Dharma Talk – Beyond Mindfulness: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

Dharma Talk – Beyond Mindfulness: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

Here I present an alternative to mindfulness practice. I do this because I believe the concept of mindfulness – at least the way it is typically understood – may limit our spiritual development. It can become a dualistic trap that causes us to reject much of what we are as human beings.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Teachings Are Fingers Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon Itself
What Mindfulness Is
Potential Pitfalls When Trying to Practice Mindfulness
Confessions of a Buddhist with a Very Busy Mind
Another Approach: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence
Aiming for a Buddha’s Way of Being (And What That’s Like)
The Practice of Undivided Presence in This Moment
Trusting Ourselves Without Getting Caught in Arrogance or Complacency
How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?
Some Closing Words from the Zen Tradition

Teachings Are Fingers Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon Itself

Before I describe the potential pitfalls of mindfulness practice and offer a different approach that has worked for me, I want to discuss the metaphor of fingers pointing at the moon. “The moon” stands for the truth, Dharma, Reality, or the essence of the matter. Teachings and practices are fingers pointing to the moon, and are therefore valuable only inasmuch as they manage to help sentient beings spot the moon. They are not the point in and of themselves.

Inherent in this metaphor is the suggestion that sometimes we can become too obsessed with a finger and forget about what it’s pointing to. It also invites us to consider that there are many different ways to point to the same moon. One finger may work for us, while someone in different position needs a finger that may appear, from our view, to be pointing in a completely different direction!

I think the teaching and practice of mindfulness is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself – but first, a little more about the teaching and practice of mindfulness.

What Mindfulness Is

Mindfulness was taught and strongly emphasized by Shakyamuni Buddha himself, over 2500 years ago. The ancient Pali word translated as “mindfulness” is sati, and it can also be translated as “remembering” or “presence of mind.” We are practicing mindfulness when we remember to pay attention to our present experience and try to keep ourselves from forgetting again.

Mindfulness has also been described as our “non-discursive faculty of awareness” or as “bare attention.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, who over the last few decades has popularized the use of mindfulness techniques in secular settings, defines mindfulness as “continuous non-judgmental awareness.” More specifically, he explains, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally… It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”[i]

For most Buddhist practitioners, our initial efforts at mindfulness are challenging but also powerfully transformative. We become more and more aware of what’s happening in our minds. We notice our reactions. It can feel like someone has suddenly shined a light on our lives and there’s all kinds of things we can see for the first time. This allows us to make many changes, and facilitates greater understanding of how we function as human beings.

Potential Pitfalls When Trying to Practice Mindfulness

Isn’t the whole point of Buddhist practice just to be mindful – that is, “present in our lives?” How is mindfulness just a finger pointing at the moon?

Before I explain, I want to state that I think it is essential that we start our practice with mindfulness. We also benefit from returning to that practice again and again over the course of our days and lives. What I’m going to talk about here is how we move beyond mindfulness and avoid (or drag ourselves out of) the potential pitfalls of the practice. I discovered these pitfalls by falling into them, so, in part, this is a confession of my own struggles with mindfulness.

The first pitfall is that we conceive of pure mindfulness as a state without thoughts. When we’re “mindful” we’re just peeling the orange, just tasting the coffee, just walking. Rather than wandering off into the dream-world of thoughts, we are present for “reality” – which means only what is happening in this moment, in our immediate vicinity, perceptible through the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

We encounter the second pitfall when we try to sustain a state of mindfulness through the inevitable thoughts, feelings, and impulses that arise in the course of our lives. We admit to ourselves that our state of mindfulness is rarely pure – that is, free of thoughts – but we work hard to maintain a second-best state of mindfulness by staying identified with an internal “observer” who is aware of, but not involved with, the thoughts, feelings, and impulses. We think we need to maintain a detached self-consciousness at all times, allowing us to make internal comments like, “Oh, look, I am experiencing some sensations of anger.”

In the third pitfall, we divide our lives into two parts: one, where we are consciously aware of what’s going on in the present moment and are therefore “awake” and present for our lives, and two, the rest of the time when we’re caught up in the dream of thought and missing our lives as surely as if we were sleeping through them.

In the fourth pitfall, because the dreamy/sleepy/caught-up-in-thoughts parts of lives comprise over 90% of the time for most of us, we become burdened with a sense of sadness and inadequacy. We try harder but wonder why we still keep forgetting to be present. We suspect we misunderstand the teachings and practices. We figure we must be doing something wrong, because mindfulness teachers tell us that eventually we’re going to get better at this! And while it’s true that we got better at first, we’ve hit a plateau in our development of mindfulness that seems endless. Most of us resign ourselves to being half-assed practitioners in some respect and just lament how much of our lives we aren’t “present for.”

Confessions of a Buddhist with a Very Busy Mind

Okay, I confess: I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness for over 20 years and throughout most of my day I’m not “mindful” – at least not in the sense I’ve been discussing. Maybe – on a good day – I manage to be mindful 20% of my waking hours instead of the essentially 0% before I started practice, but it still feels like most of the time I’m mindful for a moment – “Oh, here I am! I’m being mindful!” – and then off I go again. The second I think of something, plan something, engage in a conversation or a project, or get absorbed in work, reading, music, beauty, or entertainment, the apparently fragile state of mindfulness is lost.

Fortunately, mindfulness is a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. Please note: If you “find the moon” through mindfulness, super! If mindfulness has relieved suffering for you, if it’s a profound practice you rely on every day, keep practicing mindfulness and let what I’m going to say go in one ear and out the other. Try not to let it bother you at all.

Another Approach: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

What I’m offering is a different way of pointing at the moon, one that may help you like it’s helped me. I call it, at least at this point in time, the “Radical Practice of Undivided Presence.” I call this practice “radical” not because it is revolutionary, but because it is (or can be) complete in and of itself and gets straight to the heart of the matter. Of course, it may very well be I have misunderstood “mindfulness” and what I describe here is exactly what the Buddha meant by “mindfulness.” If that’s the case, then it just proves my point: Both the Buddha and I are looking for the moon, and different words and practices are simply different ways of pointing at it. But let me tell you, encountering the right kind of pointing (for you) makes all the difference in the world.

Ironically, the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence begins with a moment of mindfulness.

I don’t have any problem with that first instant of mindfulness, which is basically when we wake up from the dream of thought and notice what’s going on. That’s the aspect of mindfulness reflected in the translation of sati, the Pali term for mindfulness, as “remembering.” That moment of remembering is so sweet! It is so precious! It’s what makes practice possible!

It’s also not something you can will yourself to do. It just happens. You are asleep one moment and then you wake up.

That’s not to say you can’t do anything to make it more likely you’ll wake up more often. That’s why we meditate and study. That’s why we cultivate aspiration and intention.

