30 Questions With Nishijima Roshi

In a recent video I read aloud an email that I received in 2006 from my teacher, Gudo Nishijima Roshi. Some folks wanted to see it written out. So I dug out the email and here it is. On the video I corrected some of Nishijima Roshi’s grammar as I read the email. But I left all his idiosyncratic grammar as it is for this version.

The email I received was a cc to an email he sent to his student Gustav Ericson. Nishijima Roshi addressed all of his ordained students as “Ven.” in emails. Here it is:

Dear Ven. Gustav Ericson,

My answers to your questions are as follows.

1. What is gained in Zazen?

What we gain in Zazen is the balance of the autonomic nervous system. In Shobogenzo Bendowa we can find the word “Jijuyo Zanmai,”  which Master Dogen indicates as criteria of Zazen. And the word separates into two parts, the one is Jiju and the other is Jiyo, therefore Jijuyo is a combination between Jiju and Jiyo. Jiju means to receive ourselves, and Jiyo means to utilize ourselves. Therefore we can interpret that Jiju suggests the fanction of the parasympathetic nervous system, and Jiyo suggests the function of the sympathetic nervous system. And furthermore Zanmai means the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system. Then we can understand that the Jijuyo Zanmai is just the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system, which the modern psychology and physiology teach us today.

2. What is Master Dogen’s “flowers in space”?

The “flowers in space” is the title of the 43rd Chapter in Shobogenzo, and in the Chapter, Master Dogen explains that even though Buddhism insists that both intellectual consideration and concrete sensuous perception are not real, but at the same time Master Dogen insists that both the intellectual consideration as thesis, and the concrete sensuous perception as antithesis, are useful and necessary, because of utilizing those two fundamental criteria, we can understand reality on the basis of dialectic thinking utilizing the philosophy of act as the synthesis.

3. What is the meaning of Dharma Transmission?

In Shobogenzo we can find the 16th Chapter, which is entitled “The Certificate of Succession.” And in the Chapter Master Dogen describes the transmitting ceremony of Dharma. Therefore the “Transmission” means the transmission of Dharma, and Dharma means, the Buddhist truth, the Universe, a real act at the present moment, and Reality itself. Therefore we can interpret that the “Dharma Transmission” is giving the certificate of realizing Dharma from a Buddhist Master to his matured disciple.

4. What is a Zen Master?

I guess that the words “Zen Master” may be the translation of Japanese words “Zen Ji.” Zen is the common between the two words and Shi means a teacher, therefore a Zen Master means a teacher of Zazen. But I think that we should be careful in thinking Zen. Because in Buddhism we sometimes find a strange fact, that the word Zen is sometimes used for representing a special meaning of something mystical. Such kinds of Buddhism use the word Zen to represent some kind of mystical but powerful entity. But I wonder whether in Buddhism such a kind of mystical entity exists, or not.
And Master Dogen hates such a kind of mysticism so strongly, and so in Shobogenzo he writes his opinion as follows in Shobogenzo. (Book 2, P. 62, L 12.)
“People who do not learn this truth in practice speak randomly and mistakenly. They randomly call the right-Dharma-eye treasury and the fine mind of nirvana that have been authentically transmitted by the Buddhist patriarchs “the Zen Sect”; they call the ancestral Master “the Zen patriarch”; they call practitioners “Zen students” or “students of dhyana”; and some of them call themselves “the Zen schools.” These are all twigs and leaves rooted in a distorted view. Those who randomly call themselves by the name “Zen Sect,” which has never existed in India in the west or in eastern lands, from the past to the present, are demons out to destroy the Buddha’s truth. They are the Buddhist patriarchs’ uninvited enemies.”
Therefore we should be careful to use the word “Zen.”

5. What is intuition?

Intuition is a mental ability, which has a function to decides a conclusion transcending mental consideration and sensuous perception. When the sympathetic nervous system is stronger, the intellectual consideration works well, and when the parasympathetic nervous system is stronger, the sensuous perception works well, but when the autonomic nervous system is balanced the ability of intuition works well directly.

6. What is our true original nature?

Generally speaking, it is usually impossible for us to know our true original nature, because it is just a simple fact at the present moment, and so it is usually impossible for us to grasp it at the present moment.

7. What is Buddha-nature?

In Chapter  22. of Shobogenzo entitled by “Bussho, or  The Buddha-nature,” Master Dogen describes as follows. (Book 2, P. 6, L. 1.)
“If you want to know this Buddha-nature, remember, causes and circumstances as real time are just it.”
Therefore Buddha-nature does never exist in the past, and it does never exist in future, but it exists just only at the present moment. So we can think that Buddha-nature is Reality just at the present moment.

8. What is Heaven and Hell?

Heaven is a human supposition and Hell is also a human supposition. But when our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is just the Heaven, and when our autonomic nervous system is not balanced, it is just the Hell.

