All posts by Shunryu Suzuki

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, a Japanese Soto Zen priest, came to San Francisco in 1959 at the age of 54. With his Western students, he founded the San Francisco Zen Center in 1962 and he was instrumental in the founding of the Berkeley Zen Center in 1967. Author of the classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki-roshi was one of the most influential Zen teachers of his time. He died on December 4, 1971.

Samu and Soji

We don’t use these terms so much any more. But when our Japanese teachers were with us in the 60s and for some years after, Japanese terms were used for positions and various activities, including Dharma names.

Soji refers to cleaning up: sweeping, mopping, putting things in order after some activity. Every day after morning zazen some of us sweep and mop the zendo and adjust the cushions, leaving it as it was when we came. Others sweep the central area and the paths. This is our first activity together after zazen and service. So refreshing! At SFZC when Suzuki Roshi was abbot, his room was facing the street and he enjoyed the sound of the brooms on the sidewalk below. He said, “Sweeping the path is [akin to] sweeping the mind.” Single-minded activity, zazen in motion.

Samu refers to a longer sangha work project. It could be moving stones or branches together. Twice a year we have a work day, a sangha endeavor to take care of projects long overdue. Samu, Zazen, Dokusan or Practice Instruction, and Teisho (lecture) are the four fundamental activities of practice. All the various rotating practice positions are forms of Samu. We call it work practice. But the terms Soji or Samu give it a slightly different meaning. Sometimes using a foreign signifier gives a fresh meaning to a familiar activity. In the cool morning we sweep the leaves together into small piles. At that time one person holds the scoop and the other sweeps the leaves into it. There is a subtle satisfaction at play in this silent interactive moment when we agree on which is the last leaf, like the pause at the end of a bow. The next moment it is quickly forgotten as we continue our day. Master Hyakujo was famous for saying that a day of no work was a day of no eating.

Not all of us are in a position to contribute this way. In a lay practice many of us are fortunate simply to be able to practice zazen. In that case, being mindful about how we take care of our space in relation to our surroundings and how we treat each other with respect and thoughtfulness is not different.

From a Lecture by Suzuki Roshi

For many of you, Zen is some special teaching. But for us, Zen is Buddhism and not a special teaching distinct from the other schools of Buddhism. So, if you ask me to talk about our teaching, I will talk mostly about the teaching of Buddhism, which started with Buddha and was developed by various teachers in India, China and Japan.

Buddha’s teaching put the emphasis on selflessness. Buddhism is not a special cultural heritage. It is part of Indian thought. And so before Buddhism there must have been some similar teachings as well as some contrary teachings which are in opposition to Buddhism. As you see in the Upanishads there are many similar teaching based on selflessness. Why he put the emphasis on selflessness I believe, is because people at that time had a lot of difficulty because of their strong self- belief.

So, Buddha on the contrary put emphasis on selflessness so that we would have a more balanced understanding of our life. And for people who were trying to find the pleasure of life in this actual present world, he put the emphasis on suffering so that they could understand their life from both sides. So, naturally, his teaching of sitting is through form, and the harmony [of self and no self]. So, sometime he put emphasis on self, instead of on selflessness.

We call this teaching the double nature of Buddhism. Without this paradox of two opposite understandings, we cannot think things through clearly. And what we think will be clear only when we take at least two opposite viewpoints.

Then you will have some reality without being caught by a one-sided idea. But mostly, Buddha’s teaching is based on the understanding of selflessness. Later on his teaching settled into some formal doctrines, like everything changes or the teaching of interdependency or the teaching of cause and effect.

In the Mahayana we have a more advanced philosophical presentation of that teaching, from the Kegon [Avatamsaka Sutra], or the Lotus Sutra. The Kegon put emphasis on jijimuge. Jijimuge is the harmony of each being with the truth and the phenomenal world.

And the Lotus Sutra put emphasis on the understanding that you will have after attaining the experience of emptiness. This is something like Zen. Zen extended this kind of idea through practice and brought the philosophical teaching into our actual experience and demonstrated how to bring this philosophical teaching to life by practicing Zen. In short, to wipe up the dust on the mirror, and to see everything in the reflection of the mirror is our way. Or to erase everything from the blackboard and then write something on it, is Zen.

And we continue this kind of activity, to wipe it clean and then write something on it. Because I try to explain it to you more psychologically or more as our human experience, I put it in this way. But actually what we are doing is just to continue this kind of effort. This is, in other words, detachment.

Detachment means here, to erase [separate from] something. But, actually we cannot, erase what we did [laughs]. Actually that is not possible. But, you feel as if you make up everything and you delude yourself. When you are completely absorbed in the activity of your everyday life, you experience this kind of development of our life force. But even though you study Buddhism nothing happens. And nothing happens even [when] you practice zazen. And, when you feel that way—in your practice—that is enlightenment. Mostly it is difficult for us to wipe everything from our mind. And actually there is no need to do so, and it is foolish to eliminate all of what you have done or the result of your previous activity. That is not possible. And it is foolish to try to do that. But there is a way to develop our everyday life without being bothered by our previous activity or the result of that previous activity. This is how I can explain what I have in my mind about the teaching of Zen.

