July 11, 1980 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

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Karma is not a psychological entity: karma is consciousness, but also karma is really the human body, closely related. So if we want to know karma, we have to know the human body; and if we want to know the human body, we have to know consciousness. According to Twelvefold Causation, the base of our existence as karma is ignorance; but this ignorance is really vitality, allowing us to enter the gate of the human world. We should appreciate this. But we can’t just appreciate it without making any effort, because we carry many kinds of karma, stored at the bottom of human body and mind. This karma comes up only when time is right and conditions are arranged, so it is important that we arrange good conditions. We can do so because karma is a great source of energy, which we call emptiness. That means we can think in terms of possibility, and “dream the impossible dream” of helping all beings. Also: how to work with emotions in zazen.


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Katagiri Roshi: Today the subject I am going to deal with is the great source of energy [called] karma. Karma is nothing but a great source of energy. If you use the technical term, that is emptiness.

Yesterday I told you, karma is that which we have carried since the beginningless past, and will carry toward the future. From this point, karma is just like one’s own property or inheritance. There is no excuse to escape from it; this is reality.

Because, please remember what I said about karma according to the Twelve Causations: ignorance, samskara, and consciousness. Samskara is the very primary human movement. And this samskara makes it possible for all things to be, to exist. To exist is also karma.

When you were born in this world, you already carried karma. That means the moment when you were in the mother’s womb, your life, past, present and future, is exactly set up, before you were conscious of it – a certain frame of your life. Already your personality, your heredity, your “stinkiness,” whatever it is, all are set up, just like a [unintelligible] … If you make [unintelligible], it’s perfect. It is usable for everyone, whoever they are. This is existence […] The very moment when you were in your mother’s womb, this is the very primary existence. And then, there is no reason why you are there. There is no reason why you are [who you are] as American, as Japanese, as a Katagiri, or carrying a certain heredity and customs, et cetera. No reason. It’s all completely set up.

This is existence. I told you, according to the Twelve Causations, samskara and bhava, these two things are called karma. Do you remember this? Samskara is the very primary human movement to be, to exist in this world. And then simultaneously samskara makes it possible for all beings to exist (bhava). So samskara and bhava are two, but not exactly two; they’re as one, they work dynamically. That is what is called karma.

This karma, as the very primary human movement, is backed by avidyā, ignorance. Ignorance is really the quality of this very primary human movement which is called samskara. But this avidyā or ignorance is completely beyond the moral sense, good or bad, right or wrong, because it is the very basic nature of this primary human movement. So it’s very essential nature.

I told you before, ignorance is that we don’t know exactly what the truth is, even though we are there. You are constantly there, but you don’t know. The primary human movement operates even though you don’t know what the truth is. Because ignorance is already characterized by dichotomy: [things are distinguished]. So this is the characteristic of ignorance: always thinking, analyzing, synthesizing. This is the original nature of samskara.

And then, samskara, the very primary human movement, creates consciousness. Consciousness is characterized by discrimination. This consciousness as discrimination is very closely related with ignorance, avidyā: affliction, or pain, et cetera. If you think, or if you understand, if you see or hear everything with consciousness – vijñāna as we call it in Sanskrit – there is always a certain lack of satisfaction. Always there is pain, affliction, uneasiness, et cetera. This is the total picture of those three: avidyā or ignorance, and samskara [or] karma, and also consciousness.

And also [in Twelvefold Causation,] when consciousness operates, simultaneously that is really entering the gate of the human world, which is called name and form, six sense organs, and contact, craving and grasping, et cetera. And finally, they make you existent. So, those [three], ignorance, samskara, and consciousness, really are the mainspring for guiding you to enter the human world. That’s why after consciousness, there are the pictures of the human world, which is called name and form. This is a feature of all existence: trees, birds, et cetera. Name and form, and six consciousnesses, et cetera, and then psychological experience after that. And then finally it’s called existence: bhava.

