A minimally edited transcript

Lotus Sutra, Lecture No. III-2

Third Lotus Sutra Series
Thursday Evening, October 23, 1969
Zen Mountain Center

[The recording starts with Suzuki reading from: Saddharma Pundarika or The Lotus of the True Law, translated by H. Kern, New York: Dover, 1963 (an unaltered reprint of the 1884 edition of “The Sacred Books of the East,” Vol. XXI), Chapter II, “Skillfulness,” p. 30. He is continuing from approximately the point where he left off in 69-10-20.]

— out things difficult to understand.

The mystery of Tathagatas is difficult to understand, Shariputra, because when they explain the law (or phenomena, things) that have their cause in themselves, they do so by means of skillfulness, by the display of knowledge, by argument, reasons, fundamental ideas, interpretations, and suggestions. By a variety of skillfulness they are able to release creatures that are attached to one point or another. The Tathagatas, Shariputra, have acquired the highest perfection in skillfulness and the display of knowledge; they are endowed with wonderful properties, such as the display of free and unchecked knowledge; the power; the absence of hesitation; the independent conditions; the strength of the organs; the constituents of Bodhi; the contemplation; emancipations; meditations; the degree of concentration of mind. The Tathagatas, Shariputra, are able to expound various things and have something wonderful and marvelous. Enough, Shariputra, let it suffice to say that the Tathagatas have something extremely wonderful, Shariputra. None but a Tathagata, Shariputra, can impart to a Tathagata those laws which the Tathagata know. And all laws, Shariputra, are taught by the Tathagata, and by him alone; no one but he knows all laws, what they are, how they are, like what they are, of what characteristic and of what nature they are.

And on that occasion, to set forth the same subject more completely [copiously], the Lord uttered the following stanzas:

This chapter is, for us Soto students, a very important chapter. If you understand this chapter, so far as I read, you will understand what is our transmission, what is our practice, what kind of life we have as a Soto Zen priest or Soto Zen children—disciples [laughs]. It is so important. But usually, they don't think this chapter is so important, and most explanations of this chapter are very superficial. So, I want you to read it over and over again during the study period. I will take time, and Dick [Baker]—one line after one line—very deeply and very widely.

We must be very grateful to Dogen Zenji for finding out the profound meaning of this sutra, especially this chapter: “Skillful Means.” Usually skillful means or devices is something secondary, not the most important thing, but something secondary. But it is not so.

You know, Buddha had been sitting in silence in spite of various miraculous things happening, but he was sitting just silently. And, as soon as he rose from his seat, and came out from meditation, he addressed Shariputra. This is opposite. Mostly when someone asked him, he gave an answer, but this time when he started this sutra, he addressed Shariputra, one of the most important disciples of Buddha. And, he says: “This--what I want to say now--is something which is very important, something which I haven't said, and which is very, very difficult to understand for all of you.” But usually, Buddha said to Shariputra, “You are a good disciple. You understand my teaching very well.” [Laughs.] But, this time he said, “You may not understand what I will say. This is a sutra which I haven't told you before.” This is rather funny. There are many reasons for that.

This chapter is named “Chapter of Good Means,” or “Skillful Means,” and looks secondary. Then, what is the first principle? You may wonder, what is the first principle. Actually, the first principle is not something which you can talk about [laughs]. Even Buddha cannot talk about it. That is originally what the first principle means. Whatever you say, even what Buddha said, once said in words, that is not the first principle any more. But, in this chapter, he is talking about what cannot be talked about.

So, it is no wonder why he said, “You, Shariputra, and all the assembly may not understand what I will say right now.” Or, difficult to understand. Here it says “difficult to understand,” but there is no other word, so the translation could be “difficult to understand,” but maybe “impossible to understand” [laughs] or “impossible to say” is right. But it doesn't—if you say “impossible to understand,” you may ask, “If it is impossible to understand, why was Buddha going to talk about it?” So, [laughs] maybe better to say “difficult to understand.” Whatever you say, you know, that cannot be the first principle. [Laughs.]

Here is already one big problem [laughs]. Here is already one point you should think about more. Usually, many teachers will say this is the supreme Mahayana teaching—this sutra. The teaching which is told in this sutra is a Mahayana teaching which will destroy the misunderstandings of Hinayana Buddhists. So, for Hinayana Buddhists it is difficult to understand. Actually, if you read it literally, it looks like so, but it is not so.

The Hinayana Buddhists thought that we disciples cannot be like a Buddha, or in other words, it is impossible to be a buddha. Buddha is some super-human being, and we are human beings. So, for us it is not possible to be a buddha. And, there is a big borderline between Buddha and his disciples. And, at the same time, they had a big wall between a disciple who knows his teaching, who understands his teaching and the people who do not know anything about Buddhist teaching. They had a thick wall between Buddhist and non-Buddhist, or priest and layman. Layman were already—there may be lay Buddhists—especially Buddhist and non-Buddhist, like Christianity.

