The following is from a 1993 television programme, ‘The Awakened Self’—an interview with Harada Sekkei, abbot of Hosshinji Training Monastery by Shiratori Motoo, a former NHK-TV presenter.
Mr Shiratori: Excuse me for disturbing you during the middle of sesshin.
Harada Roshi: Thank you for coming.
S: Sesshin is a time when people concentrate on zazen. This is an important thing in Zen, isn’t it?
Roshi: Yes. Going back for quite a long time, sesshin is an important activity which has been strictly practised in Zen temples. Although it may sound a bit strange to say, sesshin is very effective or fruitful for a person’s zazen. It’s definitely a way of expanding a person’s state of mind.
S: You follow quite a strict schedule during sesshin, don’t you?
Roshi: We get up at 4:00 am and until 9:00 pm spend most of our time in the zendo. We, of course, sleep in the zendo, as well as eat there, too.
S: You really pack it in, don’t you?
Roshi: Yes. But not only within the zendo, in the individual rooms or while drinking tea after meals as well. These activities must all be Zen. Zen is walking, sitting, standing, and lying down; in other words, all of our everyday activities. My request is that especially during sesshin everyone concentrates on each activity.
S: I took a look inside the zendo and saw many foreigners there.
Roshi: There are about thirty foreigners here for this sesshin. Usually we have about that many come for each sesshin.
S: From which countries?
Roshi: This time there are people from America, Germany . . . Also there are two men from India living here.
S: The two in the yellow robes?
Roshi: Yes. There’s a person from Switzerland as well as others from other European countries. Some stay for a long time, others do not. But there are many.
S: People from the general Japanese public are here, too. How does that work?
Roshi: Hosshinji is an official training monastery. However, for the last eighty years or so lay people have been permitted to attend sesshin. They are requested to follow the same rules as the monks and if they can, they are allowed to come and sit sesshin.
S: Eighty years ago would be the Taisho Period.
Roshi: Yes. At most training monasteries, I think there is quite a bit of resistance to having lay people come and sit zazen. Out of consideration for those with ‘bodaishin’—the mind which seeks the way of liberation—lay people are allowed to come and sit with us.
S: In conveying Zen to people of other countries, there must be differences which appear.
Roshi: Some changes must be made. For example, one person said, ‘We’ve already learned enough from religions in the form of teaching, including Buddhism, but I want to know what is the essence of those teachings?’ I explain that the essence is the Dharma [truth]. Buddhism, or the Buddhadharma, is the religious teaching based on the Dharma as expounded by Shakyamuni [the Buddha]. This teaching came into being because he clarified himself. So if you people here truly clarify yourselves, then the teaching becomes your own. This means that the Dharma doesn’t belong to any one single person. It belongs to anyone who grasps it. It doesn’t only belong to Shakyamuni. Since it belongs to those who grasp it, if those people expound what they have grasped, then it becomes their teaching. This means it isn’t only restricted to Shakyamuni’s teaching.
S: This means that the teaching and the Dharma are different.
Roshi: Yes. When Bodhidharma went from India to China, he met the emperor of China, Wutei. The emperor had a great intellectual understanding of Buddhism and asked many questions, but Bodhidharma rejected all of it. He realised that in such conditions there would only be the possibility of spreading the teaching, but no chance to spread the Dharma. So Bodhidharma went into the mountains and sat for nine years in a cave facing the wall. In that way he demonstrated the Dharma itself. In other words, Zen, sitting, single-minded sitting—this is the Dharma. He sat without giving explanations. Finally, as he had thought, he was able to foster a great disciple, Taiso Eka.
S: Is that why you gave the Dharma talk in America in which you said the people there shouldn’t understand Zen or the Way of Buddha conceptually or intellectually?
Roshi: That’s right. The Chinese characters for the word ‘religion’ mean ‘the teaching of the source’. Therefore people generally think that all religions, including Buddhism, are teachings of the source. I think there is the danger of getting them confused. There is a need to point out that the teaching of Buddha is slightly different from other religions.
