Gail Sher • Dharma Talks

Beginning Practice

Beginning Practice Questions and Answers

Table of Contents

Set One

Why do we practice Zen when we already have Buddha-nature?
“Why do we practice Zen when we already have Buddha-nature?” was Dogen Zenji’s primary question. After failing to get an answer from teachers in Japan, he searched all over China for a Zen master who could answer it. At the very end when he was about to leave, he met the new abbot at a monastery he had already visited, and this abbot, Rujing, told him that we don’t sit to “get” enlightenment, we sit to express the enlightenment we already have. Just as we immediately become a thief when we steal something, when we sit following Buddha’s example our zazen is itself Buddha. Buddha nature is not some thing you possess. When you become yourself, or when you forget all about yourself and say “Yes,” that is the expression of your Buddha nature.
Do we already have goodness inside us?
“I hear that it is because we have goodness already in us that we can afford to be good but inside me I’m not sure that I AM good. I see my jealousy, my incapacity, my gaining ideas. It’s probably there but I don’t know how to get in touch with it.”
You already are in touch with it. Just the SEEING of jealousy, incapacity and gaining ideas is an indicator that you are working hard with your karmic consciousness. Part of the problem is the word “good.” There is no such thing except in relation to something else. In Buddhism it is said that just seeing and following what our bodies and minds are up to, without judgment, is practice itself. To me it seems like you should just “keep on keeping on,” without any idea of improving yourself or becoming a “good” person. This kind of practice has the flavor of the Way. There’s nothing more worthy of you.
What is the “wish to save all beings” that I hear about as part of the bodhisattva precepts ceremony? How can I do THAT? It seems preposterous.

Two things:

  1. bodhisattvas are not about results; they are about practice. You take the vow as an orientation for your practice and make sure, minute by minute, that you do your absolute best.
  2. Because all beings are interconnected and co-arise dependently with each other, YOU are “all beings.” Don’t forget. It’s a critical point. Worth repeating.
It is significant that we take a vow to do the impossible. Thereupon we are always lacking in the accomplishment that we vowed to make. We regret and repent our failure. All the while we keep trying and re-trying to do our very best. This is practice itself so you are already on to it. It’s good that you are challenging everything. “Being picked by the Precepts” (as some say) is a big deal. Being ready to realize that you have been is also a big deal.
What is nonthinking?
“When I sit, my mind is racing. I don’t think I know what ‘nonthinking’ is. That’s why I feel the whole Zen venture is hopeless.”
Practice noticing it and naming it in the moment. “Discursive thought. Discursive thought. Discursive thought.” Keep returning to this conscious naming. Pay attention to the gaps even if they’re brief. They are the non-reference points called “enlightenment.”
Explain “the past and future lives of all beings.”
“I’ve read that the Dalai Lama considers the notion of the past and future lives of all beings an important aspect of being a bodhisattva. Could you comment on this controversial idea?”

I’m a fan of the Dalai Lama and I know that he teaches the Buddha’s explanation of cause and effect which states that no thing arises without cause, that there is no uncaused cause, and no cause that loses its effect.  So consciousness is always preceded by another consciousness, and always gives rise to further consciousness.  The idea that we live many lives before and many after this present one, the quality of which is affected by our own conduct and motivation, provides the context for appreciating the great rarity and value of life as a free and fortunate human being who alone has the ability to attain enlightenment.  Moreover, understanding that all beings have already lived countless lives allows us to accept our interdependence and appreciate that at some time every being has been kind to us in some way.  There is no need to buy into this unless it helps your practice.  You can just listen and let it go.

What is “The Perfection of Generosity”?
“ ‘The perfections of the Bodhisattva do not support me—it is I who support them,’ says Shantideva, the great seventh-century Buddhist poet. I don’t really understand what this means.”

Yamada Koun Roshi (Aitken Roshi’s teacher) often said, “I wish to become like a great tree, shading all beings.”  In other words, “I so want to give of myself entirely for the benefit of others that I wish to just stand day and night and give my shade to all passers-by.” Another of our ancestors wished to become a water buffalo selflessly (and constantly) serving people in their toils.  By virtue of their generosity both of these beings support (uphold) the “Perfection” of Generosity, the first and foremost of the six transcendent behaviors of a bodhisattva. By virtue of their “enlightened” effort, the Perfection stays alive.  Otherwise it is just words.

“By a single act of relinquishment, everything is relinquished.”  What does this mean?

It’s an ultimate truth and means because everything is interconnected and interdependent, each behavior of ours is not really ours.  It belongs to and expresses all beings.  That’s why Shakyamuni Buddha said upon awakening, that he awakened along with the great earth and all beings.  It goes both ways.  We truly are united, more intricately than most of us can imagine.  That said, when one person relinquishes something (gives something up like a habit, a prized possession, an ungereous or angry thought) because of our interconnection, relinquishment is present everywhere.  Because it’s an ultimate truth our mind can’t actually grasp this, but one can have a feel that it is so nonetheless.  I do.

Frivolity and  happiness
“The idea of ‘binding one’s frivolity’ which is usually allowed so much room—does this mean we can never really have a good time?”

Actually, it means just the opposite.  Our normal idea about frivolity has some relationship to a heightened state, be it intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, by physical speed, by beauty, by excitement (or whatever) outside the ordinary pattern of our daily life.  The shila paramita brings us back to our basic life, fully present with our everyday activities.  It’s a special mix that when it happens, you will immediately recognize of proper + correct + lightness + serving others.  The normal mode of frivolity is an add-on, like enjoyment in a kind of shell.  When you enjoy from your basic self, there is a quieter but deeply resonant feeling that takes up your whole body-mind and truly satisfies.

Dealing with “discursive thoughts”
“I keep hearing that our discursive thoughts separate us from ourselves and prevent us from knowing who we are. Can you say more about how this works? I sort of like my thoughts and don’t see how they get in the way of who I am.”
Freedom means being free from being enslaved by our mind, from unnecessary preoccupations and unnecessary preconceptions. This state is said to be the basis of all virtues. (Virtue means healthiness and wholesomeness.) It means to constructively organize your life as creatively and simply as possible so as to be present and fully engaged with what is there. Discursive thinking is like a separate world. Like a distraction, it lifts you out of being present. But it’s from the groundedness of presence that we begin to attain jnana or wisdom, which is the essence of the practice and the source of attaining enlightenment. You can’t think your way into enlightenment. You have to shed your way back and back and back to your home base.
Patience can mean “wait and see what happens.”
When you see yourself indulge in anger there is a tendency to criticize yourself.  Patience means you wait a minute;  you wait and see what happens.  It means not coming to conclusions too quickly.  “But I don’t need to wait a minute.  I already know what is going to happen.  My anger will not go away.  If anything it will grow with time as I feel more and more justified and think less and less of the person for whom I harbor anger.  It’s like a righteous thing.”
I’m thinking that this means that you’ve never actually waited a minute.  Consiousness is everything.  Waiting a minute means allowing consciousness to enter the picture.  And then you wait a few more minutes and even more consciousness enters the picture.  Now you have several minutes of consciousness and if you allow yourself not to come to a quick conclusion and just go on with your life, the next day you really might have at least a glimmer of youself being like the ocean–whatever happens you cannot be perturbed.  You remain the same all the time, which means you keep your inherent equinimity.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t care.