That is in Hinayana Buddhism, but in Mahayana teaching there is no such wall. Even an animal can be a buddha. And, everything—animate and inanimate beings are Buddha himself. That is Mahayana teaching. So, that is why it is so difficult. But actually, strictly speaking, it is not possible to say—to talk about it or not possible to understand it, what it means.

Now, put this point in your mind always, and listen to my lecture. In Page 32 [Kern edition]:

None but a Tathagata, Shariputra, can impart to a Tathagata those laws which the Tathagata knows. And all laws, Shariputra, are taught by Tathagata, and by him alone; no one but he knows all laws, what they are, how they are, like what they are, of what characteristic and of what nature they are.

This is so called, in Japanese, Shoho jisso. “The way things as they are.” Shoho Jisso. The real way things exist. This is the essential—this is the oldest sutra that is supposed to express this teaching: things as it is. And in this translation, there is no—that word literally appears, but:

None but a Tathagata, Shariputra, can impart to a Tathagata those laws which the Tathagata knows. And laws, Shariputra, are taught by Tathagata, and by him alone; no one but he knows all laws, what they are, how they are, like what they are, of what characteristic and of what nature they are.

This is actually the law of everything changes, and the teaching of selflessness. Things exist—things has no nature—no special nature. Things exist—things exist in an organic way or a mechanical way, like a machine, added one by one like this [probably gestures]. Or, things exist like vegetables or fruits—in a more organic way. That things exist in an organic way means it has life in it. Things underlying life is the same for every being. The one life energy makes various forms. If so, we are not just a part of the whole being. We are always expressing one big life energy moment after moment. This is actually how things exist, isn't it?

So this truth is the truth—the essential truth for Buddhists. And this teaching—this truth is the truth [laughs]—is the truth only Buddha knows—according to this sutra. Shariputra doesn't know—we don't know. But, you know that [laughs] actually we don't know. According to Buddha we don't know. Only buddha knows. And, it is only possible to transmit this wisdom to someone else when someone else becomes buddha. So only buddha knows, but no one else knows. This is another, koan [laughs] for you.

Maybe I shouldn't give you so many koans [laughs] all at once. We should solve them one by one, maybe.

For two or three lectures, we will be concentrated on those points, and you should understand it with a close connection or relationship with your practice.

Hmm. I myself don't know how to start [laughs], and how to stop, and how to confront this big, big koan.

Here is another translation—more familiar to Chinese and Japanese Buddhists. I think this is—I don't know—this must be from a Chinese Lotus Sutra.1

The first point—something which you can understand and which you cannot understand. First of all, what does it mean? You know your eyes cannot see your eyes. So, you cannot see your eyes. Eyes cannot see eyes, but I think eyes know eyes much better than your nose knows—much better than you know. Eyes can explain eyes much better than your mouth explains. Do you understand [laughs]? So, eyes know eyes much better than your brain thinking about them. That is the truth. Something which you can understand—there are some things which you can understand, which you can talk about. And, there are some things which you cannot talk about.

We practice zazen. Most people say, “I have been practicing zazen for ten years” [laughs], but I haven’t attained anything [laughs]. Many people say so. Or, “If I attain enlightenment, what will happen to me?” You say so—many people say so.

Or, many people ask me, “If I attain enlightenment, or if you attain enlightenment, what will happen to you?” Or, “What has happened to you?” Many people ask. This kind of question is about this point. Difficult to understand. It is difficult to say, difficult to understand—difficult to foresee, or difficult to explain. If you cannot explain it, then you don't have it. No: You have it, but you cannot explain it.

In a Japanese proverb it says, “Fish mind with water mind.” “Fish mind with water mind.” It means that if you have the mind of a fish, you will have a mind of water. If you are kind to someone, someone will be kind to you. It is usually understood in that way. “Fish mind with water mind.” Or, “Water mind with fish mind.” It goes together.

But, that is just a superficial understanding of it. You may say, “Cats know—” or “Bird knows bird, and fish knows fish.” So: “No one but fish understand fish. No one but birds understand birds,” in its complete sense. So: “No one but Buddha understands what he says.” Only Buddha knows about this sutra. Even Shariputra, the best disciple of Buddha, doesn't know about this sutra. Usually people understand in that way. But, it is not so.

Oh, there is some koan like this. Before I refer to this koan, let me explain more.

In our practice we should be one with everything. If we become one with something, like breathing, or one with pain, or one with some sound, completely, you become one with everything. So that you practice zazen means that everything else practices zazen. Everything else in the cosmos is practicing zazen. With this idea we practice zazen. So, the point is to become one with something—to be completely one with something is our practice. When you eat, you should be completely involved in eating. If you work, you should work. You should be fully devoted to your every moment. That is our practice. We understand in that way.

