the most important precept

Friday, August 1, 1969
Tassajara

As a Buddhist, of course, the most important precept is to believe in Buddha and his teaching and his disciples. Buddha for us is someone who attained enlightenment—not only historical Buddha but also Buddha's disciples who attained enlightenment is buddha. And still this is in its narrow sense. In its wider sense, whether we attain enlightenment or not, we are buddha—not only human beings but also various beings, animate and inanimate. Even something like stone is buddha, in its wide sense. So everything is buddha in its wide sense.

But, the religion is mostly for human beings who when we say “buddha,” usually mean someone who attains liberation is buddha. It may be better to understand in this way to avoid conflicts. And “his teaching,” we say, but when we say “his teaching,” we do not mean something which is written in scriptures. Mostly, even though you read the so-called king of the scriptures, the Lotus Sutra, it may be difficult for you to understand because it was written in pretty ancient times.

And, we know that it is not directly told by Buddha, so this point makes it more difficult to have faith in that scripture. Nowadays, or from ancient times, when we say dhamma,1 dhamma is truth in its wide sense. So that which is written in scripture is not all the dhamma we mean. It is a part of dhamma, or it is dhamma in its narrow sense. In its wide sense, truth is the dhamma, especially in Zen. We believe in no teaching [laughs].

It is also up to our attitude of living. If we attach to some teaching, or if we are bound by a teaching, even though it is good, if we think, “This is the best teaching,” then that is not a Buddhist teaching anymore. When we read it, we should be completely free from and appreciate the meaning of the teaching. That is how we understand dhamma. And sangha is, of course, Buddha's disciples, and those who practice Buddha's teaching are sangha.

I think tonight I want to explain mostly what is dhamma, especially, and what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism.

Teaching will be classified in two ways: pure teaching and teaching for human beings. For instance, science is also teaching for us, but science is not directly related to our human life. Of course it is related, but not directly. You may think science is more helpful than Buddha's teaching [laughs], but it is not so. For instance, Buddha said, “When you are shot by a poisonous arrow, do you discuss the nature of poison?  What poison is it? Is it acid or some other poison?” No one discusses the poison. To discuss what kind of chemical it is, is science, and to pull out the arrow is [laughs] Buddha's teaching. So, teaching how to pull out the poisonous arrow is another teaching. And, to know what kind of poison it is, is another teaching. Both scientific true pure teaching, which is always true whether a human being studies it or not, may be teaching Number 1. And, teaching Number 2 is how to attain liberation for human beings.

I think why mostly young people become interested in Buddhism is because you are tired of teaching Number 1. And, the teaching you study as Number 2 teaching is very old. And, especially teaching Number 2 is based on the value over life, like: Which do we like, money or spiritual attainment? Which is more important, the person who is learned in the sense of science, or who attains liberation in the spiritual world? This is a kind of value.

The way you evaluate things is a basic standard of teaching Number 2. Nowadays, your standard of life, your understanding of life, changes. It's changing little by little. You are not interested in the old standard of life, which is mostly based on comparative value. For maybe ten or twelve years or more, young people in Japan have been interested in Communism because the viewpoint or standard of evaluating things is different.

So, people started to be interested in it, but when we study more and more, we find that this kind of standard is not much different from our standard which we have of  pride in our human life. And, the Buddhist way of evaluating things is quite different from the usual viewpoint. But this evening, I'm not talking about this kind of thing because it is necessary to discuss our life from various viewpoints, including politics [laughs], and social science.

Tonight I want to explain Buddha's teaching as a Number 1—as a philosophy or as a more scientific viewpoint. As you know, the fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that everything changes. This is the fundamental teaching, which is always true and which is true wherever you go. Even if you go to heaven, this is true. Even if you go to hell [laughs], this is true. Wherever you go, there is nothing which does not change. We say Buddha is a teacher of all the teachers, or a teacher of the three worlds.2 It means that his teaching is always true, wherever you go. It is true in the past, present and future. Even if you go to the moon, everything changes [laughs]. Even if you go to Mars, everything changes. So wherever we go, his teaching is always true.

Why this teaching is so important is because—actually we do not accept this teaching completely. So for us, it is necessary to make this teaching sure. And it is necessary to accept this teaching. When you want to accept this teaching, it is necessary for you to have teaching Number 2. When you just talk about Buddha's teaching, like me [laughs], whether you accept it or not, or whether I completely accept it or not, just to talk about it like a scientist or philosopher, this is teaching Number 1. But, most religions put more emphasis on teaching Number 2, the teaching just for human beings.