As long as we do not clarify ourselves, we hear the teaching through the self, the ego, and then interpret the teaching in numerous different ways. This means there is a big gap. So no matter how well or clearly you have studied and learned the teaching, you still won’t reach the Dharma. The teaching of Buddhism is “no self” because it is the teaching of someone who has truly got rid of the ego. As long as the ego exists, it isn’t possible to truly hear the teaching.
S: It seems like a whole life of self-contradiction.
Roshi: This means that the people sitting sesshin here are hearing the teaching even though they don’t really understand it. ‘Be selfless!’ But they are still practising within the confines of the ego. Until a person truly forgets the self, it won’t be possible to truly practice and become the teaching of Shakyamuni.
S: That means inevitably the ego is included within understanding the teaching and the world of the Dharma is apart from that understanding.
Roshi: That’ s right.
S: Is this the meaning of the Zen expression ‘no dependence on words and letters’?
Roshi: Yes. Zen was brought to China from India by Bodhidharma. But before he arrived in China, the teaching of Buddha (i.e. the sutras), had been there a long time. This teaching was like a prescription for medicine.
S: A prescription?
Roshi: If your head hurts, then take this. If you have a stomach ache, then take this. At that time there was only this kind of discussion. Then Bodhidharma arrived. He embodied the Dharma itself. He pointed out that debating and arguing about this and that has nothing to do with the real teaching of the Buddha. However, they were only accustomed to the intellectual teaching of Emperor Wutei and other scholars. The teaching of Bodhidharma seemed to be strange and unusual for them, so none of them could believe it. Bodhidharma knew that the Dharma would die even if the intellectual teaching of Buddhism was passed on. Coming to this conclusion, he went to the mountains.
S: It’s not in the letters. It’s not in sutra books.
Roshi: That’s right. It must be ‘a special transmission outside the teachings’. There is something which must be transmitted separate from the teachings. That is the meaning of ‘no dependence on words and letters; a special transmission outside the teachings’.
S: Then by means of zazen it is possible to reach the world of the Dharma without relying on the sutras.
Roshi: Yes. It is important to know that it isn’t possible to use zazen or Zen as a means to reach the final point which is the world of the Dharma. Zen itself is the Dharma itself. This is something you can realise for yourself, ‘Ah, so that’s the way it is!’ To simply sit and think about concepts which appear in the sutras like KU (emptiness) or MU (nothingness) and imagine what they’re like isn’t Zen. If that is what people are going to do, they may as well go to school and study various commentaries on the sutras.
S: I’ve read your book, which is a compilation of your Dharma talks. In it, expressions such as ‘true person of the Dharma’ or ‘a liberated person’ or ‘true peace of mind’ appear. Now hearing you say that the teaching and the Dharma are different, I wonder what is a ‘true person of the Dharma’.
Roshi: A ‘true person of the Dharma’ includes everyone, regardless of whether they’ve made the Dharma their own or not, or whether they’ve experienced satori or not. This is to say that we are only able to perceive the past and the future. What is the present which divides past and future? ‘Now’ or the present is impossible to perceive. There is no so-called ‘now’, no instant which you can say is ‘now’. This is exactly what we explain with the word ‘Dharma’. This means that something which cannot actually be perceived is explained simply as the Dharma, so at least we can perceive it intellectually. To grasp the Dharma, then, means for the self to assimilate something which doesn’t exist. We can only perceive the past and future and yet certainly there is the present, even if it isn’t possible to know it. It’s not there and yet it is, the moment ‘now’.
S: We usually think we understand the moment ‘now’.
Roshi: But that is in the past. To understand something creates a distance. Because there is a distance, we can see something. If we can’t see something, it is because there is no distance between it. This means we are one with it. The condition of being one with things is explained as the Dharma.
S: That means that we are within the Dharma?
Roshi: Yes. To sit and realise, ‘Yes, that’s the way it is.’ This is what we call satori. This means there is no one who is not liberated. It is simply a question of whether you realise it or not. This means that there is no one who cannot awaken by practising according to the correct teaching. Satori is your own reality. Anyone can realise it.
S: The Dharma itself. What interferes? What are the obstacles?
