Category Archives: Dharma

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!

Practice Period

Our six-week spring practice period will begin Saturday, May 2 with a one-day sitting. The requirements and sign-up sheet are on the bulletin board. Practice period gives us an opportunity to examine the rhythm of our zazen attendance and make adjustments according to the changing circumstances of our other obligations. If we can realistically balance our many obligations with our zendo attendance and activities, respecting each one’s Buddha nature, studying the Dharma, and harmonizing with the sangha, we can have a rewarding practice period together. When we can forget about our self, and simply contribute our effort while supporting each other, all aspects of our life can come together, with zazen as the fundamental touchstone.

Practice period can be like spring cleaning. We look around and let go of what we have been dragging around and lighten up our load going forth into the rest of the year both refreshed and  rejuvenated. I encourage all of us to attend the opening day sesshin when we will install long-time practitioner Susan Marvin as the head student (shuso). Her attendant Dean Bradley will be organizing teas where informal dharma discussion can take place.

The five-week class will be based on ancestor Vasubandhu’s teaching model of the eight levels of consciousness interactive (and not interactive) with the dharmas. What are the eight levels? Do I really know what dharmas are? What is true self and what is not? If there is no self then what is there? Where exactly is the ego? How is consciousness transformed into wisdom? These and other questions will be dealt with, and class materials for study will be forthcoming.

So come and enjoy these three fundamental activities together: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Let the Dharma turn you as you turn the Dharma. Each one of us is both  individual and collective, and one does not interfere with the other.  Let’s make our effort to find this harmonious balance moment by moment.

Does Life Have Meaning?


This morning, March 19, a warm and sunny day, I walked out of the house and wandered into our fenced-off vegetable garden. I walked over to visit the lemon tree that I planted in January. It had been in a pot for two years. It was doing quite well; producing nice new soft, shiny leaves, and new buds. Then I spotted our new cat Willow lying under the shade of the yellow, (dynamite) pepper bush. She seemed very happy that I was there with her in her territory, her garden. It then came to me that tomorrow the 20th is the first day of Spring. I just stood still silently participating with her zazen. Little by little the whole garden was coming alive and revealing itself. The new small lettuce, the green carrot tops, the new leaf buds on the blueberry bushes. I could feel the tremendous energy of the earth all at once reaching for the sun, being expressed through this green world.

A few years ago I made a little housing for Liz’s garden figure of St. Francis, the patron of the animals. She had hung a ceramic sign on it that said, “We come from the Earth and return to the Earth and in between we garden.” I remember one time reading somewhere, something like, “Cultivating the Dharma in the Garden of the Heart.” This reminded me that the seeds of all of our thoughts and actions are stored in our subconscious mind-ground, the ālaya vijñāna, the garden of the mind. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds sprout and manifest according to our actions and thoughts, causing happiness or suffering.

A question was presented to me the other day about the meaning of our life. What is that?  What could be more meaningful than dropping our self-absorption and devoting ourself to cultivating the Garden of the Mind? We are vegetable, animal, mineral and human. When we take off the coverings, and open our eyes we can realize all of these qualities in ourself. Our body/mind is not separate from the world. When we take care of the world we take care of ourself and vice versa.

The blood runs through our body. The heart beats, the breath-door swings, the thought bubbles come and go, the body ages, and none of it is controlled by “me.” It is the universal activity. This is what we belong to. There is a deep satisfaction that comes from cooperating with this universal activity, which is our true self. Maybe this is what self-respect is. Our practice is to find the meaning in each moment, taking nothing for granted.

A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” He said, “The oak tree in the garden.” He also had a great awakening when he saw a peach tree in full bloom.


I have been thinking about mindfulness lately and how it is related to awareness and to concentration. I think about it when I cross the street, especially the busy avenues. I have been a car driver, a taxi driver, a bike rider, and a pedestrian. Engaged in each of those activities I have wanted to get to where I was going as fast and efficiently as possible. Traffic was always a game. But I always played by the rules and never hit anyone or caused an accident. I was always testing and honing my skill.

What I learned was that I had to be mindful and concentrated, and that the act of driving overrides all distractions. A driver should be aware of what is happening two or three blocks ahead as well as what is happening behind and on both sides in a constantly shifting complexity of patterns. I also learned what it means to be a pedestrian some years ago when walking my dog. I trained him to walk off leash, and to stop at all the corners, which he did. I realized how risky it is to walk across the street when there are cars moving around. By myself I can do a little dodging using my judgment. But that was too much to expect of him.

