It’s tempting, particularly in Mahayana Buddhism, to get stuck in a kind of superficial satisfaction with your zazen and practice. Of course, it’s possible to get stuck in dissatisfaction as well. In this episode I walk you through four steps to deepen your zazen by using your dissatisfaction as guide for your efforts. I also compare zazen to walking on a tightrope – the instructions are simple, but actually doing it is challenging and requires experience, effort, and attention.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Satisfied or Not Satisfied? [1:10]
The Tricky Mahayana Trap of “There’s Nothing to Attain” [3:56]
How Dissatisfaction Can Be Good [10:08]
When Dissatisfaction Is a Trap [14:45]
How Zazen Is Like Walking on a Tightrope [17:36]
Four Steps to Deepen Your Zazen Using Dissatisfaction [20:02]
1) In the Midst of Zazen, Pay Attention to Your Dissatisfaction [22:10]
2) Renew Your Determination for Enlightenment [26:28]
3) Unleash Your Creativity and Find a Way Forward [29:27]
4) Celebrate “Moments That Make You Dance” – and Then Let Them Go [32:48]
In Case You Don’t Care about Dancing or Tightrope Walking [35:42]
Satisfied or Not Satisfied?
Most modern, Western practitioners of Zen (the only kind of practitioners I’m familiar with) seem to fall into one of two major categories:
- People who are satisfied with their zazen (Zen meditation). They don’t think they’re perfect, by any means, or that there isn’t any room for improvement. However, they haven’t found it useful to be dissatisfied with their zazen; it just leads to stress and frustration. Besides, as the Mahayana Buddhist teachings tell us, 1) the whole point is to let go of our resistance to the way things are, 2) we already have everything we need, and 3) there’s nothing to attain. The zazen of people who are satisfied with their meditation usually doesn’t deepen, progress, or change over time, but such practitioners faithfully keep it up because it has a positive effect on their lives regardless of the nature of their experience during meditation.
- People who aren’t satisfied with their zazen, but don’t know what to do about it. Confessing their dissatisfaction is often difficult, especially when they’re surrounded by people who fall in the first category, who will often just lecture them about being satisfied. Whether people dissatisfied with their zazen talk about it or not, they usually feel some frustration or sense of inadequacy, or conclude zazen is just too difficult or profound for ordinary people like them to really get. This kind of practitioner also keeps meditating because, even though they don’t feel like they’re very good at it, it still has a positive effect on their life.
There’s a third category of practitioner, but people who fall in this category are significantly less common: people who aren’t satisfied with their zazen, but who use their dissatisfaction to guide their efforts to deepen their practice. In this episode, I’ll be talking about how you can join this third category, if you’re so inclined. And note: zazen is a microcosm of your practice, so really, everything I say here about zazen also applies to your practice in general.
The Tricky Mahayana Trap of “There’s Nothing to Attain”
First, let me talk about the first category of practitioners: people who are satisfied with their zazen. Frankly, the temptation to rest in a sense of satisfaction about your practice, regardless of what it’s like, is a primarily Mahayana Buddhist phenomenon. In original Buddhism, the Buddha made it clear that proper meditation required lots of effort and development over time. He described different levels of meditative absorption, and there was frequent talk in early Buddhism about gradually pacifying and purifying the mind. There were clearly identified stages of spiritual attainment. Although it was always possible to be a vowed Buddhist without any particular spiritual ambitions around meditation or insight, that lack of ambition was a conscious choice.
Enter the Mahayanists, who pointed to the fact that the whole experience of enlightenment goes far beyond the efforts of striving, isolated individuals. While they didn’t claim effort was fruitless or meaningless, they emphasized that enlightenment involved waking up to what already is, not struggling to purify and transform oneself into something different, or achieve some special state. In addition, they called attention to the underlying mystery of it all: what is it that causes us to conceive of awakening to begin with? The luminous nature of reality is much bigger than our personal experience and effort, unfathomably profound and infinite.
For example, in the Lotus Sutra, a Mahayana text composed between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, Shakyamuni Buddha explains the concept of “skillful means,” which are provisional teachings or approaches offered to students based on their particular capabilities and circumstances. The Buddha says that the approach to practice he had taught earlier – of personal effort and striving, involving gradual purification and individual liberation – was “skillful means” intended to guide the practice of people with limited faith, merit, and virtue. The earlier teachings were effective at furthering the practice of the early students of Buddhism, but reflected a limited understanding of the profound teaching of the Buddha.
Now – at this later point, when he delivers the teaching of the Lotus Sutra – people were ready for the whole shebang, so the Buddha explains how the slightest aspiration or act of devotion is identical with complete fulfillment of the Buddha way. He says:
The Buddha goes on to say that beings have similarly “fulfilled the Buddha way” when they make offerings to the remains of the Buddha, or when “little children at play, use reeds, sticks, or brushes, or even their fingernails, to draw images of the Buddha,” or simply when people “have heard this Dharma from one of the buddhas of the past, while [the buddhas] were in the world or after their extinction.”
