The kind of happiness Buddhism proposes to us is not of the sunny, skipping-through-a-field-of-daisies variety, but rather a readiness and a sense of composure in facing whatever feeling might come up, be it pleasant or unpleasant. In this chapter from his book, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness – which is based on a series of lectures about the Sandokai – Shunryu Suzuki talks about the attitude that carries us through the difficulty of ups and downs: ‘When you suffer, you should suffer. When you feel good, you should feel good.’ It’s the willingness to engage with any set of circumstances, to confront the most difficult aspects of our own selves, that gives us the ‘true joy’ that is part of a meditative practice.
Do you know this famous koan? A monk asked a master, “It is so hot. How is it possible to escape from the heat?” And the master said, “Why don’t you go to a place where it is neither cold nor hot?” The disciple said, “Is there a place where it is neither cold nor hot?” The master said, “When it is cold you should be cold buddha. When it is hot you should be hot buddha.” You may think that if you practice zazen you will attain a stage where it is neither cold nor hot, where there is no pleasure or suffering. You may ask, “If we practice zazen is it possible to have that kind of attainment?” The true teacher will say, “When you suffer you should suffer. When you feel good you should feel good.” Sometimes you should be a suffering buddha. Sometimes you should be a crying buddha. And sometimes you should be a very happy buddha.
This happiness is not exactly the same as the happiness that people usually have. There is a little difference, and that little difference is significant. Because buddhas know both sides of reality, they have this kind of composure. They are not disturbed by something bad, or ecstatic about something good. They have a true joy that will always be with them. The basic tone of life remains the same, and in it there are some happy melodies and some sad melodies. That is the feeling an enlightened person may have. It means that when it is hot, or when you are sad, you should be completely involved in being hot or being sad, without caring for happiness. When you are happy you should just enjoy the happiness. We can do this because we are ready for anything. Even though circumstances change suddenly, we don’t mind. Today we may be very happy, and the next day we don’t know what will happen to us. When we are ready for what will happen tomorrow, then we can enjoy today completely. You do this not by studying a lecture but through your practice.
These are Sekito’s words. Later, in Tozan’s time (three generations after Sekito) people got stuck in word games about brightness and darkness. They liked talking about the bright side, the dark side, and the middle way, but they lost the point of how to obtain real freedom.
Dogen Zenji, who lived still later, did not get caught up in these word games so much. Rather he emphasized how to get out of word games by fully appreciating things moment after moment. He was more interested in a koan like, “When it is cold you should be a cold buddha; when it is hot you should be a hot buddha.” That’s all. To be completely involved in what you are doing without thinking about various things is Dogen’s way. This kind of attainment is reached through actual practice, not through words.
Words can help your understanding of things. When you are very dualistic, when you are getting confused, they can help you. But if you are too interested in talking about these things, you will lose your way. We should be interested in actual zazen, not in these words, and we should practice actual zazen.
Dogen Zenji’s way is to find the meaning in each being— like a grain of rice or a cup of water. You may say a cup of water or a grain of rice is something that you see in brightness. But when you pay full respect to the grain of rice, I mean when you actually respect it as you respect Buddha himself, then you will understand that a grain of rice is absolute. When you live completely involved in the dualistic world, you have the absolute world in its true sense. When you practice zazen without seeking for enlightenment or seeking for anything, then there is true enlightenment.
Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971)