to our final understanding. But, that is not complete.

We Buddhist teachers usually give instructions or lectures according to the audience. And, the Sixth Patriarch thought they might not understand if he said something more difficult, so he made his answer easy and explained in that way. I think most people understand that if we attain enlightenment or if we study Buddhism, we will have some special experience or we will have some special understanding. So, so-called “wisdom” is some power of understanding things. If you think in this way, your understanding is nearly the same as the people who were discussing the waving flag. And, if you train your mind, by training you will have some special power to change your environment, that is a so-called more philosophical understanding of life, more idealistic understanding of things—a kind of idealism. Mind is first, and object is second.

But Buddhism is not idealism. According to Dogen Zenji, when we say “mind,” that is not our mind which observes things. When we say “mind,” it means big mind. The small mind, to observe things, even though it is right, we do not say that is our big mind. When we say “mind,” the mind is big mind in which everything happens. So the waving flag is itself mind. And the waving flag includes everything. If so, a waving mind is big mind itself. That is maybe the right understanding. And, how we attain this kind of mind is our practice.

If I explain this much you may already understand what is our practice, what is shikantaza, or what is our everyday life in its true sense. When we say, “One is all and all is one,” that is how things happen in our big mind. This mind is not mind in a relative sense. This mind is beyond subjective and objective world.

We say, When you eat you should eat. When you sleep, you should sleep [laughs]. That is the big mind, that is selflessness. And, the best way to get rid of small mind is just to sleep when you should sleep. Just get up when you should get up, without hesitation. Do you understand?

In a monastery, the basic practice is to follow people. Follow waves and drive waves, that is our way. Wind may follow the waves of the wind. And, at the same time wind drives the flag. If so, wind and flag move at the same time, and that movement includes everything related to various movements in this cosmic world. That is actually to realize the true activity of true mind.

If you go to a monastery in Japan, you will see a big notice: Dojo daishuni ichini. Dojo daishuni ichini.4 That is Chinese and Japanese. “Whatever you do, you should do with people at the same time.” That is sufficient. Basic practice: “When they sit, you sit.” So we do not practice zazen just to attain enlightenment, but to practice zazen itself is realization of the truth. And, to realize this point, we practice zazen. To get up when you hear the bell is the most important practice for us. The moment you hear the bell, you should get up, and you shouldn't feel rested [laughs]. “Two minutes more, three minutes more.” You shouldn't stop a lot. Okay? If you do so, you are not practicing our way. But you should not, run into a wall [laughs, laughter] or into a door.

I have now in my room three mats. At first,  I enjoyed the spacious room of three tatami. I slept this way, using all three mats [laughs, laughter]. I felt I was a giant. Like a giant I slept using all three tatamis. But, if I do so, I have to sleep east and west, like this. And, someone told me that is not so good. You should sleep this way, south and north [laughs, laughter]. So, I changed my way of sleeping. Last night, I got up. This is my habit, you know—if the alarm goes off, as soon as I wake up, I get up. But [laughs] I lost my place. Usually if I get up and walk this way [laughing, laughter], that is my rest room. But, last night I ran into my lamp, that was not so good. This kind of habit, usually it is good, but sometimes it is not so good.

You must be able to do something without hesitation. Even if it is cold, you should be able to get up and sweep the garden or clean the garden if you have to. When the garden is very frosty, you may hesitate to work on the garden without tabi or without sandals. In wintertime [laughs] we small disciples do not use sandals. But in summertime we use something. We have to wear something. Nowadays we don't, even in the monastery. But we do not wear tabis. Why we do so is to have some habit of doing something without hesitation.

Whatever the food is, you should be able to eat it. You shouldn't say, “This is good” or “This is bad.” If you decide to eat it, everything tastes good. Before you eat it, you don't like it. But if you start to chew it up, then everything has its own taste which is very good.