Set Two

Can I practice Zen when I’m not doing zazen?
Harada Roshi talks about dividing our life into “Zen within stillness” and “Zen within activity.” In this way we will be able to be one with our work and be one with the samadhi of zazen. “Being one with our work” means being present with whatever is in front of us right now. Whatever we are experiencing, we do not try to distract ourselves away. We stay and we stay and we stay until, because change is the nature of reality, eventually it turns into something else. Meanwhile we will have had the full experience of ourselves throughout the process. I know someone who features a powerful presence of mind though she has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. She stays with herself, her feelings, her questions, her wish to understand her treatment plan. She is not impatient or angry or resentful. She is just herself today knowing that she has lung cancer. That’s practicing Zen when you’re not doing zazen or you could say that’s zazen when you’re not on the cushion.
“I want to ask about sleepiness being an obstacle to arousing the mind of awakening. I am sleepy a lot. Even though I think I am doing the right thing in my life, I still find myself in subtle ways not awake to it. Not alert. Is there anything I can do about that?”
Let me describe what the opposite looks like. When you are awake to your life, you can hardly wait to live it. There is a deep sense of correctness surrounding your activities even though they’re hard. There also is a natural sense of practice around them, e.g., you just want to do them regularly and completely and that’s all. You have a strong feeling that “This is my life.” It is palpable. Sleepiness is an obstacle to arousing the mind of awakening and if you are not doing the right thing with your life, that certainly could be a cause of it. Study that until you’re sure. It’s worth being sure even if sleepiness weren’t a problem
Practice right here, right now
“I heard you say that we don’t consider this practice as a step to something else. This practice is right here, right now, in this situation, to awake to the reality of this self. I find these words very beautiful but I’m not sure I understand the last part–‘to awake to the reality of this self.’ Can you say more?”
The other day I participated in a dharma talk given by Tenshin Reb Anderson. He used for us participants the word that the Buddha used when addressing his own disciples—”assembly.” I was shocked. I never flinched at the word when it was used for the Buddha’s disciples, but to use it for me! But then I thought, “Well, who else?” I’ve been practicing Zen for over fifty years. I’m the one right here, right now. Of course I’m part of his “assembly.” It felt weird to say so however. That’s how awakening to the reality of “this self” can feel. Start to notice when you are sitting, for example. At that time you are also part of Buddha’s assembly. See how it lands in your body.
Working with the four brahmaviharas—love, compassion, joy, equanimity
“How would you suggest that we work with the four brahmaviharas—love, compassion, joy, equanimity? I love the phrase ‘divine states of dwelling’ but they seem too big. How do I ground them into my daily routine?”

That is a really good question. Most of us sort of nod and agree, but then we forget about them. Honestly, I would take one of them a year and be very intent on manifesting it whenever you have a chance. Take equanimity, for example. “I am the person consciously practicing equanimity. In situations that usually rile me, I target them and study myself carefully.” Keep reminding yourself like this for awhile and try to be equanimious as often as you can. Once your resolve sticks you’ll find more and more pleasure in its practice. Next year you can make a resolution to practice joy. I used to laugh at New Year’s Resolutions but I made three this year and learned that they provide a reference point. “Now, what am I working on? Oh right.” Otherwise, over time, things I’m “working on” seem to go away.

What does “All of Buddhism is but a footnote to zazen” mean?
It means that all of the scriptures, liturgies, practices other than zazen, are valuable in relation to zazen like a footnote on a page is valuable to the page. It’s interesting but not essential. If something is left out, it would be THAT, the footnote, not the writing on the page itself. Sawaki Roshi is saying that zazen is the whole page. Everything else is expendable.
What is the point of “no-gain Zen”?
Dogen says, “If we do things for our private gain or personal benefit, then no matter how hard we work, no matter how much we achieve, it will come to an end. Instead we dedicate our work to all beings. That is our attitude toward work and toward other people. That is joyful mind.” Here Dogen is using the word “gain” to mean anything that we do that is not focused on the present moment. To be completely pure in our non-gaining, we must be completely pure in our non-doing. In other words, when we do something, we are empty of ideas of anything other than the quality of our attention right now, not the result of having done it later. Perhaps there will be no other result than your current Joyful Mind. Joyful Mind is one of the Paramitas, the transcendent actions of a bodhisattva, but even that is not why we practice with a no-gain spirit giving all of the merit away. We practice with a no-gain spirit so as not to indulge a non-existent independent, individual self.
What is the difference between a goal-seeking mind and a vow-seeking mind?
Goal-seeking is no different from our normal samsaric world, living a life pulled by karma. Living by Vow is being pulled by Vow. It situates you in an entirely different place internally, and is spiritually cleaner and more alive. It’s not just words. You can feel the difference.
Don’t expect helping to be a big deal
” ‘Don’t expect helping to be a big deal. In our everyday life, we can help someone or something all the time.’ This obvious remark somehow was a big reminder for me. The other day I was parking my car in my building’s garage and a woman came running over to me to ask me to open the door because her key’s battery was dead. When I did she was so relieved. It sort of made my day. What if she hadn’t run over to me?”
I know. We all have experiences like that. They show us our deeply entwined nature, don’t they? I was delayed in work I do together with another person recently because he went away for several weeks to help his wife’s parents’ friend. I thought to myself, “Gosh. This unknown person in a far away state, tangentially related to someone I know, totally knocked me off my work schedule. For me it served yet again as a reminder of how others are simply contents of me. We are SO connected. Why is this constantly so shocking!
The best advice for Buddhist social action
“Robert Thurman ended a talk with what he calls ‘the best advice for Buddhist social action I have yet seen’ referring to Dogen’s ‘Four Methods of Guidance’
(which Thurman called the ‘four political practices’)—giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and identity action. That was kind of an eye opener.”
It’s a reminder that everything we do, even small actions, are political because of our interconnectedness. It turns Jane Austen’s main theme of “manners” into social-action-teaching completely relevant for today, because she studies how people treat each other and their growing understanding of behavior that is beneficial as opposed to destructive. For her, generosity and kind speech are at the heart of it. In the end her indicators of growth are always some form of deepening consideration for others. Those who are best at this not only are the happiest, but the best liked and therefore the most powerful. It turns what is political away from big speeches to small personal actions. So insightful.
Our life as human beings
“You were saying à la Katagiri Roshi that ‘This is our life as human beings. We always feel somewhat unsatisfied. Whichever is chosen; it does not fit one’s heart neatly.’ I’ve only recently started to be aware of this. Even in the best of moments I feel slightly agitated. It helps to hear that this is normal.”
Western culture (especially advertising) promotes a be happy, be excited feeling. It’s the innocent, childlike feeling that delights us in children. But even a child has in it a force that negates being a child. Old people have in them the force that negates oldness. And then they re-join universal life. If we try to stay in our childhood modes, clinging to and treasuring those expressions to the exclusion of more mature expressions, we WILL notice something not quite properly joined. The more you practice zazen, the more attuned you become both to the presence of this unsettled heart and also the presence of a different kind of satisfaction, very steady, stable and strong. Please continue as you have started.

Set Three

In what senese is Zen “good for nothing”?
“In some weird way it DOES help to think of zazen as ‘good for nothing.’ Otherwise I put a lot of stock in it and when those things don’t turn out I start losing interest. To do something just for the sake of doing it and not looking for ANYTHING else—accolades, pats on the back, progress, approval—is a relief and let’s things just be. I’m glad about it.”
Actually, since it requres us to make whatever it is into a “practice,” it IS a good thing because then we just do it again and again and expect nothing but our whole-hearted effort each day. Oddly we have more agency this way. Since we simply do our best, we also get to know what that is and how to tell. Many don’t know when they’re doing their best and don’t trust themselves to determine it. That’s a pity. And regarding zazen many ARE doing their best but because their mind doesn’t stop racing they judge it as worthless. Each racing thought, we just let it go. Again and again and again. THAT’S perfect zazen.
What is the best way to change our habits of behavior and thought?

Penelope Easten, an Alexander Technique teacher from Ireland has devloped tips for changing default patterns in muscle use and consciousness by thinking the thoughts involved in any specific change regularly. It is easy, she says, to make a change using inhibition, but the brain usually resets quickly to the old pattern, its current “default.” We need to repeat and repeat until the new patterns are taken into sub-cortical layers and become the new default. I notice that some defaults reset easily; others fight you all the way, she says.

This is beginner’s mind—a place of no expectation. EVERY time we want to make a change, we need to inhibit the old desire and then do all the thinking involved in making the change again and again persistently.

It is those small but powerful moments of quiet, sustained attention that change brain plasticity. Alongside changing our movement patterns, think of building new habits of staying conscious and present, of being upright!

Does it really do any good to sit zazen now and then in the midst of one’s multi-tasking life?

Yes it does. Perhaps it’s because our soul so desires it, regular short practices drop into our nervous system and establish themselves in our body. You will begin to want different things, like not to rush, for example, or simply be more careful. That in itself can cause you to make different decisions, even to want to practice more. Even if your “now and thens” don’t become slightly more frequent, you’ve accomplished something.

