Zen Road
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Spring does not become summer

Why practice in everyday life? A lecture by Zen monk Bertrand Schütz



The title of this lecture asks the question, “Why practice in everyday life?” I think in fact it’s the other way around. For most of us, that’s how we started: our daily lives confront us with questions that aren’t so easy to answer. However, human beings are inventive: there’s a question or problem, we look for a solution, most of the time the solution raises other questions, and so on. Science develops in this way.

But this way of doing things is ineffectual when we’re faced with certain conflicts (someone 1 once said that the sign of a true conflict is that there is no way out), or with the basic questions of our existence, such as that of suffering. In fact, as tradition tells us, the starting point of Buddha’s teaching is the question of suffering.


It so happens that some time ago I attended a roundtable discussion in Hamburg during an exhibit about crimes committed under the Nazi dictatorship. The debate focused on ethical questions: how should one behave in certain situations, are there rules of conduct, guidelines for behavior, etc. One of the participants 2 said, “We can distinguish two types of problems: those to which we can find a solution, which are, in the end, technical problems; and insoluble problems. And faced with the second type, all we can do is develop an attitude.”3


I think this speaker in fact described fairly precisely what the practice of Zen is about: developing an attitude. I talked about it in the dojo where I practice and someone said to me, “Oh, you mean keeping your poise!” 4 But that’s not at all what it’s about. It’s not keeping or maintaining, but developing. It’s an activity, a dynamic.


developing an attitude


springtime1You probably know that Buddha, seeking an answer to the fundamental questions, tried all kinds of solutions. His era and his culture were rich in responses to the basic questions of existence. It was in India, in the 5th or 6th century before our era, and there were many kinds of ascetic practices, which of course all had as their goal to respond to the basic questions of existence. And he tried them all and judged them unsatisfactory, even harmful – he almost died from them. Then he sat down in the posture that we call zazen, and it was in this posture that he was awakened. This posture has since been transmitted in the Zen tradition, down to our times. It constitutes the heart of our practice.



When we practice the zazen posture, we realize that maintaining it requires both a certain level of energy and the ability to let go – a great inner mobility. As we practice, we notice that when we get stuck on something, when we’re fixated, in body or mind, we can’t hold the posture for very long. So it was in this posture that Buddha found the answer to his questions.


He immersed himself in the practice and transmitted it. It has had an eventful history, coming from India to China, from China to Japan, and, since the 1960’s and 70’s, to Europe. Throughout the course of its history, it has developed different facets, due to its contact with various civilizations, while remaining the same in its essence.


It undoubtedly represents one of the rare oral traditions still alive today – “oral” meaning that the essential core of the experience is transmitted from person to person, mind to mind, heart to heart. It is therefore a matter of transmitted experience. This may seem paradoxical, but experience is neither something we do or fabricate ourselves, nor something that comes to us from somewhere or someone else; it’s something that takes place as communication, or as mutual correspondence.



While it is not in the realm of metaphysical discourse, there is obviously an urge to express this experience, and it is surprising to note that Zen literature is doubtlessly one of the most abundant among spiritual traditions. All authentic works in Zen literature in fact speak only about this experience of zazen. Some are very elaborate and also contain interesting philosophical aspects, but their source is this experience.


to know oneself is to forget oneself



springtime3One of the major figures in Zen, to whom we often refer in our school, is Master Dogen, who lived in Japan in the 13th century. He was not satisfied by the spiritual schools that he frequented and set off to China, where he encountered the living tradition of Zen, which he brought back to Japan.


Master Dogen says in one of his major works, the Genjo Koan, “To study the Way is to study oneself.” The “Way” is a term which comes from the Chinese tao, which monks used to translate a Sanskrit term, marga, meaning “truth.” So, seeking the truth or the Way, is seeking oneself, or studying oneself.


This is reminiscent of Socrates’ “Know thyself” in the Western tradition. Dogen continues, “To know oneself is to forget oneself.” And he doesn’t stop there: “To forget oneself is to be awakened (or enlightened or certified) by all beings in the cosmos.”


