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Not Always So (Part 4 of 6)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Dec 01, 2002
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
Fourth of six talks by Norman from the 2002 Dharma Seminar, on Suzuki Roshi's collection, "Not Always So." (The first talk of the series is not available.)
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Not Always So

(Part 4 of 6)

December 1, 2002 Dharma Seminar 

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum 

The section I’d like to talk about today, “Not Always So” is where the title came from.  I think it might be my favorite all time saying of Suzuki Roshi and really the essence of his teaching:  “The secret of Soto Zen is just two words: Not Always So.”  [laughter]   

That really is the secret of Suzuki Roshi’s style of Zen practice.  Something is really true, but not always.  You have to be willing to live in the world that is presented to you in this moment, and it may be different than what you thought was called for in your life and practice.  It may be different from what was called for in the last moment.  We are so profoundly addicted to standards and fixed ideas.  We want to make Zen into a fixed idea.  It’s this way and not that way.  This is true right now, absolutely true right now, but in the next minute we might have to adjust, because things have changed.  How do we discern that, and how to keep our feet on a spinning planet?  That’s our problem, that’s our practice, and that’s our joy.  How would it be if it were any other way?  It would be really unimaginable.  It couldn’t be life if it were any other way. 

He says, “When we ‘just sit’ in meditation, we include everything.  There is nothing else, nothing but you.  That is shikantaza.  We become completely ourselves.  We have everything, and we are fully satisfied.  There is nothing to attain, so we have a sense of gratitude or joyful mind.”  This is really the joy of sitting.   

I was thinking how persistent the feeling of dissatisfaction is.  Do you notice that?  This is what the Buddha talked about, the First Truth, the sense that we are always looking for something that is not quite there.  And every now and then we get something to blame it on, but even when there is nothing to blame it on, and everything is fine, you can see a sort of pulsation of dissatisfaction.  When you sit down, there can be complete satisfaction, because there is nothing missing.  The whole world is included.  Everything that one could ever possibly want is there with every breath.  We have everything, and we are fully satisfied.  And, of course, sitting doesn’t always appear like that, but very often it does.  It’s a training in that attitude and a recognition that it really is that way on a deeper level - deep, deep, deep within our lives - it really is that way.  When we sit we can touch that.   If we touch it enough, even when we don’t touch it, we know it is there, even when we are sitting with some agitation. 

Then he says that most of the people practicing zazen are looking for something.  They’re trying to get something out of the practice.  “I cannot give you what you are seeking, because I don’t believe in any particular thing. I don’t say that water is water, or that water is a jewel or a house, fire or blood.  As Dogen Zenji said, water is more than that.”   In other words, any particular thing that one could want or have is not what it seems to be.  And what it really is, nobody can know.  So he says that there is no particular thing that I am after or that I believe in, so I can’t give you anything, because I don’t really know what things are.  When we’re looking for something, when we’re asking for something in our life or in our practice, he says, that is to be a sightseer or a tourist.   “To be a sightseer is one of the dangers of Zen practice.  Be careful!  To be captivated by the teaching doesn’t help at all.  Don’t be fooled by things, whether it is something beautiful or looks true.  This is just playing games.  You should trust Buddha, trust the Dharma, and trust the Sangha in its true sense.” 

So don’t look for anything.  Just trust.  And when he says the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, he doesn’t mean some outside object called the Buddha dharma.  He means your inmost heart, what you really experience in the fact that you are alive in your life.  What’s true about life is always manifesting in your life.  Trust that, and don’t look for something else.  Don’t be impressed with Buddhas; don’t be impressed with teachings, or with zazen, or anything else.  Just trust your life and what really happens in your life.   

And then he says, and this is so relevant for our particular project of practice, the project of Everyday Zen, “Real freedom is not to feel limited when wearing this Zen robe, this troublesome formal robe.”  Don’t get caught by it.  Don’t think that this is something.  It’s not anything.   

Then he says, and this is the part we need to wake up to, “Similarly in our busy life we should wear this civilization without being bothered by it, without ignoring it, without being caught by it.  Without going anywhere, without escaping it, we can find composure in this busy life.”  It’s a wonderful analogy.  You put on the robe, but don’t be mesmerized by the robe, don’t be caught by the robe, don’t be caught by Zen.  Similarly, you live in the world.  Don’t try to escape from it or try to remake it.  You wear the world like you wear a robe, without being bothered by it, without ignoring it, but also not being caught by it.  I think that is what we’re trying to do, to find out how to do that.  So, if you are in a monastery wearing a robe, then you have to watch out that you don’t get caught by the robe.  And if you are running around in the world, then it is the same practice: just try to wear the robe without being caught by it.   

Then this is where he says, “The secret of Soto Zen is just two words: ‘Not always so.’  Oops- three words in English.  In Japanese, two words. ‘Not always so.’  This is the secret of the teaching.  It may be so, but it is not always so.” 

Later he says, “We practice zazen like someone close to dying.”  This is the thing to live all the time, like someone close to dying, which, of course, we are.  There is nothing to rely on, nothing to depend on.  “Because you are dying, you don’t want anything, so you cannot be fooled by anything…We should know whether or not we are fooling ourselves.   When you are fooled by something else, the damage will not be so big, but when you are fooled by yourself, it is fatal.” 

