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Save All Sentient Beings

March 15, 1980 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

Transcribed by Kikan Michael Howard

Katagiri Roshi explains the meaning of Buddhist terms such as “save all sentient beings” and “all dharmas,” clarifying what ‘all’ means. It may not mean what we usually think. (‘Samskaras’ comes up again.) Ultimately, we have to dive into the ocean.

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Probably you may notice that there are many English terms in Buddhism using “all,” or “all sentient beings,” or “all dharmas.” In the four vows, we say, “I vow to save all sentient beings.” Whatever Buddhist scriptures you read, you realize there are many Buddhist terms [including] “all dharmas,” “all sentient beings.” That’s why we are very often confused: “to save all sentient beings” – what do you mean, “save all sentient beings”? Or, “all is impermanent.” What is “all”? This morning I would like to learn these terms with you.

In Buddha’s time, Buddha always analyzed the human world and human beings as five skandhas: form, feeling, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. And also, sometimes, when the five skandhas are described in a little more detail, at that time the world is analyzed by six [sense] organs, six [sense] objects, and six consciousnesses.

Six sense organs, six objects, and six consciousness are the world we are involved in. So from this point, the five skandhas are exactly the implication of the term ‘all’, or ‘all sentient beings’, or ‘all dharmas’.

Professor Abe translated it sometimes as “everything without exception.” At any rate, if we translate it, we say “all”. But this “all,” according to Buddha’s teaching, is described as five skandhas, or six sense organs and six objects.


You know them pretty well, so I don’t want to explain the five skandhas now, but let me say just the five things.

Form: generally speaking, that implies the human world in the materialistic point of view. The human world you can see, you can touch: this is form. Everything exists as that which is formed. Without form, you cannot experience.

So everything which is formed is called “state of existence,” the state of a thing which exists now. When something appears in front of you, this is called existence, the existence of a thing. But this existence of a thing must be something which you … experience. That is, you can experience something: form, shape or color, and texture of a thing, et cetera. The floor: if you touch it, you can experience something.

So the existence of a thing is not something fixed, apart from us. When you say “floor is something existent,” at that time the floor is not something apart from us, because it is always manifesting itself as a state of being. You can experience through it. State of [being] is always showing [us something], giving us some information, which is called colors, textures, shape, et cetera.

When you experience the floor as it is, at that time the floor becomes a state of being which you can touch with your hands, with your body, with your eyes, et cetera. At that time you say, “floor is smooth,” “floor is beautiful,” “floor is rough,” et cetera; you can say so.

At that time you can really accept the existence of the floor. That floor is not something apart from us: it’s really a state of existence as a floor connected with us. That’s why you have to touch it. You can experience it with your hand, and then you can experience what the floor is. At that time, that floor is not something isolated from you. It is sort of a state of being interconnected with you, dynamically, from moment to moment. That is what we call state of being, which is called existence, according to Buddhism.

Feeling: Feeling means acceptance, reception. We translate it as ‘feeling’, but according to the Chinese and Sanskrit, I don’t know if ‘feeling’ has exactly the right meaning. According to Chinese and Sanskrit, [it] is ‘reception’, ‘acceptance’. That is the second one. So form, and reception or feeling.

Next is perception. With perception, you can receive something through the consciousness. Feeling is more basic; before you can get something through consciousness, you can receive it. That means connection with the floor; and then, next moment, you can perceive the floor through the six consciousnesses.

So that is the third. Is that clear? Second one, feeling, is before your consciousness works; that is feeling or reception. Without this we cannot experience the function of perception.

And fourth, impulses: Later I will explain this … Sometimes we call it ‘volition’, or ‘will’. It’s a very complicated term; it’s very difficult to find an appropriate [translation]. But Conze says it is the “together-maker”. Basically, there is something to make something together. I don’t know what it is. [He laughs.] That is called samskara. Anyway, later I will explain.

That is impulses, and then consciousness. If you perceive something, then on the bottom of your consciousness, on the bottom of your life, there are some powers, energies, to collect and make something, form your experience through the perception and feeling. Then immediately … that is consciousness.

So ‘impulses’ is sort of the basic nature of consciousness.