This truth or this Way that we seek is therefore a dynamic; the solution that we’re seeking is not something outside of ourselves. If we look outside, there is no solution. And so there’s an about-face, a turnaround. Instead of seeking a solution or an object, it’s a matter of knowing oneself. What, then, is this self? Along the way we realize that once again, there is no object to grasp.


a revolution in the truest sense


springtime2“To forget oneself”: by renouncing the desire to seize an object, in particular in terms of oneself, we enter into a connection or communication with everything that exists, and we are thereby certified.


So it’s not a matter of negation, nihilism or mortification. But we don’t find something of which we can say, “There, that’s me,” or “There, that’s the truth” or “That’s the solution.” The solution consists of this movement, this dynamic.


It means abandoning the concepts that our personal consciousness forms in order to build itself an image of the world. By constructing images, objects and categories in this way, we assume a fixed point of view from which we see things, and we assume that we ourselves are a fixed point. The experience of Zen and of Buddha, which is a revolution in the truest sense, is precisely that there is no object that can be found. Which does not mean that there’s nothing.


There is no separate or isolated point. That’s what the title of this lecture is about: “Spring does not become summer.” It has nothing to do with global warming, don’t worry. It’s a quote from Master Dogen – again, from the Genjo Koan – who uses this image to talk about the problem of life and death. He’s saying that we shouldn’t think that death becomes life or life becomes death. It has to do with our way of seeing. He’s not saying that there are no seasons: winter exists and spring exists, just as individuality exists. But it’s a mistake to believe that this is something permanent that would change over the course of time. This is considered to be a fundamental error.

...not letting ourselves be restricted by a goal


[Bertrand Schütz in zazen. May 2006.]

That’s why the idea of mushotoku is key. It means “without goal,” and it includes many aspects: for one, the spirit in which we practice – not letting ourselves be restricted by a goal, not expecting any profit whatsoever. And when we don’t expect anything, we can expect everything. So mushotoku means no goal or gain for oneself; but it also means that the practice itself is not an object. I think, in fact, that when a spiritual practice becomes an object, what we call dogmatism or idolatry arises.


But this does not mean that we practice any which way. On the contrary, it means being extremely exact, in harmony and perfect correspondence with the present moment. That’s what it means to develop an attitude, in this very moment. When you hold yourself up straight, sitting or walking, you have to consider all the particulars of the moment. As soon as you stop paying attention to one of them, you can’t maintain the posture for very long.


This is also one of the reasons why we practice from time to time for longer periods. It is possible to put up with tensions or rigidity for a certain amount of time through sheer force of will – tensions are also a way of ignoring certain things, of not paying attention to them – but the posture becomes more and more rigid and the moment comes when we can’t go on.


It’s like keeping your balance on a bicycle. Obviously it’s impossible to pay attention to everything by using your discriminating thought, your personal consciousness. It’s like the centipede that thinks about which foot to move when. We’ve all experienced this, driving a car, swimming, etc. In zazen, it’s the same thing. You’re told how to sit, how to position your knees, your pelvis, how to breathe, and let your thoughts pass; but you have to do everything at once and at the same time forget it. Zazen is not the only time we do this, but, as opposed to driving a car or swimming, in zazen we do it without trying to get anything.

[Bertrand Schütz during a sesshin at Neu Schönau, Germany. May 2006.]

Bertrand Schütz is a Zen monk, translator and lecturer in German literature and culture who lives and works in Hamburg, where he also runs the Hamburg Zen Dojo. On March 24, 2006, he was invited to Tübingen to give a talk about Zen practice.

1 Carl-Gustav Jung

2 Jan-Philipp Reemtsma, maker of the Wehrmachtsaustellung, a traveling exhibition focused on the war crimes of the Wehrmacht committed on the East Front from 1941 to 1944.

3 In German, the same word (Haltung) is used for both a physical posture and a mental attitude.

4 Literally, “keeping one’s attitude” (Haltung bewahren).