Non-meditators, beginners, and long-time Buddhist practitioners alike tend to believe meditation is all about stopping our thoughts. This is a serious misunderstanding, and, sadly, keeps many people from embracing the practice of meditation. It’s very important to understand the true purpose and function of meditation, because the vast majority of us find it impossible to stop our thoughts, at least through willful effort. In this episode, I talk about why we long to be thought-free. Then I discuss how meditation is not about stopping thought, but instead is a practice of diligently and repeatedly turning our attention to something beyond thought, thereby realigning our whole being. Meditation requires diligence and determination, but also patience, humility, and faith.
Two clarifications about my teaching on meditation: First, in my enthusiastic endorsement of shikantaza or, “just sitting,” I may have given the impression I think a real Zen student would only sit shikantaza. I want to go on record saying it’s fine to use multiple types of meditation in your practice. Second, I seem to have communicated the idea there’s no place in Zen for paying attention to, learning from, and working with your thoughts and feelings, at least not in meditation. In my tradition we tend to do this work off the meditation seat, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t devote some or all of your meditation time to it, if you find that fruitful.
I challenged myself to write instructions for the practice of zazen that would fit on letter-sized, tri-fold brochure – 8 ½ by 11 inches, two sided. I figured I’d share it here on the podcast – and if this episode is too short for you, I recommend listening to it twice, because this “pamphlet” really does, to my mind, capture the essence of shikantaza! (At least as I think of it right now).
I propose there are two paths to meditative concentration: directed effort (what the Buddha taught) and letting go (something we do in Soto Zen). One path or the other may work better for some people. In this second episode of two I describe the “letting go” path in some detail: What it involves, how it (ironically) requires great “effort,” and why it works.
I believe some of our struggles in meditation could be eased if we recognized there are two paths to meditative concentration, or samadhi – directed effort, and letting go – and what works well for one person may be frustrating and fruitless for another. In this episode I briefly discuss what samadhi is, and then describe the two very different ways to achieve it. In the next episode I’ll describe the “letting go” approach in more detail.
In the last episode, I introduced the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as the Buddha taught them. Mindfulness means to remember something, or keep something in mind. The Four Foundations are the four categories of things you keep in mind if you want to walk the path to spiritual liberation. In this episode I talk about how the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are actually practiced, and then about how this teaching relates to Zen.
One of Buddha’s central teachings was the Four Foundations of Mindfulness – basically, how you walk the Eightfold Path to liberation. Mindfulness, or sati, means to remember or keep in mind, and the four foundations are the four things you should keep in mind (or focus on) if you want to progress on the spiritual path. In this first episode of two on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, I’ll introduce the teaching as given by the Buddha. In the next episode, I’ll reflect on actual practice of this teaching, and how all its elements are included in Zen but parsed out differently.
The goal of Buddhism, including Zen, is to awaken to what’s true, because the truth is liberating. And yet my tradition, Soto Zen, points us toward the “goal of goallessness,” telling us we’ll awaken if only we give up our desire for anything else (including achieving some “goal” called awakening). Our Soto Zen practice is just sitting, without making any effort to influence our meditative experience. In this episode I’ll [TK] explore how the “goal of goallessness” points to the fact that if we willfully try to awaken, we create duality and get in our own way. Fortunately, Zen offers us ways to awaken without trying.
I’ve been sitting zazen for over 20 years, but only recently have I had the guts to really do shikantaza, or “just sitting,” and it feels profoundly liberating. In this kind of zazen, you utterly let go of doing anything except just sitting there. Really. I discuss why beginners are usually taught to count or follow breaths instead of do shikantaza, and why I think this is unfortunate. I also discuss the surprising results of a practice in which you don’t try to control your experience in any way.
Zen master Dogen wrote Bendowa in 1231 to introduce his Japanese students to Soto Zen. In a sense, then, it’s “Soto Zen in a nutshell.” In this episode I introduce the text and the context in which it was written, and talk about how and why Dogen recommends zazen – seated meditation – above all other Buddhist practices. I also talk about how Soto Zen elevates zazen far above a mere method for achieving awakening to enactment of enlightenment itself.