Part 4 Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle of Zazen, by Shohaku Okumura


Formless Samadhi in the Diamond Sutra

This idea of formless samadhi came, I think, out of the Diamond Sutra. The Diamond Sutra is one of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. The Prajnaparamita is a collection; it is not just one sutra, and the Diamond Sutra, or Kongo Hannya Kyo, is one of the oldest from India in Mahayana Buddhism. This translation is by Red Pine.

Because The Diamond Sutra is a very early Mahayana text, it doesn’t yet use the expression ‘emptiness’ or ‘sunyata’. People who created the Diamond Sutra tried to express the idea of emptiness without using the word ‘emptiness’. This is very interesting.

In the beginning of this sutra, Subhuti (Jp. Shubodai) who is one of the ten greatest disciples of Buddha, asked: ‘If good sons or daughters should set forth on the bodhisattva path, how should they dwell, how should they practise and how should they control their thoughts?’ The rest of the sutra is Buddha’s answer to these questions.

First of all Buddha said,

`Subhuti, those who would now thus set forth on the bodhisattva path should give rise to the thought: “However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, material or not material, conscious or not conscious, or neither conscious nor not conscious . . .

That means everything that exists or does not exist.

. . in whatever conceivable realm of being, one might conceive of being, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all.

As bodhisattva, we should vow to save all beings. That is the first vow of the four bodhisattva vows.

And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.”’

This is what the Buddha said: `Even when we have saved all living beings, there is no single being that is saved.’ This is the main point of the teachings in this sutra. We should save all beings, but if we think there are some beings that can be saved by us, then we are mistaken. Not even a single being can be liberated.

`And why not?’

This is a very good question. Why not?

`Subhuti, they cannot be called bodhisattvas who form the idea of a self or the idea of a being or who form the idea of a life or the idea of a soul.’

If we have an idea that there are living beings which can be saved, we are not bodhisattvas.

Those four ideas: the idea of a being, a self, a life, or a soul — this translation is from Sanskrit, but in the Chinese translation from Sanskrit, this idea is form (so). In the Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra the expression used is `the form of being’: `the form of self’, `the form of a being’, `the form of a life’, and `the form of a soul’. So if we see those `forms’ and try to save those beings with those forms, then that kind of practise is fundamentally based on delusion or ignorance of what is non-self or non-substantial, or of what is emptiness. Then how do we have to practise?

In the Prajnaparamita Sutra the main thing is that prajna-paramita is the most essential one within the six paramitas. The prajna-paramita, or wisdom, is the sixth.

Next the Buddha said,

`Moreover, Subhuti, when Bodhisattvas give a gift . . .

`Give a gift’ is his translation of dana-paramita, giving or offering.

. . they should not be attached to a thing.’

When a bodhisattva practises the dana-paramita, he or she should not be attached to the things given. This is because there is no such thing called `this person, a self, the form of a self, or form of a person who is giving, the thing which is given, or the person who receives’. At meal times we chant before unfolding the set of bowls. The original verse in Chinese is: `Nyorai oryoki / gakon toku futen / gangu issai shui / to sanrin kujaku.’ One English translation of this verse is: `Now we set out Buddha’s bowls; / may we, with all living beings, / realise the emptiness of the three wheels: / giver, receiver, and gift.’


The three wheels should be empty and free of attachment. The three wheels are the person offering, the person who receives the offering, and the thing that is given. A non-literal translation of the final part of this verse could be, `to be free from self clinging’. We should practise giving or dana without attachment to this person or to that person or to that thing given. That is called the emptiness of the three wheels. That is the way when you practise dana-paramita. In order to practise dana-paramita, we need wisdom or prajna-paramita, which sees the emptiness of self, other people, and the things given. In the case of eating our oryoki meal, we are the receivers and food is the gift. The server, tenzo or the farmers who grow the food, are the givers.

We should see the emptiness of all beings so there is no attachment to any form, self, other or things. That is formless samadhi in the practise of giving. To practise without attachment to any particular form is formless samadhi.

