America has Zen all the time. Why, my Teacher, should I meddle?

Teachings and poems by the late Nyogen Senzaki. From Like A Dream, Like a Fantasy: The Zen Writings and Translations of Nyogen Senzaki.

By Nyogen Senzaki

Maezumi Roshi at Nyogen Senzaki’s Gravesite. Photo via Zen Peacemakers.

Buddha’s Birthday Celebration

April 11, 1948

The name of Buddha is quite common among Americans and a statue of Buddha is kept in many American homes. Is it not strange to say, however, that very few Americans know who Buddha really was? And most Americans do not know what Buddhism is and what it has to do with this modern civilization of ours. Some say Buddha is a Japanese god. Some say Buddhism is and ancient teaching of India and that it has nothing to do with the current of thought in our age. They are all wrong. Buddha is neither a Japanese god nor an Indian god. We Buddhists do not worship anything. Buddhism is a teaching of enlightenment, an intellectual religion which will bring us all from delusions to realization, from suffering to peace, from the imprisonment of passions and desires to the freedom of utmost wisdom and loving-kindness. Is it not the most reliable religion of this age of free thinking and practicality?

On this birthday of Buddha, I wish to tell you what we Buddhists believe. In Christianity, no matter how faithful a believer you are, you cannot make yourself God. You cannot even make yourself Christ, the anointed one. Now in Buddhism, all of you have the potential to become Buddhas. Buddha is not God nor the Son of God. Buddha is a name of the condition of your mind. If you free yourself from delusions and suffering and have peace within yourself, your every action will be guided by your brilliant wisdom and your everyday life will be nothing but the administration of your own loving-kindness. Then, are you not Buddha yourself? Who said you have to suffer on account of your ancestors’ sins? Don’t cheat yourself! That kind of superstition is a disease of ancient ignorance. If you study Buddhism, you will know exactly and precisely who you really are. And then no myth, no legend, no superstition will mislead you.

I will tell you some anecdotes of how Zen students were enlightened, freeing themselves from all delusions.

Hyakujo, a Zen student, went out one day, attending his master, Baso. A flock of wild geese were seen flying in the sky. Baso asked, “What are they?”

“They are wild geese,” answered Hyakujo.

“Where are they flying to?” asked the master.

The student answered, “They have flown away.”

The master, abruptly taking hold of the student’s nose, gave it a twist. Overcome with pain, the student cried out loudly, “Ouch!”

Then Baso said to him, “You say they have flown away, but all the same they have been here from the very beginning.”

This made the student’s back wet with cold perspiration. He was enlightened. A new Buddha was born there.

Another case: Tokusan was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra. Learning that there was such a thing as Zen, he came to Ryutan, the master, to be instructed in the doctrine. One day, Tokusan was sitting outside trying to look into the mystery of Zen. Ryutan said, “Why don’t you come in?”

Tokusan replied, “It is pitch dark in here.”

A candle was lit and handed over to the student. When the student was at the point of taking it, the master suddenly blew out the flame, whereupon the mind of Tokusan, the student, was opened. The foundation of his delusions, namely ignorance, perished and disappeared forever.

Another case that failed: A Zen master, Echu, lived in China in olden times. One day a Zen student came and asked him what is Vairocana. (Vairocana is Buddha’s true body.) The master said, “Bring me some water!”

The student said, “Yes, master,” and brought a pitcher of water and a cup.

The master took a drink and said, “Put away these things!”

The student said, “Yes, master,” and took away the pitcher and cup.

After he returned to his seat, he asked again, “Master, I have asked you what is Vairocana, please tell me this time.”

Then Echu said, “Oh, you are looking for that old fellow, are you not? Too bad, he passed away a long time ago.”

Such a stupid Zen student! The master was showing Vairocana right in front of his nose, and he did not even glance at it. He should drink a bowlful of sweet tea. Buddha said, “If you try to see me through my form, or if you try to hear me through my voice, you cannot recognize Tathagata. You are far away from me.”

