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Awaken Interviews Shunryu Suzuki – Eat When You’re Hungry Sleep When You’re Tired

Awaken: Firstly, thank you so much for your time today. It is an honor to spend these moments with you and to share your words with our readers.


As you are a teacher of Zen, I’d like to start by asking if you might say something about Buddhism itself, and in particular, Zen…

Shunryu Suzuki: We are not so concerned about a deep understanding of Buddhism. As a philosophy, Buddhism is a very deep, wide, and firm system of thought, but Zen is not concerned about philosophical understanding. We emphasize practice.

According to traditional Buddhist understanding, our human nature is without ego. When we have no idea of ego, we have Buddha’s view of life. The understanding passed down from Buddha to our time is that when you start zazen (seated meditation), there is enlightenment even without any preparation. Whether you practice zazen or not, you have Buddha nature.

Awaken: What exactly is enlightenment?

Suzuki: When Buddha transmitted our practice to Maha Kashyapa, he just picked up a flower with a smile. Only Maha Kashyapa understood what he meant; no one else understood. We should not attach to some fancy ideas or to some beautiful things. We should not seek for something good. The truth is always near at hand, within your reach.

When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings. There is your true self.

Knowing that your life is short, to enjoy it day after day, moment after moment, is the life of “form is form, and emptiness emptiness.”

When Buddha comes, you will welcome him; when the devil comes, you will welcome him. The famous Chinese Zen master Ummon, said, “Sun-faced Buddha and Moon-faced Buddha.” When he was ill, someone asked him, “How are you?” And he answered, “Sun-faced Buddha and Moon-faced Buddha.” That is the life of “form is form and emptiness emptiness.” There is no problem.

Awaken: This idea of emptiness… so important within the Zen discipline, but it also seems to be the most baffling! Would you clarify what this means?

Suzuki: The emptiness we mean is not like the idea you may have. You have an idea of emptiness and an idea of being, and you think that being and emptiness are opposites. But in Buddhism both of these are ideas of being. You cannot reach a full understanding of emptiness with your thinking mind or with your feeling. That is why we practice zazen. Although you can have a tentative understanding of it through your thinking, you should understand emptiness through your experience.

We have a term, shosoku, which is about the feeling you have when you receive a letter from home. Even without an actual picture, you know something about your home, what people are doing there, or which flowers are blooming. That is shosoku. Although we have no actual written communications from the world of emptiness, we have some hints or suggestions about what is going on in that world—and that is, you might say, enlightenment. When you see a plum blossom, or hear the sound of a small stone hitting bamboo, that is a letter from the world of emptiness.

Awaken: But as you say, we can not know it through words or ideas. The only way to know it is to experience it…

Suzuki: All descriptions of reality are limited expressions of the world of emptiness. Yet we attach to the descriptions and think they are reality. That is a mistake because what is described is not the actual reality, and when you think it is reality, your own idea is involved.

Many Buddhists have made this mistake. That is why they were attached to written scriptures or Buddhas words. They thought that his words were the most valuable thing, and that the way to preserve the teaching was to remember what Buddha said. But what Buddha said was just a letter from the world of emptiness, just a suggestion or some help from him.

Awaken: Just to assure my understanding… Emptiness sounds like an experience of coming home. It’s a sensation that is completely removed from comparisons or expectations in my head. It’s just a feeling of “completeness” that can not be explained?

Suzuki: Our experience is “empty” of our preconceived ideas, our idea of being, our idea of big or small, round or square. Round or square, big or small dont belong to reality, but are simply ideas… When we analyze our experience, we have ideas of time or space, big or small, heavy or light. A scale of some kind is necessary, and with various scales in our mind, we experience things. Still the thing itself has no scale. That is something we add to reality. Because we always use a scale and depend on it so much, we think the scale really exists. But it doesnt exist. If it did, it would exist with things. Using a scale you can analyze one reality into entities, big and small, but as soon as we conceptualize something, it is already a dead experience.

