July 16, 1980 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

List | Previous | Next | Series: Diamond Sutra


How do we teach Buddhism? Molding life into ideas or philosophy is backwards; the words must come from our own life, or they won’t connect with people. Our understanding of the world based on causation is empty, but the world itself is not; that is why the Prajnaparamita Sutra says “emptiness is form.” We should digest the teachings thoroughly in our life, and then the words to explain will come naturally. Happiness and peace cannot be found by rushing to the destination.


Listen to this talk on mnzencenter.org


Katagiri Roshi: [Soon] my lectures on Diamond Sutra will be over. There are two more lectures: today and maybe next week.

Chapter 32 is:

And finally, Subhuti, if a Bodhisattva, a great being had filled world-systems immeasurable and incalculable with the seven precious things, and gave them as a gift to the Tathagatas, the Arhats, the fully Enlightened Ones, – and if, on the other hand, a son or daughter of good family had taken from this Prajnaparamita, this discourse on Dharma, but one stanza of four lines, and were to bear it in mind, demonstrate, recite, and study it, and illuminate it in full detail for others, on the strength of that this latter would beget a greater heap of merit, immeasurable and incalculable. And how would he illuminate it? So as not to reveal. Therefore is it said, “he would illuminate.”

(From “Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra” by Edward Conze.)

This chapter emphasizes [the question], what is the key to supreme knowledge? If we bear even one stanza of Diamond Sutra in mind, “demonstrate, recite, and study it, and illuminate it” – how should we illuminate it in full detail for others? This is the point this chapter discusses.


I often emphasize that Buddhism is sort of philosophy and psychology systematized by human beings through deeply understanding human life in reality.

First of all, we cannot mold human life into Buddhist teaching, because Buddhist teaching comes from one’s life in reality. So even though you understand some aspect of Buddhism with your mind, and talk [about it], illuminate it in full detail for others – sometimes you don’t feel good, because that talk is really dead.

I studied Buddhism at Komazawa University in Tokyo. I really suffered from my life, and I didn’t want to keep suffering without doing anything, so I really struggled. Finally I decided that I should go to the University to study Buddhism. I didn’t have money, but I took an examination at the University and I passed, so after that I tried to find the money. Anyway, I was very happy to be at the university. But in a year, I was really disappointed. Because [there was] nothing to get in my hand. There were lots of Buddhist scholars, but most of the scholars [just] read their notes, and all the students had to take notes for two hours, listening to the teacher’s notes. It didn’t make sense for me. There was no connection with me, with my suffering. [He laughs] The teacher explained the Four Noble Truths – suffering, the cause of suffering – but nothing connected with me, because he just read it.

So even though you understand some aspect of Buddhism with your mind, it doesn’t hit one’s heart, one’s life. No connection. If you want to “demonstrate, understand, study and illuminate” even one stanza of the Buddha’s teaching, you have to illuminate it by your own words, not borrowing the words from others.

In order to explain emptiness, the scholar always said, “Look at page such-and-such of the Madhyamakas, Nagarjuna says such-and-such.” But it didn’t make sense for me. What is emptiness? Emptiness is always a book! [Laughter.] Don’t you think so? Emptiness is not the idea of emptiness which occurs in the Buddhist sutras, it is really human life itself. But the teacher didn’t teach in that way.

So at any cost […] we have to illuminate it by means of our own words. Those words [must be] coming from our life itself; so thoughts, ideas, philosophy, psychology, all things, are something coming from our life. [It is] not to mold life into thoughts or ideas and philosophy; that would really be reversed. If you do that, your life is really confused.


[Tape interruption.]

… by effect itself. That means whatever we think, human beings or the human world. Where does Katagiri come from? From Japan. This is reasonable. Where does Japan come from? From the universe. Where does the universe come from? No one knows – but anyway, from God, if anything. Where does God come from? No one knows. But we always try to know: from where? What is the beginning of the world? And then if you understand the beginning of the world, and you can depend on this, then you feel good. But if you don’t understand the beginning, created by somebody, you feel uneasy. And also the same applies to the end of the world. What is the end of the world? Is the end of your life the end of the world? No. Well, maybe in a thousand years, or maybe in a hundred years. But anyway, we always want to know. So, where does the United States come from? The United States comes from such-and-such. And that is the beginning of the world. Where does the beginning of the world come from? Maybe it is energies. So where does energy come from?

