Monday, July 15, 2013


Gudo Nishijima was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1919. Initially he was a practicing lawyer who was employed by the government. Later he became ordained a Zen priest. As such he gives instruction in Tokyo and Osaka, and at Tokei-in temple. He is best known for his English translations of the four-volume set of Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

            In 1995 Nishijima gave a lengthy lecture at a Zen retreat. That lecture forms the basis for most of today’s talk. I’ll bypass his words on the early history of Zen Buddhism in Japan and focus on what he says about Zen today. If any of this echoes what you already know, or what I may have said before, go with it. It may be the same, but it’s also different.

            Worldwide, the two main schools of Zen are Rinzai and Soto. Soto adheres to the notion of satori or enlightenment. Their reason for practicing zazen—meditation—is to become enlightened.

Soto believes that zazen is enlightenment. That is, zazen and awakening may seem different but they are the same.

            Nishijima says “The Soto sect believes that we should not expect any enlightenment other than the practice of Zazen itself. . . .  So we can think that oneness between practice and experience is fundamental Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism is established on the basis of action, and action has the characteristic of oneness between practice and experience.”

            Master Dogen said to simply practice zazen, and he expressed the term zazen in Japanese as shikantaza, or “just sitting.”

            In the Western world most people think zazen based on enlightenment and zazen based on shikantaza are both Buddhism. No way, Nishijima disagrees. He says that practicing zazen to get enlightenment is a kind of idealistic philosophy that is not Buddhism. He defers to Dogen, who declared zazen was based on four principles:

1.      Not thinking.
2.      Normalizing the body by sitting in the right posture.
3.      Ridding oneself of body and mind.
4.      Becoming one piece.

Zazen is not considering some philosophical theory. The state of not thinking is not thinking.
Dogen’s second principle has to do with the oneness of body and mind. When we make our body balanced, by sitting in an upright relaxed position, we balance our mind.

The third principle has to do with getting rid of body and mind, which means forgetting body and mind. Not thinking of body and mind. Engaging in being in the moment.

The fourth principle is becoming one piece.

So what does becoming one piece mean?

When we practice zazen we experience a state where body and mind become one, and we are doing nothing more than just sitting. Shikantaza. According to Dogen, that is it.

That is it.

In Nishijima’s after-talk he was asked about practice and experience being one. He answered that practice and experience are concepts or notions that intellectually are usually thought of as two different things, but there really is no separation. In Soto, to do something for the purpose of realizing the effect is false. Practice is the same as the effect of practice.

 Dogen insisted on practice, which is not two but one. Its state stays with us, in our body and our mind.

In shikantaza we come back to ourselves, which is coming back to the universe. That is what is known as seeing our face before we were born.

So, what is the universe?

The universe is everything here and now. Therefore, living in the universe is living in the endless world. It’s the feeling of sitting in zazen.

When you sit zazen with our sangha you are the same as the universe. If you sit zazen at home you are the same as the universe. Go to another town or another country, and you are the same as the universe. There may physical separation, but there is no Zen separation.

That big something is known as Dharma. It’s the basic principle of the universe experience, the principle of life’s purpose.

In so-called reality, we are all sitting in different places in space. But in time we are all together. We have a connection.

Dogen would say this connection is always here. We intellectually think we are separate, but in the total universe there is no distinction. The universe is a kind of energy stream which we all are part of. There is no distinction. This is the basis of quantum theory.

Please don’t ask me to explain quantum theory. It has to do with amounts of continuous energy, with probability, and with the sameness of different parts. If that is hard to grasp, just remember the Zen saying that everything is different and at the same time everything is the same.

Not one, not two. Each is different but both are the same.

A while back I mentioned Dharma as the basic principle of life’s purpose. Nishijima said that in Buddhism we revere the state of the present moment. To paraphrase him, we usually think that purpose exists at some distant place, but that is intellectual thinking. In truth, purpose exists at the present moment in our action.

Nishijima was asked if intuition at the present moment helped us to choose the right direction. He said yes, and that was the reason we do zazen.

Therefore, we should develop our intuition. To promote intuition is to keep balanced, and that inspires us to always maintain the intuitive ability.

A questioner brought up the point that if our habitual ways of thinking are learned through society and have become a pattern, how do we change those subconscious habits?

Nishijima’s answer was simple and straightforward. It was to practice zazen because when we practice zazen we throw away body and mind.

And that seems a good place to end this talk.


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