A minimally edited transcript

form is emptiness, and emptiness is form

Thursday Evening, November 13, 1969

Tonight I am supposed to explain “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” Last night, we came to the point to clarify especially “emptiness is form,” which is rather difficult to make clear. But actually, emptiness is “big mind.” And big mind as sky which doesn't contain air,  empty sky. “Empty sky,” we say, and when plants and everything grow into the sky, the sky doesn't care. The sky is always ready to accept things in it.

Our mind should be like the sky, our big mind. We should accept things as it is, and we should not discriminate things, as the sky doesn't discriminate things in which many things exist. Various beings is quite free in the big sky. But our mind is not so. “I like this. I don't like that. This is beautiful. But that is not so beautiful. I like him, but I don't like him. I like this part of him, but the other part is not so good.” In this way, our small mind always discriminates things and sometimes rejects things. That is small mind. So, in the realm of the small mind there are many objects, there are many beings, and those beings exist as if they have self-nature, good nature or bad nature, a beautiful nature or ugly mean nature.

In this way, even though Theravadan teaching accepts the teaching of selflessness, their way is more like a small-minded way because they acknowledge things, various beings which is not empty.  When we say dharma,1 it includes our sense organs and mind. We have five sense organs and mind. That is six. And sense objects, objects of thinking and objects of our sense organs. And the world which sense organs and sense objects create—get with and create some world of sight, world of sound, world of taste, world of feeling. In this way, each sense organ has its own world.

The Theravadan canon acknowledges substantial things. They count seventy-five dharmas. But that is not actually the dharma we say; that is actually the more psychologically analyzed elements of being.  Instead of self, Buddha's teaching is the teaching of selflessness. Instead of saying self, they say five senses, or five elements, or six elements, or six sense objects, or six worlds of each—for each sense organ.

So, even though they do not say “self,” actually they acknowledge a self which is as permanent as things—dharmas. The Hinayana teaching is, in one word, the teaching of the existence of dharma and nonexistence of self. That is Hinayana canon.

But actually,  when they acknowledge an objective world of objective being, it is the same thing as to acknowledge a self which is observing objects. Do you understand this point? That to acknowledge a lamp means to acknowledge my mind which is observing lamp. Moreover, when you think, “I am seeing, observing a lamp,” as I said before, my mind, my eyes or my mind, or self of mine is projected, and you are reflecting your past experience. You say, “I am observing,” but actually I observed a lamp, and you are thinking about “I”  who is observing a lamp.

So, it is same thing as to acknowledge self. Especially when they say, “A lamp exists like this,” it means I exist and I am observing a lamp. So they say, “teaching of selflessness.” They never say “self.” But actually what they mean when they say, “Here is a lamp,” is that they acknowledge a self which is existent and which is permanent. This is their nature of canon, or weak point of canon, or immaturity of understanding.

When we understand things in that way, it means that in our mind we have various objects.  As soon as you have some substantial idea of many things, you start to discriminate, and you start to have some feeling of good or bad. So in that way, we cannot actually obtain big mind which is empty, which is called emptiness. No big mind actually exists as long as we understand an objective world in that way. I mean a substantial way and attached to something specially. That is the nature of the teaching: five skandhas are not empty, five skandhas are existent. Five sense dhatus are existent, or eighteen dhatus are existent.2

The Prajnaparamita Sutra denies this thought. According to Mahayana, everything is empty, not only self but also everything is empty. There is nothing which is not empty. It means that in big mind we should include everything as our own children, as our own family. In our family, they are all part of our parents. And parents treat them as they treat their own hands and feet. Actually children are part of parents. So in that sense when they love children, they have no idea of loving children. But actually, they are loving. They have no idea of parents. But that is parents. When they have no idea of children, they are actually really parents. You know, if parents have some idea of parents [laughs], they are not parents. For children, if they think, “I am a good boy, good child of my father or mother,” he is not yet so good. When he thinks, “I am a very bad boy, I don't have worth as a child of my parents,” he may be a good child. So, when parents have no idea of parents, when children have no idea of children, they are good parents and good children.