Endlessly we can discuss like this. But always there is something which is called substance, philosophically speaking. And then first of all we try to understand substance, and then from this, the world comes. This is very reasonable, understandable; that’s why people [depend on it]. But if you think in that way, it is just like one plus one equals two. It is very reasonable – but actually not. Finally, you don’t understand the reality in life, because reality in life is not exactly based on the system of causation, cause and effect.

If you think [of] the world just like this, such a world is empty. Such an understanding of the world is empty. But the world itself is not empty; the understanding of the world like this is empty. Do you understand?

Sometimes we say, “The world is emptiness.” Emptiness is a noun there. If you use a noun, the noun always belongs to something else. If you use the noun Katagiri, Katagiri belongs to something: this guy. But be empty is active, […] so it doesn’t belong to anything. If you use emptiness as a noun, it belongs to something else – so finally you think the world itself is empty. So you fall into pessimism, because you believe the basis of the world is emptiness. But emptiness doesn’t mean that, not in that way. [Our] understanding of the world just according to causation is really empty. Just like one plus one equals two, two plus two equals four. But reality is not something like that!

For instance, recently someone who is really trained in using computers [said something]. Many people are really attached to computers – because the computer is wonderful, you know. You can get an answer immediately. So human beings really respect computers, and the computer is the one great thing human beings really depend on. You can know everything; just push a button, immediately you get an answer. But yesterday this person said – I don’t know if this is a true story or not – “World War Three almost began because a computer made a mistake.” So push a button, and the bomb already started to launch. Three minutes before launch, they realized the computer’s mistake, and immediately they tried to get it back. There were two mistakes in a week like this. Can you believe it?

So from now on, human beings cannot create war, the computer makes war. […] I don’t know if this is a true story or not, but it’s possible to do that. […] That is really empty, because you cannot always depend on such an understanding of the world.


That’s why Nagarjuna says that such an understanding of the world is empty. But if you think “the world is empty,” [then] whatever I explain according to Nagarjuna, still you feel pensive and pessimistic, because the world is empty. So very naturally you feel hopeless in human life. That’s why in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, next [it says], “Emptiness is form.”

Emptiness is form means [it’s not a cause for] pensiveness. Even though I say the table and Katagiri is really empty, or mind is really evasive, or vague, or vast, whatever I say – should I always stay in a feeling of pensiveness because of such an understanding? No way. Because still the table is here, my mind is here, Katagiri is here. The world is here. War is here. Computer is here. So you cannot always stay in a certain feeling of pensiveness or nihilism or pessimism or whatever it is. If you feel pensive or nihilistic, next we have to break this [wall]. That is what is called emptiness is form.

So first, if you want to use a word, and if you want to explain or illuminate some aspect of Buddha’s teaching by the word – that’s fine. But that is not good enough! So you should [deny], until the teaching, your word, penetrates your skin, muscle, and bone, and then words come up from your life. At that time, the explanation of Buddhist teaching is really alive, hitting peoples’ hearts.

“If you use words to explain the Buddha’s teaching it’s not good enough” – that is form is emptiness. But if you understand the words are not good enough, at that time you really try to destroy the words – or you don’t want to explain anything, just keep your mouth shut. But you cannot always keep your mouth shut. I always tell you, “If you want to do zazen, keep your mouth shut, just do it,” but it doesn’t mean you should keep your mouth shut always. You have to talk. So you should talk, when it is necessary. Because words exist, Buddha’s teaching exists, all sentient beings who suffer from their lives exist, and also there are lots of beings who we should help. How can we deal with this? Should we always keep silent? [No.] We have to talk. So, that is emptiness is form.


In this chapter, it says it in a different way:

… illuminate it in full detail for others, on the strength of that this latter would beget a greater heap of merit, immeasurable and incalculable. And how would he illuminate it? So as not to reveal.

“Not to reveal” is that just verbal explanation – of your life, of human beings, of the human world, or computers, or whatever it is – is not good enough! Because verbal explanation cannot reveal the truth; it’s just verbal explanation. Verbal explanation is just a finger pointing out the real moon. But on the other hand, verbal explanation is very important, because we can know where the real moon is.