So karma is the very primary human movement based on avidyā, and also it creates consciousness. And then this consciousness and this karma are really the great mainspring for leading you to the gate of the human world. That’s why consciousness and karma and avidyā are very important for us. That’s why your conscious determination is important.

[For example, if] you say, “I cannot continue to go to school, because school is really dumb.” So you are skeptical: “Can I stay in school or not?” But if you are skeptical, all things become skeptical, so you cannot take one step forward. Or, even though you have big doubts, [if] consciously you tell yourself, “I can do it. I will do it.” That’s great! Because these twelve causations tell us: karma, ignorance, and consciousness, and next the human world comes up. So that’s why it is very important.

Dogen Zenji also says, “Even right before you die, you should chant the triple treasure: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.’” That moment or short period of time is very important; that moment is really great, huge. In Buddhism, one moment is today, it is yesterday, it is tomorrow; that moment really guides you to connect with yesterday and tomorrow, and also the future. That’s why right now, right here, [say] “I will.” This moment is very important. And then next you can get the mainspring for entering the gate of the human world, […] the samsaric world. You can do it!

And then from this point, karma is going on constantly. Without karma, you cannot exist in this world. You cannot have hope and [unintelligible]. Karma gives you hope, and also living in this world, and living in the next world, and the next world after next world. Constantly we can get into the gate of the human world.

This is karma. That’s why karma is inheritance, property you have. Karma is retribution experienced in the present life, in the next life, in subsequent lives – anyway, constantly. Karma goes forever.


In Buddhism, we don’t talk about a “soul,” et cetera. So what is an eternal entity for us? After death, et cetera? We don’t see any “soul”. But we say karma.

Karma is the very primary human action, that is including physical action and mental action, psychological action. So if you do yes I will, you can create the next moment, you can enter the gate of the human world. That’s why constantly you can create [the] samsaric world. But it’s your world. This is very good for us.

It’s not “soul”. Soul is sort of a fixed idea of spirituality, a little bit apart from the human body. If you think spiritual, spiritual is opposed to the human body, don’t you think so? But soul and the human body are not two, not separated – they are simultaneously one.

That’s why there is always a question: if you die, your body is gone – and then what? What’s going on after that? Is the soul left? From this point, soul is completely something separate from the body. How can you know [about it]? Of course, mediums tell you lots of things. But [the soul is not] something separate from the human body. They are simultaneously one.

Nevertheless, if you believe in that way, if you die and your body is completely gone, simultaneously is the soul gone? You cannot say that either. That’s why always there is a question. No matter how long you discuss it that way, there is no answer. […] That’s why finally Shakyamuni Buddha didn’t say anything about this, keeping silent. Because it’s very difficult. The soul and human body are separated? Yes or no. Soul and human body are completely one? Yes or no. Reality gives you no answer to this question. Finally, all you have to do is, when the time comes, please go ahead [and] die.

This is reality; there is no excuse to discuss about this matter. But still human beings want to know what’s going on there. How can I deal with this moment? How can I see the moment after death? That’s why [we are] constantly thinking and contemplating about this death, about this moment. Finally, in Buddhism, we have the teaching of karma.

Karma is really physical, mental, psychological, primary human action. That human action carries you to century after century. It is really true. You can understand this through your daily life.

For instance, today is a one-day sesshin. Well, you can really realize this. [It’s very hot.] If you say, “[It’s so] hot; I can’t stand [it],” at that time you really cannot stand [it], don’t you think so? If you say, “I hate zazen” – if you think so, you can’t stand up there. And then, you can stand up and go away, if you want [to]. But even if you [still] sit down here, if you always say, “I can’t, I hate zazen,” well, let’s see your zazen. That zazen is very messy, shaky.

So what makes it possible for zazen to be [zazen]? It’s really the very primary human action, which is called karma. [Even in the middle of the heat.] [A monk asks,] “How can I escape from the heat?” There is no way to escape from the heat. The Zen master says, “Go to the place where there is no heat.” And then the monk says, “I don’t know where the place where there is no heat [is], so how can I go there?” The Zen master says, “Kill the heat.” Kill the heat is not to escape from it. Right in the middle of the heat, or right in the middle of hatred of zazen, still there is a chance, you can get into the gate of the human world. So, all you have to do is [say], “Yes, I can do it. Yes, I will.” That determination is not something you can think in your mind; that determination is something you have to do. The very primal human action: Yes I will. Just do it. Even [for a minute], you can do it.

