March 1, 1986 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

List | Previous | Next | Series: Lay Ordination


Katagiri Roshi explains repentance in Buddhism, which is sometimes called formless atonement. Repentance is not a ritual of trying to get forgiveness from someone; rather, repentance is to be present right in the middle of peace and harmony. He describes three aspects or conditions of repentance. The first aspect is that we should realize the world of compassion and heart, to accept and forgive all, without exception. This is to realize “the world prior to germination of any subtle ideas” – which is called Buddha. The second aspect is that we should accept this Buddha’s compassion with readiness; this is sometimes called samadhi, or egolessness. The third aspect is ritual, which is “interacting communion between you and the universe.” To illustrate these points, Katagiri Roshi discusses the role of the doan in Zen, the meaning of the word Shakyamuni in Chinese, and the poem “How To Make A Portrait Of A Bird” by Jacques Prévert.


Listen to this talk on


Katagiri Roshi: Last week, we studied the significance of lay ordination. Today, I would like to talk about repentance, because lay ordination begins with the ritual of repentance. Sometimes Buddhist repentance is translated as formless repentance (transcriber’s note: or formless atonement). But anyway, let’s use the usual term repentance.

In Buddhism, repentance is not to apologize to someone for one’s errors or one’s mistakes; repentance is not a ritual of trying to get forgiveness from someone by making an apology for what one has done. Because if you understand repentance in this way, very naturally you fall into the trap of dualism. You cannot get real peace from dualism; real peace is beyond dualism. So if you understand repentance or make repentance in the dualistic sense, you are always seeing some confusion. So you cannot get out from human confusions [that way].

I think repentance in Buddhism is to be present right in the middle of peace and harmony. Repentance is not a preliminary stage to enter the Buddha’s world or to become a “good boy”; repentance is perfect in itself for reposing in bliss. Otherwise, you don’t understand real repentance.

If you always deal with repentance in dualism, [then] whatever kind of object you try to make repentance with, you create more and more a big gap between [you and it]. So I think repentance itself is perfect […] reposing. Reposing means making your life exactly peaceful. This is repentance.


So what is the significance of repentance in Zen Buddhism? Let’s consider it as three conditions.

The first condition is that you should realize the world of compassion and heart: to accept and forgive all, without any exception.

Dogen Zenji says that the Buddhas and the ancestors, because of their great mercy, have left open the vast gates of compassion, in order that all beings – both human and celestial beings – may thereby realize enlightenment. The Buddhas and the ancestors are the human beings who realize the same and one ground, where all sentient beings coexist in peace and harmony from moment to moment, before you poke your head into it. Technically, this is called, Zen Buddhism says, the world prior to germination of any subtle ideas. This is so-called Buddha. If you realize that point, that world, then you are called Buddha, you are called ancestor. So, the Buddhas and ancestors are human beings who realize this truth, from which deep compassion, real, profound compassion or kindness, comes up from the bottom. Because the same and one ground of existence is really compassionate, accepting all sentient beings without exception. This is really compassion; otherwise, you cannot accept all without exception. If you realize this, you are called Buddha. That truth is, a little bit intellectually, sometimes called dharma, or dharma-body; we say so.

That’s why Dogen Zenji mentions that because of their great mercy, the Buddhas and ancestors have left open the vast gates of compassion. Whatever you feel from your life, and the celestial beings, and the animate and inanimate beings, are [all] peacefully embraced by this compassion. That’s why you can live, every day, beyond mistake or not mistake, beyond failure or success, beyond pros and cons. You can live.

Why do you have to live? Because you have to express this compassion. You should express your gratitude to this compassion, because you can live, beyond mistake or not mistake, beyond success and failure, beyond pros and cons. The reason why you should live is nothing but appreciation of this compassion.

It is not something you try to understand, but you have to put yourself in the heart of this compassion. In other words, you should put yourself in the vastness of the universe. You don’t know what it is. We can explain using lots of words, but practically, you don’t understand it.