So this is the implication of ‘all dharmas’ or ‘all’. But in Buddhism – you should remember this point – the ‘all’ is not something which exists separately from you. In other words, ‘all’ is not something which you can “set out”. [‘All’ is not] something existent in advance.

For instance, if you look at the floor, immediately we believe that before I see the floor, the floor exists. Immediately we believe the floor is something which exists in advance. So already there is some function of consciousness, setting up something which is existent in advance. Is that clear?

That is not ‘all’.

‘All’ in Buddhism is … the whole [of the] factors of which an individual being is structured. The ‘all’ is not something existent separate from the individual life – my, Katagiri’s [life] – ‘I’. So ‘all’ comes into existence when ‘I’ involve form. At that time, the floor becomes one with all dharmas. From this point, my being, the ‘all’ is the ‘all’ for my being. It is not something which I can set up a certain idea of something existent in advance, before I experience the floor; that is not ‘all’. The ‘all’ is the factors of which my being is structured. It means, floor and I are connected.

So, only when my beings are observed – floor – and [made] in question. In other words, floor becomes called in question by my observation of floor. At that time, floor appears in this world, as all beings, as all dharmas.

If you cannot observe and you cannot call it in question – for instance, a tiny insect in the Amazon. Well, I don’t know. I [cannot] observe [it] now, and the tiny insect is completely not called into question. It is completely out of my question. So at that time, it doesn’t become ‘all dharmas’.

When you use ‘all dharmas’, ‘all sentient beings’, at that time, the first point is that it must be observed and is called in question. At that time, it is called ‘all dharmas’, or ‘all sentient beings’. This is the first meaning of ‘all dharmas’.

From this point, we can think, through the six consciousnesses. Even though you don’t know a certain tiny insect in the Amazon, sometimes you can think of the possibility of such a tiny insect to exist – and also you can see it through the TV programs, et cetera. At that time, it is still ‘all dharmas’, which is observed and is called in question.

At that time, not only the insect, and the birds and pebbles, trees, but still past, present and future, also are ‘all dharmas’, ‘all sentient beings’; because you can observe them as your object, and also you can make [them in] question, what [they are].

So science fiction, or the unusual beings on Mars or on other planets – as long as you can think of it, whatever it is, all are sentient beings. Only when you can observe it and make it a question – at that time, the creatures in Mars, on other planets, are ‘all beings’. But when they are not observed and not called into question, at that time they are completely out of question, [so] it’s not ‘all beings’.

Do you understand? This is ‘all beings’.

So if you say “I save all sentient beings,” that “all sentient beings” is what? It is not the heavens, okay? [He chuckles.] [It is not] the human beings after death. “All sentient beings” are something related with you and [your] thinking, observing and researching what it is. At that time, that is “all sentient beings”.

So from this point, “I save all sentient beings” is – what? Well, look around your life. How many beings exist? Around you there are cushions, floor; you can see them. For those beings, we can help [them], one by one. We can handle your boots, and sandals, and your hair, and clothes. We can take care of them pretty well. This is exactly to save all sentient beings: because sandals, your boots, your clothes, are beings, ‘all dharmas’, which are observed, which are called into question.

So, we should do it. At that time, it’s not necessary to think of something else, which is not observed and which is not called in question. From moment to moment, always there are some beings which appear.

That is the first point.


The second point is: if ‘all beings’ are something which we should connect with, we should involve [with], [and] at that time, that is called ‘all beings’ or ‘all dharmas’ – if it is true, we say, ‘truth’. What is the truth? If ‘truth’ is one of the dharmas, one of the human world – at that time, what is a dharma? Dharma is ‘all dharmas’ which are observed and are called in question. So that ‘truth’ is all beings just for you. Because you have to involve.

So when you involve with truth, truth becomes dharma. That means, truth is something which you can experience individually. Without individual experience, truth is never ‘all dharmas’. Truth must be something you … experience individually. At that time, this is called ‘all dharmas’.

That’s why there is a problem. The [problem] is, the truth is one, but individually if you experience a truth, the truth appears in a different way. Don’t you think so? And finally, we fight each other. “Your understanding of truth is wrong.” Or, “My understanding of truth is right, so you should believe me.” “You should believe this religion,” et cetera: we fight, always.

