July 25, 1979 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

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Why should we not be disappointed with this world, if there seems to be nothing to help us? To answer this question, Katagiri Roshi examines the aspect of Buddhist teaching that is no perception of self and no perception of object. Going further, he explains why we shouldn’t attach to either a perception of an object or perception of no-object. This leads to an explanation of provisional being, and also empathy, which is universal consciousness. This is how we can relate warmly to self and object. Does the morning sun have a mind? The answer may surprise you. Also: What to do if some king insists on chopping you to bits.


Listen to this talk on mnzencenter.org


Katagiri Roshi: There must be a person who tries to establish a peaceful world, always. When we see the human world, it’s pretty difficult for us to see a beautiful aspect; in most cases, we are disappointed. But [in] Diamond Sutra, Subhuti – one of Buddha’s ten major disciples – asks him, “How do we teach the Buddha’s teaching, which seems to be complicated, particularly in the confused world?” Buddha says, “There must be even one person who tries to teach Buddha’s teaching, under all circumstances.” That is Buddha’s answer. So, you shouldn’t be disappointed with this world, even though there seems to be nothing to help your life. Still there is a person who helps you, teaching Buddha’s teaching. Buddha says, “Don’t think that; don’t be disappointed. There is always some person who teaches Buddha’s teaching.”

According to Buddha’s explanation, this person really practiced in his past life a particular Buddhist teaching based on no-self and also no perception of dharma: no perception of subject, no perception of object. For century after century – for many, many years – he saw many Buddhas and practiced under them. What did he practice? He practiced the particular aspect of Buddhist teaching that is no perception of subject, no perception of object.


Last week I told you, perception of self is divided into four [kinds].

One is, we believe that there is something particular apart from ourselves. That something particular is a teaching of the five skandhas, because the five skandhas are an analysis of existence, how existence goes on. The Buddha analyzes existence into five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, impulses, consciousness. We believe pretty easily that these five skandhas are the self; but the five skandhas are nothing but the teaching, apart from ourselves. So, we believe pretty easily there is something particular apart from our lives, our daily living. This is one misunderstanding. So, “no perception of self.”

The second kind of ego consciousness is [that] we believe there is that which is continuous. Otherwise, it [is] difficult for us to believe our growth from child to adult. So it’s pretty easy for us to believe that there is that which is continuous from your birth to your death. And then you believe, “I am changing,” “I change.” Then the idea of change comes into existence. If you don’t believe there is something which is continuous, it’s pretty difficult to get the idea of change. So, it is pretty easy for us to believe there is something particular which is continuous. This is the second misunderstanding, the second ego consciousness. So, “no perception of a being.”

The third: if you believe there is that which is continuous, then that is kind of a soul, unifying or harmonizing your life. Sort of a “watchmaker.” The watchmaker controls one watch, and the second watch; no matter how many watches there are, he controls them, so that all watches go exactly right in the proper way. That is, the watchmaker is sort of a “soul,” which exists forever, and also has almighty [power] to control your life and all sentient beings: trees, birds, the whole universe. This is the third ego consciousness. That’s why Buddha says, “no perception of soul.”

The fourth kind of ego consciousness is: we want to believe [in] something particular which is called karma, which leads you to be reborn in the next life. So [we believe] karma is something particular, which is an eternal entity which leads you to your next life. But actually, karma doesn’t exist in that way, as an idea of an entity which exists forever. No. Karma is also one of the beings which is changing constantly. Appear, disappear. When you yawn, that is your karma. If you are rough, this is also karma. If you hate, if you express your anger, this is also karma. But if right after expression of your anger, you smile – well, another karma appears. So karma is really something vivified, constantly, without having a particular fixed idea which seems to exist forever. Karma is appearing, disappearing, appearing, disappearing, according to conditions. So that’s why, “no perception of a person”. This is a kind of idea of karma.

So, no ego consciousness. This kind of Bodhisattva, who exists under all circumstances, teaching the Buddha’s teaching, practiced for many, many years this practice of no ego consciousness.