The next lecture is called, “Direct Experience of Reality.”  He says something very important about intellectual study.  You know I like to do intellectual study, and we do that here.  He says, “The true, direct experience of things can be intellectualized, and this conceptual explanation may help you have direct experience.”  So it is useful to know something about Buddhism, and to know something about the teachings intellectually.  It may help you have direct experience, because sometimes people have direct experiences without being prepared for it, without some understanding.  It can be harmful to someone actually, without some sense of preparation for what they are doing, without some guidance.  “Both intellectual understanding and direct experience are necessary, but it is important to know the difference.  Sometimes you may think that something is an enlightenment experience, and it is just intellectual.  That is why you must have a true teacher who knows the difference.” 

That happened to me, I remember.  At the beginning of my study of Zen, I had a big enlightenment experience, which I actually made up.  I intellectualized my way into the experience, and I remember going to see my first teacher who was Shibayama Roshi.  I told him about an experience that I had, and he hardly said anything.  He didn’t disparage my experience, or put me down in any way, but I can remember the certainty that I had just sitting there with him, “Oops – no…!” He was very kind about it, and I think mostly what he felt was how wonderful it was that this young fellow was all on his own and was practicing on his own for a long time.  So, I don’t think he was being discouraging or disparaging, and yet it was very obvious.  I could look into his face like a mirror and understand that I had cooked up this whole thing with my mind.   

So to study Zen, he says, you have “to study not only with your mind, but with your body.  Direct experience will come when you are completely one with your activity; when you have no idea of self.  This could be when you are sitting, but it could also be whenever your way - seeking mind is strong enough to forget your selfish desires.”  So this is an important point.  We often talk about being one with your activity, and it sounds like it is a feat of concentration, or some sort of physical experience: you’re going to be one with your experience.  But he is saying that to be one with your experience means to go beyond your selfish desires.  

He says, “When you believe you have some problem it means your practice is not good enough.”  Isn’t that interesting?  “When your practice is good enough, whatever you see, whatever you do, this is the direct experience of reality.”  In other words, it’s not a problem; it’s just a direct experience of reality.  It may be unpleasant, it may be difficult, and there may be all sorts of trouble involved, but you don’t see it as a problem.  You see it as, “Oh, this is what I have to deal with now.  This is my life now.”  And when you think of it as a problem, something is wrong with me, or they’re doing this to me, or something has gone wrong here, it shouldn’t be this way – that’s when you are misunderstanding your practice.  Your practice is to confront directly whatever it is going on.   

And then he talks about mistakes, because there are mistakes.  He says, “If you go on and on, that is not a mistake. But if you say, ‘Oh! I lost it! Oh my!’ that is a mistake.”  Do you understand?  In other words, you make a mistake, and if you fixate on the mistake thinking, “Oh no, I fell off my practice.  I was practicing well and I now I lost it and I made a mistake.  I’m not practicing right anymore.”  That’s the mistake.  Not a mistake is when you make a mistake and keep going; you just keep going.  It’s not that you ignore the mistake and don’t try to correct it, but you don’t dwell on the fact that it’s your big mistake.   

And it’s like that when you do ceremonies.  You do ceremonies, and virtually in every ceremony there are many mistakes.  But the idea is that in the ceremonial space you don’t think, “Oh that was a mistake.  Oh no!”  You feel that’s exactly what was supposed to happen, and you go on, because that’s the feeling.  If you really are present for that ceremony, whatever is in the wrong place, or the wrong chant, or whatever it is, it makes no difference.  It’s a part of what was supposed to happen.  You know it’s a mistake, but you go on and incorporate that mistake into what’s happening.  

I often speak about renunciation, because I think the theme of renunciation is very important, and I believe it is the fundamental practice that we are trying to do.  Our job is to figure out what renunciation is in this world that we’re living in.  So here’s a comment he makes about renunciation, which is, of course, not what we think it is.  “When you are encouraged by everything, and you realize everything is always helping you, then there is no difference whether you are dead or alive.  It is all right.  Quite all right.  That is complete renunciation.”   

It’s a beautiful statement.  One could sit with that statement for many, many years.  “When you are encouraged by everything, and you realize everything is always helping you, then there is no difference whether you are dead or alive.  It is all right.  Quite all right.  That is complete renunciation.” 

And then, again, another definition of renunciation is in, “One With Everything.”  He says, “When you understand that there is something more than spiritual or material, more than right or wrong, that is reality.  That is actually each one of us.  To know this is to have renunciation, to be free from ideas of right or wrong, life or death, spiritual or material.”  That is renunciation: to be free from our ideas, to open ourselves to what is beyond our ideas.  On the next page he says, “Things are just going on.”  So simple!  “Things are just going on.  If we realize this point that is renunciation.”  Things are just going on.  To accept that and live with that is renunciation.   

Then he has this part, one of my favorite moments, in which he talks about homemade cookies.  “In short don’t be involved in making too many homemade cookies, your ideas of big or small, good or bad.”   

Actually, in the manuscript he goes on at great length about homemade cookies. It’s quite hilarious, but Ed [Brown] telescoped it and made it much more readable.  Suzuki Roshi thought the idea of homemade cookies as part of a dharma talk was quite hilarious, and he went on and on about homemade cookies.  Michael Katz was telling me the other day that one of the things that is not at all apparent from reading the book is the fact he is constantly laughing through all these lectures.  He’s saying these things and starts laughing, or someone asks him a question, and he laughs for fifteen minutes, well not fifteen, but for minutes before he says something.  But here, especially if you saw the original manuscript, you can really see that he is laughing the whole time he is saying this.   

“So don’t be involved in making too many homemade cookies…Make only as many as you need.  Without food you cannot survive, so it is good to make cookies, but don’t make too many.  It is good to have problems, and without problems we cannot survive, but not too many.  You don’t need to create problems for yourself; you have enough problems.”