Ignorance and Enlightenment
“There is no difference between buddhas and people, but buddhas understand their ignorance and we are ignorant of enlightenment.” A lecture on the “Genjo Koan,” given at Sokoji Temple, San Francisco, March, 1966.
In observing your practice, I notice it is just a small part of your life. You think it may be better to do something else instead of practicing zazen. But our practice is not like that. It is not one of twenty-four hours.
If I scold you, you may go. If I give you some candy, you will stay. I daresay you are impossible, like a child. You lack the confidence to study Buddhism as a whole life study. You think you can get away from Zen, from this zendo. Actually, once you enter, that’s it. Someday you’ll have to come back. I know that. I tried to get out of it many times, but I couldn’t.
I may say, “You are bad now.” But what is bad? Who is bad? Someone who is good is bad now. Sometimes I say, “You are very good.” But someone who is not good enough is good enough. Same thing, isn’t it? Doesn’t make any sense, “good,” or “bad.”
In Japan, young people say, “This is absolutely good.” It is just emphasizing good. But when we say “absolutely good,” it is the same thing as “absolutely bad.” When we say “absolutely good,” it does not mean good or bad. It is something more than good or bad. So in this sense, absolutely good is absolutely bad.
Sometimes we say, comparatively, “This is good, this is bad.” These two ways of understanding life are necessary. Sometimes we have to compare something to the other. This is very important, but this comparatively good or bad life has created a lot of difficulties. This comparison is the basic attitude of science and philosophy. It intellectualizes our life. When you intellectualize life, it will eventually come to a dead end. That is why we currently have difficulties. Originally, it is just comparatively good. We are comparatively better than some people. That’s all. But nowadays we say, “Absolutely good.” Here is the big mistake. Even emotionally, that is a big mistake. Nothing is absolutely good.
When you say “absolutely good,” it does not mean good anymore. It is the same thing as bad. If you understand or feel it in this way, when you say “absolutely good,” that is all right. But when you say, “absolutely good” emphasizing something comparatively good, that is a big mistake. You are forcing your way. You are depriving the freedom of others. This is a big mistake. Dogen-zenji says in “Genjo Koan”:
That we move ourselves and understand all things is ignorance. That things advance and understand themselves is enlightenment.
He is talking of the complete understanding of life. What is ignorance and what is enlightenment? What is good and what is bad?
We say “ignorance” or “enlightenment” without knowing what is ignorance and what is enlightenment. But when we say “ignorance” or “enlightenment,” we should know what is ignorance in its true sense and what is enlightenment in its true sense. “That things advance and understand themselves is enlightenment.” When we have no particular concrete idea of good and bad, we expose ourselves and accept criticism; that is enlightenment.
We may do things intellectually, intentionally, in the realm of consciousness, but most of these activities are more unconscious activity than conscious activity. What is the true expression of yourself—conscious one or unconscious one? Of course, ninety-nine percent of activity is unconscious, and that is the true expression of yourself. If you say, “I am right,” that is just a small part of your expression. As you understand yourself, we don’t know what we are exactly. “Don’t know” is right.
Those two statements about ignorance and enlightenment are based on one big understanding of life. Enlightenment is something that will happen to us sometime, and ignorance is something that will come over us sometime. We are a big box that includes enlightenment and ignorance.
So in everyday life, there is enlightenment and ignorance. You cannot escape from ignorance to attain enlightenment, because enlightenment is not somewhere else. Dogen says that to know what is ignorance is enlightenment. And to be ignorant about enlightenment is ignorance. Something good is something bad. If I say something is good, that something should be bad. Because it is the same thing if I say, “Good morning. You came on time this morning. That’s very good.” That means you do not come on time usually. If I scold you, “Why didn’t you come on time?” it means you come on time almost every morning. So it’s the same thing. We should not be disturbed by the words “ignorance” or “enlightenment.” If we understand ourselves completely, there is no special thing such as enlightenment or ignorance. Ignorance is enlightenment; enlightenment is ignorance.