That is something carrying you to the next moment. It’s really true. So this is what is called karma. This karma is really going on. You can do this. One minute, one second, right before you die, you can do this. [You can say,] “I will be reborn as a human being in the next life, to help all sentient beings.” Great! Yes, you can do it.

There is someone who is very romantic person. I asked him, “What kind of a being do you want to be in the next life?” He said, “I would like to be a tiny white frog. Don’t pay attention to me.” That’s beautiful. But I said, “I think that’s stupid.” [Laughter.] Yes, it is beautiful – but stupid. I don’t want to be a tiny flower in the mountains – it’s beautiful, but I don’t want [to be that]. I want to be reborn as a human being, to suffer constantly. [He laughs.]

So one second before you die, still there is a chance to get into the human world. But if you study Buddhism, enlightenment is always that you never come back to the human world. Well, that’s beautiful – just like tiny flowers in the mountains. They don’t care about the human world. But I don’t think so. That is not real Buddhism. Constantly we are born in this world as a human being to help all sentient beings: this is the bodhisattva’s way.

This is the first point. Dogen Zenji always understands it in that way: karma which is carrying [on] from the beginningless past. That karma is yours; it is your property or inheritance. That means that karma is not something wrong. Don’t misunderstand: karma as inheritance is exactly human vitality. You can be – be existent – right now, right here, and also that is the mainspring to get in the gate of the human world [in the] next moment. That is karma. Or in other words, karma is capability for us, great capability to exist. So we should appreciate it. Okay?

If you look at the karma which you have carried since the beginningless past, you really feel the stinky smell. But without that stinky smell, how can you know who you are? How can you know the differences between you and others? Between you and the tree? Whatever you feel, whatever kind of stinky smell you feel – it is really okay. You should accept it totally as human vitality, to exist. That is great for us.

That is the first meaning of karma.


Second, karma is emptiness – nothing but a great source of energy.

Dogen Zenji says,

The sixty-two viewpoints are based on self; so when egoistic views arise, just do zazen quietly, observing them. What is the basis of your body, its inner and outer possessions? You received your body, hair, and skin from your parents. The two droplets, red and white, of your parents, however, are empty from beginning to end; hence there is no self here.

(From Zen Master Dogen: An Introduction with Selected Writings, by Yuho Yokoi with Daizen Victoria.)

He says “the sixty-two viewpoints are based on self”: I don’t want to explain all sixty-two things, but broadly speaking, the sixty-two viewpoints are to think: to try to understand the world after death, whether the world is continuing or not, whether the soul is eternal or not, and whether the human body is eternal or not, et cetera. Those [unintelligible] views. In other words, in the modern sense, communism or spiritualism or nihilism, et cetera. In ancient times, we had the so-called sixty-two viewpoints on the human world and human life. But those are based on the idea of self. Because we love ourselves best; we don’t care for others. Even though we say, “I love you,” still, who do we love best? I love myself best. Don’t you think so?

I told you before, in the Second World War, I decided that I was okay, that anytime, anywhere I was ready to die. So I offered my body and mind to the Japanese nation. I loved the Japanese nation. And then, one day, a big bomb [fell down] right near to my cabin. [This was at] midnight; completely dark. But before the bomb fell down to the ground, there were lights (flares) [in the sky] making everything bright, so you could see everything clearly even at night. I misunderstood that, I took that for a real bomb. Very frightening. I was so frightened, I immediately jumped into a hole in the ground, and then I repeated the name of Amitābha: “Please help me.” [They laugh.] This is a very good example. Even though I continually said, “I am okay, I am ready to die” – I am ready to die for what? For me? No, for the Japanese nation. So it’s exactly the same as “I love you.” But finally, who do you love best in this world? I love myself best. So I jumped into the hole and said, “Help!” [Laughter.]