`When they give a gift, they should not be attached to anything at all. They should not be attached to a sight when they give a gift.’

Here, `a sight’ means a colour or a shape, I think.

`Nor should they be attached to a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch or a dharma when they give a gift.’

That means any object. A sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch and a dharma refers to the six objects of the six sense organs. We should practise giving or offering without attaching to any form. These six objects are called `form’ in Chinese translation.

`Thus, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas should give a gift without being attached to the idea of an object. And why? Subhuti, the body of merit of those bodhisattvas who give a gift without being attached is not easy to measure. What do you think, Subhuti, is the space to the east easy to measure?’

The Buddha starts to talk about vast space. What he is saying is that when we give something to a particular person, or when we try to do something good for someone, we often attach to that person. We might ask who the person is, whether he or she is worth helping, wonder whether our help will be appreciated, or whether our gift will be really helpful for the person. If we value that person, or if the person is one of our children, for example, we probably offer our help without any question or hesitation. But if this person is someone we don’t know, we start to question whether he or she is worth helping, or whether our action of helping really will help or not. Even when we have a good heart, somehow our heart is limited. And after the action of helping, if our gift is appreciated by that person, we become happy. But when someone doesn’t appreciate our gift, we often become sad or even angry. That is because our giving is influenced by three poisonous minds. We expect something even when we try to help others; we attach ourselves to the person, and we attach ourselves to the gift. What Buddha is saying here is: without being attached to a particular person or a particular thing, and without being attached to the merit of our action, just do it — just offer your gift. But that is really difficult — almost impossible for me at least. According to the Diamond Sutra, however, that is the practice of a bodhisattva. Without attaching to anything, just offer whatever it is you want to give. That is the practice of dana-paramita.

In this sutra only dana-paramita is discussed, but we should also apply this attitude to the practice of zazen. Zazen is the fifth paramita, dhyana-paramita, and the sixth is prajna-paramita (wisdom). When we apply this attitude of no attachment to our own sitting, that is samadhi of formlessness. We do not attach to this form, and we do not attach to any reward or result; we just sit. That is what Dogen meant by his expression `shikantaza’, `just sit’ — sitting without attachment to the form of sitting.

That is also what Nangaku was talking about [see `Nangaku’s Polishing a Tile’ page 26 in the February 2005 issue of Buddhism Now]. In Dogen’s comment on this story of Nangaku polishing a tile, he twisted the meaning of each and every sentence, actually. But I think Dogen was still expressing the same attitude as Nangaku. Dogen interpreted the story with a deeper and a more concrete attitude toward the practice of sitting. In the Zazenshin, Dogen discussed only sitting practice. We should practise zazen with the same attitude as the Diamond Sutra recommends we should practise giving — without any attachment to any form.

To those who read this story [Nangaku Polishing a Tile] carelessly, it sounds as though Nangaku is teaching Baso not to practise zazen. But that is not the case. I think Nangaku is recommending him to practise without attachment to the form of the practice. We should sit without attachment to the form of sitting. That is what is called `just sitting’, or `shikantaza’. Otherwise, we shall have some attachment to the form of sitting, to our action of sitting, or to the result of the sitting practice, just as when making an offering, we might have some attachment to the person to whom we are giving our gift.

When we sit in the zazen posture, somehow we have some attachment to this posture, or to the result which we expect. But we should really be free from those attachments. Attachment arises from the three poisonous minds. When we think something is valuable, we want it. That is greed. When we encounter something we don’t like or we don’t value, we try to stay away from it. But even when we try to avoid something, it somehow comes to us and then we become angry and begin to hate it. Because of this greed and hatred/anger, we chase after the things we want and try to escape from the things we don’t like. This chasing after and trying to escape from, creates samsara [the world of unsatisfactoriness]. Sometimes we are so successful and happy we feel as though we are heavenly beings. And sometimes even in our zazen, we feel as though we are in hell.