Awaken: So, the whole point is to drop our habit of always measuring and comparing…

Suzuki: We “empty” ideas of good or bad from our experience, because the measurement that we use is usually based on the self. When we say good or bad, the scale is yourself. That scale is not always the same. Each person has a scale that is different. So I dont say that the scale is always wrong, but we are liable to use our selfish scale when we analyze, or when we have an idea about something. That selfish part should be empty. How we empty that part is to practice zazen and become more accustomed to accepting things as they are without any idea of big or small, good or bad.

Awaken: It’s as if by comparing, we’re putting a filter on our direct experience, much as we add filters to photographs…

Suzuki: The thing itself is emptiness, but because you add something to it, you spoil the actual reality. So if we dont spoil things, that is to empty things. When you argue and deny someone elses opinion, you are forcing your own opinion on another. That is what we usually do. But our way is not like that. By emptying the added element of our self-centered ideas, we purify our observation of things. When we see and accept things as they are, we have no need to replace one thing with another. That is what we mean by “to empty” things.

If we empty things, letting them be as it is, then things will work.

Awaken: Could you elaborate on the meaning of “purifying our observation of things?”

Suzuki: Our effort in Zen is to observe everything as-it-is. Yet even though we say so, we are not necessarily observing everything as-it-is. We say, “Here is my friend, over there is the mountain, and way up there is the moon.”If we think, “I am here and the mountain is over there,” that is a dualistic way of observing things. To go to San Francisco, we have to cross over the Tassajara mountains. That is our usual understanding. But that is not the Buddhist way of observing things. We find the mountain or the moon or our friend or San Francisco within ourselves. Right here. That is big mind within which everything exists.

Awaken: So, don’t seek anything because then we are always reaching for what is already within?

Suzuki: In our practice of shikantaza we do not seek for anything, because when we seek for something, an idea of self is involved. Just receive the letter from the world of emptiness. That is shikantaza. When we receive a letter from the world of emptiness, then the practice of shikantaza is working.

Awaken: What is shikantaza?

Suzuki: Shikantaza, our Zazen, is just to be ourselves. When we do not expect anything we can be ourselves. That is our way, to live fully in each moment of time. This practice continues forever.

We say, “each moment,“ but in your actual practice, a “moment“ is too long because in that “moment“ your mind is already involved in following the breath. So we say, “even in a snap of your fingers there are millions of instances of time.“ This way we can emphasize the feeling of existing in each instant of time. Then your mind is very quiet.

So for a period of time each day, try to sit in shikantaza, without moving, without expecting anything, as if you were in your last moment. Moment after moment you feel your last instant. In each inhalation and each exhalation there are countless instants of time. Your intention is to live in each instant.

Awaken: But is it really possible to live without expectations? In a way, the expectation, or at least the hope, of becoming enlightened is what gets us onto the cushion!

Suzuki: When you try to attain enlightenment, then you will have a big burden on your mind. Your mind will not be clear enough to see things as they are. Usually when you practice zazen, you become very idealistic, and you set up an ideal or goal which you strive to attain and fulfill.

But as I have often said, this is absurd. When you are idealistic, you have some gaining idea within yourself; by the time you attain your ideal or goal, your gaining idea will create another ideal. So as long as your practice is based on a gaining idea, and you practice zazen in an idealistic way, you will have no time actually to attain your ideal…you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future. But even worse than this idealistic attitude is to practice zazen in competition with someone else. This is a poor, shabby kind of practice.

Awaken: Would you mind if we got into the nitty-gritty of it by exploring more about the particulars of sitting shikantaza? For example, is there a special way that one must breathe, and a special way that one must hold their body?

Suzuki: First practice smoothly exhaling, then inhaling. Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation. If you exhale smoothly, without even trying to exhale, you are entering into the complete perfect calmness of your mind. You do not exist anymore. When you exhale this way, then naturally your inhalation will start from there. All that fresh blood bringing everything from outside will provide for your body. You are completely refreshed. Then you start to exhale, to extend that fresh feeling into emptiness. So, moment after moment, without trying to do anything, you continue shikantaza.

Complete shikantaza may be difficult because of the pain in your legs when you are sitting cross-legged. But even though you have pain in your legs, you can do it. Even though your practice is not good enough, you can do it. Your breathing will gradually vanish. You will gradually vanish, fading into emptiness… That is shikantaza. The important point is your exhalation. Instead of trying to feel yourself as you inhale, Fade into emptiness as you exhale.

