158 – Social Strife and the Forgotten Virtue of Decorum
160 - Bearing Witness without Burning Out

Active receptivity is what we’re aiming to cultivate in zazen, and throughout the rest of our practice. Despite the emphasis on what we’re not doing in zazen, it should be a lively, energetic activity as opposed to a passive one. It may be helpful to think of putting aside our physical and mental activities in order to become incredibly quiet and receptive, and thereby perceive the incredible symphony of reality that surrounds us.

We are not separate from the universe, and therefore we are not alone – and, as Zen masters have taught through the ages, even insentient beings are constantly speaking the Dharma. It’s like we’re surrounded by the music of a whole symphony that we usually can’t even hear because of our internal and external chatter. Perceiving that “symphony” is nourishing and supportive, and can be strong motivation for wholehearted zazen.



Quicklinks to Episode Outline:
The Need to Revitalize Our Zazen from Time to Time
Strengthening Our Motivation for Wholehearted Zazen
Lively, Energetic Zazen
Sitting Upright, Still, and Silent in Order to Sit in Active Receptivity
What Is It We Aim to Perceive?
Active Receptivity Because We Are Not Alone
The Benefits of Active Receptivity
When We Drift from Active Receptivity? Simply Shine the Light of Awareness

The Need to Revitalize Our Zazen from Time to Time

Approaching this topic from the end… seeking motivation, wanting to experience that sense of non-separateness, linking the silence of zazen with receptivity to it

Last Spring (Mini Episode – A Four “S” Approach to Shikantaza: Sit Upright, Still, Silent, Simply Be)

Lately I have needed to revitalize my own zazen, revisiting these four S’s

For me: In zazen lots of time contemplating my projects, many of which are sincere bodhisattva activity

For example, I sincerely believe that we are on course for – and already experiencing – catastrophic global heating and the breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems. We still have a chance to mitigate the severity of the breakdown and salvage civilization as we know it, but so far humankind is doing next to nothing to address the issue. As many of you know, I’m engaged in work to mobilize people to demand our governments take appropriate action to save our lives.

This is important stuff. It’s difficult to set it aside – not to mention other creative projects and of course the various distractions and entertainments.

Strengthening Our Motivation for Wholehearted Zazen

I see zazen as being about choice and motivation. If we’re not making time to sit, or when we sit we’re lazy about engaging the process wholeheartedly (if we don’t set aside our mental activities), it’s not because of some abstract problem like “a lack of self-discipline.” As if it’s a character flaw you can correct by doing certain activities, or maybe take a pill for it. Instead, if we’re not engaging our zazen wholeheartedly, it’s because we don’t really want to.

OK, maybe part of us does… but we are a collection of various perceptions and desires, and our desire to engage zazen isn’t very strong sometimes.

This isn’t a judgment. There’s no point in judging it. In fact, to look at your zazen this way – or anything else part of you wants to do – is actually empowering. Instead of struggling with yourself, you can honestly check in with yourself. Hmm, look, I’m resisting zazen right now because I’m so absorbed in this project, or I’m feeling tired, or the novel I’m reading is very captivating…

The good thing is, we can increase our desire and motivation for engaging our zazen wholeheartedly. One way is to make an effort to be as wholehearted as we can in a very direct way, because hopefully, eventually, there will be a moment or two when our experience of zazen is so awesome, we are re-inspired to dedicate ourselves to it in the hopes of experiencing that again. Recall such moments you have had, or try to put faith in the reports of others…

Another way is to frame your zazen in a way that makes the activity (or lack of activity, if you will), more inspiring or appealing to you. For example, ironically, sometimes, it becomes easier to sit zazen when things in your life are really busy and difficult, because it’s so nice to take a break from it all while sitting. Or you might find the image of a particular bodhisattva resonates with you, and you can think of your zazen as asking for her guidance. Or maybe you’re bound and determined to personally awaken to some aspect of Zen teaching and see your zazen as an opportunity to work on that.

Lively, Energetic Zazen

Today I want to talk about a particular way to frame your zazen – and really, if you like, your whole practice – that can be very helpful. Even if you don’t adopt this approach in your zazen, I think you’ll appreciate the underlying Dharma of the suggestion.

In revisiting the four S’s – Sit Upright, Still, Silent, Simply Be (discuss each)

I found it was no longer quite enough for me. Simply Be was feeling a little too passive… I felt like I get to that point and then I go slack: Effort stops, just be, coasting, and then it becomes too tempting to pick up all of my mental activities again.

I know from past experience that zazen can be incredibly lively, far from passive… that when we’re sitting wholeheartedly there is no such thing as boredom.

