Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gudo Nishijima Roshi on Buddhism and Reality

Nishijima Roshi Nov 13 2010 2

I met my Buddhist teacher, Gudo Nishijima, at his apartment in Tokyo yesterday. He’s 90 years old, but is still active for his age. He gives a Buddhist talk in Japanese every month in Tokyo, and travels to Osaka a few times a year to give a talk there. He’s also working on a new book in Japanese and he gets a lot of email from people interested in Buddhism. He told me he’s happy to be busy like that.

Physically, of course, he’s not as mobile as he used to be. This year the Tokyo summer was the hottest for over 100 years. The temperature got up around 35 Celsius everyday for about 6 weeks. Nishijima told me he tried to get out for a walk or to do his shopping each day during the summer. Unfortunately, he fell over one day on his way home with the shopping. When that happened he realized he’d have to be more careful. He said he realized he “was being too brave.” Nowadays he takes more care when he’s out and about. When I met him recently he told me he’s “training to be an old man”. He still feels young inside, but his body won’t always let him do the things he’d like to. 

He was in good spirits yesterday, and always is as far as I can see. It’s a real pleasure to meet him. He’s always willing to discuss Buddhism, and I learn something every time we meet. It's great to meet someone who's cheerful and upbeat all the time. That's another thing I learn when I meet him. I get to see how someone is after studying Buddhism for more than 70 years!

I recorded some of our chat yesterday. It was a discussion about what Buddhism sees as the difference between matter and reality, or what Buddhism calls the "dharma". We also talked a bit about the reason to do zazen and about what Buddhists refer to as the "balanced state". Nishijima’s idea is that when we do zazen our body and mind become more balanced, and that balanced state is the natural state of humans. So when we do zazen we notice what it means to be human. Our talk went something like that anyway. Here's the mp3 file. It lasts about 12 minutes (11 mb). 


  1. Peter,

    I'm glad to see you blogging again. It is like returning home for me.

    I hope all is well.


  2. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for this audio piece, it's very nice to hear Nishijima Roshi.

    Of what I understand about materialism and realism, matter would be the world as we see it through the scope of our scientific theories. For example, atoms are ideas that physicists came up with and that proved themselves useful to understand other things (like chemical reactions). They are ideas in the sense that nobody ever "experienced" an atom the way we can
    experience emotions or sensations. But someday, some scientist had this idea of an atom and thought that it could explain very well what he just observed in one of his experiment. And his idea was so useful and powerful to describe the universe that it had a lot of success. And somehow, nowadays we take for granted that these useful ideas are reality. I think we even have a sense that matter is in a way more "real" than, say, our sensations or thoughts, that it is more stable and solid.

    On the other hand, I think reality would be what is not seen through the scope of a theory but directly experienced. It is whatever is here and what we experience. And sometimes, that doesn't fit in any particular theory, but it's here nonetheless. To me, the notion of reality is more like a way to express some sort of openness towards our experience. If I stop trying to put things I see or hear or feel into the categories of our theories, I can have a more open relationship to them, whether I like them or not, understand them or not, already know them or not, etc.

    And about the purpose of zazen, one question I still have in mind is would Nishijima Roshi say that the purpose of zazen (and buddhism) is directed at our human lives, or is there something greater? I hear him saying that the purpose of zazen is to be balanced, and I wonder if, to him, the sole purpose of this balanced state is in the scope of our human life. If yes, then I guess we could say that buddhism is close to the goal of various new methods of therapies, which is only to make our lives better. Somehow I don't think buddhism is concerned about anything else that human life, but at the same time I have heard often that buddhism was different from therapy. I just wonder in what way, and especially if it involves something more than just being happy. (I remember when I met him in tokyo a few years ago, when I went to say goodbye at the end of my stay, he told me to have a happy life. I think this was a good advice :) )

    All the best,

  3. Al,

    Thanks. It was a bit busy for a while, but I hope to blog more frequently now.

    Hope all is well,


  4. Hi Guillame,

    Thanks for your explanation about materialism and reality. It makes sense to me. I’ve heard Nishijima Roshi say that he considers materialism to be based on ideas or theory, while Buddhism is based on reality or action. He doesn’t say that those ideas about matter are wrong, just that they’re in a different dimension to reality or action.

    I asked Nishijima about the purpose of zazen several times myself. He feels that Buddhism thinks there’s more to reality than we normally notice. Of course we can carry on our lives without doing zazen or learning Buddhism, but if we want to really live our lives the best way we can, he recommends doing zazen. He feels it helps us to notice some very nice things that we usually don’t notice even though they’re always here. His first teacher, Master Kodo Sawaki, used to give the example that the universe was sending out signals like a radio antenna, but that normally it’s hard for us to pick up those signals. Doing zazen helps us to tune into the universe's “signals”. Of course, that’s just an analogy. But Buddhism does talk about the universal law, or Dharma, which Buddhists say is something real. If we do zazen regularly, we start to notice the kind of universal law and behave in accordance with it. I think that helps us to live our life the way that’s right for us. Most people agree that doing zazen makes us more aware of the present moment too, and maybe we appreciate our life more as a result. But of course everyone is different, and I don’t know if that’s the same for everyone.