9. What is life and death?

When our heart has stopped, and if it doesn’t move again, the state is called death, and when our heart is moving still without stopping is called life.

10. What is the meaning of the Buddhist idea of emptiness?

The true meaning of emptiness in Buddhism has been misunderstood for so many years as nothingness, or void. But if we have understood that Buddhism is a realistic philosophy, it is impossible for us to understand emptiness like that. In Buddhism emptiness is just “as it is.” A cup is a cup. A cup never more than cup, or a cup is never less than cup.

11. What is better Zazen and worse Zazen?

There is no better Zazen, or worse Zazen. What is different from Zazen is wrong, and what is just Zazen is Zazen.

12. What is the eternal?

The eternity is just human idea, but the fact at the present moment is eternal, because it must be recorded as a fact at the present moment, and it can never be erased for ever.

13. What is the meaning of Master Dogen’s “Bodaisatta Shishobo? Could you please comment on the four principles of a Bodhisattva’s social relations?

Shobogenzo has the Chapter 45 which is called “BODAISATTA-SHISHOBO, or Four Elements of a Bodhisattva’s Social Relations.”
They are “First is free giving. Second is kind speech. Third is helpful conduct. Fourth is cooperation.”
1) Free giving: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is impossible for our stinginess to occur, and  if something is not necessary for us to keep, there is no reason for us to refuse giving it to others.
2) Kind speech: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is very natural for us to be polite to others, and if others receive our politeness, the others might be happy.
3) Helpful conduct: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it will be happy for us to help others, and if others have receive our kind help, they will feel very happy.
4) Cooperation: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, we are always cooperative in the common job, and what we want to accomplish will be accomplished much more faster.

14. What does it mean that life is only one breath?

Our life exists always just at the present moment, and the length of the present moment is always the shortest time, and actually thinking the present moment is much more shorter that our one breath. Therefore we can say that our life is always much shorter than the length of our breath.

15. When should we break the precepts?

We should never break the precepts at all, but sometimes we can not avoid our mistake. But don’t worry about the facts that you have broken the Buddhist precepts. Because it is completely impossible for you to come back to the past for correcting your mistakes at all. Therefore the best, which you can do, is just to throw away your mistakes in the past, and to do the best just at the present moment.

16. Where will you be in 100 years from now?

Not so long, but when I died in a few years, everything will become nothing including me, and I will take a rest forever.

17. How can we understand ourselves?

I think that it is impossible for us to understand ourselves.

18. What can we understand with words, and what can we not understand with

We can understand everything, but at the same time, our understandings can never touch Reality.

19. Is it possible to teach Zen?

It is possible for us to teach Zazen, but it is necessary for everyone to practice Zazen by himself or herself.

20. Does Zazen have a goal?

Zazen has a goal. The goal of Zazen is to practice Zazen itself.

21. Where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?

I think that such kinds of questions might be beyond all human beings’ ability.

22. How can we let go of fame and profit?

When our autonomic nervous system has become balanced, it seems to be so boring for us to pursue fame and profit, and we can find much more valuable objects to pursue, that is the Truth.

23. Could you please tell me more about the city you were in Manchuria and your time there during the war? What was the name of the city?

In was called Songo in Japanese at that time, and it was in the north-west district of Manchuria near the Amur. It was just a military city for Japanese army. But at that time fortunately there was no fighting in that district, and so we are just guarding the district.

24. Could you please tell me more about how it was to return to Japan
after the war?

In June in 1945, I was ordered to move to Himeji City in Japan for guarding Japan itself, and so I travelled along the eastern coast of Korea in rather dangerous situations, and I met the end of war in Himeji City in Japan.

25. How can Zazen help us be happy?

It is just the happiest condition to practice Zazen itself.

26. How can we practice Zazen in our daily chores?

After moving to my new residence, where I am living now, I have begun cooking by myself, and so I have found the fact clearly that even my cooking in my daily life has also characteristics of acts, therefore it can be also a kind of Buddhist efforts, of course, even though I am practicing Zazen two times a day everyday.

27. What is truth?

Reality is the Truth. Therefore the Universe is also the Truth.

28. What are some of your favourite quotes from the Shobogenzo, and why?

For example, “It is just moment by moment of red mind, upon which we rely solely.” (Shobogenzo Book 1, P. 211. L. 1.) The red mind suggests sincere mind, and this is a description of Master Dogen’s daily life.

29. How can a Zen Master help a student?

A Buddhist Master can help his student in teaching Buddhist philosophy, in guiding daily life, in practicing Zazen together, and in transmitting Buddhist Dharma.

30. In your life, how have you noticed that Zazen is actually practically

I have become a little better than before.

With best wishes                     Gudo Wafu Nishijima


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