Sitting here, you don’t understand the total picture of the Twin Cities. You can understand in a sense; you can know the total picture of Twin Cities through a map, through teaching, through words, through your experience – you can understand it. But practically, if you really want to see the total picture of the Twin Cities, then right now, right here, you have to go up to the top of the IDS tower. That’s it. (Transcriber’s Note: At the time, the IDS building was the tallest building in Minneapolis.) Is this something you have to think about? It’s not. Beyond whether you understand or don’t understand, you have to put yourself right there. This is first. It’s an emergency; you have to do it.

For instance, there is the doan task: hitting the big bells and the small bells, and you have to chant the title of the sutra. Most of you don’t have experience doing this, but you know what the doan task is: hitting the big bell, the small bell, and chanting. You believe it seems pretty easy: hitting the big bell here, the small bell here. It seems to be simple because you [see] that doan task every day. [A few people chuckle.] Do you think this is real understanding of the doan task? Even if your head becomes huge and you become a so-called intellectual, wonderful person: no way. If you start to take care of the doan task, you’re really confused! You don’t know how to do it, even the simple things. Even if beforehand you understand the procedures – you remember that first you hit the big bell, and the three bells, and then next the small bell, et cetera – still if you start to do it, you’re confused! You completely forget the second bell, you completely forget the third bell, and then instead of hitting the big bell, you hit the small bell. And the Ino says, “Shhh!” You know? [Laughter.] Something like that. So you cannot do it.

Usually you say, “I understand it.” Or you try to understand it, you try to know something; then you say, “I believe in Buddhism,” or Buddha’s teaching. But this way is to remember that you always see your life and others’ life at a distance. That is called dualistic. That’s dualism: you always see something at a distance. And then if every day you see something at a distance, you feel intimate with it, because every day you can see it. But if you really participate in that simple thing, you don’t know what to do – because the simple thing is not simple, it’s a huge world. If you see the object, your life, at a distance, your understanding becomes very narrow. But if you participate in something, [like] the so-called doan task, then you can see the doan task from many angles, because the doan task brings up lots of questions for you, so you can see the broad picture of the doan task. But if you see the doan task at a distance, objectively, you only see just one corner of the doan task. Even though you say, “I understand completely” – no way. You don’t understand it.

So that’s why […] first of all, if you understand it in some sense, you have to put yourself right there. It means you have to participate in something, instead of looking at it objectively. This is called direct experience.

Zen is not actual experience, but a real goal of Zen practice is to be free from that actual experience. Because if you have an actual experience, human beings always create attachment, and arrogance, et cetera. So very naturally, the goal of Zen Buddhism is how to be free from that strong attachment to your own experience. The more you live your life “hard,” the more you attach to your own life, because you’re really proud of yourself. But real peace, real freedom, is to be free from that attachment. So that is the goal of Zen Buddhism, or general Buddhism.

The Buddha said, “I and heaven and earth are [of] the same one root.” Or, Dogen Zenji mentions “the merging of delusion and enlightenment.” Or, “all beings and the Buddha are what is called repentance.” So repentance is to realize exactly that oneness of merging of all sentient beings and Buddha, [the merging of] delusion and enlightenment. This oneness is sometimes called the same and one ground, where all beings coexist, beyond your thinking. This is the first condition we have to take into account.

From the first condition, all sentient beings are allowed to live, exactly. Whatever you think, you are, from the beginning, forgiven for living your life in this world. That’s why if you see something, whatever it is, it has some reason why it exists. Even evil [things], even good, even the neutral sense – you cannot destroy them. Even though you don’t like devils, even though you don’t like monsters, still they have some reason why they exist. Everything is entitled to live in this world in peace and harmony, beyond your judgement and evaluation. This is the first condition which we have to realize: all are Buddha.


The second condition for this repentance: we should realize that the self accepts this Buddha’s compassion with readiness.

I think Buddha’s world, so-called the truth, or so-called the same and one ground, is completely beyond good or bad; [it] is supreme good. We have to accept this Buddha’s compassion. Even though you like or dislike [it], we have to accept this with readiness.