So, the second point is, what is the limitation of the dhātu – dhātu means the ‘world’ – which we can reach? What is the limitation of the world? In other words: how far can ‘all dharmas’ extend? From where, to where?

This second point is very important, because Buddha analyzed human world as six objects, and six sense organs. Briefly speaking, that means the implication of subject and object. Subject and object are always interconnected, and only through human recognition does your object become ‘all dharmas’.

But recognition doesn’t appear always in the same pattern; from moment to moment, recognition appears in a different way. So, you cannot say the six objects and six sense organs are something existent as a fixed being. I don’t think so. Because, they become ‘all dharmas’ only when you can recognize [them] through consciousness. So we need the function of cognition; but unfortunately, cognition doesn’t apear in the same patterns; [it’s] always different.

How cognition appears in a different way: when you see this zendo, the first experience is that this zendo becomes ‘all dharmas’ only when it is observed and is called in question. At that time, it becomes ‘all dharmas’, called zendo, related with you. But that is your understanding, your individual experience. If you always handle zendo according to this point, it is not the best way to exist in peace and harmony, because everyone creates different dharmas.

So the point is, how far do the “all dharmas” extend? Dharmas shouldn’t extend only to an individual, but to everyone. And also, not to understanding on the surface, but to understanding deeply, [to the] depth of beings. The dharma should penetrate to this.


So from this point, if you see this zendo, first the zendo becomes dharma through your connection. At that time it becomes dharma. But this zendo is not the usual zendo which you have understood; this zendo must be dharma which is universal, extending to the depth of beings. From this point, this dharma, what is the original nature of beings called zendo? That means: what is the zendo?

The zendo is not the zendo you understand. [That] zendo is just a being.

What is “just a being”? Just a being is what is called samskara in Sanskrit. Samskara means “original nature of action”. The Buddha says, “all are impermanent.” In Japanese, in Sanskrit, what we say is not “all”; literally the translation is, “all samskaras”. Samskaras means original nature of action, working.

The original nature of action is impermanence. Impermanence means “not perpetual”. At any time, in whatever situation you may be, everything is not perpetual, everything is not constant.

But, if you say everything is not perpetual, not permanent, you say what that everything is [that is] not permanent is something real, which exists always. Don’t you think so? If you want to get something existent always, without change, that is called impermanence – not something perpetual. But at that time, this idea is not impermanent. Buddhism says, truth is the reality [that] everything is impermanent – if you say that, immediately we get some idea [that] “everything is impermanent” is true, which exists always, in all the times. But this “always, in all the times,” is not perpetual, is not something [permanent]. It is a certain state of being at any time, in whatever situation you may be: my situation, your situation.

For instance, if I see this zendo, this is my situation. If I see zazen, this is my situation. At any time, anywhere, if you see zazen, this is ‘all beings’, which is always there. But this zazen is always not perpetual, always changing.

But zazen which is not perpetual is something real which exists, you believe. But this is – what? Something which exists always or in any time, in all the [times], means a state of being which you can experience in any time, wherever you may be – in your time, in your situation. So if I see zazen today, I feel good. This is my dharma, all dharmas, which is called zazen. Next day, or next moment, if I see zazen … I don’t feel good. But for zazen, this is also dharmas.

So, in your individual case, whatever you experience, whatever you see, these things become ‘all dharmas’, and these ‘all dharmas’ are always changing, impermanent.


So, the second point, briefly speaking: We have to understand deeply the original nature of being. That’s why Buddha says, “all is impermanent”. This ‘all’ is all samskaras. Samskara is original nature of action, which everything is structured by. Constant action; working.

At that time, if you understand the zendo individually, this is not good enough. This is your experience, your understanding, which is called dharma, but it’s not good enough because there is still an egoistic sense, which is called individual understanding. We have to find the vast dimension, which is called immensity, or equality. This is called basic nature of action; samskara.

According to samskara, everything is impermanent. It is really true. The original nature of action is nothing but action. Nothing to hold on to. If you put a certain label on action, called ‘action’ – it is already an idea. Action is always action. [There is] nothing to stop.


From this point, we should understand all beings through individual experience. That is the five skandhas, and six consciousnesses, six sense organs, six objects. But at that time, unfortunately, cognition always appears in a different way, because the basic nature of human being is always working constantly, nothing to stop.