Then what will happen—the koan is, “What will happen if many things happen around you all at once?” [Laughs.] You know: a fire broke out, earthquake came, and flood came, and cats are fighting [laughs], dogs are running. What will you do? If so many things happen all at once, can you become one with it? That is a koan. How do you solve this koan? Those problems are closely related with each other, and if you solve one, you will solve everything.

I am not so kind as Dogen Zenji was. He explained very carefully about those points. But my English is not so good to translate it in English. But, if I present you with all those problems, which is actually one, I think it may be easier for you to work on it.

The truth which Buddha is talking about in this sutra is the truth which is possible to explain only through actual experience—actual experience. Not some truth deduced from various facts. It is not some truth like the theory of gravitation—not something like that, but something which only through experience you can realize. You know, we Soto priests—in shikantaza you just sit without any idea of enlightenment. Moreover, if you have some idea of enlightenment, and if you try to attain the enlightenment that you have in your mind, that is not true enlightenment. Actually, in the Rinzai way, even though you practice zazen, to try to attain enlightenment which was explained by your teacher, the enlightenment you will have is a quite different [laughs] experience. That is true, and that is real enlightenment.

To be you yourself in that moment completely is how you have enlightenment. So, whether you realize it in terms of consciousness or not, that is real enlightenment. So, just to be satisfied with yourself in that moment is real practice. At that moment, you know yourself, not in terms of consciousness, or good or bad, or enlightenment, or delusion. You know you yourself best. And, if you attain enlightenment, you are the boss of the whole universe. And, if I attain enlightenment, or if I am here, even without enlightenment, I am the boss, actually. All of you are nobody; I am the boss. For you, you are the boss; I am nobody. This is very true.

At that time, actually you are there, I am here, but in its true sense there is no relationship between you and me because you include the same area as I include [laughs]. Same thing. If it is completely the same, there is no relationship. If there are two things there is a relationship. [Laughs.] If it is just one, there is no relationship. This is how you understand Buddha's teaching. There is no relationship between Buddha and you. Buddha—if you say “Buddha,” that is Buddha. If you say “a student,” he is Buddha and includes everything. That is, you know—

[Sentence not finished. Tape turned over.]

This is so true that no one realizes it. Birds know birds. Fish know fish. And, in instruction of zazen by Dogen he says,2 “Fish are like fish; birds are like birds. That is zazen.” And when we say “birds,” there is no fish. When we say “fish,” there is no bird. In that way, we should practice our way.

Let's check up on our everyday life. In this way we have to have our everyday life. But actually, there is some way. You may say there is no special way for a bird to go to their nest. You may say so. It looks like so. Or there is no special way for a fish to swim. Or you may think there is no special way in the Pacific Ocean to go to Japan [laughs]. That is what most people think. But, actually the way to Japan is pretty narrow, not so wide.

I always refer to my friend when I talk about this kind of thing. My friend who is a barber always teaches his boy how to sharpen a razor like this [probably gesturing]. “Do it naturally!” he says always [laughs]. “Do it more naturally like this.” [Laughs, laughter.] But the slightest mistake will cut the razor. The natural way is not so natural in its usual sense. Before we become completely natural, we must try hard to be natural or to follow some way. When you are able to follow some way, you are good enough to be natural. Then you may say, “That is not naturalness.” But, actual naturalness exists in that way. We are organic beings. We are natural—originally natural. But, if I am careless for one hour, I may catch a cold. If I don't wear one more piece of underwear, I will a catch cold. It's not so easy to be natural.

So “natural or not natural” just exists in your mind, and you are always fooled by words. So, it is much better not to think about those rules or those words “natural or not natural,” or “this way or that way,” “zazen practice or some other practice,” or “Japanese way or American way,” you know. We are always bothered by those words, and creating many ideas. We don't know what to do. And we lose our way. How to forget—how to go beyond our world of thinking—world of ideas is how we practice zazen. Just to be ourselves is the purpose of zazen.

I was not supposed to explain [laughs] those two koans, but it looks like I explained them already [laughs] by mistake [laughter]. But not so easy [laughs]. Very easy, but actually, it doesn't go as you think [laughs].


1 Suzuki does not read from a Kumarajiva translation (almost certainly the edition of Hurvitz) in this lecture, but he does in the following lectures.

2 Suzuki-roshi may be referring to Shobogenzo "Zazenshin" ("A Needle for Zazen"):
The water is clean, right down to the ground,
Fishes are swimming like fishes.
The sky is wide, clear through to the heavens,
And birds are flying like birds.
(From Nishijima and Cross, trans., Shobogenzo "Zazenshin," Book 2, p. 106.) Dōgen also discusses the metaphor in Shobogenzo "Yuibutsu-yobutsu."

Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Bill Redican (7/3/01). Lightly edited for readability by Peter Ford (9/2020).

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