Lectures by Shunryu Suzuki
This is Marian Derby's lightly edited transcript of a lecture given by
Shunryu Suzuki in Los Altos. These lecture transcripts of Marian's, the
first lectures by Suzuki which were recorded and transcribed ('65 or so), were
re-edited and became Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. This one is found
on page 55 of that book and is titled
In India there were many schools. We count six major schools, but we can classify those schools in two. As you know there were four classes in India, and the first class was the Brahman class, and they believed in some different existence which is called Atman. And our world in terms of phenomenal world was supposed to be the unfolding of divine being, and it reveals itself through sages. So in nature divine nature reveals itself through sages. This is the Brahman's teaching. But on the other hand there was a public religion. They postulated many elements, and this world is the integration and disintegration of the elements. Why I refer to these ideas is because it will give us a clearer understanding of our practice. Indian thought before Buddha was based on the idea of component materials, or elements. Nowadays we may classify being as mind and body, or physical being and spiritual being, but at that time they classified in a very difficult way to understand -- for scientific mind it is rather difficult. They classified air or space and wind element, and water element, and earth element. So their practice was to make the physical element weaker and the spiritual element powerful.
But human beings are an accumulation of spiritual and physical elements, so the only way is to make physical element weaker and to make the spiritual element freer, because the physical element usually binds the spiritual element, so they practiced asceticism. But this asceticism will make our practice more and more idealistic because there is no limit to the effort to make our physical power weaker. This effort will continue until we die. If we die that is the end of the war. According to Indian thought, if we die we will have next life, and we will continue our actual life we have again. We will repeat it over and over again. So we will have to repeat those efforts over and over without attaining perfect enlightenment. At the same time this kind of effort mistakes the purpose for the result, because even though you think you make your physical strength weak enough to make your spiritual power free, while you are practicing asceticism it will work, but if you resume to everyday life your weak body will not work, and so you have to make your physical strength more powerful, and then you have to repeat same thing over and over again. We are laughing at them, but actually some people are practicing this kind of practice. So however hard we may practice our way we will not gain any result.
To help our everyday life is the purpose of practice. Buddha's way is quite different from this kind of practice. He is not interested in the elements of which being is consisted. He is not interested in it. At first he practiced asceticism, according to their public way of understanding practice. And he also observed Brahman's Hinduistic way of practice, too. But Buddha was not so interested in metaphysical existence, and he was not so interested in the theology or philosophy, but he was more aware of how he, himself, exists in this moment. That was his point.
You make bread from flour. How flour becomes bread was his main interest. If you put it in oven -- how paste-like thing becomes bread was his interest. So how we become enlightened was his interest. The enlightened person is some perfect, desirable character, for himself and for others. That is the ideal character. How human being become god was his interest. How various sages in the past time became sages was his main interest. So our way is to put paste in the oven over and over again and see how it becomes bread. Once you know how the paste becomes bread you will understand what is enlightenment. So how this physical body becomes sage is our main interest. So we don't mind what is the flour or what is the paste. Sage is sage. There's no explanation for sage. If he has desirable character he is sage no matter if he is Christian sage or Buddhist sage. It doesn't matter. Sage is sage. Metaphysical explanation of human basic nature is not the point. So this kind of practice cannot be too idealistic. Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread. That is our way. So there is no secret in our way. Just to practice zazen and put ourselves into the oven -- that is our way.
This traditional way from Buddha to us, through the Chinese way, resulted in various unique cultures, and you can see the characteristics of Buddhist culture. For instance, painting or language are good examples. For instance, the Japanese language is a combination of phonetic signs and Chinese characters, or pictures, or symbols, such as mountain or river. So according to the person who writes the character, the character expresses some unique nature. So although the character itself is the same, the meaning or feeling changes. In Japan we emphasize feeling or aesthetic meaning. Anyway, according to the person who makes the character it changes, but the character is the same. So we say, "Mountain is mountain, river is river." That is true. But mountain is not mountain. In your language if I say, "Mountain is mountain," it means nothing. Subject and predicate should not be the same. There must be some difference, but the difference cannot be expressed in the statement, "Mountain is mountain." But we understand, "Mountain is mountain." That is good enough for us. The intention of the statement is involved between mountain and mountain. Mountain is mountain. The most important thing is hidden. It doesn't take the form of statement. So when we paint something somewhere the blank place has its true meaning. So we are not too much concerned about the character itself, but the meaning of the character covers all the space, and the character is already something expressed, but in the space there are many things which are not expressed yet, so the secret is the blank space rather than that which is written in the corner of the paper.
This kind of understanding is something like putting paste into the oven. It looks like a vague and purposeless practice. No one will be so interested in cooking -- every day making the same thing over and over again. But Buddha was very much interested in how paste becomes perfect bread. So he did it over and over again until he became successful in making bread. That was his practice. So his practice covered the whole paper, not just some corner of the paper. But all the paper. How one sheet of paper becomes art -- that is his way. So whether you use black ink or color is not the point. If you can produce something beautiful, that is art. So this kind of practice has no danger in repeating, and it will help your everyday life. There is no harm in it, but it is rather tedious. If you lose the spirit of repeating it is pretty difficult, but it is not difficult if you are full of strength -- vitality. Then it is not difficult. We cannot keep still. We have to do something anyway. So if you do something you should be very observant, and careful, and alert. This is our way.
So this kind of way is not an idealistic way. If an artist becomes too idealistic he will commit suicide because between his ideal and his actual ability there is a great gap. So he will become despairing and commit suicide because there is no bridge long enough. That is the usual spiritual way. But our spiritual way is not so idealistic. But in some sense we should be idealistic -- at least we should be interested in something very good -- tastes good and looks good. That is our way.
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