From where does that cognition come? That cognition comes from the basic nature of action, which is called samskara. That’s why finally, you have to throw it away. You have to polish your individual understanding until it becomes universal, until you can touch the core of existence. At that time, it really becomes all dharmas; we call it all sentient beings.

So if you want to save all sentient beings, first you have to experience many things from your individual experience. So you, carrying your karmas, your heredity, your knowledge – you have to experience [many things]. But it is not good enough. You have to sink into the depths of the ocean, until you can touch the core of existence. At that time, it becomes really dharma, all dharmas.

If you want to save all sentient beings, first handle the beings, the human beings or any beings, around you. Anyway, help. Experience, think carefully, and mutually help, in order to live in peace and harmony.

But still there are questions, problems. That’s why individually, we have to practice on a daily basis, in order to touch the core of existence.


To experience the original nature of action – well of course, you can see it as an object. But it is not something you can see objectively, because already your body and mind are nothing but the original [nature] of action which is called samskara.

From this point, well, you just accept. “Just accept” means not trying to get, not trying to learn. Before you try to learn, you are learned. “You are learned” means you are helped, you are supported; something makes it possible for your life to be present or to exist.

For instance, if I ask you to [give a] talk: first you try to study something. This is very important. Through your effort of studying a certain subject, you can learn something. But this is not good enough. So secondly, when you finish the preparation – just talk. “Just talk” means not an object you can experience individually. Completely you are supported by ‘talk’, already. In other words, you are talked by talk. [It’s] not “you teach,” okay? This is very true, don’t you think so?

If you talk, there’s two ways. Always we have to research, because all dharmas must be individual connections. At that time, everything becomes all dharmas. But simultaneously, “you have to touch the core of being” means, just be one with. Because “just be one” means touch the core of existence, which is called actions. Basically everything is moving, constantly. If it is true, impermanence is not something you can see objectively, because your body and mind are already impermanent. So be one with it. Whether you understand it or not, your body is already impermanence, always.

So what is that? You should learn first. Individually, simultaneously, just take care of your life. Then, something makes you learn what human life is. In other words, be one with impermanence.


When you want to swim in Lake Calhoun, well, learn how to swim. It’s very important. At that time, Lake Calhoun is something observed and which is called in question. And then this is your dharmas, all dharmas. And next, well, all dharmas are not always something you can experience, you can observe individually. Forget it. Just jump into the ocean. The ocean helps your life, and Lake Calhoun’s waters helps you life. And immediately your body moves, simultaneously. And then you learn. “Oh, this is the point. I can swim.” [This is] how to swim. Yes it is.

If you always think [of] all dharmas objectively, individually, it sometimes scares you. With your effort, you should learn it. But when the time comes, you just dive.

[Tape change.]

… when you can get something from the ocean, at that time, that is the point, how to swim. This point doesn’t come from your intellectual understanding or individual understanding. From where, I don’t know. It’s just oneness with the ocean, and your body and mind. And then you say, “Ah, this is the way how to swim!” You cannot explain how. If you want to teach how to swim, you should explain it; [but] finally you say, “Jump in. Go to Lake Calhoun. Swim!” That’s all.

That is the second point of “all dharmas.” You should experience all dharmas individually. At that time, everything becomes all dharmas connected with you. But it’s not good enough, because there is always an egoistic sense, so, we should touch the core of all dharmas. That means, forget it – just jump into it, be one.

The same applies to zazen. Learn zazen: what is zazen? Well, philosophically, psychologically, you can learn this. But it’s not good enough! So just jump in, jump into zazen. So finally, zazen teaches you, zazen takes care of you.

Then you get it. “Oh, zazen is pretty good!” Sometimes zazen is not good, but … in zazen you feel good, anyway. You don’t know what it is, but if you jump in, more or less, you can touch the core of zazen, which is called samskara. Samskara is impermanence, constantly working. That’s why this is the [content] of “all dharmas” in Buddhism.


“All dharmas” is not the world after death, which is completely transcending individual experience. Of course, when it is observed and is called in question, it becomes dharma; even the world after death becomes dharma. But I don’t think so; because it is completely beyond individual experience. It’s pretty hard to [understand]… That’s why Buddha kept silent about this problem.

