‘The secret of Soto Zen is just two words: “Not always so.” Oops – three words in English. In Japanese, two words. “Not always so.” This is the secret of the teaching. It may be so, but it is not always so. Without being caught by words or rules, without too many preconceived ideas, we actually do something, and doing something, we apply our teaching.
To stick to something rigidly is laziness. Before you do something difficult, you want to understand it, so you are caught by words. When you are brave enough to accept your surroundings without saying what is right and what is wrong, then the teaching that was told to you will help. If you are caught by the teaching, you will have a double problem – whether you should follow the teaching or go your own way. This problem is created by grasping the teaching. So practice first, and then apply the teaching.
We practice zazen like someone close to dying. There is nothing to rely on, nothing to depend on. Because you are dying, you don’t want anything, so you cannot be fooled by anything.’ (Not Always So)
The fact that this collection of Suzuki Roshi’s talk was given the title it was shows how that phrase often cropped up in discussions, usually accompanied by a little chuckle at the ‘just two words’ introduction. Reading on through the talk, though, gives us a deeper look at how to practise, to the powerful idea this quote ends with. As elsewhere, I hear echoes of Dogen in the way Suzuki Roshi presented the teachings, especially in this phrase, ‘doing something, we apply our teaching’. There is no point just reading about it; we have to live it – pretty much always.