Fifth 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 5 of 6)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | December 1, 2002 Dharma Seminar
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
We are starting with the last section of the book, “Wherever You Are, Enlightenment is There.” I remember this talk. It was so wonderful, and I remember reading it many times in manuscript over the years.
“In our practice the most important thing is to realize that we have Buddha nature. Intellectually we may know this, but it is rather difficult to accept.” Well, yes, you know, it is rather difficult to accept. When you hear that we all are Buddha nature, that we all have Buddha nature, it sounds nice. Buddha nature is good, it can’t be bad. But why it’s actually hard to accept is because it is also bad. It’s bad because to realize that we are Buddha nature, to have Buddha nature, is to realize that we die. We are dying every minute. To realize Buddha nature is to realize impermanence and that we fundamentally don’t know what’s going on. To realize that we are not in control of what happens, that we can’t know what happens…all those things are very hard to accept. So, Buddha nature sounds good, but the fact of the matter is, we can’t accept it, and we won’t accept it because it frightens us. It frightens us to live our real lives.
So there is a lot of suffering that we have to go through in order to appreciate our Buddha nature. To know that this is so for us, we really have to accept our inability to control life, accept impermanence, and accept that what we don’t want will appear. So to put Buddha nature on the good side, to make it so pretty and so positive and so spiritual, to accept Buddha nature because it is so nice… is to make a cartoon out of Buddha nature. Buddha nature is accepting the reality of life, including suicide, war, oppression, starvation. One works one’s whole life and beyond to alleviate these things, but one also knows there will always be such things as long as human beings remain human beings, until the next eon and Maitreya Buddha.
“Our everyday life,” he goes on, “is in the realm of good and bad, the realm of duality, while Buddha nature is found in the realm of absolute, where there is no good or bad.” Which means we have to accept – from our point of view – to accept good and bad, to accept Buddha nature. “There is a twofold reality. Our practice is to go beyond the realm of good and bad and to realize the absolute. It may be rather difficult to understand.” And, again, I would say not so difficult to understand – it’s difficult to realize, difficult to live, difficult to accept, as he says in the beginning, rather difficult to accept.
He then quotes Katagiri Roshi’s teacher: “Hashimoto Roshi, a famous Zen master, said that the way we Japanese cook is to prepare each ingredient separately. Rice is here and pickles are over there. But when you put them in your tummy, you don’t know which is which. The soup, rice, pickles, get all mixed up. This is the world of the absolute. As long as rice, pickles, soup remain separate, they are not working. You are not being nourished. This is like your intellectual or book knowledge. It remains separate from your actual life. Zazen practice is mixing all the ways of understanding and letting it work together. Even though you say, ‘I have Buddha nature,’ and you may believe it and have faith in that, that alone is not enough to make it work. If you do not have a friend or a sangha, it won’t work.”
It’s interesting, isn’t it? In other words, this faith, a true faith in our Buddha nature is not something that we cook up on our own. It’s something, he’s saying, that is created through the dynamic of our working with our teachers and our sangha.
Then there is the wonderful image of the kerosene lamp. He is delivering these talks at Tassajara, where, as you know, there’s no electricity, only kerosene lamps, so the kerosene lamp is the kind of iconic image of Tassajara life. My first book of poetry, which was written after living in Tassajara for a few years, had on it a drawing that I made of a kerosene lamp.
“To have a so called enlightenment experience is of course important, but what is more important is to know how to adjust the flame in zazen and everyday life. When the flame is in complete combustion, you don’t smell the oil. When it is smoky, you will smell something. You may realize that it is a kerosene lamp. When your life is in complete combustion, you have no complaint, there is no need to be aware of your practice. If we talk too much about zazen, it is already a smoky, kerosene lamp. Maybe I am a very smoky kerosene lamp. I don’t necessarily want to give a lecture. I just want to live with you – moving stones, having a nice hot spring bath, and eating something good. Zen is right there. When I start to talk, it is already a smoky lamp. As long as I must give a lecture, I have to explain ‘This is right practice. This is wrong. This is how to practice zazen, and so on. It is like giving you a recipe. It doesn’t work. You cannot eat a recipe.” So it’s in your life, it’s in your living, not objectifying some teaching as something outside of ourselves. He calls enlightenment experiences “so-called” experiences. There is more than a little skepticism here. Yes, we should try to concentrate and have important experiences. But more important is knowing how to live. This is now, after all these years, so painfully obvious. Do we even need to say it anymore?