This is what at least part of me wants – to be fully awake for at least a few moments of my life at a time, to be unconditionally appreciative, just as I would be if I knew this were the last day of my life.

Recently I recognized another reason to try and make my zazen lively: I was feeling burned out. I wasn’t able to attend a sesshin in 2020 where I wasn’t leading it; where I was away from my everyday circumstances and able to sink deeply into silence and the practice of zazen (which, frankly, sometimes you just gotta focus on quantity over quality in order to break into new territory in your sitting).

I feel great love for and dedication to the Dharma, but was starting to feel as if I were running on fumes… (often come out of sesshin, ironically – no reading or writing – with dozens of new ideas for podcast episodes)

Needed to explore what was missing from my zazen and practice. Decided to get more serious (wholehearted) about my daily zazen.

Always good to return to the basics: The 4 S’s, but then as I said the 4th wasn’t working for me, too passive.

Sitting Upright, Still, and Silent in Order to Sit in Active Receptivity

I came up with an alternative: Listen. Or, in order to keep the sitting instructions to S’s: Sit Upright, Still, Shhh! What’s That?

What about this Shhh, What’s that? Or Listen?

Silent is good, but it isn’t just a negative (thinking is bad)

Silent why? In shikantaza we aren’t trying to attain anything, make anything happen, so it can be hard to get your mind and heart around the practice.

Think of listening… I say, “Shhh… what was that?” You go into listening posture… suspending thought and speech and holding still, every cell on alert. You don’t know what I heard. Maybe imagine we’re alone in the woods in the dark in order to heighten your sense of this. Or instead think of waiting for God to speak.

To actively listen (or look, or open up to and focus on any of our sense gates) means to go into receptive mode. To momentarily set aside our contribution to this world’s content in order to plug into what’s going on around us.

Actually, in zazen, one of the techniques we can use is attending to sound, so there can be a literal aspect to framing your practice this way as well, although once we open up to the ambient sounds we shouldn’t limit our listening just to that. Listen is just a word. Alternatives: Look. Feel. Receive. Perceive…

Internal chatter and commentary are incompatible with active listening, or active receptivity. The activity of listening, if we really want to do it, naturally inspires us to let go of our mental, verbal, and physical activity in order to be silent and still.

What Is It We Aim to Perceive?

Of course, then what? What is we cultivating receptivity in order to perceive?

The trick is, we’re not opening our doors of perception in order to be able to perceive something if it happens. We’re not waiting for a spectacular moment when God finally speaks, or when we finally manage to get still enough to make a transcendent moment of meditation happen, or when, through sheer force of will, we break through to some alternate reality and become able to perceive what was not available to us before.

Instead, we’re actively perceive what already is.

I’m reminded of that poem about a Christian who has a dream about looking back at his life and seeing it as row of footprints in sand. He notices that much of the time there are two sets of prints – his and the Lord’s, who was walking beside him. But at the darkest times in his life, there were only one set of prints. He asks God why God abandoned him at such times but then God explains those were the times he carried the man.

In reality, a reality we rarely – or perhaps never – perceive because of we’re so busy with our mental and physical activities and preoccupations, we are not separate from anyone or anything. We are brief, unique phenomenon within an infinitely wide context. It is simultaneously true that we are so tiny as to barely register as a blip in the universe, and that each and every breath we take is a miracle and an opportunity. We are part of something so much bigger than we can imagine – something lively and spectacular. The ground, the air, the birdsong, the sunshine and the rain are all our brothers and sisters, intimately speaking to us and supporting us at all times.

Active Receptivity Because We Are Not Alone

What we listen for is not sound, although it might manifest as sound. The reality for which we’re cultivating receptivity is perceived through all of the senses without discrimination (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind). It is not a message we can put into words, but when we hear it, we understand perfectly. We realize we are not alone.

Famous koan (here cited by Dogen in Mujo Seppo, Insentient Beings Speak Dharma):

Huizhong, National Teacher Dazheng of the Guangzhai Monastery in the city of Xijing, in the Great Tang Dynasty, was asked by a monk, “Do insentient beings understand dharma when it’s spoken?”

Huizhong replied, “Obviously, insentient being always speak dharma. The speaking never stops.”[i]

Dogen continues: “Now ask yourself, ask others, and inquire, “What are sentient beings? What are insentient beings?”