This kind of practice is based on the teaching of doing something with people without many self-centered ideas, without much discrimination. Then your manner will change, and your countenance will change, and your face will change. We say when you are young, your face was given by your parents. But after forty, your face will be given to you by your practice. If you continue a good practice, you will have a generous, happy face. If you don't practice our way, you will become more and more nervous [laughs]. You will be a very mean father or mother. That is why we practice our way [laughs, laughter], to be a good father or good mother or good teacher.

And we say, after forty we should not have a sword—we should forget all about our weapons. If he has weapons after forty, he will be a kind of fool, we say. It means that we have accomplished selflessness before we become forty. And, without any weapons, without anything to rely on, we should be able to manage our life. But usually, when we cannot work properly, we cannot do something properly because of old age, we stick to some teaching [laughs]. And we talk about too many things—as I do. That is not so good.

Without saying anything we should be able to communicate with each other. That is the best way to accomplish something good. Not by words, not by rules, and not by teaching, we should be able to accomplish things, especially when we become over forty years.

If you have some questions, please ask me.
[Sentence finished. Tape turned over.]

… A woman under twenty, twenty-two or -three, has to study something. That is the time you make the foundation of your life. And for a man, maybe after twenty-five, or before twenty-five, we should make the background or foundation of our life.

And after twenty-five, we should try out things by all means. When we become forty, we should be able to manage our life without using some special means or special things. And after forty, we will help people and help ourselves in the true sense. But, still we will make a great effort to do so. But after, maybe sixty, we should be able to do it without so much effort. We should be able to manage things quite naturally, without much effort. By doing something which we like, by doing something our own way, we should be able to accomplish something without much effort. Hai.

Student A: If best way is without speaking, what do we accomplish here with rules and teaching?

SR: Teaching?

Student A: And teaching.

SR: Teaching.

Student A: Rules and teaching and schedule. What good do we do with all of that?

SR: [Laughs.] Yeah—without words—I mean, we have to see our schedule or we have to remember our names. That much effort—words or rules—may be necessary. But rules are not first. Just to observe our rules is not the most important thing. Do you understand?

Student A: Mm-hmm.

SR: I cannot say literally, but I put more emphasis on our natural activity with good concentration, and with a tender mind, or with soft mind—not rigid mind. We should not use a very sharp knife, but maybe a big dull knife [laughter]. Most of the time that is better because there is no danger of cutting your fingers [laughs]. It may be difficult, to use a blunt thick knife—big knife [laughs]. Most of the time, it is safe and bigger. And we should try not to use something so sharp. A sharp knife is necessary. Of course it is necessary. But to use it always is not so good. Do you understand what I mean [laughs]?

Do you have some questions? Hai.

Student B: If we do not exercise discrimination, many times we will get into situations that are dangerous or bad for us. Is that not so?

SR: No, it is not so [laughter]. I don't think so. [Laughs.] We feel that way. We have some fear of something. We feel some need of being smart, but it is not actually so. Everyone knows what we should do and what we shouldn't [laughs]. And, for us it is not necessary to be so smart and so clever, especially to understand Buddha's way. It is one of the difficulties. One of the difficulties of being a Buddhist is “too smart.” “For people who are too smart it is difficult to enter the true way.” That is what Buddha said.

But, for such a person who is very alert, strong practice is needed. And, after practicing very hard, his attainment will be great too. But mostly, smart people think, “Oh! I understand that. I know that. That's all.” [Laughs, laughter.] They will not make so much effort, so they cannot be a good Buddhist. If he is having some difficulty in doing things with people, like a donkey [laughs, laughter], he should practice hard to be a donkey.

We say we should get through donkey's way and horse’s way [?] [laughs]. We should get through. It means we should get through the life of a donkey and life of a horse. That is important practice.

Do you have some questions? Hai.

Student C [Bill Shurtleff?]: One of the last times that you spoke here—

SR: Hmm?

