A minimally edited transcript

we try to control or restrict our activity

Tuesday Evening, May 5, 1970
City Center, San Francisco

A time of one thousand or two thousand is not so long a time in comparison to our idea of time. It is just one thousand or hundred years of time, maybe, one month or less than one month.

We came to the point where we must study Buddhism from various directions, and here we have started to study the Buddhist way from various angles. And this is not so easy a task. I think that is why we must have Buddha or Dogen Zenji because each one of our efforts cannot satisfy our purpose of studying Buddhism.

In Japan this kind of study started, maybe, from the early part of the Meiji period. Of course there were some exceptionally great teachers before the Meiji period. But after the Meiji period, we started to study Buddhism, applying a Western way of studying. Based on a more scientific way of study, like you study anthropology or sociology. So Buddhist culture was analyzed from various angles and criticized from various angles: whether Buddhism has been helping human beings or not. Now in this way, after the Meiji period, we started to study Buddhism very sincerely and very objectively and very critically.

Right now even though we belong to the same school of Buddhism, each one has his own opinion or his own understanding of Buddhism. So I think it is a time when we get together and study Buddhism from various angles. And we should not be discouraged by knowing various teachers' ways are not the same. They cannot be the same. And even one teacher is changing his way always because he finds some reason why he should change his way. If there is some decisive reason why he should change his way, he should. If he is a Buddhist, he should change because we don't stick to our previous understanding.

Moment after moment we continue our practice and our study. I hear varied information from Japan—what kind of practice is going on at Eiheiji or some other monasteries. The more we hear different information from various sources, we feel a need of real, sincere study—a need of affirming our belief.

Something which we have been doing in Japan may be difficult for you to accept. Tonight I want to concentrate on some point which, maybe, you may find difficult to accept [laughs]. The point I want to talk about tonight is one of the characteristics of Buddhist thought and one which you do not have in your culture. You know I haven't studied Western culture so much, so I can't say definitely, but I find some difficulties for Western students when you want to accept our Buddhist teaching. For instance, the freedom you mean is not the freedom we Buddhists mean.

Buddha rejected asceticism. But still, in the Buddhist way there is an ascetic element. The love you mean is not the same as when we say “love.” The desire we mean is not the same as when you say “desire.” Almost all the time we do not say “good desire” [laughs]. We Buddhists say “evil desires.” Evil you know, always follows desire.
For instance, you like some bright colors, but Buddhists use subdued colors [laughs]. This is one of the characteristics of Buddhism. Blue, or yellow, red, or white, black: those are not subdued colors. The subdued color is the mixed color. The material we use for robes is not the material people may like. We shave our heads and wear okesa. We shave our heads to be free from the desire to put some ornaments on our heads.

This kind of negative tendency or element in our teaching will be a very difficult point. But on the other hand, when you start zazen practice, or when you start some particular practice, you tend to be more ascetic than our people. You want to be a strict vegetarian. And when you start something, you go on and on and on, but the way you carry on your practice is more positive—not a negative way—a positive way. I think this is the difference. There is some slight flavor that is different. A nuance is different.

The negative attitude we have is after realizing what we are doing in our everyday life—what kind of nature we human beings have. And to avoid this kind of fault, Buddhists try to make our bad human tendencies weaker, because we know these kinds of tendencies will create many problems in our society.

So, we try to control or restrict even our activity. Instead of working fast, we try to work slowly, step-by-step, moderating our tendency. This kind of tendency or element may be very hard for you to understand.

Why people in old traditions are interested in Buddhism is that people who live in the countries where there is an old tradition understand the good side of the culture and the bad side of the culture. So they are not so interested in a kind of achievement they achieved in their history. So they reflect on their culture more, and after getting tired of their own culture, they start to become interested in Buddhism which is negative.

Here there is some reason why Western young people become interested in Buddhism or Zen. The young generation in America have become tired of materialistic culture, and they start to realize what will become of America if we push this kind of effort. So maybe this is wrong. We started to realize something is missing in our culture. So that is why Buddhism is now developing in this country.

But still there is, I feel, a slight difference. And we Buddhists are not so interested in success in life or achievement of some special thing or propagating our way. Before we try to propagate our way, we try to accept the teaching completely. Until we have strong confidence in our teaching, we do not try to push our teaching to anyone else. And we understand that to have a good understanding or to accept the teaching as our own is already the best way to propagate our way.

To study Buddhism is to teach Buddhism. And to know ourselves is to know others. This is our way. So instead of working towards the outside, we work towards the inside. And this is rather hard. I think you are trying very hard to work towards the inside. But still, there is a slight difference. It must be so. It is quite natural for you to be so. When we make one step further from this stage in our study of Buddhism, it is natural to have this kind of difficulty. If we are not patient enough to get through this kind of difficulty, unless we make more effort on this point, our effort will not make much sense in its true sense.

So, now what you should do here is to develop your study from the bottom of your heart. That is the most important point. You must be very faithful to yourself. And even if you cannot accept a teaching of Buddhism, you should try your best effort to understand it and accept it. That does not mean I'm forcing Buddhism on you. But from your side, you should make more effort to accept or to think over and over what Buddha is suggesting for us.

And, the next point, maybe, we should not try to be successful. We should be concentrated in our effort, rather than work towards people. Of course, we should not reject people, but we should not invite many people unnecessarily. So once someone comes, we should try our best effort to show our way, if possible, not by mouth, but by our actual practice.