To make sure we wake up more often, we also need to treasure and celebrate the moments we wake up. Instead of beating ourselves up for all our previous forgetfulness the instant we become mindful, instead of seizing the moment of mindfulness with the determination to make it last, we can greet a moment of wakefulness with pure gratitude. This will help it last a little longer, and it will make mindfulness pleasant instead of associating it with striving and frustration.

Then we come to the next moment, when we seek to sustain – what? Mindfulness? Remembering to be present itself isn’t hard – it’s sustaining a state of mindfulness for more than a moment that’s hard, especially if you’ve fallen into one of the pitfalls I described earlier.

This is where I recommend a different approach. Instead of trying to sustain a state of mind in which you are consciously aware, and either thoughtless or taking the role of detached observer, you unify yourself. You take the opportunity to show up wholeheartedly for your life. You settle into your body and your direct experience, and refuse to be tricked into looking anywhere else (as if you could). You stop the internal struggles and own your body, mind, and heart.

Aiming for a Buddha’s Way of Being (And What That’s Like)

This is all just more finger pointing, but this approach to practice may become clearer if I try to describe the moon itself. One way of seeing and understanding the ultimate point of Buddhism is as a Way of Being. It’s a liberated, authentic, joyful, centered, beneficial way of being a being. It’s not a point of view, a kind of understanding, a transcendent experience, or a code of ethics. It’s something you experience with your whole body, mind, and heart. It’s how you are as you meditate, speak, drive, eat, brush your teeth, and watch movies. It’s not limited to being thoughtless or self-consciously aware of being mindful. This Way of Being is how Buddhas are.

To further illustrate what this Way of Being is like, I’m going to ask you to imagine your whole body-mind-heart experience of a bunch of different scenarios. Each scenario is mean to evoke something in you – some aspect of a Buddhas’ Way of Being. A Buddha’s Way of Being isn’t limited to any one of these aspects, and it’s not dependent on external circumstances. However, because it’s so difficult for us to conceive of a Buddhas’ Way of Being, it helps to imagine situations we can conceive of.

Imagine you are in the embrace of your mother and she is offering you unlimited, unconditional love. (If your mother didn’t or doesn’t actually offer that, imagine a mother who could.) As you rest in her arms, probably sobbing gently as her love helps heal your inevitable wounds, you feel more confidence that you are acceptable just the way you are. With all your warts, foibles, tantrums, and limitations, someone sees you as precious, loveable, and worthy. Someone sees you as special without having to compare you with anyone else in the world. That ease, acceptance, and inner healing you feel? That’s part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine you are facing incredible difficult and painful circumstances, but you are determined not to run away from them because you need to protect and take care of that which is most important to you – your children, loved ones, or deeply held values. Nothing has even been clearer to you than what you need to do right now. You feel no doubt whatsoever, but not because you’re right in some absolute sense. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it. The clarity, settledness, strength, determination, and willingness you feel? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine someone has you taste a new kind of food and then asks how you like it. You describe your experience and feelings – whether you liked the food and how much, whether you found it salty or sweet, crunchy or creamy. The person really wants to know what you think, so you speak freely. As you describe your experience, no part of you wonders if what you’re saying is true in some absolute sense, or whether you are really in touch with your “real” experience or not. That centeredness in your own direct experience, without it even being a big deal to be centered in your own direct experience? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine you have reached the end of your life, and you lay there on your deathbed surrounded by loved ones. You know this is it. The story of your life is complete. No more can be done. You’re not without some sadness and regret, but you’re reconciled to things being as they are, and for the most part you’re happy and grateful. The long to-do list can be torn up and thrown away. The sense of peace and completeness you feel? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

The Practice of Undivided Presence in This Moment

Fortunately, the practice of Undivided Presence does not involve imagining all of those scenarios and trying to create a certain kind of feeling or mind-state. It is more direct than that.

When you have a moment of wakefulness, come home to yourself. Notice the many ways you are resisting the way things are and let go of the resistance. Notice the ways you are rejecting certain things about yourself (such as your lack of mindfulness!) and hold yourself in that mother’s embrace of unconditional acceptance. Show up for your direct experience without questioning its validity in any way. Let go of the agenda of both the ego and the super-ego and ask yourself what you really want. Cast aside all effort to be anyone other than who you are, when you are, where you are, because your life needs you and you can’t actually be anyone other than who you are, when you are, where you are.

Essentially, this Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is bringing all of parts of yourself together. Your aspiration and your selfishness, your love and your lust, your inner lazy glutton and your inner ascetic. Your body, your thoughts, your hopes, fears, passions, and shame. Your projects, habits, opinions, perceptions, blood, bones, and mucus.

This is what it means to be wholehearted. To be half-hearted means to hold something back, or to do something without enthusiasm because you don’t really want to do it. In order to be half-hearted you have to be divided – part of you wants one thing, while part wants another. Of course, this kind of inner division is part of being human, and the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is not about picking a winning side or pretending no inner conflict exists. Instead, to be wholehearted, we choose how to be in this very moment. We may be in the midst of huge inner turmoil or a prolonged decision-making process, but in this very moment we can be wholehearted with exactly that. No apologies.

In the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence we just say internally, “Now is the time.” Now is the time to show up completely. Now is the time to enjoy yourself. Now is the time to appreciate things fully. Now is the time to give yourself a break. Now is the time to say what you mean. Now is the time to open your heart. Now is the time to embrace your life wholeheartedly. We stop waiting to become someone else. We stop waiting to become enlightened, or to perfect mindfulness, or to finally gain access to the secret of complete happiness.

The most important aspect of my “Radical Practice of Undivided Self” is that I’ve found it much easier to sustain than “mindfulness,” at least in the sense mindfulness is a consciously aware state that’s either free from thought or involves taking the role of detached observer. Instead of trying concentrate on “only what is here and now” and avoid getting sucked back into the dream of thought, I try to inhabit this moment more wholeheartedly. After all, it’s just the bullshit in my mind about how “I’m not enough” and “this isn’t enough” that keeps me separated from my life instead of letting me be intimate with it. Basically, instead of making a practice of thinking about what I shouldn’t do (get lost in the dream of thought), I channel my passion into being as fully alive as possible.

Trusting Ourselves Without Getting Caught in Arrogance or Complacency

At this point it’s very important to point out that the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is not the Radical Practice of Deciding I’m Super Cool and Can Do Anything I Want. The latter practice involves stories about yourself. It’s like getting egotistical because your mother thinks you’re great, or imagining yourself as a self-righteous martyr because you’re enduring some difficulty while simply doing your duty. It’s like describing what you think of a particular food and presenting it as Truth-with-a-capital-T because your sense of taste is so superior to that of others, or reaching the end of your life and congratulating yourself that so many people love you. The Radical Practice of Deciding I’m Super Cool and Can Do Anything I Want is getting a taste of a Buddha’s Way of Being and then trying to bottle and sell it.

