Wherever You Are, Enlightenment Is There


“There is enlightenment even in our imperfect practices,” says Suzuki Roshi. “We just don’t know.”

Emptiness, meditation, Shambhala Sun, Shikantaza, Shosoku, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen, lion roar, Buddhism

Photo by Jaume Escofet.

In our practice, the most important thing is to recognize that we have Buddha-nature. We may know this intellectually, but it’s pretty hard to accept. Our everyday life is in the realm of good and bad, the realm of duality, while the Buddha nature is to be found in the realm of the absolute, where there is no good and no evil. There is a twofold reality. Our practice is to go beyond the realm of good and bad and realize the absolute. It can be pretty hard to understand.

Hashimoto Roshi, a famous Zen master who passed away in 1965, said that the way we do [Japanese] Cook is to prepare each ingredient separately. Rice is here and cucumbers are over there. But when you put them in your stomach, you don’t know what is which. The soup, rice, pickles and everything are messed up. That is the world of the absolute. As long as rice, cucumber, and soup are kept separate, they won’t work. You are not being fed. This is like your intellectual understanding or book knowledge – it stays separate from your real life.

The practice of zazen consists in mixing the different kinds of understanding and letting everything work together. A kerosene lamp doesn’t just work because it is filled with kerosene. It also needs air for combustion and even with air it needs matches. The lamp works with the help of matches, air and kerosene. This is our zazen practice.

When we practice with the help of the Sangha supported by the Buddha, we can literally practice zazen.

Even if you say, “I have Buddha nature,” that alone is not enough to make it work. If you don’t have a friend or a sangha, it won’t work. When we practice with the help of the Sangha supported by the Buddha, we can literally practice zazen. We will have bright light here in the Tassajara Zendo or in our daily life.

Of course, it is important to have what is known as an enlightenment experience, but it is even more important to know how to adjust the flame in zazen and in our everyday lives. If the flame burns completely, you will not smell the oil. If it smokes you will smell something. You may find that it is a kerosene lamp. When your life is in full swing you have no complaints and you do not need to be aware of your practice. If we talk too much about zazen, it’s a smoky kerosene lamp.

Maybe I’m a very smoky kerosene lamp. I don’t necessarily want to give a lecture. I just want to live with you: move stones, take a nice thermal bath and eat something good. Zen is right there. When I start to speak, it is already a smoky kerosene lamp. As long as I have to give a lecture, I have to explain, “That’s right, that’s wrong, that’s how you practice zazen…” It’s like giving you a recipe. It doesn’t work. You can’t eat a recipe.


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Usually a Zen master says, “Practice zazen and you will gain enlightenment. When you attain enlightenment, you will become detached from everything and you will see things as they are. ”That is true, of course, but our path is not always that way. We study how to move the flame of our lamp back and forth. Dogen Zenji makes this point clear in Shobogenzo. His teaching is to live every moment in complete combustion like a lamp or a candle. To live every moment, to become one with everything, is the meaning of his teaching and his practice.

The practice of zazen is a very subtle thing. When you practice zazen you will become aware of things that you did not notice while you were working. I moved stones for a while today and I didn’t notice my muscles were tired. But when I sat quietly in zazen, I realized, “Oh! My muscles are in pretty bad shape. ”I felt pain in different parts of my body. You may think you could practice zazen much better if you didn’t have a problem, but actually a problem is necessary. It doesn’t have to be a big one. By the difficulty you have, you can practice zazen. This is a particularly significant point, which is why Dogen Zenji says, “Practice and enlightenment are one.” Practice is something you do consciously, something you do with effort. There! That is exactly where enlightenment is.

You think that only when you have attained enlightenment can you establish true practice, but it is not.

Many Zen masters have missed this point while striving to achieve perfect zazen: things that exist are imperfect. This is how everything actually exists in this world. Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But it is precisely there in the imperfection that the perfect reality lies. It is true intellectually as well as in practice. It’s true on paper and true with our bodies.

You think that only when you have attained enlightenment can you establish true practice, but it is not. True practice comes from delusion, from frustration. If you make a mistake, this is where you should set up your practice. There is no other place for you to establish your practice.

We speak of enlightenment, but actually, perfect enlightenment is beyond our understanding, beyond our experience. Enlightenment is present even in our imperfect practices. We just don’t know. So the point is to find the true meaning of the practice before we attain enlightenment. Wherever you are, there is enlightenment. If you get up right where you are, that is enlightenment.

This is called I don’t know zazen. We don’t know what zazen is anymore. I do not know who I am. Finding complete serenity when you don’t know who you are or where you are, that is, accepting things for what they are. Even if you don’t know who you are, you accept yourself. That is “you” in the truest sense of the word. If you know who you are, that “you” will not be the real you. It is easy to overestimate yourself, but if you say, “Oh, I don’t know,” then you are you and you know yourself completely. That is enlightenment.

I think our teaching is very, very good, but if we get arrogant and believe in ourselves too much, we are lost. There will be no teaching, no Buddhism at all. When we find the joy of our life in our serenity, we don’t know what it is, we don’t understand anything, then our mind is very big, very wide. Our minds are open to anything, so they are big enough to know before we know anything. We are grateful even before we have anything. Before we even attain enlightenment, we like to practice our way. Otherwise we cannot achieve anything in the real sense.

Thanks very much.

This talk is from Not Always So, an outstanding new collection of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings, edited by Edward Brown and published by HarperCollins. © 2003 by Shunryu Suzuki. All rights reserved.


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