So I came to the conclusion that the best thing is just to wait until all the traffic has gone by on both sides of the street and then walk at our leisure. Slowing down like that and stopping for 10 seconds or 15 or 30 seconds can seem like you will never get to where you are going. Now I am very aware of how pedestrians get hit by cars. The law in California says that a pedestrian has the right of way in the crosswalk. People often take advantage of this and in an arrogant manner step off the curb expecting the traffic (maybe as many as 20 people just like us) to come to a screeching halt. Or on the other hand they may enter traffic being totally oblivious.

In a perfect world no one has the right of way. We should all be looking out for each other. Before walking across the street, I give way to the traffic and wait my turn. Often, people stop for me even though I don’t want them to. I often just wave them on because I don’t want to stop the flow of traffic. If all pedestrians waited until the coast was clear there would be far fewer targets. Giving privilege to one side creates an unequal division putting all the responsibility on the drivers and reduces pedestrians’ reliance on awareness and proper judgment. This is an example of our ordinary daily life practice of mindfulness, awareness and two kinds of concentration; both narrow and wide. Our practice is to be mindfully aware of every opportunity to create harmony and to awaken together with all beings.



There is a Zen saying: “Don’t mistake a jar for a bell.” A jar full of something, when you tapit, goes “click.” Although they may resemble each other, a bell when tapped has a resonant voice. Dogen’s teacher Rujing offered a well known poem about the wind bell. Something like, ”Hanging in emptiness, its whole body is its mouth. Whichever direction the wind blows, it doesn’t mind. All day long it rings the song of prajna; ting liang ting, ding ling ding.”

Although we use bell sounds to keep the time in our service for chanting and bowing, their primary purpose is, when properly played, to create a devotional atmosphere and a feeling of reverence and profound stillness.

Playing the bells is an art. As in any instrument, to find the true voice of the bells is to find the true voice within our self. Each time we sound the bell we search for that true voice, the one that resonates deeply within our solar plexus where I, the hand, the beater and the bell disappear, and the clear round sound, free from all restraints, fills the space.

I think we have all heard of the horse whisperer and the dog whisperer. They accomplish their ends through love, understanding and co-operation. We can produce an enormous amount of sound from the bell with least amount of effort. The bell koan is: How do you produce a sound without hitting the bell? The bell is a wonderful teacher for us and needs to be treated with reverence and respect. Suzuki Roshi once said of the mokugyo, “If you keep hitting it like that, the poor thing is likely to have a heart attack.”

There is a true story of the boy whose father sent him to the monastery because he was unable to support him. The young acolytes were trained to sound the big Bonsho outside. One day the abbot was having tea with the officers of the temple when the big Bonsho was sounded. It was a wonderful sound, and the abbot asked that whoever it was, to please bring him over. To everyone’s surprise, in walks this little boy. The abbot asked him what he was thinking when he sounded the bell. The boy said that when his father sent him to the monastery he would be asked to ring the Bonsho, and that every time he sounded the bell a Buddha would come forth.

The little boy grew up to be a famous Zen master.

The Form and Shape of Practice

When we come to practice we have to put some  limitation on our life. It’s like a bowl of water. If you put water into a flat dish it doesn’t have much depth, but if you have a nice deep bowl it will hold a lot of water. It has form and some shape to it. Practice has to have some form and shape. It can hold some deep water and when there are  turbulent waves on the surface there is a ballast of calm deep  water. This is one of the things that people struggle with in  our society because there is so much opportunity, and it  keeps us strung out. The things that only a king would have  had in the past, every one of us has the opportunity to have  today. It’s amazing. The kings were some of the most  distraught people because they had so much and had to  protect it. It’s hard to put limitations on ourselves but necessary. If we want to practice, we have to put some  limitation on our activity which can be a big relief because then we don’t have to run after everything  we see. We don’t have to own everything that’s advertised. One TV might be enough.

Master Mumon says, “Don’t discuss another’s faults.” That’s right. Just look to yourself, examine  your own life. Don’t blame others for what is happening to you. “You made me angry.” No. “You did something and I got angry.” “You walked by and made me fall in love with you.” No. “You walked by  and I fell in love.” In other words, take responsibility for your own feelings, take responsibility for your own thoughts, and your own actions: don’t blame. If you can refrain from blaming, then you can  examine yourself in a very clear way, no matter what, even if, as the sixth ancestor says, someone else  is in the wrong. This is a very important point. Even if someone else appears to be at fault, do not fall into fault-finding. See if you can do that. See what that brings up for you. Don’t explore another’s affairs; just take care of your own life. Don’t gossip, don’t pick into someone else’s life. Just make sure that you are doing the right thing. Make sure you are following your own intentions. As the saying goes, if you want the tiger’s cub, you have to go into the tiger’s cave. If you really want something, you really have to put yourself on the line. But better to just do it, without looking for something. This is one secret of practice. The koan “mu” is one of the fundamental koans, maybe the first koan that many students receive. If you recite “mu” all day long with the idea of having kensho, it won’t work. If you think that by sitting zazen you’ll become enlightened, you will be waiting a long time. Just sit.