Roshi: In Buddhist terms, we say it is ignorance. Essentially all is one. Ignorance is to divide that in two—subjective, objective. No one can think these two thoughts at the same time—subjective and objective. Or good and bad. Or like and dislike. No one can consciously think two things at the same time. But because we are changing so rapidly, we think we can think subjectively and objectively or good and bad at the same time. For that reason we compare. But in fact it isn’t possible to compare. As long as one thought doesn’t disappear, another new one cannot appear. And yet it seems as if we can compare good and bad. This is the human condition.
S: This sort of thinking, then, is delusion.
Roshi: That’ s right. It is the function of the ego. No one is born a buddha. We say everyone is a buddha, so this may seem contradictory. But without going through the process of ignorance and clarifying it, it isn’t possible to understand that you are Buddha and an enlightened being.
S: So we are endowed with Buddha-nature at birth. But as human beings we are also born into a condition of ignorance.
Roshi: That’s right. For example, these days salt is manufactured from sodium nitrium, but formerly salt was refined from sea water on salt beds. Yet it isn’t possible to use sea water to flavour food simply because it is salty. It must be refined into salt using appropriate procedures and then it can be used to season food. Without this process, it doesn’t become salt nor will we become buddhas.
S: This means that we all essentially possess the nature of salt, but we are still like ocean water.
Roshi: Yes. Of course sea water can be used to some extent, but there are limitations. It must be made into salt. In Buddhism we refer to this process as practice. And when it finally becomes salt, the practice has been accomplished. This, in other words, is liberation or satori.
S: So putting the sea water on the salt beds, that process is zazen.
Roshi: ‘That’ s right. Zazen isn’t only a matter of sitting. It is the attitude or intention of trying to eliminate the gap between yourself and other things. If people live their lives in this way, even if they don’t sit, they are doing Zen practice. There is no doubt about that.
S: It’s that wide in scope?
Roshi: On the other hand, if a person does zazen and that person is separate from zazen, then they are split in two. So even if that person is sitting, they aren’t doing zazen.
S: ‘Zazen split in two’—an interesting expression.
Roshi: This is when the ‘I’ practices zazen.
S: Is this the ego of which you were speaking earlier?
Roshi: Yes. If the ‘I’ practices zazen, then they are separate. In that case a person is constantly watching the condition of their zazen. Because they are separate, they can easily see that condition. But in this way, even if a person is sitting zazen, they are not one with it. A person who is lying in bed making the proper effort to be one with their condition is doing zazen to a far greater degree.
S: So it’s not simply a matter of the posture of one’s body?
Roshi: That’ s right.
S: I’d like to turn that around and ask if it is necessary to practice zazen in order to produce salt.
Roshi: Yes. To forget the ego, to become one with things, is Zen. To be one, you must be one with things. So there is no other way, is there?
S: To return to our earlier conversation, we were talking about conceptual or intellectual understanding; in other words the realm of teaching. To leave this realm and enter the realm of being the Dharma itself—which is the objective of Zen—are there any conditions for doing that?
Roshi: If the ego-self isn’t inserted between the teaching and that which hears or that which sees, then things are heard and seen directly—if there is no intervention of the self, no self-consciousness where the self is not raised. And, in fact, that is the way we always are. We aren’t conscious of the self when we see or hear. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing we are in a condition of being one with things. But a split second apart from ‘now’ and we perceive things. This is the biggest problem, the perception of things.
S: In Buddhism, we speak of Shakyamuni Buddha or Lord Buddha. Or the sutras, the teachings which Buddha expounded. Or the founders of various Buddhist sects and their writings. These are felt to be very important and many people study these writings in a frantic sort of way.
Roshi: That’s true.
S: Is it true, then, that it isn’t possible to attain the objective of Zen through such studies?
Roshi: It isn’t possible to attain the Dharma by means of deeply studying the teaching. Inevitably, ‘I’ remains. As long as the self or ‘I’ is not completely forgotten, it isn’t possible to become the teaching itself. Inevitably the self exists.
S: In one of your Dharma talks you speak quite strictly about not being fooled by others. What does this mean?