That is really the self. That’s why finally, whatever happens, always there is a self who wants to know what’s happening, what is going on, what will go on before death, after death. We really want to know, because we love ourselves best in this world. So whatever kind of principle you have – nihilism or communism, whatever it is – all are based on love of ourself, who is constantly justifying one’s love. And then, [if] everyone agrees with your principle, [for example] nihilism, then you love [them]. But this is really egoistic. I don’t want to ignore any kinds of viewpoints on the world and human beings; they are okay. But we should awaken to that reality, because it is always the self we love.

“… so when egoistic views arise …”: everyone agrees with your views, and then you love others – that is really egoistic. You attach to your own views – because everyone loves me, so I love my views. That is when egoistic views arise. Already egoistic views are always there.

“… just do zazen quietly.” That is pretty good for us. For instance, judgement, evaluation: I told you, […] if you evaluate too much, [whether in a good sense or a bad sense,] it’s really hard to stand up, because still that evaluation is based on a self: “I love myself best.” In order to know what judgement or evaluation means, you should get out of it. But actually there is no way to get out of it. So how can you get out of it? Just sit down. That’s the best way.

Sit down means don’t think anything, generally speaking. A Zen master always says, “Don’t think anything.” Don’t even have a [design] of becoming a Buddha. “Just sit down” means all kinds of disciplines – nihilism, communism, whatever it is – completely [leave them] alone. All you have to do is to be you as you are, before you judge, before you evaluate through your thought and ideas. Just you be one with you. That is pretty good; it’s the best way to “get out.” But it’s not [really] “get out”; it’s get out from any kind of view and then you can see the view you have had very clearly. Even though consciously you don’t know, if you continue to sit down, you can really know.

For instance, emotions come up, [like] anger comes up. Sometimes in zazen you really get emotions coming up. But when emotions [like] anger continue to go on, at that time you’re really involved in anger, fighting with each other. That is really the cause by which you can carry the anger and any kind of emotion constantly. But if you want to stop it, well, why don’t you let it be alone?

How can you let it be alone? That’s pretty hard. That’s why, sit down. If you sit down, just taking care of your breath, and just sit down with your wholeheartedness, any emotions and anger very naturally fade away, gradually or sometimes all of a sudden. But it doesn’t go away completely. It’s there, but still it is fading away, disappearing. Maybe next moment, when the time is right, conditions arranged, it comes up again. But it’s okay, it’s alright. All you have to do is be one with you. Then, any kind of thing is gradually fading away. This is the best way to “get out.” That’s why Dogen Zenji said [to just do zazen quietly]. You can see what emotion is. It’s very difficult to know by some other way.

For instance, if you do zazen and see the emotions, people say you should know those emotions. In other words, you should understand what kind of emotions [they are]. [He laughs a little.] That is really researching and thinking of emotions in zazen. But it’s a cause of confusion, because emotions come up in many ways. [Emotion is] not one single thing. Even though you say “anger,” anger has many faces. Don’t you think so? Sometimes anger is strong, sometimes, well, anger smiles. Sometimes anger is just dumb, […] sometimes nothing to say. Many kinds of faces.

So if you start to research in order to awaken to the anger [coming up] in zazen, it’s really a cause of confusion. If you really want to know what the anger is, what the emotion is, all you have to do is just sit down, with your best effort. That is the best way. Very naturally, it’s fading away – or all of a sudden you know, “Ah, this is anger.” You can see anger objectively, creating a little space with with calm mind. That space is really good; you can take a deep breath right in the middle of anger. If you don’t have any space, the anger drives you to be crazy.

That’s why Dogen Zenji says, “When egoistic views arise, just do zazen quietly, observing them.” Observing means just sitting is immediately observing. Observation and zazen are not two; just sitting is simultaneously observation. So observation is not to see something objectively. It is still observation to see something or to think something in a dualistic way, but observation in zazen is that zazen itself is observation, just sitting down is observation.


