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Wherever You Are, Enlightenment is There


Two talks by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, from Not Always So, a book of this great Zen master's teachings. 

Letters From Emptiness

Shikantaza1 is to practice or actualize emptiness. Although you can have a tentative understanding of it through your thinking, you should understand emptiness through your experience. You have an idea of emptiness and an idea of being, and you think that being and emptiness are opposites. But in Buddhism both of these are ideas of being. The emptiness we mean is not like the idea you may have. You cannot reach a full understanding of emptiness with your thinking mind or with your feeling. That is why we practice zazen.

We have a term, shosoku, which is about the feeling you have when you receive a letter from home. Even without an actual picture, you know something about your home, what people are doing there, or which flowers are blooming. That is shosoku. Although we have no actual written communications from the world of emptiness, we have some hints or suggestions about what is going on in that world—and that is, you might say, enlightenment. When you see a plum blossom, or hear the sound of a small stone hitting bamboo, that is a letter from the world of emptiness.

Besides the world which we can describe, there is another kind of world. All descriptions of reality are limited expressions of the world of emptiness. Yet we attach to the descriptions and think they are reality. That is a mistake because what is described is not the actual reality, and when you think it is reality, your own idea is involved. That is an idea of self.

Many Buddhists have made this mistake. That is why they were attached to written scriptures or Buddha's words. They thought that his words were the most valuable thing, and that the way to preserve the teaching was to remember what Buddha said. But what Buddha said was just a letter from the world of emptiness, just a suggestion or some help from him. If someone else reads it, it may not make sense. That is the nature of Buddha's words. To understand Buddha's words, we cannot rely on our usual thinking mind. If you want to read a letter from the Buddha's world, it is necessary to understand Buddha's world.

"To empty" water from a cup does not mean to drink it up. "To empty" means to have direct, pure experience without relying on the form or color of being. So our experience is "empty" of our preconceived ideas, our idea of being, our idea of big or small, round or square. Round or square, big or small don't belong to reality, but are simply ideas. That is to "empty" water. We have no idea of water even though we see it.

When we analyze our experience, we have ideas of time or space, big or small, heavy or light. A scale of some kind is necessary, and with various scales in our mind, we experience things. Still the thing itself has no scale. That is something we add to reality. Because we always use a scale and depend on it so much, we think the scale really exists. But it doesn't exist. If it did, it would exist with things. Using a scale you can analyze one reality into entities, big and small, but as soon as we conceptualize something it is already a dead experience.

We "empty" ideas of big or small, good or bad from our experience, because the measurement that we use is usually based on the self. When we say good or bad, the scale is yourself. That scale is not always the same. Each person has a scale that is different. So I don't say that the scale is always wrong, but we are liable to use our selfish scale when we analyze, or when we have an idea about something. That selfish part should be empty. How we empty that part is to practice zazen and become more accustomed to accepting things as it is without any idea of big or small, good or bad.

For artists or writers to express their direct experience, they may paint or write. But if their experience is very strong and pure, they may give up trying to describe it: "Oh my." That is all. I like making a miniature garden around my house, but if I go to the stream and see the wonderful rocks and water running, I give up: "Oh, no, I shall never try to make a rock garden. It is much better to clean up Tassajara Creek, picking up any paper or fallen branches."

In nature itself there is beauty that is beyond beauty. When you see a part of it, you may think this rock should be moved one way, and that rock should be moved another way, and then it will be a complete garden. Because you limit the actual reality using the scale of your small self, there is either a good garden or a bad garden, and you want to change some stones. But if you see the thing itself as it is with a wider mind, there is no need to do anything.
The thing itself is emptiness, but because you add something to it, you spoil the actual reality. So if we don't spoil things, that is to empty things. When you sit in shikantaza, don't be disturbed by sounds, don't operate your thinking mind. This means not to rely on any sense organ or the thinking mind and just receive the letter from the world of emptiness. That is shikantaza.