    I never really considered Buddhism as a kind of therapy in the usual sense of the word. Although I agree that, to a certain extent, doing zazen can help us overcome or sort out some things that might have affected us in the past. I think the therapeutic aspect might vary from person to person. In my own case, I was more interested in the “truth” side of it. When I did zazen for the first time I noticed there is something interesting about it, and it made me want to learn more about it.

    I agree zazen can help us to lead a happy life too:-)

    Best regards,

  5. Hello Folks,

    Master Dogen explores the idea of an objective 'reality' and our experience of it from several interesting perspectives in Shobogenzo. In a sense, whatever we experience (be it what we consider 'directly' or 'indirectly') is always reality because it's happening regardless of how we interpret it (which is also an effectively 'real' activity), and so it may not be a matter of relative perceptions of it, but may be something more fundamental that endures and is already a real function throughout all eventualities and all relative perceptions of things. I can't consider it in the relative terms of 'real vs unreal' for this reason, but rather am drawn to think of it in terms of just what sort of effectively 'real' situation we want to manifest with our own actions: a 'reality' based on our habitual perceptions and references and responses or one that is not so confined to them. Reality doesn't inhibit itself by being 'real' as buddha does not inhibit buddha with any fixed form.

    Sitting/'dropping off body and mind' is to allow our thoughts and perceptions to come and go and in doing so we can appreciate a mode of action that is not conditioned by our habitual responses to thoughts and perceptions such as where we might make assumptions about what objects of thought/perception are 'me' and what is 'not me'. The implication for the idea of some enduring, autonomous self that sees itself as different based on transitory thoughts and perceptions is clear, but the implication for an objective or 'Ultimate Reality' may also be that there isn't one! 'There is not one objective molecule in the universe' as the old zen utterance goes, and so every thing, by dint of its existence, is always unavoidably involved in creating reality in whatever condition it is just now. In a sense doing something real/realising is no more effectively 'real' than any other conduct and perception of events... in another sense, in terms of human experience and conduct, it is not prone to our habitual ways of interpreting situations and acting within reference to our own self-created perception of them. Is zazen a more 'real' action then? From the point of view of relative perceptions of events it can be considered to be I think, but from the point of view of actually doing it all real things currently happening everywhere are already real. It's a strangely complicated situation that is not even conveniently explained by terms such as 'nondual'.

    The chapter of Shobogenzo I'm thinking about specifically is 'The Triple World is Only the Mind'.



  6. Here's Nishijima Roshi's intro to that chapter from vol. 3 of the Nishijima/Cross translation:


    San means "three" and kai means "world." So sangai means "the three worlds," or "the triple world." Traditionally, Buddhist theory looks at the world as the amalgamation of three worlds: the world of thinking, the world of feeling, and the world of action. In traditional Buddhist terminology these three worlds are called the worlds of volition, matter, and non-matter. The phrase "the three worlds," or "the triple world," is often used to mean this world here and now, the whole world, the real world, which includes the world of thinking, the world of feeling, and the world of action. Yui means "only," "solely," or "alone," and shin means "mind." So sangai-yuishin means "the triple world is only the mind" or "the triple world is the mind alone." The phrase "the triple world is only the mind" is often interpreted as an idealistic insistence that the whole world is produced by our mind. Historically, many Buddhist monks thought that this was the case. Master Dogen did not agree; he insisted that in Buddhism, the phrase "the triple world is only the mind" means something far more real. This phrase refers to the teaching that reality exists in the contact between subject and object. From this viewpoint, when we say that the world is only the mind, we also need to say that the mind is only the world, to express the fact that the relationship is a mutual one. In this chapter, Master Dogen explains the meaning of the phrase "the triple world is only the mind" from the Buddhist viewpoint, criticizing idealistic interpretations.

    (sorry for going on).

  7. Hi Harry,

    Thanks for that. It's a nice introduction. Sometimes the meaning of the word "mind" in Buddhism is not so clear, and is often quite confusing, although I think that introduction explains it well.

    Another chapter in which Dogen talks about something similar is "Learning the Truth with Body and Mind" (Shinjin-Gakudo). In the intro to that chapter it says that Buddhism includes learning with our body and learning with our mind, but that these two ways are always combined in action.

    All the best,


  8. Thanks Peter, I've read that chapter, but not in much detail I think. I'll look it up.

    Regards to All,


  9. p.s.

    I like 'Kobutsu-Shin' on the subject of what 'mind' is:

    When we endeavor to study in this manner, the mind of ancient
    buddhas, whether of gods or humans, whether in this world
    or another, is walls, partitions, tiles, pebbles. Never has the mind
    of ancient buddhas been defiled by a single particle of dust.
    (Hee-Jin Kim trans.)




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