So what do we mean by accepting this Buddha’s compassion with readiness? Or, how do we accept [it]? How do we actualize this Buddha’s compassion in our everyday life? This is sometimes called samadhi, or sometimes egolessness. Because Buddha’s world is completely pure and serene and quiet and dynamic; it is dynamism in motion, beyond your thoughts and ideas. So very naturally, if you want to accept it, first you have to put aside your understanding, your thoughts, and you should put your body and mind right in the middle of that dynamism in motion. This is called samadhi. When you do zazen, it is a very simple opportunity to be present there. That’s why this is called shikan zazen, or this is called samadhi. When you practice samadhi, very naturally you have to put aside your many thoughts, many preconceptions; that’s why that is called the practice of egolessness. That [point] is the most important.

So how do we do this? […] Let’s say it like this: we have to live our [everyday] lives with being forgiven, with being allowed to live, and with making our lives come alive. This is the most important attitude toward your life, if you want to accept.

You have to live your life with being forgiven: you are already embraced, so you have to live your life with being forgiven.

Next: who lives? You live – by your effort, yes, but that is a narrow understanding, so you have to live your life with being allowed to live. So you should appreciate [your life]. Then, if you appreciate your life, you can live your life with making your life come alive.

So, [it is] not only the passive. Someone says, “the universe takes care of me.” Of course it does. But you cannot always say “the universe takes care of me” and take a nap in the universe. [Laughter.] You cannot do it, because the universe is always working with you. So if you become lazy, the universe appears as laziness, [and] very naturally you’re confused. So you have to constantly live, and you have to take the initiative to live your life with making your life come alive. When you do gassho, you have to practice gassho with being forgiven, with being allowed to live, with making a gassho come alive.

Is that practice a matter of discussion? No, I don’t think so. If you [practice] in that way, discussion comes after; ideas and teachings come up. Teachings or ideas are exactly the contents of your life, if you take care of your life like this. So if you live like this, very naturally you can teach, you can get thoughts.


The founder of Buddhism is Shakyamuni Buddha. In Chinese, shakya is translated as no-nin. In Chinese, no means subjectivity. The nin of no-nin is human. So the shakya of Shakyamuni is the self as subjectivity. You cannot lose the subjectivity.

The muni of Shakymuni is jakumoku in Chinese. Jaku means tranquil. Moku means silence. So muni is sometimes translated as holiness. What is holiness? Holiness is exactly jakumoku: tranquil silence. But it’s really something upholding all sentient beings. This is holiness; this is called truth.

So Shakyamuni means “the self as subjectivity must practice tranquil silence”. Zen Buddhism emphasizes constantly to practice the truth, in silence, because truth itself is really tranquil silence. When you sit down in zazen, can you explain the real self who touches the truth? The moment when you touch the truth, you don’t know how to explain the self as subjectivity who touches the truth. No, you don’t know. So very naturally, the self as subjectivity who touches the truth becomes silent. But the silence is deep, it’s really something alive with you. And also, people are really impressed by this silence that you give forth from your whole body, your whole personality. So you can help people as this.

That’s why Shakyamuni is the person who attains the self as subjectivity who practices tranquil silence. Exactly this is called Buddha. Buddha is the contents of Shakyamuni. Buddha is exactly the total manifestation of tranquil silence. So Buddha is the truth. And then if you do it, if you experience it, Buddha gives forth its own light, from your whole body. Then the people are really appreciative, people are very much moved by your experience.

So that is the second condition.


One more thing: technically, Zen Buddhism says, “Passing through a thicket of brambles, cutting down a thicket of sandalwood.”

“Passing through a thicket of brambles” means complicated troubles in the human world. [Life is] very complicated, but you have to pass through anyway, you have to always carry on despite the troubles. I don’t think you should ignore the troubles, you have to take care of the troubles, but you cannot stay with them. So that means passing through, constantly.