To empty is not the same as to deny. Usually when we deny something, we want to replace it with something else. When I deny the blue cup, it means I want the white cup. When you argue and deny someone else's opinion, you are forcing your own opinion on another. That is what we usually do. But our way is not like that. By emptying the added element of our self-centered ideas, we purify our observation of things. When we see and accept things as they are, we have no need to replace one thing with another. That is what we mean by "to empty" things.

If we empty things, letting them be as it is, then things will work. Originally things are related and things are one, and as one being it will extend itself. To let it extend itself, we empty things. When we have this kind of attitude, then without any idea of religion we have religion. When this attitude is missing in our religious practice, it will naturally become like opium. To purify our experience and to observe things as it is is to understand the world of emptiness and to understand why Buddha left so many teachings.

In our practice of shikantaza we do not seek for anything, because when we seek for something, an idea of self is involved. Then we try to achieve something to further the idea of self. That is what you are doing when you make some effort, but our effort is to get rid of self-centered activity. That is how we purify our experience.

For instance, if you are reading, your wife or husband may say, "Would you like to have a cup of tea?" "Oh, I am busy," you may say, "don't bother me." When you are reading in that way, I think you should be careful. You should be ready to say, "Yes, that would be wonderful, please bring me a cup of tea." Then you stop reading and have a cup of tea. After having a cup of tea, you continue your reading.

Otherwise your attitude is, "I am very busy right now!" That is not so good, because then your mind is not actually in full function. A part of your mind is working hard, but the other part may not be working so hard. You may be losing your balance in your activity. If it is reading, it may be okay, but if you are making calligraphy and your mind is not in a state of emptiness, your work will tell you, "I am not in a state of emptiness." So you should stop.
If you are a Zen student you should be ashamed of making such calligraphy. To make calligraphy is to practice zazen. So when you are working on calligraphy, if someone says, "Please have a cup of tea," and you answer, "No, I am making calligraphy!" then your calligraphy will say, "No, no!" You cannot fool yourself.

I want you to understand what we are doing here at Zen Center. Sometimes it may be all right to practice zazen as a kind of exercise or training, to make your practice stronger or to make your breathing smooth and natural. That is perhaps included in practice, but when we say shikantaza, that is not what we mean. When we receive a letter from the world of emptiness, then the practice of shikantaza is working.

Thank you very much.

Wherever You Are, Enlightenment Is There

In our practice the most important thing is to realize that we have buddhanature. Intellectually we may know this, but it is rather difficult to accept. Our everyday life is in the realm of good and bad, the realm of duality, while buddhanature is found in the realm of the absolute where there is no good and no bad. There is a twofold reality. Our practice is to go beyond the realm of good and bad and to realize the absolute. It may be rather difficult to understand.

Hashimoto Roshi, a famous Zen master who passed away in 1965, said that the way we [Japanese] cook is to prepare each ingredient separately. Rice is here and pickles are over there. But when you put them in your tummy, you don't know which is which. The soup, rice, pickles, and everything get all mixed up. That is the world of the absolute. As long as rice, pickles and soup remain separate, they are not working. You are not being nourished. That is like your intellectual understanding or book knowledge—it remains separate from your actual life.

Zazen practice is mixing the various ways we have of understanding and letting it all work together. A kerosene lamp will not work merely because it is filled with kerosene. It also needs air for combustion, and even with air, it needs matches. By the aid of matches, air, and kerosene, the lamp will work. This is our zazen practice.

In the same way, even though you say, "I have buddhanature," that alone is not enough to make it work. If you do not have a friend or a sangha, it won't work. When we practice with the aid of the sangha, helped by Buddha, we can practice zazen in its true sense. We will have bright light here in the Tassajara zendo or in our daily life.

To have a so-called enlightenment experience is of course important, but what is more important is to know how to adjust the flame in zazen and in our everyday life. When the flame is in complete combustion, you don't smell the oil. When it is smoky, you will smell something. You may realize that it is a kerosene lamp. When your life is in complete combustion you have no complaint, and there is no need to be aware of your practice. If we talk too much about zazen, it is already a smoky kerosene lamp.

