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Three Lectures by Sotan Tatsugami Roshi


Sotan Tatsugami was a guest teacher who led three practice periods at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 1970 and 1971. He had been the Ino at the key Soto training temple of Eiheiji for 13 (as I remember) years and had been helpful to and close with Shunryu Suzuki's students who were there in the sixties - Jean Ross, Grahame Petchey, and Philip Wilson. He ordained Brian Victoria as a monk. I'll try to get more on him here but that's all for now. Thanks to Jerry Halpern for sending these lectures. - DC


There are three photos of Sotan Tatsugami on this page.


Sotan Tatsugami on Dogen

The Center of Dogen Zenji's Teaching

Excerpts from three lectures by Tatsugami Roshi given during the 1969-1970 winter training period in Tassajara.  Translation by Dainin Katagiri Sensei [later Roshi].

Transcribed in October, 2002 by Jerry Halpern from original notes circulated to all students at Tassajara in 1970.  This present paragraph has been added by JH.  Otherwise, this document is an exact (some obvious typographical errors are corrected here) and complete transcription of the notes as they were originally circulated.

Focusing on the themes of thinking the unthinkable, oneness of practice and enlightenment, and comfortable practice, these three lectures refer to a passage from the Fukanzazengi that is considered to be the center of Dogen Zenji's teaching:"...Think the unthinkable.  How do you think the unthinkable? Think beyond thinking and unthinking.  This is the important aspect of sitting.  This cross legged sitting is not step by step meditation. It is merely comfortable practice."


I.

In Fukanzazengi Dogen Zenji asks: "How do you think the unthinkable?" Dogen himself answers, saying that you should throw away everything. This means that you should go directly forward, without looking backwards or forwards, towards the left or towards the right.  What will happen if you plunge into doing something, eliminating everything?  Dogen Zenji states that no matter what you are about to do throwing away everything should be the basic attitude towards life.

This basic attitude is exemplified by the story of a famous Chinese Zen master who fulfilled the position of tenzo, or head of kitchen.  One day the Zen master was preparing rice for the monks' meal.  The rice was boiling, and steam was rising up.  Suddenly Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva appeared in the steam.  When the tenzo saw Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, he gave the Bodhisattva a blow, making him disappear. The tenzo said:  "You shouldn't be here.  It is not necessary for you to appear now."

If you devote yourself with complete wholeheartedness to the preparation of a meal, you know that it is not necessary to play with Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva because preparing the meal is your whole life.  When you prepare a meal, you yourself are revealed as you are. That is why Dogen Zenji says:  "How do you think the unthinkable?"  It is not really a question.  As both Dogen and Buddha say, it means that you should go directly forward, throwing away everything.

In order to eliminate everything, all you have to do is just sit. That's all.  In the world of the practice of non-thinking there is no need for the appearance of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva.  In other words, when you prepare a meal, or when you walk on the street, you must be yourself in the practice of samadhi.  Samadhi means to eliminate everything.  The person who can throw away everything anywhere and at any time is a very happy human being.  Such a person attains true freedom.  The person who cannot abandon everything because he is always grasping for something in the domain of unfree being can never find the greatest freedom. You must practice zazen.

The Paramita Sutra, or the Heart Sutra, which we chant every morning, says that there is no obstacle for the mind (shin mu kei ge). From where do the obstacles come? You yourself create them.  You fall into a trap set by yourself.  There is no better way to attain freedom from this trap than for you to free yourself.  That, in fact, is the only way.  With shin mu kei ge you attain real freedom.  In the Heart Sutra all the Buddhas of the three worlds expand the principle of "no obstacle to disturb the mind."  Through zazen, which may be said to embody shin mu kei ge, they all attained the goal of no obstacle for the mind.

Dogen Zenji asks: "How do you think the unthinkable?" Answering himself, Dogen says: "non-thinking".  "non" is not merely a negation. In this case "non" means beyond, transcendent, or emancipated. Non-thinking is the state of one's mind beyond the thinkable, yet including it.  Non-thinking is to transcend "no thinking" and to become free. The function of thinking exists, of course, but you are able to transcend it and free yourself.

