Second 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.)
Not Only So
Dharma Seminar 2002
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
The first section is called, “Letters from Emptiness.” It is so wonderful to hear Suzuki Roshi say these things that are so simple and so true and maybe we understand them but we are constantly forgetting them. Everyday we forget.
He says, “Shikantaza is to practice or actualize emptiness.” To practice or to actualize emptiness is not to understand emptiness, or to “get it”, or to do something with it. It is just to manifest it, just to practice it. To sit down and to practice. “Although you can have a tentative understanding of it through thinking, you should understand emptiness through your experience. You cannot reach a full understanding of emptiness with your thinking mind or your feeling. That is why we practice zazen.”
Zazen is brilliant because the human organism is brilliant. Being itself is so brilliant that there’s the possibility that you could just sit right in the middle of being and situate yourself at a deeper and more fundamental level than you can think or even feel. You can be in a more fundamental place and situate yourself in emptiness. It’s wonderful and unexpected.
Then he uses a term from which this essay gets its title, shosoku, which is the Japanese term for, “The feeling that you get when you receive a letter from home.” We have no word for this in English. It reflects the kind of Japanese sensibility of wistfulness or sadness. These letters from emptiness, he says, are the feeling that you get when you sit in zazen. It’s as if you received a letter from home, that very special feeling, which is nostalgic and sad and deeply moving. It’s a wonderful metaphor, and this section is full of metaphors that he uses to talk about our practice.
"But what Buddha said was just a letter from the world of emptiness, just a suggestion or some help from him. If someone else reads it, it may not make sense,” He is saying that if you attach to it, and you believe in it too much, and you are slavishly following the letter of the teachings, you go off. To understand Buddha’s words, we can’t rely on our usual thinking mind. He says, “If you want to read a letter from the Buddha’s world, it is necessary to understand Buddha’s world.” In other words, you have to have lived there, so that later when you receive the letter it really makes sense to you and really evokes something.
“So our experience,” he says, “is empty of preconceived ideas.” We understand our ideas about our experience to be ideas about our experience, and we know that it’s not the same thing as the experience itself. Water is not the word water or all the thoughts we may have about water. Water is water, and we can live and experience water as water. “When we analyze our experience, we have ideas of time or space, big or small, heavy or light.” A scale of some kind is necessary in order for us to talk about our experience and analyze it. We must have some scale, “And with various scales in our mind we experience things. Still the thing itself has no scale.” Our minds necessarily project scales, ideas, categories, onto our experience, we can’t get away from this, and it’s not a problem, it’s just how we are. The problem is not to know that it’s a projection of our mind, to think that it is otherwise real. This is how we get caught. Actual reality is much more simple and we won’t get caught in it if we know our projections as projections.
“Each person has a scale that is different. So I don’t say that the scale is always wrong, but we are liable to use our selfish scale when we analyze, or when we have an idea about something. That selfish part should be empty. How we empty that part is to practice zazen and become more accustomed to accepting things as it is without any idea of big or small, good or bad.” There is an ultimate flexibility about how we think, about how we view things. Not to think that it is this way, but to know, “Now I think it is this way.”
He says, “Because you limit the actual reality, using your scale of your small self, there is either a good garden or a bad garden, and you want to change some stones. But if you see the thing itself as it is with a wider mind, there is no need to do anything.”
I think that in coming back to our seat over and over again, we are learning that kind of acceptance as a reality for our life. Then, we get up. We have to do things. Being alive is doing things, and we have to do things that are always partial. But if we do things with no reference to this bigger space of acceptance, we get caught, and we do get messed up by the unintended consequences of our views. We can have great and profound views, but the consequences of these views could be terrible. So, I think that it’s hard to hear this, hard to believe it, but I think we have to keep coming back to this bigger, wider view in which there really isn’t any need to do anything.
“If we empty things, letting them be as it is, then things will work. Originally things are related and things are one, and as one being it will extend itself. To let it extend itself, we empty things. When we have this kind of attitude, then without any idea of religion, we have religion.”
Accepting in this wider sense and doing nothing doesn’t mean that the world is inert and that we are passive. It means that creativity springs up, and things will extend themselves. We will allow things to extend themselves in the way they need to. We will find a way that we never would have thought of if we were coming only from the place of our views, and we’ll know how to cooperate with that, and we’ll have a religious practice that is not caught by ideas. We’ll have a life that is not caught by preconceptions.
