Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Tonight’s talk is based on a lecture that was given at the San Francisco Zen Center by Suzuki Roshi. His was titled “Letters from Emptiness” (Not Always So, Shunryu Suzuki). My title is “Things as They Are.”

Most of you are probably familiar with the word “Shikantaza.” Shikantaza represents an important concept in Zen because it’s the pure form of meditation as done by Soto Zen practitioners.

Normally during zazen you might follow your breathing or count your breaths; in Rinzai Zen, individuals focus on a koan. Shikantaza is none of these. It is—like Zen itself—entirely in and of itself.

Shikantaza is a process of doing zazen—that is, meditating—in which the mind is totally involved in the sitting. Nothing more

Suzuki Roshi says shikantaza is the actualization of emptiness.

An understanding of emptiness comes not through thinking about it, or trying to bring up a mind-picture of it, but through experience.

That experience rises from zazen.

Here is a koan:

What is the color of emptiness?

Here is an answer:

The sound of one hand clapping.

The Japanese language is rich in expressing feelings we have no English words for. Suzuki mentions the Japanese term shosoku. It expresses the feeling of receiving a letter from home. That feeling may bring to mind an image of your parents, perhaps good kitchen aromas, maybe the sound of a screen door slamming.

Shosoku is a world of emptiness because it’s a world that does not actually exist.

This world of emptiness is the sound of a stone hitting a stalk of bamboo. It’s the sight of a flag being moved by the wind.

We can convey in words our so-called real world. Up over our heads we can see a ceiling fan. Some time ago we heard the sound of rain pounding on the roof. We detect the faint aroma of incense.

But these are mere words that are vaguely related to the world of emptiness.

Still, we cling to such descriptions and think they represent reality. Such descriptions are not reality because they rise from our own ideas. Our mind manufactures them.

This is a common mistake among many Buddhists who are emotionally involved with the presumed words of the Buddha, or to iconic representations of the Buddha.

There was a monk who, on a cold night, warmed himself at a fire he kindled with a wooden statue of the Buddha.

Was such an act inappropriate?

No. To that monk the statue was a three-dimensional, fancied likeness of the Buddha, nothing more. The monk had no attachment to an image, or even to the Buddha. What was important to him was the message of the Buddha.


Letters from that other world of emptiness.

Never mind words or images. Suzuki mentioned that what the Buddha said in his time, or what he looked like, were shosoku, letters from that other world of emptiness.

Dhammapada is a compilation of the supposed sayings of the Buddha. The academics who collected these sayings, translated them, interpreted them, and published them had their own ideas of what they meant. Every individual who reads them will have his or her own idea of what they mean.

Dhammapada can be interesting reading, but it’s only the finger pointing at the moon. Don’t confuse the finger for the moon.

To paraphrase Suzuki: If you want to read a letter from the Buddha’s world, you must understand Buddha’s world.

Nature may not be perfect because we judge it according to our human standards of perfection, which are based on direct experience. Some people paint or write to express their direct experience. Sometimes painters or writers may give up trying to materialize something because they may not have strong enough experiences.

But a true painter or a true writer doesn’t think, “Oh, if that sunset were a little more brilliant, it would be easier to portray in oils or in words. It would be complete for me.”

Artists who think that way are known as hacks and dabblers.

When you are in shikantaza, your working mind is shut down. You see things as they are, and you are open to receiving the letter from the world of emptiness.

* * * * *

I’ll close my talk by quoting a few lines of Shunryu Suzuki.

“Sometimes it may be all right to practice zazen as a kind of exercise or training, to make your practice stronger or to make your breathing smooth and natural. . . . but when we say shikantaza, that is not what we mean. When we receive a letter from the world of emptiness, then the practice of shikantaza is working.”


Post a Comment

<< Home