Third 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 Always So
Part 3 from the 2002 Dharma Seminar
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
Well, let me talk about the next part of the book, “Practicing Zen.” I am starting on page 66, from the first talk “Supported from Within.”
“Our belief is that if the dharma wheel is turning, then the material wheel will be turning too.” Then he tells the story about how he conducted himself during the war, when there was not very much support for the temples, and the entire Buddhist establishment either joined the army or got a job. Most priests got jobs, but he stayed at the temple and took care of his practice. He grew a garden so that he would have some food, and he found that because he did that, people came and made donations. They brought food, and in fact he ended up having more food than anybody else. He could give away food because he stuck to his practice, and the material wheel gave him all that he really needed.
“If we observe our way strictly, we will surely be protected by Buddha. We will trust people and we will trust Buddha. Buddha and the arhats are people that supported themselves by depending only on their practice with firm conviction. If we are too involved in the idea of time, worrying about tomorrow, or taking care of the material world, we will lose our way.”
You might say, “Well, yes, he was living in a Buddhist country where people understood about giving alms to the priest, with a long tradition of donors and dana in the temple. If he tried to do that here, it wouldn’t work. This is a free enterprise, capitalist economy. Everybody works. He could not have done that here.” You might say that. But then again, there are people like the western Theravada monks who actually do that here. They don’t do any work; they don’t go out fundraising. People show up and feed them and take care of them. They actually go out begging. Ajahn Amaro goes out on the street. People give alms to them, and they do fine. Their attitude is, “We just trust the dharma and don’t worry.”
But then you might say, “Well, yes, they’re monks and nuns. They don’t need very much to live on because of their commitments, and besides that, because they’re monks and nuns, people are going to give them offerings. So it’s different for us.”
Obviously it is different for us, but the point is, how does this apply to us? In other words, how could you actually live in such a way that you trusted your practice, and let the material world take care of itself based on your practice?
Then the next talk is, “Find Out for Yourself.” He says, “When you have a problem, see if you can find out for yourself why you have a problem.” In other words, as opposed to thinking – Let’s get rid of this problem and solve it as soon as possible – savor your problem, and try to find out for yourself why you have the problem. Solving problems is closing doors, getting rid of things. Finding out for yourself why you have a problem is opening doors, keeping things lively.
“When you seek something,” he says, “your true nature is in full activity, as if you are feeling for your pillow in the dark. If you know where the pillow is, your mind is not in full function. Your mind is acting in a limited sense.”
I think what he is saying here is that our practice is the practice of questioning – keeping the question of our lives and our problems constantly open. Solving problems is like closing the question. We take care of it, get rid of it, and move on to the next thing. So seeking, in other words, and questioning keep you open. Knowing is coming up with solutions, and your mind loses its full function. Your mind is acting in a limited sense. Questioning is a kind of sensitive openness to what is happening.
“When you do something with a limited idea, or a definite purpose, what you will gain is something concrete. This will cover up your inner nature.” So of course there are concrete things that necessarily happen in life. But that’s not where you are living. You are living in the question. You are living in, “What’s happening? What’s this about? What’s my life?” Different concrete things may be happening, but there is always that underlying question. And we’re questioning beings. We’re the only creatures that seem to have this obsession, “What is it? What is going on?” It’s good that we keep that alive.
Then he says, “Good or bad, small or big, we study to discover the true reasons why something is so big and why something is so small; why something is good and why something is not so good.”
It’s a very subtle thing that he is saying here. We know the difference: “This is good. This is bad. This is big. This is small. This is to be done. This is not to be done.” So there is discrimination. But what we should not say is, “That’s good, that’s on my side. That’s bad, get rid of that. What’s to be done, that’s on my side. What’s not to be done, get rid of that.” No, we’re interested in both good and bad. We’re interested in what is to be done and what is not to be done. We know the difference, but we’re not dismissive of anything.
“If you try to discover only something good, you will miss something and will always be limiting your faculties. When you live in a limited world, you cannot accept things as it is.”
So there’s a sense of knowing the difference between good and bad, but an openness to everything and everyone.
And then to illustrate this point, he tells a couple of famous stories. One is about the sliding doors, where the teacher tells him, “Open the door on this side,” and he opens it on that side. The next day he is scolded for opening it on that side. “You should open it on the other side.” In other words, he did what he was told to do, but now the exact same thing is the wrong thing. Why? Because later he found out that the day he opened the right side, his guest was on the right side, so he should have opened the other side. Do you understand? Yesterday it was right to open this side because no one was there, but this time somebody was there, so he should have opened the other side.
And then the story of the cup of tea. He pours a cup of tea in the usual way, and the teacher says, “No, no, no, you idiot! Fill it all the way up.” So he fills it all the way up. And then the next day a guest again comes, he fills the teacup all the way up, and he gets scolded, “No, no, no, don’t fill the teacup all the way up!” So the idea is there is no fixed right or wrong or good or bad. There’s only sensitivity to situations, with full acceptance and no limitations.
It’s amazing. We are constantly seeking certainty so we know that we are doing it right, and we know that we are truly worthy as human beings. Why? Because we did it right. We did it the Zen way, or the way it is supposed to be done. But he says, “No, no. Be more open than that. Don’t clutch after certainty. Don’t clutch after approval. Pay attention and see what’s the right way for now.”
He says, “To say, ‘This is the rule so you should do it,’ is easy, but actually that’s not our way. For the beginner, maybe, instruction is necessary, but for advanced students we don’t give much instruction, and they try out various ways. If possible, we give instruction to people one by one.”