As long as our practise is based on those three poisonous minds the basis is ignorance — ignorance of the emptiness of all beings. Because of the lack of wisdom to see the emptiness of all beings, we attach to things — this person, that person, this or that thing. When we really see the emptiness of all beings, however, nothing arises and nothing perishes; we are released from attachment. Attachment does not arise from the wisdom which sees impermanence, egolessness and interdependent origination. If we practise with that wisdom or prajna as a basis, then we shall see that there is nothing to attach ourselves to. That is what Dogen called `just sitting’ in the case of sitting practise. We should apply this attitude not only to our sitting, but to the whole of our practise, to the six paramitas.

The second paramita is sila-paramita, or keeping the precepts. We should keep the bodhisattva precepts we have received without attachment to the precepts and without attachment to the merit of keeping those precepts. We should also keep the precepts without attachment or hatred/anger to the people who don’t maintain the precepts, including ourselves. We cannot maintain all the precepts, actually.

Hotei’s sack encompasses the Great Emptiness

In the ordination ceremony, when we receive the bodhisattva precepts, the precept teacher recites the ten precepts and after each one asks the recipient whether he or she will keep it, or not. If the recipient still wants to receive the precepts, of course, he/she has to say, `Yes, I will!’ After my ordination ceremony, Uchiyama Roshi said, `That is the first violation of the precept of not telling a lie.’ And I think that is true. To see precepts in that way is a kind of freedom from attachment to the precepts, or attachment to our good deeds. Of course, not having attachment to our good deeds doesn’t mean that we can do bad things. We should be without attachment to bad things too. But more importantly we should be free from attachment to our good deeds. When we attach to our good actions, we think we are `good’ people and those who don’t do the same as us are `bad’ people. There is a separation between the people who keep the precepts and the people who don’t keep the precepts. We think we are good and they are bad; we shall go to heaven and they will go to hell. This is the danger of keeping the precepts with attachment to them. To really keep precepts means not to attach to even our effort to keep the precepts.

The third paramita is ksanti-paramita, or patience. If we think, `You make trouble for me, but because I’m a bodhisattva, I’m going to be patient with your terrible deeds,’ we have attachment to that person’s behaviour. We can be patient by the use of willpower to a certain degree, but at a certain point we may decide we cannot stand it any more. That is not the paramita of patience.

The fourth paramita is virya-paramita or making diligent effort. If we attach to reaching a certain goal and will have to die in order to get there, then our diligent effort doesn’t make sense; we become sad and disappointed and think, `My practise is nonsense, meaningless.’ We have to make diligent effort without attaching to the goal. To practise at this moment, to make effort at each step, is already the goal. That is what Dogen meant when he used the expression `practise and enlightenment are one’. When we practise, we are already there. Buddhahood or enlightenment is already there. Within our diligent effort Buddha-wisdom is manifested.

The fifth paramita is dhyana-paramita or meditation. Our practise should be done without attachment to any form. This `any form’ includes the sitting form. When the Buddha recommended bodhisattvas practise giving without attachment, he did not say we should not practise giving. In the same way, he did not say that we should not practise zazen. We should practise zazen, but without attaching to the form of sitting. That is a most difficult thing to do. It is what Nangaku admonished Baso about. Dogen also, I think, wanted to teach this same thing.

This is the fourth in a series of lectures on Dogen Zenji’s Zazenshin given by Reverend Shohaku Okumura during sesshin at Chapel Hill Zen Center in Spring 2001. Shohaku Okumura is a translator and the founder of the Sanshin Zen Community, Bloomington, USA. This article is to be continued in the next issue of Buddhism Now.

Read the rest of, Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle of Zazen here.

Part 4 first published in the May 2005 Buddhism Now.

Read some more Zen teachings from Dogen.

Categories: Buddhism, Chan / Seon / Zen, Encyclopedia, Mahayana, Shohaku Okumura

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1 reply

  1. The article reads, “People who created the Diamond Sutra tried to express the idea of emptiness without using the word ‘emptiness’.”

    Sounds very Zen to me.


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