You see, Buddhism is not so easy to learn as you think. There are three steps in studying Buddhism—listening, thinking and Zazen. The above anecdotes are dealing with Zazen. Those students had learned all the sutras, thought deep enough to understand all the scriptures, devoted many years to Zazen, yet they could not actualize Dharma until they opened their own inner eyes.

This place was established to be the birthplace of Buddha. We do not want to raise butterflies here. They fly from one teaching to another. We do not want to have the children of asuras. They fight even in the stage of babyhood. We do not want to raise monkeys and parrots here. They simply imitate what they have seen and heard. The Mentorgarten is the nursery only for baby Buddhas, who love silence, and who will express loving-kindness without a word. If we do not warn each other, and watch our steps, this flower pavilion may turn into a spiritual zoo, filled with strange creatures. These creatures are born every minute, everywhere in the world. Look out!

Poems on Buddha’s Birthday

Through the five senses of man,
Buddha comes and goes, independently.
He walks freely, up and down,
North, South, East and West.
Enchantment of spring brought the stupid persons together.
Such a childish play of the Flower Festival!
Scattering the petals like a rain over the head of a doll!
What a delusion!

April 10, 1938

We have here the very same breeze as the remote spring at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.
The very same mist hangs over the evening garden as it did over the ancient woods of Asoka trees.
There is no spot on this good earth which is not the birthplace of a Buddha. This year, without a flower house for the baby Buddha,
We celebrate the festival with two American Zen monks who were newly ordained.
After his birth the infant Buddha walked
Four directions with seven paces.
Bravely and gracefully eight thousand times in the past.
He has come into this world and has gone from it again.
What the legend says is not strange to us at all.
Again this morning the Buddha is born
>In the Western Hemisphere!
See! The flower drift of pink and white . . .
The springtide of the great city.
Praise be to the one, perfect in wisdom.

April 7, 1946

The Diamond Sutra

San Diego, May 19, 1946

Fellow Students:

This evening I am going to speak on the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scripture which we Zen students often use.This sutra was brought to China by Kumarajiva, in the beginning of the fifth century. There were seven different translations before the middle of the seventh century, but I consider the translation of Kumarajiva the best among them. I have here with me that Chinese text. I use it for my everyday chanting.

Many commentaries on this sutra have been written, both in Chinese and in Japanese—probably adding up to three hundred books or more. Further details concerning bibliographic descriptions will hardly give you even a glimpse of the sutra, so I will tell you an anecdote:

A monk was doing Zazen in the library of a monastery. The librarian came to him and asked him why he does Zazen, rather than read books. The monk said, “I am looking for commentaries on the Diamond Sutra.

The librarian brought him ten or twelve books which treat the sutra. The monk did not look at them, but kept on doing his Zazen. After a little while the librarian came to the monk again and said, “Well, brother, did you learn something about the Diamond Sutra? If you have some difficulty in reading the books I will be very glad to help you.”

The monk stood to his full height and said, “No thank you. This is what I was looking for.”

The librarian could not understand the monk at all. What the monk showed to him was too simple and too deep. You see, the great elephant does not walk on the rabbit’s playground. Supreme Enlightenment goes beyond the narrow range of book learning.

I have here a commentary on the Diamond Sutra which is, I think, the best of all commentaries. It is hidden in these Buddhist beads. Those who wish to read it, step inside any bead and study it to your heart’s content! I am not talking of some sort of magic or miracle. I am not going to monopolize this particular commentary by myself. Any one of you can enter into a marble or a bead, if you learn how to do it. It does not matter whether you are stout or slender. Some day you will do it easily and freely in the same graceful manner as you entered into this room. Then you will read the best of all commentaries of the Diamond Sutra at a glance—nay, you will be graduated from the whole course of the teaching which the Diamond Sutra discloses.