You cannot attain freedom, however, when you cling to something, when you cannot abandon everything.  Your view of things becomes very one-sided then. In Japanese there is a very interesting word: tam-pan-kan.  This means a person who carries a board on his shoulder. He can see just one side of the board, not the other.  Therefore, tam-pan-kan denotes an inflexible and unadaptable person.  You should not be a tam-pan-kan.

I would like to recommend that you practice zazen.  By doing so you will get a taste of what non-thinking means.  It is difficult to understand what non-thinking means by listening to a lecture.  Please practice zazen.  The experience of non-thinking is not only very important, but essential in the practice of zazen.  It enables you to realize how valuable zazen is.

................

In previous lectures I explained the way of the practice of zazen in concrete terms, or, in terms of right posture.  I talked about your back, eyes, mouth, hands, and legs.  After explaining how to have the right zazen posture, Dogen tried to explain the essence of zazen.  The image of a Japanese fan may be used to illustrate the meaning of the essence, or kaname in Japanese.  The lower part of the fan is held together by one nail, enabling the fan to be opened and closed.  The point where the fan is held together is called kaname.  If you lose this nail, the fan cannot be used.

Since Dogen Zenji put particular emphasis on the right way of zazen, we have to consider whether or not our zazen is going on properly according to Dogen's advice.  That is why I have asked you many times:  "How is you zazen going on? are you following Dogen's advice?"

Most people are delighted in creating delusions, hallucinations, and dreams during sitting meditation.  This kind of meditation is not real zazen.  You should pay more and more attention to your zazen.  What about your posture? What about your eyes, head, chin, hands, back? are your eyes open or not? People are apt to ignore the position of the eyes.  Dogen Zenji says that your eyes must be open.  Please pay careful attention to your eyes.  Do not, however, examine your posture through the stubbornness of ego.

Dogen often called zazen sanzen, or just one word, san, which means "to practice, to examine carefully".  You should practice directly towards the truth.  You should practice zazen according to Dogen's advice so that your small senses do not create any ideas.  And you should never judge your practice in terms of your small senses.

In Fukanzazengi Dogen Zenji explains how to practice directly towards the truth.  He says that you should sit or do zazen tranquilly with an imperturbable state of mind.  This would be like the state of a mountain. If you stay in a place surrounded by mountains, like Tassajara, it is often difficult for you to appreciate how wonderful a mountain is.  But if you are used to living in the city, when you see a mountain you feel the wonder and beauty of the mountain and are deeply impressed by its dignity.  In zazen it is enough just to sit like a mountain with dignity.

Dogen Zenji, however, had the kindness to explain about zazen in detail.  He said that you should throw away everything.  This is a very important point.  He also said that you should not think in terms of good and bad or right and wrong.  In the domain of truth there is no discrimination between right and wrong, good and bad.  Some of you may think that it is all right to think about good things or goodness, but even this is a kind of delusion because it prevents you from throwing away everything.  Throwing away everything means that you have to eliminate even the good things, or goodness.

Dogen also says:  "Don't expect to become Buddha."  If you practice for many years, you may think that your zazen is making good progress.  you may tell yourself: "I just need to make a little more effort in my practice and I will come very near to becoming Buddha."  All these are delusions.  Although true zazen is constantly spinning in the domain of becoming Buddha, you must not think that by practicing zazen you will become Buddha.  According to Dogen to just sit is to become Buddha. All discriminations and distractions have disappeared.  There is no separation between you and zazen, only oneness.  However when someone hears the word "just sit", he may think:  "Oh, yes, just sit.  All I have to do is just sit in order to become Buddha." So, you are delighted with sitting on a round cushion.  This has nothing to do with becoming Buddha.

Instead of inattentively swallowing Dogen Zenji's advice, please chew it carefully.  If there is anyone who thoughtlessly swallows Dogen's recommendations, it is all right, but I am also sorry for that person.

Dogen Zenji sums up the important aspect of sitting in his statement: "Think the unthinkable."


II.

Last night I explained the main point of Fukanzazengi.  I think that by listening to my lecture you may have understood what zazen is and what the main point of practice is.  I don't know that your motivations for practicing zazen are or how you have been impressed by the practice that you have experienced.