Dogen says, “It is buddhas who understand ignorance”—their own ignorance. Buddha was enlightened about his own ignorance, and it is people who are ignorant of enlightenment. So there is no difference between buddhas and people—same thing, same human being. But buddhas understand their ignorance, and we are ignorant of enlightenment. But if I say this, then there will be no need to practice zazen. If we are the same as buddha, why should we practice zazen? When you just intellectually understand this philosophy or statement, you will have this problem.
It is people who are ignorant of enlightenment. Further, there are those who are enlightened beyond enlightenment, and those who are ignorant of ignorance.
“Enlightenment beyond enlightenment.” If you retain consciousness of enlightenment, that is not good enough. So you should go beyond enlightenment. If you attain enlightenment, that enlightenment means enlightenment above enlightenment of ignorance. So eventually you will go towards ignorance, you know. When you say, “I have consciously attained enlightenment,” that consciousness is a delusion. You have attained enlightenment about what? You attained enlightenment about ignorance. What you grasp is ignorance, not enlightenment. There is nothing to understand but ignorance for the enlightened person. There is nowhere to go—enlightenment or ignorance. So if you attain enlightenment, you have to go back to ignorance, because there is no other way for you to go [laughs].
So “enlightenment beyond enlightenment” means conscious enlightenment is not good enough. You have to give up enlightenment at the moment you attain enlightenment. When you actually attain enlightenment, what you grasp is ignorance. When you understand how ignorant you have been—that is enlightenment.
So it is impossible for an enlightened person to forget about enlightenment. It is impossible because you have found something that you have. So how can you forget about enlightenment? You should abide in enlightenment forever with people who have the same nature as your own.
If you think, “I have attained enlightenment” (although most haven’t attained enlightenment yet), “I am the only person who attained enlightenment,” that is a big mistake. That is just a delusion. One didn’t grasp anything but delusion. It will soon vanish from memory, from experience.
Even though it looks like we are doing the same thing, there is some difference between the people who attain enlightenment and those who haven’t. But for an enlightened one, constant effort with people will be continued, wherever one is.
“Ignorant of ignorance” means people eventually will attain enlightenment. Those people who are ignorant of ignorance are just ignorant of their own ignorance. You don’t feel that you have the same quality or nature as an enlightened person. Eventually, as long as you have the same nature as an enlightened person, once you become enlightened your ignorance will be saved.
When buddhas are truly buddhas, they are not necessarily aware of themselves as buddhas.
If there is someone who has attained enlightenment they will go back to ignorance, and although someone is ignorant of ignorance, eventually that person will become enlightened about ignorance. It is not necessary, even, to become aware of your buddhanature. We have it. The difference is that there are those who are awakened by their true nature and those who are ignorant of ignorance. That is the difference.
So strictly speaking, it is not necessary to be aware of ourselves to be Buddha. Same thing. That is why I say you will come back. Even though you are a thousand miles away from this zendo, you are included in this zendo. With this understanding, whether you are here or not is not the point. Do you understand?
However, you may ask me what is the purpose of practice? I think you are relieved. You have forgotten what you had on your shoulders. Actually, there is nothing special for you to do. Why then did Dogen-zenji strive for many years, until he attained enlightenment and dropped off his idea of mind and body? He says, “Flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds grow with our detachment.” In spite of detachment, the flower will fall.
This is life. And if you do not try to understand this point fully, those profound teachings are nothing for us. So actually, it is necessary to practice—to continue our practice as unenlightened people in the realm of duality. We should all be unenlightened people, and we should strive for enlightenment. We should do that. While you are striving for it, you will really understand what Dogen meant. Intellectually, you have understood it already. But do you remain doing nothing in a sunny place while eating what you want? Can you do that? Can you always lie down in your bed reading some interesting stories? Can you do that? No, you cannot. For a while you can do it. When we are tired of reading, we will go out, or we will work. And if we earn some money to be lazy, we will come back from work. If you continue your life in this way, you will not find any meaning in your life.
Someday you will have deep regret with what you have been doing; you will be disgusted with yourself. You will feel unable to help people, or unable to love anyone. And you will be completely isolated from this world.
So you may care for something good—something which is absolutely true, and try to escape from this world, or commit suicide. This is what we do with our life. But there is a way to resume a deeper understanding of life and work with people without any prejudice, without any discrimination, and to help each other with mutual understanding. The only way is to share our joy of a deeper understanding of life with people, and to participate in worldly life with more sincere effort. Then you will be a perfect human being as well as a perfect Buddha’s disciple.
