A minimally edited transcript

no practice will destroy people

Sunday, December 27, 1970
San Francisco

Dogen Zenji said sickness does not destroy people, but not practicing will destroy people. Sickness does not destroy people, but not practicing destroys people. What does it mean? “Not practicing destroys people.”

If we have no idea of practice, even sickness does not mean anything because when we cannot practice, we call it sickness. But, if you have no idea of practice, what is sickness? Maybe for the person whose purpose of life is to enjoy life, when he cannot enjoy his life, it is sickness. But that idea is a self-contradiction because sickness is also a part of [laughs] life. Maybe because he wants to enjoy his life, he wants to enjoy it in the more common sense. When you cannot enjoy our life, it is sickness [laughs], but sickness also is a part of life, especially when you become old. Almost every day you will be sick [laughs]. So that does not mean anything to old people.

So the way to enjoy our old life is to have the idea of practice. When someone cannot [laughs] practice: “Oh, I am sick.” [Laughs.]  It means something. But even in their bed, they have something to do: to have better practice or more formal practice. So, they will try to keep up a more ordinary way of practice, having medicine or something. Anyway, they will try.

That is a part of practice. So, when we have an idea of practice, we don't lose ourselves. But when you have no idea of practice, in its true sense, you will lose your meaning of life. Here you will find out that if your purpose of life is to enjoy your life, something is missing there. It is not complete. The joy of life cannot be complete, perfect purpose of life. Only the true idea of practice can be the purpose of life.

Without any purpose of life, we cannot live, and even if you have a purpose of life, when the purpose of life is not good enough or perfect enough, then you will lose yourself. You will lose your meaning of life.  Only when you have a complete purpose of life, can you have a true joy of life, wherever you are, whenever it may be: in sickness, in adversity, or whatever happens to you, you will still have joy of life. You can enjoy sickness even.

So to be ill means to have another practice there. This kind of life—the life with purpose or practice—that will be a practice in which people help themselves and help others. To do things with people—not just help yourself—to help others. This kind of practice—if your purpose of life is to help yourself to help others, then wherever you are, you will have a chance to practice.

When I was young, I had my teacher. But when I was thirty-two, I lost my teacher. He passed away.1 So I had not much chance to practice under my teacher. But I had some other masters. So I could continue my practice. It is important for you to have a more intimate relationship with your teacher, which you don't have here. At Zen Center, we don't have too many teachers, so I am sorry we haven't [laughs] given you this kind of practice.

But that is very important. If you understand what is true practice or the purpose of true life, wherever you are, even without a teacher, you can practice pretty well, as I did after age thirty-two. [Laughs.] For instance, when I was at Sokoji—as I told you many times [laughs], but still I want to talk about it again—because I found a tremendous joy of practice each time I went to the grocery store to buy some vegetables. I would choose fruit which was almost rotten [laughs]—soft, you know?

If grapefruit is soft, it means it is not so good. Grapefruit is sour, but soft grapefruit, even if it has no mold on it, it tastes bitter [laughs]. Do you know the taste? A fresh one is only sour, but an old one is bitter. I will choose that kind of soft grapefruit or vegetables with red leaves already on it. I found there my practice. When I divide something, one grapefruit with someone else, I give the top part to them and the bottom part I take. The top part is usually better than the bottom part. Even if the top part is small, maybe you would take [laughs] the top part, wouldn't you? [Laughs, laughter.] But I take the bottom part. You may feel it's strange [laughs]. If I explain my way, you may feel it's very strange. But I found there a kind of practice when I eat.

So it is not a matter of “That practice is good or bad.” When you say, “My practice is wrong,” your purpose of life is something different from mine. That is why you say, “Oh, that practice is very poor, very strange.” But to me it is not strange. That is my practice.

Of course, as long as you live in this society, you cannot always be like that [laughs]. You cannot always be like that, but if the purpose of life is established within yourself, you will make your best effort, and, when it is possible, you will do it. When you find it difficult or impossible, you will not do it. But why it is difficult to practice is because our society is sick [laughs]. Sick! So we cannot practice.

But “sick” means something. When we say our society is sick, that idea of sickness is based on true practice. When [laughs] your understanding of what you mean by sickness is based on some idea of your purpose of life, then you have to fight with society. You will be very much disappointed with society, as you don't feel so good when you are sick.

So “sickness,” we say, but—if you think about sickness more, according to the person, the real meaning of sickness will [laughs] be quite different.

Buddha left us teachings which could be real medicine for true sickness. So a Buddhist knows what is sickness for each one of us, and what is sickness for society. So we know what is the remedy, or how to confront the sickness we have. That is why we call him a good doctor. Another name of Buddha is Good Doctor.

Thank you very much.

1 Gyokujun So-on Suzuki is said to have died on May 3, 1934. Suzuki-rōshi was born on May 18, 1904, so there is some discrepancy in dates.

Source: Original City Center tape. Verbatim transcript by Bill Redican (January 5, 2000). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (3/2021).


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