Maybe I am a very smoky kerosene lamp. I don't necessarily want to give a lecture. I just want to live with you: moving stones, having a nice hot spring bath, and eating something good. Zen is right there. When I start to talk, it is already a smoky kerosene lamp. As long as I must give a lecture I have to explain: "This is right practice, this is wrong, this is how to practice zazen…" It is like giving you a recipe. It doesn't work. You cannot eat a recipe.

Usually a Zen master will say: "Practice zazen, then you will attain enlightenment. If you attain enlightenment you will be detached from everything, and you will see things as it is." Of course this is true, but our way is not always so. We are studying how to adjust the flame of our lamp back and forth. Dogen Zenji makes this point in the Shobogenzo. His teaching is to live each moment in complete combustion like a lamp or a candle. To live each moment, becoming one with everything, is the point of his teaching and his practice.

Zazen practice is a very subtle thing. When you practice zazen, you become aware of things you did not notice while you were working. Today I moved stones for a while, and I didn't realize that my muscles were tired. But when I was calmly sitting zazen, I realized, "Oh! My muscles are in pretty bad condition." I felt some pain in the various parts of my body. You might think you could practice zazen much better if you had no problem, but actually some problem is necessary. It doesn't have to be a big one. Through the difficulty you have you can practice zazen. This is an especially meaningful point, which is why Dogen Zenji says, "Practice and enlightenment are one." Practice is something you do consciously, something you do with effort. There! Right there is enlightenment.

Many Zen masters missed this point, while they were striving to attain perfect zazen: things that exist are imperfect. That is how everything actually exists in this world. Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right there in the imperfection is perfect reality. It is true intellectually and also in the realm of practice. It is true on paper and true with our body.

You think that you can only establish true practice after you attain enlightenment, but it is not so. True practice is established in delusion, in frustration. If you make some mistake, that is where to establish your practice. There is no other place for you to establish your practice.

We talk about enlightenment, but in its true sense perfect enlightenment is beyond our understanding, beyond our experience. Even in our imperfect practice enlightenment is there. We just don't know it. So the point is to find the true meaning of practice before we attain enlightenment. Wherever you are, enlightenment is there. If you stand up right where you are, that is enlightenment.

This is called I-don't-know zazen. We don't know what zazen is anymore. I don't know who I am. To find complete composure when you don't know who you are or where you are, that is to accept things as it is. Even though you don't know who you are, you accept yourself. That is "you" in its true sense. When you know who you are, that "you" will not be the real you. You may overestimate yourself quite easily, but when you say, "Oh, I don't know," then you are you, and you know yourself completely. That is enlightenment.

I think our teaching is very, very good, but if we become arrogant and believe in ourselves too much we will be lost. There will be no teaching, no Buddhism at all. When we find the joy of our life in our composure, we don't know what it is, we don't understand anything, then our mind is very great, very wide. Our mind is open to everything, so it is big enough to know before we know something. We are grateful even before we have something. Even before we attain enlightenment, we are happy to practice our way. Otherwise we cannot attain anything in its true sense.

Thank you very much.

Note 1.  “Shikantaza is commonly translated as ‘just sitting’; it could also be described as ‘not suppressing and not indulging thinking.’ But Suzuki had various ways to express it: ‘Live in each instant of time,’ or ‘Exhale completely,’ or ‘Shikantaza is just to be ourselves.’ It is one of those expressions that can be endlessly explained and not explained at all, and certainly if you ever stop to wonder if “this” is shikantaza, it probably isn’t.”—Ed Brown, from the introduction to Not Always So.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971) was founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and a pivotal figure in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. His teachings have been published in the classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and in Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai. These two talks are from Not Always So, an outstanding new collection of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings edited by Edward Brown and published by HarperCollins. © 2003 by Shunryu Suzuki. All rights reserved. 

Wherever You Are, Enlightenment is There, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Shambhala Sun, May 2002.

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