July 12, 1980 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

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Katagiri Roshi further addresses the seeming contradiction that karma is both our property or inheritance and also is emptiness, freedom. This returns us to the reality of Buddha’s karma. We can reflect on ourselves and our actions without being stuck in the “ghost” of karma. Time and occasion and conditions are completely free, so day by day we can move toward the future, in order deepen our lives and help all beings. That is Right Effort. Also: Grace is not something that comes from heaven.


Listen to this talk on mnzencenter.org


Katagiri Roshi: This is my last talk on karma during this two week seminar.

The term karma is popular for people who start to study Buddhism, but usually karma is translated as action. But if you use the English term action, it is a little different from the word karma in Sanskrit. Karma is not exactly action.

If you use the term karma, strictly speaking it emphasizes unmanifested karma, unmanifested action, which means the impression left by your doing. If you use the word action in English, that is manifested karma, which [is like something] appearing on the surface of the water. If you understand karma like this, your life becomes decadent – because manifested karma, action, always appears and disappears, appears and disappears. It doesn’t stay for long.

But as you know pretty well, as you feel something related with human action through your daily living, you can realize there is always something being continued from the past, up to now, and which will continue toward the future too. So you can realize this something being continued from the beginningless past to the future.

And also, we always have big questions related to the problem of life and death. Is our life in this world the end, or not? Will this life continue to the future or the next life, or is this life the end? Well, this is a big question. That’s why century after century we try to know what happens after death, discussing whether life continues or not.

Even though we don’t understand, we don’t realize, we don’t find definite proof – yes, life is eternal. But no one finds proof intellectually, or according to science. Religiously or metaphysically, no one can find this proof. But still there is something you cannot ignore. Because if you say this life is exactly the end, you really feel unstable, you can’t stand up there. And also, if I say, “Yes, life is eternal,” still you don’t feel comfortable, because you want to know what eternity is. So whatever I say or Buddha says about the problem of life and death, still there is a question.

Even though you don’t understand, through your daily living you cannot ignore [that] life seems to continue. If you say this life is exactly the end when death comes, well, you cannot have hope, you cannot have any effort to do something for all sentient beings. So your life is very naturally decadent. [Stale.] No hope. Cold.

So even though we cannot find definite proof whether life is eternal or not, we can feel something. If you ignore this feeling, you cannot stand up in the human world. So century after century, [we ask,] what is eternity? What’s going on after death? How can we explain this feeling, in which we believe life is eternal? Century after century, human beings have thought about this.

Finally, in Buddhism, we find the teaching of karma.


In ancient times, when the Buddha was alive, already Buddha used the term karma. But he didn’t explain logically or metaphysically about karma; [he made] very simple statements in the Sutta Nipata, and Dhammapada, in the agamas. [He made a] a very simple explanation against the caste system.

Do you remember about the caste system in India? If you were born in a noble family, you became a noble person from the beginning to end. You couldn’t be married with a janitor, or a soldier, etc., you had to marry a noble person. The four categories or castes were priests, soldiers, and slaves, and one more I forgot. (Merchants.) But Buddha was very against this system of human classification. That’s why yesterday I told you that Buddha said, “Birth neither a brahman nor non-brahman makes. Life and conduct mold the brahman true.”

So what is it [that] makes your life [be] a priest, or slave, or [slaver], or anything else – a painter, or sportsman, et cetera? Only by karma as conduct: human action. If you act just like a ballplayer, at that time, you are a ballplayer. So your life is defined by karma; this is Buddha’s opinion. But if you say it like this, the term karma is used in the simplest way, because within this statement there are two things, cause and effect, simultaneously together. If you act as something, then you become something, so that is the result. If I steal ten dollars from your pocket, I become a robber. That is cause and effect.

But effect comes from what? This is very important for us [to understand]. Effect is not only the manifested karma, but also we have to think of unmanifested karma. Because even though you do something, you cannot say that there is always the result. That’s why there are three kinds of retribution: retribution experienced in ones’ present life, in the next life, and in one’s subsequent lives. Because [sometimes] you do something and immediately you get the result, but this is pretty rare. So even though you don’t get the result [immediately], still you can get the result [in] this life, next life, or life after next life, too.

[But] with the development of Buddhism in history, the term karma was […] popularized using just action. That’s why people misunderstand karma. It’s not just action. That’s why when Buddhism was systematized by Abhidharmakosha-shastra – this is the oldest Buddhist psychology, where all the terms are very carefully defined – very naturally there was a systematized explanation of karma. Because people use karma in wrong ways, as just action, but it’s not just action. Action is something that appears and disappears, but simultaneously [karma] is still remaining toward the future. Even if you don’t know, you can [feel] this through reality. So finally, Abhidharmakosha says karma is divided into two: that is manifested karma and unmanifested karma.