When you practice this in your last moment, you will have nothing to be afraid of. You are actually aiming at emptiness. You become one with everything after you completely exhale with this feeling. If you are still alive, naturally you will inhale again.

Awaken: Everything circles back to “emptiness!”

Suzuki: We say true existence comes from emptiness and goes back again, into emptiness. What appears from emptiness is true existence. We have to go through the gate of emptiness. This idea of existence is very difficult to explain.

In the Prajna Paramita Sutra, the most important point, of course, is the idea of emptiness. Before we understand the idea of emptiness, everything seems to exist substantially. But after we realize the emptiness of things, everything becomes real—not substantial. When we realize that everything we see is a part of emptiness, we can have no attachment to any existence; we realize that everything is just a tentative form and color.

Thus, we realize the true meaning of each tentative existence. When we first hear that everything is a tentative existence, most of us are disappointed; but this disappointment comes from a wrong view of man and nature. It is because our way of observing things is deeply rooted in our self-centered ideas, that we are disappointed when we find everything has only a tentative existence. But when we actually realize this truth, we will have no suffering.

Awaken:  A “tentative” existence? Meaning, unfixed uncertain? Precarious, even? Fleeting. This is the essence of Buddha’s teaching, isn’t it? The impermanence of life and how we make ourselves suffer when we resist this truth… And so, would you say that making friends with change is the whole point of Zen practice?

Suzuki: It is not so easy to talk about what real practice is. The more you try to figure it out, the more you feel distance from your practice.

The only thing we can say is, this is the way which has no end and no beginning, and from this way we cannot escape.

After sitting one year, most students will actually have this quality of practice, but when you try to figure out what your practice is, there you have a problem, or you create a problem which does not belong to your practice. If you just sit, there is no problem for most of our students. But sometimes you create problems, thats all. And you fight with the problems, thats all. You are creating it, actually. In your zazen there is no problem.

As some Zen masters say, “Our way is like taking a walk, step by step.” This is our practice. When you stand on one leg, you know, you should forget the other leg. This is step by step. This is true practice. You know that if you stick to right leg or left leg, right foot or left foot, you cannot walk. This is how we practice our way. This is complete freedom.

Awaken: Just sitting… Is this what is meant by mindfulness? Just observing, without the addition of comparisons, judgments or commentary?

Suzuki: Many things happen as you sit. You may hear the sound of the stream. You may think of something, but your mind doesnt care. Your great mind is just there sitting. Even when you are not aware of seeing, hearing or thinking, something is going on in big mind. We observe things. Without saying “good” or “bad,” we just sit. We enjoy things but have no special attachment to them. We have full appreciation of them at this time, thats all.

After zazen we say, “Oh good morning!” In that way, one after another, things will happen to us and we can fully appreciate them. That is the mind transmitted from Buddha. And that is the way we practice zazen.

Awaken: Being with what is, rather than trying to get somewhere or achieve something…

Suzuki: In zazen, what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually, it is only the expression of your true nature… But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.

Awaken: I know the idea is to adapt this attitude of acceptance to our lives off the cushion, so to speak… but the “real world” is so full of challenges and irritation! How do we carry forth this attitude of just sitting?

Suzuki: If you practice zazen in this way, you are less likely to have trouble when you are enjoying some event. Do you understand? You may have a special experience and think, “This is it. This is how it should be.” If someone opposes you, you will be angry. “No, it should be like this, not like that. Zen Center should be like this.” Maybe so. But it is not always so.

We open our minds to observe things-as-it-is and to accept things-as-it-is. Without this basis, when you say, “This is the mountain,” or “This is my friend,” or “This is the moon,” the mountain will not be the mountain, my friend will not be my friend, and the moon will not be the moon itself. That is the difference between sticking to something and Buddhas way.

After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little.

