These are excerpts from my translations of speeches by Sekkei Harada, late abbot of Hosshinji, a Soto Zen monastery in Japan where I lived as a monk and gardener.
Buddhism is not a matter of understanding some theories, it is about your problems. Unavoidably, it is necessary to listen to the Buddha’s teaching first. But then, how do you know if the teaching is true or false? Why is the teaching of impermanence true? This must really become your question. You think there is no mistake about the teaching, but why is there no mistake about it?
Why is it, that the ancient masters started to practice and then finally were able to solve it for themselves?
Because at first they had doubts.
If you just end up to believe in the teaching, there is something strange about it. To earnestly practice and make it your own is essential.
Where have you been, before your father and mother were born? Or, in other words, when did the self come into existence and why? Where did it come from? When did it become "Peter" or "Mary"? Even if you ask yourself these questions, you don't know. You don't even know the day you are born by yourself. You have heard it from somebody else. Everything you know, without exception, you have learned from others. There isn't even one thought that you have created only by yourself. Being brought up by mankind, you think that there is something called "I", as you have been told. You believe that this thing called "I" exists apart from thought and knowledge. "I am born on that day, and my name is Peter." You completely take this for granted. But if you really think about it, there isn't even a single thing that you know for yourself. Between the "me" that you have learned from others to be, and the self that you really are, there will always be conflict. If you don't become aware of this, you will never be able to escape your fixed habits of thought.
Unless the true self, that has nothing to do with any acquired knowledge, really becomes your own, unless you can really say for yourself, "this is it", no matter how perfectly you understand some theory, it will only be something you have learned from others.
To really forget the self means that "good" and "bad", "high" and "low", "love" and "hate" completely disappear.
There isn't even the smallest difference between delusion and enlightenment.
To say it radically, it is ridiculous to look for something called "enlightenment".
There is nothing that can be compared. If you don't realize for yourself, that there is a difference between your concepts and reality, no matter what kind of splendid talk you hear, you will never reach the final point.
Immediately you think: "Is there a final point?" Everything is the final point. To this degree, everything is only what it is.
Shakyamuni explained this in different ways, for example as "cause and effect". He gave all those explanations, but can we really say, something is a "cause" or "effect"?
Because he gave such explanations, you think that there is something called "cause" and "effect". You can't help it.
But after all, you once have to realize your original condition, you have to become aware of what you originally are.
Each of you, as you are, is already a Buddha, but you just can't perceive yourself as something else than what you have been told. The more teachings you hear, the more confused you become. If there is understanding, there is also not understanding. As the other side of understanding, not understanding unavoidably appears.
You can definitely become aware of your original nature, if you make effort to do each thing single-mindedly. Single-mindedly eat, single-mindedly walk, single-mindedly sit, single-mindedly work. Please earnestly endeavor like this.
Seeing one’s own true nature just means to see that we consist of the four elements - earth, water, fire, and wind. You could replace it with more modern terms, but in traditional Buddhism the universe is considered to be made of earth, water, fire, and wind. That’s your own nature. Our true nature is just these elements. It’s maybe easy to believe that for somebody who has become empty or who has entered nirvana, everything is completely clear or so. But, using the words of Nanyue, it is just “everyday mind is the way”. Our everyday mind - that is to hate something, to like something else, to suffer - all kinds of emotions - all that is within “everyday mind”. Whatever thought, emotion or consciousness - it is all everyday mind. All of that is the Way of Buddha. But the more you practice, the more you start thinking that enlightenment is like this or Zen is like that. You become an expert knowing all those words of the old masters that you remember. That is not the real thing. “Enlightenment” is just an explanation or description within human thinking. In fact, everyday mind, being completely entangled and confused, is just as it is what is called enlightenment or nirvana.
The most important thing in Zen practice is to put the mind in order. Since ancient times people have really devoted themselves to Zen and there are also people here, who have made great effort for many years.
Why is it so difficult to put the mind in order? It is because the mind is deceived by itself. The mind constantly changes and deceives itself. You are deceived by your own thoughts, believing whatever you think, to be true or real.
What does it mean, to put the mind in order? It means to leave everything as it is, to completely entrust yourself to everything. Even though this is simple, somewhere the mind loves itself and can't be satisfied with just flowing along.
It means to stop controlling your thoughts. To really do this, is difficult. It means to leave thoughts as they are. Entrust yourself to the thoughts that come and go.
