The basic teaching of Buddhism is the teaching of transiency, or change. That everything changes is the basic truth for each existence. No one can deny this truth, and all the teaching of Buddhism is condensed within it. This is the teaching for all of us. Wherever we go this teaching is true. This teaching is also understood as the teaching of selflessness. Because each existence is in constant change, there is no abiding self. In fact, the self-nature of each existence is nothing but change itself, the self-nature of all existence. There is no special, separate self-nature for each existence. This is also called the teaching of Nirvana. When we realize the everlasting truth of “everything changes” and find our composure in it, we find ourselves in Nirvana.


In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best. This is, I think, the usual understanding of this story, and of Zen. You may think that when you sit in zazen you will find out whether you are one of the best horses or one of the worst ones. Here, however, there is a misunderstanding of Zen. If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst one. When you consider the mercy of Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses? He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one.

When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think that sometimes the best horse may be the worst horse, and the worst horse can be the best one.

Shunryu Suzuki (Roshi) in
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
(John Weatherhill, Inc., 1970)

If you want to study this Path, you must understand right where you are. As soon as you rely on the slightest knowledge, you miss the scene right where you’re standing. When you completely comprehend the scene right where you are, then all kinds of knowledge — all without exception — are things right where you are.


Generally gentlemen who have been overly involved in worldly affairs for a long time have long been stuck like glue in the afflictions of the senses. When unexpectedly it happens that someone instructs them to do some meditation in a quiet place, and they temporarily get a feeling of unconcern, they immediately take this as the ultimate in peace and happiness. They are far from realizing that [quiescent unconcern] is like a rock pressing down on the grass. Though for a time they become aware that the scene is cut off, nevertheless the root and branches are still there; when will they experience quiescent extinction to the full? If you want to have real quiescent extinction appear before you, you must make a sudden leap within the fires of birth and death, and leap out without moving a hairsbreadth. Then you’ll turn the rivers into pure glee and the earth into gold; faced with situations, you’ll be free to release or capture, to kill or bring life; no device to benefit others or benefit yourself will be impossible.

My whole life I’ve had a great vow that I’d rather suffer the pains of hell with this body on behalf of all sentient beings, than portray the Buddha Dharma [Truth] with this mouth as a human sentiment, and blind people’s eyes.

Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui
Translated by Christopher Cleary
(Grove Press, 1977)

You should know that setting forth the principle of deliverance in its entirety amounts only to this — when things happen, make no response; keep your minds from dwelling on anything whatsoever; keep them forever still as the void and utterly pure (without stain); and thus spontaneously attain deliverance.

The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination
Translated by John Blofeld
(Samuel Weiser, 1972)

Discuss it as you may, how can you even hope to approach the truth through words? Nor can it be perceived either subjectively or objectively. So full understanding can come to you only through an inexpressible mystery. The approach to it is called the Gateway of the Stillness beyond all Activity. If you wish to understand, know that a sudden comprehension comes when the mind has been purged of all the clutter of conceptual and discriminatory thought-activity. Those who seek the truth by means of the intellect and learning only get further and further away from it. Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind is motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the Gate.

The Zen Teaching of Huang Po on the Transmission of Mind
Translated by John Blofeld
(Grove Press, 1958)

If you want to freely live or die, go or stay, to take off or put on (your clothes), then right now recognize the man who is listening to my discourse. He is without form, without characteristics, without root, without source, and without any dwelling place, yet is brisk and lively. As for all his manifold responsive activities, the place where they are carried on is, in fact, no-place. Therefore, when you look for him, he retreats farther and farther; when you seek him, he turns more and more the other way: this is called the “Mystery.”


Followers of the Way, don’t acknowledge your illusory companion, the body: sooner or later it will return to impermanence. What kind of thing are you looking for within this world that (you think) will give you emancipation! You look for a mouthful of food to eat and while away the time patching your robe. You should be searching for a good teacher. Don’t drift along (like this) pursuing comfort. Value every second. Each successive thought is impermanent. The gross material (of which you are composed) is at the mercy of (the four elements): earth, water, fire, and wind; the fine material (of which you are composed) is at the mercy of the four phases: birth, being, decay, and death. Followers of the Way, you must right now apprehend the state in which the four (elements and four phases) are formless to avoid being buffeted by circumstances.

The Record of Lin-Chi
Translated by Ruth F. Sasaki
(The Institute for Zen Studies, Kyoto, Japan, 1975)

He instructed: the Buddhas and Patriarchs were all originally ordinary men. While they were ordinary men, they could not but have done bad things, had bad thoughts, been stupid, been foolish. Nevertheless, because they all changed, followed wise teachers, and cultivated practice, they all became Buddhas and Patriarchs.

You people now should be likewise. Do not demean yourselves, saying that you are stupid and dull. If you do not arouse your minds in this life, when will you ever practice the Way? If you now practice insistently, you should not fail to attain the Way.

Record of Things Heard: From the Treasury of the Eye of the True Teaching
Translated by Thomas Cleary
(Prajna Press, 1980)

Value your self, look after your self
Be watchful throughout your life.

You are your own refuge;
There is no other refuge.
This refuge is hard to achieve.

One’s self is the lord of oneself;
There is no other lord.
This lord is difficult to conquer.

You cannot save another, you can
only save yourself.

Better your own Dhamma,
however weak,
Than the Dhamma of another,
however noble.
Look after your self,
and be firm in your goal.

His mind is restless
after many flowers,
before he can have them
death is upon him.

Attributed to The Buddha in
The Dhammapada
Translated from the Pali by P. Lal
(Farrar, Straus, & Girous, 1970)