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Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind 3

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/20/2008
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Suzuki roshi, Uncategorized

Series of talks based on Suzuki Roshi’s book “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” In this series, only small portions of the book are addressed and not a total overview of the writings.

Zen Mind Beginner's Mind (3 of 4)

Series of talks based on Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 20, 2008


Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum


When I read through Suzuki Roshi's words, I don't get very far, because after the first page I think, "Wow! What is he saying? What does he mean? Isn't that wonderful!" And I can't go any further! That's what happened this time. I was reading Part 2, but I only got as far as the first page. So I thought I would comment on the first page, read the whole of what he says, and then make a few comments.

Suzuki Roshi, as you know, didn't write this book. It was constructed from talks of his, and the editors hit on the brilliant idea of giving each talk a little title, so the title here on page 53 is "Single-minded Way." He says,

The purpose of my talk is not to give you some intellectual understanding, but just to express my appreciation of our Zen practice. To be able to sit with you in zazen is very, very unusual. Of course, whatever we do is unusual, because our life itself is so unusual. Buddha said, "To appreciate your human life is as rare as soil on your fingernail." You know, dirt hardly ever sticks on your nail. Our human life is rare and wonderful; when I sit I want to remain sitting forever, but I encourage myself to have another practice, for instance to recite the sutra, or to bow. And when I bow, I think, "This is wonderful." But I have to change my practice again to recite the sutra. So the purpose of my talk is to express my appreciation, that is all. Our way is not to sit to acquire something; it is to express our true nature. That is our practice.

I couldn't agree more. Isn't that a wonderful and simple thing? When we say, "How great it is to be alive, and what a precious thing it is just to have life," we all know this is true, and nobody disagrees. And yet we never think of that. We go crashing through our days with all our busyness and all our trouble. And we never stop to remember how precious our life is and to appreciate it and to express that appreciation in everything that we do. We would have a life of joy if we could do that. Sometimes life is hard. Of course, there are many problems. No doubt about that. But we are alive, and it is as rare as dirt on a fingernail.

Suzuki Roshi is saying, "It's not a complicated thing, folks! It's not a bunch of really complicated meditation techniques and different things to chant. You're alive and what luck! Be glad!" It's very heartfelt. It's very simple, and it's very modest. This is not a very fancy thing, right? I think that for those of us who practice the way of Suzuki Roshi, it's very difficult to find something more true than this very simple thing.

You could say it's not even a spiritual teaching at all. There's not that much to it. But what a great thing to practice together – just to breathe, to be quiet, to walk up and down, to hear the ocean with friends. To practice with people that one knows and has come to trust and love over time. To come together as we do – month after month after month; year after year after year – in mutual appreciation and regard. To enjoy our dharma relations and the poignancy of them, as we all get older and more enfeebled.

So then he says,

If you want to express yourself, your true nature, there should be some natural and appropriate way of expression. Even swaying right and left as you sit down or get up from zazen is an expression of yourself. It is not preparation for practice, or relaxation after practice; it is part of the practice.

So, it's interesting. If you carried that far enough, the sitting doesn't actually start when you arrive here. It starts when you wake up in the morning and intend to come and drive here. And come to think of it, it doesn't even start then. It starts the night before, when you go to bed and prepare yourself at night to go to sleep. You get my drift. There is no preparation for anything. There's no time when the practice began and it wasn't there beforehand. There's always the practice – wherever we are, whatever the moment.

So we should not do it as if we were preparing for something else. This should be true in your everyday life. To cook, or to fix some food, is not preparation, according to Dogen; it is practice. To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice. It is necessary to sit in zazen, in this way, but sitting is not our only way. Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else.

A full engagement with life could be your life all the time. Accepting each moment of life could be a profound engagement with the truth. Every moment – as Suzuki Roshi says – even when you're cooking, even when you're cleaning, even when you are sitting around loafing, or even when you are going to work. We usually see our life as routine, or more or less boring, or more or less unsatisfactory. We're looking for something special – a great vacation or a better job or a different relationship. But more and more I can be present in my living. More and more I can understand that everything is an opportunity to appreciate life and to fully engage with life. I know pretty clearly that it is the quality of attention that I bring to something that makes my life alive. And that's what Suzuki Roshi is telling us here.

He goes on,

The Bodhisattva's way is called the "single-minded way," or "one railway track thousands of miles long."

The railway track is always the same. If it were to become wider or narrower, it would be disastrous. Wherever you go, the railway track is the same. That is the Bodhisattva's way. So even if the sun were to rise from the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way. His way is in each moment to express true nature and true sincerity.