What does it mean to practice zazen for the sake of zazen?
” ‘We do not practice zazen for the sake of others or for the sake of ourselves. We practice zazen for the sake of zazen.’ I hear this a lot but honestly, I don’t understand.”
This is a really good question because it’s absolutely fundamental. Since we live in the present, not the future or the past, in order to keep our mind aligned with where we are and what is real, we need to “stay present.” Staying present we do things for their own sake. We pay close attention to what is in front of us, e.g., the carrot and quality of our slicing. We stay close to “now” by focusing on HOW we hold and later clean the knife. In this way everything we do, we do for the sake of doing it, not for the sake of ANY particular outcome to which we would be impartial. We are concerned entirely with the quality of our mind each moment during the process, not for any other “sake” including the distraction of our own betterment.
A question about self-kindness
“I actually don’t feel very good about the choices that I’ve made in my life and it’s hard for me to think that I deserve self-kindness. When Roshi says that ‘the purpose of instruction is to encourage you to be kind with yourself,’ I get stuck.”

Since self-kindness is so internal and so personal, no one can tell you what that would be for you. But if being able to be kind, recognizing what that is and what it feels like for you, in both your body and mind, if that is the only thing you “get” from this practice, it would be totally worthwhile. I encourage you to experiment. Don’t forget that the Buddha learned the hard way that food strengthened his body so that he could practice with greater concentration. Use your failures for information rather than for self judgment.

Respect as a form of concentration
“I love when Roshi said, ‘when we respect things we will find their true life.’ Also when he said, ‘when we pick up the chairs one by one carefully, without making much noise, then we will have the feeling of practice in the dining room,’ there is the implication that this feeling of practice will be felt in the dining room even after the cleaners have gone. I myself, entering spaces where people have practiced regularly can feel the intensity of their concentration even when they’re not there. But I hadn’t extended that to spaces where things are just taken care of properly.”

Yes. Respect itself is a form of concentration and you can feel it in the people and things toward which it has been given, as if it’s in their skin now. Plants show it immediately with such gratitude and human beings do also. This means that you can give yourself respect, and others will sense the feeling of practice in you that Roshi is talking about. Isn’t that neat?

Good boundaries
“I have a son with whom I need to set some boundaries. He needs to learn to do things for himself and to think for himself. But it hurts. I keep wanting to ‘help’ him. I stop myself because I know that it does not help him. I actually feel I am being warm-hearted but from the outside it might seem cruel.”

Good boundaries are kind not cruel and it takes a warm-hearted mind to make them and stick to them. Boundaries are for automomy. Your son will be stronger the more autonomous he feels. It brings up a really good point though—the difference between genuine warm-heartedness and superficial warm-heartedness. Our society is built so thickly on the latter we tend to lose sight of where to go to tell the difference, e.g. our own mind and heart.

“That lazy feeling you talked about in reference to pushing chairs across a floor in order to clean the floor—I wish I didn’t know so well what that feeling is like. In me it’s half-heartedness. I’m focused on the NEXT thing. This thing feels irrelevant. I sort of want to kill it or get rid of it. It’s worse than disrespect. I’m not sure how to stop it though.”
It’s great that you’ve gotten in touch with the part of you that feels violent. Not all of us see that, though it’s there. With that consciousness, pick one occasion where you feel it, and totally change your approach, maybe even exaggerating the way you shower attention on the “irrelevent” part, for example. The self-respect you glean will seep into your nervous system and you will automatically look for other opportunities to try it. See for yourself.
How community can support practice
“My question is about this idea: ‘If you do not have a friend or a Sangha, it won’t work.’ I’m an introvert. The things that last with me are things, like reading and writing, that I can do alone. The idea of a sangha doesn’t appeal to me though with zazen practice I can see Roshi’s point. Can you comment on this?”
I think it is the combustion principle. You need matches too. The ‘others’ piece will help ignite the power of your practice. Until sitting is in your bones, if you are sitting alone you will either find ways to not do it or when you do it, it will be weak. You will be distracted. But nowadays you can find groups on Zoom. You can still be alone. It’s a gift of the pandemic.
What does Roshi mean when he says there is no need to be aware of our practice?
He means not to make it into a big deal. Just do it, like eating breakfast or washing your car. If you make it into a “thing” you can become proud or you put things on it that aren’t “it.” That’s the smell he is talking about. When it’s clean, meaning just itself unadorned by ideas or attitudes, it burns purely and it’s odorless. So no add-ons. Do it and that’s all. It’s the same with thinking that you know who you are. Probably you are adding something on that is not the real you. When you “don’t know” that is closer to the real you. We are bigger than anything that can be defined.

Set Four

Small self-awareness and big self-awareness
“Can you say a little bit more about the connection between a smoky kerosene lamp and ‘When you know who you are, that you will not be the real you?’ I almost get it but not quite.”

There’s a way of being in the world that is very simple, very pure. So much so that it looks like it’s nothing. The person just goes through the day doing each thing included in the day and there is a simplicity and ease, a comfortable-ness in her engagement with her life as if there is no separation between her movements and her life. There is no “her” there but her movements are pure and strong.

It’s like those two kinds of awareness: small-self awareness and big-self awareness. With the former there is smoke; the latter burns clean and pure. It’s the small-self that causes the congestion.

Buddha left this teaching just for you
” ‘Buddha left this teaching just for me, not for anyone else’—these words give me a warm feeling of being seen and loved by the Buddha but my mind doesn’t really believe it, so it’s like I have to enjoy it illicitly. What are we supposed to do with a statement like that?”

Enjoy it illicitly. Ultimate-truth-wise it’s true, as we know from the various ancestors and great sages who have left this for us as a legacy. Emotional truth just oozes out of it. Don’t forget. “Just for me” is not arrogance. It means you have full appreciation of the teaching as your own.

I think you should just really get into it. Exaggerate it. Indulge yourself. It’s like the smile that you put on even if you don’t feel it, but by putting it on long enough, you actually do start to feel it. The truth just soaks into your body.

What did Suzuki Roshi mean when he said, “If I don’t cut my life short, my students will not grow?”
Roshi could feel his cancer working in his body, but his mission was to teach the Dharma to receptive minds. He came all the way to Amereica to find receptive minds and now that he found them, he wanted every second of his remaining life to be put towards THAT. “You are cutting your life short!” Okusan (his wife) would say when she saw him overworking, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t not do what he saw needed doing for the spiriitual growth of his students. He really loved his students. When I say at the beginning that I feel honored to be here passing on his teachings, THIS is the back-story. I am so aware of Roshi’s sacrificing his life for us. Thank you for asking.
Meaning of “Zen is Zen”
“I have heard or read Suzuki Roshi saying,’when you are you, Zen is Zen.’ Could you say what you think this means?”
Whatever kind of bird flies through it, the sky doesn’t care. That’s what I think it means. You need to be your own kind of bird. First you have to know what that is and then you have to allow yourself to become it. When you live out your own body/mind, you will see that Zen is empty. It always dissolves into nothing.
On accepting the teaching completely
” ‘Studying Buddhism is not like studying other things. It may take time before you can accept the teaching completely.’ How do we know if we will ever accept the teaching completely and if we don’t, does it matter?”
It’s a good question and my answer is that you do know. Something inside you knows (e.g. your heart) and you don’t want to stop even though it can be beyond hard and you don’t know why you continue. I used to think that there should be a rule that when a new person comes he should be warned: Zen is a trap. I’m joking, but there’s truth to it also. You kind of can’t stop (because it IS truth and you sense this) but shouldn’t someone warn you? I did used to think this.
When Roshi says, “There is nothing to transmit to you,” what does he mean?
He means that the only thing he can really give us is the “spirit of study”—the certainty that Dharma is worth it. We get that by him, who he is, his presence, his naturalness, his warmth, his generosity. He gave us his life. We want to be around that and to BE that. That’s why we practice. But however much he inspires us to practice, we become intimate with Zen on our own.
Learning without realizing it
“I am about to go back to school after a long break. In school usually you DO know when you are learning whatever, but during the long break I didn’t feel I was learning anything. But actually, just being ready to go back to school shows that I have learned at least something. This isn’t a question really but just to say that learning itself, especially psychological and spiritual learning, feels mysterious.”
Yes. That is my exact experience.
Buddha’s Time
“Dogen’s words, ‘Buddha is always here.’ In some way, still, Buddhism exists, and when we really understand what Buddha meant, we are in Buddha’s time. Now I take that to mean when I’m fully present, when I do one thing at a time and in each thing, I am fully present. Is that correct?”
Here is a great story to exemplify this presence—these are Dogen’s words: “The principle of thoroughly experiencing one’s dharma can be understood through the example of beans and tofu. Beans become tofu. From the tofu maker’s point of view, beans are boiled and turned into tofu. It appears that beans are before and tofu is after. But this is a perspective from outside. If you say to tofu, ‘Your former body was a hard material called beans which I boiled, ground, strained, and hardened with nigiri, and now you have a soft body with a rectangular face, so different from your former body,’ then tofu would say, ‘This is nonsense.’ Tofus can never meet beans again. Beans are beans, tofu is tofu. It is not that ‘this’ turns into ‘that'” but there is only one direction at one time; there is only one undivided activity at one time.” (Dogen’s Genjo Koan: 8)
You don’t need to try to understand
“As these talks go on, I find myself losing track. For a minute I am following and then things slip away and I leave with the sense of ‘What just happened? I can’t remember anything.’ Could you say a few words of encouragement?”
If you just listen, you don’t even need to try to understand it. If you don’t understand, it is okay; if you do understand, it is better, that’s all. There should be no special intention in listening. Just to listen is how you should receive teisho. It is different from studying something. Though these were Suzuki Roshi’s words about teisho which are talks by an enlightened Master, you can listen to my dharma talks, in the spirit of “practice” (practicing doing this) the same way. If, when you leave, you can’t remember anything, it could mean that you’ve done a good job. As Roshi said, “Zen words are different from normal words.” They DO slip away. It’s because in Zen there’s nothing to teach. If you leave with nothing, you got the point.