That’s why “not to reveal”. That means [totally] emptiness … [inaudible] … Mind, word, or even Buddha’s teachings, all are empty, nothing but emptiness. Even the teaching is just a finger pointing to the moon. Because teaching comes from life itself. Systematize the reality in life which is fully alive, and then it is called teaching. So teaching is already something systematized, conceptualized. But we always believe [the teaching] – that’s wonderful, but it is not the human life. That teaching should penetrate, become one with your life. And we should digest the Buddha’s teaching completely, through and through, and then at that time very naturally it comes out in the world.

That is “not to reveal.” And then finally:

Therefore is it said, “he would illuminate.”

That explanation is really wonderful. [When] your words are digested through and through in your life, and then the Buddha’s teaching comes from your life, at that time, that is really illumination of the Buddha’s teaching.

But the real truth of the Buddha’s teaching doesn’t exist in the verbal explanation, because it isn’t revealed on the surface of the water, but it’s hidden, with the verbal explanation [covering it]. It doesn’t appear on the surface, but it’s always with it, just like a piece of paper. So if you explain Buddha’s teaching with words, behind the verbal explanation you can feel something, it can touch your heart through the words, the explanations. At that time, that is real illumination of Buddha’s teaching. But if you use just the words and explain philosophically, psychologically, it doesn’t hit the mark. You can teach, you can talk – but it’s just not [interesting].

For this [real illumination], I don’t know how many times you have to stumble in human life. But that’s okay. Stumble over emptiness. Talk about Buddha’s teaching; after that, you stumble, and feel pensive […] And next you talk again, and stumble, and next time spring back again, and talk, and fall down… I don’t know how often you should do this. It’s not necessary to stumble very often, but don’t worry about how often you stumble. It’s okay. When you have to stumble, just stumble, and spring back as soon as possible. That’s better. If you spring back, your explanation penetrates your life, your explanation comes from your life. That’s pretty good.

The other day one of the students asked me, “What is the method of zazen?” I don’t know what it is. [He laughs.] “Is it material, or is it spiritual?” And he asked, “Should I teach how to sit zazen even though I don’t know how to sit?” [He laughs.] If you don’t know, keep your mouth shut, don’t teach. Even though you know a little bit, don’t rush into teaching. But anyway, you should digest. Sometimes you should wait. The practice of [waiting] is pretty good for you.

Look at all the people always rushing to the destination. If you want to be a carpenter, you get a plane, and saw, and wood, and immediately build a house. But you cannot be a good carpenter if you do that. Waiting is important. How can you wait? Just [practice] how to use a plane, how to sharpen the plane, all day – for two years. That’s pretty good. That is the practice of waiting. Taking care of your daily life, and just watching the master’s way of building a house. That’s pretty good. But [recently] people are really rushing into the destination: “Let’s go, let’s go. Hurry up! Go this way, go that way.” Be rich, and be wonderful [boys]. It seems to be fun, but at that time you really create irritation and distress, conflict, because your mind is always going out, thinking objectively, according to cause and effect: “If I do this, I will be successful.” I don’t think so. [He laughs.] Even though you make your best effort, there is no guarantee whether you will be successful in your business! Because this is the reality of life. So under such unstable conditions, all you have to do is do your best. That’s all. Always mind is going out and thinking, “If I do this, then I can get this.” That is very common. But happiness and peace cannot be [found] there.

So that’s why, even though you know [something], sometimes wait. Until the teachings are penetrating skin, muscle and bone, and your understanding is completely digested in your life. [Then], the time will come very naturally when you should talk, when you should share. The time comes very naturally.

Do you have questions?


Question: Would you say that mind is consciousness?

Katagiri: Yes, mind is consciousness.

Same person: Okay, well, some of the people that I work with, when they get old, maybe they have a stroke, and it affects the left side or the right side their brain, and it changes their consciousness. For some people, you can’t connect with them at all.

Katagiri: [I think so.]

Same person: What happens to their mind?

Katagiri: If you have something wrong with the brain, biologically, physiologically – that is the sense organs. The sense organs meet [their] object, but already the sense organ [has] something wrong. At that time, it’s very difficult to [face] in the proper way.

Same person: But Buddha Nature still exists.

Katagiri: Oh sure. It’s Buddha Nature. Buddha Nature [exists].

What is your question?

Same person: Well, I have difficulty sometimes relating to some of those people; understanding where their consciousness exists, or if they have any.

Katagiri: I don’t know where. I always tell [you], consciousness is not a solid being.

Same person: I don’t mean where in the body, but I mean where to [touch] it, [myself].