I don’t have time in this episode to go into what the Mahayana concept of “fulfilling the Buddha way” actually means, but you can see that this is a radically different imagining of the path of Buddhist practice. Far from needing to leave the household life in order to meditate in the forest for years at a time, all someone needed to do to “fulfill the Buddha way” was be kind and gentle! In short, the Mahayana teachings point to a more faith-based approach in which the “Buddha way” transcends the dimensions of time and space – so, you might say, the instant the aspiration to awaken arises in you, perfect enlightenment is already manifest. You may choose to meditate and do other Buddhist practices, but from the beginning you are not separate from the liberating and transformative reality you are seeking.
The apparent Mahayana invitation to be satisfied with your practice becomes even more compelling when you add the Mahayana concept of emptiness to the mix – that is, nothing, including you, possesses inherently-existing, independent, enduring self-nature. Therefore, scriptures like the Heart Sutra say, there is ultimately “no knowledge and no attainment.” It’s tempting for a Mahayana practitioner to conclude that there’s really nothing to get, nothing to achieve, and no matter how our zazen is, it’s already one with enlightenment – so the important thing is to just have faith in this and be satisfied, right? When it comes to our zazen, we just sit the way we’ve been told to, in a kind of aimless and automatic way, counting on it to do some good – after all, if children sketching images of the Buddha in the midst of their play “fulfill the Buddha way,” then we’re fulfilling it, too.
How Dissatisfaction Can Be Good
Here’s the thing: Buddhist practice is not meant to be a spiritual salve applied directly to all discomfort – such as dissatisfaction – to make it magically disappear. That’s just treating the symptom, masking the discomfort, and potentially causing us to ignore an underlying problem.
Dissatisfaction is our friend! It’s just like a sensation of physical discomfort – it’s information, telling us something needs to be adjusted or addressed. If we didn’t feel physical pain, it would be difficult to avoid injury or know when we’re sick. If we didn’t feel dissatisfaction, it would be difficult to recognize when our approach to zazen – or life – isn’t working as well as it could.
It’s important to acknowledge our dissatisfaction with our zazen, because zazen is our gateway to enlightenment. No matter how diligent and rewarding our practice in the midst of everyday life, we need the stillness and simplicity of zazen to push the boundary of our experience of non-duality. In the depth of zazen, our usual way of going about things is called into question. In zazen, we touch our true being, and align our lives with truth.
Now, it’s understandable if you have a developed a deep faith that zazen is a beneficial practice regardless of the nature of your experience on the cushion. I know lots of people who diligently sit, gently bringing their awareness back to their breath whenever their mind has wandered. They do this, over and over – sometimes for 8 hours a day at a meditation retreat! Year after year, their zazen doesn’t really change or deepen, but they keep at it. This patient determination is admirable, and clearly zazen does have some kind of benefit even when approached this way!
However, zazen can be so much more. Just read a few descriptions of zazen from our ancestors, which point to an amazing and profound experience that potentially can inspire us to keep deepening our zazen forever, instead of reaching a point of satisfaction with it:
[Zazen] “is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized, traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains.” – Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
“Now, zazen is entering directly into the ocean of buddha-nature and manifesting the body of the Buddha. The pure and clear mind is actualized in the present moment; the original light shines everywhere… Zazen alone brings everything to rest and, flowing freely, reaches everywhere. So zazen is like returning home and sitting in peace.” – Keizan Jokin (Zazen-Yojinki)
“Silent and serene, forgetting words, bright clarity appears before you. When you reﬂect it you become vast, where you embody it you are spiritually uplifted. Spiritually solitary and shining, inner illumination restores wonder.” – Hongzhi Zhengjue (Guidepost for Silent Illumination)
When Dissatisfaction Is a Trap
This brings me to the other category of practitioners: those who are stuck in dissatisfaction with their zazen and don’t know what to do about it, or are resigned to it. Generally speaking, these folks are well aware that it doesn’t help to set up ideals and expectations about our zazen and strive to achieve them. That tends to simply makes things worse, and intensifies our dissatisfaction. However, for some reason, people in this category are constitutionally incapable of simply relaxing into faith the way the first category of practitioner can. Personally, this is the kind of person I am, which is probably why I always feel great sympathy for people who struggle with their zazen!