“In this way, concentrate and study closely what insentient beings always speak dharma is. Foolish people may think that the sound of trees, or the opening and falling of leaves and flowers, is insentient beings speaking dharma. Such people are not studying buddha dharma. If it were so, who would know and hear insentient beings speaking dharma? Reflect now: are there grasses, trees, and forests in the world of insentient beings? Is the world of insentient beings mixed with the world of sentient beings? Furthermore, to regard grasses and trees as insentient beings is not thoroughgoing. To regard insentient beings as grasses, trees, tiles, and pebbles is not enough.”[ii]

When we shut up and really listen, open up, wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to unconditional receptivity, distinctions between self and other, past and future, sentient and insentient, are irrelevant. We are accompanied all along by a luminous universe, we’re just usually oblivious to it.

You may or may not have a sense of this yourself… but I suspect, actually, you have at the very least an intuition, a taste, of this reality.

The Benefits of Active Receptivity

Making ourselves receptive to reality in the stillness and silence of our zazen allows us to benefit from the reality that we’re not alone.

Ordinarily we feel pretty isolated or responsible. Isolated: There’s me, then there’s all the other people, society, daily life… intimacy and connection comes and goes… Responsible: I keep this show on the road, I hold things together, without my effort things would fall apart. From this point of view, even when we’re doing well, we still have a limited capacity and can’t possibly address everything we feel the need to.

For myself, I enjoy and am fed by my bodhisattva projects – Zen center, podcast, climate activism – but I eventually get burned out/run out of reserves & inspiration, as long as I perceive all of it as being driven by my small self.

Whatever your responsibilities or interests, I imagine you similarly have times when you feel stressed, overwhelmed, inadequate, or at the very least regretful that you can’t – or don’t feel inspired to – do more.

It is very liberating and encouraging to perceive the reality of our interdependence within the seamless reality which is life: To see we’re playing one instrument in a vast symphony. That our role is vital, that we can play well or discordantly, but we’re not responsible for the music as a whole. And there are countless other beings – sentient and insentient – accompanying us in our work. The music is for us as well, and at times we can just stop and be carried away by it.

All metaphors are inadequate to the task, so perhaps it’s best if I just describe my own experience: It suddenly occurs to me, “Shhhh! You’ve been chattering and striving and figuring for so long, no wonder you feel burned out. You haven’t stopped to open your mind, heart, and hands to receive. Did you think all of this energy, this love, these ideas were generated solely by your little brain and executed solely by your little will? You are like an artist who paints a sunset and then takes credit for the sun. Listen for the source of everything.”

Then, for at least a few moments, the bird singing outside my window is not separate from my heart, nor is the sound of the traffic or the buzzing of saws from a nearby construction project. These sounds are the Dharma, and the means by which they reached the doors of my perception are intimate friends. All along the Dharma has been there. I tear up in gratitude. I laugh inwardly at my delusion that I was all alone.

When We Drift from Active Receptivity? Simply Shine the Light of Awareness

Any approach to meditation has its limits in terms of keeping us on task. One second we may enjoy a sense of expansiveness, receptivity, or non-separation, and the next second we’re thinking about what we’re going to have for supper. It’s the nature of being human.

We can also end up using any approach to meditation as a corrective measure supposedly employed by our superego to whip the unruly aspects of our mind and body into shape. When we notice our mind is full of internal chatter instead of embracing a glorious silence in the interest of feeling like we’re one with the universe, we may use the “Shhh! Listen!” approach as if we’re speaking to a troublesome child. I don’t recommend this.

Instead, when we notice we’re no longer cultivating receptivity in our meditation, we simply shine the light of awareness on that fact. (Another “S”!) It’s even good to linger for a moment to gently recognize and accept whatever was going on, whether you were dozing, rehashing a plot from a TV show, fantasizing about a vacation, or thinking nasty thoughts about someone you’re in conflict with. Just notice, and marvel how little control you have over what goes on in your own mind.

Then connect gently and sincerely with your desire to cultivate active receptivity in order to perceive the profound, enveloping symphony that is the universe. Let go into the support of reality as if you were pushing off the side of pool and in order to float in the warm water. Surrender as completely as you can to the sense that you’re not alone; that there’s a symphony occurring around you at all times, and you only need to get quiet enough to hear it; that you are supported by reality and just one participant in this symphony, so you have earned a few moments of rest.

The more sincere and wholehearted we can be in cultivating active receptivity, the longer that receptivity will last. Then our internal chatter starts again, as if we’re once again clinging to the side of the pool, so we let go and relax for as long as we’re able. Over and over, with as little concern for the results we’re getting as possible, because zazen is a practice and not a result.



[i] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010. Essay: “Insentient Beings Speak Dharma,” or Mujo Seppo.
[ii] Ibid


Photo Credit

Image by Sammy-Williams from Pixabay


158 – Social Strife and the Forgotten Virtue of Decorum
160 - Bearing Witness without Burning Out