The Sanskrit name of the Diamond Sutra is Vajracchedika-prajnaparamita Sutra. Prajna is wisdom and paramita means to enlighten one’s self in order to enlighten others. A Buddhist aims to attain enlightenment, to make others happy. He does not consider his own pleasure of attainment, but he simply strives to do his service for all sentient beings. Prajnaparamita therefore means, wisdom of the Bodhisattvas whose motives and constant work are altruistic.

In our days, we see many teachers whose motives are to be teachers and to dominate others. If any of the students of a so-called spiritual teacher attains the same wisdom as his teacher, it will make that teacher unhappy. The teacher started egotistically to collect his knowledge to sell to others for a good price—it may not be visible, materialistic gain, but more likely the price will be fame or glory among his followers. Such a wisdom cannot be compared with prajnaparamita.

The wisdom of the Bodhisattvas was particularly named by Buddha, vajracchedika, the pulverizer of all delusions. It cuts as a diamond cuts a windowpane. It is as rare as the diamond is among other jewels. It is as beautiful as the polished diamond.

Sutra is the scripture and like this string of Buddhist beads, it holds together the sayings of Buddha. Now you understand the name Vajracchedika-prajnaparamita Sutra.

This sutra teaches us egolessness, formlessness, non-dwelling and non-attainment. Man has no entity within him to be called ego. He only postulates his desires and calls that ego. Everything appears as if it exists, but we only recognize things in relative terms. The world is formless—simply a phenomenon of flux, consisting of various relations and is conceivable only in relation to subjectivity and objectivity. Without this close relation, there is no thing, and there is no world. Non-dwelling means non-attachment. Non-attachment discourages man’s clinging ideas of loss and gain.

A Japanese mother wrote the following letter to her son, Jiun, a great scholar and lecturer of Sanskrit, Shingon and Zen in the Tokugawa era (1603-1867):

Son, I do not think you have become a devotee of Buddha because you wished to become a walking dictionary for others. There is no end to information and commentaries, glory and honor. I wish you would stop this lecture business. Shut yourself up in a little temple in a remote part of the mountains and devote your time to Zazen! In this way you will attain true realization.

Jiun’s mother was declaring the idea of non-dwelling from her understanding of the Diamond Sutra.

Some Americans go to Oriental countries and pick up a few items of information from the natives. On the very day of their arrival home, they want to teach others something of the Oriental culture. They should read this letter of Jiun’s mother before they start such a bargain sale. Whoever thinks that he has attained enlightenment is losing it at that moment. Those who claim themselves to be masters or saints are merely exposing their ignorance. Do not be cheated by them! Use the Diamond Sutra as an acid test and see whether they are speaking and acting according to this teaching.

In early times in Japan, people used bamboo and paper lanterns with candles inside. A blind man was visiting a friend one night. He was offered a lantern to carry home with him. “I do not need a lantern,” he said. “Darkness and light are all the same to me.”

“I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,” his friend replied, “but if you don’t have one, someone else may run into you, so you must take it.”

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far, someone ran squarely into him. “Look where you are going!” he exclaimed to the stranger. “Can’t you see this lantern?”

“Lantern? How could I know? Your candle has stopped burning,” replied the stranger.

Those who claim themselves to be the incarnations of some historical person are like this blind man. They do not know that their candles have blown out. Yet they think they can illuminate others. Ask them what they ate for their dinner, the first Monday evening of last month. They will not remember what entered into their own stomachs last month. How can you trust their memory of past incarnations? My only hope for those fakers is that they find some decent work and make an honest living, instead of misleading innocent people. They should sincerely study the Diamond Sutra which will teach them not to have a thought of an ego, a person, a being, or a soul. Otherwise, no matter what their past incarnations were, I know what they are going to get in their future ones.