So, all dharmas must be something which becomes an individual experience. And then next, we should touch the depths of existence, which is called samskara. That means practically, jump into it. And then very naturally, you can learn something more than your effort. This is samskara, ‘together maker’, or original nature of action.

Whatever you do, this is a very important way of life. Not only in zazen; without this, you cannot learn anything.

Do you have some questions?


Question: Roshi? Isn’t it disturbing, though, that even though one has the realization of impermanence, one keeps having the feeling of ‘I’?

Katagiri: Sure. Yes.

If you feel some pessimism from impermanence, et cetera, as a teaching, that is the impermanence you can observe objectively. While you observe it objectively, it makes you pensive, and sometimes egoistic. This is because this is individual experience.

If you read the Japanese literature, always there are stories based on impermanence. All the Japanese literature gives you a certain… not pessimistic exactly, sort of pensive, sad feeling. But this is individual experience. For Buddhism it’s not good enough. Of course you should individually experience, but impermanence must be Buddha. That’s why we have to understand the basic nature of existence.

Completely speaking, if you feel your life from a certain teaching of Buddha which is called impermanence, you don’t believe it, and also you try to keep away from it, because you don’t like it. But actually, reality is impermanence, always changing constantly. It is reality. If you see it objectively, it’s immediately giving something bitter. But on the other hand, it is reality. So the important point is, where are you? You are right in the middle of reality. In other words, right in the middle of impermanence.

Whatever you feel individually, that’s understanding. Let’s touch the core of existence, which is called real impermanence. Real impermanence is something you should be one with. That’s why basically, I always tell you, just take care of your life.

Whatever you feel, good or bad, right or wrong: stand up straight, do your best to handle your obligation, your duties and your task – anyway, just do it. That is what puts you right in the middle of impermanence. So very naturally you can learn, just like diving into the ocean. Whatever you feel, like or dislike, just jump into the ocean. And very naturally, you can learn something. What it is to swim; how to swim. What is the ocean; what is the human body and mind. Very naturally, you can learn.

Does that answer your question?


Same person: Do you mean that depending on the depth of your understanding, your feeling of the ‘I’ is more or less there?

Katagiri: Something more than that, yes. More than six consciousness, eyes, ears, nose, et cetera. But without the six consciousness, you cannot experience, you cannot understand the original nature of existence. That’s why we have to experience individually. But it is not good enough; still we have to understand the basic nature of individual experience, what is individual experience.

Same person: That’s not what I mean. I mean, what does the feeling of ‘I’ come from? It doesn’t come from the six consciousnesses.

Katagiri: Well, of course, six consciousnesses, and also it comes from ignorance according to the twelvefold chain of causation. Plainly speaking, it comes from the function of consciousness. Consciousness immediately separates, analyzes, and gets it immediately. That is individual feeling, individual understanding. Without this, we cannot exist.

So that’s why everything becomes observed and called in question, whatever it is. Science fiction is anyway being, all dharmas, even though you don’t believe it, because you can think it, you can observe it. That’s why many years ago, someone wrote science fiction, and maybe recently, one by one, it comes to be true. You can go to the Moon! I had never thought… When I was a child, it was impossible for me to go to the Moon. But now, we can go to the Moon. And we can know Mars and other planets. And you can see the very interesting stories on the TV; relations with human beings and creatures on another planet. Well, it’s possible.


Question: Roshi? I’m not sure what you mean when you say “called in question”.

Katagiri: Called in question means it becomes in question. Thinking, what it is. If you see this tatami: the tatami becomes something existent, which you can see as an object. Thinking and acting, what is it? That is “calls in question”. Is that okay?


Question: Roshi? Is the word sentient in the phrase “save all sentient beings”?

Katagiri: That is exactly the same as ‘all’.

Same person: Is it necessary? From your explanation, it sounded like you were trying to save all beings. And the word ‘sentient’ seems unnecessary.

Katagiri: When you say ‘all’, when you use ‘all’, it is not limited by all living beings. It is including animate or inanimate beings. Temporarily we say all sentient beings, but in the Chinese term, it is not limited by all living beings. “All beings”.

Same person: So is that kind of a translation [unintelligible]

Katagiri: I don’t know.