Awaken: This practice is certainly very simple and practical… it only asks us to look within for our peace of mind, rather than rely on complicated therapies or memorizing scriptures…

Suzuki: This is a very important point, and it is the only way to practice Zen. Of course, studying scriptures or reciting the sutra or sitting is Zen… But if your effort or practice does not have the right orientation, it will not work at all. Not only will it not work, but it may spoil your pure nature. Then the more you know about Zen, the more you will become spoiled. Your mind will be filled with rubbish; your mind will be stained.

Awaken: By “right orientation,” I gather, from what we have already discussed, that what this means is to accept what is, rather than strive to attain something special?

Suzuki: The message for us today is “Cultivate your own spirit.” It means not to go seeking something outside of yourself.

Awaken: Just to prevent any confusion around this point… this is not a selfish endeavor by any stretch. Because by expressing our “true nature,” as you have described, it seems inevitable that we would find ourselves more capable of respect and compassion toward others, as well as toward ourselves…

Suzuki: Self-respect is not something that you can feel you have. When you feel, “I have self-respect,” that is not self-respect anymore. When you are just you, without thinking or trying to say something special, just saying what is on your mind and how you feel, then there is naturally self-respect. When I am closely related to all of you and to everything, then I am a part of one big whole being. When I feel something, Im almost a part of it, but not quite. When you do something without any feeling of having done something, then that is you, yourself. Youre completely with everyone and you dont feel self-conscious. That is self-respect.

Awaken: But this doesn’t mean that we stop working on ourselves, so to speak? I guess I am speaking of the difference between self-acceptance and self-improvement…

Suzuki: We each have our own unique personal tendencies. You must be strict with yourself and especially with your tendencies. But if you try to get rid of them, or if you try not to think or not to hear the sound of the stream during zazen, it is not possible. Let your ears hear without trying to hear. Let the mind think without trying to think and without trying to stop it. That is practice.

Awaken: This is a little cryptic! But I take it to mean that the minute we turn this business of fixing ourselves into a mission, we will have entered into a kind of war within ourselves, which is not the point of practice, at all! And certainly not within the spirit of self-respect, either…

Suzuki: While we were talking about self-respect, a bird was singing outside. Peep-peep-peep. Thats self-respect. Peep-peep-peep. It doesnt mean anything. Maybe he was just singing. Maybe without trying to think he was just singing, peep-peep-peep. When we heard it we couldnt stop smiling. We cannot say that it is just a bird. It controls the whole mountain, the whole world. That is self-respect.

But… just to be yourself is our practice. When you can do that, you will be able to speak without thinking too much, and without having any special purpose. When you speak or act it will be just to express yourself. That is complete self-respect. To practice zazen is to attain this kind of self-respect.

Awaken: Is this what is meant by the Zen expression, “Eat when you’re hungry sleep when you’re tired?”

Suzuki: The true practice of zazen is to sit as if drinking water when you are thirsty. There you have naturalness. It is quite natural for you to take a nap when you are very sleepy. But to take a nap just because you are lazy, as if it were the privilege of a human being to take a nap, is not naturalness. You think, “My friends, all of them, are napping; why shouldn’t I? When everyone else is not working, why should I work so hard? When they have a lot of money, why don’t I?” This is not naturalness. Your mind is entangled with some other idea, someone else’s idea, and you are not independent, not yourself, and not natural.

Even if you sit in the cross-legged position, if your zazen is not natural, it is not true practice. You do not have to force yourself to drink water when you are thirsty; you are glad to drink water. If you have true joy in your zazen, that is true zazen. But even though you have to force yourself to practice zazen, if you feel something good in your practice, that is zazen.

If you practice hard you will be like a child.

Awaken: And this is “Beginner’s Mind?” Just be yourself. And don’t worry about what others are doing over there!

Suzuki: True zazen is beyond being in bed or sitting in the zendo. If your husband or wife is in bed, that is zazen. If you think, “I am sitting here, and my spouse is in bed,” then even though you are sitting here in the cross-legged position, that is not true zazen. You should be like a frog always. That is true zazen. If we are like a frog, we are always ourselves.

This is one of Awakens Dream Interviews, conducted by Donna Quesada, and All Answers are Verbatim from Shunryu Suzuki.

Awaken Interviews

Source: AWAKEN


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