Some time ago I thought I could do an interview with my teacher Mike Luetchford about things I consider important for someone who is interested in Buddhist practice and study. Mike Luetchford often talked about or at least mentioned these topics in his talks I listened to for more than ten years and I should know his opinions by now, but as for me, I want to learn from experienced people repeatedly - what we knew yesterday may be something we need to learn again today - and the readers of this blog might just want to know my teacher's answers to these questions.
What does Buddhism offer that other philosophies or activities don't?
Increasingly, I feel that the term “Buddhism” with all its religious connotations is not always helpful. For more than 2000 years, the teachings have been protected from dilution and distortion in a vessel that has been called “Buddhism”. But increasingly, that vessel has started to limit what we understand from the teachings, which are about life itself, and not restricted to a religion or to within a particular group of people. Increasingly in today’s world, we are coming to understand what life is about, how the universe is and how it works. And this understanding is no longer restricted to within a limited group of adherents. So I would like to use the term “the teachings” to describe what it is that formed the original teachings and what teachers and students have studied and practiced.
These teachings that have been passed on from teacher to teacher are not exclusive. This means that they don’t teach something that no one else knows about or has experienced. The teachings point to the way things are, and help us to see reality as it is. They emphasise things that everyone has experienced but not noticed clearly. They teach us what is important in living. Although the teachings are ancient, modern science in all its forms is confirming those teachings.
What is the meaning of truth / attaining the truth in Buddhist philosophy and practice?
In English, the word “truth” suggests abstract knowledge about the way things are. In the teachings, the term “truth” is used to point to or label something that is neither abstract nor concrete, but real. Finding out what is real is what is meant by “attaining the truth.”
How important is it to have a Buddhist teacher if we want to study and practice Buddhism? What kind of relationship is it that a Buddhist teacher has with a student? What is beneficial and what is not?
If you want to study “Buddhism” then you need a “Buddhist” teacher. However, the “truth” belongs to everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Everything is teaching us the truth of life, the way things are. Unfortunately, human beings are very slow learners, and because we have highly developed intellects, we need intellectual explanations to explain and clarify the truth that we are being taught by everything around us at every moment. We need to find another human being who can communicate to us what life is about. If we can find a person or people who do that, we feel that we are receiving something important and valuable from them. So there is some kind of closeness between the person teaching, the teacher, and the person receiving, the student. The most important thing is that the communication between these two people is honest, without pretence and open to verification.
Why is it important to practice zazen every day?
The practice of zazen forms the centre of the teachings. When we sit in the balanced posture of zazen, we make ourselves balanced – both mentally and physically. Or more accurately, we allow the mental and physical aspects of who we are to integrate into the one whole being who is sitting. This balance between mental and physical is what is meant by the expression “the middle way”. And it can be explained in many different ways. Balance between body and mind, balance between love and hate, balance of the autonomic nervous system that regulates our bodily functions. The posture itself is balanced. When we are balanced, our thoughts and feelings settle, and we can access the wisdom that all living beings possess and which is called “prajna” in the teachings. Pra means before and jna means consideration. So pra-jna means before consideration, which suggests the condition in which we are not biased by over-thinking or over-feeling, but we act directly with our whole being. In the West, we have historically not valued acting before thinking. Our culture has taught us to think before we act so that our action will be right. We have given more importance to thinking than to acting directly. The teachings tell us to practice zazen every day to maintain this state in which we act directly out of the balanced state. In our daily lives, we lose our balance frequently, so to maintain balance we need to practice balance at regular intervals, like ringing a bell to keep the sound vibrating.
Does zazen have a goal?
Well, it sounds strange to say it, but the goal of zazen is to give up having a goal. To drop off all thoughts and images in our mind and to sit quietly without a goal. To achieve this goal-less goal, we practice every day.
Are Buddhist monasteries unnecessary in the West?
It must have been difficult for our ancestors to find the time and space to reflect on their lives and practice balance in times when survival itself required all their efforts and energy. In modern times, almost everyone has a certain amount of leisure time in which they can do what they want to do, separate from mere survival. With effort, almost everyone is able to find the time to practice balance and study. It is no longer necessary to live in a monastery separate from society to do this. But if some people are happier living apart from life in society to practice and study, then they can form monasteries for this purpose.
Is it important to study Buddha's original teachings?
It seems that the Buddha’s original teachings were oral, and a written record was not made until around 400 years after the Buddha’s death. In addition, the teachings were first written down in Pali, one of the dialects of ancient India related to Sanskrit. Studying the oldest records of the Buddha’s teachings, known collectively as the Pali Cannon, has been the work of scholars, with good translations into English only appearing within the last 50 years. If you like scholarship, then studying these original teachings can be a way to see how the teachings were communicated in ancient India. And books written by those scholars can tell the rest of us what those teachings looked like. But there is a difference between studying the original teachings, and putting the essence of those teachings into practice in our own lives.
