This lecture is reprinted from the July 2000 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.
Discussion with Suzuki Roshi From Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, a collection of Suzuki Roshi's lectures on the Sandokai, co-edited by Sojun Roshi.
Student: In light of what you said earlier, I don't understand the vows. If there are no sentient beings why do we vow to save them? It sounds like a big joke.
Suzuki Roshi: That is because your practice is always confined within the realm of "Why do we practice zazen? What does it mean?" Actually, your practice is very good. Why is your practice so good? I don't understand. [Laughs.]
Student: It doesn't feel good to me.
Suzuki Roshi: Anyway, you are doing well. My lecture may be some enticement. [Laughs.] It may be better for you not to listen to my talks. Just practice zazen.
Student: I don't mind zazen so much, but I don't like to make promises I don't understand.
Suzuki Roshi: If sentient beings are numberless, or desires are inexhaustible, you cannot say, "I vow to save them." Our promise is very silly. It doesn't make any sense. I agree with you. But still we do it. Why? Because we don't feel so good if we don't work for others. We take the four vows, but what we mean is more than that. For the sake of convenience, we say just the four. But I really, truly feel lucky that we have inexhaustible desires and numberless sentient beings to save, and also that it is impossible to save each one of them in terms of "I save you." You cannot save in that way. Whether it is possible or not, whether it is the Buddhist or bodhisattva or Hinayana or Mahayana way, is not the question. Anyhow, do it! That is our vow.
Student: When I promise to do something, it has to have some meaning. If it doesn't have some meaning, I can't say it.
Suzuki Roshi: That is your arrogance.
Student: I don't know, maybe, but--
Suzuki Roshi: You are crying. Even though you are crying, that crying doesn't make any sense. Your effort is still based on some selfish practice. You don't give yourself up. You have to suffer and fight more with yourself. There is no one to fight with, and nothing to fight with. Fight with your selfish practice until you give up. That is the most important point for real students. They shouldn't fool themselves. They don't want to be fooled by our teaching, or by Zen, or by anything. That is right. They shouldn't be fooled by anything.
Student: Well what will I do at the end of talks, when we chant the four vows? Everyone will chant the four vows, and I won't believe them.
Suzuki Roshi: You don't have to believe in them literally. Because various teachers and numerous people recite them, you should do it. If they are cheating themselves, you, too, should be cheated; you should be fooled along with all sentient beings. That you cannot do it means that you want to be a special person. That is good. That much spirit we should have; but that is not our way. My answer is very cold. I cannot be sympathetic with your practice. Maybe some great teacher will give you some candy. Go and get it.
Student: It's not like that, Roshi. Maybe part of it is, but I still don't understand. I don't feel right. Even if the whole world is fooled, if there is something I don't believe in, or I don't understand--
Suzuki Roshi: You don't understand. You see various colors, but how many colors do you see with your eyes? How much sound can you hear? How much can you understand with your small mind? You should know the limit of your thinking mind. Your thinking mind only works dualistically. You have no words to explain this kind of reality. It is almost impossible to understand our teaching through words. But because you stick to my words, or to scriptures, you think the scriptures should be perfect, should be more convincing. You think in that way, but I must confess that what I say is not always right, not always true. I am suggesting something more than that. Not only Buddha, but Confucius also said, "If someone wants to fool you, you should be fooled by them." This is very important.
Student: Even though practice is greater than words, still in the small world of words I don't feel strong enough yet to be inconsistent. If I say to you, "I don't see that lamp, Roshi," then something funny happens inside of me, and sometimes that funny feeling happens inside of me when I say the vows. I think, "Okay, I vow to save all sentient beings," but then something is going on inside that doesn't--
Suzuki Roshi: Yes, I understand that. You know, we priests always put our palms together and bow when we meet. How many times have you put your hands together at Tassajara? When I was young I didn't like it at all. I felt as if I was fooling myself, and I didn't feel so good. But as I had to do it, I did it, that's all. But now I understand, because I understand how foolish I am. I don't have as much spirit as I had before. Truth is truth, and I can't agree with you now. Maybe if I were your age I could agree with you quite easily and we would be great friends, but now I am not your friend.
Student: Roshi, do you think that we have any choice? For instance, am I here at Tassajara by my choice, or am I simply here at Tassajara?
Suzuki Roshi: Your buddha nature brought you here to Tassajara. I don't think it was your choice completely, Maybe twenty or thirty percent is your choice. But most of the reason for your being here is beyond that. That we hear Buddha's teaching is because of our previous study. Wisdom seeks wisdom, and we are listening to the teaching that we listened to under many teachers in past lives. Dogen says this. Even though you feel as if your whole body is saying, "I am feeling this way one hundred percent," that voice that now seems to cover all of your being actually is only a little, tiny part of you. Maybe I shouldn't explain so much in the traditional way.
Student: Well, then, if I were to become a buddha, would I have anything to do with it?
Suzuki Roshi: First of all, try to forget yourself and rely on your true voice, your voiceless voice, your nonverbal voice. "Listen to the tongueless teaching," we say, don't listen to my words. Think about this.
Student: Whose voice is it that we listen to?
Suzuki Roshi: Your voice and Buddha's voice. That is what the Sandokai is talking about. You sometimes think it is your voice, but it is Buddha's voice. Your thinking comes from a one-sided feeling. You think you are here. You think you are Joe or Mary, but actually it is not so, not at all. I think I am Suzuki, but if someone calls me Suzuki, I feel very funny. "Oh, is this Suzuki?" The first reaction is, "No, I am not Suzuki."
Student: Roshi, I may put my hands together in gassho and someone may look at me and say, "Oh, that is good gassho," but there maybe a cold heart behind it.
Suzuki Roshi: Cold heart or warm heart is not the question.
Student: Is it still good gassho?
Suzuki Roshi: Perfect!
Last revised July 9, 2000. [an error occurred while processing this directive][an error occurred while processing this directive]