Calculating the Difference

An excerpt from The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kōdō

By TJBlackwell [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


During World War II, when I visited a coal mine in Kyushu, they allowed me to go into the mine. Like the miners, I put on a hard hat with a headlamp and went down the shaft in an elevator. For a while, I thought the elevator was going down very fast. Then I started to feel as if it were going up. I shone my headlamp on the shaft and realized the elevator was still going down steadily. When an elevator starts descending with increasing speed, we feel it going down, but once the speed becomes fixed, we feel as if the elevator were rising. The balance has shifted. In the ups and downs of life, we’re deceived by the difference in the balance.

Saying, “I’ve had satori!” is only feeling a difference in the balance. Saying, “I’m deluded!” is feeling another. To say food tastes delicious or terrible, to be rich or poor, all are just feelings about shifts in the balance.

In most cases, our ordinary way of thinking only considers differences in the balance.

Human beings put I into everything without knowing it. We sometimes say, “That was really good!” What’s it good for? It’s just good for me, that’s all.

We usually do things expecting some personal profit. And if the results turn out different from our hidden agenda, we feel disappointed and exhausted.


Good or bad luck is always our main concern. But in reality, is there good and bad fortune? There isn’t. There are only calculations using our expectations as a yardstick. Precisely because we expect to make things profitable for ourselves, we regret when they aren’t. Only because we compete with others do we experience as defeat the difference between our expectations and reality.

True religion has nothing to do with human desire for profit or calculating measurements between expectations and events. It’s human to have expectations, but clinging to them causes suffering. If we can loosen our grip on expectations and settle down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment, we find unshakable peace of mind, and a truly stable life unfolds. Doing zazen is ceasing to be a person always gauging gain and loss and evaluating life according to such calculations. To practice zazen is to stop being an ordinary human being.


We human beings have the ability to think of things not in front of us.

We create stories in our minds in which the hero or heroine is always us. We evaluate what happened in the past, we analyze our present conditions, and we anticipate what should happen in the future. This is an important ability. Because of it, we can create art, study history, and have visions of the future. Without it, we couldn’t write or enjoy poems or movies. Almost all of human culture depends on seeing things not in front of our eyes.

This means almost all culture is fictitious. Our ability to create such fictions is the reality of our lives. We cannot live without it. But this ability leads to many problems. We have certain expectations of our stories. If things go as we expect, we feel like heavenly beings, but if not, we feel we’re in hell. Often we desire more and more without ever experiencing satisfaction, like hungry ghosts.

It’s important to see that it’s not life that causes suffering but our expectation that life should be the way we want. We can’t live without expectation, but if we can handle the feelings caused by the difference between our expectations and reality, that’s liberation.

Zazen practice as taught by Dogen Zenji, Sawaki Roshi, and Uchiyama Roshi is taking a break from watching the screen of our stories and sitting down on the ground of the reality that exists before our imagination. When we’re not taken in by our fictitious world, we can enjoy and learn from the stories we make.

© 2014 Shohaku Okumura. All rights reserved.

Image by TJBlackwell [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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