Only When We Practice

An excerpt from The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kōdō


Religion is not for changing the external world. It is for transforming our eyes and ears, our habitual ways of perceiving and thinking.

There was a man who behaved strangely when he drank sake. Whenever he was drunk, he wanted to talk about zazen. When this person visited Antaiji for the first time and said he wanted to talk with Sawaki Roshi, I didn’t know of his habit, so I allowed the meeting. What the man said was totally incoherent; he was simply babbling. Since I didn’t want Sawaki Roshi to get tired, I convinced the visitor to leave, after great effort.

When he came next and asked to meet with Sawaki Roshi, I remembered what had happened the last time and noticed from his breath that he was drunk. I didn’t let him meet with Sawaki Roshi but received him myself. Again, he started to say this and that about zazen, so I said, “If you want to talk about zazen, come back when you’re sober. When you sit zazen, the world of zazen opens itself without your saying anything. When you’re drunk, whatever you say is simply taking place within the world of drinking. Everything you’re saying now is just a drinking game.”

Ishikawa Goemon, the famous thief whose family name means “stone river,” said in a verse, “Even if the sands of the beach or the stone river might be exhausted, in this world the seeds of the thief will never be eliminated.” This means that thief-nature permeates the entire universe. And yet we don’t actually become thieves unless we imitate Goemon and steal things. Buddhanature also permeates the entire universe, however you will never become a buddha unless you imitate the Buddha and practice. We are buddhas only when we practice Buddha’s practice.

Religion isn’t an idea. It’s something we practice. 
Our practice of religion must be real. It isn’t evidence of our virtue.

In his first teaching, Shakyamuni said he had found the middle way. This middle way was the Eightfold Noble Path: right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. He taught this path as the last of the Four Noble Truths—the path to the cessation of suffering.

On the day Buddha entered nirvana, the wandering ascetic Subbadha asked, “There are various religious teachers. They teach different teachings to their students. Have they all gained knowledge through their own wisdom, or have none of them any knowledge, or do some have knowledge and others do not?”

The Buddha told Subbhada not to get caught in metaphysical speculation, but to live within the truth. He said, “Never mind whether they have all gained knowledge through their own wisdom or not. Where the Eightfold Noble Path is not found, there are no enlightened practitioners. Where the Eightfold Noble Path is found, there are enlightened practitioners. If monks were to live correctly, there would be no lack of enlightened people.”

Shakyamuni taught how to live the middle way, free of extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Then, to explain the middle way, philosophical systems were established in various lineages of Buddhism. Many people simply studied these philosophies without actually living the Eightfold Noble Path. Such people are like bank tellers who count other people’s money.

Reading about zazen is the same—like counting other people’s money or studying recipes without cooking and tasting. Even if a medicine has hundreds of benefits, reading about them won’t cure us.

© 2014 Shohaku Okumura. All rights reserved.

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