We often find that no matter how hard we try, we do not succeed.
In only one period in my life did I receive a salary. That was for about six months when I was a teacher at a theological school. During that time, I had a student from Saipan, an island in the Mariana Islands, which was a Japanese colony at the time. His name was Bisente. He had difficulty especially in mathematics. There was a Japanese student, Tokita, who had the same difficulty. For example, they just could not understand the concept of fractions. I gave the two students supplementary lessons for about a month. I did my best, but I couldn’t bring the knowledge home to their hearts. When I felt totally exhausted, I had to give up. But somehow, at the next math exam, both of them received perfect scores.
Since other students knew that I was making an effort to teach them, they praised me and said I was a good teacher. At the time, I felt that this was all very strange.
When we try to nurture living beings, making a wholehearted effort, we do not always get good results. And yet, just when we are tired and give up, they sometimes start to grow remarkably. In my experience, there is not a simple cause-and-effect relationship, such as a teacher’s effort, that perfectly enables students to grow. Rather, the teacher’s effort is just the teacher’s effort. Or, “this, just this.” The student’s growth is just the student’s growth. This, just this.
In Buddhism there is the expression “cause and effect are self-evident.” I think this is true. We cannot ignore it. However, the relationships between causes and effects function in a much broader and deeper way than we can understand with our small intellects. We think that if we push the power switch, then, as a result, the TV will come on, but causation in our lives is not so simple. It has a much, much broader and deeper interdependent relationship with all times and all beings.
For example, when a man lives a self-indulgent life filled with drinking, gambling, and pursuing women, it is only natural that he will have hardships in his life. I don’t think it would be possible for a man like this to clarify what human life is in the midst of such degenerate living. It is better, without question, to stop licentious living and practice something like zazen instead. But is it certain that if we stop our self-indulgence that our lives will become more pleasant? Not really. Is it assured that we can attain deep insight about human life if we start to practice? No. The true self-evidence of the cause-and-effect relationship lies beyond our expectation and understanding. Therefore, all we can do is to be “this, just this.”
In zazen we sit being “this, just this.” We never seek enlightenment as a reward after accumulating the merits of zazen. The practice of zazen would be more understandable if it were like playing pachinko. If you can get the metal balls to go into certain holes, you get lots of balls back and all sorts of bells start going off. One may think that if you sit in a certain posture for a certain period of time, you attain sudden and fascinating enlightenment. This is not the case. We just sit, being beyond such expectation. This zazen is itself enlightenment. It is what is meant when Dōgen Zenji says, “The approaches to nothingness thus become practical.”
This attitude is called “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” or “form is form, emptiness is emptiness.” It is also called “unde led practice-enlightenment.”
In Shōbōgenzō “Shoaku Makusa,” there is a famous gāthā:
Refraining from committing various evils Carrying out all sorts of good actions Personally clarifying this mind
This is the essential teaching of all the buddhas.
In short, refraining from committing bad deeds is the basis of Buddhism. However, with even a slight misunderstanding, the gāthā from which this line comes takes on a completely different meaning. People often say, “Good actions bring about good results. Bad actions bring about bad results. Good actions in a family will bring unexpected happiness. Lack of good actions in a family will bring misfortune.” If we understand the poem above with such an attitude of calculated expectation, our understanding has nothing to do with Buddha’s teaching.
Excerpted from Deepest Practice, Deepest Wisdom by Kosho Uchiyama, translated by Shohaku Okumura and Tom Wright