This unmanifested karma is continuing forever. It appears as retribution in this life, or in the next life, or in the life after next, forever. From this point, the karma you have done never disappears.


Don’t misunderstand. If you understand human life according to karma which never disappears, at that time people fall into pessimism or fatalism. But I don’t think so. That’s why yesterday I said that karma is sort of just energy. Because without karma, you cannot get into human life.

Karma is samskaras according to Twelvefold Causation: this is the very basic human movement which leads you to get into the gate of the human world. So that is just like vitality in life. You don’t know what [it is], but already you are there, you are in the human world.

Why are you born as an American? Why was I born as a Japanese person? I don’t know. Why is my mouth just like this? [Laughter.] I don’t know. Someone asked me why my mouth is like this. I don’t know! [He laughs.] Why were you born in this human world as an American? Same question. But already you are here; already there is your presence. So why? It’s really karma: [the] vitality of life. That vitality of life is just energy.

This energy is nothing but dynamic movement. From this point, the unmanifested karma is stored in individual life, but [it] is completely nothing but energy. [It turns] to energy. Whatever you do in the past, good or bad or neutral, all actions return to you and are stored in your life, as beyond the nature of good or bad or neutral. This is energy, but that energy is stored. That storage is completely a closed door. No one can touch that door, no one can open it. There is only one thing that can open it: time and occasion and condition. By condition, time, and occasion, the door of storage opens, and something comes up, just like a bubble.

You have to understand that time and occasion and conditions are very complicated, because time and occasion and conditions are related with all sentient beings. But conditions are completely free. So you can create conditions, you can create opportunity, you can create time. All we [can do] is [ask] what kind of opportunity or condition we should create. That is always the point. Because karma is something continued forever, but it is already stored in your life, beyond moral categories or moral sense. But it appears sometime. How? By your effort? No, by the conditions or opportunity you make, and then it comes up.

So condition, time, and occasion really are something free. Wherever you may go, you can create new conditions from moment to moment. For instance, if you come here and attend a two week sesshin, and you feel good today. Tomorrow you don’t feel good, so you can go away. If you like, you can stay; if you don’t like, you can go away – any time, anywhere. Or if you want to scream here, you can scream. But you already have [the karma of an] intellectual, or noble, or smart, or clever person, so you cannot scream. Maybe if you are crazy, you can scream. [Some laughter.]

Anyway, there are always conditions and opportunities, open to everybody. It is always free. That is your life. If you like Zen, you can study it. If you don’t like it, please leave, any time. [It is the same for] Christianity, or whatever it is.

So that is what is called emptiness, if you use the technical term. Or you can use this term interdependent co-origination. But that term is pretty big, so that’s why I explain it simply like this.


According to my talk, the first characteristic of karma is [that it is split into] manifested karma and unmanifested karma, [and unmanifested karma] never disappears. And also this unmanifested karma is yours, as property, as inheritance. You can never get away from it. I’m sorry for you, anyway; this is individual life. If you try [to get away from it], you cannot. This is one point. And the second point is that karma is empty: karma is nothing but energy, or occasion and condition. That’s all; nothing but that.

So from these points you can say karma is your inheritance or your own property, but on the other hand karma is empty. So it’s really contradictory.

But if you say karma is emptiness, at that time we misunderstand karma. “Oh, karma is emptiness? Why don’t I do as I like?” [He laughs.] I don’t want to explain the koan Dogen Zenji talked about in Sanji Gō, “[Karmic] Retribution in the Three Times” [again], but let me explain this [point].

I want to say something about Buddha’s karma today. Buddha’s karma is not [that] karma is emptiness, [and also not that] karma is something inherited, which seems to be sort of a ghost haunting you, [hovering] over your head. [He laughs, then puts on a deep voice.] “That’s your dark karma!” If you believe you have this karma you did in the past and it continues forever, at that time karma becomes monsters or ghosts in front of you. It’s really scary.

So, according to Buddha’s karma, you cannot attach to karma as inheritance, and you cannot say karma is emptiness. Because if you say “karma is emptiness,” you believe that first karma should disappear, and then there is emptiness there. At that time emptiness is already an idea opposed to karma. It doesn’t mean that. Emptiness is completely freedom.