Often I will tell one person to do something and then will tell another person to do the opposite. And sometimes they compare notes and think “This guy must be crazy!” But it’s because people need to hear different things at different times in their lives, and what is right for one person at one time is not right for somebody else at another time. That’s why in Zen there is so much emphasis, especially in our practice, on dokusan. We are getting to know each other well, and that one on one instruction is really important. But that is sometimes difficult, so we get group instruction or a lecture like this.
But he says, “Don’t stick to the lecture! Think about what I really mean!” Which is true. I often experience this myself when I say something, and somebody takes it literally. They stick to it. They take it as if it were truth, but it’s just something that is said at that time, which has many angles to it. So don’t take it literally. Don’t stick to it. Don’t listen to what I say. Listen to what I mean.
Then he says, “I feel sorry that I cannot help you very much. But the way to study true Zen is not verbal. Just open yourself and give up everything.” That’s all. It’s no big deal! Don’t listen to the instructions or think there is one way to do it. All you have to do is open yourself and give up everything, and then it automatically all flows. Just open yourself and give everything, and I think everything becomes quite obvious.
“Whatever happens, whether you think it good or bad, study closely and see what you find out. That is the fundamental attitude.” So, it’s a wonderful way to live, if you can.
The next talk is called, “Be Kind with Yourself.” This is a lovely, lovely talk. “Our aim is to have a complete experience of full feeling in each moment of practice.” He says that when he was younger he thought that he would understand this or that, not seeing that it is not about understanding this or that. It’s about having a complete experience or a full feeling in each moment of practice. “If we do not have some warm, big satisfaction in our practice, that is not true practice.” Although one could make that into another standard, right? So you beat yourself up, saying, “Oh, I am not feeling a warm, big satisfaction, so I must be doing it wrong.” So don’t do that. But still, he is saying that there isn’t anything to get or understand, no prize at the end, nor any winner’s circle. There’s just a warm, big satisfaction in living our life.
“If you are very kind with your breathing….” Did you ever think of that, being kind with your breathing? I’ve noticed that some people who have trouble with breathing practice are often people who have harsh judgments of themselves. On some subtle level they are trying to get their breath just right, so they have trouble just being with the breath. So, just be kind to your breathing. Just be soft with your breathing. One breath after another, you will have a refreshed, warm feeling in your zazen.
“When you have a warm feeling for your body and your breath, then you can take care of your practice, and you will be fully satisfied.”
And it may be that one doesn’t have a warm feeling in one’s zazen, because that’s the task for your zazen: to have a warm feeling for your body and mind and thoughts and responses. So zazen is a struggle for awhile. Maybe for a long while. But the result is to eventually soften into a warm feeling for your body, for your breath, and for your thoughts. Kindness towards yourself.
Then – I am skipping a part – he talks about precepts at the bottom of page 79. “Our monastic rules are based on kind, warm hearted mind. The idea is not to restrict your freedom to behave and act in your own way. It is not so important to follow the rules literally. Actually, if you break a rule now and then, we will know what is wrong with you.”
We get to understand each other very well and our own character through the rules we break. So, our crises and our problems are actually very good, and when we go through them together, we get to know each other really well and appreciate each other. If we all try to be good and perfect, and there were no mistakes, we would miss out on our human relationships and on our capacity to help each other grow and develop. And it’s really true. I find that the people I get to know the best are people with whom I go through crises. Not necessarily a crisis between the person and myself, but some crisis. Life brings crises, right? Things happen, and when we go through them together, it’s kind of wonderful. We get to have some history together.
Ah, there are so many great parts to talk about. Well, the next lecture is on “Observing the Precepts.” On the bottom of page 86 he says, “If you try to observe the precepts, that is not true observation of precepts. When you observe the precepts without trying to observe the precepts, that is the true observation of precepts. Our inmost nature can help us. When we understand the precepts as an expression of our inmost nature, that is the Way as it is.”
I often say this, that the precepts are not rules; they’re just a kind of fumbling attempt to describe how buddhas naturally and spontaneously conduct themselves. It’s not quite right, but the best we can do in language. So it’s very natural. And so he says, “In that case, there are no precepts. When we are expressing our inmost nature, no precepts are necessary, so we are not observing any precepts. On the other hand, we have the opposite nature too.” So when we really appreciate precepts, life is flowing. When we are caught in our own self-centeredness, we have to be more intentional about the precepts.
“How the teacher points out the student’s mistake is very important. If the teacher thinks that what the student did is a mistake, he is not a true teacher. It may be a mistake, but on the other hand, it is an expression of the student’s true nature.” And I really understand that one. Yes, that’s a mistake, but you don’t hate somebody for it, because that’s exactly what they would do, make that mistake. That’s how they have to learn. In other words, they had to do that. That had to happen. So there is no judgment. I think a lot of times we project those judgments onto the teachers. We think that they are judging us, but I think that what he is saying here is that if they are really a good teacher, there’s no sense of judgment even when there’s a mistake. There may be a correction of the mistake, but the feeling is, “Okay, I know you had to make that mistake. Okay, I understand that, but it’s a mistake.”
And we can apply those things to ourselves. No doubt part of the spiritual path in its fullness is that we have a really great teacher inside of ourselves, so that we treat ourselves that way. “Oops, that was a mistake, definitely a mistake! No good. Bad. But I had to do that.” I don’t have to eat my heart out over this. I just have to correct it, and I have to make a strong resolution not to do it again, because that is my nature to do this and learn from this. I could go on and on and on in the same vein. I am very enthusiastic about Suzuki Roshi’s words, but I’ll stop there.