This is one thing about our practice that is really true. It's very boring. When somebody comes the first day, you give them instructions: "This is how you sit. This is how you breathe." The instructions that you give somebody the first day are the beginning instructions and the intermediate instructions and the advanced instructions. That's it! And then somebody thinks, "Well, what do I do now? What's next?" Sorry – that's all there is. There's not much to this. It's pretty boring. It's always the same thing: just sit, just be present. Then they ask, "Can I take the advanced course in being present? Is there advanced presence?" No, I guess not! If you're present with your life, you're just present with your life. There isn't an advanced course. Pretty boring, and at the same time, pretty thrilling.

So he goes on with this railway track image:

We say, "railway track," but actually there is no such thing. Sincerity itself is the railway track. The sights we see from the train will change, but we are always running on the same track. And there is no beginning or end to the track: beginningless and endless track. There is no starting point, no goal, nothing to attain. Just to run on the track is our way. This is the nature of our Zen practice.

So again he uses the word "sincerity." And he didn't mean by sincerity what we generally mean by it. What he meant was, "Giving yourself wholeheartedly to whatever it is you are, or whatever it is you are doing at that time." Just not holding anything back. Not doing anything fancy or anything extra. Just taking on every task with your whole heart. Then you realize that is what sincerity means – just giving yourself to what you are and what you're doing. So you drive along on one track, and the scenery keeps changing, but it's basically the same track and the same ride.

This makes me think of something I often say to people who leave a long retreat or sesshin, where many powerful experiences have occurred, and they say, "How can I preserve this? How can I make sure that I keep living like this, as I've been living for this last week in sesshin, when everything was so vivid and I had so much peace? How can I preserve that? How can I keep that going?" And I usually say, "You know, the practice is not a state of mind. It's not a desired state of mind that we're trying to produce. States of mind are changing all the time – it's like the scenery along the track. Sometimes isn't it great when we do have that kind of calm and that kind of peacefulness and that kind of vividness of life. This is terrific when it happens, and we hold it as precious. But we know that's just the scenery. Next minute it will be something else. It may be misery or confusion. These things come too.

I would describe the track as a thread that goes through all the different states of mind that come and go. When we know what that thread is, and when we are always in touch with that thread – and maybe we can call that thread "sincerity," or "commitment," or "vow," or "motivation" – then it really doesn't matter what the scenery is. It's always beautiful. Even when we're passing by beautiful, soaring mountains or the slums of the city, we can see the beauty. And we know we're always on that track. We're always on that train, and we can feel the movement. We can feel ourselves in connection with that train.

So I know there's no end point, and I'm not trying to get somewhere. We say, "If I could only get this right and perfect this," but now I know that there is just riding on that track. And it's wonderful that I have more track to go. And he is also saying that "no end" means that you die and still you're on the track. Still it goes on.

And then he says something very surprising:

But when you become curious about the railway track, danger is there. You should not see the railway track. If you look at the track, you will become dizzy. Just appreciate the sights that you see from the train. That is our way. There is no need for the passengers to be curious about the track. Someone will take care of it. Buddha will take care of it. But sometimes we try to explain the railway track because we become curious if something is always the same. We wonder, "How is it possible for the Bodhisattva always to be the same? What is his secret?" And then we start thinking about that, but there is no secret. Everyone has the same nature as the railway track.

Actually, we're not supposed to understand our lives. How could you understand your life? You would have to be somebody else standing outside of your life to analyze it and understand it. Who could do this? No one. If you think you understand your life or someone else's life, think again. The only thing you can be sure of, if you think you know something, is that it's wrong. All knowing is partial. We know something, more or less, that was true at the time we thought we knew it. Is it true today? Maybe. Maybe not.

So this is a practice of tremendous humility, and simultaneously with that, tremendous trusting. Because why do we think we have to know something? So that we can get it right? So that we can protect ourselves? So that we can advance our interests? If you know how limited that is, the only choice you have is to trust life. Buddha will take care of the railway track. Buddha will take care of your life.

