Sekkei Harada Roshi Zazen Zen skandhas Buddhadharma

The Key to Zen

Zen teachings by Sekkei Harada Roshi

By Sekkei Harada Roshi

Photo by Basil Strahm

The key to Zen, says Sekkei Harada Roshi, is to throw it away. No matter how important something it is, keep throwing it away.

Where Is the Way to Achieve Peace of Mind?

Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, defined Zen in the following manner: “Zazen isn’t step-by-step meditation; it is simply the Dharma Gate to peace and joy. It is both the practice and the realization of totally culminated enlightenment.” Step-by-step meditation is to seek for satori, or liberation, at some time in the future. In the Soto Zen sect, the teaching is that Zen itself is satori. Because practice and realization are one, apart from practice there is no realization and within realization there is practice. If you seek to attain some result in the future, then Zen will die. That is why Dogen Zenji says, “Zazen isn’t step-by step meditation.”

Zen is all of human life. Walking, standing, sitting and lying down—these activities themselves are said to be satori. But there is a tendency to think that, in terms of practice, one or another activity is relatively more important. There are some people with the conspicuously heretical point of view that “Only sitting zazen is the kindest, sincerest activity of practice. Everything else is of secondary importance.” But this is a great mistake. Both sitting zazen and working are the dharma. It isn’t possible for there to be two dharmas within the dharma. Some people sit zazen with the objective of gathering up courage or curing an illness, but this is also-step-by-step meditation. When you sit zazen, you must only be zazen. This is what we call shikantaza. Don’t make Zen impure. You mustn’t add meaning or significance to it.

I am often asked, “Is there no other way besides zazen to achieve peace of mind?” I answer, “No.” Zen is to assimilate the whole dharma (truth); it is to be one with it. If within the religions of the world the various practices taught direct one to assimilate the dharma irrespective of the distinction between liberation through one’s own effort (jiriki) and liberation through the power of some other being such as Amida or God (tariki), then it must be said such teachings are Zen. If we get hung up on the word “zazen,” there is a tendency to think it is some special practice, but it isn’t. Consequently, Zen is the only way to attain peace of mind.

The Functions of the Body, Speech and Thought

One big mistake made by many people concerning zazen is thinking that it is limited to the form in which we sit in meditation. Actually, all functions of the body, speech and thought must be zazen. Zazen of the body refers to the posture of sitting straight, crossing the legs and holding the hands together. Zazen of speech includes the words we use during the day, seasonal or morning greetings, the Heart Sutra which we chant during the morning sutra service and the verses chanted before eating, as well as the various words used throughout the day. Lastly, zazen of thought is the functioning of the mind, something that we cannot see. Thinking various ideas, planning, devising, discriminating and so on—all movements of the mind are zazen.

On saying, then, that all functions of the body, speech and thought are zazen, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “Why is it necessary to do zazen or seek something by means of Zen?” The problem here with thinking “all activities are zazen” is that we know it by means of learning. It is merely intellectual understanding. Reality is therefore divided in two—subject and object—and the thought arises that there is no need to do zazen. We must be careful about this.

The Problem of the Self that Knows

In the beginning, Zen Master Dogen had a question, which can be expressed in the following way: “The teaching of Buddhism is that this body itself is Buddha. Essentially, a human being is Buddha, the dharma and Zen. Why, then, is it necessary to practice?” As there were no teachers in Japan who could resolve this question for him, he went to seek the answer in China. After a long period and many hardships, he finally met Zen Master Nyojo, and then “cast off body and mind.” At that time he said:

The eyes lie horizontal,
The nose stands vertical.
I will not be deceived by others.
The buddhadharma does not exist in the least.

“Willows are green, flowers are red.” Or, “All human beings are endowed with buddhanature.” Or, “All beings are essentially Buddha itself, are Zen itself.” Dogen said unequivocally that there is no mistake in these statements either before or after “body and mind are cast off.”

From the vantage point of the dharma, everything is empty. There is no need to “cast off body and mind.” We are already within that state of freedom. Why, then, can’t you accept all phenomena as they are? The only major problem lies in whether, in the activities of seeing, hearing, experiencing and knowing, the ego-self intervenes or whether it has completely disappeared. It is because of the intervention of the ego-self that you cannot accept things as they are. This is something I would really like you to be aware of. It is in order to completely wash away the intervention of the ego-self that zazen is so necessary.

Many people mistakenly think: “What I’m now observing and experiencing is my real self. To forget that self or to accept another true self is unnecessary.” This is how most people think. Others, on perceiving the self as an object, think: “I must let the self drop away. The ego-self must be let go of.” If you think this way, please understand that it is a serious mistake.

All beings and all phenomena of the world (mountains, rivers, grass, trees and so on) are composed of the four elements—earth, water, fire and air. These elements have no fixed center; they freely change according to circumstances. However, if “I” is fixed as a sort of center or source, then it is no longer possible to change freely anymore. Fixing the “I” in this way is the source of delusion. And because “I” is perceived as existing, the deluding thought arises that there must be something that is the source.