Of course, we Buddhists put emphasis on teaching Number 1. But, we Buddhists for a long time, studied our teaching as a teaching Number 1, from a historical viewpoint, or from a scientific viewpoint, or from a philosophical viewpoint. Not only special teachings for human beings, but also teaching for every being. So when we say “sentient beings,” it includes everything, not only human beings. A dog, or a cat, or a worm—everyone—everything—every animate being—not only animate beings but also inanimate beings—are included. So accordingly, Buddhism looks like a very cold teaching, but on the other hand, it is more universal and a more scientific teaching.

Now, the teaching “everything changes” could be extended to the teaching of selflessness. Selflessness, you know, in its usual sense, means don't be selfish. It looks like some rules. But when we say, “Don't be selfish,” it means you cannot be selfish. Even though you try to be selfish, you cannot be selfish because everything is changing. Even though you try to be selfish, who is you, when everything is changing?

We should not understand we exist in the same way always, in relation to others. For instance, if I know I am [not] always like me in this moment, if I know that, I cannot be angry with you so much because tomorrow I shall be some other person. When I think I am always like me, I become angry with you. But that is not true. I cannot be angry with you. There is no reason to be angry with you. Or there is no reason why I should try to convince you in some special way because I cannot always be this way. I don't know, I may change my mind tomorrow. No one knows [laughs] what will happen to me. But, when I am trying to convince you of something, it means that I am always like this, and what I think is right is always right. But actually it is not so.

Even though I think it is right at this moment, tomorrow I don't know what I will say. That is very true. If we know that everything is changing, even though I think, here is a cup like this [moves cup across table and takes a sip of water], but this cup cannot always be like this. Moment after moment, the cup is changing. If someone breaks it, I shall be disappointed. But, if I know that this is always changing, I shall not be discouraged so much because I know someday it will be broken.

We expect something to be always the same, but that is not true because everything is changing. So, even though we expect something to always be the same, to expect something always the same is not possible. And, if you expect something to always be the same, it will cause suffering because even though you expect something to be the same, it changes. When you see something changed, you will be discouraged. So, to expect something always to be the same is a cause of trouble for you.

The same truth—“things are always changing”—in one way is truth itself, and it is the truth—something to do with you. And, Buddhists do not ignore teaching as a teaching Number 1. Even though we say, “Don't be like this,” it means that the foundation of the teaching is Number 1 teaching always. This is one of the characteristics of Buddha's teaching.

Even though we say, “Don't be selfish,” the meaning is quite different. What we mean is it is not possible for us to be selfish. And, if you try to be selfish, it will create some trouble for you. And, you should know that. So, even if no one asks you to be unselfish, you should know whether it is possible to be selfish or not. What we mean is not prophetary [?]3 teaching, but some teaching which you should know by yourself and which you should study by yourself. So, our teaching is not, in this sense, that which was told by Buddha. Our teaching is something which you should realize by yourself.

The sangha, or Buddha's disciples, or the relationship between Buddha and Buddha's disciples—both are independent. A disciple should not always be dependent on his teacher. We should try to study our way by ourselves. Teachers can help you in some ways. But a teacher cannot help you completely because our teaching is not that which you can study literally. And teaching itself should always be changing. Today's teaching cannot be applied for tomorrow. Day after day, you should continue to study our teaching according to the circumstances.

A famous Zen master Hyakujo4 was a disciple of Nansen.5 He said, “If I am like my teacher Nansen, even if I have the same power as my teacher, I shall lose half the value of my teacher. So disciples should be better than our teacher.”6 That is what Hyakujo said. It means that why we have disciples is because teaching should be changing always and should be extended always. And, we cannot apply the same teaching all the time. That is why you study Buddhism and you study our teaching. The teaching itself should be changing as everything changes. The teaching that everything changes is a very important teaching for Buddhists.

Nowadays people are very much interested in the statement, “everything changes” just to ignore old ways of life, but we should know the depth of the teaching that everything changes. And, we should try to understand this teaching directly. As Dogen Zenji said, “The teaching ‘everything changes' is not some teaching which you realize after many years' practice. It is teaching you should directly know.”