Set Five

About the Four Noble Truths
“I came to Buddhism from hearing the Four Noble Truths—the existence of suffering, the origin of suffering, that there is a way-out, and what that way-out is. How does today’s talk fit into this picture?”

[Today’s talk was about the Sandokai] Here is how Suzuki Roshi introduced a talk on the Sandokai to a group of visiting non-Tassajara students: “The purpose of the study of Buddhism is to have a perfect understanding of things, to understand ourselves and what we are doing in our everyday life. It is also necessary to understand why we suffer and why we have so much conflict in our society, in our families and within ourselves—in other words, to understand what is going on in the objective and subjective realms. If we see things-as-it-is, and if we are aware of what we are doing and have a good understanding, we will know what we should do.” So the Sandokai is also about suffering but it looks at suffering from the side of the one and from the side of the many, e.g. from the side of inter-dependence and the side of absolute independence. The Four Noble Truths are very straight-forward and practical. The Sandokai is more subtle. But both deal directly with Buddhism’s main topic, the suffering of beings.

To practice zazen without seeking enlightenment
” ‘When you live completely involved in the dualistic world, you have the absolute world in its true sense’ AND ‘When you practice zazen without seeking for enlightenment or seeking for anything, then there is true enlightenment’—do these say the same thing?”
Yes. People think that if they do zazen without seeking something—relief from anxiety, calmness of mind, clarity or enlightenment—isn’t it pointless, but because the goal interferes with complete involvement, one loses the opportunity to have the absolute world in its true sense, which is the ego’s death or the death of the belief in a separate individual existence.
The liturgy of everyday life
“I understand that Dogen’s liturgy was the liturgy of everyday life—washing your face, making your bed, cleaning the bathroom, using the lavatory—and that attracts me very much, but I’m not sure how to go about practicing in this way. Please, if you have suggestions, I’d be grateful.”
This is a great question. Thank you for asking it. Of course you would do it according to your temperament but here’s one approach: pick a day of the week (Sunday) and one thing that you will focus on until the following Sunday (making your bed). For the ten minutes say that it takes to make your bed, make absolutely sure that you are straightening every crease and tucking in every corner and smoothing the bed cover, and so on, and as you do each task, it helps to say to yourself, “Now I am straightening creases, now I am smoothing the cover” etc. Hearing yourself is like listening to dharma and can help you stay focused. Pay attention to improvements that you notice in your ability to concentrate. On the following Saturday, assess your progress (“my mind wandered a little less”) and also pick a second task to add for the second week. This approach makes a container, holding your practice so you can watch it carefully.
Meaning of lineage
“I’m interested in the idea of lineage. I sense that it’s important but I wonder if you could say more about what a lineage is? I’m not sure I actually know.”
The ancestors of the Soto Zen lineage are the great ones whom we, with our self-centered minds, tend to forget have vigorously practiced and refined all of the teachings that have come to us as if on a silver platter. It is on account of each one of them, the urgency and intensity of effort that they made, that this wisdom can be transmitted. Transmission occurs through a formal passage from master to disciple. What we are doing here isn’t a formal passage but seeds are being planted. These kind of seeds always take root. Nothing is an accident.
Is there “devotion” in Buddhism?
When you are new to Buddhism it may look as if there is no place for devotion, for a heart practice. But devotion is behind everything in Buddhism, even if it doesn’t always look like devotion. For example, the gratitude one feels for the ancestors who brought us these teachings can be a matter of utter devotion. I myself am devoted to the Precepts, which is why I want to offer them to you. That is a form of devotion to the dharma. I am also devoted to Suzuki Roshi whose presence radically changed my life. It would be impossible to practice something as difficult as Zen without engaging your heart.
Suzuki Roshi said: “When you become yourself, a woman or a man absolutely, you have absolute value always and no one can replace you.” How can I bring this more into my life?

Suzuki Roshi advised, “When you are strong, you should be strong. You should be very tough. But that toughness comes from your gentle kindness. When you are kind, you should just be kind. But that does not mean you are not strong.” Work on kindness. Become aware of when you are or you aren’t kind, and when you see that you haven’t been, try to think of how you might have been more skillful. You can try it beforehand: if you’re about to call the bank to complain about a mistake and you feel you’re going to yell, try to think of a more skillful approach before you pick up the phone. These are called “skillful means.” You can have a whole bag of them. Buddha used at least one in almost every action he took.

I was raised in a fundamentalist family and went to fundamentalist schools all the way through college. Can you say more about Buddhism’s relationship with God?

Suzuki Roshi answered the question this way: “Strictly speaking, Buddhists have no teaching. We have no God or deities. We don’t have anything. What we have is nothingness, that’s all. So how is it possible for Buddhists to be religious? What kind of composure do we have? That will be the question. The answer is not some special idea of God or a deity, but rather the understanding of the reality we are always facing. Where are we? What are we doing? Who is he? Who is she? When we observe things in this way, we don’t need a special teaching about God because everything is God for us. Moment after moment we are facing God. And each one of us is also God or Buddha. So we don’t need any special idea of God. That may be the point.”

(Suzuki, Shunryu. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai. University of California Press, 1999, pp. 129-130.)

I feel a little intimidated by Roshi’s description of zazen. I feel I can’t do any of it, so why should I try?
When we hear a great viola player and decide we would like to play viola, we don’t say, “I’ll never play like her so why bother.” Instead we say, “I will do my best to receive what the viola will offer me.” The effort itself, especially if you make a practice out of it, is as worthwhile as mastery. Everyday you do your best. Completely inhabit your viola relationship. That’s it. Zazen is the same. You make the effort to put yourself in that position and zazen takes over. If you make a practice of it, you become like the great sages, our ancestors. This is totally availble to you so why NOT try?
Other forms of meditation don’t seem so rigid. I find Zen very compelling but zazen… It’s hard.

Putting your body in the posture of the Buddha in itself provides it with a lot of information. It goes a long way to help you in becoming nothing. We need to become nothing because our biggest problem is thinking that we have a separate, independent, individual existence. Zazen doesn’t feed that untruth. The posture suggests just the opposite even if you are unaware of it. If you find it difficult, there are a variety of adjustments you can make without losing your straight back (see Zazen Instructions). You also can practice for shorter periods of time increasing them as your confidence increases. Think of it as fluid rather than rigid. The most important part is continuous daily practice. Even if it’s just five minutes.

The line “Don’t make up rules of your own” — does that hold for lay people as well? I know in a monastery you should just follow what has been established, but when we want to start our own home practice, don’t we need to make our own rules?
Only you know the inside of your situation and what your household can handle, so of course you must set up your own precedents. That said, let me give you a wonderful example of how it could be done if you’re very serious:  John Daido Loori, the now deceased Roshi of Zen Mountain Monastery, tells the story of how he and his wife (who was also a serious Zen practitioner but they had a young child and both worked full time) arranged their daily practice.  In their rural and very simple home, they set up a zendo for themselves and in the very early morning they turned on an audio recording he had made of their monastery’s morning sounds, including the wake up bell, the han calling people to the zendo and the bells and drums before and after zazen.  Then they opened their oryoki bowls and had a silent breakfast together in their “zendo.”  He went to sit at the monastery a few nights a week and had dokusan with his teacher regularly.  This sets a high bar I’m aware but whatever you do, it should be set.  So that there is the feeling of practice and not just doing something for the sake of your convenience.  Once it’s in place, then follow it like a mule or an ass.  That would be perfect.