The same thing is true with dharma, with our everyday life. When you think, “I am practicing zazen,” you are not actually practicing zazen [laughs]. Maybe very painful zazen, or maybe very sleepy zazen— “Oh! It's terrible.” [Laughs.] When you want to know what time it is, “ten more minutes [laughs], five more minutes.” That is not zazen. When you don't know what you are doing, that is true zazen.

The big mind is the same thing. When there is no idea of anything, that is big mind, that is emptiness itself. Now, “form is emptiness” is all right. Forget all about form and color. The form was not observed as some certain form. That is emptiness.

Then “emptiness is form” is maybe the next problem, how we understand “emptiness is form.” Maybe I already explained it right now. When everything is in a state of emptiness, everything starts to appear in its true sense. Do you understand? You know, when parents forget themselves, they are true parents. When emptiness takes place, form appears in its true sense. That is “emptiness is form.”

If I explain it by our actual experience—if I explain it more maybe psychologically or biologically, the word emptiness is actually directed to our mind. It looks like—against the Theravadan canon—The Prajnaparamita Sutra puts emphasis on no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth, no body, and no mind. They put emphasis on the emptiness of things, but actually Mahayana teaching is directly—is actually—puts more strength on emptiness of self. To realize or how to experience emptiness of self is to practice zazen. And in actual everyday life we experience oneness of objective and subjective world. When you attain enlightenment it is like this [taps stick twice]. Figuratively speaking, our zazen is like a chicken in its shell. When we are ready to come out, the mother hen will peck it and help the chicken come out from the shell. That is enlightenment experience.

So in your zazen, if your practice is full practice, it means that you are ready to break the shell and jump out as a small chick [laughs]. At that time there is no self. It looks like he is in a shell, but he is ready to break the shell, and at that time, the mother hen will peck, peck. That is oneness of your practice and enlightenment. Fffft! At that time there is no hen and no chick. They are one. He is one with everything.

So, in emptiness everything exists—obtains the same world. If ten people are practicing zazen, this world is each one of the ten students. Actually the world of emptiness is one. It is one, but at the same time, that world of emptiness could be thousands of peoples’ world, past and present and future. That is “emptiness is form.” Emptiness is one big world which belongs to everyone. When you forget yourself, you own the whole world as a small  chick. He is not a small chick anymore. Each one of them, if they are ten, each one of the ten chicks has obtained the same world. They are enjoying their own world, but the world they enjoy is one big world. That is what we mean by “emptiness is form.” Mmm. Does it make some sense?

So, you see, when your zazen is very good, if a bird comes and sings, the world of bird appears—endless world. Right now almost all the leaves are coming down, but in September or the end of August when all the leaves are green, one or two sick leaves may fall. We say, seeing one sick falling leaf, we know autumn is all over. Sick small leaves are our big world. Autumn is all over. Or when one bird sings in the mountains, we know the calmness of the mountain all the more. You know, calmness is not a matter of sound; if the bird sings it should be noisy [laughs], but because of the one bird we feel the complete calmness of the whole mountain. When one bird enjoys whole world, that is complete calmness, that is real calmness, that is real emptiness. And, that is real form of form. When you think, “This is a bird. I am here,” or “This is just a sick falling leaf,” that is not real falling leaves. That is the silt3 of your thinking mind.

Oh, yeah, each year at this time of the year, many leaves fall down. “Oh, it is troublesome to see it” [laughs]. If you feel that way, that is more Hinayana way. Or, you attach to the idea of falling leaves because those falling leaves are silt of your experience, not fresh vivid experience. That is, “emptiness is form.” When form appears from emptiness, there is true form. The form we know or we acknowledge as a result of thinking or silt of experience, that is not true experience or that is not true form. So, first of all, we deny the silt of experience, subject or object—objective world or subjective world. First of all, we deny this kind of idea. And we come back to the more original, vivid experience. And there we experience the emptiness and form too. At that time we cannot say form or emptiness. Everything is both form and emptiness. So that is why we say “emptiness is form.”

