zazen practice and to listen to right teacher

Monday, August 3, 1970

In our practice two important practices are zazen practice and to listen to your teacher, or right teaching. This is just like two wheels of a vehicle. Without practice, you cannot understand teaching, you cannot listen to your teacher. And without listening to your teacher, your practice cannot be right practice. By right practice we mean fundamental practice from which you can start and from which various teachings will come out. So, if you have right practice, you have already right teaching there. So, right practice is the foundation of all Buddhist activity. Right practice. It cannot be compared to various other practices or training. There are many ways of Zen practice. There are many practices, zazen practice, meditation practice, but our practice cannot be compared to other practices. I don't say which is important or which is better, but anyway without a foundation, various practices do not work. So, if you practice some particular practice which has no foundation, you will eventually fall into a hole [laughs]. You will be caught by it, and you will lose your freedom. But if you have the foundation for various practices, they will work and will help you. Right practice means that kind of foundation of practice. It is more than practice. So, when you have a foundation for your practice, even if your practice is not perfect, it will help you. That is right practice. And if you want to know what right practice actually is, as I told you, it is necessary to practice with a teacher who understands right practice.

And right practice is also the foundation of our precepts. When you do not have right practice, you will hesitate to accept precepts, but if you have right practice, you can accept precepts. Whatever the precepts may be, you can accept them. Precepts for people who have right practice are called “bodhisattva precepts,” in comparison to some other so called “Hinayana practice precepts,” which are quite different. The way of observing them is quite different. Last night I talked a little bit about it. I said if you do something good, you have no time to do something bad. That is how you keep precepts.

Why we say “bodhisattva precepts” is because it is based on bodhisattva mind. As you know, bodhisattva mind is to save all sentient beings before you save yourself. That is bodhisattva mind. To save others is first, and to save ourselves is second. Or we say, bodhisattva mind. Bodhisattva mind is a spirit to devote ourselves to saving others.

How you arise bodhisattva mind will be the next point. You will ask me how to arise bodhisattva mind. Many people ask me about this point. A question will be something like this: 

I have various problems, and you always say you should not try to attain enlightenment. You should not be involved in selfish practice. If so, to try to save others is also a gaining idea because it has some purpose or some idea of doing something. So, that will not actually be bodhisattva mind.

Actually, we will have this kind of question always. To practice purely you start to try to do something, to help others. But you may wonder whether you are doing something to help others or to help yourselves [laughs]. It is very difficult to know which. I think you may suffer on this point a lot, as I did when I was young. Whatever I tried, while I was trying continually doing something, more and more I lost my confidence. For instance, if you clean a restroom as your everyday task—

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You get up before your friends get up, and you clean our restroom. So, that no one—why we get up so early is to keep our practice pure, so that we would not be involved in selfish practice. So, if no one can see our practice, then if my mind is pure, the pure practice will go on. But when someone sees you doing something, immediately some conflict arises, especially if he is your teacher [laughs]. You don’t know how to feel. The feeling is very complicated. In one way you will be glad to be found out by your teacher [laughs], and on the other hand, you may feel very bad when you have a kind of good feeling or joy of being found out by someone. “Now, [laughs] what you are doing?”

This kind of problem is a problem you have always. So, it is not so easy to arise bodhisattva mind. It is not so easy at all. Why it is difficult is because you do not have the right teacher or because you do not know exactly how to arise bodhisattva mind. The answer is very simple [laughs], but I think it is good for you to suffer [laughter, laughs] on this point, or else your practice will be very superficial. Of course, trying to save others you may say is bodhisattva practice, but if some impure element is in it, you cannot have confidence in your practice. I know many students who have this kind of conflict or problem.

Anyway, I think I have to explain, since I started to talk about this point. Dogen Zenji asks—What is mind? There are three kinds of mind. But usually by mind we mean thinking mind: thinking mind is mind. Usually, with this thinking mind, we must arise bodhisattva mind. This is very valuable, and this is a great help for us. Usually, you may think after you attain enlightenment, when your mind is very clear, and when you have no more dualistic thinking mind, you will arise bodhisattva mind [laughs]. But Dogen Zenji did not say so. He clearly said there are three kinds of mind. First of all, we have thinking mind, dualistic mind. With this dualistic mind you should arise bodhisattva mind.

Why you are confused in helping others and why you suffer, when you reflect on your mind is because it is almost impossible to be free from dualistic thinking mind and emotional and superficial mind. But Dogen Zenji says with that mind you should arise bodhisattva mind. Yesterday and the night before, I told you, whatever your practice may be, that is true practice. Dogen said whatever your mind situation may be, with that mind you can arise perfect bodhisattva mind. You know, this is why Dogen is Dogen [laughs]. This is why we must have Dogen as a Zen master. Sometimes what he says is quite unusual. And so unusual that you may be confused. What he is saying is with dualistic mind you should arise bodhisattva mind.