Second, he practiced no perception of object. Object means trees, birds, and also Buddha’s teachings; everything.

There are four kinds of perceptions of object negatively, because according to Diamond Sutra, this Bodhisattva practiced four no-perceptions of object.

One is, everything is emptiness. Nothingness. Nothingness or emptiness is not to destroy subject and object, or trees, birds – no. Emptiness means that a thing exists without any reason – why, or what, or how. No reason.

If you say “Why,” you can explain. Why is Katagiri Japanese? I can explain – but that explanation of Katagiri doesn’t hit the mark. Why? Why am I Japanese? I don’t know. I didn’t choose. Why are you American? Can you choose? No. You can explain why; but the explanation of the reason why you are American cannot hit the mark. So finally, “you are American” means: emptiness, nothing. That means: “Americans” exist without any reason.

A rose, a beautiful flower, blooms just to bloom. If you say a beautiful flower blooms to work, or to live, or to please the people, or anything, that’s not the real life of the beautiful flower. The real life of the beautiful flower is, bloom just to bloom. But when you see beautiful flowers in the heart of the mountain, immediately you think, “Oh poor flowers, kindly flowers, why don’t you bloom in the beautiful garden? People will see.” But that is human speculation. The real life of flowers blooms just to bloom.

Why do you live? What is the purpose, to live in this world? So you say, “I live to work.” Or, “I work to live.” Or you say, “I don’t know, I just live.” Whatever you say, it doesn’t hit the mark. It doesn’t help you. If you know “I live to work” or “I work to live,” this is pretty good, it’s a little helpful, for a certain period of time. But it’s not real help. Real help is, you live just to live. That’s all you have to do. Because everything returns to emptiness – no reason. To live is [unintelligible]. Because the nature of existence, your life, or your question, your answers, are absolute. [Absolute is something] you are pretty familiar with. Absolute [means] it exists by itself. The original nature of the self exists by itself. That means you are free; you are really free.

So, everything is emptiness. And then, if everything is emptiness, that emptiness is that which is existent, that which is accurate, or that which is real. If it is true, the third no perception of object is [no perception]. That means, you cannot talk about it. You cannot talk about the absolute, or original nature of the self, or existence. Don’t touch it; it’s untouchable. If you touch it, if you [attach to] it, it’s not absolute.

I became a monk when I was 18. So, why did I become a monk? I don’t know exactly. I can explain, but if I explain why – it’s not quite right. So, the real reason why I became a monk is indescribable. Because, that reason has been connected into my past life. No reason.

So it’s pretty difficult to describe. Whatever you pick up; your nose, your eyes, your head, your body, whatever it is; finally, it’s very difficult to describe what really is. This is the third no perception of object.

Fourth is, if it is indescribable, is the absolute completely indescribable? No. You can describe it. There is a term, absolute – where does it come from? [The term exists] because someone knows. Maybe in the past, someone knew the absolute, someone experienced the absolute. Someone experienced emptiness; someone experienced the original nature of existence. Someone.

For instance, if I am master of making miso or tofu. No one can imitate exactly the same as my tofu, okay? Exactly good tofu, in my way. No one can imitate it. So that is a master tofu maker; tofu maker or miso maker. But it’s pretty difficult to teach, making a recipe. (He says “menu.”) Of course I can make a recipe, but it’s pretty difficult to teach exactly the same tofu as I make. I try to teach it, but it doesn’t hit the mark. But I know; so, there is a master of tofu makers. That’s why you can get the title: Master of the Tofu Makers. That is absolute; [the] real meaning of how to make tofu. It’s very difficult to describe. But as long as you have the title, Master of Tofu Makers, you are a person who experienced it. If it is true, you know that, so, you can describe it. Then, next, we have to write a recipe: items one, two, three, four. But that description doesn’t hit the mark. That’s why the absolute is indescribable – but absolute is still there is a fact which you are describing.

Do you understand? This is no perception of [subject], no perception of object. So that is the particular practice for Bodhisattvas, for many years in his past life. No perception of the subject, no perception of the object.