Dogen Zenji points this out. [In a story,] one of the monks asks [Changsha] Zen Master (Chōsha Keishin), “What is karmic hindrance?” [Changsha] Zen Master says, “Karmic hindrance is nothing but emptiness.” And then the monk says, “What is emptiness?” [Changsha] Zen Master says, “Karmic hindrance.” […] [He laughs.] Okay?

This is two ideas of karma already: karmic hindrance and emptiness. If you see the karma opposed to emptiness, or if you see the emptiness opposed to karma, already you have to destroy one of them, emptiness or karma. [He laughs.] Otherwise, you don’t understand.

[The first idea is that] karma is something inherited, so you never destroy it; and the other is that karma is nothing but conditions and opportunity and time: at that time, it’s emptiness, free. You like freedom, but if you attach to this, immediately the ghost appears. If you try to destroy the ghost, immediately freedom comes up – because we have to live toward the future, even though you see the ghost today. [You may say,] “I don’t like my karma,” but you cannot stop living in this world; you have to move from moment to moment toward the future. Even if you don’t want to, something compels you to move forward.

So finally, if you attach to either one of them, you are confused.

This is not karma as Buddha. Karma as Buddha is that karma is really something helping you, and you can learn something. You can learn about being human, and help all sentient beings.

So from this point, practically, Buddha’s karma is not an idea, not a metaphysical entity you can discuss; Buddha’s karma is actual practice you have to do. Accepting both that karma is inheritance, property, never destroyed, [and on the other hand] still karma is freedom for you. You have to accept both in your daily living.


How [do you accept both in your daily living]? According to karma as inheritance, it is completely the practice of reflecting upon yourself. It is not [about feeling] guilty. If you feel guilty, that is sort of a ghost appearing.

So karma is going on constantly from your past life to the future. That is really seeing the depths of human life.

For instance, if you say, “I do [things] by myself, I don’t want anyone to help me,” et cetera – of course you can [say this]. Or if you say, “I always do something good; I never make a mistake” – of course, you can [say this]. But is that true? Are you sure? Mm-mm. (No.) If you believe this, you seem to be strong, but it’s not strong, it’s just like a spitz dog barking. It’s very cute, but it’s always barking at everybody. That barking is really these two aspects: the spitz seems to be demonstrating strength by barking, but on the other hand, [it means] it’s really weak. In order to protect against weakness, it has to bark. That is a spitz. But it’s very cute. [Laughter.] That’s why people like it so much. [He laughs.]

So of course you can say that we can always do something good, but on the other hand, if you understand human life pretty deeply, you cannot say, “I never make a mistake.” It’s fine if you believe that… but I don’t think so.

For instance, “Don’t kill anything”: this is a Buddhist precept. Can you observe this precept perfectly? No. You already kill. While walking on the street, you step on ants, even though you don’t know it. Or you always kill vegetables and eat them, to support your life. So you always break the Buddha’s precepts. But it’s not necessary to be disappointed; still Buddha’s precepts are Buddha’s precepts. Because we always, consciously or unconsciously, break the Buddhist precepts, that’s why we need the Buddhist precepts. If you don’t break them, it’s not necessary to [know] the Buddhist precepts. [Some laughter.] So if you say, “The Buddha’s precept is don’t kill” – you already kill, that’s why Buddha’s precept comes up here.

Next, “Don’t steal anything.” Well, maybe you steal something. The other day I went to Sears. I didn’t notice the registers there, and that they paid money [for something]. Back by the registers, there is a certain tiny… I don’t remember what it was, but I took it. [Laughter.] It was already in my hand. Tomoe said, [in a shocked tone,] “You’re a priest!” [Laughter.] I said, “Oh, yes! I am sorry.” [He laughs.]

You know, consciously or unconsciously, we do something wrong. That’s why Buddha says, day after day, “Please, don’t kill. Please, don’t steal.” Even though you say, “I am a good boy” – uh-oh, no. It’s really stinky. [Laughter].

So that is karma. Unmanifested karma is going on in your life. You should remember this. And then at that time, you can be humble and modest, toward yourself and toward others. That is the practice of reflection upon yourself.


The statement that karma is emptiness means that you can be brave. You can move toward the future, day after day, without being stuck in the ghost of karma. You can move without being stuck in the result you have done.

I don’t mean you should ignore the result which you have done; of course we should [pay attention], because your actions leave something as an impression in your life. So from this point you should carry whatever you do on your back. That is reflection. But nevertheless, you cannot be stuck there. You should move toward life in the future. This is really that karma is emptiness.