Now, [for example] this one piece of paper has two sides, I want to explain this kind of double structure [or double nature] of our teaching. To me the reality of everything may be understood in this way. For instance, according to our understanding, time has a double structure. One side is continuity of time. At the same time, there is the idea of discontinuity of time. If time is continuous, there is no need to have [a] watch here. And when I say it is half past ten, it means that, at that time I have discontinuity of time, my idea of time is discontinuous. It is not actually half past ten. While I’m watching it, it continues to go. But I have to say that as long as I have [a] watch, if someone asks me what time is it, I have to say half past ten. But it is not actually so. That is the idea of discontinuity of time. So discontinuity of time and continuity of time, are a double reality. Only through this double structure of our reasoning we can we figure out what is reality. Self and selflessness are also like this.

Every Day Is a Good Day

Ummon Bun-en (Yun-men Wen-yen) was a disciple of Seppō (Hsueh-feng I-ts’un). He died in 949.

Introductory Comments by Suzuki-roshi

Each existence, animate and inanimate, is changing during every moment day and night. The change is like flowing water which does not ever come back and which reveals its true nature in its eternal travel.

Water flowing and clouds drifting are similar to a well-trained old Zen master. The true nature of water and clouds is like the determined, single-minded, traveling monks, who do not take off their traveling sandals even under the roof of sages. Worldly

Zen Master Ummon
Zen master Ummon Bun-en (Yun-men Wen-yen) (862/4-949). Painting by Hakuin, one of three hanging scrolls comprising a set, with Daruma and Rinzai in the others. Eiheji temple copy.

pleasure, philosophical pursuit, or whimsical ideas do not interest the traveling monk, sincere to his true nature, for he does not want to be fat and idle. Such a monk does not care for hospitality which would stop his travels. He recognizes as true friends only those who travel with him on the way.

The idea of this kind of travel may make you feel lonely and helpless.
In Japan, Zen is understood by the word wabi or sabi. These two words are nouns, but today they are used mostly as adjectives: wabishi or sabishi. One meaning of wabishi and sabishi is lonesome and monotonous. The intellectuals understand these words to mean the simplest and most humble form and style of beauty.

In the strict sense, wabi and sabi mean reality which does not belong to any category of subjectivity or objectivity, simple or fancy. However, it is this reality that makes subjective and objective observation possible and perfect, and that means everything, simple or fancy, able to come home to our heart. In the realm of wabi or sabi, even on one drop of dew you will see the whole universe.

Contrary to wabi and sabi, usually when some object is put into the range of perception, our first reaction is not acceptance, but rather rationality, repulsion, or emotional disturbance. The way of Western civilization is not directed at acceptance so much as at “how to organize many objects and ideas in the realm of perception or thinking” and “how to control the sense data of the sensual world.”

In the world of wabi and sabi there is no attempt, no attainment, no anger, no joy, sorrow, or any waves of mind of this kind whatsoever. Each existence in this world is the fruit of subjective self-training and objective pure and direct understanding. The savor of fruits comes home to our heart, and confirmation of reality takes place. We observe falling flowers at their best. By repeating this kind of direct experience, one may have calm and deep understanding of life and deliverance from it, like a traveling monk who has full appreciation of everything and is nonetheless completely detached from it.

Now may I call your attention to the following subject:

Main Subject by Setchō (presented by Suzuki-roshi)

Attention! Ummon introduced the subject by saying: I do not ask you about fifteen days ago. But what about fifteen days hence? Come, say a word about this. He himself replied for them: Every day is a good day.

Commentary by Suzuki-roshi

Today does not become yesterday, and Dōgen-zenji states that today does not become tomorrow. Each day is its own past and future and has its own absolute value.

Taken from a San Francisco City Center transcript thought to be based on notes by Richard Baker. It is not verbatim; no tape is available. The City Center transcript was entered onto disk by Bill Redican (11/4/01). This talk is thought to have been given on Thursday, November 1st, 1962. From

Another translation of Case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record (by Cleary and Cleary):

Yun-men said, “I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day; try to say something about after the fifteenth day.” / Yun-men himself answered for everyone, “Every day is a good day.”
There is no introduction to this case by Yuanwu.
Here is the verse on this story by Xuedou:

He throws away one,
Picks up seven.
Above, below, and in the four directions, there is no comparison.
Placidly walking along, he treads down the sound of the flowing stream;
His relaxed gaze descries the tracks of flying birds.
The grasses grow thick,
The mists overhand.
‘Round Subhuti’s cliff, the flowers make a mess;
I snap my fingers; how lamentable is Shunyata!
Don’t make a move!
If you move, thirty blows!