Set Six

“If you don’t understand the way right before you / How will you know the path as you walk?” If I don’t understand the way right before me what should I do then?

Stop. Do nothing. Wait until the slightest flicker of something, even if it’s something small, but something you think might be right for you, and start there. Notice how you know that this small thing is right for you. What are its qualities? Generally, when a person doesn’t understand the way right before them, it is because they are neither silent nor still enough to hear themselves clearly. Guilt and shame have boisterous vibrations and will often get in the way.  So when you stop and do nothing, listen.  You are listening for a glimmer of your original basic purity.

My life is very chaotic, working from home with two young children and unreliable help. Can I really approach a “true way” in the midst of what feels tulmultuous? I don’t know how to steady myself even for a morning.
Your present life does sound tulmultuous but life itself is tumultuous in the sense that we are not in control and rarely know what we are doing. Everything is impermanent and we suffer from that, along with our afflictions (greed, hate and delusion). So start right there. Don’t pretend that “as soon as things get better or calm down, then I’ll figure out what to do.” If you wait for calm, you will not know what to do the next time your life gets tumultuous. Start with the conscious awareness of feelimg overewhelmed. That’s the beginning of the “way.”
“Yes” practice sounds really intriguing but what is to prevent just doing whatever you want? I could see myself getting scattered very fast and never really finding my real “Yes.”
“Yes” practice is extremely intentional and, though personal, it rests in continuous connection with the big dharma world. If you are a monk then you have said “Yes” to living in community with a schedule that will always tell you exactly what to do. Minute to minute you may have complaints but your life is on a large track of a large “Yes” so it’s easier for you. Lay people ask “What am I doing? What are we doing?” and you need to pull the truth from what arises like a musician pulls a dominant melody from a tune. It’s a skill that you will enjoy developing if you are conscientious about your zazen practice. Think of zazen as your teacher. It will definitely teach you what you say “Yes” to if you listen carefully.
“Moment after moment we should live right here, without sacrificing this moment for the future.” Is Roshi saying not to make plans for the future?

We all need to have a trajectory for our lives. From that trajectory we know what to do moment by moment. But moment by moment we stay rooted in the moment, being in our moment as thoroughly as possible. That’s the focus. And that’s how we don’t “waste time.” When Roshi says, “I think most people are spending their time in vain. ‘No, I’m always busy,’ they may say. But if they say so, it is a sure sign that they are spending their time in vain,” it means if you’re “very busy” probably you are focusing on a future gaining idea. Even in food preparation it is said that the deliciousness of the food rests in the Tranquility of the mind of the chef.

What does Roshi mean when he says, “Zazen sits zazen?”

Roshi says, “Even before we practice it, enlightenment is there . . . So whatever you do, or even though you do not do anything, enlightenment is there, always.” Wisdom is not something to learn.  Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness.  It’s the part of you that “sits zazen” even if you don’t like it. The emphasis in “Zazen sits zazen” is about readiness not to interfere with the wisdom in us that is seeking wisdom.

I know people who judge their meditation by whether they could or couldn’t stop their thoughts. What do you think of that?
If a person is showing up there is a purity there beyond a self-assigned grade (“how many thoughts did I have?”). Showing up is the point. Judgement is beside the point.
Before I make a decision I run it by my group of friends. Even then I’m not so sure. It makes me wonder if I’m doing the right thing.

A young woman once asked Roshi after he gave a talk: “Roshi, sometimes when I’m trying to decide what I should do I ask myself, ‘In this case what would Roshi do?’  Should I continue this practice?”  Roshi answered, “Then should I also ask myself ‘What would Roshi do?’  Do you understand?”

It’s the problem of going outside yourself. Each one of us must make her own true way and when we do, that way will express the universal way.  As Roshi says, “When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything.  When you try to understand everything you will not understand anything.  The best way is to understand yourself and then you will understand everything.”

How can one work on developing constancy in a world that doesn’t stay the same for an instant?
It’s like building a muscle at a gym. You work on it slowly. Over time you get a more complete idea of what a muscle is and how it works in your body. Once you build the muscle, if you take care of it, you will have it wherever you go, not just at the gym.  It’s the same with constancy. The more you work on it—e.g. are able to stay focused on your state of breath and mind in the midst of your activities—the easier it is to do it,  no matter what the outside circumstances. Eventually you will not be disturbed by whatever the outside circumstances, even pain or death.
Could you say more about the “spirit of repetition” that Roshi says if we lose, our practice will become quite difficult?
His word “spirit” is important—that you learn to find an upliftment in knowing what you are going to do, and then just doing it without even thinking about it. You just do it, day after day, and that whole part of your day when you do it develops a kind of rhythm that is comforting and  stabilizing and sets you up for whatever comes next.  A lot of people identify themselves as someone who “just can’t do the same thing day after day,”  but that isn’t really their true nature.  They just haven’t yet excavated the stillness in themselves that generates constancy.

Set Seven

Why does Roshi say we should not be interested in “gathering knowledge”?

Since we have limited time in this world we need to stay focused on what is important. What is important is the quality of your mind, body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness. Gathering information is external. Sometimes it is just gossip. It sits there unmetabolized and doesn’t really help you deepen your understanding of “who am I?”—who am I before and after whatever clothes or thoughts or knowledge that I put on.

For me, the hardest thing of all is to give myself compassion. Are there any tricks?

The best, not a trick, would be to feel into the deepest place inside you that is sobbing, and, like a moher to her child, see yourself ache for it.  From there it is easy to give it compassion.

I never thought of asking questions as a gift. I think of them rather as a nuisance. But you’re right. They can be helpful to more than just me.

I’m re-reading the life of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh. Buddha is extremely welcoming of children and one day he had invited a whole group to visit him at 1:00 in the afternoon. As they were sharing stories about their lives, one little girl said, “Would you tell us about your life?” From that child’s question came the story about Buddha’s life told by the Buddha. So that was a bodhisattva question, a question that benefitted all beings.

No matter how I think about it, I can’t bring myself to say “No” to anyone.
What would happen if you thought of not saying no as selfish? At the heart of the matter you want to be liked and you’re willing to manipulate the situation so that you are liked. But if you stop to think about it, really ask yourself: who are you if someone  doesn’t like you? Does that change you, does that make you into a bad person? You need to find the answer to that before continuing what you are doing.
I personally find the concept of refuge, especially in today’s world, very soothing. I grew up in a violent and chaotic household and I think I always, deep inside, wanted to “take refuge” but I didn’t have any place to go. I love the idea that there is a place of shelter and protection that I can access whenever I want. Thank you.

I feel the same way.

I wonder if you could comment on pain. While it is said that in the zazen posture one’s mind and body have a great power to accept things as they are, sometimes the pain—well, I just don’t know what to do with it.
Reb Anderson Roshi, with his very dedicated, very heartfelt and compassionate practice, describes three kinds of pain. The first kind of pain is pain that he knows from experience is not harmful, so when he gets this kind of pain, he will bear with it for awhile, but if he sees himself tensing up, he will use discretion in how to handle it since he wants to be gentle, kind and compassionate to himself as well as all beings. The second kind of pain is pain that he already knows is harmful, so he will allow himself to soften that position in whatever way is necessary so that he doesn’t injure himself, even if it means stopping doing zazen right then. With the third kind of pain he’s not sure whether it’s harmful or not so he will treat it as if it’s harmful until he finds out that it isn’t. This means that he’ll be kind, gentle and compassionate to himself and use discretion about where to go from there. There are many many considerations as every circumstance is different but at all times, since Zen practice is compassionate, our practice starts with ourselves. One must be gentle and kind and compassionate to oneself at all times if one plans to practice Zen.
What’s the matter with having a reason to practice zazen?
I know you’ve said that we don’t practice zazen for any reason, but I don’t remember why. What’s the matter with having a reason for practice? It seems important to have a reason to do the things we choose to do. Why is zazen an exception?
In Buddhism everything has a cause and condition. The main cause and condition for samsara, the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth, is called the three poisonous minds, e.g., greed, hate/anger, ignorance/delusion. If we do zazen for any reason other than itself, we incorporate greed into the picture which immediately defiles our zazen. It turns zazen into its opposite, something we do with a gaining mind, making it no different from all of our other activities. No-gain is a critical point. It verifies our understanding that we don’t practice zazen to “profit” from it.
What is karmic consciousness?