So you can move, day after day, in order develop your life, deepen your life, in order to help all sentient beings according to Buddha’s way. That is Right Effort.

Right Effort is not like a wild [boar] rushing in with determination – ignoring others around you, kicking other people out, just like in business and politics. Listen to the political speeches: always each politician criticizes and [tries to] destroy the others. “I am a good politician, not him.” It seems to be brave, but I think this is not the Buddhist way. We have to move toward the future with bravery, but it doesn’t mean kicking out anybody around you. So we have to reflect with humility and also modesty. Nevertheless, your life must be majestic, and grand. That is that day by day you can move toward the future. That is Right Effort.

At that time, karma really becomes Buddha. That Buddha’s karma is transcending the moral sense. It is completely beyond karma is inheritance or karma is emptiness – at that time, it becomes Buddha. That karma, Buddha’s karma, is not a matter of metaphysical or philosophical discussion, it is actual practice that you have to do. Accepting totally both [aspects of] the meaning of karma, and then learning [about] human life. At that time it’s really Buddha’s karma.

That is Dogen’s understanding of karma. If you read the Karmic Retribution chapter in this book (Zen Master Dogen: An Introduction with Selected Writings, by Yuho Yokoi with Daizen Victoria), you can understand the meaning of karma.

That’s why in Buddhism we have the practice of repentance. Repentance is not like apologizing in front of your boss. Repentance is religious ritual coming from your deep understanding of human life. If you always make repentance of your life in front of your “boss,” that is not real repentance. So in Buddhism we say formless repentance. [You’re not in front of anyone], because repentance comes from very deep understanding of human life.

If you really understand karma, you can make repentance very straightforwardly with your life. And also we can take one step into the human world with the Triple Treasure: we take refuge in the Buddha, we take refuge in the Dharma, we take refuge in the Sangha. This is really bodhisattva life, bodhisattva practice.

Do you have any questions?


Question: Hojo-san? Do you remember in Huston Smith’s Dogen lectures, I think it was the last one, he compared Saint John of the Cross and Dogen. And he talked about grace being always present; the general grace in Buddhism. It’s his idea that there were similarities between Saint John and Dogen in this way. I wonder if maybe that concept of the right conditions and time would be a way of staying in contact with that grace, or even maybe not wanting to use that term.

Katagiri: Grace is not something coming from heaven, or from some other person, or from something else, okay? Grace in Buddhism is actual practice, practice itself.

When you do gassho, gassho is human action. One point is [karma] as inheritance: maybe you did [something] in the past, as a Buddhist or not; maybe you were one of the Indians related with Buddhism, and that’s why you can do this now. Maybe you can understand it in that way. On the other hand, gassho is nothing but energy…

[Tape change.]

… on the other hand, gassho is nothing but time, and occasion, and conditions. Then, just do [gassho], in the proper way, as best as you can. At that time, gassho is not action you do, gassho becomes real gassho. And then you can learn something from the gassho. That is grace.

Is that okay? Well, I don’t know what is grace. [Laughter.] Well, I know, but I cannot explain.

For instance, my second teacher always was very strict about gassho, and walking, and zazen posture, and chanting, and using the toilet – whatever you did, he was very strict. I felt funny, because it was very formal. You don’t like formality; not only me, everyone doesn’t like formality. You know, gassho like this, and when you use the toilet, first gassho. [Laughter.] Really I felt funny. But now I understand this: this is really grace.

[He laughs.] So in sesshin, you don’t like sitting without doing anything. But I always tell you, whatever you feel, like or dislike, exhaustion, or whatever you think, put them aside, and then all you have to do is do your best to do zazen with your wholeheartedness. That’s enough. Even for a moment! That is grace. It’s really grace. [Unintelligible.]

So if grace doesn’t come from somebody, or from heaven, or from hell – nowhere, nobody – it really comes up from you. That from you is really big self.

Question: Could you say that grace is interdependence?

Katagiri: Yes… or not. [He laughs.] Interdependent co-origination is ideas, okay? Grace is not ideas. Grace is your life, which is fully alive, vividly, don’t you think? This is grace. Even though you say, “I experience grace,” and then if your life is messy, “That’s not grace.” If you experience grace from heaven or somewhere, grace is supposed to be something to help your life, not messy, confused. Maybe a little bit messy, but not much.

Is that okay? [He laughs.] So of course I can say yes, grace is interdependent co-origination. But it’s not. You should [be] right on interdependent co-origination. Right on.

48:18 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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