Katagiri: Well, [the] characteristic of consciousness is to know. This is mind; citta. But this citta occurs simultaneously with sense organs and objects. Without them, consciousness doesn’t exist. Do you understand? [There are] three things: sense organs, sense objects, and mind. If even one thing is missing, consciousness doesn’t appear. The organ doesn’t make sense, doesn’t function. All three are connected with each other, simultaneously.

So we don’t know where consciousness is. Is consciousness a part of the sense organ? Or is consciousness [the] object? Or is consciousness completely separate from the object or sense organs? We cannot say. Because in Buddhism consciousness is nothing but action. The three of those connected with each other, that is called mind.

And then, in the moment, something happens. Something happens means psychological action, which is called to know something. That is the mind. But this mind has a certain attitude in a moment, in order to express what the mind is, what consciousness is. That is what is called mind occurs in four stages, or the mind attitude is taken. That is contact, feeling, perception, and citta means volition or will.

Same person: … the attitude of the mind?

Katagiri: Yes, the attitude of the mind.

Same person: [Is it] individual?

Katagiri: Yes, individual, everyone. So then always, whatever you do, mind exists. At that time, there is the organ, and the subject and object, and the mind appears. When the mind appears, how can you know mind? That is attitude. Through the attitude, you can know mind. That is contact, and feeling, perception, and volition, [et cetera]. This is the attitude of the mind. So those four are exactly the same as the mind. But as a whole, we call it mind.

Same person: So if a person loses his will or loses [his mind], part of that would be that they lose consciousness?

Katagiri: If think so. If you have something wrong with your brain, maybe [unintelligible], your brain doesn’t work.

Same person: I still don’t understand. These people, some of them have a consciousness of something. I mean they’re maybe willing to hold a conversation, [but] no sentence is connected with the next one, they’re all disconnected. But it seems like to her [it connects with something], but to me [it doesn’t]. Does that make sense?

Katagiri: [Does the person have a mental disorder?]

Same person: A lot of these people are very old, and I don’t know what particularly happened to them – [where the body is, where the mind is.]

Katagiri: Well, that is very natural as you get old. Your brain is getting old, and your nervous system is getting old, it doesn’t work well. At that time, even though you can see the mind, the mind doesn’t work perfectly. In addition to this, everyone has individual stubbornness, okay? [Preconceptions.] That’s why the mind doesn’t work as well as you think.

That’s why we need the practice of training your mind. Thinking is very important for us, okay?

Thinking is not always thinking using your frontal lobe. Thinking is using your whole body, [central nervous system] too. Just sitting and concentrating on breathing, this is basic thinking in Buddhism. In Buddhism, thinking is not to think something with your frontal lobe; thinking means just sit, concentrate, becoming one with zazen. This is basic thinking. So very naturally your brain, frontal lobe, central nervous system, [all work] pretty well. That [kind of] practice is important. And also, using the frontal lobe, thinking something philosophical, psychological, this is also pretty important. If you don’t use it, your brain becomes soft; it doesn’t work when you get old.

Another person: Roshi, are you saying that if you practice, your brain will work well when you get old?

Katagiri: Well, no, I don’t mean that. [Laughter.] There is no guarantee. But broadly speaking, that is very important for us. Because we have to use our physical bodies, not only the brain. Even though you become old, you have to use the physical body as much as possible. If you’re always lying in bed when you become old, you really get trouble. That means for you whole life, as much as possible, it is necessary to use the physical body, and the mind too. Train your brains. Even if you do it like this, there is no definite guarantee, but we cannot always live without using our body and mind. In our whole life, as best as we can, we should use them.


Question: Hojo-san? When is one plus one zero?

Katagiri: That is causation. When you believe the system of causation, that is really why one plus one equals two, two plus two equals four. But sometimes you [can’t] understand human life according to causation. Because even though you practice zazen for two years, there is no guarantee that you can get a good result. Or after practicing for three years, et cetera. So sometimes nothing. So two plus two [sometimes equals zero].

In the koan I told you about: not ignoring causation, cause and effect, and not falling into causation. We need both. We shouldn’t ignore one plus one equals two. Of course, one plus one equals two; this is a definite answer. But you cannot depend on this constantly. Deepen your understanding. You should believe some other aspect: one plus one equals two, or sometimes ten.

44:40 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.

List | Previous | Next | Series: Diamond Sutra