[Diamond Sutra says:]

And why? If, Subhuti, these Bodhisattvas should have perception of either a dharma, or a no-dharma, they would thereby seize on the self, on the being, on the soul, on the person. And why? Because a bodhisattva shouldn’t seize on either a dharma or a no-dharma. Therefore this saying has been taught by the Tathāgata with the hidden meaning: ‘By those who know the discourse on dharma as like unto a raft, dharmas should be forsaken, still more so no-dharmas.’

(From “Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra” by Edward Conze, pp. 27-28)

So, if you have perception of either a dharma or a no-dharma, if you have a perception of either object or no-object, this is still perception.

For instance, in zazen, all you have to do is be one with zazen. That means not-thinking; don’t think anything. “Don’t think anything” is “think not-thinking” (as in Fukanzazengi). So what do you mean, “think not-thinking”? That means, to think [not-thinking] is also to think. Do you understand? Pretty clear: to think is also to think, or not-think is also to think. So, [he chuckles,] both are perceptions created by your consciousness. You try not to think, but, you trying not to think is already to think! Is that clear? So, you cannot have a perception of dharma or no-dharma.

If Buddha teaches no perception of object, you say, “Oh, no perception of object.” So, you lose hope. But this is nihilism; you fall into nihilism. I don’t mean that. That’s why here it says, “no perception of dharma, no perception of no-dharma”. You cannot attach to either one of them, because both are still thinking dharmas, thinking object. So you are still involved in perception of an object, whatever you say, perception of object or no perception of object. Negatively or affirmatively, whatever you say, you are still involved in perception of object. That’s why you cannot attach to either one of them, negatively or affirmatively. If you attach to one of them, there is attachment to self. I told you before: perception of a self, perception of a being, perception of a soul, perception of a person. So, you shouldn’t attach to this.

That means the object is not something you can attach to. That means the object is not something which is accurate, or not something real. The object is a provisional being.

But it’s pretty hard to understand this. So, I want to explain this.


Why do you believe a thing to be accurate? Even though Buddha says everything is provisional being, you don’t believe it, because, [for instance], here is a book. No one believes this is a provisional being. You say this is a being which is real, or accurate. Here it is! You don’t believe it is a provisional being.

Well, for instance, if you see a movie – what are you watching? You’re watching pictures on a screen. The world created by the pictures on the screen is not a real world; this is a provisional world. You believe pretty well that this is a provisional world, so don’t worry about whatever happens. Whatever scary scene happens, or whatever thing happens, don’t cry, don’t be surprised, whatever. So you sit down on a chair and watch the screen. Finally, you cry. Don’t you think so? You cry, and you jump up when something happens.

Did you see “Jaws”? [Laughter.] You scream, immediately. It is not a real being. The artificial shark is also a provisional being, created on the screen. But simultaneously, you scream. Why do you scream? Because you are participating in that provisional world. At that time, the provisional world is no longer provisional; that is actual being. It turns into actual being. It completely turns into actual being.

So, always you are being with [the] pictures [created] on a screen. Intellectually, you believe that is a provisional world, but while you are watching this, unconsciously or consciously, you are completely present with provisional beings, so provisional beings turn into actual beings. So that’s why you cry, and you smile, with the world created on the screen.


So from this point, we are always moving toward the object. At that time, object is no longer provisional being. Because if you move toward the object initiatively, your object becomes actual being. Because object is no longer object; object is with you, and you are in object. So finally, there is no gap for you. You become a tree; the tree becomes you.

We are always moving toward the object initiatively, participating in it, being engaged in it. At that time, the object starts working with you pretty well, simultaneously. This is one point, subject always moving toward object.

On the other hand, another aspect is that the subject does not always initiatively move toward the object, sometimes the object moves toward the subject. For instance, when you walk on the street, and a big rock is there right in front of you, and you stumble on it. To stumble on it means the rock exists. That rock gives you a sense of resistance, or a kind of antagonism.