“To live each moment, becoming one with everything, is the point of Dogen’s teaching and his practice…You might think that you could practice zazen much better if you had no problem, but actually some problem is necessary. It doesn’t have to be a big one. Through the difficulty you have, you can practice zazen. This is an especially meaningful point, which is why Dogen Zenji says, ‘Practice and enlightenment are one.'”
I think somewhere, maybe in this talk, he says that there is always a problem. There is always something. The nature of this world that we live in is that there is always a problem, but if you view it as a problem to be gotten rid of, then problems proliferate and become very annoying. If you recognize that a problem is just what you need for your practice and make use of it, then it doesn’t really appear as a problem. It’s what you need right now, even if you don’t like it.
“Practice is something you do consciously, something you do with effort. There! Right there is enlightenment.”
So that’s interesting. Everybody is always practicing. It’s not like there is practice and non practice. Everybody is always practicing, and everybody is always in the Way, the dharma. So we can’t go wrong, and we can’t not do it. We can’t feel pressure about it, because whatever way we go, it’s all right. And yet, he’s saying here – earlier he said you need a sangha and a teacher – here he says you need to make effort, because without that effort, it’s just a game; we’re just we’re fooling ourselves. So somehow our effort activates practice. It is something we have to do consciously, intentionally with our effort, and in the effort itself is the adjustment of the flame, is the enlightenment.
“Many Zen masters missed this point while they were striving to attain perfect zazen: things that exist are imperfect.” Everything that exists is naturally imperfect. “That is how everything actually exists in this world. Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right there in the imperfection is perfect reality. It is true intellectually and it is true in the realm of practice. True practice is established in delusion, in frustration. If you make some mistake, that is where to establish your practice. We talk about enlightenment, but in its true sense perfect enlightenment is beyond our understanding, beyond our experience”.
Perfect enlightenment is beyond our understanding, beyond our experience. We can have various experiences that we can call enlightenment experience, but as soon as it enters this world of existence, it is already imperfect. As soon as we objectify it and say, “Oh, I had that experience,” it’s useless. I mean it’s useful in that it encourages us to practice, but in and of itself, such experiences are not useful unless we just take them as encouragement to go on.
“This is called I – don’t – know zazen. We don’t know what zazen is anymore. I don’t know who I am. To find complete composure when you don’t know who you are, that is to accept things as it is. Even though you don’t know who you are, you accept yourself. That is ‘you’ in its true sense.”
The next talk is called, “No Sticking to Enlightenment.” This was a talk he gave, it would appear, at the end of Sesshin. He was telling people, in effect, now that you have sat for seven days, and you’ve had this deep experience of Zen, don’t stick to it. Don’t think that now you are returning to some corrupt, messed up world. This is not only Suzuki Roshi’s and Dogen’s teaching, it is really where the Zen school begins. It’s an interesting conversation about what makes the Zen school, what are the characteristics of the Zen approach to Buddhism. Maybe it’s in the Sixth Ancestor sutra, a suspect sutra maybe, but nevertheless it may be there that the Zen teaching coalesces as a distinct school of Buddhism. In that sutra it’s taught that meditation practice and everything else are not different from one another. Meditation practice is living an awake life. It is not a special practice that you do sitting down and breathing. It’s about living, about living an awake life. Meditation and wisdom are the same thing, the sutra says.
So that’s really the most important insight of the Zen school. Suzuki Roshi quotes here from that Sixth Ancestor sutra: “If you dwell on emptiness and stick to your practice, then that is not true zazen.” So even if your zazen is great zazen, totally concentrated and everything is wonderful, if you stick to it, already it falls off the mark. “When you practice zazen, moment after moment,” not just on the cushion, “you accept what you have now, in this moment, and you are satisfied with everything you do.”