Student C: One of the last times that you spoke here—not tonight, but before—

SR: Oh. Oh.

Student C:  I understood you to say that we may think of the whole world as existing for ourselves.

SR: Mm-hmm.

Student C: And often I feel that there is a mind or a magician or a buddha who knows my problem and keeps creating a world—

SR: Who knows whose problem? his problem or?

Student C: My problem.

SR: Oh, your problem [laughter].

Student C: The problem that I think I have.

SR: Uh-huh.

Student C: And he keeps creating a world that comes to me which helps me to see that problem.

SR: Uh-huh.

Student C: And in this sense I often feel that the world does exist.

SR: World?

Student C: That the world does exist—

SR: Mm-hmm.

Student C: —for me—

SR: Yeah.

Student C: —and that it keeps showing me this problem again and again and again.

SR: Mm-hmm.

Student C: And—as if it's instructing, like in the Diamond Sutra it says, “The tathagata instructs—”

SR: Yeah.

Student C: “—the bodhisattvas.”

Suzuki Uh-huh.

Student C: And—

SR: Do you mean some particular person or things?

Student C: Things and—

SR: Many things.

Student C: —the world and situations—the—

SR: Situation, yeah.

Student C: —anything that happens—

SR: Yeah, yeah.

Student C: —seems to be constantly—

SR: And it may be—he may be many things—various things. Do you mean that, or—?

Student C: Yeah. Sometimes a bird, sometimes people, sometimes—

SR: Yeah, yeah.

Student C: —the kind of work that I'm given.

SR: Yeah.

Student C: Sometimes missing a bell.

SR: Mm-hmm.

Student C: Missing hearing something. Sometimes taking too much food.

SR: Yeah.

Student C: All of those things together—

SR: Yeah. Yeah.

Student C: —seem to keep speaking to the same thing—

SR: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Student C: —as if there were something outside that was sending all of these things—

SR: Mm-hmm.

Student C: —like a magician.

SR: Mm-hmm.

Student C: And somehow—I don't know how—but I feel that this is very closely related to what you're saying tonight—

SR: Uh-huh.

Student C: —about the flag and the wind. And I can't—I can't grasp quite how, but somehow in a very formless way, they seem to be one and the same thing.

SR: Yeah.

Student C: Could—could you talk about that a little bit?

SR: Mmm. You talked about it pretty well [loud laughter]. Yeah, that is very true. That is what Dogen Zenji said. Buddha guides us and teaches us with everything. And when we talk about the truth, our mouth becomes Buddha's mouth. And when we—what do you say—to do like this [gestures]? The opposite of grasping.

Students: Let go?

SR: Let it go. My hand becomes Buddha's hand. Not grasping. To talk about is something to grasp. Here is teaching, in my mouth. But, when you feel that way, my mouth is not any more my mouth. Buddha's mouth. And if I let my hand open, my hand becomes Buddha's hand. If you hear something, that is not something. It is something more than that. So, if you cannot hear or see things or talk about things in that way, we are not Buddhists, Dogen Zenji said [laughs]. Very meaningful, you know. He expressed that kind of feeling very well. It is not so interesting if I translate it into English, but if you say it in Japanese in that way, it is very poetic. And it is more than a poem.

Thank you very much.

1 Daman Hongren (Daiman Kōnin): 602–675. Fifth Chinese Patriarch.

2 Yuquan Shenxiu (Gyokusen Jinshū): 605?–706. Disciple of the Fifth
Patriarch, Daiman Kōnin. Founded the Northern School of Chan.

3 Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan, Gateless Gate), Case 29: "The Sixth
Patriarch's 'Your Mind Moves.'"

4 Japanese: dōjō: "temple, meditation hall." Possible daishu ("monks") and ichi ("one"). See also lecture SR-66-08-15A.

Source: Original City Center tape transcribed verbatim by Diana Bartle (10/30/00) and checked by Bill Redican (5/7/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (1/2021).


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