The rock is a being which seems to be very accurate, touching your consciousness, touching your body, your hand. But sometimes you cannot touch [something] with your hand, your body. Sort of [like] anger [and] your enemy. [You] cannot touch your enemy or your anger with your body, but it’s really something existent, because that hatred gives a sense of antagonism to you. So at that time, the object becomes not a provisional being, the object becomes completely actual being. So, object comes up to you, subject comes up to you.

If you want to make a poem, or if you want to paint a picture of trees, you have to move initiatively to the trees and talk. If you go to the wilderness, you are surrounded by perfect quietness. In the first stage, you start to talk to yourself. Because the surroundings are completely quiet, so there is no way to talk with somebody, so you talk with yourself. But no matter how long you talk to yourself – in your heart, or sometimes with your mouth – still it is quiet. Finally you get exhausted, so you return to the quietness, completely. So in the second stage, you talk to nature, the wilderness. At that time, if you talk to the wilderness initiatively, wilderness speaks to you. And finally, you really enjoy it.

So, two types of provisional being. Why do we believe that a thing seems to be accurate, not provisional? Because you are participating in or you are engaged in the provisional being initiatively. We always do this. On the other hand, the object always comes up to you, giving a kind of resistance or antagonism. At that time, it is also a sense of being accurate, or actual being.


You know the idea of empathy, according to psychology? You are projecting yourself into the tree; at that time, the tree becomes you. So if you want to talk with the tree, you have to project yourself into the tree. At that time, the tree speaks to you. This is very natural.

For instance, if you feel melancholy, pensive, at that time the surrounding environment becomes completely melancholy. Whatever I tell you, you don’t accept, you don’t understand. If you feel sad, everything becomes sad. When it rains, the whole world becomes melancholy. Go up above the clouds with an airplane, and it’s shiny, but rain – it’s rain. You don’t feel good, because we believe the whole world seems to be melancholy. This means we can move initiatively to the object, creating our world. In other words, the world doesn’t exist alone; the world always exists connected with subject, in many ways.

But we cannot always believe in that way. For instance, even though you feel melancholy, if you see the beautiful morning sun rising – you feel good! Don’t you think so? Wonderful. So we do not always create our environment by our feelings; sometimes, the object creates you. Even though you feel sad, if you see the morning sun rising, you feel great! You feel how beautiful it is.

According to [the psychological concept of] empathy, that understanding is a mistake, a misunderstanding, because if the morning sun rising makes you happy, at that time you believe the morning sun rising has a mind, as well as your mind. According to empathy in psychology, this is a misunderstanding, this is a delusion, because you project yourself into the morning sun and then you believe that it seems to have a mind, but actually it is the morning sun, apart from you. That is the psychological understanding, but that is a misunderstanding broadly speaking, because we are distinguishing between subject and object. If you always see or accept subject and object separately, there is not a warm feeling of the world, there is not a feeling of warmth communicating between the subject and object.

So an important point is, if you see the morning sun and the morning sun makes you happy, at that time – whatever you think intellectually – morning sun has mind, has a feeling. That feeling is completely universal. That feeling is something through which we can have spiritual rapport between the morning sun and you. Psychologically, this is universal consciousness, or according to Buddhism, that is Buddha Nature. So, the morning sun, the subject, trees, all sentient beings, have feeling, universal feeling, as well as we have. That’s why we can communicate with each other.

So, the object is not always something giving a sense of resistance or antagonism. The object is wonderful; the object is a being which exists in a huge universal vision.

For instance, you exist in that way because when you were born, your mother took care of you. The mother is your object. If you believe the mother is your object, at that time that object is consciously or unconsciously giving a certain sense of resistance. “Oh, my mother is [so bossy]. I don’t like it.” But baby? He doesn’t care. For baby, the mother is huge: a big tree, by which he is supported in a broad sense.

So you should accept your object, by which you are supported constantly, not giving a sense of resistance, or a sort of antagonism. That’s why object and subject are always communicating, interconnected.


I think you understand why we believe things to be actual beings, not provisional beings. I explained it to you: because, by participation in your object, at that time, the object as a provisional being turns into an actual being. So that means there is always a sense of actuality.

This sense of actuality comes from very common human activity. But if you take away this sense of actuality, there are two kinds of thinking. One is recognition, the function of cognition. The other is aesthetic contemplation.