According to the Yogacara teachings, karmic consciousness is the consciousness stored in the Alaya, the deepest level in the sturcture of our mind.  In it is stored a seed from every single action we have ever taken. These are the causes that we have laid down and it is from here that the obstacles on our spiritual path are born. Those of us with serious obstacles can just know that it’s important to pay attention to our actions and especially to have them arise from kindness and compassion as opposed to self-centered thoughts. To my mind, this is the reason humanity’s endless wars are going to continue to be endless.  And if that is so, one of the best things we can do is zazen. In terms of the effect of a single person’s imput into the interconnected whole, zazen which is not self-centered, would be very powerful.

I didn’t know Dogen anwsered lay peoples’ questions by writing them letters. That seems so tender. I was surprised to learn that.
Dogen’s students were men and women, lay and monastic, and he made a point of not discriminating. But when he moved to the north country, living conditions were so hard, the practice became suitable only for the most dedicated and determined male monastic disciples. It wasn’t what he had initially set out to do but was a natural outcome of what became available to him. But if you were a lay woman you could write Dogen a letter with your question and he would answer it.  And then you’d have Dogen’s personal answer in his own handwriting that you could keep! (That’s my greedy mind working, but generosity and compassion is the real point of Dogen’s  practice.)

Set Eight

Everyday prctice.
I’m amazed that Zen teachings equate everyday profane activities, such as teeth cleaning and relieving oneself, with the meaning of the sutras and the teachings of the patriarchs. Can you say more about this understanding?

In the monastery during a practice period which is usually three months of intensive training, each person is given a job to do during the daily work period. The head monk’s job is always cleaning the toilets. Relieving oneself is the other side of eating, part of the wholeness of life.  Just as we don’t prefer life over death (theoretically), we wouldn’t preference taking food in over passing its remains out. Having the head monk clean the toilets demonstrates the essence of Zen practice, the non-discriminating mind. It is our likes and dislikes that keep us clinging to samsara, the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth. 

What does it mean to give away merit?

In Buddhism there is no such thing as an independent individual self such as most of us believe and experience ourselves to be. There is only an interdependent, contunually co-arising network of beings. So “self” promotion or “self” gain, anything featuring one’s self as the primary participant,  is delusional. When we do practices such as giving or zazen or caring for others, we should dedicate the merit of those practices to all beings. That way you are not invoved in gaining behaviors. Your meritorious actions will be clean of greed, one of the three so-called “poisons” that keep us continually cycling through samsara. One way to give away merit is simply to say either before or after your deed: “I dedicate the merit of this practice to all beings.” Use your own words. It’s the intention that counts.

What is a karmic retribution?

It is unfinished negative karma that still needs to be requited, like an unpaid debt. Because in Buddhism everything that happens to us is considered a result of causes and conditions that we ourselves have laid down, all of those causes and conditions need to be addressed in some way before we can fully develop. Another way to say this is that by making amends for our past transgressions, we grow spiritually. A good example of this is the disciple who came to Huike (the second patriarch of Zen Buddhism) asking him to absolve him of the transgression that were causing his illness. That was a perfect way to put his request. Instead of asking for healing from his illness, he asked for healing from the causes of his illness. The question in itself showed his deep understanding. No wonder Huike saw him as a candidate for transmission of the dharma.

Why do we vow to accomplish “impossible things”?

The Bodhisattva Vow: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them/Desires are inexhaustible I vow to put an end to them/Dharma Gates are boundless, I vow to enter them/the Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it”—is all about “no matter what.” Katagiri Roshi points out that we are saying we vow to do what we will never be able to do, and therefore must continually repent that “transgression.” But the attitude—”Even though it’s impossible, I vow to do it anyway” or “because the cause is so great, even if I never finish, I will spend my wholehearted energy trying”—is the same as Dazu Huike’s saying, “I’m going to stand all night in the snow and wait for you to admit me because no matter what, I’m going to be your disciple;” or, we could say that Huike was simply demonstrating that he already was a bodhisattva (he became the second patriarch of Zen Buddhism). The important point is the non-negotiable attitude. I am going to do this. It’s the bodhisattva spirit.

What is the teaching point of the story you told at the beginning of our talk today about Layman Pang and his daughter, Ling Zhao?
The teaching point is the necessity, as Dogen says, to see the oneness or interconnectedness of all beings, and, as a result, to practice non-discrimination about everything, even life and death. Originally we are one with everything. If someone dies you may say he is no more, but that is not possible. Something that exists cannot stop existing; it can change its form, that’s all. We are always one with everything. In the enlightened minds of both Layman Pang and his daughter this truth was taken for granted. They understood death is nothing because we aren’t going anywhere. When we see the ease with which awakened ones (like Layman Pang and his daughter) faced death, we realize how much work there is left for us to do to fully grasp this profound teaching.
Is it wrong to mourn for loved ones who have passed?
I can understand with my mind that life and death are the same but I can’t with my heart. It’s fine to know that we aren’t going anywhere but when my partner dies, or even when my dog dies, this information doesn’t help me. Is it wrong to mourn for loved ones who have passed?
No. We do love certain beings and it’s even possible for us to love all beings but this leaves out the factor of attachment and clinging. Ideally we would love the beings we love and when they die, we let go and don’t energetically hold them back. Instead most of us, myself included, are focused on how much we ourselves will miss the other one. It’s this missing or attachment that prevents us from fully realizing the truth that life and death are the same. However mourning is entirely natural. It celebrates the person for who they were when they were here. It’s only when mourning prevents the person still alive from living and growing that it can become problematical.
Could you say more about the difference between the bodhisattva path and the non-bodhisattva path? Doesn’t everyone practicing Zen aim to become a bodhisattva?

Yes. Zen is a Mahayana practice and as such its raison d’etre is freeing all beings from suffering. But you don’t need to choose the path of Zen, which is difficult. One way it’s difficult is that a bodhisattva is “homeless.” “Out of compassion, I vow not to enter nirvana, but because of wisdom I am not entirely in samsara.” So a bodhisattva has No Abode; he remains between samsara and nirvana for the sake of all beings. The Mahayana is called the Greater Vehicle because of this, but there is Theravadan Buddhism whose practice leads to the same depth of understanding without the concern for all beings. Because I’m a Zen student you hear a lot about bodhisattvas, but there is another way. Actually, there are many other ways and other vehicles. You have to choose your path.

Sometimes I am wracked with indecision and cannot decide what to do next. So I waste a lot of time and tell myself “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway because everything is empty.” Then I forget why that’s not the right way to think.

I can say two things: 1) We can’t use ultimate truths, like “everything is empty” to solve conventional truth problems, e.g. “What should I do next?”  We live in the world moment by moment and we need to pay close attention to every detail of that world, enter each detail fully and behave correctly.  We can’t jump to some ultimate truth that we don’t even understand (because they are beyond our thinking minds) to justify our current preference.  2) We practice, not to attain enlightenment but to express the enlightenment that we already have.  We are not trying to get anything or control anything.  When you can’t figure out what to do next, why don’t you do zazen?  At least you will be expressing your true nature.  And, by the way, “empty” means “empty of independent self-nature” not “nothing.”

What does “taking another step” mean?

You might also call it “challenge,” which has a risky “let’s try and see” quality.  Rock climbers or long distance runners or skiers have this built into their sport.  Each time they go out there will be something to deal with that they didn’t know about or maybe have never come upon.  So taking another step away from the self means to push our edges, to try something new, do something in a different way or think about something from a different perspective.  Whenever I’m forced to do something differently, even driving a different way to work, I learn something.  The point is to not settle into thinking you know who you are.  Even if you always do the same thing, inside you can be challenging it.  Is this the best way?  What if I tried that?  Switch things up.  That’s taking another step away from the self we think we are.

Why does Dogen say that literature is meaningless and that his indulgence of reading it should cease immediately?
Dogen knows that this human life that we have earned may not happen again. The human life is the only one where enlightenment is available. Therefore, to his mind, there is only one thing to focus on in this short lifetime and that is to “attain enlightenment.” Since this is difficult, it requires all our energy. That’s why people go to monasteries. At such a place they can practice full time and they have support and community. Dallying around with literature may be lovely, but we have more important things to do. That’s his point. Still, even he didn’t resist reading and writing it. There’s human nature for you!

