December 1962

Originally offered: December 1st, 1962 | Modified October 27th, 2009 by korin


Shunryū Suzuki-rōshi


December 1962  (Published Dec. 1962, Wind Bell No. 12)

The more we attempt to manage religious activity, the more we lose our fundamental way.  The more we study the teaching of Buddhism as if it were philosophy, the more we lose the original teaching.

The founder of Eihei-ji Monastery, Dōgen-zenji, respected students who sincerely practiced zazen (cross-legged meditation) rather than intelligent or learned students.  Dōgen emphasized organizing everyday life as the practice of Zen.  He felt that this was the proper activity for Buddhist.  When he spoke of the basic teaching of Buddhism, the transiency of life, he stressed it as an actual fact and not as a teaching of the sūtras.

Dōgen-zenji lost his father when he was three and his mother when he was eight.  His mother was a Fujiwara, the most eminent family of the time.  She had full experience of the teaching of transiency, and she wanted Dōgen to be a priest of great sincerity.  He decided to follow her will.  After his mother died and he sat by her cold body; he reached a profound understanding of impermanence, watching a few lines of incense smoke drift.  Dōgen said, “I can walk on the edge of a white blade.  I can do without food and drink, but it is not possible for me to forget my mother’s last words.”

In Zuimonki it is stated that Dōgen said, “In order to have a strong introgressive way-seeking mind, it is necessary to see the transiency of life.  This actual fact of life is not something conceivable in our brain or something to be dwelled on as an object of meditation.  It is an actual fact.  You should not wait even for Buddha’s teaching.”

In Denki it is stated that Dōgen said, “When we are not sincere enough to be Buddhists, there is a difference between the intelligent and the dull ….  If you lose your human life (Buddhahood can only be attained, when you have human life) you cannot have your life again.” This way is Buddha’s true teaching.  We should encourage ourselves with great holy desire and devote ourselves to Buddhism under the guidance of a true master.”

And again in Zuimonki he says in regard to right activity, “Some people think building a temple or pagoda means that Buddhism is prospering.  This attitude is a great mistake.  Even a building of gold and precious stone is not the prosperity of Buddhism.  The only prosperity of Buddhism is the practice of Buddhism, without wasting a single moment.”


This transcript is a retyping of the existing City Center transcript.  It is not verbatim.  No tape is available.  The City Center transcript was entered onto disk by Jose Escobar, 1997.  It was reformatted by Bill Redican (10/27/01).

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2 Responses to “December 1962”

  1. korin Says:

    Shobogenzo Zuimonki is distinct from Dogen’s collection of essays entitled Shobogenzo. Shobogenzo Zuimonki consists of records of dharma talks by Dogen recorded by his disciple and dharma successor, Koun Ejo. A translation including introduction by Shohaku Okumura can be found HERE.

    Here is a translation of what may be the first passage (with some additional context) quoted from Shobogenzo Zuimonki (Okumura translation, section 2-14):
    “In the same way if the aspiration to seek the Way is earnest enough when you practice shikantaza (just sitting), study the koans or meet your teacher, though the aim is high you will hit the mark, and though it is deep you will fish it out. Without arousing such aspiration, how can you complete the great matter of the Buddha-Way in which the samsara of life-and-death is cut off in a single moment? Only if you have a mind unconcerned about inferior intelligence or dull faculties, or ignorance or dullness, will you surely attain enlightenment.
    “Next, to arouse such an aspiration, think deeply in your heart of the impermanence of the world. It is not a matter of meditating using some provisional method of contemplation. It is not a matter of fabricating in our heads that which does not really exist. Impermanence is truly the reality right in front of our eyes. We need not wait for some teaching from others, some proof from some passage of scripture, or some principle. Born in the morning and dead in the evening, a person we saw yesterday is no longer here today —these are the facts we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. This is what we see and hear about others. Applying this to our own bodies and thinking of the reality (of all things), though we expect to live for seventy or eighty years, we die when we must die.”

    Shohaku Okumura also notes that “In Gakudo-Yojinshu (Points to Watch in Practicing the Way), Dogen Zenji also said that arousing bodhi-mind is seeing impermanence.
    “‘When we truly ‘see’ impermanence, egocentric mind does not arise, nor do thoughts of fame and personal benefit. Being anxious that the days and nights are passing quickly, practice as though your head were enveloped in flames. Reflecting on the frailty of your body, practice with diligence following the example of the Buddha.'”

    I am not sure what source text is being referred to here by “Denki.” This may be a paraphrase of another passage from Shobogenzo Zuimonk (Okumura translation, section 2-20):
    “The distinction between being brilliant or dull applies only when thorough aspiration has not yet been aroused. When a person falls from a horse various thoughts arise before he hits the ground. When something occurs which is so serious that one’s body may be damaged or one’s life may be lost, no one will fail to put all his intellect to work. On such occasions, whether brilliant or dull, anyone will think and try to figure out what is best to do.
    “Therefore, if you think you will die tonight or tomorrow or that you are confronting a dreadful situation, encourage your aspiration and you will not fail to attain enlightenment. A person who seems superficially dull but has a sincere aspiration will attain enlightenment more quickly than one who is clever in a worldly sense. Although he could not recite even a single verse, Cudapanthaka1, one of the disciples of the Buddha, gained enlightenment during one summer practice period because he had earnest aspiration.
    “We are only alive now. Only if we learn the buddha-dharma, earnestly wishing to attain enlightenment, will we be able to do so before dying.”

    Here is another translation of the final passage cited from Shobogenzo Zuimonki (Okumura translation, section 2-6):
    “Most people today mistakenly think that constructing buddha-images and building stupas helps the buddha-dharma flourish. Even though we might erect huge temples adorned with polished jewels and gold, we cannot attain the Way by these works. This is nothing more than merit for lay people enabling their wealth to enter into the world of the buddha and allowing people to do good. Although they might receive a great result from a small cause, for monks to be involved in such things has nothing to do with the flourishing of the buddha-dharma. To learn even a single phrase of the dharma-gate (teaching) or to practice zazen even for a single period while living in a thatched hut or under a tree shows the true flourishing of the buddha-dharma.”

    Another passage from Shobogenzo Zuimonki relates to the above (Okumura translation, section 6-9):
    “To attain the Way does not depend on whether you are inherently sharp or dull witted. Each one of us can be aware of the dharma. Slowness or quickness in attaining the Way depends on whether you are diligent or indolent. The difference between being diligent or indolent is caused by whether your aspiration is resolute or not. Lack of firm aspiration is caused by being unaware of impermanence. Ultimately speaking, we die moment by moment, not residing for even a little while. While you are alive, do not spend your time in vain.”

  2. Andrew Says:

    these are some of most helpful instructions i have received. by realizing that my head is on fire, i can act accordingly.i do not have much time.

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