So you accept whatever is. This is it: absolute truth appearing to me now in this moment. Whatever it is, you accept that. This is terrible, absolutely terrible, but this is it. This is the truth. This is the way the truth must manifest for me, right now, in this life at this moment. And there’s a kind of satisfaction because you just accept it. You don’t have any complaints. This is a different attitude from, “Oh why this? Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Can I get rid of this? Maybe I’ll do a little Zen. I’ll go to the dharma seminar, that will fix me up. That will help.” Instead of this is it. That is zazen!
“Even though it is difficult, and even though you are busy, you will always have the taste of calmness in your mind, not because you stick to it, but because you enjoy it. When you enjoy it, you don’t have to stick to it. So if you have a real taste of our practice, you can enjoy it all the time, whatever you do.” And you stick to it when you identify it as something. We don’t know what practice looks like because this moment that we are living now we have never lived before. So we actually don’t know how practice is going to appear in this moment.
I think he really means this. You enjoy what is, even if you don’t like it. Even if things are really, really terrible, you enjoy it because you don’t stick. That’s why things are so bad for us, because we’re sticking to something that we preferred before, something that we would rather be living than this. If we’re willing to live this, whatever it is, even if it is something really bad, there’s enjoyment in our life. That’s not sticking to our practice.
“You may think you have attained enlightenment, but if you are busy, or are in some difficulty and think you need to have the experience again, that is not real enlightenment, because it is something you are sticking to.” Then he says, and we should all listen to this one, “Your busy life itself is enlightened activity.” What a challenge. “Your busy life itself is enlightened activity.”
There’s a wonderful part here about making a date with your girlfriend. As I was telling you last time, one of the things you don’t appreciate when reading the book but do appreciate when hearing it on the tape is that he is constantly laughing throughout these talks. He’ll stop and then laugh for two or three minutes and then go on. And you know he must have been just chuckling for quite awhile when he said this: “Nowadays young people are dating, but enlightenment is not something you can meet on a date. If you organize your life, get up at a certain time, get your bag lunch, and leave for work, then if you have a girlfriend or boyfriend, you will meet them.” Thoroughly ridiculous! What is he talking about? There is no need to make a date; they’ll just show up somehow! If you get up at the right time, get your bag lunch, don’t make a phone call, they’ll just be there at the right time! “At a certain time she will come to the corner where you usually see her. That is our way. “ What is he talking about? [laughter]. If you get up in the morning, don’t call up your girlfriend, she will just be there, that’s Zen!
“It is rather foolish and troublesome to make phone calls. Even if you make a date by telephone – ‘Hey, I’m leaving now’ – if she doesn’t come to the corner, you will be disappointed. If you do not make a date, and she comes to the corner, you will be really happy.” [lots of laughter] But actually there’s a point to it, you know. There’s a point to it. It’s better to go out on the street and see who shows up. When she’s not there, you don’t care; it’s all right, she’s not there. Naturally she’s not there, but when she’s there, it’s a great thing!
And then he says, as if that weren’t ridiculous enough, “That is how you attain enlightenment. It is not a laughing matter.” [laughter] He obviously said that because everybody was probably falling on the floor laughing, just as we are. “It is not a laughing matter. I am talking about something real. Not to make any date means not to expect or stick to enlightenment.” Or anything, in other words.
“When you are encouraged by enlightenment, then seeing her, even just a glimpse of her, is enough.” So now the girlfriend becomes enlightenment. So you don’t need to make an appointment with enlightenment and try to make sure that you’re with her constantly. When you bump into her, and even just catch a glimpse of her around the corner, that’s enough. And of course one thinks of the great tradition in literature of romantic love – all this love poetry addressed to the elusive object of love – like Shakespeare’s sonnets addressed to whom we don’t even know, is it actually someone, anyone? – and maybe it never really is anyone, a person, who you could call up on the phone and then live with, and he or she would make a mess, not do the dishes, be late to meet you keep you waiting a long time, and so on – it’s not that kind of lover. The lover never appears at all. It is so much better that way. Or, as Suzuki roshi says, the lover maybe appears, and maybe you get a glimpse of her. Even more wonderful!
“All day long you will be happy. If you are demanding too much of her, then it already means that you stick to enlightenment.”
So there’s a lot there to think about and appreciate.