Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen

July 1969
San Francisco

Morning.

In America between Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen, there must be some clear understanding of the relationship of the two. Dogen Zenji's problem or koan was, “If we have buddha-nature, why should we practice zazen?” That is why he went to China. All the scriptures say that everyone has buddha-nature. If so, why should we practice zazen?

Soto puts more emphasis on the statement that we have buddha-nature. And Rinzai puts emphasis on practice to attain enlightenment. If we have buddha-nature, like Soto students say, why is it necessary [laughs] to attain enlightenment? And, usually people understand that “we have buddha-nature” means that potentially we have buddha-nature. We have buddha-nature within ourselves, but that buddha-nature is covered by many things: many evil desires. Or because of bad karma we cannot realize buddha-nature. But, if we practice zazen, if we get rid of evil nature, the buddha-nature, which is innate nature, will reveal itself. Usually people understand in that way. But, as the Sixth Patriarch said, that is nihilism. Anyway, people understand in that way to explain why we must practice zazen.

But, this understanding is not true understanding, even according to the usual understanding of sutras. We try to understand Buddhism in just our ordinary way of thinking. That is maybe why we cannot understand why Dogen had to go to China to understand that point. If he understood in that way, there would have been no need for him to go to China. If by our practice, by stopping all sorts of evil desires, we will attain enlightenment, we will have no trouble, and our buddha-nature will reveal itself because there are no evil desires which cover our innate nature. If he understood in that way, there would have been no need for him to go to China.

But, that kind of understanding is just a usual understanding which you can accept intellectually, but you cannot accept it emotionally in its true sense. Your mind says, you think, or you can explain why we should practice zazen intellectually. But, actually if you try to attain enlightenment in that way, you will be discouraged because it is not possible to annihilate all the evil desires you have. One student out of a thousand, cannot attain enlightenment in that way. So, naturally Dogen Zenji couldn't be satisfied with that kind of answer. So he actually went to China, not to study the philosophy of Buddhism. He wanted to accept Buddhism as his own teaching. He was a very sincere person. He couldn't be satisfied with the usual, intellectual, philosophical understanding of Buddhism, although he was an eminent philosopher. He actually established a very profound Buddhist philosophy. But, even so, he couldn't be satisfied with his Buddhist philosophy, and he went to China. And after he received transmission from Nyojo Zenji,1 he described this point from various points.

So, he is the one who understood what is enlightenment and what is real practice. What do the Sixth Patriarch or old Zen masters mean by practice and by enlightenment? This is the point Dogen Zenji strived to explain.  And he thought people of his time would not understand this point fully. He wrote his understanding for his descendants, who may understand his point.

This morning I want to briefly explain this point: enlightenment and practice. What is enlightenment and what is practice? According to Dogen Zenji, enlightenment equals practice. We use soku. Soku means “equal,” but not just equal. When you say “equal,” two sides are equal. Although they look different, if you change their form, the two things are equal as when you solve a problem of algebra. If you change the form, both sides are equal. But, when we say equal without changing [laughs] anything, that is equal. If practice and enlightenment are the same if you attain enlightenment, that is equal. Practice and enlightenment are equal, the same.

But when we say soku, “equal,” it means that without changing [laughs] form they are equal. They are the same. This is rather difficult to understand. Practice equals enlightenment. [Laughs.] It means that the other side of practice is enlightenment, and the other side of enlightenment is practice. He understood in that way. So, there is no need to change practice into enlightenment, and there is no need to change enlightenment into practice. Without changing, practice and enlightenment are the same. That is his understanding of our practice.

Now, as I said last time, in Rinzai Zen they put the emphasis on kensho. To put emphasis on kensho means actually to put emphasis on our practice. To encourage our practice, they put emphasis on kensho. But actually, kensho is not the actual goal of practice. Practice itself is important. Kensho is just candy. [Laughs.] You strive for candy, and you make good practice. That is why Rinzai puts the emphasis on kensho.

Soto puts the emphasis on practice. Forgetting all about our practice is shikantaza, as you know. We forget all about kensho and fully devote ourselves to practice. So, actually [laughs] both Rinzai and Soto put emphasis on actual practice. And, if you talk about kensho in the Rinzai school it’s said: numberless small enlightenments and several big enlightenments. What does it mean? Small, numberless enlightenments [laughs], and big, several enlightenments. If enlightenment is a goal of practice, one enlightenment will be enough [laughs]. Why do they want so many, numberless, numerous enlightenments? And several big ones? [Laughs, laughter.] You know, it is just words, just means of encouraging people to follow Buddha's way, to continue our practice forever. From beginningless beginning to endless end, we should follow Buddha's way because Buddha's way is the true way. And for Buddhists, there is no time to stop our efforts to save people and subjectively to save ourselves. That is why we have four vows.2

I think it is necessary both for Rinzai and Soto to have this kind of clear understanding of our practice or Buddhism. Forgetting all about the fundamental teaching of Buddha, just to put emphasis on Rinzai or Soto means nothing. As you know, in all religions the most important point is to have a conviction to follow the truth. That is, in other words, faith, or to believe in, or to trust in the truth, whatever happens to us. That is our basic attitude for human life.