[Some chuckles.]

Same person: My understanding of the word sentient refers to living beings. And so when I hear that phrase “sentient beings”, it wouldn’t occur to me to think of my hair, or my coat, or the floor. Can you explain “all sentient beings” when you use those examples? It seems to me that the word ‘sentient’ doesn’t include them; that’s why I’m just asking for a better understanding.

Another person: I think the Buddhist interpretation of living and sentient is different than the American one. Like, to us, a rock isn’t a living being, but to Buddhist point of view, a rock is a living being and is sentient being. Is that right?

Katagiri: I don’t know what’s the difference between all sentient beings and all living beings. It’s completely different?

Other person: No, that’s the same. But you’re talking about non-living things.

Katagiri: Oh. Non-living beings.

Other person: Rocks are living beings, they’re not non-living.


Katagiri: Not-living beings means, according to human consciousness, it doesn’t have a brains and thinking, consciousness, that’s why we temporarily analyze, distinguish that it is not ‘all living beings’. But actually it is living.

Other person: [Unintelligible.]

Katagiri: No, everything is alive, that’s why we have to take care of it. But in a sense, in other words, the thinking, the image, you can think. This is also a sort of funny being; I don’t know how to call it. Living beings or not living beings – but anyway living beings, because you can think. When you save ‘living’, a being becomes connected with you. At that time it becomes living. But if you see it objectively, whatever it is, it becomes dead. [There is a pause, then laughter.] It’s not ‘all beings’. In order to accept all beings, it must be something involved. At that time, everything becomes living.

Is that okay?


Any others?


Question: Hojo, when you say that truth is the same as one of the dharmas, is it the same as saying that truth has to be experienced individually?

Katagiri: Mmm-hmm. While you are thinking of the truth, it is nothing but all beings, which is impermanence. But when you say truth is one, truth is something which exists completely beyond human speculation. That means truth is [in the] spirit of original state of being.

So, it must be something we should experience, that is the truth. But real truth is not individual experience. [There is] still something, [the] real meaning of truth, we have to understand.


Question: Roshi? Would you please explain the statement by the [Sixth] Patriarch, who said that distinguishing mind is permanent, and [enlightenment] is impermanent?

Katagiri: Distinguishing mind is impermanent?

Same person: Permanent.

Katagiri: Permanent? Oh. [He laughs.]

Distinguishing mind is permanent. Oh. Let me think about that. [Laughter.]

That’s why Zen is very tricky… [Laughter.]

Zen is not honest! [Laughter.]

Zen is always teaching you human life in a crooked way. [Laughter.]

[In one] aspect of the truth, distinguishing mind is something wrong, perverted. The other aspect, distinguishing mind is truth. [He chuckles.]

Well… never mind.

[Uproarious laughter.]

You understand, okay?

[The laughter eventually dies down.]

Well, without distinguishing mind, you cannot experience the truth, or Buddha Nature, whatever it is. From this point, it is very important for us. So, open your eyes, to take care of distinguishing mind as something permanent. You cannot destroy it.

On the other hand, if you touch it, if you are involved too much, it becomes some trouble.

Question: [Person], would you repeat that statement please?

Person: The distinguishing mind is permanent, and enlightenment is impermanent.

Katagiri: That is completely opposite, okay? Usually we hate distinguishing mind, and we like truth very much. This is the human desire; that’s why you want to practice. But that is the individual understanding, when you see dharma [from an] individual point of view. But it is not real dharma. Real dharma is deeper, like the ocean. So, let your eyes open to see another aspect. That’s why he said [the] opposite.

For instance, the first koan a Rinzai Zen master gives you is “nothing”. Well, nothing is completely something you are amazed by, because we don’t believe in that way. [We believe] everything exists, everything is real. But Zen says “nothing”: think this. That is a really big shock. That’s all.

The big shock is very important. It isn’t important whether you understand it or not. The Zen teacher doesn’t expect you [to understand] in that way; [it’s] just to give you a big shock, like this. You cannot destroy the question; question becomes [unintelligible] nothing. That big shock is rooted in your mind. That’s very nice.

But first, get it. That’s why the Sixth Patriarch said it in that way.

1:09:29 end of recording

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