In the beginning, Shakyamuni Buddha also thought that there must be something that is the source, or origin, of suffering. This was the reason he began to practice. But on seeing the morning star, that is, on realizing enlightenment, he knew that there was no source of suffering. In other words, all things arise because of conditions and all things disappear for the same reason. He realized that all phenomena are produced by causation (Jap., engi; Skt., pratitya-samutpada). In order to explain causation, Shakyamuni built a “ghost castle” and named it emptiness.

Emptiness is an explanation of oneness, where there is not the slightest gap for the opinions of the ego-self to enter. Please consider emptiness as a condition where all conceptions have been taken away. The quickest way to be free of such deluding opinions is Zen. It is unnecessary to repeat this, but I would like you to remember that zazen is all the activities of the body, speech and thought. I often use words like “Zen,” or “the dharma,” or “the Way.” Please remember that these are all references to the same thing.

Three Essential Elements of Zazen Practice

There are three elements you cannot do without in Zen practice: asking a master about the dharma, the practice of zazen, and observing the precepts. The objective of Zen practice is to graduate as quickly as possible from zazen and return to the time before you knew anything about zazen.

Some people become intoxicated with zazen and in this way lose sight of their real self. They mistakenly fall into the habit of thinking that they are doing zazen wholeheartedly. Such people are a long way from true Zen practice.

Others mistakenly teach that zazen is very good for your whole life and simply ask people to sit. However, if zazen is not free of all viewpoints, such as good and bad, it isn’t the real thing. It is all right, though, to take time off from your busy life and work in order to develop your powers of concentration by absorbing yourself wholeheartedly in Zen practice.

With regard to the first element—asking a master about the dharma—Zen Master Dogen had advice for people who don’t know what to do if they cannot find a true master. He cautioned them strictly, saying, “In such a case it is best to stop practicing temporarily. There is less danger in quitting than in practicing in a mistaken manner.” The reason is that practicing is like crossing the ocean without a chart—there is always the danger of unknown reefs.

Concerning the second element, the practice of zazen, it is less dangerous for those who have no master to devote themselves to their work instead of doing zazen in a mistaken way. Simply lose yourself in your work and become engrossed in it.

The last essential element is observing the precepts. This involves leaving all things as they are, without interfering or imposing your own opinions on the way things are. If you are free from your ideas, then the precepts are already observed even before you intend to do so. Why is it necessary to do things the way they have been decided? All things have laws or principles that govern them. To observe the precepts is to follow those laws. Observing the precepts means that all things are one and there is no way to interfere with that oneness. A person who can live life following these laws or rules—whose life is in accordance with these laws—is a Buddha. This is a life in which cause and result are one.

If you sit for a long time, your legs will gradually begin to hurt. No matter how long a person has been sitting or how much experience he or she has, there will always be times when your legs hurt. The only difference is whether or not you lose your zazen method because of the pain. It isn’t good if the pain in your legs stops you from practicing. In that case, you and zazen are two separate things. You must be able to leave the pain in your legs as it is and still be able to do zazen properly.

When the power of zazen is weak, you end up going off in the direction of whatever condition arises. But when the power of zazen is strong, no matter what arises, zazen is right there. It is easy to realize the Way if you sit like that.

The practice of Zen is the study of the self. It isn’t a matter of following the words of some Zen master, whether written or spoken. I would like you not to be mistaken on this point. Don’t look for Zen in the Buddhist teachings or in the words of a teacher. The role of a teacher is to keep a person going in a straight line in the study of the self.

“Once in a Lifetime, This One Encounter”

In the tea ceremony, the expression “once in a lifetime, this one encounter” is often used. The usual way this is interpreted is “a one-and-only encounter.” In Zen, though, we interpret this expression in the following way: In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet. No matter through which grasslands we may walk or which mountains we may climb, we must meet this person. This person is in this world. Who is this person? It is the true self. You must meet the true self. As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart. You will never lose the sense that something is lacking. Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are.

This is the objective of life as well as of the teaching of Buddhism—to meet yourself. The shortest, most practical way to do this is through Zen.

Throwing Away Your Standards

The key to Zen is that no matter how important something is, it must be thrown away. Keep on throwing and throwing and throwing away your standards.

Noh is one of the traditional drama forms of Japan. The following story about a Noh actor named Konparu Zenchiku (1405-1470?) illustrates how one man threw away all the opinions he had been using as standards. Konparu Zenchiku made a great effort to practice zazen and later received certification of his realization from his master. He expressed the condition of having forgotten the ego-self (the condition in which all standards have been thrown away) in this way: “No matter how I look at it, there is nothing blacker than snow.” His master said, “If you understand that, then all is well,” and he gave him the certification.

All of you here are deeply cultured and have considerable knowledge. I would like you to forget all of your standards just once. Then you will be able to use them in a more meaningful way. My only wish is for you to throw away the standards you have had until now, and later you will be able to use them in a more vital way. If you are free from any viewpoint, then you live for the sake of the dharma.