A new student who was studying Indian philosophy asked, “I read many books about Zen, and they use the term ‘oneness of duality.’ But actually, what is ‘oneness of duality?’” I had no time to discuss with him the oneness of duality. Intellectually, he understood pretty well what is the oneness of duality. I wanted to help him, but I knew that it was impossible to help him. Until he suffers, until he tries to find out what is the oneness of duality, it will take a long time. By long effort, his understanding will be better and better, until, “Oh, this is oneness of duality.” How you reach this kind of understanding is to suffer in your actual life, or to think more about your life, or to practice zazen.
So to practice Zen in a noisy place is itself a very dualistic way, a way of the noisiness of the outside [loud traffic noises can be heard]. Try to be calm. This is the most extremely dualistic way, but in this effort there is, you know, a big hint.
So after all these sharp, profound teachings, Dogen writes:
However, flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds grow with our detachment.
He comes back to our actual life, where we should make our effort, without any thinking.
When we see things and hear things with our whole body and mind, our understanding is not like a mirror with reflections, nor like water under the moon. If we understand one side, the other side is dark.
These three lines are impossible. You cannot do anything with them. It takes a long time to understand this. “When we see things and hear things with our whole body and mind”—without any idea of enlightenment or ignorance—when we do something and go beyond ourselves, this is to be enlightened.
“Our understanding is not like a mirror with reflections.” You say the moon is in the water, but it is not like that. When you watch the beautiful moon, or waves of water, or calm, silent, still water, that is the moon. So when you see the moon in the water, that is the moon. When you see the moon in the sky, that is the moon. You don’t see the moon on the water. It is impossible to see the moon in the water and the moon in the sky at the same time.
The only way is to appreciate the beauty of the moon in the water or the moon in the sky. But intellectually we say “enlightenment” or “ignorance.” It means you are very busy watching. What shall I do? If you sit here, you have a disturbance in your mind. If you are at home, you want to sit. When you sit, your mind is there. When you are there, your mind is here, and you are going back and forth. Beautiful moon. Very busy moon.
Dogen says it is not like a mirror with reflection, nor like water under the moon. If we understand one side—sky or the water—or some images in the mirror, we cannot see both sides at once. If we understand one side, the other side is dark. That is two. But usually you want to see the one side only, having some idea or some desire for the other side. So you cannot accept what you are doing. You always have something else in your mind. The perfect way is just to watch one side. That is enough. This is pretty strict. Before you understand that, you will say this is the perfect teaching. It will always take time because you have something opposite in your mind always.
Actually, Zen is something more than just sitting in the cross-legged position. But if you understand something more, you have to practice it in the cross-legged position. There is no other way. One side is enough.
You may say, just to sit on your black cushion will not do anything for you. You cannot solve the problems of your life by just sitting. You may say so, but it means you are trying to watch both sides—up and down. Pretty busy. In that way, your practice will not work. If you say, “I have to sit. That’s all. Period,” there is no need for you to think of the meaning of zazen; you would just sit. That will work out beautifully. This is our zazen.
So one thing is enough. One practice is enough.
“Buddha is right here when we practice his practice.” First sesshin lecture on the “Genjo Koan,” given at Sokoji Temple, May, 1966.
The secret of all the teachings of Buddhism is how to live in each moment, how to obtain absolute freedom moment after moment. Moment after moment, we exist in interdependency with past and future and all existence. In short, if you practice zazen, concentrating on your breathing moment after moment, that is keeping the precepts, helping yourself and helping others, and attaining liberation. We do not aim for or emphasize some particular state of mind or some particular teaching. Even though it is a perfect and profound teaching, we do not emphasize the teaching only. Rather we emphasize how we understand it, and how we bring the truth into practice. This practice also does not mean some particular practice only. When we say “Zen,” Zen includes all the activity of our life.