Dogen Zenji has a saying from the Genjokoan. “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.“ If you want to study yourself you have to forget yourself. This is
Genjokoan. How do I study the self by forgetting the self? Another way of saying this is, to attain the Buddhadharma is to attain the self, and to attain the self is to forget the self. According to Buddhadharma there is no self. The self is not exactly a self. It’s a dynamic flowing of elements; a dynamic flowing of Buddha nature. There is nothing you can grasp. So to forget the self is to forget our
idea of self, to forget our idea of who we are. It is a turn toward our true self. The only way to do that is to not hanker after anything. Then we can see clearly who we are. And when we bow, we bow in
gratitude. When we have some insight we bow in gratitude. That is all. We bow to our true self, or better yet, we just bow.
Instead of trying to get something from practice, or from the Dharma, it’s better to serve the Dharma. Buddha and Maitreya are servants of the Dharma, “It.” What is the example of the Buddha?
To serve the Dharma—to serve the truth. That’s all there is. When you serve, you’re fed.

— Sojun Roshi (from a talk on February 18, 1992; reprinted from the March 2010 BZC Newsletter.)

Hierarchy and Equality

In this practice, each one of us is given a challenge, and we have to come up to that challenge, whatever it is. If you are a new student, you have the challenge of being a new student. If you’re an older student, you have the challenge of being an older student. You have the challenge of your practice position and your relationship to the other members of the sangha. Hierarchy exists in the vertical relationships of all societies, while equality exists in the horizontal relationships. Both are necessary and where they meet is where we find our true position at any moment. In this way we can relate to everyone in a harmonious way, hopefully free from self-centeredness and willful ambition, honoring everyone’s position while feeling satisfied with our own. It doesn’t matter what our position is. If we take responsibility for our position, we have a way to go which for all of us is both unique and the same.

On a chessboard each of the pieces has a hierarchical position. Some have more power and some have less but those pieces which have more power have to be able to share that power, and all pieces have to work together for a common purpose on a basis of equality. That takes skill, the skill to allow people to feel that they have power no matter where they are in relation to everyone else.

By power I don’t mean dominance. There is a difference between dominance and power. And there’s a difference between hierarchy and power. Hierarchy merely means “position in relation to everyone else.” But it doesn’t necessarily mean dominance. People associate hierarchy with dominance. If I say hierarchy I often get a reaction, “Oh, you mean dominance.” But I don’t. I just mean “position in relation to everything else.”

Student: “Are Hinayana and Mahayana two different things?”

Sojun: “They are two aspects of one practice. The Hinayana is like, ‘What am I doing?’ the Mahayana is like, ‘What are we doing?’ There are two aspects of Mahayana practice: self-cultivation on one hand, and saving all beings on the other. Hinayana, for me, simply means narrow focus, while Mahayana means wide. Our practice could be seen as Hinayana practice with Mahayana mind.”

Student: “When you are cutting carrots can you have both at the same time?”

Sojun: “Yes. When you are doing something, it’s like, ‘What am I doing?’ but then there is also, ‘What are we doing?’ If you are a tangaryo student, sitting five days as your entrance requirement to be a Tassajara student, it is easier to think, ‘What am I doing?’ But if you are the Abbot you have to think, ‘What are we doing?’ But actually all of us need to think about ‘What are we doing?’ All of us need to think about how we are relating to the whole. If we take up the responsibility of ‘What are we doing?’and completely become one with our position, then we contribute to everyone’s practice because all positions are connected. In the kitchen, it’s true we just cut carrots. But it’s also true that we stay aware of what’s going on around us and move with the entire situation in a harmonious way. That’s called, ‘Being the Boss.’ “

I trust everyone to take care of themselves. I remember a teacher saying, “I‘m responsible for all the students.” But I don’t feel that I’m responsible for all students. I definitely respond, but I’m not responsible. Ultimately everyone is responsible for themselves. Buddhist or Zen practice is to find your way through your own effort. What I try to do is help everyone find the authority within themselves to stimulate their own effort. I don’t have any method. My attitude is to encourage everyone as much as I can. When you respond to encouragement then we have something to work with.

(from the February 2003 BZC Newsletter)