“In our practice of shikantaza we do not seek for anything, because when we seek for something, an idea of self is involved.” There is always some selfishness. Desires are endless; therefore suffering is endless. So when we have a desire or seeking for something, there’s always some idea of self involved. “Then we try to achieve something to further that idea of self. That is what you are doing when you make some effort, but our effort is to get rid of some self centered activity.” It’s a kind of counter effort. Instead of making an effort to do or get something, we are making an effort to let go of something, and in that way we purify our experience. So when we sit and try to concentrate the mind, we’re not really trying to do something. We’re trying to undo our minds that are constantly running around, constantly creating thoughts, feelings, and ideas that we attach to; in this way we can finally just be ourselves.
He says, “I want you to understand what we are doing here at Zen Center. Sometimes it may be all right to practice zazen as a kind of exercise or training, to make your practice stronger or to make your breathing smooth and natural.” So let’s not get doctrinaire about not trying to do anything, because sometimes there is an effort involved, a very specific cultivation involved in zazen, especially when you feel your zazen is really drifting, or you are not paying attention or really present with your zazen, then you definitely should apply some technique. It’s very useful. “But when we say shikantaza, that is not what we mean. When we receive a letter from the world of emptiness, then the practice of shikantaza is working.”
So, in other words, if we use techniques or focus the mind, we are recognizing that that’s a provisional necessity to undo our mind’s running around. We recognize that what we are really doing is just sitting in this space of emptiness, this feeling of receiving a letter from emptiness. That’s what he means by shikantaza.
Then in the next section is his famous analogy with brown rice: zazen is like chewing your brown rice. This is how he explains emptiness. “When we digest food completely, what will become of it? It will be transformed, changing its chemical nature, and it will permeate our whole body. In the process it dies within our body. To eat and digest food is natural to us as we are always changing. This organic process is called emptiness.”
This is a really great metaphor, because emptiness isn’t some sort of mysticism. Emptiness is change. Emptiness is impermanence, which is the strangest thing there is. How it is that we transform from one moment to the next into another a human being, and the whole world around us is also transforming, completely disappearing and reappearing in the next moment? This is a real mystery. “The reason we call it emptiness is because it has no special form. It has some form, but that form is not permanent.”
So, emptiness is really change, he is saying, change and the transformation of every moment, as we die to each moment, then reappear. That process of endless change is emptiness. So emptiness can be understood when you are perfectly involved in chewing rice. That is actual emptiness. It is wonderful how he talks about these concepts. One is tempted to go into all kinds of Buddhist jargon – emptiness this and emptiness that – but he says it’s just chewing rice. He means just involve yourself in your life.
It’s unbelievable, isn’t it, how much we create barriers between ourselves and our life by our thoughts and our fears. I mean, there is nothing else to do but live, and yet it’s so hard to do that. When one feels, when one looks really closely, one feels, “Oh, I am a little bit removed. I am a little bit holding myself back. I am a little bit denying the reality of what is happening here. I am a little bit not liking it and wishing it were different.” So emptiness can be understood when you are perfectly involved in chewing rice.
Then he says, “The most important point is to establish yourself in a true sense, without establishing yourself on delusion. And yet, we cannot live or practice without delusion. Delusion is necessary, but delusion is not something on which you can establish yourself.” Definitely we’re deluded, and the world is a big delusion. No avoiding that. You could avoid it, but only through death! You would probably be completely free of delusion if you were dead. Maybe, I don’t know. I mean, maybe it’s possible, but I know if you are alive, it is not possible for you to be free of delusion. The thing is, don’t establish yourself on that. Don’t establish yourself on your delusion. Recognize that delusion is necessary, but don’t demonize it, and try to get rid of it, and don’t establish yourself on that.
He says that delusion is like a stepladder. “Without it you can’t climb up, but you don’t stay on the stepladder. Delusion is life, but you don’t stick to it. With this confidence you can continue to study our way. That why I say, ‘Don’t run away. Stick with me.’ I do not mean ‘Stick to me.’ I mean stick with yourself, not with delusion.” Stick with the real self that you will encounter in your practice, especially in your sitting practice. Stick with that, not with your delusion, which you will also encounter in your sitting practice and everywhere else.
