We talk about enlightenment, but in its true sense. Enlightenment is completely beyond our understanding, beyond our experience. Even in imperfect practice, enlightenment is there.
Buddha Appears – Opens the Path to Enlightenment
This is a lecture by Japanese Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971) at Tassajara meditation hall a long time ago, now republished in the Buddhist journal Lion’s Roar on May 19, 2017. The Zen master is the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and the Mount Tassajara Meditation Center. Many of his teachings have been compiled into books, including the very famous Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In our practice, the most important thing is to realize we have Buddha nature. We know it, intellectually, but it’s hard to accept. Daily life is in the realm of good and bad, the field of duality, while Buddhahood is found only in the absolute, where there is neither good nor evil. There is a double reality. Our practice is to go beyond the realm of good and bad, and to realize the absolute. It can be hard to figure that out.
The famous Zen master Hashimoto, who passed away in 1965, said that the way we (Japanese) cook is to prepare each ingredient separately. The rice is here, the pickles are there. But when you put them in your stomach, you don’t know which is which. Soup, rice, pickles and everything mixed together. It is the world of the absolute. As long as the rice, pickles, and soup are kept separate, they don’t work. You will not be nurtured. This is like intellectual understanding or book knowledge – it remains separate from your real life.
The practice of zazen is about blending the different understandings we have and letting them work together. A kerosene lamp cannot work just because it is full of kerosene. It also needs air to burn, and even if it has air, it needs matches. With the help of matches, air and kerosene, the lamp worked. That is our zazen practice.
In the same way, even if you say, “I have Buddha-nature,” it is not enough. If you don’t have fellow initiates or sangha, it still won’t work. When we practice with the help of the sangha – helped by the Buddha – we practice zazen in its true sense. We will have light blooming here in Tassajara meditation hall or in daily life.
Of course having the experience of enlightenment (so to speak) is important, but what is more important is knowing how to regulate the fire in zazen and in our daily lives. When the flame is in a fully burned state, you don’t see the smell of oil. When the lamp smokes, you smell something. You might recognize it as a kerosene lamp. When your life is in a state of complete burning, you don’t complain and see no need to pay attention to your practice. If we talk too much about zazen, it is a kerosene lamp that already has smoke.
Maybe I am a kerosene lamp full of smoke. I don’t necessarily want to preach anything to anyone. I just want to be with you guys: move rocks, take a hot spring bath, eat something delicious. Meditation (zen) is right there. When I started talking, the kerosene lamp was already smoking. As long as I preach, I have to explain: “This is the right practice, this is wrong, this is the way to practice zazen…”. It’s like someone giving you a recipe. That formula doesn’t work on its own. You cannot eat the recipe.
Usually, a Zen master will say, “Practice zazen and you will attain enlightenment. If you attain enlightenment, you will let go of everything, and you will see everything as it is.” Of course that is true, but our path is not always like that. We are learning how to adjust the size of the flame. Dogen Zenji1 (Zen Master Dogen) made this point clear in Shobogenzo2 (Buddhist Dharma Eye). His teaching is to live each moment in a state of complete combustion like an oil lamp or candle. Living each moment, becoming one with all, was the highlight of his teaching and practice.
Practicing Zazen is a very delicate affair. When you practice zazen, you become aware of what you are not paying attention to while you work. Today, I’ve been moving around for a while, and I don’t feel any fatigue in my muscles. But when I sit quietly in zazen, I realize, “Oh! My muscles are pretty worn out.” I feel pain in many places in my body. You may think you can practice zazen better if you don’t have a problem, but actually having a problem is necessary. Doesn’t have to be something big. Thanks to difficulty, you can practice zazen. This is a point of special significance, which is why Zen master Dogen said: “Practice and enlightenment are one.” Practice is something you do consciously, something you do with effort. That’s it! Enlightenment is right there.
Many Zen masters fail at this point, while they strive to attain complete zazen: whatever exists is imperfect. Everything in this world really exists like that. Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But even within imperfection is perfect reality. This is true intellectually and also true in the realm of practice. This is true on paper and true in our bodies.
You think you can only create authentic practice after you achieve enlightenment, but that’s not the case. Authentic practice is built on illusion and in frustration. If you make a mistake that’s where you create your internship. There is no other place for you to create an internship.
We talk about enlightenment, but in its true sense. Enlightenment is completely beyond our understanding, beyond our experience. Even in imperfect practice, enlightenment is there. We just don’t know. Therefore, the emphasis is on finding the true meaning of practice before one attains enlightenment. Wherever you are, enlightenment is there. If you stand upright right where you are, that is enlightenment.
This is the so-called I-don’t-know zazen. We no longer know what zazen is. I don’t know who I am. To find complete stillness when you don’t know who you are or where you are, is to accept things as they are. Even though you don’t know who you are, you have acknowledged yourself. That is “you” in its truest sense. When you know who you are, “you” will not be you in reality. You can overestimate yourself too easily, but when you say, “Oh, I don’t know,” that’s you-you, and you know you fully. That is enlightenment.
I think our teachings are good, very good, but if we become arrogant and believe in ourselves too much, we will go astray. There will be no more teachings, no more Buddhism. When we find the joy of living in our stillness, we don’t know what it is, we don’t understand anything, then our mind is so vast. Our mind is open to everything, so it’s big enough to know, before we know anything. We are grateful even before we get anything. Even before we reach enlightenment, we are happy to practice our way. Otherwise we gain nothing in its true sense.
Thank you very much.
Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki
Translated by Cao Huy Hoa