When we say, “to have direct experience of it,” what we mean is to appreciate things not because something is useful or not, not because something is favorable for us or not.  At Eiheiji there is a bridge named Hanshaku-kyo.7 Hanshaku-kyo means Half-Dipper Bridge, because Dogen Zenji, after using half of the water from the dipper, always returned the rest of it to the river. Half-Dipper Bridge. At Eiheiji there is a valley like Tassajara, and the stream is full of pure water. There was no need to return water to the river after he used half of it. But he always returned it to the river.

Usually water is valuable only when you don't use so much water as we do in a sip. But at Eiheiji monastery we cannot wash our face with a bucketful of water. We always use 70% of the water.8 Usually we evaluate things depending on whether we have a lot of it or not. If we haven't so much, the water becomes valuable. And, our economic principles are based on our labor and the things we have. And, if we don't have some particular things— [Sentence not finished. Tape turned over.]

—this is, you know—whether you think some other principle and evaluating things or not is the point.

Things are valuable usually because the things are produced by labor. We should count labor, but more important is the place we stand up with earth.9 So labor or something which we have plenty of or not, is not counted so much if we know how we exist in this moment. This is a very elaborate intellectual explanation.

But what I want to say is when you sit, you should not think whether this practice is necessary or not [laughs]. Anyway, what I mean is you should sit. That is what I wanted to say, in short. [Laughs, laughter] I go round and round. This is direct experience: to accept yourself as you are. If you always look around like a hungry dog, you will not gain anything. When you are ready to be there, and to accept things which are given to you, then you will find everything valuable. This point is missing in our life.

What we are always trying is to find some measurement, and we are trying to measure ourselves or measure our life. And, if you don't feel good, you try to change your measurement. That is what we are doing. Now, most of our young generation is trying to change all measurements to a new one [laughs]. But don't try to measure things by your eyes. You don't have to depend on measurement. You can measure it by your body, not because someone said this is valuable or this is not so valuable, not because someone said this is old or this is new.

You must accept what’s before you. You don't have to think so much. Mostly you can depend on your intuition. But, you depend on something always. And [tape defective and unclear for 8-12 words] —to accept things as it is and try first by your intuition.

So whether we have plenty of water or not, you should make the best use of it. Whether you can complete your practice or not, you should try first, and when you return to do it, you can do it. When you hesitate, you cannot do it. When you are completely [free?] from everything and try to open your mind, then you will find your own way. And your behavior will change, and your face will change. Everything will change—not only you, but whatever you see. Things will change. Then, sometime, you can enjoy your measure to explain [laughs] various ways. But you shouldn't depend on measurement.

This is pretty difficult practice, but you will see it [?]—try. This is how we accept the teaching that things change. Because things change, we should be concentrated on each moment.

Thank you very much.
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Source: City Center original tape. Verbatim transcript by Sara Hunsaker. Checked by Bill Redican (3/1/01). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (12/2020).

1 Suzuki used the Pali pronunciation, so that spelling is used.

2 Possibly triloka (Sanskrit), the three worlds or spheres that make up samsāra.

3 Suzuki pronounced it “pra-FEET-a-ree,” and had difficulty with the word. The transcriber's best guess is “prophetary,” as in pertaining to a prophet. Another possibility is “profitary,” as in pertaining to profit.

4 Baizhang Huaihai (Hyakujō Ekai): 720–814. Dharma successor of Mazu Daoyi (Baso Dōitsu), as was Nansen. Suzuki-rōshi may have meant to say "Jōshū" instead of "Hyakujō."

5 Nanquan Puyuan (Nansen Fugan): 748–835. Dharma successor of Mazu Daoyi and master of Jōshū Jūshin (778–897).

6 See also SR-70-06-17.

7 Hanshaku-kyo: a bridge beyond the entrance gate of Eihei-ji. (See also "Nirvana, the Waterfall," in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p. 92.)

8 That is, the monks fill their washbasins only 70%.

9 Possibly an allusion to Dōgen's statement, "Those who fall to the earth should stand up by the earth," in Shōbōgenzō "Inmo." Dōgen in turn was quoting the fourth Indian patriarch Upagupta in Keitoku Dentōroku (Keitoku Era Record of the Transmission of the Light), Chapter 1. (See also lectures SR-69-09-00-B, SR-69-09-00-C, and SR-71-08-21.)