For whatever reason you may have if you plunge into the practice of zazen, at one time or another you will probably think of how far away the destination of your practice is.  Some of you may give up the practice of zazen on your way to the destination.  Others of you may take it into your heads to judge zazen by viewing it through your own small telescope.  If you understand zazen by looking at it from your own limited point of view, it is not a true understanding of the practice of zazen.  Viewing zazen through your own small telescope is like getting a taste of an unripened apple - which is how most people understand zazen.  You rarely realize how weak your personality is and how weak you are.  How weakly your life goes on like something floating on the surface of the water.

Whatever you do the important point is that you have to devote yourself to thoroughly accomplish it.  Otherwise, you cannot recognize that it belongs to your own life.  In other words, you cannot truly understand something without devoting yourself to it. If you try to do something with complete wholeheartedness, you will turn out to be yourself.

Even Buddha practiced zazen for six years.  Those six years that Shakyamuni Buddha spent are very different from the time that all of us have spent and will spend.  When Shakyamuni Buddha started to practice zazen, he had already made up his mind to remain sitting until he attained enlightenment.  Usually some of us sleep in sitting meditation.  In fact, we sit in meditation in order to sleep and look at beautiful films reflected on the screen of our minds.  In terms of Buddha's practice of six years, our practice of zazen is probably not good enough.  As Dogen Zenji says: "Why is it the human being in our day doesn't make every effort to practice like Shakyamuni Buddha did?" Please, make every effort to practice zazen.

In my previous lecture, I mentioned the subject of non-thinking.  The meaning of non-thinking must be understood through the practice of zazen.  Otherwise, your zazen is not yours;  otherwise, non-thinking is not yours.  By practicing zazen with your whole body and mind, non-thinking becomes completely and absolutely yours.

In view of the practice of zazen that you have experienced, it may be difficult for you to understand the meaning of non-thinking.  Let me take painting as an example.  Some of you here are interested in painting.  I have also done some painting.  Sometimes I painted indoors; sometimes, out of doors.  Let's imagine that you try to paint a beautiful scene of nature.  When you start to paint, your mind is completely filled with painting.  You forget various matters concerning your family life or your school.  You concentrate only on painting and on the beautiful scene of nature before you.  But you are not totally unaware of other things even though you yourself concentrate only on painting.  Your brain is always working as you think whether purple is suitable to this place or green suitable to that, what colors should be used for a tree, house, rock, or water? Nevertheless, your whole concentration is on just painting.  If you should happen to think of things other than your painting, you are not satisfied with your painting.  One day I painted a beautiful winter scene.  A few days later someone asked me whether I had been painting out of doors on a certain cold winter day.  I had not noticed his presence at all.  I asked him:  "Where were you? Were you looking at my painting?"  He said: "Yes, I was."  "Where were you?"  "I stood directly behind you."

The paint, painting, and I are completely at oneness.  A painting is not merely a painting;  it is identical with the actual scene of nature in winter.  The painting and I are simultaneously at oneness and the beautiful scene of nature in winter and I are at oneness.  When you are at oneness with your own painting, it is no-thinking.  But, when you are at oneness with the winter scene, it is non-thinking.  Do you understand the difference in meaning between no-thinking and non-thinking?

Often while you are doing zazen, you seem to take delight in watching beautiful films in your head.  It seems to me that when you do this you are pouring water into a bamboo bucket.  Even though you strive to fill the bucket with water, it cannot be filled.  (A bamboo bucket has many holes and it is impossible to fill it with water).  When you find yourself practicing zazen as though you were pouring water into a bamboo bucket, you feel that something is wrong.  You become pensive. You feel that you are wasting time because nothing remains in the bamboo bucket.

................

A central point of Dogen Zenji's teaching is to be found in the following statement taken from the Fukanzazengi:  "This cross-legged sitting is not step by step meditation."  You do not practice zazen with the thought of climbing up the ladder step by step, like graduating from grade school, high school, and college.  Dogen's practice is not step by step zazen.  Dogen Zenji says that the practice of zazen is identical with enlightenment.  Let me give you an example. If you clean your room, you think that your room is beautiful and neat looking.  It is natural that you should think so.  According to Dogen, however, who maintains that practice is identical with enlightenment, the very act of cleaning is identical with cleanliness, purity, and beauty.