[With] the function of recognition or cognition, you don’t [engage with the] object, you completely keep away from it. You see the object objectively. So, there is no feeling of warmness. Completely you see the object and then try to understand [unintelligible] of your object. This is [science].

On the other hand, the function of aesthetic contemplation is through your consciousness. You don’t participate in the object, but through consciousness, through the aesthetic contemplation, you can merge yourself into the object, exactly. Aesthetic contemplation means, in other words, intuition. Or, a particular term is wisdom. You don’t participate in your object, but, through wisdom, you can merge yourself into your object pretty deeply. This is the function of aesthetic contemplation.

[Tape change.]

… [Aesthetic contemplation] is kind of a religious way of understanding, but aesthetic contemplation is still in the realm of philosophy or psychology, the philosophical or metaphysical realm. Religiously, particularly in Buddhism, we participate practically, directly, with our body. But, you participate in your object with wisdom. At that time, the activity of participation in your object becomes very pure; [there is] a sense of purity, undefiled practice, because you merge yourself into your object with your wisdom. You don’t participate in the object carelessly; you don’t participate at random. You participate in it very carefully, with wisdom. You merge yourself into your object. So, even though you participate, this participation is not defiled participation or human activity. This is undefiled human activity. So this is religious activity.


That’s why, according to Buddhism, the subject is no perception of subject, and the object is no perception of object. Then you cannot attach to, you cannot have, perception of object or perception of no-object. You cannot. That means the object is nothing but provisional being.

But provisional being is not to defile the object, not to ignore the existence of your object. You should take care of your object. How? This is the practice: how.

So, in the common sense, we are always participating. At that time, provisional being turns into actual being. So there is no gap. But, without deep understanding, without wisdom, you can participate in it and also, finally, you will be confused pretty easily. Expressing an emotional feeling: crying, screaming – very naturally. Expressing anger, et cetera. But religiously, you have to participate in your object with wisdom, so there is some control or adjustment for your emotional expression, or a conscious pattern […] of body and mind situation.

That’s why Buddha always says everything is emptiness. That means impermanence. Impermanence is [that] everything is changing. That means, everything is provisional being. Everything exists temporarily. But that doesn’t mean through that you should fall into pessimism. No, that is pointing out how to participate in provisional being, how to take care of it.

It really depends on your attitude, how to participate in your object. Sometimes it becomes a cause of pessimism, sometimes a cause of confusion, sometimes a cause of happiness, sometimes a cause of unhappiness. Sometimes a cause of neutral, nothing to say.


That’s why it says, “If, Subhuti, these Bodhisattvas should have perception of either a dharma, or a no-dharma, they would thereby seize on the self, on the being, on the soul, on the person. And why? Because a bodhisattva shouldn’t seize on either a dharma or a no-dharma. Therefore this saying has been taught by the Tathāgata with the hidden meaning: ‘By those who know the discourse on dharma as like unto a raft, dharmas should be forsaken, still more so no-dharmas.’”

The simile of the raft occurs in Buddhist scriptures. If you have crossed the river with your raft, you cannot carry it on your back. If you reach the other shore, you should leave it there. That means, no perception of the subject, no perception of the object.

That means, if you study at school in order to get a master’s degree or Ph.D. – get the degree! Study hard, get a degree. But it is not a final stage you have to stay with. You have to leave the Ph.D. at the other shore. And then, without anything, you should share your life with all sentient beings. If you stay with the Ph.D. – well, you cannot be stupid. That’s not sharing your life with the poor people, with the suffering people, because you are always proud of yourself too much. “I am a doctor.” You are not a doctor. “Student, I am a teacher. First, bow. Then, what do you want? I want to teach you. Give me money.” [He laughs.]

That makes it pretty hard to communicate with each other. So – forget it. If you get the Ph.D., it doesn’t escape from you, it’s always with you. So, forget it. All you have to do is forget it, and share your life with all sentient beings.

Do you have questions?

Do you understand provisional being?

[There are a few quiet chuckles.]