Roshi: For example, if you see some very beautiful scenery or hear a superb talk and forget yourself and think, ‘How wonderful!’ This is a condition of being deeply impressed or inspired. This is fine, of course. It happens temporarily and then you return to your normal condition. So it’s a short-lived experience. With regard to the teaching of Buddha, you may think, ‘How wonderful!’ Or you may think, ‘How wonderful is the world of Zen.’ In this way you forget yourself, but it’s only as if you are being impressed by a beautiful flower in bloom without truly making it your own. The practice of Zen is to study the self. I think it is important to be careful of this. While it is important to be inspired and impressed by figures of Buddha or by the teachings, if it isn’t turned toward the self . . . The realm of subject and object is not the real one.
S: You also speak of establishing the ‘true self’.
Roshi: Usually when we use this expression ‘shujinko’ in Japanese, we mean the central character or the proprietor of such and such a business. But when we use this word in Buddhism, it has a slightly different meaning. In Zen we use it to mean ‘an awakened person’, ‘a person who has clarified himself’.
S: To awaken to the self, does that mean . . .
Roshi: To awaken from delusion.
S: In other words, a person who has become the Dharma.
Roshi: Someone who has become such an awakened person cannot conceive of himself in that way. There is the expression, ‘To be the master of each place; to be one with each condition,’ sometimes being the master, sometimes being a farmer in a field. In that way being able to do various kinds of work—a truly free person.
S: Earlier you spoke of eliminating the ego-self, and now—at least in the Japanese language—to speak of being the master of oneself seems like a contradiction.
Roshi: The self we perceive is really a small self, a truly small self. But if we ask, ‘Where is the self?’ We have to say that essentially it doesn’t exist. And yet everybody thinks as if it does. It’s as if within the body there is a centre which controls us. We think there is something within the body which continually exists. This kind of thinking is delusion. If we become aware that it isn’t like that and never has been, then our condition as-it-is is the true awakened self. The self becomes big, a bigness beyond comparison. At that point there is only that awakened self. This is what is meant in Zen by the ‘awakened self’. In Buddha’s words, ‘I alone am holy throughout heaven and earth.’ Rinzai Zenji said, ‘A true person without rank.’ There are different expressions for the ‘awakened self’. If we get stuck on the words ‘master of oneself’, then it’s likely we will think of being such and such a master. But the real meaning is somewhat different.
S: In this connection we tend to think in western terms when we think of the ego-self, for example, or the establishment of the self. Japanese are often thought in this regard to be weak, and that, to the contrary, it would be ideal to firmly establish the self. If we think of this sort of objective, would this be a mistake as far as the teaching of the Buddhadharma is concerned?
Roshi: As long as you perceive your own self, this is a very small self. For example, things are comprised of the four elements—earth, water, air and fire. These four things are also comprised of many different elements brought together by cause and effect. Within these elements there is no place where the ego can be perceived.
S: This is ‘now’.
Roshi: That’s right. This self which is perceived is small and, for that reason, limited. Essentially all things, including human beings, are without limit because they come together through cause and effect. Because the self is perceived, limits are created in limitlessness. That is what is born and dies. But the law of causation is not like that. If you awaken to the true self, then you realise a self which is truly without limit, a vast self. The foreign monks here all think that to throw away ‘I’ is a defeat; for them this is a complete defeat. So in the process of practice, they firmly hold onto thought centred on the self. From this self-centred viewpoint, they try to coordinate their teacher’s words with their own thoughts. They really think and think how they can make these two agree. This is no good, but they don’t ask about it. They can’t. So whether it’s their teacher’s words or what they’ve read somewhere, they wholeheartedly think how to make these one with their own ideas. They can’t throw this away.
S: They have a stronger attachment to the self than we . . .
Roshi: That’s right. If you can’t throw it away, then carry it. Carry the ego. If by carrying the self you feel very much burdened, then how about turning it into a truly big self. Temporarily it may seem like a defeat, but in the future it will become a very great thing. The small self will turn into a large, awakened self.
S: But this awakened self seems like a very difficult thing.
Roshi: No, not at all. This came out when we were speaking earlier. We already are the awakened self. It’s simply a matter of noticing it. It isn’t something which is born new as a process of practice. Nor is it a matter of completely turning over and changing our way of thinking. This is a unique characteristic of Zen.
S: Each person is endowed with Buddha-nature . . .
