#kodo sawaki roshi

good for nothing

Posted on aug 14, 2018

The first time I heard this English expression, “good for nothing,” I was living in Massachusetts. One summer, to support our practice, we worked for a farmer harvesting blueberries. There were some high school students working there too, as a summer job during their vacation. There was a part of the field were another kind of berries were growing, called dogberries. The students were not very careful, so sometimes they mixed dogberries in with the blueberries. The farmer was always shouting: “Stop picking those good-for-nothing dogberries!”

I really liked this expression, “good for nothing,” and I thought, “What’s the difference between those good-for-nothing berries and the blueberries?” Dogberries are not edible, but they are pretty. Blueberries are pretty, too, but they are also edible, so they have market value. That means they’re “good for something.” Dogberries have no market value so we consider them “good for nothing.”

But when we put aside our human evaluation, then blueberry and dogberry are the same. They are both pretty and just live to continue their lives. So I thought, dogberries are good but for nothing. That’s why I translated Sawaki Roshi’s expression that way: “Zazen is good for nothing.” To me, this means zazen is good—but not for something. It is good in itself. I think this is very important. It is the same as what Bodhi-dharma said when the Emperor Wu told him he [the emperor] had helped Buddhism by creating hundreds of temples and monasteries and asked what karmic rewards he could expect. Bodhidharma said, “No merit at all.”

Shohaku Okumura

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