The Wisdom of Listening, Thinking, and Practicing

In the Zen sect, one of the sutras we read is a sutra called the Yuikyogyo. This sutra is said to be the last words the Buddha spoke to his disciples before his death. (The death of the Buddha is traditionally commemorated on February 15th each year). In this sutra, there is the following passage: “A person with true wisdom is like a sturdy ship sailing across the sea of old age, sickness, and death; like a brilliant torch in pitch-black darkness; like a sharp ax used to cut down the tree of delusion. Therefore, you must hold onto and increase this wisdom which arises from listening, thinking, and practicing.”

Who wouldn’t want to be like a sturdy ship sailing steadily across the challenges of life? Who wouldn’t want to be a brilliant torch in the darkness? Who wouldn’t want to be like a sharp ax used to cut down the tree of delusion? I suppose there is no one in this world who wouldn’t want to be wise like this.

At the moment of his awakening 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha guaranteed that all sentient beings are buddhas. For that reason, it can be said that Buddhism is the teaching of liberation from the sufferings of life. It is the teaching of how to awaken to our innate freedom. As it says in the passage above, this wisdom arises from listening, thinking, and practicing.

Listening, thinking, and practicing are an essential element of Buddhist practice. In order to discover how to live a steady, wise life, it is first of all necessary to hear the Buddhist teaching. If we don’t hear the teaching, then it isn’t possible to think about it. Buddhism isn’t a religion of blind faith in which we simply swallow the teaching whole in one gulp. It is necessary to think and think about what we hear. It is necessary to chew up the teaching and then digest it. Once we understand the way to carry out the teaching, we can put it into practice.

Listening, thinking, and practicing are activities that can all be done at a Zen center or temple. In the process of thinking about Buddhism, about the relation between wisdom and suffering, and so on, it is inevitable that questions will arise. I encourage you to visit the Confluence Zen Center or your local Zen center or temple and ask the teacher about the Buddhist teaching.

In the Zen sect, it isn’t unusual to meet people who think that Zen meditation (zazen) is to stop thinking. But this is a misunderstanding. Thinking is one of the six sense functions, along with seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Just as it wouldn’t be possible to tell the nose to stop smelling or the ears to stop hearing, it isn’t possible to tell the mind to stop thinking. The only time a person stops thinking is at the end of life.

Human beings can only think one thought at a time. Nevertheless, we have the mistaken impression that we are able to think two or three or even four thoughts at the same time. This happens partly because the stream of thoughts, arising and disappearing, moves very quickly. A lot of our difficulties arise because of this mistaken impression that we can think two thoughts at the same time. This is the source of dualistic consciousness (the ego) in which we are always comparing what we like with what we don’t like. If we could leave each thought as it is, this would be the wisdom we are looking for. We would no longer constantly judge thoughts as being good or bad or neutral. This also includes our ideas about the various aspects of life such as old age, sickness, and death.

The Buddha taught that all things are subject to laws. Birth, old age, sickness, and death are laws in themselves and not something to be overcome or avoided. Rather, he taught that the way to liberation is to entrust ourselves to birth, death, old age, and sickness as they arise. This is the Dharma that Shakyamuni Buddha awakened to, but it doesn’t belong only to him. It also doesn’t belong only to the Zen sect. Each of the Buddhist sects has its own Dharma teaching and various means are used to explain the Dharma in ways that are easy to understand. The Dharma belongs to all people who verify it for themselves. Please don’t forget the teaching of the Buddha and be diligent in the practice of listening, thinking, and practicing.

– Rev. Daigaku Rummé (November, 2016)