The moment you start drawing conclusions and telling stories, you’re no longer mindful (to use the term we’re all more familiar with). Your self is no longer unified, because no matter what the part of you that thinks “I’m great and can do no wrong” is saying, part of you knows you are terribly limited and intransigently self-interested. The Radical Practice of Undivided Self, on the other hand, denies nothing and assumes nothing. It happens in this very moment.

When, in the practice of Undivided Self, you ask yourself what you really want, you’ll find that you basically want happiness and not suffering. You’ll notice that how other people feel affects you, so you’ll know their fate is not independent of yours. You’ll find you want to be awake for your life. You want to be authentic and loved. Basically, you’ll find out you’re a good person who can trust yourself.

Sure, sometimes our habit energy makes us want to flirt with someone who’s not our partner, or to elbow in front of someone in line, or to eat too much chocolate cake. But if you do the practice of Undivided Presence you’re much more likely to connect with the part of you who treasures your intimate partnership, values the opportunity to be generous, and enjoys feeling healthy. As part of the process of unification, you make your self-righteous super-ego and your mischievous id sit down together like two petulant, squabbling kids required to put aside their argument in order for the family to have a peaceful dinner. There’s a chance the adult in the house will be able to make a wise and compassionate decision in the meantime.

How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?

When you’re practicing Undivided Self, you aren’t necessarily consciously aware of practicing Undivided Self. Sometimes you will be more aware of it than other times. It’s possible to be wholeheartedly engaged in something and have it take up all of your mental and emotional bandwidth so there’s nothing left for observing yourself being wholehearted.

So how do you know if you’re practicing Undivided Presence if you won’t necessarily be consciously aware of doing so? Upon reflection, you’ll know. Recollect a period time spent absorbed in thought or in some activity, and notice whether you were divided during that time. Chances are, you were, even if subtly. You were having dinner with friends but looking forward to it being over because you found it kind of boring, and then you felt a little guilty for being bored. You were wrapped up in project you love but periodically found yourself getting irritable when things didn’t work the way you wanted them to, revealing how part of you was more interested in the outcome of the project than in wholeheartedly doing it.

By the way, when you realize you haven’t been Undivided for a time, forget about it and simply Unify yourself right away! If you beat yourself up for not being unified, you may end up undermining the effectiveness of the practice to get you to the moon, a.k.a. a Buddha’s Way of Being, by making the whole process stressful and unpleasant.

When you’re doing the Radical Practice of Undivided Self, there is a certain kind of awareness present that otherwise isn’t. However, it’s kind of subtle, and it’s incredibly difficult to describe without inviting our minds to separate out “me” from “my awareness” from “what is going on,” and this Buddha-awareness is not divided. The words that most accurately evoke this awareness for me are “aliveness,” “sentience,” “wholehearted being,” or Uchiyama Roshi’s “the self doing self.”[ii] The awareness that is part of a Buddha’s Way of Being is basic, natural, and ordinary. It isn’t removed, thoughtless, rarefied, or limited to things in your immediate surroundings that you perceive through the five senses. In some situations it coolly observes, while in others it participates in leaping, laughing, crying, analyzing, and creating. This awareness will be present, but it won’t constrain activity.

Some Closing Words from the Zen Tradition

I beg Shakyamuni Buddha’s forgiveness, and the patience of all the great Buddhist teachers of subsequent generations, for my arrogance in implying I have found something new, or managed to improve on their teaching techniques. Still, I love my spiritual tradition for the fact that it invites all of us to point at the moon in our own way, using our own words, images, and approaches. When I turn to the ancestors to corroborate what I have discovered in the course of my own practice, I am pleased to read the words of Zen master Lin-Chi:

“Followers of the Way, the outstanding teachers from times past have all had ways of drawing people out. What I myself want to impress on you is that you mustn’t be led astray by others. If you want to use this thing, then use it and have no doubts or hesitations!

“When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!”[iii]

When Lin-Chi talks about the “mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something,” I don’t think he’s not talking about our tendency to think about stuff. That’s how I used to understand his words, but thinking is just part of being human (and frankly, it’s a great part of being human). I think Lin-Chi is referring to something deeper and subtler: the part of us that is looking for something else, to be someone else, to exist in a different world than we live in right now. That part drives the mind to go rushing about – sometimes even in the pursuit of some state called mindfulness. Can you go ahead and think, speak, and act without rushing about?

[i] http://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
[ii] Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama. Wisdom Publications, 2004.
[iii] The Zen Teachings of Zen Master Lin-Chi, translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press, 1993.



Arising of Buddhism Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE

Arising of Buddhism Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Arising of Buddhism Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE [2:05]
The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects [3:55]
Teachings of Several Prominent Alternative Schools [6:19]
The Buddha’s Take on Transmigration, Karma, and Liberation [10:13]
A Disclaimer about Summarizing Buddhism in One Page [16:39]

Arising of Buddhism Part 2

Let’s start with a brief recap to set the stage for today’s discussion of Arising of Buddhist Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE. In the last episode, I gave you a brief overview of the history of civilization in India, and a sense of the dominant religious traditions of northern India from around 2000 BCE through the time of the Buddha. I then described the social and economic changes starting around 800 BCE that apparently paved the way for new schools of religious thought and practice, including Buddhism. Now I’ll continue that story by talking about these new religious movements, their major spiritual questions, and how they answered them. This should give you a sense of how Buddhism compared to the other new religions of its time, and how the Buddha’s approach differed from those of his contemporary spiritual teachers.

As I discussed in the last episode, northern India experienced significant social, economic, and political changes between 800 BCE and the time of the Buddha, who born somewhere between 563 and 483 BCE. Iron age technology increased agricultural productivity, allowing the formation of cities, bureaucracies, and armies. Expanded trade led to a development of a merchant class, and ambitious kings absorbed smaller political units; the traditional tribal or clan-based social structure was disintegrating. Concurrent with these disruptive social changes was the arising of the doctrine of transmigration – the idea that beings are reborn in the world after they die, over and over, for incalculably long periods of time.

The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects

Part of the religious response to changing social conditions at this time in India was the growth and proliferation of alternative religious movements, or sects. A followers of these sects was often called a sramana, which meant “striver.” The sramanas were seekers looking for spiritual fulfillment and answers, and they were generally suspicious of the Vedic religions – particularly the priests, or brahmans, who profited from the religious services they performed. Sramanas rejected the premises of Brahmanism, formulated new philosophies, and usually taught practices intended to liberate practitioners from the cycle of transmigration – or least relieve their concerns about it.

Many sramana groups were comprised of, or led by, parivrajakas, or “wanderers.” Parivrajakas renounced the restrictions of worldly life, including caste, social, and ritual expectations. They lived in forests, caves, or other humble conditions as mendicants without social status, and depended on alms. They devoted themselves full time to spiritual study and practice, either alone or within loose communities formed around teachers. (The Buddha himself followed this tradition, becoming a parivrajaka at age 29 and studying for six years with various teachers; more on that in subsequent History and Texts episodes.)