Dogen-zenji said we are like water and milk when we practice. When each one of us is concentrated on Zen practice, we are not just separated beings. The oneness of all the students or monks is there. When you live in each moment, each one of you is an independent being, and at the same time, each one of you attains absolute independency. You attain the same buddhahood that Buddha attained. Living in each one’s absolute freedom, we attain the same attainment. Each one of us is independent in the same realm. When this realm is understood, there are students, there are teachers, there is someone who serves tea, there is someone who drinks tea, and there are independent beings. We are practicing the practice that was started by Buddha. In this way, Buddhism is carried forth.
Though Buddha was born 2,500 years ago, Buddha is right here when we practice his practice. Buddha lives in our age with us. Buddha is Buddha, and we are students. So you may say that there is the student and teacher, but we are all the same—we are all practicing the same practice the same way as our Buddha ancestors did in their time. Actually, we are practicing the same practice with them. Whatever we do, that is Buddha’s practice, and this is how we keep the precepts.
In Buddha’s day, the practitioner’s way of life was Indian—in China there is the Chinese way of life, in Japan there is the Japanese way of life. Although the way of living is different, what we do is actually not different from what Buddha did because we express absolute freedom. There are not two absolute freedoms.
In China, when they were too interested in Buddhist philosophy, they ignored how to live in the Buddha’s way. In other words, they ignored how to keep the precepts. To keep the precepts is not to keep the Indian way of life. When you eat here, you should eat here. You cannot eat in India all the time [laughs]. Strictly speaking, if you want to literally keep the precepts, then you have to go to India [laughs]. Then you can keep the precepts completely. There is an interesting story about a monk from India. When he came to China, he could not observe Indian precepts because the customs were different. So he returned to India because he was very much afraid of breaking Indian precepts [laughs].
If you do not know how to observe the precepts, or if you emphasize only the written precepts without knowing how to keep them, then Buddhism will die immediately. If you know how to keep the precepts, Buddhism will continue and will develop as Zen developed in China. Various Mahayana schools were lost in China because they were too interested in the philosophy of Buddhism and didn’t know how to actualize the teaching. So eventually they ignored the precepts, though they said they did not ignore them. “Zen students ignored them,” they may say, because Zen students did not observe them literally. Some Mahayana schools observed them as Indian Buddhists did. They thought that this is Buddha’s way. So Buddha’s way eventually separated from their everyday life. Zen students understood the precepts as their way of life, so they did not mind the formal way of life. They were sure that their way of practice was how to actualize the Buddha’s teachings—in short, to live in each moment. That is the conclusion of Mahayana philosophy—to live in this moment, to attain enlightenment. To be Buddha is to attain perfect freedom. How to attain perfect freedom is how to live in this moment.
In China, Zen Buddhism established new precepts, which are called pure rules. For other Buddhists, precepts were some rules Buddha observed, but for them precepts were their own way of life: how to live in this moment in this place. When we are not so sincere about our practice or about our way of life, we may say, “I am a priest, but they are laymen” [laughs]. “I am a priest, and Buddhist teaching is written in some particular book.” If you understand Buddhism in this way, you ignore the precepts. But if you realize that religion is for everyone, that is our way of life. Precepts that are written in some particular book cannot be actualized, cannot be brought into everyday practice. When we become sincere about our everyday life and the meaning of religion, we cannot live with old precepts that were set up for some other person. We should have our own precepts.
Thus, Hyakujo-zenji established Mahayana precepts in the eighth century. Mahayana Buddhism had been introduced in China in, maybe, the fourth century. For many years, Indian precepts were observed. It is impossible for Chinese people to observe Indian precepts [laughs]. It is ridiculous. They only observed them for the priests.
Zen Buddhists were very serious about their way of life and other people’s way of life—they renewed the Indian precepts. In India, you know, maybe they could practice zazen all day long, because the monks were supported entirely by people. After finishing their household life, they became monks, and their boys and girls supported them. But Chinese monks, who supported themselves, could not sit all day long. Whatever they did should be Zen. So they developed the practice around everyday life. Chinese Zen was more practical. They knew how to apply Zen in everyday life.
How to apply Zen in everyday life is not difficult. If we live in each moment, that is Zen. Whether you are sitting or working, when you live in each moment as you practice Zen, that is how to practice Zen. Zen is in our everyday life. You may say the Indian way was a rather lazy way, not active enough. Naturally Indian Zen emphasized some mysterious state of mind, but in China they emphasized having direct experience.