Another example is hitting the drum.  The moment that you hit the drum, a sound appears: "Boom!"  Hitting the drum and creating the sound are identical.  Let us apply this to zazen.  Imagine that in sitting meditation some sound appears:  "Boom!", which is enlightenment itself.  But, as with the drum, or bell, sitting and the sound of enlightenment are completely one.  The same principle is exemplified by switching on the electricity.  the electricity does not think, nor is it excessively proud of its great powers.  It never thinks whether it works slowly or quickly.  As soon as you turn on the switch, the electricity works immediately.  The same holds true when you hit the bell.  The bell doesn't think:  "Wait a minute", or, "Oh, yes, you hit me.  OK Just a moment.  Let me have a little time, please.  Yes, right now, yes.  Let's start.  Gong!"  The bell never thinks so.  The moment that you hit the bell, it works immediately.  This is what Dogen means when he says that practice is identical with enlightenment itself. This is the proper way of zazen.

You cannot understand the meaning of comfortable practice (anraku no homon) if you practice zazen as though you were pouring water into a bamboo bucket.  In comfortable practice you should make an effort to do something if you want to and if you think it is right, without being too much concerned about anything.  If you think something is good, you should try to do it.  Otherwise, you pour water into a bamboo bucket. But if you do something with your whole body and mind, pouring the water is identical to filling the bucket with water.

................

We strive to walk on the supreme path directly and straightly.  You just hit the drum.  That is all. It is a delusion to think that the hitting makes the sound.  Hitting and creating the sound are one. Sometimes you may hit the side of the drum.  The sound you make is very funny: "Kgk-boom-kchinkg".  Then you complain that the drum doesn't sound right even though you make every effort to hit it.  You say: It's the drum's fault.  The drum is wrong."  But it is your fault.  You somehow don't realize that you are hitting the side of the drum.

The same may be said of the practice of zazen.  Seeing zazen through your own small telescope, you think:  "Oh, this is zazen."  Then, if through the practice of zazen you attain some degree of enlightenment, you think:  "Oh, this is enlightenment.  How wonderful enlightenment is." That is not real zazen.  When you practice zazen, you must hit the proper place;  otherwise, you cannot make a good sound.  You should always consider what part of the drum to hit.  If you consider again and again, it means that your practice is going on in the same way as that of the Buddhas and Patriarchs, who took care of each respiration moment after moment with kind attention.  At that time your zazen is comfortable practice.  If you have a lot of money the important point is to know how to spend it.  Similarly, if you have a good and valuable teaching, the important point is that you understand how to use it; otherwise, even the valuable teaching will hurt your mind.

................


III.

Student A:  What does comfortable practice really mean?

Tatsugami Roshi:  I have been thinking of a detailed explanation of comfortable practice.  In Shobogenzo Dogen Zenji said that zazen in full lotus position, which transcends all aspects of phenomena without any hindrances, is to settle oneself gracefully and sublimely in the depths of the Buddhas and Patriarchs.  Judging from this statement, there is no obstacle and nothing to disturb in the world of the practice of zazen.  Zazen in full lotus portion embraces everything and enables man to settle on himself in the domain of Buddha's house.  The inside of Buddha's house contains zazen.  In other words, all those who settle on themselves in the practice of zazen exist completely surrounded by the greatness of Buddha's world.  This is the meaning of zazen.  And among the many things of Buddha's world Dogen Zenji says that zazen in full lotus position is the supreme one.

There is no better way to settle on the self in Buddha's world than to devote yourself to the practice of zazen.  Such zazen is Buddha's dharma based on comfortable practice.  Usually you see things from a small and narrow point of view.  These things are bubbles arising from your delusions.  When you practice zazen and understand it from your own small point of view, you do not experience zazen as comfortable practice.  Let us develop this point further by taking an example.  If someone were to give you one hundred dollars, you would immediately be pleased and happy.  You would go to bed feeling comfortable (anraku). This "comfortable" is the same as the word "comfortable" in comfortable practice as used by Dogen Zenji.  There is a very big difference between the two words, however, even though the word "comfortable" (anraku), which both the Buddha and we use, looks and sounds the same.  This difference is to be found in the objective at which we aim and at which the Buddha aims.  In a sense it is all right to be delighted understanding something from the narrow point of view; but, you should always keep in mind that to do so is not really comfortable practice.

You may think that it is comfortable practice to sleep or look at interesting films running in your head during sitting meditation.  But it is not, because the purpose of zazen based on comfortable practice is to awaken people from the falsehood of delusions and conceptual understanding and to free them from seeing life from a narrow point of view.

