Not Always So (Part 6 of 6)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | December 1, 2002
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
So reading from the next chapter of Not Always So, “The Teaching Just For You,”
We have this idea that our practice will improve day by day, and it will help our health and our mental condition. That is true, but it is not a complete understanding. We also do zazen with the understanding that the goal is not reached in one or two years, but is right here… You may say, “My practice is not good enough to feel the goal or the full meaning right now.” But even though you say that your practice is not good enough, there is no other practice for you right now. Good or bad, it is your practice.
This is your life! Whether you like it or not, this is it! And it is just what you need, and it is as it must be, because that’s what it is.
To approach perfect practice, there is no way other than to accept yourself. To say your practice is bad does not help your practice. To say that your practice is excellent does not help. Your practice is your practice. You are talking about it in various ways, good or bad. That is all.
So, yes, we have thoughts of good or bad, like it or don’t like it, but they’re thoughts, just talk.
We should know this point first of all, so we say, “Even though your practice is not so good, that is perfect practice. Just sit.” Truth is always here. But just to say so, when you are not actually practicing the truth, is what we call a 'painted cake, a picture of a cake that you cannot eat…Various ancestors and great sages of Buddhism have said, 'Buddha left this teaching just for me, not for anyone else. Buddha left the Lotus Sutra just for Nicheren.' If that side is forgotten, the Buddha’s teaching is nothing but wastepaper. 'Just for me' is not arrogance. It means you have full appreciation of the teachings as your own. That is the spirit we need in our zazen practice. Everyone can be Nichiren; everyone can be Dogen or Bodhidharma. Because I practice zazen, there is Buddha, there is Dogen and Bodhidharma, and there is Buddha’s teaching. You realize that you are the only being in this world, and that no one can take over your position. This is true – all the teaching is just for you. But whatever you say about yourself, you are the only one. You cannot escape because the whole world is yours. This is beyond the truth we can talk about. This is ultimate truth.
So for every one of us this is really the truth. In other places in the book he says that Buddhism is not something that you can put in the refrigerator. Remember that part? It’s not something that you can put into the refrigerator, and when you want it, open up the refrigerator and take out the teaching. It’s not like that. It’s something that you have to make unique for yourself. It is so hard to understand this point, because we’re so convinced that there is this external standard to which we are supposed to be conforming. There’s a way to do this right, and we’re going to do this right. And it’s not that kind of a thing. It is really from the inside out.
Buddhism is created by every person through finding out the unique truth of his or her own life. Every person is absolutely a unique manifestation of the teachings. In the Lotus Sutra we read this. Often it is said in the Mahayana sutras that the Buddha gave a talk to ten thousand people, and each of the ten thousand people heard a totally different talk and practiced it in his or her own unique way. And that really is the truth. We all hear and understand a unique version of the dharma, and we put it into practice in our lives, because each one of us is a unique expression. It’s as if each one of us is a dharma talk, a unique dharma talk of the Buddha. Our job is to honor that in ourselves, accept that in ourselves, and take ourselves that seriously, without taking ourselves too seriously.
So it’s a beautiful thing that he is saying here. Each one of us is the only one. Each one of us has that potential, that beauty, and that responsibility. It’s an awesome responsibility, to clarify your own life for the benefit of the whole universe and not just for yourself. If you only clarify your own life, you are not really clarifying your life, you are only clarifying your own egotism, your own narrow mindedness. This is not a truth that we can talk about. This is the ultimate truth. He says,
To practice is to open yourself up to everything you see as an embodiment of the truth.
Think about that. “To practice is to open yourself up to everything you see as an embodiment of the truth.” That means not only outside but also inside. Imagine practicing that koan: that whatever you saw, whatever you confronted, whatever your heart or mind had in front of itself as an object - whether it was a thought in your own mind, or a cloud, or a tree, or another person - you would practice, “This is the ultimate truth.” Imagine what your life would be like if you really believed that every moment you were being shown the ultimate truth about your life, about human life, with every encounter, moment by moment, with whatever object your mind was cognizing at that time.
I think that is what he means here, so I commend this koan to you: Whatever you see, whatever you think, and whatever you feel, breathe into that with the understanding “This is the absolute truth right here and now. This is absolutely the truth. There is nothing beyond this. This is the ultimate truth.” To practice is to open yourself up to everything you see as an embodiment of the truth, just as you yourself are an embodiment of the truth.