Roshi: That’s right. If people practice correctly according to the correct teaching, then certainly they will come to realise that, ‘Yes, I always have been all right just as I am now.’
S: To completely accept things as-they-are—this is difficult.
Roshi: As I’ve already said many times, inevitably the ego-self intervenes at that point. The whole problem of the existence of other things is dependent on whether there is the intervention of the self or not. If you remove the intervention of the self, then all your intellectual knowledge as it is, which is limited by the ego, will become of tremendous, unlimited use. For example, during the lifetime of Shakyamuni, the people who first took refuge in his teaching were philosophers and scholars who had studied various other religions. They couldn’t believe in his teaching at first, but later they came to agree with his teaching and then really made the knowledge their own. Many of the sutras are concerned with such cases. Shakyamuni, after removing the intervention of the self, could make use of any kind of knowledge as his own. Depending on the intervention of the self, knowledge is either dead or alive. If the intervention of the self is taken away just once, if it is taken away now, then you would all be the awakened self.
S: . . able to peacefully accept all things as-they-are.
Roshi: This expression ‘the awakened self’ appears in the Mumonkan. A priest named Zuigan, in the course of his practice, would always call to himself, ‘Are you awake?’ Then readily he would answer, ‘Yes!’ Then again he would say to himself, ‘Don’ t be fooled by others.’ And he would answer, ‘No, no!’ This asking and answering himself is what we call the awakened self. Here in the monastery we use a stick called the kyosaku. This word means ‘awakening stick’. It isn’t only used to wake people up who are sleepy. For those who haven’t yet awakened to the true self, it is also used to encourage them to do so. Kyosaku also has the meaning of ‘cautioning stick’. In olden times, a bell was rung near a person’s ear if they were sleepy, and this was enough to awaken them, but gradually people have become lazy, so a bell isn’t enough any more.
S: The sound of the kyosaku seems very severe.
Roshi: Most people associate this type of thing with strictness in a Zen temple and of course it is necessary. But here at Hosshinji the matter of severity is focused on the question: Are your eyes really open or are you still asleep? This is true strictness. Strictness which comes from the outside such as the kyosaku or the rules and manners of the monastery is something which in time we get accustomed to. But it’s no good for someone to think they’re awake if they’re still asleep. So that strictness of acknowledging whether someone has thoroughly awakened or not, as well as the certainty on the part of the person that they have in fact awakened—that is what is necessary. Without this strictness, Zen will be destroyed.
S: To awaken to the self . . . Hearing Roshi’s explanation, it seems very difficult I think.
Roshi: Please don’t think so. It’s your own reality. It isn’t difficult. It’s simply a question of whether you realise it or not.
S: We are endowed with Buddha-nature, always to remember that is important . . .
Roshi: If we say it exists, then we must look for it. It’s not that; it’s not something to look for.
S: Buddha-nature as-it-is . . .
Roshi: As-it-is—the activity of things as-they-are.
S: The more I ask, the more it seems as if I don’t understand.
Roshi: No. That not understanding itself is Buddha-nature. The problem is that we’ve been taught we need to change the way we think. For that reason, it’s troublesome. Not understanding is the Dharma. Not being transparent or distinct or certain is also the Dharma as well. These conditions exist as facts, as reality.
S: To include these things as well means to accept things as-they-are?
Roshi: Yes. If not, a distinction will be made between what is the Dharma and what isn’t.
S: Sitting zazen and continuing with it in order to realise this. Sitting, sitting, sitting. You do this through the autumn—October, November, December. This seems like a very difficult practice.
Roshi: It’s a mistake for a common person to try to become a buddha. If an ordinary person tries to become a buddha by means of practice, trying to awaken to the true self, then a great mistake arises. What I want to say is that an ordinary person should truly be an ordinary person, completely giving up seeking mind and practice, and then just to be truly ordinary. That is enough. That is why we say, ‘Don’t be fooled by others.’ If you are too impressed and inspired by the great teachings of Buddha or in worshipping wonderful images of Buddha, you will lose your self. And that is no good. To be really ordinary is to be a buddha. That is ‘the awakened self’. This is the teaching of Zen.
S: In a Dharma talk you gave in Germany, you said that the vital point of zazen is grinding up zazen by means of zazen. I remembered this in connection with what you just said now about an ordinary person becoming an ordinary person.