Subhuti was the disciple for whom Buddha preached his Diamond Sutra. He was able to understand the potency of emptiness, the viewpoint that nothing exists except in the relationship of subjectivity and objectivity. One day Subhuti, in a mood of sublime emptiness, was sitting under a tree. Flowers began to fall about him. “We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness,” the gods whispered to him.

“But I have not spoken of emptiness,” Subhuti said.

“You have not spoken of emptiness. We have not heard of emptiness,” responded the gods. “This is true emptiness.”

And blossoms showered upon Subhuti like rain.

Now I will read from chapters twenty-eight and twenty-nine of the Diamond Sutra, as it appears in the Manual of Zen Buddhism:

Then the Buddha uttered this gatha:
“If anyone by form sees me
By voice seeks me
This one walks the false path<
And cannot see the Tathagata.”

Again Buddha said to Subhuti: “Subhuti, if a man should declare that the Tathagata is the one who comes or goes, or sits or lies down, he does not understand the meaning of my teaching. Why? The Tathagata does not come from anywhere, and does not depart to anywhere; therefore, he is called the Tathagata.”

On Bodhidharma Day

In this commemoration we burn incense from Japan.
The fragrance remains with us.
Bodhidharma neither comes nor goes.
Blue eyes and black
Meditate in our Zendo.

–October 6, 1946

My friends, do you say
You could not sleep last night?
The heat of this late summer bothered you;
You could not find any cooler place.
Why did Bodhidharma come to China?
The question, I know, also bothered you.
Wait until the evening sun colors the mountains
With its gentle ray . . .
You get more than coolness at the moment.
You meet the blue-eyed monk face to face.

–October 7, 1951

On Realization Day

Buddha was a homeless monk of Old India.
You are the future Buddhas in the New World.
In your golden silence,
There is neither time nor space.
You always live with the Enlightened One.
Namo Tasso Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa!

–December 14, 1941

A swarm of demons infests the whole of humanity.
It resembles the scenery of Gaya where Buddha fought his last battle to attain Realization.
We, Zen students in this internment, meditate today
To commemorate the Enlightened One.
We sit firmly in this Zendo while the cold wind of the plateau
Pierces to our bones.
All demons within us freeze to death.
No more demons exist in the snowstorm
Under the Mountain of Compassion.

–December 6, 1942

Mountains and rivers do not conflict.
Grasses and trees live harmoniously.
Nature itself manifests loving-kindness.
Eighty-four thousand delusions
Cover the eyes of man.
He dreams the whole world
In a fighting mood.
He sees not the morning star
In the same way as Buddha did.
Unless he enters into deep Zazen
And emancipates himself
From his own conflicts,
He cannot comprehend
The beautiful cooperation of this Universe.

–December 10, 1944

On Nirvana Day

February 15, 1952

Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, passed from the world in the grove of Sala trees, not far from the river, Hiranyavati, near the capital of Kushinara, in the northeastern part of India. It was 485 years before the Christian era, 2437 years ago. We Buddhists call the death of Buddha, Parinirvana, meaning, “to enter the region beyond birth and death.”

On Monday and Friday evenings, at 7 o’clock, we have Zazen and those who are interested are welcome to attend, regardless of nationality, religion, sex or age. There is no membership obligation. Those who are satisfied with my way as host, may come and spend an evening in this Zendo. Equanimity is the way of living for a Buddhist monk. Therefore, you may be unable to get an impression of entertainment, but I know you will feel the spirit of peacefulness in the calm atmosphere.

Buddhism is a philosophy which requires one to study many years, but at the same time it is merely a way of living which will lead anyone into the pure and unselfish life. Buddha preached for forty-nine years and solved all problems of life with his enlightened mind. There are many teachings in Buddhism higher than the most profound philosophy of modern times, and the more you study them, the more you will be convinced of the penetrating wisdom of Buddha who lived some twenty-four centuries before us.

The teaching is meant to be practiced in our everyday lives. Buddhism is the simplest and easiest philosophy, as it is based on pure reasoning of human experience, and has nothing to do with legends and traditions of a particular nation.