Okay? [Laughs.] Emptiness is form. It is very logical discernment, but it is not just logical. It is more based on our actual experience of everyday life. Not special teaching, but some teaching which could be approved—which could be experienced by practice and through everyday life.

Hmm. [Laughs.] Okay? Did you figure out what I wanted to say? [Laughs.]

Student A: Roshi?

SR: Hai.

Student A: When you say “big mind” you seem to say big mind in the same way that the Theravada says dharmas.

SR: No. When Theravada says dharmas, it is based on an idea of existence. That is why Nagarjuna rejected that kind of thinking. Whatever statement it may be, there are four statements. If there are no more than four statements, whatever the statement may be or understanding may be, if it is based on the idea of being or idea of nonbeing—this is a pair of opposites (being or nonbeing)—and it is not right understanding.

As long as they acknowledge some substantial dharma, it means that they don't acknowledge the big world of emptiness. They say our self-nature is empty, but actually they acknowledge, they accept objective substantial dharmas. When they accept objective, substantial dharma, they are already accepting the objective, projected self, self out of self. It is not true self. Self you reflect on in some experience. Actually, I attained enlightenment [laughs] on this point. My first enlightenment was—did I tell you? [Laughs, laughter.] I shouldn't say so because I am a Soto priest [laughs]. You know—

Student A: Tell us anyway. [Laughs, laughter.]

SR: Mmm? I had a very difficult time, you know—doshin—way-seeking mind. What is way-seeking mind? To practice something without any gaining idea. We should not practice our way for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of others, not for the sake of Buddhism even. For the sake of practice, we should practice. That is a famous statement—very impressive statement, isn't it? [Laughs.] Very encouraging. You should practice true way, not even for the sake of Buddha. Not for the sake of others. You should practice our way for sake of the— [Sentence not finished. Tape turned over.]

So I wanted to practice our way for the sake of practice. I started the practice. That practice was to get up thirty minutes earlier than other students. I was in a dormitory at that time. And before they got up, I cleaned the restroom, so that they would not notice me cleaning the restroom. But, as I was cleaning, many things happened actually. I had many times some people coming to the restroom. I saw many rooms lit up. “Oh, he may come. Because he [laughs] gets up, he will come pretty soon.” So at first I escaped. I hid myself somewhere so that they would not notice me. But, even while I'm hiding myself—funny feeling [laughs]. I didn't know what kind of practice I am practicing [laughs], hiding myself from people [laughs, laughter], so that they would not notice me. Very strange feeling. If I was doing something good, there was no need to be afraid of anything. But I was very afraid of people at that time. I couldn't solve this problem. And, I didn't know whether I was practicing our practice for the sake of practice. The conclusion was, anyway, this kind of practice cannot be real practice. But, at the same time, I couldn't give up. I was rather obstinate. So once I determined to do it, I had to do it.

But the practice I was practicing was very awkward. I didn't know what I was doing. At that time, we had to take a unit of psychology. And Professor Iriya4 once told us that it is impossible to actualize your past experience again. If you think about it, it is already not the actual experience you experienced. And it is not the psychological state which you had. Those words struck me:

“Oh. I shouldn't think about my practice anymore. I shouldn't think about my state of mind or my experience. I shouldn't criticize my experience. Maybe whatever happened it doesn't matter. So if I do it because I have to do it, that's all. I shouldn't say my practice is pure or impure, or for the sake of others or for [laughs] sake of Buddha or sake of practice.”

That is a useless thing to think about, so I gave up thinking about my practice.

After that I didn't mind [laughs]. Whoever came, I cleaned. “Just a moment, I'm cleaning this place. So you should go that way. You should go to the other restroom.” So, when you feel as if you are doing something, at the same time you are accepting it. You project “you” outside of yourself, and you are criticizing “you” which is outside of yourself. It is not true you. True you is on your side always, which cannot be criticized [laughs]. It is foolish, to criticize yourself. I had that kind of enlightenment at that time. [Claps hands together.] “Okay!” [Laughs.]