Most of the sramana sects focused on the big religious questions of the time:

  • Did the individual transmigrate through multiple lifetimes?
  • If individuals did transmigrate, could they affect their future rebirths? In other words, was there such a thing as karma, or the law of moral cause and effect?
  • If there was such a thing as karma, how did it work, and what could people do to increase their chances of happiness in future lives?
  • Assuming both transmigration and karma, is there anything people could do to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely?

Teachings of Several Prominent Alternative Schools

A brief survey of a few of the prominent sramana schools around the time of the Buddha will give you a sense of the variety of religious views being taught. The Lokayata, or “materialists,” denied the existence of anything immaterial. Therefore, the individual was annihilated at death, because no immaterial essence existed to be passed on to another life. It follows, then, that there was no transmigration, and no need to worry about future lives. The materialists taught that contentment can only be found in this life, and people were foolish to deny themselves pleasure, or to engage in moral behavior or altruism in order to affect their future rebirths.

The Ajivakas, or “lifeless ones” – probably a name applied to them by others – believed in transmigration but not karma. That is, nothing you did had any effect on the conditions of your rebirth. In fact, everything was determined by an entirely amoral, impersonal cosmic principle called niyati, meaning destiny, chance, or nature. Morality, the Ajivakas held, was a mere social convention. The way to peace was simply to accept the course of one’s life.

The Jains were led by Nigantha Nataputta, later known as Vardhamana Mahavira, or “The Great Hero,” and the Jain religion still exists. Mahavira believed in both transmigration and karma, and he had a very unique view of they operated. He taught that our immaterial life principle or soul, called jiva, is trapped within our bodies. In fact, everything that exists has some kind of soul enmeshed in it, including plants, animals, inanimate objects, minerals, bodies of water, drops of rain, wind, and fire. Karma is an impersonal, natural law that keeps souls captive within matter.

A Jain Monk

Jains believe selfish and careless actions generate literally “heavy” karma that more tightly binds the soul to matter. Causing harm to another living being brings about the heaviest karma of all – and this a serious matter if you believe everything in the universe is, in a sense, alive! Therefore, Jain monks take the practice of nonviolence – ahimsa – to extremes, adopting practices like eating as little as possible, wearing a mask to avoid inhaling insects, and moving slowly so as to minimize violence to the beings of the air (the featured image for this episode is a Jain monk). Lay Jains follow a prescribed discipline of their own to minimize harm in their everyday lives.

Mahavira taught that non-selfish actions generate light karma that dissipates quickly, but only suffering willingly undertaken burns off karma already accumulated. Therefore asceticism, penance, and fasting are a large part of rigorous Jain practice. If a practitioner is successful in destroying all of his karma, upon death his soul is finally freed from his body and – being lighter than matter – rises up to dwell eternally in bliss. However, the soul always remains a distinct unit; the Jains disagreed with the Upanishadic concept of Brahman, or the universal Being with which a personal soul, or atman, is eventually reunited.

The Buddha’s Take on Transmigration, Karma, and Liberation

So, how did Shakyamuni Buddha answer the popular spiritual questions of his time? I will go into greater detail about the Buddha’s teachings in subsequent episodes in this History and Texts series; here I’ll do my best to give you a brief overview of the Buddha’s take on transmigration, karma, and liberation so you can compare them to the religious traditions I’ve already discussed.

The Buddha (the term “buddha” means “awakened one”) incorporated the doctrine of transmigration into his teachings, although he treated it more like a background assumption than a focal point. He taught that karma was a very real force at work in the universe, and in some ways his view of karma was similar to that of Mahavira, teacher of the Jains. Jainism and Buddhism developed more or less at the same time, and it’s impossible to know whether one influenced the other, or the influence was mutual. In any case, the Jain and Buddhist views of karma are similar in two respects: 1) karma is presented as an impersonal, natural law of moral cause and effect, and 2) selfish and harmful actions a believed to generate negative karma – that is, to have a negative effect on the course of your rebirth. However, in almost all other respects, the Buddhist view of karma is very different from that of the Jains.

According to the Buddhist scriptures, on the night of his pivotal spiritual awakening, the Buddha experienced several critical insights about karma. First, he had a vision of countless beings enduring the cycle of transmigration, and this allowed him to observe how karma determines the circumstances of one’s rebirth. He also noticed that one’s state of mind when committing an action – one’s views and intentions – significantly influenced the results of the action. I will let one of my favorite scholars, the Theravadin monastic Ajahn Thanissaro, explain further (note, Thanissaro uses the Pali word kamma instead of karma; this passage is from the book The Wings to Awakening):

“The Bodhisatta’s realization in his second insight that kamma determines how beings fare in the round of rebirth caused him to focus on the question of kamma in his third insight. And, because the second insight pointed to right and wrong views as the factors determining the quality of kamma, he looked into the possibility that kamma was primarily a mental process, rather than a physical one, as the Vedists and Jains taught. As a result, he focused on the mental kamma that was taking place at that very moment in his mind, to understand the process more clearly. In particular, he wanted to see if there might be a type of right view that, instead of continuing the round of rebirth, would bring release from it.” (Thanissaro, The Wings to Awakening)

This process of thinking led the Buddha to observe, within his own mind, that particular views led to distress and suffering. When he dropped those views, the distress and suffering stopped. The most distressing and harmful view of all, the Buddha noticed, was the identification of your “self” with your body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, or consciousness. (This was considered an exhaustive list of all the things that make up a human being, collectively called the skandhas, or “heaps.”) The skandhas are impermanent, and ultimately no inherent, independent, enduring self-essence can be found within them (or outside of them). That is to say, in Buddhist terminology, the self is “empty.”

Unfortunately, we assume we have an inherent, independent, enduring self-nature, and are therefore obsessed with questions of – as the Buddha phrased it – “I, me, and mine.” We assume there is some kind of homunculus inside us who calls the shots, endures any frustration and discomfort, and can take credit for any success.

We become stressed and miserable when we base our lives on the premise of an inherent self, because our “self” is actually just a conventional designation for an unfolding experience based on countless causes and conditions. We are a flow, but we cause ourselves great trouble by trying to locate the self and either win territory for it or protect the territory we have. It’s a losing battle, and it makes us very self-absorbed. We tend to generate negative karma through ignorant and selfish actions, and if we are still obsessed with “I, me, and mine” when we die, we are drawn into another rebirth by our residual greed, anger, or ignorance.

Fortunately, the Buddha taught, we can get free of suffering and the cycle of transmigration. Through meditation, the practice of mindfulness, and study of the Buddha’s teachings, practitioners can perceive the truth directly and shed all incorrect views – including the assumption that we have an inherent, independent, enduring self-nature. If someone manages to drop all wrong views, the Buddha taught, they can achieve nirvana, or a sublime and blissful state in which all self-concern is transcended. At this point such people became buddhas (awakened ones) themselves, and upon death they are not reborn.