And also, “cutting down a thicket of sandalwood”: sandalwood means something good, something pretty, something beautiful. Very naturally, we attach to something good, something pretty, something sweet. But we have to always cut it down and pass through this one too. It’s not so easy. Particularly, if you do something good, we want to be proud of ourselves. We want to attach to our lives.

And also, the sutra says, it is the essential nature of repentance not to attach to the purity. Not to attach to the purity means not to attach to the purity and to impurity, too. This is the essential nature of repentance.


So the essential nature of repentance means what? I think of the poem composed by Jacques Prévert which I mentioned a couple of years ago: “How To Make A Portrait Of A Bird”. Do you remember? It’s very beautiful for children.

In the beginning, he says:

First paint a cage with an open door.

“Cage” means your whole body: six senses, six sense organs, six sense objects, and the five skandhas, we say. The whole world consists of six senses, six sense organs, and six sense objects. That is your cage. So who are you? You are nothing but the cage; always [projecting] some frame there. If I say “Katagiri,” yes, Katagiri is a bird cage. Everyone living has an individual cage. Do you understand this?

He says, “Open the door.” It means, you should accept the vastness of existence. But we don’t do it! We always put the cage there and shut ourselves off. How can you get the bird [that way]? The bird means the truth, the same and one ground. How can you get it, if you close the door?

So he says, “First, paint the cage with an open door.” Next, he says:

Then, paint something pretty, something simple, something beautiful, something useful, for the bird.

You have to paint something beautiful, something pretty, something simple – for what? Not for you, not for the cage; for the bird. Something beautiful, something simple for the bird means beyond your intellectual sense. Anyway, you have to see yourself and also the vastness of space around, where all sentient beings exist. You have to see. That is called something beautiful – beyond your explanations.

If you want to paint a persimmon, you have paint the persimmon and also the air (or space), and autumn. How can you paint the autumn? But that is something beautiful, something pretty, something simple. And then, the persimmon appears on the canvas, in a simple way that is really beautiful.

So, something pretty, something simple, something beautiful, something useful, for the bird. That is our practice, constantly. Even though you don’t understand it, anyway, paint it. Paint something pretty. That means you should go to the top of the IDS tower. You don’t believe it is something beautiful, but that’s alright. If you are following the Buddha’s teaching you should go there, you should put yourself there in that way. This is painting something beautiful.

Then, place the canvas against a tree, in a garden, in the woods, or in a forest. Hide behind the trees, without speaking, without moving.

If you paint something beautiful, don’t attach to it. You have to leave your painting in the woods, in the forest, and then you shouldn’t show up, you should hide behind it. This is to practice the truth. When you do gassho, you have to practice samadhi. What do you mean? Samadhi is really tranquil silence. So, you must be behind the gassho. You cannot move. If you move even just a little, immediately your head comes up, and you start arguing.

Sometimes the bird comes quickly.

Sometimes the bird comes, but strictly speaking, not sometimes, always the bird is exactly there. According to the individual experience we say “sometimes”: “Sometimes I can experience enlightenment through zazen.” But Buddha’s compassion is open to everyone, so always, there is a bird. But we don’t realize it, so individually, we say “sometimes”. We don’t know when the bird will appear.

But this poet says, it doesn’t matter when the bird comes or how fast it comes. He says,

But, he may take long years before deciding. Don’t get discouraged. Wait. Wait years, if necessary. How fast or how slowly the bird comes has nothing to with the success of your painting.

So all you can do is, just paint the cage, open the door, and paint something beautiful, and simple, and pretty. And then, put it in the forest – nature – and hide behind the trees, without moving, without speaking, or anything. And then, sometimes it comes. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow it comes. It doesn’t matter, because it has nothing to do with success. Real success is just to put yourself there in zazen when you do zazen, put yourself in gassho when you do gassho, exactly. Compassion is open to everyone. So that’s why he says, “It has nothing to do with success of the picture.” Of the picture means of your life. [How fast or how slow it comes] doesn’t matter.

When the bird comes, if he comes, observe the most profound silence until the bird enters the cage, and when he has entered, gently close the door with the brush.

Not with your hand; please close the door with the brush.