What is the basis of what you can observe? Next he says, “What is the basis of your body, its inner and outer possessions? You receive your body, hair, and skin from your parents. The two droplets, red and white, of your parents, however, are empty from beginning to end.”

[Tape change.]

Red means the ovum of the mother, and white means the sperm of the father. So he says, “The two droplets, red and white, of your parents…” That means Dogen Zenji understands the human body and mind. Everyone knows what is I in that way: I is a person who has skin, muscle, bones, marrow, and hair, et cetera, and comes from parents. And also, how can we first be present in the mothers’ womb? That is two droplets, the ovum and the father’s sperm; this is the first feature of being, you can come into this world. This is not only Dogen’s way, this is a very natural, physiological, biological point of view we can understand.

But Dogen’s understanding is not the usual understanding, this is a deep understanding, that’s why next it says, all “are empty from the beginning to end.” Skin, muscle, bone, ovum and sperm, parents, are exactly empty from the beginning to end. That is Dogen’s understanding.

I told you a few minutes ago, karma is [stored] at the bottom of the human body, human mind. This karma is really connected with consciousness – vijñāna – and also the human body, because consciousness is the mainspring to get into the gate of the human world, name and form. That is the human body, and the six consciousnesses, et cetera. So karma is not a psychological entity. Karma is really consciousness, vijñāna, and also karma is really the human body, closely related. So if we want to know karma, we have to know the human body. If we want to know the human body, we have to know consciousness, vijñāna. Vijñāna and the human body are exactly the same.

That’s how we should understand the human body as karma. That’s why [we say] the human body comes from the parents – no other way. And also this human body has already skin, muscle, bones, hair, emotions, consciousness, and lots of things. Whatever things we have are karma.

According to the Twelve Causations, the base of our existence as karma is sort of ignorance, but I told you before, this ignorance is really powerful, which seems to be the vitality in human life, to guide you to enter the gate of the human world, to exist constantly. From this point, without karma we cannot exist in this world. We should appreciate this.

On the other hand, karma is something which you have carried since the beginningless past, and stored at the bottom of the human body and mind, which is ready to appear any time, anywhere, only when the time is ripe and conditions arranged. This is the human body, which is called karma. The human body is a being which has great power of vitality to live, and on the other hand, which has the unmanifested feature of karma, stored in the human body and mind. Only when time is ripe and conditions arranged, it comes up.

So we should appreciate this body, but we can’t appreciate it completely without [making] any effort, without reflecting upon or paying attention to it. Because we have carried many kinds of karma and [they are] stored at the bottom of human body and mind. But you cannot undo this unmanifested karma by itself. All you can do is to just store unmanifested karmas after your doing, constantly. That is the point you can do. You cannot handle unmanifested karma, only time and occasion can. So what is the time and occasion and conditions you can create?

That’s why we should appreciate, but we cannot appreciate completely without reflection and caution and paying careful attention, or attentiveness. So we should appreciate, we should handle this human body and mind with attentiveness, compassion, and patience, et cetera. Because you are [such activity] which you can create: time, occasion, conditions. Any kind of time, any kind of occasion, any kind of conditions, you can make.

Even though the present situation you are in is not good, [you can create conditions]. For instance, [you hate] zazen – but you can create conditions. If you say, “I hate,” that is a bad condition. So immediately you behave in a bad way. You can leave unmanifested karma in that way. But on the other hand, if you say, “I will […] with my best”  – right in the middle of hatred, or any kind of emotion, even for a minute – this is great, because you can create conditions, time, and occasion. And then if you create this kind of conditions, next moment the doors of your store open, and something comes up which you have never seen. And then sometimes the next moment, you like zazen! Right now, you hate it; the next moment, “Oh! [I like] zazen.” Have you ever experienced this? I always experience this. This moment, I really hate it; next moment, [I realize] I like zazen. This is the conditions, occasion, and time you can create.

This is karma. That’s why we have to take care of this body and mind.