A Disclaimer about Summarizing Buddhism in One Page

The Buddhist teachings of no-self and emptiness are very subtle and easy to misunderstand even if you’ve been practicing Buddhism for a while, so don’t be surprised if what I just presented doesn’t immediately make sense to you! It’s also very challenging to summarize in few minutes the essential teachings of Buddhism or any of the other religions I’ve mentioned in this episode. Hopefully I least gave you a sense of how the religions compared to each other and were related.

I should also note that the Buddhist teachings I covered in this episode are those of original Buddhism. Many different sects, schools, and types of Buddhism have evolved in the last 2,500 years, and what I just described is not necessarily how all Buddhists would explain their foundational beliefs – especially when it comes to the concept of nirvana, or the emphasis on transmigration.



Embree, Ainslie T.   Sources of Indian Tradition, Second Edition.  Volume One: From the Beginning to 1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. (Original copyright 1958.)
Mitchell, Donald and Sarah Jacoby. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Third Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robinson, Richard R., Willard L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikku.  Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction.  Fifth Edition.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.
Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications, 1994.
Snelling, John.  The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996.


Arising of Buddhism Part 1: Historical and Religious Context in India

Arising of Buddhism Part 1: Historical and Religious Context in India

This is the first episode in my “Buddhist History and Seminal Texts” series. I discuss the historical and religious context for the beginnings of Buddhism in India around 500 BCE. I give you a brief overview of the history of civilization in India, and a sense of the dominant religious traditions of northern India from around 2000 BCE through the time of the Buddha. Then I describe the period of social and economic changes starting around 800 BCE that apparently paved the way for new schools of religious thought and practice, including Buddhism.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Ancient Civilizations in Northern India [2:25]
The Religion of the Aryans and the Vedas [4:49]
Vedic Brahmanism [9:39]
The Upanishads [12:26]
A Time of Great Social, Economic, and Political Change: 800-500 BCE [17:30]
The Doctrine of Transmigration [19:08]
The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects [24:22]

Ancient Civilizations in Northern India

Buddhism arose in north-central India in the 500s BCE, and there had probably been human civilization in the region for couple thousand years. In northwestern India, archeological evidence from what’s called the “Indus Valley Civilization” suggests these ancient peoples employed agriculture, trade, and the domestication of animals to form large, highly organized cities. The items left from this civilization that are assumed to have religious significance include many fertility symbols, and as a whole they suggest the people worshiped many deities.

The Indus Valley Civilization appeared to have lasted for over a thousand years, but eventually entered a period of decline around 1700 BCE. The decline may have been due to changing environmental conditions that decreased the productivity of their agriculture and therefore made the large cities less viable, but it probably also had something to do with the arrival of the Aryans, beginning as early as 2000 BCE.

The Aryans were nomadic, cattle-herding tribes from central Asia, who may have been wandering in search of good grazing land. “Aryan” was the term they used to identify themselves, and probably referred to the kingdom or area from which they originated. (Although the Aryans were lighter-skinned than the natives they encountered when they arrived in India, it’s only in recent history that this term has been appropriated by some to refer to race as opposed to a specific ethnicity.)

Over the course of several hundred years, successive waves of emigrating Aryan tribes came to dominate northern India. Many historians believe they held an advantage when they inevitably clashed with native peoples because the Aryans had developed the battle chariot. The Aryans also brought with them a three-part system of hereditary social classes – priests, warriors, and cultivators – that defined one’s role in the society. These three divisions eventually evolved into the 4-part Indian caste system.

The Religion of the Aryans and the Vedas

The Aryans also brought their highly-developed religion. They worshipped a pantheon of gods similar in some ways to ancient Greek and Roman ones. Aryan gods included Indra (warrior and king), Agni (fire god, priest of the gods, and the god of priests), and Varuna (administrator of cosmic law).

We know about the Aryan religion because of the religious texts they composed called the “Vedas.” “Veda” meant “knowledge,” and this collection of texts included mythical stories of the gods and hymns in their praise, instructions for elaborate ritual, and philosophical treatises. The Vedas are a vast and varied body of work composed between 1500 and around 600 BCE, so clearly many of them originated on Indian soil.

To give you a taste of the older Vedas, I’ll share part of a creation myth from Rig Veda, as translated by R.N. Dandekar in Embree’s Sources of Indian Tradition. In it, a celestial being called Purusha offers himself for ritual sacrifice, and all of creation arises out of his body. Sacrifice and ritual was central to the Vedic religion, so it seems appropriate that this is what occurs in their creation myth. Also, note this is the earliest textual reference to four social classes: the brahman (or brahmin – priests, or literally pray-ers), the rajanya (warriors or rulers, later known as ksatriya), the vaishyas (merchants and landowners), and the shudra (laborers or servants). In this scriptural story, each social class arises from a different part of Purusha’s body. This myth had a great influence on the evolution of the caste system, because it states there are real, fundamental differences between the classes based on mystical provenance and physical lineage – and of course, the higher your origin on Purusha’s body, the better:

“The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, [the gods] sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation, the gods performed the sacrifice…

From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it.

From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep…

His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra were born.

The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born.

From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth, from the two feet was born the earth and the [cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds…” (From Rg Veda 10.90, translated by R.N. Dandekar, in Embree 1988)

Vedic texts were memorized and passed down orally by men in the priestly social class. Brahmins also conducted the requisite rituals, often involving fire and animal sacrifice, in order to intercede with the gods on behalf of their clients. These rituals and other priestly rites were also passed from father to son.

Vedic Brahmanism

The Vedic-based religion of the Aryans continued to develop on Indian soil, and eventually evolved into what historians call “Vedic Brahmanism.” New texts continued to be added to the Vedas as late as first century BCE, although some the newer texts added after about 600 or 500 BCE as adjuncts to the more ancient, core Vedas.

Over time, Vedic Brahmanism began to emphasize a particular aspect of the older Vedas: the idea that there is a cosmic law governing the whole universe, including gods, nature, and humankind. Vedic ritual reflected and harnessed that cosmic law – which meant properly performed ritual actually had power. Rather than simply appeasing gods, ritual and sacrifice could actually coerce them into behaving the way you wanted them to, because even the gods had to obey cosmic law. Naturally, this inspired the brahmans to emphasize the magical potency of their prayers, rituals, and spells – and thereby increase their own wealth and power.

Fascination with this kind of ritual power was probably part of the motivation behind the composition of new Vedic texts, Brahmanas, starting around 800 BCE. These were speculative and ritual texts, most of which were concerned with orthopraxy, or rules for correct liturgical and ethical conduct.