In “Stand Up by the Ground,” he says, “We Soto students do not stick to anything.” And it is enlightenment experiences he is talking about. Don’t stick to anything. If you have an enlightenment experience, and think you had an enlightenment experience, you’re in trouble. Enlightenment experience is very nice, but then don’t stick to anything.
We have complete freedom of practice, complete freedom of expression. Our practice is the living expression of our true nature or reality. So for us it is not possible to stick to anything. Moment after moment, we practice in a renewed and refreshed way. Our practice should be independent from past practice and future practice. We cannot sacrifice our present practice for some future attainment, because all the Buddhas attained enlightenment in this way, and all the Buddhas in the future will attain enlightenment in this way. In this way means not any particular way. Sometimes it may be Soto way, sometimes Rinzai. According to the circumstances it may be the way of another school.
All these things come down to the same thing, right? Whatever happens, whatever is arising in this moment, this is really it. How can we deny what is real now? And if you think about it, so much of what we are thinking and doing all the time is saying, “This is not really real now. I don’t accept that this is really real now. I want this to be otherwise. I need something else to happen now. I want this to be improved. I don’t like this.” The practice is to admit and embrace the fact that, moment after moment, life is real. What is happening is really happening. And that’s what we have to work with, and that’s what we have to enter. Really embrace and accept it, moment after moment. All this philosophy really comes down to that. Life is real.
I think that the talk “Sun-Faced Buddha, Moon-Faced Buddha” was given around 1970 or 1971, when Suzuki Roshi was close to dying, when he probably knew that he was dying. My guess is that people who were listening to him were worried that he was sick or deathly ill, but they didn’t really know. He talks about being sick and staying in bed, and people wondered how a Zen master could be sick.
Whatever happens to us is something that should happen.” Wow, think about living your life like that. Whatever happens, should happen. In other words, this is right that this happens. I accept this, whatever it is. “The purpose of our practice is to have this kind of complete composure.” Acceptance of whatever happens. He is talking about his illness. To attain enlightenment means we have complete composure in our life, without any discrimination. At the same time that does not mean to stick to the attitude of non-discrimination, because that is also a kind of discrimination.
When he is talking about composure and acceptance, he doesn’t mean to make that into another big idea and stick to that. Complete composure doesn’t mean that we put on a face of being calm - you know, a good, Zen calm. Sometimes having complete composure and being calm means we are agitated, but we’re there with ourselves, no matter what it is that is going on. So don’t make non-discrimination, don’t make composure, into a caricature of composure.
Here he is talking about noises outside when you are sitting,
In zazen you should just hear the big noise or the small noise, and not be bothered by it. It may seem impossible, especially for a beginner, because the moment you hear it, a reaction follows. But, if you practice zazen, if you continuously accept things as it is, eventually you can do it. The way you can do it is to concentrate on your posture or your breathing.
If you concentrate on your posture and your breathing, and if you have a practice of doing zazen every day, concentrating on your posture and your breathing, then you train yourself in not being reactive. That’s what he means by complete composure. We know, “This is happening. I’m coming to meet it, and I’ll meet it and do the best I can.” Usually something happens and we’re jumping all over the place. We’re reacting in a million ways, and our reactivity muddies up the situation considerably. So, counter intuitive as that may seem, to sit and concentrate on breathing and posture is to train ourselves to meet what arises in our lives off the cushion, as well as on. “So practicing how to act without fear, which limits your activity, is the most important thing.” And that’s what reactivity is – it is fear based.
We should understand our everyday activity in two ways, and be able to react either way without a problem. One way is to understand dualistically – good or bad, right or wrong – and we try hard to understand things in these terms. Yet we should also be able to let go of this dualistic understanding. Then everything is one. That is the other understanding, the understanding of oneness.
This dynamic interplay between oneness and dualism is the pivot point of our practice. That’s what the Sandokai is all about. Sometime we will have to have seminars on Sandokai, the teachings that Suzuki Roshi did on the Sandokai, because that is the real, fundamental point of our practice. It is honoring both sides of our life, our conditioned life and our unconditioned life, equally, and never losing sight of either one. Sometimes our life is mostly about the unconditioned, but don’t forget about the conditioned. Sometimes our life is mostly about the conditioned, but don’t forget about the unconditioned. And sometimes it’s both at the same time. I will finish by quoting my favorite sentence in this last lecture “Sitting Like a Frog.” “When you can laugh at yourself, there is enlightenment.” Write that down on a piece of paper. Put that on your wall. “When you can laugh at yourself, there is enlightenment.” When you’re not so deadly serious about everything, there is enlightenment.