When the Buddha was about to pass from this world, some of his disciples were attending him in grave silence. Under the moonlight, at the hour of midnight, he summarized his teaching for them. He said, “After I have gone, you must respect and practice Pratimoksha, that is, the set of ethical precepts I have prescribed for you. Let it be to you as a light in the darkness and as a treasure to a poor man. Let it be your great teacher hereafter. Even if I dwelt longer in this world, I would repeat the same things. You, who live in my teaching, should keep yourselves pure, should take care of your health and should have your meals regularly. You are working for your spiritual emancipation, therefore you must keep your mind quiet, in the right attitude. Do not hide your own faults. Do not show people any queer actions but conduct yourselves in a becoming manner. Should the people help you with clothes, food, shelter or medicine, you may accept them in the name of the highest Wisdom, but always be satisfied with bare necessities. The foregoing words deal with the last general application of my teaching.”

And at last, the Buddha said, “Behold, now, brother monks, I exhort you, saying—Decay is inherent in all component things. Work out your own emancipation with diligence!”

What do you think of these last words of Buddha? He did not say he was an agent of a Supreme Being. He did not say he could blot off the stain of sins by his saving power. He said only, “Work out your own emancipation with diligence!”

Who cannot accept such a plain and independent statement? Is there God above us? Is there no God outside of the universe? Buddhism does not bother with such foolish questions. Is there the creator of the world or not? Is there the ruler of the universe or not? Buddhism ignores such useless questions.

Buddha said, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts; it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of him who draws the carriage. All that we are is the result of what we thought; it is founded on our thoughts; it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.”

What do you think of these words of Buddha? Those who cling to the eternal life, and want to go to paradise after their death, are altogether too selfish and too ignorant and too greedy. We Buddhists feel pity for them. There is no way to be saved unless you save yourselves. Buddhism or no Buddhism, this is a self-evident fact.

When I take a walk along Broadway, I always admire the well disciplined manners of the American public. Hundreds and hundreds of people come and go, making a lively stream of human interest. The huge crowd moves on gracefully. There is no pushing, nor jostling against one another. They simply walk along easily and freely, as if they were in their own private room. Each individual, however, carries his or her own problem and strives or struggles along with his or her task. There is ambition and here is adventure. There is pathos in love affairs and here is disappointment in business. In fact, a teardrop expresses tragedy and the sound of laughter echoes profound philosophy. So, after all, they are not mere peaceful pedestrians. They are a mass of tumult, entangled with thousands and thousands of circumstances. In the Buddhist view, they are playing together a tragicomedy of karma on the most uncertain stage which they themselves call a world. I do not know whether we should congratulate each other or not. But one thing is sure. Each of us is a member of this great theatrical company and each of us is playing his own selected role, every day, every hour and every minute.

The word karma is a Sanskrit noun in the nominative case and is derived from the verb kar which means “to do.” In the objective case, it is karma, and the Pali words kamma and kamman correspond to the Sanskrit. The word karma is almost anglicized now, and is treated as an English word in many dictionaries.

The karma process was in early times the doctrine of the Brahmans and Buddhists and it has remained a typical feature in the faith and philosophical thought of India. All states and conditions in this life are the direct consequences of actions done in a previous existence. Every deed or action done in the present life determines the future. Therefore, human life is nothing but the working process of karma—the endless series of cause and effect.

Life is a sort of dance. The children of the world are playing their game—all kinds of games. They form a group and dance around their own maypole. When I lived in San Francisco I use to watch the happy dancing of children around the maypole every May Day. It was my optimistic viewpoint of the karmic world.

I see, however, the people of the world clinging fatally to their maypoles. When they fall, they dumbfoundedly lose their entire interest in life. They want to stay as children the rest of their lives. Such people are clinging to the delusion of individual soul, the existence of which Buddhism denies strongly. They do not want to think. They should act as grown men and women and dance around the world freely, without fastening themselves to the maypole.