“Sometimes I may be a delusion,” he says, meaning that I, Suzuki Roshi, may be a delusion. “You may overestimate me: ‘He is a good teacher!’ That is already a kind of delusion. I am your friend. I am just practicing with you as your friend who has many stepladders.” Delusions. And I am sure that when he said this kind of thing the students would say, “Oh, what a great master he says this. He says this but he really means he is a great zen master” But I’m sure he really meant that he was not a great zen master, only a priest trying to be the friend of his students the best he could.
“We shouldn’t be disappointed with a bad teacher or a bad student.” That’s true. Good teachers and good students are highly overrated. Highly overrated. We think that a good teacher is better than a bad teacher, but that’s not necessarily so. “You know, if a bad teacher and a bad student strive for the truth, something real will be established.” Think about that. “You shouldn’t be disappointed with a bad teacher or a bad student. If a bad teacher and a bad student strive for the truth, something real will be established. If a good teacher and a good student don’t, then nothing will be established.”
He says, “To extend this practice to everyday life may seem difficult, but actually it is quite simple.” And that is true. It is quite simple and natural, if you practice regularly, and then get up from your seat and try to extend that faith and have that commitment. You are doing this sitting practice and figuring out how to extend this understanding, this feeling, into your daily life. And when you have that faith and that feeling, it’s actually quite natural and simple. It’s not a big complicated thing. But our laziness makes it difficult. We forget. We lose faith in it. We think it’s impossible. We get seduced by the world and the thought of the world, and our own greater faith in that idea than in our own practice. And then it seems hard.
“That is why we put our emphasis on endurance to continue our practice. There should not be any cessation of practice. Practice should go on, one moment after another.”
In the section, “Ordinary Mind, Buddha Mind,” he says, “The point of my talk is to give you some support for your practice. There is no need for you to remember what I say. If you stick to it, you stick to the support, not the tree itself. You won’t be strong, you will have to be the tree. I am a tree and each one of you is a tree.” He is saying that you should stand up by yourself, and when you do, the tree that you are, includes everything. So when you sit, you are just you, the tree, and also you’re everything. You’re Buddha.
So this is the complete view of our life, to see that we are always full of garbage mind and delusion, and always a manifestation of this bigger space, both at the same time. “And when you have a personality”, he says, “that is characterized by this kind of feeling we call you a Buddhist.” Understanding of the two sides of your own nature, not privileging one over the other, overestimating one, or underestimating one or the other, then, he says, we call you a Buddhist. The way to be become characterized by this understanding is always to concentrate on this point. “As Dogen Zenji said, we human beings attach to something that is not real and forget all about that which is real.”
This is it. This is our human life. We have the capacity to situate ourself in what is real, the capacity to know that that’s possible, and to desire that, and at the same time, we forget that over and over again, and we attach to something that is not real. “If you realize this point, you will have perfect composure, and can trust yourself. Whatever happens to you, it doesn’t matter.” Can you imagine? Whatever happens to you doesn’t matter, if you realize this point. “Still it is all right for you to enjoy your life, moment after moment, because you are not enjoying your life as something concrete and eternal. Our life is momentary, and at the same time, each moment contains your past and your future.”
And then he ends this by saying, “I was sick in bed a long time, and I was thinking about these things. I was just practicing zazen in bed. I should enjoy being in bed. Sometimes it was difficult but then I laughed at myself. ‘Why is it so difficult? Why don’t you enjoy your difficulties?’ That is, I think, our practice.”
So many more things one could say about all this. For now we will read for the beauty of it and the enjoyment of it and will it leave it at that. I was thinking that one lesson you could derive from all these sections that I was quoting is that when it comes to our human problems, meaning whatever objective problems we think we have, or internal problems – our character, or whatever it is that we think is wrong with us – it seems as if Suzuki Roshi is telling us that what we don’t need to improve or to fix those problems, solve them, change them. All we need to do is understand and appreciate those problems, not to gloss them over, but also not to solve them. My theory is that we know our problems by our emotions. In other words, when we get angry or upset, we reach the boundary of that which upsets us, that which binds us. That’s when our emotions and are mind are racing. So then, the practice would be instead of trying to fix things, change things, blame somebody –ourselves, he world, someone else – we would try to understand, “Oh now, I am getting some good information and understanding of myself by this upheaval.”