I think, as already—we must start a mutual kind of study, or a wider study from various viewpoints. For instance, inviting Japanese priests here or going to Japan and studying Japanese Buddhism, whether it is good or bad. If it is bad, we should know why it is so bad. A bad thing may be some medicine for us.

I don't think Buddhism in Japan is so healthy now. I must acknowledge [laughs] this point.  [Laughs] I am sorry for Japanese Buddhism, but I have to accept it. But it does not mean there is no need to study Japanese Buddhism. Japanese Buddhism is still alive in some ways. And some people started very sincere study, and we see the results of their study in magazines or in various books they publish. They found out many things which have not come to our knowledge yet. So the study is going, anyway. But even though they make best efforts in their study, that will never be perfect. So I think American people also start this kind of sincere study. And from various angles, if we study Buddhism, we will come to a good understanding of Buddhism.

The negative attitude in Buddhism arose from deep insight into our human nature. Why we study Buddhism is because we find some weak points in our human nature. If you accept various desires you have, or instincts you have, there is not much reason why you have to practice Zen. You know the good points and bad points of thinking mind or emotional activity. We practice zazen because that is the only way to go beyond the thinking mind—emotional activity.

Since I have been explaining negative practice in a positive way [laughs], it is difficult for me now to explain it in a negative way [laughs]. But actually, what is written in the scriptures is a negative side of Buddhism almost all the time. Their description is concentrated on the negative side of Buddhism. But, when you realize why they take a negative viewpoint, then we can take a positive practice to make the best use of our desires.

Zazen practice is attracting people because of its positive side of attaining enlightenment, or improving your state of mind: to have some physical or spiritual power to do things as you may want to, or to solve your everyday problems, or to improve your mental activity, or to make yourself physically strong. But, especially in shikantaza, Soto practice is very negative.

[Laughing.] You may be very much discouraged in practicing Soto shikantaza. But it is so. We try not to think in our practice. We try not to see things. And we try not to hear things. If a sound comes, naturally we will hear it. But we shouldn't be disturbed by it. We shouldn't be curious about the sound—what it is. How we do it is to have right posture. To have “right posture” means—if I want to explain what is right posture, "It should not be like this, or it should not be like that. Or should not be like this or like that" [probably gesturing, laughs]. If you are not like this or like that, this is right posture, we say [laughs].

So from beginning to end, our practice is negative [laughs]. There is no other way to explain it as well in a positive way. Don't be bothered by it—don't be bothered by it. Don't see it, or don't [interrupted by coughing]. So how you don't think is just to be like this [laughs]. Just to be like a mountain, according to Dogen Zenji, gotsugochi.1 When you are like this [probably gestures], this posture which is not this way or that way—that posture will work on various problems you will have.

So even if a sound comes, if you are not disturbed by it, there is real practice. And we say this is not something you can attain by practice. It is something which you have originally when you are just you—when you are not something more than that.

So we have a very difficult time to convince or to explain our shikantaza. If we want to explain it, we rather concentrate on practice. Actually, to practice our way is the only way to understand what Buddha meant by not being so and not being that: just to be like that or to see things as it is.

So even though we must study Buddhism from various angles, we should not neglect our practice, which is the only way to understand what Buddha meant by his sermon. The purpose of our practice is not to attain anything or to make you a Zen student. The purpose of practice is just to be yourself, nothing more than that. And by experience, various teachers and patriarchs found out this is the best way to encounter Buddha. Only when we practice zazen and when we have complete practice, can we understand that which is difficult to understand by our study, through scriptures or through sermons.

And when you understand what Buddha meant through practice, you will not be attached to Buddha's sermon or the Rinzai way or Soto way. There is no Rinzai way or Soto way in shikantaza. Maybe to say “shikantaza” is already wrong. Although we have this kind of zeal in our practice, it does not mean to stick to something. To get free from attachment, or to get free from teaching, we practice zazen. So a negative way of expression or a positive way of expression doesn't matter. Whichever it is, we can understand what he meant. [Sentence finished. Tape turned over.]

— be always negative. We do not deny that we exist here, eating something, doing something, thinking something, feeling something. Just to feel, just to think properly, we actually practice zazen. So, if one thing happens, that is the whole picture of Buddhism. If another thing happens, that is the whole picture of Buddhism. So there is no need to stick to some particular thing. Positive or negative is on your side, not Buddhist side.

So the practice we have is not just negative practice. It is the way to jump into the actual reality we are in right now, without any hesitation of thinking about it, or choosing the way, without being concerned about negative or positive. Just do it.

Maybe that will be the most positive way. And at the same time, it is the most negative way because you stop everything. That is very negative. But at the same time [laughs], that is the most positive way. From this viewpoint, we stress our practice so that we can study our way from various directions without any confusion.

So before you discuss our way of putting our teaching in words, it may be better to have actual practice and think what it is, actually, and see what it is—what does it mean.

Thank you very much.

1 Suzuki-rōshi pronounced it "gotsugochi," which may be related to gotsugotsu (Jap.): high and dignified; upright; immovable; steadfastly, intently; used to describe single-minded practice, especially zazen. Possibly found in Shōbōgenzō "Gyōbutsu-yuigi."

Source: Original City Center tape transcribed by Katharine Shields (May 22, 2000) and checked by Bill Redican (9/11/00). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (3/2021).


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