Listen, Think, Practice and Realize Your Life As Peace

This teaching by Maezumi Roshi on practicing the dharma was first given in Los Angeles in 1994.

Maezumi Roshi1 March 2004
wheel of dharma
The wheel of dharma. Photo by saamiblog.

This teaching by Maezumi Roshi on practicing the dharma was first given in Los Angeles in 1994.

In our practice, there is a basic pattern that consists of three processes. In Japanese, we say mon, shi and shu. The first stage is mon, “to listen.” Listening is not restricted to physically listening with the ears to someone’s talk, but also listening with the eyes when reading a written document. What are you listening to? To the dharma: listen to the dharma, perceive the dharma. The next process is shi or “to think.” Don’t just blindly take in whatever is written or spoken. Think about what you hear or read. Then, if you agree with it, and if you really think it is true, take up the next process, shu, which is “to practice.” These three stages are very important.

First, listening; second, thinking or considering about the dharma; third, practicing the dharma; and fourth, verifying or confirming the dharma as your life. These are the basics of practice.

What is the important part of practice? There are all kinds of practices relating to the dharma. Even if you agree with what to practice, perhaps the really important point of practice is still not quite clear. This being so, we have yet another process which we call sho—“to clarify, verify or confirm through your practice.” Dogen Zenji uses this sho quite often. Are you practicing adequately or appropriately or not? Make it for sure. Sho is quite often translated as “realization,” sometimes even as “enlightenment” or “awakened.” It conveys a strong sense of verifying or confirming—not up in your head, but with your whole being. So, first, listening; second, thinking or considering about the dharma; third, practicing the dharma; and fourth, verifying or confirming the dharma as your life. These are the basics of practice.

These seem like very simple things, but consider just the first point—”to listen.” How do we listen? Most of the time things pass in and out of my head in less than a second. Perhaps I should think more, but this thinking is a very tricky thing. Even though we think about the dharma, are we actually doing the practice or not? So even this seemingly very simple process of practice—listening to the dharma, thinking about it, putting it into practice—is not so easy. Maybe that is why this practice has lasted over 2,500 years.

This basic process is not necessarily limited to the Buddhist tradition; it is applicable also to both Christianity and Judaism. For instance, in Christianity, listen to the Bible; in Judaism, listen to the Torah. If you are Christian or Jewish, how are you listening, confirming and practicing the teachings of the Bible or Torah? How much have you appreciated? What is there to really be heard and practiced? And just how much are you practicing it?

I recall when I was once visiting Tetsugen Sensei and Yuho Glassman in New York. It happened to be a Friday evening and they were celebrating Shabbat. Sometime during that visit, Tetsugen Sensei said to me, “Roshi, in a sense, what was lacking for me in the kind of Jewish tradition that I was raised in was real practice.” When I heard that—even though I did not know about Jewish practice—I asked myself, “What is really proper practice?”

I sense that one of the reasons so many of you are drawn to the Zen tradition is because of practice—the type of practice, the quantity of practice and the quality of practice that we emphasize. In Zen, practice is the most emphasized aspect. But if the dharma is not practiced correctly, then practice doesn’t mean much.

In our Zen tradition, we emphasize the awakened insight by which we see inside and outside together as one. That’s what the Buddha awakened to. And fortunately, we have all kinds of upaya, or skillful means, through which we can practice and really see what this dharma is. How is practice to be appreciated? I want you to pay close attention to what is truly the dharma. How do you think about it, and what do you think is the right way to practice? Then practice and consider further about the dharma. Are you really practicing well, relative to what you have thought about and what you have heard or read? According to what you perceive, examine the dharma and refresh and encourage yourself, thereby making your practice better.

I want you to pay close attention to what is truly the dharma. How do you think about it, and what do you think is the right way to practice? Then practice and consider further about the dharma. Are you really practicing well, relative to what you have thought about and what you have heard or read?