That is exactly what Mahayana Buddhists started to think about. To name various elements, eighteen5 or seventy-five,6 it is maybe a very foolish thing. Whether that is empty or not empty [laughs] is very far away from our actual life. And when you think in that way, you are involved in that kind of thinking, far away from buddha-mind. Some more questions?

Student B: Then what is small mind used for?

SR: Small mind is mind which attaches to many things. Why you attach to things is you have a kind of idea of the substantial—you acknowledge the substantial element in things. Because you think, “Here is a cup,” you attach to it. But actually, the cup is not independent—something which has its own self-nature. Because you see the cup, the cup exists. If you don't see it, there is no cup. Because cup exists, I exist here. That is the  teaching of interdependence. Because I exist, cup exists. Because cup exists, I exist. If I don't exist, cup doesn't exist.

Student B: If you see the cup, but you don't say to yourself, “I see a cup”—if you see the cup, but you don't attach any particular thing to it, like saying it's a cup.

SR: No. It means that when I say, “I see a cup,” this cup is mine [pats self], a part of me, a part of big self. Not something which exists outside of me. And that “me” which is actually observing a cup is not the self which is projected somewhere, and “I have a cup.” This self is a picture of true self or a picture of big mind which includes everything. So we are always talking about a projected self as if that kind of self exists. But it doesn't!

If I say whether I am doing right practice or not, that is a projected self which can be criticized. But even if you criticize it, that is not myself anymore. “I am here always [pats self], true self is always with me, and moment after moment with me.” And I am completely involved in something which I am doing right now. Our life is the continuity of this kind of life. I am here, here, here. And in each moment we are including many things. That is true “I.” But projected self or a self which is the object of thinking mind is not true self.

What was your question, by the way [laughs]?

Student B: I asked you what was the use of the small mind.

SR: Small mind—use of?

Student B: Yeah, what is its—it's there, but you, of course, say it doesn't exist.

SR: Small mind doesn't exist actually. It is the silt of thinking mind. Small mind doesn't exist. You think as if it does. It is quite natural for us to think in that way. But actually, if you think more, and if you want to do something as Buddha told you, with that kind of mind you cannot do anything. A projected mind doesn't work at all. It will always create many troubles [laughs] because it is a dead one, it is not an active one. And moreover, it changes like a ghost. True self, when it changes, there must be some reason. But without any reason, if someone criticizes this [taps on something like a water pitcher] projected self, you think as if you did a very bad thing. If you think, “I did a very nasty thing. Why did you get up so early and clean the restroom? You nasty fellow [laughs],” you may say. You yourself will criticize you. That “you” is not here, not me, but there—the self which you think was there two, three days ago [laughs]. It doesn't mean anything. That is why we have to live in each moment. It means don't criticize your projected self. A self it might be in the future; a self it was in the past. But that kind of self doesn't exist. At least it is useless. No end in treating that kind of self.

Student B: Roshi, is it possible to criticize yourself in the present?

SR: No.

Student B: It doesn't seem like it wouldn't [?].

SR: Criticize yourself? Whether you are fully occupied or involved in what you are doing or not would be the point.  Dogen says you shouldn't talk about the teaching being lofty or being not so lofty. You shouldn't say so. But you should know whether your practice is true practice or not.

Student C: So if our practice is lazy practice, then we should just let it be lazy. I was thinking that it is lazy, so we shouldn't try to practice hard because that's then projecting something. That's wrong understanding to be practicing hard.

SR: [Laughs.] You can say so by words [laughs]. Why you have lazy practice is because just half of you is working or something, and half of it belongs to the past or somewhere else. You are not actually here, and you are not actually doing lazy things. When you are lazy, when you feel very sleepy, at the same moment, “I must stay in bed. Why am I so sleepy?” In this way, your self will be projected in various ways. That is why we become lazy. So, the best way is to get up as soon as you hear the bell [laughs], before you think anything. That is the practice. We are always involved in thinking mind.

Student C: But suppose we just don't get up to the bell. Should we say to ourselves, “I should get up for the bell” or just not do anything at all but just stay in bed? [Laughter.]