There were two good friends, Chokei and Hofuku. They were talking about the Bodhisattva's way, and Chokei said, "Even if the arhat [an enlightened one] were to have evil desires, still the Tathagatha [Buddha] does not have two kinds of words. I say that the Tathagatha has words, but no dualistic words." Hofuku said, "Even though you say so, your comment is not perfect." Chokei asked, "What is your understanding of the Tathagatha's words?" Hofuku said, "We have had enough discussion, so let's have a cup of tea!" [And Suzuki Roshi comments on this little story.] Hofuku did not give his friend an answer, because it is impossible to give a verbal interpretation of our way. Nevertheless, as a part of their practice, these two good friends discussed the Bodhisattva's way, even though they did not expect to find a new interpretation. So Hofuku answered, "Our discussion is over. Let's have a cup of tea!"

I think the sense of the story, if I am not mistaken, is that even if any enlightened one, a Buddha, were to have afflictive emotions – anger or hatred, for example – still the Buddha would not use dualistic words. He would not say, "That's bad. That's good. That's right. That's wrong. That's practice. That's not practice." The Buddha would never use dualistic words, even if it were something that was unwholesome or not good. We can take this to mean that he would not reject anything. If you say, "That's wrong, that's bad," you're rejecting it, casting it aside, and you're not accepting or embracing it. Everything is to be embraced. Everything is part of the path. Everything brings us to awakening.

So there's no such thing as good or bad emotions. There are difficult emotions, afflictive emotions, painful emotions, but every emotion, every thought that we will embrace, will bring us closer to the heart of the matter, closer to our lives. And again, it comes back to what Suzuki Roshi is saying early on in this piece. It has to do with the extent to which we are able to be present – really present with what is going on with us. And when we are able to be present, bad turns into good. You see the good in it, and you don't have to twist it around to make it good. It ripens into good in the warm glow of your presence.

When Suzuki Roshi says the Buddha has no dualistic words, this is Suzuki Roshi's own way of talking. He is all-inclusive, because he never talks with dualistic words. This is why generations of practitioners have found his words so encouraging and inspiring. To speak with non-dualistic words means always to speak with full inclusion. Nothing is left out. No one left out. Everything and everyone is included. And not because we think, "See what a nice guy I am? I include everybody. I'm broad-minded. Aren't I nice?" But this is the way it is. We are all included. It's not a matter of being nice or being generous. "Well, you might be a little inferior, but look how nice I am. I accept you anyway. Isn't that good? I'm very compassionate, don't you think?" [Laughter]

It doesn't mean that there is no good or bad. It doesn't mean that there are no distinctions. It just means that those distinctions exist on a level beneath which is all-inclusiveness. There is always another side, and that's reality. There's always another side. Whatever we say, whatever we think, whatever we see, whatever we feel, there is always another side. And that side is also true. And if we live that way, knowing that's so, if we understand that that's so, and we speak that way, it's a different life. It's a different way of being.

This is not a thought or a philosophical position. This is what is important about seeing life without two kinds of words – seeing life whole, seeing life in any inclusive way. We become, as Suzuki Roshi apparently was, very tolerant and very accepting of everything. And very loving. And very kind. When we see this truth that he is pointing to here, there are no two words. There are no dualistic words. This is not a comment about use of language; it's a comment about how we embrace our lives.

But actually, this is not the point of the story. As Suzuki Roshi said earlier in this passage, we understand that when we study or have seminars or discussions, practice is more than this. It includes it, but it is more than this. Just as these two monks brought up the dharma and studied the dharma together, they realized, "Well, we discussed it for awhile, and that's the end of it, and now let's have tea. Okay, that's enough. Seminar's over. Forget about it." Dharma was something we tried to understand at that time, and it's different now. So let's have a cup of tea, and let's not get hung up on defending something we said or something we believed the dharma says. Yes, to study the teachings is a practice; it's an activity that is very fruitful for us to engage in. But when it's time, we'll set it aside and return to silence and have a cup of tea.

In the last paragraph Suzuki comments on the line "Let's have a cup of tea":

That is a very good answer, isn't it? It's the same for my talk – when my talk is over, your listening is over. There is no need to remember what I say; there is no need to understand what I say. You understand. You have full understanding within yourself. There is no problem.

So we can appreciate that. We don't have to deny our own experience. He's telling us that it is not so important to understand what he is saying, or to understand what it says in the sutra, or to understand what the great masters have said. If you think that you don't understand, then just notice that that is an experience that you have. The truth is that if you're a human being, if you are trying to love, if you are trying to live in some truthfulness, this means that you do understand.

So I will conclude my talk by saying, "Don't try to understand what I am saying. Or think you don't understand what I am saying. And goodness knows, you shouldn't remember it, and try to recall it, and think about what it is. Or quote me to anybody! You should have your own understanding. Isn't it nice that we just had fifty minutes to share this time together, and now it's over."

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