In this way, Buddhist philosophy was actualized in Zen practice. The oneness of zazen practice and everyday activity was brought in to our society. So Zen is the source of the philosophy, and the source of art, and the source of religious life.
In “Genjo-Koan,” in the first paragraph, Dogen-zenji gives us the whole pattern of the Buddhist way:
When all things are Buddhist phenomena . . .
“When all things are Buddhist teachings,” you may say,
we have enlightenment and ignorance.
That is, something to study or something to observe—precepts, or sutras, or a problem for philosophical discussion of life and death, or an enlightened one, or ignorance.
When all things are without self, we have no ignorance, no enlightenment, no buddhas, no people, no life, and no death.
When all things are without self, all that we do is done in the realm of selflessness, like milk and water; there is no water or milk. When the whole textile is woven completely in various colorful threads, what you see is not pieces of thread, what you see is one whole textile. Do you understand? There is no need to say, “This is water,” when you drink milk. Do you say this is water and this is milk? You just drink milk, and there is no water or milk.
The Buddhist way is beyond being and nonbeing. We know each colorful thread, and we know the whole woven textile. We observe things in two ways without any contradiction. But when we are not sincere enough you may say, “This is Buddhism [laughs], and this is another religion. We are monks and they are laymen, that’s all.” You don’t understand the whole beautiful textile.
The Buddhist way is beyond a thread or textile. Therefore we have life and death, ignorance and enlightenment. Still, we see the various colors in the woven textile, and we appreciate the pattern of the textile.
We have life and death, ignorance and enlightenment, people and buddhas.
So many interesting colors on the one whole piece of cloth.
However, flowers fall with our attachment and weeds grow with our detachment.
Even though we are Buddhist, we live with people seeing the flower fading away day by day. We bring out the weeds day after day with our detachment.
That we move ourselves . . .
Dogen explained more about it. Here in the second paragraph, there are various ideas and various practices, not only those of Zen, but also those of the Pure Land school. But those are, for him, one beautiful textile. A piece of thread is not useful. When you make a beautiful cloth with it, it becomes useful—it becomes perfect religion.
Each of the schools of Buddhism and various religions find their own meaning in big, human religious life. It makes sense. It is to weave a beautiful cloth with thread. Each religion is just a piece of thread. Maybe it is colorful, maybe it is beautiful, and if you weave something with it, you can make a beautiful dress.
In this sense our way has two facets. One is a secret of the religion: how to find meaning—true meaning of religion. And, on the other hand, we remain as one of the schools of Buddhism, one of the many ways of practice.
I have two facets. I belong to the Soto school. I am just a piece of thread [laughs]. I know how to make myself a piece of useful material. This is the Soto way. Without knowing how to make ourselves useful, observing some lofty activity does not make much sense.
So in the second paragraph, Dogen says:
That we move ourselves and understand all things is ignorance.
He gives the definition of various threads—this is red thread, this is pink, this is blue—like this. “That we move ourselves and understand all things is ignorance.” Then what is enlightenment? Enlightenment is:
That things advance and understand themselves—that is enlightenment. It is buddhas who understand ignorance.
Who is Buddha? Buddha is someone who understands ignorance. Who are people? People are ignorant of enlightenment. He says:
It is people who are ignorant of enlightenment. Further, there are those who are enlightened about enlightenment—and those who are ignorant of ignorance. When buddhas are truly buddhas, they are not necessarily aware of themselves as buddhas. But they are enlightened ones and advance in enlightenment.
We are not just Soto priests. We are Buddhists [laughs]. But we cannot practice all the ways of practice. Although we practice just the Soto way, we are, nevertheless, Buddhist [laughs]. That’s all.
Here you will find out how important it is to live in each moment. To live on each moment makes everything possible—makes doing the precepts possible, makes attaining enlightenment possible, makes attaining absolute freedom from sectarianism possible. This practice makes it possible to attain perfect, complete satisfaction in our life.
These lectures first appeared in Wind Bell, published by the San Francisco Zen Center (the Spring/Summer 2003 and Fall/Winter 2002 issues respectively).
From “Buddha Is Right Here” by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Spring 2004.