SR: You see, there is an interesting argument [laughs, laughter]. When you hear the bell, that moment includes your past and future. And the next moment includes its own past and future. So, the moment you get up has its own future. Zendo belongs to that moment. And washing your face, also included at that moment, has its own past and future. There is no experience or no activity which has no past or future. It belongs to each moment. Maybe you can call it intuition because there is no time even to think about it. It appears in that way. Because I explain it by words I have to say its own past or future. But intuitively, you appear in the empty world in that way. That is your own emptiness.

So what is bad? That which we cannot do is bad. What is good? Something which you want to do, it is good. That is why Dogen said so. At that moment intuitively we know that. You think there are many things to say, but the world you have before you think is the actual world which you should strive for. Hai.

Student D: Did you say that the cup is a projection of self? Is that a projection of the small mind?

SR: Not a real projection. It is something which arises in relation to the objective being. The more you think, you may lose the point. [Laughs.] In one word, your thinking is involved in, based on, the idea of being. That is the trouble. You are caught by the illusion or shadow of being. That is the trouble. Because you think something exists here in this way, that is the idea of being. The opposite background of thinking is non-being. Just to think whether a lamp exists here or does not exist here. When we say “nothingness,” you may think the opposite of being. No such thing as a lamp exists. That is the opposite of thinking of being. Being or non-being. There is no complete idea of being or complete idea of non-being. Nothing arises from nothingness. Nothing vanishes into non-being. I don't know why, but when we think, we think in that way. Hai.

Student B: When the breath goes out, and we count “one,” and then “two,” are we attaching to breathing?

SR: No. No. No. Watching.

Student B: Oh  yeah, by watching it, creating an object, thinking mind seeing something happening—

SR: No.

Student B: —breathing happening.

SR: No. Moment after moment, that is the subtle distinction between real breathing, counting-breath practice, and not true one. You don't count just to know how many, you know [laughs, laughter].

Student B: Couldn't handle it [?].

SR: Huh?

Student B: We stopped at ten and go back to one.

SR: Yeah.

Student B: But what is it that perceives a breath going out to call it “number one, number two,” and so forth.

SR: We choose the simplest activity—about which we don't think. It is another practice of following-breathing practice. The point is not to count, but not to wander with your practice.

Student B: If you don't make—can you get mechanical that way, like just “one” [2-3 words]?

SR: Not mechanical, you know. My understanding of mechanic is just to do, just to work, just to count to ten. And something which produces ten somethings, ten breaths, that is a more mechanical way. And without using much body or mind, you can produce something. That is mechanism.

When you count your breathing, it is very simple to count from one to ten, but on each breath all of your mind and body should participate. With the whole body and mind you take one breath. And instead of saying something else you say, “one, two.” See? That is practice.

Student B: Thank you, Roshi.

Student F: Roshi, when you're sitting counting your breathing like that, and you're involved in saying “one” and following your breath out, it seems like there's a kind of split of one part of you or you being involved in the following of the breathing—

SR: Oh. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Student F: —and another part on another side was something being aware of the whole action taking place, of being aware of your concentration on following, and another that seems to be aware that's not even involved in it but aware of it taking place.

SR: Yeah. Aware of—I don't know what you mean by “aware of,” but—

Student F: Well, you're following your breath, and are you counting as you're breathing, and say you're very carefully trying to follow your breathing, and yet at the same time you're aware of all of it taking place. You're aware of your action, aware of your counting your “one,” your “two.” Seems like there's a split.

SR: No.

Student G: One part observes the other.

Student F: One part is observing. You're doing this action—or it not just observing but just aware that it's taking place—

SR: Oh, I see.

You are watching yourself. Oh, that is not the way. When you count, some element of watching yourself is involved. Because if you go, “twenty” or “thirty,” “Oh my!” [Laughs.] That much observation is involved. But I don't mean on each breath you should be very careful. Instead of being careful about what you are doing, you should take your breaths with your whole body and mind. Then you have no time to watch.