Eventually, curiosity about the cosmic principle underlying everything led to even newer philosophical texts. Of particular interest was the fact that ritually “naming” something – which required you to know its true name, or nature – was believed to give you access to it, or power over it. Therefore, if you knew the nature of the cosmic principle, it could give you immense power. Significantly, the next group of texts composed were the Aranyakas, or “forest books” – so named because they were probably the work of world-renouncing hermits who lived in the forest. The Aranyakas discussed the symbolic meaning of rituals, and implied that awareness of the meaning of a ritual was, in some ways, more important than its physical enactment.

The Upanishads

After the Aranyakas came the Upanishads, the last body of texts associated with the Vedic tradition. The Upanishads were composed over a long period between about 800 BCE and the first century BCE. Religious sects developed that were based primarily on the Upanishads, and they continue to this day. They view the Upanishads as being the final stage, or culmination, of the Vedic teachings, and therefore call their practice Vedanta, or “end of the Veda.”

The word “upanishad” meant “to sit near,” implying that these teachings were passed in-person from spiritual masters to their students. The Upanishads contain a wide variety of teachings, a diversity of opinions, and numerous contradictions. However, R.N. Dandekar (in Embree’s Sources of Indian Tradition) writes that many of the texts examine older Vedic ideas and try to create “a more coherent view of the universe and man.”

Describing several themes that occur in the Upanishads will give you a sense of them, and of the religious tradition that grew out of them:

  1. There exists a Unity or Oneness out of which everything arose, which is referred to as Brahman (written with a capital B, not the same as the word for priest)
  2. Within the person is a true Self, called atman, which at advanced levels of spiritual mastery one realizes is identical with Brahman
  3. The apparent duality and separation the world is, in a certain sense, illusory
  4. “Spiritual” or “inner” sacrifice matters as much, if not more, than “material” or “outer” sacrifice
  5. Spiritual knowledge and understanding were more important than external behaviors, particularly the enactment of ritual and other orthopraxy

In this history series, I always like to give you an experience of the seminal – or important and influential – texts we encounter along the way, so here’s a brief excerpt from the Chandogya Upanishad. In it, a young man named Shvetaketu “lived the disciplined life of a student of sacred knowledge” for over ten years, but still didn’t understand the nature of the true Self. He returns home – and it turns out his father knew the answer all the time. Shvetaketu’s father explains:

“…in the beginning this world was being alone, one only, without a second. Being thought to itself: ‘May I be many; may I procreate.’ It produced fire. That fire thought to itself: ‘May I be many, may I procreate.’ It produced water… That water thought to itself: ‘May I be many; may I procreate.’ It produced food… That divinity [Being] thought to itself: ‘Well, having entered into these three divinities [fire, water, and food] by means of this living Self, let me develop names and forms.” [the phenomenal world]

Then Shvetaketu’s father demonstrates why his son can’t directly perceive that divinity, or Being, which produced everything. The father instructs the son to dissolve salt in water, and then asks the son to bring him the salt. The son answers that he can’t, because the salt has been dissolved. However, when asked to take a sip of the water, the son admits it tastes salty, and he thinks to himself, “That salt, though unperceived, persists in the water.” His father explains:

“‘Verily, my dear, you do not perceive Being in this world; but it is, indeed, here only: That which is the subtle essence – this whole world has that essence for its Self. That is the Real. That is the Self. That are thou, Shvetaketu.’” (From Chandogya Upanishad, 6.1-3, 12-14, translated by R.N. Dandekar, in Embree 1988)

A Time of Great Social, Economic, and Political Change: 800-500 BCE

The next stage in the development of Indian religion takes place within a society experiencing significant social, economic, and political change. Iron age technology appeared as early as 800 BCE. This technology allowed efficient clearing of wide tracts of land for agriculture, and a significant increase in agricultural productivity with use of the iron plow. Fewer people had to devote themselves to farming, leading to the development of more and larger cities, increased trade, and a prosperous merchant class. The general prosperity meant even the peasants and laborers probably enjoyed lives that were relatively comfortable compared with those of the lower classes at other times in Indian history.

Traditional tribal structures began to break down, and the age-old reverence for older forms of authority were questioned. Whereas Indian society has previously been divided into smaller tribes or clans ruled by aristocratic or religious elites, ambitious kings supported by the merchant class, property owners, bureaucracies, and armies began absorbing smaller groups and consolidating their power. By the time of the Buddha in the 500s BCE, countless tribes and clans in central and northwestern India had been incorporated into approximately 16 city-states.

The Doctrine of Transmigration

These social, economic, and political changes in northern India between the 700s and 500s BCE were more or less concurrent with the spread of the doctrine of transmigration. This teaching first appeared in the early Upanishads, and subsequently had a profound influence on almost all native Indian religious traditions. The doctrine of transmigration held that beings are reborn in the world after they die. Some soul or essence of individuality passes from a dying body into a new embryo or fetus, and is born into another life. This process of birth, death, and rebirth was believed to extend into the past and future for incalculably long periods of time. Previously, people in most religious traditions believed in various kinds of permanent afterlife conditions you would experience after only one lifetime.

When the teaching of transmigration first appeared, it was presented as an esoteric instruction for advanced disciples, and was presented in a mostly positive light. However, the idea of transmigration quickly became fairly pessimistic: Everything you gain in this lifetime will eventually be lost, and upon rebirth you’ll have to start all over again. Because of your ignorance of past lives, you repeat the same mistakes over and over. Your circumstances may be favorable in this lifetime, but you might end up extremely miserable and unlucky in the next. You’ll have to experience all the difficult aspects of human existence – disease, old age, death, loss – over and over again, infinitely many times.

Why did the doctrine of transmigration arise? As mentioned earlier, social upheavals of the time may have led to existential unease that was reflected in the transitory, unstable worldview of transmigration. Alternatively, or in addition, transmigration may have been part of a deliberate departure from the strict Brahmanical tradition, or it may have been an idea long present in the lower classes that eventually caught on with the elites. My favorite theory is that belief in transmigration coincided with the birth of Indian astronomy: After observing the movements of planets, astronomers recognized incomprehensibly long, repetitive cycles. Perhaps this shifted the society’s view of time and space, and human beings suddenly seemed relatively small and powerless within the inexorable heavenly revolutions?

Whatever brought about the concept of transmigration, the teaching caught on quickly and spread. By the time Buddhism arose in the 500s BCE, transmigration was widely assumed to be the way the world worked. Non-Brahmanical religions became obsessed with understanding the mechanisms of rebirth and how to influence the kind of circumstances you could expect to experience in your next life. The process of causation affecting your fortune in this life and the next was called karma, which literally means “action” or “deed.” Negative karma contributed to an unfortunate rebirth, while positive karma helped ensure you would be reborn in circumstances conducive to happiness.

Spiritual teachers and seekers of the time also began to conceive of a permanent, timeless state of being that could be attained through rigorous spiritual practice. In other words, escape from the cycle of transmigration entirely was presented as a higher – and ultimately more desirable – spiritual goal than simply working for a good rebirth. For example, later Upanishadic teachings focused on practices that would cleanse, overcome, or destroy your karma entirely and allow you to fully realize and internalize the unity of atman (the true Self within) and Brahman (the One, or Ultimate Reality, from which everything arose). Once you realized this, you would be liberated from the cycle of transmigration.