Rinzai people—because we are not sincere enough—they put emphasis on kensho. But Soto puts emphasis on attitude or belief. So, naturally Soto is more rigid in our practice, or more formal. To have strong conviction to follow the truth means to try to have strong faith in our buddha-nature, and to have determination to try to follow the truth, or to try to help people. So naturally, instead of putting emphasis on kensho, we Soto students should follow the rules of our monastery or rules of our life.

For Soto students, it is necessary for you to organize your life so that you can practice zazen well. For Rinzai students, it is necessary to reach the point where you don't mind your everyday problems so much, so that you can easily follow the Buddha's way. That is more the Rinzai way.

Nowadays we have many Soto followers in Japan and many priests. But originally Dogen Zenji tried to have just several sincere students. We say “one by one,” or “half by half” [laughs]. He said one or half by one or half [laughs]. Half by half. [Laughing.] Half is enough, if he is sincere.

So, the relationship between teacher and student should be very close. We say if one is someone's disciple, one should make calligraphy exactly the same as their teacher. In America you have signatures. Your handwriting is your signature, but it doesn't work like that in Japan. We practice calligraphy so hard that one can imitate someone's calligraphy exactly the same as [laughs] your friend does or your teacher does.

That close a relationship is necessary, not by imitation, but from the bottom of your heart. So, how you learn Japanese—Oriental—culture is to imitate, your teacher's way. And when you are able to imitate his way, like his own calligraphy, you can establish your own way after you are able to imitate your teacher's way. And, after you acquire fully your teacher's way then, if necessary, you should create your own form of calligraphy. But not before [laughs] you can imitate his way exactly the same.

My teacher was not my father. But people said when I laughed, [laughs]: “You must be, your teacher's secret boy [laughs, laughter] because the way you do things, the way you laugh, way you speak, and way you make your voice are exactly the same as your teacher. So, your teacher must be your father,” they said—not every one of them, but some people said. That is more the Soto way.

But the point is to give up selfish ways as much as possible. Not completely, because it is not possible to give up our selfish ideas. And we know that is impossible. We continue our practice forever. But, you may say, if it is not possible to complete it, it does not mean to try to annihilate evil desires. But it is not so. That is not Buddhist effort. Even though it is not possible [tapping table with each word], if it is right we should follow the way. It is not a matter of possible or impossible. Even though it is impossible, if it is right, or if we want to do it, we should do it. At least we should try to do it.

Maybe both the Rinzai way and the Soto way are necessary, I think. If I wanted you to be completely Soto students or Soto disciples, I would not allow you to have long hair [laughs]. I wouldn't. At first even that much confidence is necessary, if you want to follow the Buddhist way from the starting point. That is more the Soto way. “Even though you don't like it, you should do it!” Do you understand? That is the Soto way. The Rinzai way is: “Practice zazen! Practice hard until you have kensho! Whether you have long hair or dirty shoes, it doesn't matter. Practice zazen hard!” [Taps stick three times.] That is more the Rinzai way. If he attains enlightenment, it will not matter whether his hair is long or not. In whatever costume he is, it doesn't matter.

But the Soto way is: “Why don't you shave your hair if you are a Soto student?” [Laughs.] That is a difference. So whether you like it or not, we will force you to [laughs, laughter]—we will put you in a square box! [Loud laughter.] Instead of putting emphasis on enlightenment or kensho. The same thing, you know.

In the Rinzai way there is more freedom, maybe. In the Soto way you don't have freedom until you have complete freedom, until you feel freedom in your everyday life. So, if you stay in the Soto way for several years, strictly observe the Soto way, you will not have many problems in your—

[Sentence not finished. Tape turned over.]

—in its true sense, giving up self-centered activities.

So, we shouldn't be too much attached to the idea of Rinzai or Soto. But we should know the point. I think when we understand this point, I am very much grateful for Dogen Zenji who was sincere enough to find out this point clearly. According to him, there is no Soto or Rinzai, or no Zen even. We are all Buddha's disciples. That is enough, he said. He was a person who was sincerely devoted to Buddhism and wanted to be a good Buddha's disciple. Fame or rank was not his point, or how many students he had, that was not his point. To be a good disciple. Even if no one knows who he is—that is not his point. He wanted to be a good disciple. But he wanted to help real disciples. He didn’t mind how many students he had. If he had one good disciple, that was enough for him. Or even if he had no disciples, maybe he would not regret that, because he wrote so many things for his descendants, who may understand his way. Usually, even priests are very much attached to his achievement, in its worldly sense. Because of him, I think, we came to this kind of understanding of Zen.

Last year at Tassajara, Peter [Schneider] asked me to speak about non-sectarianism [laughs]. And, after I gave the lecture, he said: “That is sectarianism!” [Laughs, laughter.] Maybe our sectarianism is non-sectarianism: sectarianism of non-sectarianism. [Laughs.]

And Dogen says, also people may say, “Zen,” but no patriarchs called themselves Zen masters. Even though people said “Zen,” there is no need to call ourselves Zen. We are not Zen Buddhists. We are just Buddha's disciples. If to understand Buddhism in that way, or to understand Zen in that way is sectarianism, we are very sectarian. But it is not so, actually. At least we have to be sincere enough or honest enough to accept his teaching, giving up our selfish viewpoint or criticism.

Thank you very much.
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1 Tiantong Rujing (Tendō Nyojō): 1163–1228

2 "Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them," etc.

Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Sara Hunsaker. Checked by Bill Redican (2/24/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (12/2020).