From this point, what is karma? There is completely no label you can put on it. [Can you say] karma is something wrong, or karma is good? No way. Karma is something which is constantly appearing or disappearing according to time and occasion and conditions you can create.

So what are the conditions you can create? Conditions are not a matter of discussion, as a metaphysical or philosophical concept. Conditions [are what] you can do right now. That is action, human action. That is condition, occasion, and time. Time is not the philosophical idea, time is human action you can do. Immediately you can create [unintelligible] conditions.


So finally, karma is nothing but energy. Energy is constantly creating conditions. You can create conditions because karma is energy! There is no disappointment, because your karma is nothing but energy, so you can create conditions in whatever situation you may be in. If you want, you can do it.

That’s why recently I’ve heard businesspeople, leaders, and some philosophers, educators, saying that you should think in a positive way. [He chuckles slightly.] This is very natural: think in a positive way. So, think in [terms of] possibility. [He laughs slightly.] And then impossibility becomes possibility.

You know the song of impossibility: “The Impossible Dream”? More than ten years ago, Eido Tai Shimano, who is teaching the New York zendo, he came to San Francisco and visited Sokoji temple. We shook hands, and Suzuki Roshi asked him to give a talk for our students. He said, “Okay.” He came that night, and stood up, and immediately said, “I want to introduce to you the Bodhisattva song: ‘The Impossible Dream’.” [Laughter.]

Well, it is possible! If you accept impossibility as impossible, then completely impossibility is impossible. “I am a bad boy”: if you think so, you are always going “bad boy,” just like snowballing. But “bad boy” is not sort of a karma. It is an idea that no one creates. That karma, “bad boy,” is a temporary being you think for a certain period of time. Still [there is] possibility in the future. So, you can be a “good boy” – right in the middle of bad boy, still there is a chance to be good boy.

So that is [karma as] a great source of energy, which is called emptiness. Emptiness is not empty. After the idea of karma is [unintelligible], it’s not emptiness. Emptiness is nothing but dynamic working, which is called a great source of energy. The energy is just function, process itself.

This is your karma. So you have carried your own karma, which exists at the bottom of your mind. Completely no one controls this. But [karmas] are very quiet, if you don’t fight [with them]. If you say, “I am a bad boy – bad karma,” that is really fighting. Or if you say, “I have good karma,” et cetera, this is really fighting. But whatever you try to fight, the karma you have carried is completely stored, in a big storage, [and the doors are closed]. There is nothing to fight. If you continue to fight with it, you are exhausted. It’s sort of like you fight constantly with a big pillar. The pillar doesn’t say anything. All you have to do is you just [be exhausted].

This is the karma you have carried since the beginningless past. But most people never understand this. People try to put a certain label on it: good or bad. But I don’t think so.

That’s why today I told you that karma is understood as a great source of energy. That is constant process itself, function itself. [That’s] the energy you have, by which you can create time and occasion and conditions, under which a certain karma comes up – just like a bubble. The doors open, and a bubble comes up, saying, “Hello, Katagiri!” That is really a surprise at that time: “Oh! This is Katagiri? My goodness.” [He laughs.] In either the good sense or the evil sense. If I give a talk like this, I always prepare before the lecture, so I can know what I should talk about. But in the process of talking, sometimes I realize a completely different Katagiri. It’s very surprising to see myself: “Oh, this is Katagiri? My goodness.” In both a good sense or a bad sense.

So if you [see that] you are really nothing but this great source of energy, creating the time and occasion and conditions, then you can create your own world. You never change personality or heredity, et cetera. In a broad sense, you cannot change you, because you are you already. But what can you change? You can change time, occasion, and conditions, [by your own effort]. What kind of conditions do you want? If you hate zazen, you can create a condition of hate. But right in the middle of hate, still there is a chance to create love of zazen. This is a condition. Any time, anywhere, you can get into the world, to live. This is a great source of energy, understood as karma, which is called emptiness.

That’s why Dogen Zenji says, “this human body is nothing but emptiness, from beginning to end.” Thank you.

1:04:56 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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