It is the same thing as when you make calligraphy or penmanship. Maybe you're watching so that your penmanship doesn't go outside of your line [laughs]. To not go outside of your line, you are making a best effort. And that is not you observing it. Why you think in that way is maybe, the zazen practice looks too easy, so you have time to think about it [laughs]. But even when you are doing a very simple easy thing, you should be able to do it as if you are doing a very difficult thing. And, at the same time, so that you can do a difficult thing as if you are doing a very easy thing, we should practice zazen. Do you understand the point?

A cat, a tiger for instance, uses its whole attention and whole strength even when he catches a small fish. Ffft! [Laughs.] His attitude is the same as to catch a big animal. The tiger has no fear. Even if he catches a big animal, he can do it as if he catches a small fish. Even when he is catching a small fish, his way is the same way as when he catches a big animal. How he could do so is the point.

Usually human beings—if it is easy, that is quite easy: “Maybe I can do it tomorrow” [laughs]. That is our way mostly. “Oh, this is quite easy.” And your attitude is quite different from when you do something difficult. That kind of person has a big difficulty when he confronts great difficulty. Someone who looks very bold and very strong is not actually so strong when he  confronts some big enemy or big difficulty. He will be the first one who may run away [laughs].

If someone does small things with—not “care”—but we say, suki no nai.7 Suki no nai means—I don't know what. If this cup has some leakage, it is suki aru.8 Suki no nai is “no gap,” or “no chance to take advantage of.” If a young beautiful lady wants to protect herself from a wolf with black hair, long and short [laughs], the way is not to shout or to run away, but we say suki no nai taido.9 Suki no nai taido. She behaves quite naturally and beautifully, maybe sometimes charming [laughs], but she doesn't give any chance to be taken advantage of. That is suki no nai.

Zazen practice is something like that. [Laughs.] Even if you are always making a face, [laughs] it doesn't protect you from cats and dogs [laughs]. Even though you are quite natural and charming enough, but—“Oh my!” [laughs], they will run away, if they have some ambition.

That is what is told in the Lotus Sutra. Even if you meet a big snake, the snake cannot bite you. If you are going to be cut by a big sword by a black-masked bandit, the sword will be broken piece by piece. That is, you know, suki no nai.

So, zazen practice is always figuratively—

[End of original tape. It sounded like the last sentence was not finished on tape.]

1 Suzuki pronounced it more like “dhamma” (the Pali form) throughout, but the Sanskrit “dharma” is used here for the sake of consistency.

2 dhātu (San., Pāli): region, realm, element. The 18 dhātus are the physical and/or mental elements that determine all mental processes (e.g., organ of sight, mind-consciousness, etc.). The five dhātus Suzuki-rōshi referred to may be the five skandhas.

3 Suzuki-rōshi pronounced "silt" very clearly here and later in the lecture. If he had looked up the word in a dictionary before the lecture, as he often did, he would have found a definition like: "a sediment consisting of very fine particles."

4 Professor Yoshitaka Iriya, an authority in Tang colloquial language. One of the authors (with Sasaki and Fraser) of A Man of Zen: The Recorded Sayings of Layman P'ang. (1971); author of Rinzairoku (1989); Gensha kōroku (Comprehensive Record of Xuansha) (1987–1989), Zengo jiten (1991), and other works. He was director of research for the First Zen Institute of America in Japan, and he contributed significantly to the research for Zen Dust (p. xxi). Suzuki-rōshi also talks about Prof. Iriya in Lecture SR-67-09-08B.

5 The 18 dhātus.

6 Possibly the 75 Sarvāstavādan dharmas, which constitute the final, indivisible, real units of existence.

7 suki no nai (Jap.): suki = opening; unguarded moment, flaw, space, or room; no = of; nai = no. Hence, to be always on alert; to be thoroughly guarded. See also SR-71-03-02 for a similar term.

8 aru (Jap.): some, certain.

9 taido (Jap.): attitude.

Source: City Center original tape transcribed verbatim by Diana Bartle and checked against tape by Bill Redican (7/31/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig, Peter Ford and David Chadwick (2/2021).

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