What can we expect by practicing the dharma? In Zen, we have a saying, “Don’t expect anything.” What does this mean? We say, “No gain and no expectation about enlightenment as such. Sit in an upright, settled body position—just sit! This is the way of the ancestors.” When we say ancestors, we are not restricting practice to certain types of persons. Anyone—male or female, of any class or race and so on—who accomplishes the Way well is called an ancestor. So the quality of our practice is very important. What kind of practice do we do and what kind of awareness do we have? What kind of mindfulness? Samadhi? What effects do we experience? Even not expecting anything, the practice has certain effects.

One of the most important dharma teachings is cause and effect. We can say that Buddha’s teaching is all about causation. It’s not just one cause or a few causes—everything else is a cause for something else. Everything is connected in one way or another. There are direct causes and indirect causes, all working together. We say, “Cause and effect are not two separate things; cause and effect are one.” We usually don’t have this kind of understanding about practice or the teachings. How do you understand causation? Some people think that when they do a bad thing, their action is not actually a bad thing until the time that they’re caught—maybe tomorrow or a year later or when they are picked up by police. Regarding this, Yasutani Roshi would repeatedly say, “When you steal something, at that very moment, you become a thief.” Is it true?

How to live is a primary question for all of us. It’s not just human-made rules and regulations that are maintained under certain circumstances or environments, or by societies, groups or countries. Of course, these rules are important. But there is also something much more than that. Even to decide what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false—how are we to judge? Fortunately, this is addressed in the most fundamental teaching of the Buddhas.

The fundamental teaching of the Buddha is the four dharma seals: impermanence, no-self, suffering and nirvana, or peace. Do you understand the plain fact of life which is impermanence and which has no fixed thing, no-self? Especially this no-self or no fixation: Why is it a dharma treasure? Why is it called prajna, wisdom? If you have some ideas in your head, you can’t quite understand what is meant by “everything is impermanent.” Constant change. The abhidharma (the Buddhist system of psychology) describes how many changes take place in just 24 hours, in one day and night. I love to talk about this very important point, and I am more and more plainly convinced how true it is. In just one second our life changes more than 5,000 times. In one second! Since the change is so fast, our conscious awareness simply can’t follow it. And yet our body and mind are changing at that speed. We are living such a life, see? And living such fast changes, what can we expect? What kind of thoughts do we have? What kind of things do we spend our time thinking about?

We talk about now, but what is it? The past is already gone; but we cling to it. All that we talk about is either past or future. Even though we talk about “now,” there is no such thing. The fact is, “now” is already gone. We mix this up. Regardless of whether I am consciously aware of this life of rapid change or not, it is manifesting. But what do we do with this life? We do this and do that—it’s all about something already gone or yet to come. The thought, the idea that we play with in our head, is not the real existence that we are dealing with here, right now. We shouldn’t mix this up. This is a very, very important point.

I am not devaluing thought. I am just mentioning that we shouldn’t mix up the fact of our life with our thoughts about our life. What we think and what actually is—that’s what Buddha talks about as constant change. Anything and everything, constantly changing. That’s the real life which is, in a way, unknowable. And that unknowable, impersonal no-self—unfixed by any kind of values, attachments, detachments—works perfectly. Knowing nothing, it works completely. That is what this life is. That is what is expressed as no-self. When you don’t see this, suffering is waiting for you. When you see it, there is nirvana, or peace.

Listen to the dharma, think about it, practice it and realize it. Realize your life as peace itself. Realize your life as you are, as it is now, not as what you think or estimate. We don’t need to expect anything; we don’t need to try to do something. The reason is simple: it is already here as your life. Isn’t this fascinating? Really listen, think, practice, verify. All together, this is practice too. All together, that is what we are doing. The important thing is to be peace or nirvana. That’s what the Buddha says. Then being nirvana, what are you doing to do? What are you doing to do?!

Maezumi Roshi

Maezumi Roshi

Taizan Maezumi Roshi was a pivotal figure in the transmission of Zen Buddhism to the West. Ordained as a Zen monk at age 11, he moved to the United States from Japan in 1956. Maezumi Roshi was founder and abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and founded five other Soto Zen temples in the United States and Europe. He transmitted the dharma to twelve successors and established the White Plum Asanga to carry on his lineage.