Also Forgetting Satori

I would like to speak about kensho (to realize that the self has no self-nature) or satori, the thing that people who practice zazen are most curious about. Kensho, satori and Great Enlightenment are different words, but they must represent the same thing. It seems that in some books it is written that there are different depths or levels of enlightenment, but in Zen there are no such distinctions. Kensho or satori must be something which only happens once. If levels or depths are spoken of, then it must be said that this is proof the final result has not been attained. From long ago, it has been said that Zen practice is very strict, but in fact the only strictness of Zen relates to whether or not kensho is truly acknowledged.

Kensho or satori is the condition of being free of all delusion and perplexity. Of course, delusion arises because of the attachment to the ego-self and so it only makes sense that the ego-self must be cast off. Essentially, there is neither ego-self nor delusion. Consequently, it isn’t possible to say that the result of Zen practice is to have become selfless or that delusion has disappeared. Essentially, these things do not exist, but some time ago you came to think of them as existing (that things exist outside of you), which is a delusion arising from attachment to the ego-self. Kensho is to return to the original condition where things have no substance.

This doesn’t mean that because of kensho or satori you become a special person. It is a great mistake to think that kensho or satori is the final objective of practice. The dharma which the Buddha expounded came after his Great Enlightenment. Consequently, to think in terms of a specific goal is only to do so within the teaching called the Way of Buddha. Forget Zen, forget satori, forget practice. Finally, you mustn’t forget that practice is to forget what has been forgotten.

To Really Know that the Five Skandhas Are Empty

All dharmas (things) are the myriad distinctions both with and without form that arise from the five skandhas. These are all things which appear because of causes and conditions and so they have no substance. The five skandhas are: matter, sensations, thoughts, perceptions and consciousness. A skandha has the meaning of things piling up and collecting. Sometimes these things appear individually; at other times combinations of them coalesce. However, it is necessary to realize that the things that coalesce are empty. In the widest sense, the five skandhas are heaven and earth. In the narrower sense, they are the human body. That is why we say that human beings are microcosms of heaven and earth. And heaven and earth are a macrocosm of a human being.

As I have said before, matter is comprised of the four basic elements: earth water, fire and air. Earth is bones and flesh, water is blood, fire is body temperature and air is the breath. Through the harmonious interactions of causes and conditions, these elements form human beings and all other things. In the case of people, matter is the human body. Sensations are the sense functions, which in response to a myriad of conditions receive impulses such as suffering, enjoyment and rejection. This is the source of delusion. The skandha of thought refers to the unlimited flow of never ceasing thoughts. Depending on the manner in which we think, these thoughts can be delusive. Perception is the condition whereby perceiving things other than us, the mind continues to maintain that image. Consciousness is the totality of the mind and is comprised of the function of discrimination. It is because of mistaken judgment that we create a distinction between enlightened and unenlightened. Consciousness is also called mind or mind only. In any case, if something is perceived, that is delusion; if there is no perception, that is satori.

Matter is the actual human body. Sensations, thoughts, perceptions and consciousness are mental functions which cannot be seen. The objective of Buddhist practice is to truly know that the five skandhas are completely empty as they are. Completely empty means that all things coalesce through causation and so it isn’t possible to perceive substance. Both matter (things with form) and sensations, thoughts, perceptions and consciousness (things with no form) are ever-present. They cannot be separated and that is the meaning of the expression, “Body and mind are one.”

Fundamentally, you must realize that views and opinions created by the ego-self arise because of the delusive attachment to the ego-self consciousness. It isn’t enough just to sit zazen. It is important that you clearly understand the rationale of the dharma which I have mentioned above. In order to realize liberation, it is both important and necessary to know such things. The most important issue for human beings is, by means of religion, to become free of the restraints of God and Buddha, to be liberated from dualistic thought and discriminations, such as believing and not believing, and to awaken to the essential self.

Question: Should a person who has lost the ego-self be called a Buddha?

Harada Roshi: Buddha is only a provisional name. It isn’t really possible to attach a name to something which has no center, is it? However, the Patriarchs, those people who attained “no-self,” used various names to refer to this condition. To give one example, long ago in China there was a priest named Zuigan. Everyday he would call out to himself, “True Self! Are your eyes wide open?” “Yes, yes.” Then he would say, “Don’t be fooled by others (symbols).” “No, no,” he would answer. He lived his life always admonishing himself in this manner.

I think you all have mirrors at home. If you have time, why not try facing a mirror and calling out “True Self” (Roshi laughs).

Question: I understand the story. But in real terms, how should I live my life?

Harada Roshi: No matter how much we think about the past, it isn’t possible to change it. And in the same way, even if we worry about how we should live our life in the future, finally this is something we cannot know. So, it is important that we be able to live now without feeling dissatisfied or discontented.

It is because we think there is a center to something that essentially doesn’t exist that all delusion and suffering arises. So to truly accept that there is nothing which is the center, or in other words to ascertain that there is no ego-self, the only thing we can do is to become a Buddha. This is what I mean by living life with no discontent. At the very least, it is important to be one with now and then forget that thought of being one. It is important to live with this attitude.


This article is adapted from Harada Roshi’s book, The Essence of Zen, published by Kodansha International, and from several of his teachings published in Hosshinji Newsletter

Sekkei Harada Roshi

Sekkei Harada Roshi is abbot of Hosshinji, a Soto Zen monastery in Fukui Prefecture, Japan.