Is it important to study and understand master Dogen's Shobogenzo?
To study and understand Dogen’s Shobogenzo is a lifetime’s work. He wrote in medieval Japanese and classical Chinese. If you want to devote your life to that study, then you can learn what he taught in its original form. Now there are at least seven translations into English and other major European languages, including French, German and Spanish. But what is important is to realise what it is that he taught, and this is different from studying his writings.
The teachings are not what is written. For this reason, the teachings have always been passed from person to person – teacher to student – down through the ages. We cannot learn these teachings only from books because they are about life itself, reality itself. Books can help us understand intellectually, they can point us towards the the truth of life, but without practicing and experiencing, we can never realise that truth in our own lives.
How important are everyday actions and how should we act?
Our everyday actions ARE our life. The story we tell ourselves about our life is just that – a story. Our real life is composed of everyday actions in time present. The fact that we don’t seem to experience our lives like that is because for much of the time we live in the world of our mind, in which there is a past, a present and a future. But in fact there is only the time of our present action. To act in a balanced and sincere way is all we can do. It is not easy to know whether our action in this moment is right, or will have good results, and in fact we can never know this. We practice balance every day so that we can act in this moment in a balanced way, and that is the best we can do. Rather than judging our actions or trying to work out what is best to do, this simple attitude frees us from mental suffering and gives us freedom to act.
How should we approach the numberless spiritual ways we come across in the globalized world? Can we benefit from wisdom ( if there is any) of people who teach these things?
There are many spiritual teachings in today’s worlds, and you can find many spiritual teachers on the Internet. Although their teachings may sound attractive, the criterion has to be – do they work in my life? Reality is not only spiritual. It is the union of the physical and the mental. So teachings that only address the spiritual side of reality are only partial.
What is your opinion of religion in general?
The word “religion” can be broken down into “re-“ which means “again” or “back” and the Latin verb “ligeo” which means “to bind or tie”. So one way of interpreting the word “religion” is “to bind ourselves back again”. Well, if we interpret that to mean “to tie ourselves back to reality” or “to ground ourselves back in reality”, then the teachings are a religion. But most religions are partial, because they are based only in the spiritual aspect of reality. So they are incomplete as a way of living.
What is your opinion of romantic love?
Romantic love is wonderful while it lasts. We feel as if we have found the missing part of ourselves in someone else, and we feel complete, whole, safe and happy. But it doesn’t last. We can enjoy it while we are in it, while we are in love, but sooner or later we will have to climb out again. We don't need to avoid romantic love, but we should notice that it is a wonderful but transient state of delusion.
Is it necessary to see the difference between dreams and reality clearly and is it possible?
The story which we take to be our life is like a dream. Reality is just this moment. So when we are living in our story, we are in a dream. Because we cannot experience the momentary nature of existence within our minds, much of the time we are living in a dream. We practice zazen to experience the simple momentary nature of reality, to come out of the dream. Although we are living in a dream, we are dreaming our dream in this very moment of the present. We can notice that reality is momentary but we live in a dream.
Is suffering necessary in our lives even if we practice and study the Way diligently?
It isn’t necessary to avoid suffering. If we practice balance, then we can see pain for what it is, and live with it. When we are suffering, it is usually because we don’t see the simple situation for what it is. When we see the simple nature of reality and accept how things are, our suffering stops.
What can the generation of new Buddhist teachers offer if they haven't studied Buddhism in China or Japan?
There will always be a new generation of teachers. Teachers have a duty to teach. They may be teaching others or they may be teaching themselves. It's the same thing. To teach something you need to know what it is. Reality doesn't exist only in China or Japan, so a teacher can teach about reality if they know what reality is, whether or not they have studied Buddhism in China or Japan. The only important thing is to know what reality is. And to know what reality is, we continue to practice sitting in reality for many years.
Is there only one kind of Buddhism?
No, there are many schools of Buddhism, and many variations. But there is only one reality. It doesn’t matter what kind of Buddhism it is, it only matters if it teaches reality.
How would you describe what you learned from your teacher master Gudo Nishijima?
To be flexible and not to be proud. To give the teachings freely.
You seem to love people regardless of their faith or practice. What is it that you love about people most?
Yes, without people, we wouldn’t be discussing anything. Without other people, I could not teach. So I love people regardless of their faith or practice. But that is a generalisation. When I meet a real person, I love them if they are simple and honest.
Thank you for your answers.