The karma theory of Buddhism gives you the idea of the immortality of work, instead of the immortality of soul. Your soul does not exist as an ego-entity, but it will continue in the work that you do, in the sentiments that you feel, and in the thoughts that you think. And thus, you will live forever in these. When we stand before a canvas painted by a great painter, we feel the presence of the artist, his ideas and feelings are embodied in it. We say that the artist is still living in the work. We do not know if his soul has gone up to heaven and is enjoying celestial happiness, but we do know that he is certainly still living among ourselves, and is inspiring us to the higher ideals of life.

Our existence is a sort of link in the eternal chain of cause and effect. We have not come on earth to assert only our individuality. Our karma is most solidly linked to our ancestors and their civilization, as well as to our successors and their destiny.

If we fail to enrich and ennoble our spiritual inheritance, which originally came from the Mind Essence, we entirely ignore the meaning of the history of humanity, we altogether disregard our responsibility to our forefathers and grandchildren. Therefore we must behave nobly, we must think rationally and we must feel unselfishly. Thus, we live in the karma which endures forever, even after the dissolution of this physical existence.

According to Buddhism, this universe is a sort of spiritual laboratory, in which all our ideal possibilities are experimented upon, developed and perfected. When this material garment wears out after long use, we throw it away, put on a new one and appear in the same laboratory as our own successors.

Let me remind you: we do not go anywhere else, not even to Heaven. Let us remain in this universe. Let the karma we have accumulated here bear its fruit and be brought to a happy consummation. This is the teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni.

With a Pali formula, praising the highest wisdom, I close my speech: Namo Tasso Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhassa!

Poems on Nirvana Day

Under the Sala trees, Buddha stretched out his feet on his deathbed,
And said to his disciples,
“Those who say that Tathagata enters into Nirvana are not my disciples.
Yet those who say that Tathagata does not enter into Nirvana are also not my disciples.”
Like the last saying of a father to his beloved children,
Buddha emphasized these words of Zen.
It is not only a narrative of two thousand four hundred and twenty-two years ago,
But also our own concern this very day.
Look! The bushes outside of this humble house stretch their young leaves,
And the golden flowers are blooming here and there.
The spring breezes nurse gently the whole body of Tathagata,
Which does not come from anywhere,
And which does not depart to any place.


After his last discourse, the Buddha said,
“Now, my disciples, be quiet.
Do not speak a word.
It is time to part from you.”
Buddha tried to open the mind of all disciples in silence.
His Zen was shining as the moon above the Sala forest, but, alas!
Mahakashapa, his successor, being absent,
None of the remaining monks could reflect the light.
Their hearts were like broken mirrors.
The night of sadness, thus, passed in vain.

–February 12, 1939

Above the silent forest of Sala trees,
The full moon of February hung.
Under the pale light of that moon,
Our old teacher, the Buddha, passed away.
Impermanence always permeates our introspection,
Especially this February.
Americans are now learning perseverance, as Buddha taught,
Studying life seriously.

–February, 1942

On Soyen Shaku

For forty years I have not seen
My teacher, Soyen Shaku, in person.
I have carried his Zen in my empty fist,
Wandering ever since in this strange land.
Being a mere returnee from the evacuation
I could establish no Zendo
Where his followers should commemorate
The twenty-sixth anniversary of his death.
The cold rain purifies everything on the earth
In the great city of Los Angeles, today.
I open my fist and spread the fingers
At the street corner in the evening rush hour.

–October 29, 1945

As a wanderer in this strange land forty-two years,
I commemorate my teacher each autumn.
Now, on the sixth floor of this hotel,
He gazes at me as severely as ever.
“How is the work, Awkward One?”
He might be saying to me.
“America has Zen all the time.
Why, my Teacher, should I meddle?”
Namo Tasso Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhassa!

–November 2, 1947