Really become one with your breathing, or whatever you are intently looking at, during this period of Zazen.
Everything is Buddha. As I keep saying, we are all diamonds. Nobody is a glass bead. Please really believe this and then sit, and put the mind in order.
I sometimes hear people saying, that here in this monastery the monks and nuns have a bad sitting posture or something like this, but the only problem really is, whether the mind is in order or not. That is, whether you can entrust yourself to everything, leaving everything as it is, or not.
Once, after Shakyamuni had climbed onto the lecturing seat, one of his disciples said: “Carefully watch the king of the teaching. The teaching of the king of the teaching is this.” Shakyamuni came down again and the sermon was finished.
This means that whatever thought comes up - it is the teaching of Shakyamuni. All the different kinds of thought that come and go - it’s all Zen. It means you must not look for Zen outside. Everything is done. It’s all finished here. Maybe you think: “I have to do this.” Or: “My practice is not good enough.” Including everything, your condition right now, whatever you do, it’s all Zen. It’s all the teaching of the king of the teaching. So stop using Zen practice as a means or a method to try to get or understand something. You are already completely stuffed with it. You are already totally filled up with it. But unfortunately, you don’t clearly see it for yourself. And therefore you keep thinking that Zen is somewhere else. Stop creating this delusion. I would like you to understand deeply, that at all times, whatever you do, it is the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha.
“Carefully watch the king of the teaching. The teaching of the king of the teaching is this.”
So please always completely become the condition you are in now.
It is definitely possible that all dualistic viewpoints like cold and hot, suffering and ease completely disappear. There is such a world. I say there is such a world, but actually, you are already always within that world. You just don’t become aware of it. You don’t realize it. That’s all. You already have that treasure. Unfortunately, you just don’t notice for yourself, that it is the final point of Buddhism, also called emptiness.
Deshan Xuanjian was a buddhist scholar in ancient China who had written many books about the Diamond Sutra. One day in a tea house, an old lady serving him a snack asked him: "The Diamond Sutra says: 'The past mind can not be grasped. The present mind can not be grasped. The future mind can not be grasped.' With what mind are you going to eat this?" Of course, the famous scholar knew this quote very well, but he could not even answer one word. He was dumbfounded and so embarrassed, that he started sweating. This became a big problem for him, realizing that all of his studies were useless in the end. He decided to become a monk, and later became an outstanding Zen master.
His teaching was this: "30 blows if you speak. 30 blows if you don't." For example, he would ask you: "What is the buddhist teaching?" As soon as you opened your mouth, he would hit you with a stick. Bang. Bang. If you kept your mouth shut, he would hit you just the same.
Buddhism does not exist in this monastery. If I say, it does not exist, it means that it is everything.
Everything is Zen. Many people mistakenly think, they can't practice Zen without sitting on a cushion. We are having a retreat now, sitting on a cushion to be able to really concentrate for a couple of days, but the Zen while eating or while walking or while doing other things is of utmost importance.
A lay disciple of Ida Toin awakened to his true nature one day standing in a commuter train. The chance for this to happen is everywhere. It is not a matter of finding the right conditions. Whatever condition you meet, it is Zen as it is. The cause is already the result. To this degree, there is no next thing in our daily life. It is all the essence of Zen. Some kind of special Zen does not exist. The only problem is, if you can really accept your condition as it is now.
What I would like you to do, is to always be aware of a question. Any question is fine. You have all kinds of different problems. I would like you to use them and hang on to them, always being conscious of a problem. In Zen terminology, this is called a "koan". It means to always be conscious of a question while you live your daily life. There is no need for the classical koans of the ancient masters. Just use your own personal problem.
Some of you concentrate on a koan at certain times, like when you are sitting, but as soon as you stand up, it is completely gone.
To believe that Zen means to clean up thoughts is a terrible misunderstanding. I would like you to always be aware of a question without forgetting it. Of course, we are now sitting on a cushion all day, but to think that Zen only happens when you are sitting on a cushion, is far away from it.
"The past mind can not be grasped. The present mind can not be grasped. The future mind can not be grasped."
What is the mind?
Who created past, present and future?
I would like you to investigate this quotation from the Diamond Sutra:
"The past mind can not be grasped. The present mind can not be grasped. The future mind can not be grasped."
Reading all of this?
Books by Sekkei Harada are available in several languages.
If you share an interest in Buddhism, you are welcome to visit me for a cup of tea.