Then why do we practice zazen? [Laughs.] There would not be any need to practice zazen, if it were possible to arise bodhisattva mind with dualistic thinking mind. If it is possible for us to arise bodhisattva mind and to receive bodhisattva precepts, then you should, even though your practice is not so good, and you are always involved in dualistic thinking mind and emotional activities.

Actually, as I always repeat, our practice is not a practice which you can explain completely. Our practice is something beyond our understanding. And Dogen says, how we will arise bodhisattva mind is to know the teaching that everything changes. Everything changes—it’s absolutely true, [laughs] you cannot deny it [laughs, laughter]. So, you should know completely—accept completely that teaching: everything changes.

So, originally things are changing. So, no one can say in its ordinary sense, I can observe these precepts forever [laughs]. You cannot say so, anyway. Even if you attain enlightenment, that is not possible. No one can be sure about anything. So, how it is then possible to say, “I will observe it,” is moment after moment. At least in that moment, you should say, “Yes, I will.”

On that moment—each moment includes its own past and future. That moment will be extended in four directions and to the past and future. That is also true. So, as you practice zazen, you should say, “I will do it.” Without doubting whether you can observe it forever or not. There is no need from the beginning [laughs] to say, “No, I cannot.” You cannot say so. When you really seeing things as it is, there is no position for you to say, “No.” The only way is, “Yes, I will.” That's all that you can do.

To understand the evanescence of life will be at the same time how to arise bodhisattva mind. Bodhisattva mind is not dualistic thinking mind. This point is also Dogen Zenji’s point right now. Dualistic, confused mind is not bodhisattva mind, but even our confused mind is good enough to receive inspiration from the truth, from the Buddha. So, when you have dualistic mind and receive that inspiration, at that time you are Buddha. You cannot say, “No. I will not kill,” you know. And that is very true: you cannot kill. But it does not mean in its ordinary sense whether you will kill or not.

And continuously, moment after moment, if you say, “I will not,” then that is how to keep our precepts. So, in short, to always have bodhisattva mind is how you keep our precepts. And if you receive our precepts in that way, those are bodhisattva precepts.

When you work on your garden, there may be various insects [laughs]. What will you do? [Laughter.] If you understand what you are doing is bodhisattva activity, then sometimes you will kill them. By killing insects, you know, you will go to hell [laughs, laughter]. But it doesn't matter [laughter, laughs]. You will go to hell with insects [laughter, laughs]. You will have many friends [laughter, laughs]. “You are stealing our vegetables, so I have to kill you.” But because of killing you, I may go to hell. Because of stealing our vegetables, you may go to hell [laughs, laughter]. Let’s go to hell [laughs, laughter]! That is bodhisattva precepts [laughter, laughs].

Because you want to be a perfect buddha, instead of a bodhisattva, you have problems [laughs, laughter]. This is bodhisattva precepts. So, when you receive precepts, first of all what you should know is everything is ending. And the next point is—this precept is a bodhisattva precept—by observing it, we will help others, first of all.

So, whether you kill a fly or insect or not is up to the situation [laughs]. No one wants to kill anything, but to save others to fulfill your duty, sometimes you must. When you're at Tassajara, when you are taking care of your garden, if you come back, when you see many insects go to the zendo and practice zazen [laughs] we can know, we cannot save anything at Tassajara [laughs].

So, all of us will get into trouble. He may be okay because he didn't kill anything, so he’s perfect [laughs]. But everybody because of that, will get into difficulties. That is not bodhisattva way. That is not true spirit of precepts.

Bodhisattva mind—we may say, “Sentient beings are innumerable, I vow to save them.” If they are innumerable [laughs], how is it possible to save them? But the bodhisattva way continues forever. So, a bodhisattva will go with bodhisattva mind forever. This kind of mind is not, of course, our thinking mind. It is beyond our thinking mind. But even in our dualistic thinking mind, bodhisattva mind like a moon on water, will reflect our mind. That is so called, kannō dōkō.1 So we say, even in a confused mind, Buddha is there. Even in muddy, wavy water, moon will be there.

So, if bodhisattva mind rejects muddy, wavy water, that is not bodhisattva mind which is trying to save everything, whether it is good or bad. Anyway, bodhisattva mind will make an effort to save all life. And because it is almost impossible that bodhisattva mind will continue with our teaching forever, and it will not stop. It will incessantly work on everything. So, that kind of mind of course is not our dualistic small mind. But the relationship between our mind and this mind is very close. You cannot separate them.