(Note: The practices employed by followers of the Upanishads to achieve realization or liberation were called yoga, which literally meant “yoke,” “bond,” or “restraint.” The term described a mental or physical discipline undertaken for spiritual development. In the West, the term “yoga” is primarily associated with practice of physical postures for health, but in the yogic tradition such posture are just one of many kinds of disciplines.)

The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects

Part of the religious response to changing social conditions at this time in India was the growth and proliferation of alternative religious movements, or sects. I will describe these movements in the next episode, but as a teaser I’ll tell you the four main spiritual questions they were concerned with:

  • Did the individual transmigrate through multiple lifetimes?
  • If individuals did transmigrate, could they affect their future rebirths? In other words, was there such a thing as karma, or the law of moral cause and effect?
  • If there was such a thing as karma, how did it work, and what could people do to increase their chances of happiness in future lives?
  • Assuming both transmigration and karma, is there anything people could do to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely?

Each new religious sect had their own answers to these questions, and learning about them will help give you context for the Buddha’s take on transmigration, karma, and liberation. See the next episode for the continuation of the story!



Embree, Ainslie T.   Sources of Indian Tradition, Second Edition.  Volume One: From the Beginning to 1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. (Original copyright 1958.)
Mitchell, Donald and Sarah Jacoby. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Third Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robinson, Richard R., Willard L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikku.  Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction.  Fifth Edition.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.
Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications, 1994.
Snelling, John.  The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996.


Zazen Part 2: How to Deal with Thinking, Stay Engaged, and Maintain a Practice

Zazen Part 2: How to Deal with Thinking, Stay Engaged, and Maintain a Practice

If you haven’t already done so, you may want to listen to Zazen (Seated Meditation) Part One: What Zazen Is and How to Do It before this episode.

In this episode, I cover how to deal with stimulus-independent thinking during meditation, how to stay engaged and energetic while doing a practice that’s essentially doing nothing, and how to maintain a zazen practice over time.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Dealing with Thinking during Zazen
Keeping Yourself Fully Engaged in Just Sitting
“Just Sitting” with Great Determination and Energy
Having Something to Do in Zazen
Returning to Our Natural State
Maintaining a Zazen Practice over Time

Dealing with Thinking during Zazen

If you’ve tried zazen (or any other kind of meditation), you’ll know that even if you really want to meditate, and you fully intend to be present without agenda for the whole period of meditation, you’re still liable to get caught up in thinking – usually many, many times over the course of a meditation period. What can you do about it?

In zazen, when we realize we’ve been caught up in thinking, we try not to react at all. We just return to wholeheartedly sitting. A classic analogy for this is trying to hold a bowl of water very still. If you shake, or the wind blows, the water will be disturbed, but there’s nothing you can actively do to make the water calm again. Any motion you make, like patting the surface of the water, will only make things worse; the only thing you can do is hold still. Stimulus-independent thinking is like the turbulence in the water, and absorbing yourself in just sitting is like holding the bowl still. Patting the surface of the water is analogous to evaluating your meditation and mulling over how to improve it, feeling frustrated with your mind or with yourself, judging thinking as being bad, or even trying to hold your mind on something in rigid way in order to brace yourself against stimulus-independent thinking.

Another analogy – one that works better for some people – is sitting on the shore of a river with the intention of simply relaxing enjoying the scenery. As you sit, boats pass by on the river. You enjoy just watching, but every once in a while you get excited, jump on one of the boats, and ride away on it. In this analogy, simply sitting and experiencing is zazen, the boats are your thoughts, and jumping on a boat is getting “carried away” by your thoughts. Even if there are lots of boats going by on the river (thoughts passing through your mind), that doesn’t have to disrupt your intention. And when you find that you’ve ridden a boat for a while, you just get out and return to your spot by the river.

The second you realize you’ve been caught up in thinking, that’s great – you’re no longer caught up! You’ve woken up to what’s happening in the present! Even if you had totally forgotten you were even meditating, even if you spent 15 minutes planning an elaborate meal you want to cook next week, simply be grateful that you remembered your intention to meditate and let go of past as quickly as possible. Forget about your previous mind-wandering as if it doesn’t matter at all, and throw your energy into just sitting. It may seem like it will help to strain harder, feel regret, or try to figure out what’s wrong with your zazen, but those things just make it worse.

This “forget about it and keep sitting” approach may seem foolhardy – as if you’re working on a practice but forbidden how to learn how to get better at it. But zazen isn’t ordinary effort; it’s more about not doing than doing. When you realize you’ve been doing (thinking, striving) all you can do is not do. More doing (such as thinking about how to meditate better) isn’t going to help at all.

It’s often observed in Zen that our brain keeps generating thoughts like a gland produces hormones. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a problem for our zazen. It can be frustrating, but in practice, the moment of letting go – of realizing you were off in la-la land, letting go of worrying about that, and just returning to the simple act of wholeheartedly sitting – is quite relaxing and profound. If you can do this just a few times over the course of a meditation period, it is very beneficial.

Keeping Yourself Fully Engaged in Just Sitting

Part of the reason your mind wanders during zazen is because your mental habit of engaging in stimulus-independent thinking is very strong. I described stimulus-independent thinking in the last episode; basically, it’s thinking unrelated to what you’re experiencing at a given moment, and you’re liable to engage in stimulus-independent thinking whenever you’re not actively engaged in a task or being entertained.

As we sit zazen, we’re very inclined to think, “Eh, nothing is happening,” or “I know what’s going to happen next, I’ve experienced this a million times,” or “I don’t really need my mind for a task this simple.” Then we check out and think about other things.

How can you keep yourself mentally engaged in just sitting? To some extent, you need to answer this question for yourself, through the process of trial and error. What motivates me to pay attention may be something different than what motivates you. But think about it – there are certain times and tasks where you don’t have any trouble at all paying attention. When you find something interesting, exciting, unexpected, pleasurable, challenging, or useful, you naturally concentrate on it.

The traditional Buddhist way of motivating yourself to pay attention to the present moment is to contemplate impermanence. You’re aware, intellectually, that your life may end at any time and everything you love is slowly but surely (or not so slowly) changing. If you allow yourself to contemplate this reality deeply (without getting morbid or depressing yourself), this very moment ends up seeming much more interesting and valuable than it usually does. Imagine the attention and appreciation you would give to your direct experience if you knew this was your last day on earth! Even things you usually think are boring or even annoying would be strangely precious.