Then, the next practice is very important. If the bird comes into the cage, you should close the door slowly with the brush, and then, without touching the bird, you have to erase the bars, one by one. It says,

Erase all the bars, one by one, taking care not to touch any of the bird’s feathers.

This is egolessness, the practice of egolessness. How beautiful it is. You don’t believe my talk, but it is really true. If you want to paint a portrait of the bird, you have to do it!

Then, paint a portrait of the tree, choosing the most beautiful of its branches for the bird. Then paint all the green foliage, and the wind’s freshness, and the dust of the sun, and the noise of the creatures in the grasses in the summer heat.

When you do this, all things become alive. You can make your life come alive. Even the trees. You can paint the persimmon, and simultaneously you can paint the air, and autumn. But without this practice, you cannot paint the autumn, and the air, “the dust of the sun.”

And then wait for the bird to decide to sing.

If the bird doesn’t sing, it’s a bad sign.


… A sign that the painting is bad. But if he sings, it’s a good sign, a sign that you can sign [the painting].

“It’s bad” means, you “get” enlightenment, or a Ph.D., or medical doctorate, but it doesn’t work. When it doesn’t work, I think you should pay attention more carefully to that Ph.D., or get your own experience, until the bird starts to sing. And then when the bird starts to sing, that is your experience, your life. So, you can put the signature. But don’t sign it with your arrogance. So this poet says:

Take one feather of the bird, and write your name in the corner of the picture.

You shouldn’t show up, because the whole world is alive, so you are just a corner. That’s enough. You are the whole life, and the whole life is working. And then, your life is just a corner; it’s enough. Don’t sign with your arrogance.

So, “take one feather of the bird” means, Buddha. You should take one of the ideas of the universe you have had. The universe is the same and one ground: that’s enough. You should use that feather, and then paint. Don’t paint a big name right in the middle of the canvas; no. Just a corner. The poem says, “And you write your name in the corner of the picture.”

That is the poem. It’s a very beautiful one.

The third condition is ritual. Ritual is attaining kannō-dōkō, which means interacting communion of appearance and response. Through the poem, you can see this. Ritual is constantly painting a portrait of your life; communicating and trying to have interacting communion between you and the universe. Not you and something small; the universe. This is a ritual. That’s why without ritual, you cannot do anything.

So, those are the three conditions which are necessary for repentance.

Do you have a question?


Question: When you were talking about entering the life of the brambles and cutting down the sandalwood: why do you have to cut down the sandalwood?

Katagiri: Because, particularly when you take care of your own life seriously, with great effort, very naturally you will see a good life, which you can show as a good example to others. Very naturally, you attach that good example you have demonstrated. So that’s why you have to pass through, instead of holding fast. “This is my own good example; everyone should learn from this” – you cannot say so.

For instance, if I become a teacher, very naturally I say, “I am a teacher, who is different from beginners, so you should follow me.” At that time, this is pretty nice in a sense. If you want to use human “manpower”, or authorities, it’s pretty good, because everyone likes authorities. But on the other hand, everyone hates authorities. [Some laughter.] Hatred of authority means you should understand how much you love authority. That’s why you hate it! You know? Simultaneously both exist within your mind.

So I cannot say I am a teacher, attaching to my position; but on the other hand, I cannot ignore the position of a teacher, so I have to maintain that position. So how do I maintain this position in order to express human life, without creating a small idea of human existence? How do I do it? All I have to do is, sometimes I must be a teacher, sometimes I must be a janitor, or dishwasher … or understanding babies. So very naturally, I have to cut down the sandalwood.

Sandalwood is a really good smell, a very good fragrance of tree. “Cut down” doesn’t mean to destroy. Because you already experience it! So you should appreciate it, but you cannot stay with it. Always two things: you hold it, and also you cannot hold it, so you have to let go, you have to pass through. These two practices are always with us. If the sutra uses “cut off” in the negative sense, we always feel pensive, because we are ignoring something completely. No. You cannot ignore anything, because you are already there.

53:06 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: Lay Ordination