The Buddha’s Teaching about Suffering and Dogen Zenji’s Shikantaza

A talk I gave in January 2016 at
Clouds in Water Zen Center

I’ve been looking at a short section of a work called the Sutta Nipata. The Sutta Nipata is one of the very oldest collections of the Buddha’s teachings. It’s basically a collection of very short suttas, many of them are in a kind of question and answer format. The one I’m going to talk about today is from section 4 (The Chapter of the Eights) of the Sutta Nipata. #11: Kalahavivada Sutta (Disputes and Contention)

My teacher has drawn attention to this text many times over the years because of its very clear explanation about the way our day to day suffering develops, and also because of the resonance between the Buddha’s teaching about the end of that suffering and the teachings of Dogen Zenji and his own teacher Kosho Uchiyama Roshi.

The sutta leads off with this question:

“Sir, whenever there are arguments and quarrels there are tears and anguish, arrogance and pride and grudges and insults to go with them. Can you explain how these things come about? Where do they all come from?”

This feels pretty familiar. This is our day to day suffering. Our struggles with family members, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, other drivers on the road or passengers on the green line. Speaking for myself, I often find myself in tears or anguish, holding grudges or flinging insults with no idea how I got into that state at all. Maybe you have that experience too. So, the person asking this question wants to know how it happens. Where do these feelings come from? One minute we’re placid and enjoying what we’re doing and the next we’re filled with rage or sadness or some other emotion we experience as negative.

In this short sutra the Buddha lays out a very clear chain of events that we can understand. Not only that, he explains that actually it is possible NOT to do this. I won’t keep you hanging, the way to not end up in this kind of state is zazen practice. 

Here’s the chain of causation that the Buddha lays out for us. This chain has 6 links. There’s a more well-known version of this with 12 links that is developed later in the history of Buddhism. I like this one maybe because it’s simpler and I can remember it more easily. It looks like this:

Tears, anguish, SUFFERING <--  preferences <--   desire (clinging) <--   discrimination pleasant vs. unpleasant (sensation)  <--  contact <--  form (perception)

I’d like to say a little bit about each one of these, starting with the last one.

Form / perception / nama rupa
This is where it starts. Mind and matter exist. Mind and matter means the five skandhas, which according to Buddhism is what we all are – no more and no less. The five skandhas are form (rupa, matter), feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. Sometimes we say these things don’t exist. In the Heart Sutra that we chanted pretty much every day in Mahayana temples around the world we say NO before all these things. No form, no feelings, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness. So, this is pretty confusing and hard to wrap our minds around and I’m not going to clarify it much today except to say Yes to all of that. One of the things I’m saying YES to is that our bodies and minds exist. And the Buddha tells us this is the first step toward tears, anguish, arrogance, pride, grudges and insults.

The next link is contact. That means contact between this body and mind that I just said does actually exist, and objects around it. In Buddhism we have six sense organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind. Each of these organs has an object – light, sound, smells, tastes, bodily sensations, and thoughts. When our sense organs come into contact with their object, something happens.

Sensation (discrimination)
The thing that happens is sensation – you see something, or smell something, or think something… but not only that. We sort those things into three categories. Things I like, things I don’t like, and things I don’t care about. The things that go into that third category don’t matter much to us, in fact we may not even really notice that they exist. But the first two categories are a very very big deal.

Desire in this case has a very wide meaning, and it’s based on the sorting we just did. Things that go into the I Like This category we want to get, or we want to keep. Things in the I Don’t Like This category we want to avoid or make go away.

This is called preferences. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think we devote the vast majority of our effort to getting or keeping the things we want, and avoiding the things we don’t want. But it usually doesn’t work, at least not for long. And then we become angry, or sad, or jealous. And there are tears and anguish and arrogance and pride and grudges and insults.

This a very basic teaching of Buddhism. I think it’s pretty clear. If we stop here Buddhism seems like a pretty pessimistic way to look at the world. The very existence of our bodies and minds leads to suffering. This is not uplifting. But thankfully this short sutra isn’t quite over yet. The questioner has a couple more things to ask:

“What pursuit leads a person to get rid of form? And how can suffering and pleasure cease to exist? This is what I want to know about.”

The Buddha replies: “There is a state where form ceases to exist. It is a state without ordinary perception and without disordered perception and without no perception and without any annihilation of perception…”

  • Without ordinary perception
  • Without disordered perception
  • Without no perception
  • Without annihilation of perception

My basic hypothesis, which is really my teacher Shohaku Okumura’s idea, is that what the Buddha is talking about here and the zazen practice of Dogen Zenji as it is taught by Uchiyama Roshi and Okumura Roshi are the same thing. 

When the Buddha is outlining this chain in the sutra he says that suffering is a result of one thing: having preferences. The state the Buddha describes where one is free from all this is one outside of our day to day way of being, but also not so different. We don’t have ordinary perception, but don’t have some kind of strange or extrasensory perception either. We are still perceiving and not doing away with our perceptions.

In Fukanzazengi Dogen’s basic instructions for practicing zazen are

 “… put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to attain suchness, practice suchness immediately…

…do not think in terms of good or bad. Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas and views. Have no designs on becoming a buddha…

…Think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Beyond thinking.

…The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the Dharma gate of peace and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated awakening…”

The root of the problem, according to the Buddha, is preferences. Dogen’s instruction to us – do not think in terms of good or bad, do not judge, stop measuring. Have no designs on becoming a buddha. A state where form ceases to exist according to the Buddha, and Dogen tells us that in practicing zazen body and mind will drop away. Body and mind – the first link in the chain leading to suffering. Dogen even calls this the Dharma gate of peace and bliss.

Dogen says he’s not talking about meditation practice. To me, meditation sounds like thinking, like cogitating, like sitting and turning something over in my mind. This is exactly not what the Buddha and Dogen are talking about here. Our thinking is about discrimination – about understanding how things are. This is the same process as developing preferences. This is why don’t want to use that word. Of course I’m kind of trapped – we don’t have a better or different English word for it. At least for right now though I can get away with using zazen instead of meditation.

Sometimes I’ve really wondered about the transmission of the teaching. I’m a naturally skeptical person, and I have imagined it like a 2500 year game of telephone with the Buddha at one end and us at the other receiving some kind of unrecognizably garbled version of what was taught at Vulture Peak all those centuries ago. But looking at this settles that skepticism down a little. Dogen’s zazen feels an awful lot like what the Buddha was talking about here.

Sanshinji, my teacher’s temple in Bloomington IN published a transcription of Okumura Roshi giving zazen instruction. I’d like to share a short excerpt of it with you.

“In zazen we simply allow any thought, feeling or emotion to come up and then we simply let them go away; we actually do nothing. In sitting, any thought or condition of mind is like a cloud in the sky. Somehow clouds appear in the sky, changing form as they stay for a while, and then they disappear. Similar to clouds in the sky, any thought that appears in zazen simply stays for a while and then disappears. I have been practicing this style of meditation for more than 35 years, and in my experience, no thought stays in the mind forever. Everything is coming and going, and we just let things come up freely and let them go away freely. We don’t try to fight against our thoughts or any other mental condition, and we don’t try to interact with them, either. The intention is not to grasp what is coming up from your consciousness. We actually do nothing but let the things happening within the mind just flow. Yet when you become aware that you are interacting with what is happening in your mind, just stop interacting and return to the zazen posture while breathing with the eyes open. That means you let go of whatever thoughts come up, and you also don’t sleep. This is the point in our sitting practice.”