It may also be helpful to think of your act of paying attention to your present experience in zazen as an act of devotion. We usually filter all of our experiences through our self-concern. We think, “Is what’s going on relevant to me? Is it pleasurable, or is there some advantage I can gain by paying attention?” We tend to tune things out or anticipate things based on our self-interest, and neglect working on our ability to be aware and present with whatever life is bringing us at this moment. Your life is sacred – in the sense that it’s worthy of great respect and reverence – just as it is. Each moment of it has value in and of itself, regardless of how it contributes to your overall goals and desires. Spending time in zazen is an acknowledgment of that fact.

“Just Sitting” with Great Determination and Energy

Unfortunately, when doing shikantaza, it’s easy to fall into the trap of complacency or dullness. If we’re really just sitting – not even hoping to feel calm, happy, thought-free, or whatever – we’re inclined to check out. Rather than being taut with energy and interest, living this moment as if our life may end tomorrow, we go slack. Our bodies remain propped up in the seated posture but we daydream or tune out.

The good thing is, just physically sitting there still has benefits! I fell asleep every time I sat zazen for the first several years I practiced it. Let me assure you, I was not doing anything the least bit useful on the meditation cushion! Strangely, the practice of zazen still made a big difference in my life. Go figure! This leads me to believe that regardless of how focused our meditation is, it’s deeply transformative to take some time every day – or every few days – to literally put everything else aside and, at least technically, just sit.

That said, deepening your zazen can make it more enjoyable, and it can also help you gain insight into your life. In an essay on zazen, twelfth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen wrote, “Mindful of the passing of time, engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire.” That is, sit as if your hair is on fire and wholehearted zazen is the only way to put it out. (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi) How you do “nothing but sit” with that kind of energy and determination?

In order to deepen your zazen, you have to find a way to grasp your will without bringing an agenda into your sitting. It’s very tricky, but you need to make great effort without ruining your zazen by trying to make something happen or trying to get something out of it.

Having Something to Do in Zazen

It helps us as human beings to have something to do – some place to put our effort and energy, or some direction to aim. In shikantaza we are trying to do nothing, so in a sense we can put great effort into trying to do less and less and less. Our “just sitting” can get more and more refined as we recognize all the subtle ways we’re still separating ourselves from our direct experience, or still clinging to agendas and concepts, and let them go.

However, it’s usually not very motivating to tell yourself to “do less.” That might work for you – go ahead and try it! For me, the invitation to “do less” invites me to let up on my effort and go slack.

Here’s another, somewhat more positive or proactive way to channel your effort: Can you sink below the level of thinking and become aware of your direct experience of each and every moment, without wavering? So you don’t miss a thing? Not one sound, or sensation, or passing thought?

Sinking below the level of thinking is not dullness, where your awareness is dispersed or sleepy and you don’t really even notice what you’re doing. Rather, to sink below thinking is to pay attention to your somatic experience of sitting there, using your faculty of awareness. Your ability to be aware in this way doesn’t depend on thinking at all. The great thing is, as long as you’re aware in this way and not caught up in thinking, you don’t care about agendas or the passage of time. If you can settle into that way of being, you don’t need to motivate yourself to pay attention. You just are, in a very vital, calm, present, appreciative way.

In Zen practice, we aim to become more and more familiar with this aware-but-not-thinking way of being, which is zazen itself. We aim to be able and willing to rest here for longer and longer periods of time. And yet – and this is tough! – we aim without creating an agenda, without conceiving of a goal (such as, “I want to spend x amount of time in this state each meditation period,” or even, “I want to spend more and more time in this state”). When we create an agenda or conceive of a goal – as much sense as that seems to make, as tempting as it might be – we just create obstacles to zazen.

I know, it’s crazy. To deepen our zazen we have to try really hard (as if our hair is on fire!), aim to sink below the level of thinking, and then stay there, aware of our direct experience without missing a moment – but we can’t care how well we’re doing at this task!

Returning to Our Natural State

Zazen is difficult, but not for the reasons we think. We think it’s difficult because we’re not trying hard enough, or we’re haven’t figured out the right way to do it yet. But it’s difficult precisely because in zazen we’re aiming to return to a natural state of simple, open awareness.

Issho Fujita sensei (see the show notes for a link to his writings on zazen) offers this analogy: Imagine you’re holding a bamboo stick by the ends and then applying pressure so the stick bends. If you want to allow the stick to return to its natural state, all you have to do is release the pressure you’re applying. This bent state is our ordinary way of operating; we think it’s the way we have to be, the way things need to be, but it isn’t true. Our conscious efforts, self-interest, and discriminative thinking are extra things we add to our experience, like bending the bamboo stick. In order to allow our minds to return to a natural state of awareness, all we need to do is relax the extra effort we’re making.

But we all know it’s not so easy to “relax” or “be natural!” Habits are strong. For example, what happens when someone tells you to breathe naturally? It becomes more difficult to breathe naturally! So relaxing into our natural state of open awareness is not so easy for us. This is why zazen is difficult and requires almost Herculean effort – but not our usual kind of effort. If we strive harder, if we try to make something happen (or not happen), we are just applying more pressure to the bamboo stick. A significant part of our Herculean effort is becoming more and more subtly attuned to our experience so we can begin to recognize the extra things we are adding to our experience, and learn to let them go.

Maintaining a Zazen Practice over Time

First, where and when should you do zazen, and for how long? Generally speaking, it’s best to do it in a quiet, private space that’s not too warm or too cold. Your surroundings definitely don’t have to be silent, but it can be difficult to do zazen, especially if you’re a beginner, if you can overhear music, television, or conversations. In terms of timing, ideally you can find a time of day when you’re not too tired, and you won’t be interrupted. If you’re busy you may not have a lot of choice about when you do zazen, so just do your best. A daily meditation period of 30-40 minutes – or even longer – is ideal, but this is like exercise: Better to do a little of it than not to do it at all because you think you don’t have the time! Even 5-10 minutes a few times a week is good.

Second, don’t worry too much about whether you’re doing zazen “right.” An incredibly important part of the process of zazen is getting to know your own, unique mind and how you can manage to get yourself to settle below the level of thinking for a while. We keep learning about, developing, and strengthening our zazen over a lifetime. In this sense, zazen is like a martial art or some other kind of discipline – there are many levels of mastery, but the practice of the art is valuable all the way along. If you do your best and engage it with energy and curiosity, there’s no way to do it “wrong.”

Third, consider sitting zazen with others, if you live anywhere near a meditation group. Just as a gym membership or regular yoga class can keep you exercising, participation in a group can help motivate you and keep you practicing. Also, most groups have a teacher you can ask about your zazen; most of us who practice it regularly need some personal guidance. If you don’t live anywhere near a teacher, feel free to send your questions to me through Zen Studies Podcast website!

Finally, your conscious evaluation of your meditation – whether you’re good at it, or whether it makes you feel calm, or whether you like it – doesn’t matter all that much. Zazen affects you at many different levels, including physical and subconscious. The best thing is to make a regular practice of it and see what difference it makes in your life.