The moon in the sky, the moon in the water, is the moon. It has the same quality. Although it is small, a bodhisattva's mind of the moon is there. Dogen Zenji points this out.

Bodhidharma at first did not accept a disciple’s practice. But after trying very hard, and his mind gave up his practice of perfection, Bodhidharma thought, okay he’s pretty good. His practice is mature enough. So, he didn’t say anything.

“Okay, when you understand what I mean, you will be my disciple. But does your practice stop or does it continue forever?”

So, the disciple said, “Of course, it will continue forever. There is no other way. So, anyway, I have to go this way.”

And Bodhidharma said, “Then who are you? Are you my disciple? Or are you deluded? You are not my disciple because you cannot observe our way completely. So, you may not be my disciple, but you are always trying to follow my way. So, maybe you are, or maybe not [laughs]. You cannot say Yes or No.”

So, he said, “I know myself very well after trying so hard, and there's no other way for me to go. That is me. So, I cannot say who I am, your disciple or not your disciple. I cannot say which.”

And Bodhidharma said, “That is the way of all the bodhisattvas, all the patriarchs, how they observe our way.” [Laughs.] That is the bodhisattva way.

So, if we call it by the name of precepts or as a way of life that is bodhisattva precepts. And you can say that is way-seeking mind or bodhisattva way. Bodaishin: mind. Bodai is tao, way-seeking mind.

Dogen Zenji knew still you may not understand. So, he [laughs] started to write many pages after that. [Possible gap in audio.]

How things change. How it’s useless to say forever or right now, or today or one month, one week or one month. For Dogen Zenji it doesn't mean anything. One day, one week, one month, one year, 10 years, it didn't make any difference for him. When things change so rapidly and constantly, it does not make any sense. I'm 66 years old, but I don't feel I’m so old [laughs]. You know, 66 years is just like this, and for you [snaps fingers] maybe [laughs] 20 years or 30 years maybe like this, the same thing.

And in some sutras how fast time goes is in various parables. You may say light is—scriptures say light of the sun and moon is going very fast like this [hisses]. Obviously, it is. When we count, the speed of light is zero or absolute. But in scriptures it says, there's something which is controlling the light [laughs]. That should have a speed faster than the speed of light. And there is some god who is controlling—something which is controlling light [laughs]. That spirit must be faster than that. And they name various gods who are controlling other gods, one after another. And it says, actually its things change faster than that [laughs]. So, you will give up all marks [laughs].

And so, we shouldn't say, “I can keep it” or “I cannot.” So, the best thing is, “Yes, I will.” That is the best answer. You say you cannot say so. If you are able to say, you cannot say, why don't you say, “Yes”? That is much easier. And that word is very truthful to yourself. “Yes, I cannot.” No one can say so [laughter, laughs]. But “Yes, I will right now at least,” that is easy. It is very true. But when you say, “I cannot,” you should take the responsibility.

How you carry on that responsibility of Great Buddha, if it is [laughs] “I cannot say.” So, the only thing will be to give you a big slap [slapping sound] [laughs]. Throw him in the ocean! [Laughter.]

[Knocking sound.] “I cannot say,” or “I cannot do that.” It's very difficult words. “Yes, I can,” is—if you understand how things is going and what you are doing, it is more truthful to say “Yes.” But people think if they say, “No,” they think they are very truthful [laughs]. Opposite! You may understand how arrogant we are when we say, “I cannot.”

That is how we accept precepts and how we arise way-seeking mind with this foolish small mind. This is the only way for us. After great efforts of various teachers of various schools, this is the conclusion.

You may say, Zen is quite special. Zen teaching is special teaching, among all the teachings of Buddhism. So, we have some special ways of observing precepts, but there's no other way. Dogen Zenji was great. As a Zen master, after practicing so hard without doing anything, completely devoted his 54 years of life and came to this conclusion and wrote about it so that Zen students should not have any wrong ideas about this point. So, when we come to this point, there's no Soto and no Rinzai or Shin or Zen school.

To explain in this way is maybe not so difficult. But the more you try hard to be truthful to yourself, the more you will find out how true this teaching is. So, I'm not fooling you. You should just say, “Yes, I will” [laughs]. That is the secret of observing our precepts, and that is how you follow our rules. Then you will be polished[?] up. Day by day, your practice will be mature.

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1 The direct and immediate connection and interaction between teacher and pupil in Zen (www.encyclopedia.com).

Major section added from Engage Wisdom audio and transcribed by Maciej Plonka, Peter Ford, and Wendy Pirsig, 2/2022. Lightly edited for readability by Peter Ford 2/2022.