Faith and Zen

[This text was first published in The Diamond Sword, a collection of talks by Kongo Roshi, Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago, first edition 1987, second edition 1992, pp 49-52.]

The Hindus have a very clever illustration for illusion. They consider illusion and ignorance to be interrelated. The illustration that they use is that ignorance is like mistaking a rope for a snake. We go through life mistaking various ropes for snakes, and often it's the other way around. We're not careful when we should be careful and are unduly careful when it is unnecessary. This is ignorance. We just don't know better. In Japanese this is called makyo (i.e., illusion). This is a new unique concept, I think, to Western people because makyo does not have a negative or positive connotation. It is neither nightmarish nor heavenly. This ignorance literally means being blindfolded by our own minds. Consequently, it is common to mistake a rope for a snake.

It is very encouraging being abbot of this Temple. I began practicing zazen with Matsuoka Roshi almost 30 years ago. I can tell you that in all of that time zazen has never been boring or static for me. I have never had the sensation that I have seen all there is to see. I can say honestly that it has been a perpetual growing into. It is a continual unfolding; life is always unfolding. I am always finding new ropes where I saw snakes. I have to smile when individuals are impatient with their zazen practice. Just as there are many different faces, heads and shoulders that are sitting here, there are that many different conceptions of what zazen is supposed to be or is supposed to offer. We are all familiar with faith in the Christian sense: belief in God or belief in Jesus as a savior. This type of faith we understand. But we have difficulty in comprehending pure faith, when we throw away all doubt. This is a kind of faith that is conclusive. As temple attendants you come for zazen and you listen to me speak. You make your own judgment, draw your own conclusion concerning me and what I have to say as a Zen representative, as a human being, as an individual, and you take me or leave me. Then you read teachings from other Zen or Ch'an teachers such as Shakyamuni Buddha's sermons or Dogen Zenji's works. There are many writings available to confirm or reject the validity of what I tell you. You listen and read and you begin broadening your knowledge. Then gradually all of this is assimilated and digested.

Through zazen practice we add a new dimension to this process. When you practice we add a new dimension to this process. When you come to see, taste, feel and smell that your Zen understanding, your Zen practice is right, then drop the doubt right there and continue. Just march on. This is Zen Buddhism. This is Zen faith. Zen is very straightforward in this respect; it has nothing to do with pie-in-the-sky thinking. Zen promises you nothing. NOTHING! So expect nothing. But this is the great paradox. You will be repaid one million fold. As soon as you let go, you get. As soon as you stop scratching, reaching, grabbing at, grabbing for, you attain. Attain what? NOTHING! Because as soon as you start defining something, it's gone. So truly there is nothing to gain. Don't look for enlightenment; that is so cheap. Yes, this is the American way, but we have to adopt new ways, just as we are adopting other philosophies and practices. If we weren't, you would not see so many Zen Temples and monasteries in the United States. A couple of years ago, a very famous old Zen master, Mumon, who is still living and is abbot of one of the greatest Zen Temples in Japan, said, "If you want to find out about Zen, don't look here, (i.e. Japan). Zen is dead here. You must go to America." Now, let's hope that his statement was prophetic. And if it was, let's help to fulfill it.

The real point is that once you make a decision concerning yourselves, your lives as Zen Buddhists - then as Zen practitioners, do it. DO IT! Go straight ahead. Look neither to the right nor to the left, but like a bore, continue, continue, continue. Then you will know what zazen is. Then this faith will become a mountain underneath you. Don't look for things. Don't shortsight your goal or be myopic about your philosophy. Just practice. Just practice! This is Zen. It is that firm, that concrete. It is that UN-divided. Seng Ts'an, the third Chinese patriarch, said in a very beautiful, very moving poem:

Not two.
Not two.
Just think not two.

Those who have problems, those who have trouble in Zen practice are those who pick and choose. Just think not two and all will be clear. He didn't say one. He said not two.