Let us use learning how to ride a bicycle as an analogy.  All of you probably know how to ride a bicycle.  I also practiced riding a bicycle.  In my case, it took me one week to learn how to ride it. However, it will not take just one week, but probably one or two years or even more to learn how to ride a bicycle without disturbing the people who are walking on the street and without disturbing myself. While you are learning how to ride the bicycle, you may, perhaps, injure your knee or your hand or elbow.  Perhaps your bicycle may crash into an electric pole standing on the side of the road.  Your tire may break.  You can't really ride on a broken bicycle.  If you try to ride such a bicycle you feel very uncomfortable.  It will take you at least a few years to learn how to ride a bicycle safely, without disturbing others or yourself.

It will surely take you more than a couple of years to master zazen based on the principle of comfortable practice.  Zazen enables man to get rid of delusions and to open his mind to Buddha's world.  It is like the statement in The Blue Cliff Records made by Bodhisattva when the emperor asked him: "What is merit?  I have made many contributions for building temples, taking care of Buddha's priests, and cultivating their land."  The Bodhisattva answers:  "nothing."

................

Student B:  Would you explain in greater detail what to think the unthinkable means?

Tatsugami Roshi:  There is no better way to understand non-thinking or thinking the unthinkable than through the actual practice of zazen. When I explain the meaning of non-thinking, it is like scratching your foot without taking off your shoe.  It's all nonsense.  Similarly, if I were to explain how wonderful taking a bath is to a person who had never experienced it, he would not understand how wonderful it was. Nevertheless, I must try to explain.

In considering what it means to think the unthinkable, there are three points which we must take into account.  Throw away everything and sever yourself from the falsehood of delusions.  Don't think in terms of good and bad.  Don't try to make an effort to become Buddha.

Thinking or perception may be likened to a piece of machinery, more specifically, a belt in an assembly line that automatically keeps on running.  Dogen Zenji emphasized, however, that you must get to a dead end where you can no longer think of anything.  It is essential for you to reach this dead-end destination, where there is no room to discriminate between good and bad or right and wrong;  where there is no room to question yourself whether you want to become Buddha or an ordinary person.  It is at this point, says Dogen Zenji, when you have completely reached a dead end where there is nothing to think that you should think of something.  Then, Dogen Zenji says:  "Think the unthinkable" in the totality of the dead end where there is absolutely no discrimination.

Stop making films run in your brain right now.  Making every effort to keep beautiful films running through your head is complete nonsense and utterly useless.  Dogen Zenji firmly states that you should stop making the film run this instant, without wasting any more time.  You should answer "Yes" to his request immediately, without hesitation.  At the moment that you answer "yes", the film will stop.  It is at this time that your mind is in the state of thinking the unthinkable.

Let us take a concrete example to illustrate my words.  you are holding your hand tightly closed.  Someone asks you:  "What is in your hand? Let me see it."  You say: "Oh, no.  This is mine and I don't want to show it."  But the person asks again and again, and the more he asks the more tightly you keep your hand closed.  At last you cannot help opening your hand.  "Here it is."  But there is nothing in your hand even though you always kept it closed.  Your attitude is really the stubbornness of the ego.  It is all delusion.  Even though there is nothing to show, all you have to do is just open your hand immediately when someone asks you to open it.  That is all.  But it is difficult for your mind to let your hand open.  Even though you may have practiced zazen for three or five or even more years, it is still difficult for your mind to let your hand open.

As I said before, to think the unthinkable is to stop your film from running right now.  Then, when it stops, you will become aware of the very big world.  But there must be a severance between your film and you yourself for you to recognize how immense a world there exists in front of you.  This is the experience of non-thinking, or thinking the unthinkable. Non-thinking is beyond discrimination, discretion, and perception.  You are above the table, not beneath it. If you practice zazen that is completely in accord with the real zazen that Dogen emphasized, you stand above the table.  Your experience of non-thinking does not

disturb or distract others.  In other words, there is nothing to distract and nothing by which to be distracted.  This is non-thinking. Do you understand?

I am afraid that my explanation has led you from one complication to another, but all you have to do is to get a taste of the meaning of non-thinking through actual practice.


 

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