Set Nine

“Where there is suffering there is joy of suffering”–I don’t think, honestly, that there is a chance for me to get there. I don’t see myself ever being able to find joy when I am miserable.

The misunderstanding here is with the word “suffering.”  You are thinking of it as one or many of your life circumstances but the Buddha is thinking of it as the fact that you are incarnated and therefore must suffer old age, sickness and death.  This inescapable truth is the suffering to which he refers.  It was when he was a prince and saw those things that he left home to find a way for beings to escape the trap of endless cycles of births and deaths.  To this end he formulated the Four Noble Truths.  The Fourth one is the Eightfold Noble Path by which beings can be upright and end their cycles of transmigration.  During his lifetime, the Four Noble Truths was Buddha’s main teaching.  He taught it repeatedly to everyone he met for forty years.

Regarding “If you do things not because of Buddha, or truth, or yourself, or others, but for the things themselves” what I have noticed is that when I clean to make things clean, I feel tired afterwards and usually want to rest, but sometimes, when I remember to clean to make things feel that they have been taken care of, I feel bouyant. So it must be true but how do I remember?

Just cultivate the relationship between you and the thing.  For example, I  have quite a flourishing garden of plants in my studio and I know for a fact that I do not have a green thumb.  But everyday, at first because I was so thrilled that they weren’t dying, I got into the habit of misting them.  The better they did, the more enthusiastic I got about misting and now I make sure to mist every single leaf and find myself talking to them encouragingly while I do this.  Now that I feel that the plants have definitely responded to my care, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.  So that’s my point.  Develop a relationship with the things you clean.  Ask them how they prefer to be cleaned?  Does your wood table want this cleaner or that cleaner & polisher?  Experiment.  See if you can start a real conversation and know where in your body that this is taking place.  You will enjoy yourself.  It’s like making a new friend.  You won’t forget.

Would you explain the lines “When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not need to perceive they are buddhas; however, even though they don't know, nonetheless they are enlightened buddhas and they continue actualizing Buddha.” I don’t get it.

These words underline the theme “we don’t do zazen for our own purposes.”  Actually, we don’t “do” zazen at all, zazen does zazen, though we do have to put our body in the right shape.  But even though we don’t experience any benefit or learning of any kind from our efforts and we start to feel that it’s a waste, even so there is enormous benefit, not just for us personally but for the whole interconnected universe.  Since that truth is an ultimate truth, we cannot know it with our minds.  So that’s why Dogen says, “When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not need to perceive they are buddhas; however, even though they don’t know, nonetheless they are enlightened Buddhas and continue actualizing Buddha.”  Since we can’t grasp ultimate truths, we take them partially on faith and partially on an instinct that tells us that this is true beyond our understanding.  Unlike the popular view, faith plays a big part in Buddhism.  

Regarding putting ourselves in good circumstances with good people, I am aware that in today’s alcoholic culture, almost any time you are with others, alcohol is there and if you don’t drink, you will not be in the same vibrational sphere. It’s like if we want to be social, we need to drink. Does that mean most people are bad people?

Most people are not bad people but most people are not interested in spiritual development.  Case in point–all the work that we are doing learning about basic Buddhism wouldn’t appeal to most people whom often, as Chinese Zen Master Hua put it, “lack good roots.”  It is sad.  When you begin to practice you will also begin to meet others who practice.  Practitioners, who often practice together very early in the morning, find it hard to drink.  But to answer your question, people who drink aren’t “bad,” but their habits are not ones that would serve our purposes to follow.  All the more reason to find a sangha.  As Dogen so eloquently put it, If we encounter good conditions, the mind becomes good.  If bad conditions draw near, the mind becomes bad.  Do not think that the mind is fundamentally evil.  We should simply follow good circumstances.

This is a kind of big question but I hear the word “silence” a lot in these teachings and I wonder why silence or quiet is so important. Nature is not silent. Animals and birds and whales. Even the air is not silent. Could you explain?

Katagiri Roshi speaks of this eloquently: “In terms of the universe of Buddha’s eye, silence is exactly as-it-is-ness, or what-is-just-is-of-itself.  It is very quiet.  Buddha’s teaching always mentions this.  If we want to know who we are and touch the real, silent, deep nature of our life, we must be as we really are.  That is why sitting (zazen) is very important for us.” In short,  silence is important in that it allows us access to who we really are within a world that, one might say, makes a lot of noise.  The more silence you find in which to rest, the more you will crave it so that you can sink into yourself.

I procrastinate too and then the next day, especially if it is beautiful and sunny, I forget all about my promises not to and continie to procrastinate. I’m just surviving instead of living but I also see that I do it again and again.
It actually helps to recognize when you are slouching through your “precious human life” (as it is called in Buddhism). Some people just haven’t looked at their life carefully. They will spend all day working hard at a job they don’t like and then spend the evening “winding down” from their hard work, in effect turning their entire life into this non-meaningful adventure. If you suggest a practice like zazen, they’re too busy or tired from being too busy. Often the excuse is money with the vague idea of “someday I’ll get a different job.” But those who have made a Lifetime Personal Vow know what they’re after and can organize their life around that. They are not as “at risk” for feeling their life was more or less meaningless when it ends. I think your dissatisfaction with where you are now means you are on the verge of changing. Awareness of just surviving instead of living is the prelude to change.
Is “Right Effort” always Continuous Practice?

Yes. And “continuous” means “daily.” Including weekends. For example, in Zen monasteries it is customary to observe any day with a 4 or 9 in it as a “day off.” What is a “day off?” A day off is a day off work. The schedule is the same until after breakfast and picks up again at evening service which is just before dinner. After dinner there are two periods of zazen as always before bed. What is “off” is morning work period, noon service, afternoon work period and study hall. Lunch is a bag lunch. Zazen is never missed. That is our model. I know very well from my writing practice that missing a day makes it harder to get back the next day. It always seems to work that way even after years of practice. Whatever amount of time you have to sit zazen is fine. But it should be practiced every day. Not in spurts. This is a key point.

I love the image of weeds in my mind changing into nourishment but frankly I’ve never seen it. Are there some minds where this doesn’t happen? So far, from my zazen practice, I’m not getting any particular nourishment. It’s still mostly painful.

I’m thinking that besides the more mundane level of understanding, when Suzuki Roshi uses this image, he is referring to the eight levels of consciousness. To review, the first five are the consciousness aroused by our sense organs and their objects, the sixth is our ordinary thinking mind, the seventh is our ego and the eighth is the alaya (storehouse) in which are laid the seeds of every action across our lifetime. The seventh consciousness feeds off the eighth. So the ego is a bundle of ignorance normally. With zazen practice, precept practice and practice of the paramitas (the perfections e.g., generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyful effort, concentration and wisdom) ignorance is turned into wisdom. This is not over-night but a gradual turnover to the other side of the same coin. I have observed this in my dharma brothers and sisters. After years of continuous practice they are entirely different people. But “practice” is continuous. That’s its nature. When you make something a practice you do it everyday. It becomes a definition of you and you will see the difference. It’s very profound.

I don’t understand the image of “reaching back for your pillow in the dark” as an expression of Avalokitesvara’s thousand-hands-and-eyes compassion.

Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of compassion whose iconographic image is one with a thousand arms and eyes. It means she or he (it can be either) sees the suffering in the world and reaches out to help. She doesn’t stop to consider is this being worth helping? She reaches out like we reach out for our pillow in the dark. Our pillow has slipped out from under our head. We grope in the dark to find it and pull it back from wherever it is to its rightful place under our head. She’s a bodhisattva notice, not a buddha. Bodhisattvas are Buddha’s work force. Her whole purpose is to help others with her enormous and unbiased compassion. It is said that the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of Avalokitesvara. From that you get a perfect picture of simply helping wherever you can.