Question: (Transcriber’s Note: This is partly unintelligible.) Somewhere in a story about the Buddha, in one of his lifetimes he was practicing meditation in a garden, and this king came up to him and remembered him, and got extremely angry, and butchered him, chopped him down into pieces. And the Buddha just calmly watched him. When the Buddha was watching him, is that king, in the Buddha’s perception, a provisional being?

Katagiri: Compassion? Yes, that is the motivation of his becoming a monk, leaving the castle. He saw something … farmers. Is that what you mean? Cultivating?

Same person: No…

[There is some back and forth, trying to figure out what the story is.]

Same person: Buddha was sitting in a grove, meditating, this is in one of his past lives … he was sitting in the grove, and this king came along into the grove and saw the Buddha there, and he remembered something that he thought the Buddha had done to him in a past life, and he got extremely angry, took out his sword. And the Buddha put out his hand, telling him to stop, and first he chopped off his hand, and then he just started chopping the Buddha to pieces, and the Buddha didn’t say a word and watched. Was the Buddha looking at that man as a provisional being?

Katagiri: Oh.


Some person: Yes.


Different person: It seems to me that it wouldn’t be very good if you would act like that, if you would act like people aren’t real. If somebody comes up to you and starts chopping at you… [Laughter.]

Katagiri: Well, don’t commit suicide. [Laughter.] Because if someone chops your neck and your hands – if you have a chance, you should take off. [Loud laughter.] Because it is also provisional being. [Laughter.]

No; provisional being is possibility, the eternal possibility. To kill you, or not to kill you. You see? Provisional being. But it really depends on you: to kill you or not to kill you. To animate you or to kill.

So, if you believe all sentient beings as just provisional beings intellectually – well, someone can come and chop your neck, and you say, “Okay! you’re a provisional being.” It’s ridiculous! [Laughter.]

Don’t you think so?

Person: Oh yes! [Laughter.]

Katagiri: So, provisional being, in a different term, that means eternal possibility. Provisional being means we don’t know tomorrow, even a few minutes from now. We don’t know our life after going out of this zendo, because we are provisional beings. When you are sitting here listening to Buddha’s teaching, this is just a provisional being. And then when you go out, this is also provisional being. […] That means, possibilities. Wonderful possibilities, in which you can animate you, or you can kill you. Do you understand? Provisional being is not a teaching which creates pessimism.

Person: That’s like taking each moment as it comes […]?

Katagiri: Always practice [in the present]. Wonderful. Beautiful. If you feel sad, okay… it’s not okay, it’s not easy, but there is another possibility there in the moment. In the moment, possibility. [Unintelligible].


Question: Roshi? You speak of the concept of no-self, and at the same time, constantly refer to the idea of past lives. And somehow I have difficulty reconciling them.

Katagiri: No-self doesn’t mean to ignore the existence of self, ignore the existence of subject. There is still perception of understanding of the self, understanding of the subject. And if you understand the self through the present life, you can realize how sublime it is, how unfathomable your self is; [you understand that] you cannot understand yourself according to present time, because your life is pretty broad. Sometimes you don’t understand [yourself]. Sometimes you understand who you are, but strictly speaking you don’t understand who you are, because your life has been connected with past life.

But if we say it like this, immediately we think there is something which exists for long, from the past, through the present, to the future. That is perception of a soul, okay? So, I don’t think so. But even though no soul – still, there is. You cannot attach to the soul, but you cannot attach to no-soul. Do you understand? You cannot have perception of the object or non-object. You cannot have perception of thinking or non-thinking. You cannot say so.

The self is broad, but what is that? I cannot explain. But, it’s there. It’s there, but it is not something which exists eternally, because you cannot pin down what it is.

Buddhism is always not to touch the extreme ideas, perception of soul or perception of not-soul, because everything is working dynamically, constantly. Understanding that everything is working dynamically leads you to touch the core of real life, which is fully alive.

1:05:11 end of recording

This talk was transcribed by Kikan Michael Howard. Audio recordings of Katagiri Roshi are being used with permission of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

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