Berkeley Zen Center

Lecture by Sojun Roshi

This lecture is reprinted from the May 2003 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

On the Metta Sutra

(Part One)

            Prajna, or wisdom is the foundation, and Metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upeksha (equanimity) are the venues of its expression. I don’t care how enlightened we think we are, how much we know, or how many koans we pass, if we don’t have this well-rounded embodiment, it’s not enlightened practice. If we don’t know how to take care of others and control our emotions and feelings with equanimity and settled-ness, free from reactivity, then everything we know doesn’t amount to much.

This is the way the Metta Sutta (or Sutra) starts out in this translation: “This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise.” “The one who is wise” means the one in whom prajna is manifest. The next line is, “Who seeks what is good and has obtained peace.” Peace here can mean nirvana or “cooled off,” grounded in equanimity and ceasing to be attached to greed, ill will, and delusion.

“Let one be strenuous,” is the next phrase. We can say various things about this. Dogen uses the phrase, “Exerting continuous effort, upright and sincere.” In zazen, we don’t lean to the left or to the right, we don’t lean forward or backward.  We just sit up straight. To sit up straight is to be upright in all of our activity. This is how we carry ourselves into the world. Whether or not we are able to cross our legs, uprightness is the essence of zazen. Even if we can’t sit upright with our body, we can sit upright with our mind and with our attitude.

Then the sutra says, “Sincere, without pride, easily contented and joyous,” which is what Dogen says in his fascicle on the eight aspects of an enlightened person. Another translation says, “Noble speech, gentle and humble.” Those are also good qualities. This sutra is translated in many ways. Another translation says, “To have few duties and Right Livelihood.” I think what this means is not to take on too much. Being able to say no when we know that something will be too much, and taking care of each thing we do thoroughly, knowing how much is enough. That’s very hard to do. Suzuki Roshi did it very well. Some of us have trouble even with just a few duties while others can take on many things and handle them easily. Suzuki Roshi was a really great exemplar of how to do one thing at a time. Things would pile up on him, but without seeming to get busier he would thoroughly attend to just the next thing at hand. When he was doing what he was doing, that was the whole world and then we would just go on to the next thing.

One time Suzuki Roshi said in a lecture that the root of the character for patience is a kneeling man with a sword just touching his head. Patience has this kind of quality. No matter how many things are closing in, we maintain our composure.  When “this” is done, we take care of “that.” And always without giving in to anticipation. I often say to the doan, “Don’t hold the beater in position while waiting for the next bell, just keep it in your lap. When it’s time to ring the bell, then ring the bell. I know this is easier to say than do, but this is what we should be working toward. Not anticipating. Suzuki Roshi once said to me, “Don’t be ahead of time or behind time.” Similarly Dogen exhorts us, “Just be one with time.”

Student:  Is there a time to anticipate? We just went through a period where we were engaged in anticipation, wondering what would happen. [The student is referring to an incident at Tassajara where the creek was overflowing and threatening to flood.]

Sojun:  That’s why I said this is a great test with all that is going on. One moment we walk out headed for our usual activity, and then suddenly we find ourselves digging trenches to divert the water that is coming down the road toward us. How do we respond? How do we let go of one thing and take up another without losing our composure? We can worry about it, but how do we stay settled? I like this kind of emergency. Something unexpected suddenly happens. This is where our practice is tested.

Student:  Someone brought us a great gift a few weeks ago. He wore a t-shirt that said, “Worry is not preparation.” It’s easy to tell myself these things. But it’s different when something is happening right then and there.

Sojun:  When push comes to shove, you just do the best you can. It’s like Katagiri Roshi said:  In the Army, you train, you drill, you fire at the range and get all prepared. But when you go into battle, you just shoot, or freeze, or whatever. But you continue training. And when you are more seasoned, you become more settled when you act. You could say that this is our training.

Student:  You can train for emergencies by sitting very still.

Sojun:  Yes. If you have anticipation in zazen, it doesn’t work. If you have a goal in zazen, it doesn’t work. Just settle in the present activity with composure. When this freedom becomes so much a part of you it becomes your mode. Zazen is the teacher. None of us is perfect. It takes time, you can’t just make it happen. Master Quei-Shan said, “It’s like walking in the fog. Unawares your clothes get wet.”

(The first of several Parts.)

Tassajara, Spring 1995 

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Last revised 5/20/03. Copyright 2000 Berkeley Zen Center.
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