Understanding and Realizing

Sesshin ended today. In dokusan the difference between understanding and realizing came up again. It’s a difficult thing to learn (and “teach”) because most of us are only familiar with understanding and are impatient. Realization takes as long as it takes.

What’s the difference?

Take the koan I offered in the last post:

…When Kishizawa Ian, Suzuki Roshi’s second teacher, was a young monk, he was sitting in meditation on a rainy day and heard the sound of a distant waterfall. Then the wooden han was struck. He went to his teacher (maybe Oka Sotan) and asked, “What is the place where the sound of the rain, the waterfall, and the han meet?”
His teacher replied, “True eternity still flows.”
And then he asked, “What is this true eternity that still flows?”
“It is like a bright mirror, permanently smooth,” said his teacher.
“Is there anything beyond this?” asked the young monk.
“Yes,” responded his teacher.
“What is beyond this?” inquired the young monk.
And his teacher replied, “Break the mirror. Come, and I’ll meet you.”

A lot could be said about the spunk and freshness of the young monk; the psychology of the ear organ, the ear consciousness, and the ear objects coming together (waterfull, rain, han); the references in the teacher’s answers to the
Jewel Mirror Samadhi; and how teacher and student meet. All that would be to understand the koan.

To realize is to actualize eternity, the mirror, breaking, and meeting. Realizing is probably not like anything you’ve known before. If you’ve real-ized breaking of the mirror, for example, you can say what color it is just as easy as it is to identify your own face in the mirror.


If not, you might try to figure it out. Maybe figuring is necessary to discover that it can’t be realized in that way. Understanding is also profoundly unsatisfying.

Instead, look at the example of Sonin from a few posts back. When her teacher asked her about temporal conditions, she didn’t know, had the ego strength to acknowledge that she didn’t know, and went away to throw herself into her practice.


Her practice became a sacred pause.

And although the blog world is good for many things, it isn’t so good at communicating the importance of taking as long as it takes.


To clarify: I’m not encouraging practicing with a gaining idea but manifesting the burning Way Heart through wholehearted inquiry, free from all considerations. I’m encouraging passion for our questions. No need holding back and playing humble.

Capping Verse from Dogen in King of Samadhi’s Samadhi:
“Investigate one thousand points, ten thousand points, such as these.”

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  • http://catherinesarttours.blogspot.com Seigen

    Given to a Zen Person Who Requested a PoemMind itself is buddha.Practice is difficult. Explanation is not difficult.Not-mind. Not-buddha.Explanation is difficult. Practice is not difficult.Dogen, from Moon in a Dewdrop, p. 217.

  • http://catherinesarttours.blogspot.com Seigen

    Dogen makes me laugh.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04878684373898294730 Dosho Port

    me too

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05168631752214481563 Harry

    Dosho,This post had me considering that there’s many answers to questions, and that there may be an ‘answer’ in realizing the nature of questioning….Which, by an even more mysterious process, led me to pursuing the now famous and widely transmitted Rumsfeld koan:“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld Now, THAT makes me laugh (and cry too).Regards,Harry.

  • Anonymous

    Tell me this, Dosho, when the mirror cracks, where is teacher and where is student?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04878684373898294730 Dosho Port

    Turn the Mississippi around, then I’ll tell you.

  • Anonymous

    How would you say does one go about turning the Mississippi around?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05126604767083301340 Monk in the world

    Understanding and Realizing:I’m hooked on this…like the hint of a spice in something I am chewing on but I just can’t quite make it out…no understadning there, just discovering, experiencing…My mind is in the way big time but my heart burns…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14342446261342127130 Dhyan

    Listening has been a strong help to me for many years in entering and abiding in “the present moment” but I had never considered until you mentioned it in this blog “the psychology of the ear organ, the ear consciousness, and the ear objects coming together.” I “know” the moment when they do and suddenly, momentarily, my experience of the world goes sharply “clear.” But I will consider this psychology and see if I can “verify” what is ear organ, what is ear consciousness, what are ear objects coming together.Also, I was struck by your breaking of the word realize into real-ize. I will “hold this” also in my practice.Gassho, Dhyan

  • Raymond

    Dosho, Good evening. I understand Sonin’s koan a little differently. First line, Keizan Zenji asks her a trick question, inviting her to speculate about a metaphysical truth whereof Buddha had always been silent. Evading this dualistic trap, she writes back evidence of her own dharma practice: shadelessness is the bodhisattva with no skin…the practice that is so continuous that there is no gap, no place where the self seeks refuge. “How does this practice express itself?”, Keizan Zenji asks. In a bow. In a humble, prostrate-to-attain-the-marrow, drop-body-and-mind-for-the-sake-of-all-sentient-beings- bow. A bow of unknowing, complete humility, only the action itself..a bow to cut off the egoistic mind…to work with the three poisonous mind states…to practice the paramitas…to uphold the vows for millions of kalpas…working nonstop with to stay open to those who might hurt me. It is such a beautiful bow. I think inside the bow was not an admission of ignorance but an expression of complete understanding. Perhaps that complete understanding was expressed in a gesture of complete humility makes me appreciate it all the more. Just my interpretation. I was very moved by the story when you originally posted it. Thank you for your time. Raymond

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15243863260042908830 brendan

    Understanding and Realizing:Cannot make tea with thoughts of boiling water.


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