Roshi: If we tell someone who has a keen sense of self to be one with things, for example, to be one with a pillar or a wall, this is something that they can’t even imagine. For a Japanese, though, they’ll try to do it simply because they’ve been told to do so. They’ll think that it surely is possible. But for westerners, they aren’t able to think this way. So, rather than saying, ‘Be one with things’, I’ve come to say, ‘By means of zazen, grind up zazen.’ This is easier for them to understand. We say, ‘Be one with things,’ or ‘Be that thing,’ or ‘Leave it as-it-is,’ in what for us seems a natural sort of way, but this is difficult for them to understand. However, if I say, ‘Grind up what you’re doing by means of that activity,’ then it seems as if they can more easily understand.
S: Earlier you spoke of splitting zazen in two, where the ego watches the condition of its own zazen. Is that related to what you’re now saying?
Roshi: Yes. Instead of elimination or not seeing something which exists, there is a grinding up of the distinction between subject and object. Then it will completely disappear. Essentially, there is nothing which exists, so there should be nothing. By means of something which exists, then, grinding it up. By means of thought, grinding up thought. To explain it that way seems easier for westerners to understand than, ‘Be one with things,’ or ‘Forget the self.’ However, for Japanese people this expression ‘to grind up something’ seems to be more difficult to understand.
S: It is a fresh way of hearing this. When thinking about religion as a general conceptual framework and the words which are used to express it, it is, first of all, difficult for us Japanese. It must be even more so to try to express this to westerners or people from India. Their understanding of religion must be quite a bit different from ours. I thought of this earlier when you were speaking of the ego. How can you transcend that cultural gap?
Roshi: It would be unreasonable for me to try to establish something of my own in other countries. The Dharma isn’t something which can be imported or exported. It is the way of each country itself. Religion must be the way of life itself of each country. So to take the Buddhadharma and impress by saying this or that about attaining the Dharma by means of zazen will be met with refusal, I think. On the other hand, to say that your reality itself—laughing, crying, confusion and so on. These facts are the Dharma as they are. And furthermore, there must be no reality. If there is reality, then from that standpoint many other things will arise. So I say, ‘Please grind up reality by means of reality.’ And then there will be a resolution.
S: At that point it seems as if the difference between Christianity, Islam and other religions are transcended . . .
Roshi: I’ve never really thought of these other religions such as Christianity or Islam. I’ve never thought that because I’m going to an Islamic country or a Christian country I should study those religions. But in any country, black is black, white is white, hot is hot. In any country when we are sad, we cry. I say that these realities themselves are the Dharma. It is necessary to use concepts as a means to explain this. So sometimes sitting zazen, sometimes giving Dharma talks to explain—this is necessary. It isn’t possible to simply say, ‘Just sit.’ This would be like trying to cross the ocean without a sea chart.
S: At the end of your talks you say, ‘Please don’t get caught up in my words.’
Roshi: ‘Don’t be fooled by others.’
S: It is a matter of each person realising their innate Buddha-nature . . .
Roshi: Dogen Zenji said, ‘To study the Way of Buddha is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self.’ To study the Self is the attitude of questioning yourself on hearing the teaching. The question, then, is if there is a questioning, inquiring consciousness on the part of the person hearing it. Depending on whether or not there is this questioning, the Dharma or zazen will either be medicine or poison. If the person listening does not have this questioning mind, then they will simply follow the words of the teaching as it is without really making it their own. This is to say that no matter how great the medicine might be, it can become poisonous. This is something we need to be careful of, I think.
S: Today is October 5 which happens to coincide with Bodhidharma Day. Thanks to him we can hear this teaching of Zen.
Roshi: Without Bodhidharma, there absolutely would be no Zen sect. Nor would we have the teaching of ‘a special transmission outside the teachings; no dependence on words and letters.’ There would only be argument about the meaning of the teachings.
Harada Sekkei Roshi is the abbot of Hosshinji, Japan, and the author of The Essence of Zen. This transcript is taken from the Hosshinji Newsletter of Spring 1995 and reproduced with their kind permission.
Buddhism Now August 2000
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