I have a lot of suffering and I see so many around me also suffering and now the whole world is suffering and I feel completely helpless. This idea that the sole reason for the existence of Buddhism is to relieve suffering, which I keep forgetting, how does this work?
Don’t apologize for forgetting. Everyone does. It takes awhile fully to digest Buddhism. If you remember Siddhartha’s story, however, it’s easier. (Siddhartha was the Buddha before he had his awakening experience.) He was a prince and was protected from seeing the way commoners lived by his father the king. Accidentally on various unauthorized trips to the village, he saw sickness, old age and death. His shock aroused a great desire in him to solve this terrible problem. And he did this by leaving the palace and meditating and doing various austere practices for six years. From his deep insights through sitting he saw the interconnectedness of all beings and later developed a method (a skillful means) to teach others what he had realized: the four noble truths and the eightfold noble path (the fourth noble truth) e.g. All beings suffer (transmigrate)/There is a cause for this suffering (karma)/suffering can be stopped (it is possible)/here’s how to stop suffering (follow the eightfold path). Basically this path addresses our three main attachments: greed, anger, wrong views. I mean he tells us what to do!  We are not helpless. The Eightfold Path is a menu for selflessness and abandoning what’s called the three attachments that keep us locked into samsara. Following it closely your life becomes an offering. Lives that are offerings live on. That’s how it works. I hope you pin the eightfold path on your refrigerator and practice wholeheartedly. Thank you for asking. Your question helps everyone.

Set Ten

How is Suzuki Roshi’s buying wilted lettuce a form of self-respect? It doesn’t make sense.
To practice our way we eat this food–this line from our meal chant–is how Big Mind is included in our practice. Big Mind includes in its thinking the entirety of the interconnected universe.To think “this is just a vegetable” is not our understanding. We must treat things as part of ourselves, within our practice and within Big Mind. This is an especially tender teaching because it relates to food which is so personal. The reason Shakyamuni’s disciples begged for their food (so that their bodies were fed but they ate what they were given) and ate before noon (so they weren’t having to think about preparing food for the rest of the day) was to detach themselves from greed (one of the three poisons–greed, anger, wrong views that keep us in samsara). They ate what was offered by the people who lived in the houses on the block that they were passing that day. No control. End of story. The point is that they ate to practice our way, not to have a delectable meal. By begging they gave away their greed. So Suzuki Roshi’s rescuing the wilted lettuce was rescuing a part of himself that was dying. He felt for the lettuce, for himself and for the entire inter-connected universe in one gesture.
I don’t really understand “Rules are not the point. The teaching that the rules will ‘catch’ is the point.” I’m not getting how rules “catch” anything. They just seem like rules.

Rules provide something for you to look to, other than your own desires and preferences. And they require actions with your body, so it’s not enough to just agree or disagree. They leave your mind out altogether. In following them mindlessly, your body learns the real lesson of  “right here, right now.” It bypassesses what you think about this or that or how you feel. In taking you out of your “small” self, it gives you a glimpse of your “big” self. Big self is what it catches. Since Zen is about studying your Self, naturally monasteries are set up to help you do this, but you can set your own life up this way too. I encourage you to do so if you haven’t already.

Do we have “magnanimous mind” when we take what we think is the right side in a political situation?

Magnanimous mind is about not having biases or preferences, personal likes and dislikes, because they lead to desire, attachment, craving, clinging, the very things that keep us in samsara continually cycling through births and deaths. It would seem that political discussions are more about moral and ethical issues that often require a stance. Not taking one can be tantamount to allowing violence or flagrant cruelty and brutality to rule. Still, in order to keep our minds open and flexible, we need to be willing to hear what the other side says also. Dogen’s phrase “being unprejudiced and refusing to take sides” would have been referencing disputes within a community of Buddhist practitioners. Causing a schism within the monastic community is one of the few actions for which one will be irrevocably expelled. But this is not about who you vote for for president. One way to use “magnanimous mind” in making such a decision, however would be to use the criteria of The Teaching of All Buddhas, e.g., refrain from evil, practice all good and benefit all beings. Which candidate comes closest to representing this rather than himself?

Suzuki Roshi said if you have a real taste of our practice, you can enjoy it all the time, whatever you do. I definitely don’t understand.

Roshi says, “When you practice zazen, moment after moment, you accept what you have now, in this moment and you are satisfied with everything you do. Because you just accept it you don’t have any complaints.He means that you are who you are and when you make a mistake then you, like all humans, see that there you’ve gone and made another mistake and you grow to accept that, and especially you grow to respect the consciousness of that. Once you have the consciousness, you work with yourself on deeper and deeper levels and that naturally becomes very interesting and satisfying. Especially when your zazen-practice-mind spills over into your daily-life-mind. Things change. You will see. Don’t forget Dogen’s words about life itself being one continuous mistake. It’s very normalizing and makes watching yourself increasingly enjoyable because there is curiosity instead of judgment.

What does “painted cake” mean? Suzuki Roshi uses this expression which I’ve never heard.

I think I am a perfect example of this. A “painted cake” is something that looks luscious but since you can’t eat it, it doesn’t nourish you in the slightest. When I was at Tassajara I was practicing with the thought of who I wanted to be, not at all who I actually was. Indeed, I was so enamored of the image of who I wished I was, that it didn’t occur to me that I totally was not that. I was practicing outside the truth of me (gazing at a painted cake) in order to study the truth of me (being at a monastery), with the upshot of feeling lost and highly self-critical. Mirrors are super handy. Whenever someone offers you a critique, you should listen carefully. If it’s not true you can throw it away, but you can at least hear what someone thinks they see in you and hold towards yourself a magnanimous mind.

My question is on this idea of our always having a “mind that is not busy.” When I am “not busy” I am either surfing the web, watching Netflix, or checking my phone. I’m quite sure that this is not what the phrase is alluding to. What exactly does it mean? Is it certain that we all have it?

Yes it is certain, not simply that you have it (so that you can lose it) but that you are it, because this mind that is not busy is the mind of “suchness.” Suchness, or ultimate you, flourishes in stillness and dead silence. In zazen sometimes there is a moment when one feels “locked in” sort of, as if one’s body is cinched in its single place and the mind is still in its single place even while thoughts arise and float away like clouds naturally. It’s very fluid yet at the same time stable. “Cinched” isn’t the best word but it does convey “firmly held” which is important. We all have access to this place which is arrived at through continuous practice. Try to touch this place in yourself and follow it. It’s there. It’s your basic natural self without adornment. Busyness is adornment, and all the examples you gave are forms of that.

Why does Suzuki Roshi say that if you’re very very busy, it’s a sure sign that you are wasting your time?
If you are very very busy it’s a sure sign that you are not practicing–both in the sense of quiet mindfulness (regularly relating back to the part of you that is not busy) and in the sense of not making time for zazen. People who are very very busy are the ones who can’t find even five minutes. So from a Buddhist perspective their life is entirely turned around, focused on what is not important and neglecting what is most important. It’s also an indicator of a person who has not yet aroused the mind of awakening because that’s the mind that knows zazen is the most important because that’s the activity most likely to prepare one for awakening by way of settling oneself on oneself. If that is you, going from being very very busy to very busy might be a good start.
Why shouldn’t we try to figure out who we are? I thought that was our goal? If we don’t know who we are how can we proceed?

In today’s talk, Dongshan was speaking from an ultimate point of view. From that standpoint, figuring out who you are implies that you are something that can be figured out and pinned down and perhaps made to stay that way, but who we actually are is not like that. First of all, we are empty of individual independent existence. So we are suchness or thusness which cannot be pinned down or even expressed in language. We are “one with the snowy field” actually but that is an ultimate truth that we cannot fathom with our minds. That said (holding this ultimate truth in your mind), you must then go ahead and ascertain things like your correct line of work and correct partner and correct vocation(s). Figuring out who you are in the “real” world is important and necessary; but knowing you are ultimately something that can’t be expressed in language is Dongshan’s point.

( On reframing Buddhist conventional and ultimate truth using contemporary language, see next question.)

Would you explain briefly how Cynthia Bourgeault reframes the Buddhist understanding of conventional/ultimate truth using a computer analogy?

Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest who writes and lectures on the world’s wisdom traditions, says we are born with two “operating systems”:

  1. The egoic operating system, our ordinary, everyday awareness, which we need to function in the world. It’s a binary/dualistic system that thinks in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, before and after, up and down. In spiritual traditions it’s often called ego or everyday mind and it’s seen as ultimately illusory even though we can’t function without it.
  2. We are also born with a non-dual or unitive operating system, the operating system of the heart, not heart as an emotional center but heart as an organ of spiritual perception. It connects us with a “seamless and indivisible reality” through a whole different way of organizing the informational field. “Whatever we call this seamless and indivisible reality at the center of our being,” she writes, “our role in this human plane is to bring it into form and fullness.”

I think this a helpful way of expressing in contemporary language the ancient Buddhist teaching on conventional and ultimate truth. But it’s just an analogy–is it helpful to you?

(See: Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus. Shambala, 2011).