Basically, if you’re painfully or frustratingly dissatisfied with your zazen, you’re not approaching it the right way – but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. Most of us, when we hear, “you’re not approaching it the right way,” conclude that we need to try harder or discipline ourselves more. Or we conclude we don’t understand the zazen instructions we’ve been given, or that maybe we’ve missed some critical instruction at some point. Or we decide we simply lack the talent or stamina to do zazen correctly. But all of these conclusions are incorrect.
The instructions for zazen are very simple – you can get the basic teachings on how to do in about 20 minutes, and technically that’s all you need. Of course, this simplicity is deceptive, because obviously the practice isn’t easy. The reasons it isn’t easy, however, are very different from the reasons other things in our lives are challenging.
Zazen is challenging not because it’s a complicated or profound task that’s difficult to master. It’s challenging because it’s a whole-person activity, and each of us has to discover our own way to it. It’s challenging because it requires us to relax completely and be utterly attentive at the same time. Because it’s simultaneously absolutely useless and the most important thing we ever do. Because it’s about our orientation to life, the universe, and everything. Because it requires us to bring mind and body and heart together into their most harmonious and effective alignment.
How Zazen Is Like Walking on a Tightrope
Okay, this all may sound a little “out there,” so maybe an analogy will help. I like to think of zazen as being like walking on a tightrope. The instructions are simple: balance and walk on the rope. A trainer might be able to give you a few helpful tips as you’re learning, but that’s pretty much it. You have to get up there on the rope and try. When you try too hard, you tense up and fall off. When you get too slack, you lose attention and fall off. You have to trust, but that trust can’t be a passive thing. You have to keep trying, failing, trying, experimenting, trying something else, until – if you’re determined enough – you can not only walk on the tightrope but even do flips and tricks on it!
To continue with the tightrope analogy for zazen, being satisfied with your zazen in the way I was talking about earlier – the way that’s a trap – is like walking back and forth on the ground next to the tightrope because you know ultimately there’s nothing to be gained by learning to balance on it, and it’s just going to get you all riled up and frustrated if you try. So, you just pace contentedly back and forth. Okay, but you’re missing out on something.
Now, if you perennially dissatisfied with your zazen, it’s like practicing on the tightrope over and over, making no progress, but being unwilling to consider, at a deep level, why you’re not making any progress. You know how you can often observe why someone else keeps messing up, but they just can’t seem to figure it out? We’re all susceptible to the same blindness or denial about our own limitations. We fixate on an idea of what we’re supposed to do, who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and where we need to apply our effort. Even when these ideas don’t seem to help us improve at all, we stay stuck in them, either because it’s too daunting to consider something else, or because we lack imagination.
Four Steps to Deepen Your Zazen Using Dissatisfaction
If we want to engage our zazen as a challenging, dynamic, interesting, rewarding, informative activity like walking on a tightrope, we have to get up on the rope and give it our best. We have to let go of comfortable but superficial satisfaction and work on our zazen until we, too, experience it – at least for a moment – as “joyful ease,” “returning home and sitting in peace,” or full of “bright clarity” and “wonder.” At the same time, we have to open up to new ways of “working on our zazen,” letting go of what hasn’t worked and challenging ourselves to fully inhabit our own body-minds and explore fresh territory. No one can do this for us, and no one’s instructions, no matter how brilliant or “correct,” are going to provide us with a shortcut around our inner work.
There are probably as many different ways to guide students through this process as there are Zen teachers, and I’m pretty new and inexperienced one. With humility, then, I offer you my recommendation – and I invite you let me know if it works for you, or if it doesn’t! Here goes: I recommend the following: In the midst of zazen, pay attention to your dissatisfaction and let it guide you toward a deeper experience. Rather than brushing away your dissatisfaction, let it inform you. Then renew your determination to taste what the ancestors have described, summon the confidence that you are fundamentally no different from the ancestors, and unleash your creativity in order to find a way forward. All without setting up an ideal or creating a struggle within.
Okay, let me walk you through four steps in this process so you can see what I mean:
1) In the Midst of Zazen, Pay Attention to Your Dissatisfaction
This is not intellectual analysis! This is about paying attention to your direct, immediate, embodied experience in zazen. Where do you feel obstructed, or tight? What are you doing or trying that brings you “back to the moment” for an instant but then sends you off into daydreaming or dullness? What do you want? What are you expecting? What is keeping you from being completely and utterly at peace? What are you holding on to that obstructs your appreciation and joy?
I can’t emphasize enough that this is not intellectual analysis, and yet it also isn’t a purely physical exploration that excludes thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. This is an experiential exploration of what’s going on in the moment without arbitrarily dividing yourself up into parts like “body,” “mind,” and “heart.” For example, maybe you’re filled with grief because of a recent loss. That’s part of what’s going on for you. You can be aware of the grief, or of your desire to be free from pain, or of your self-doubt, without that awareness being merely intellectual analysis.
Perhaps an example will help. Mandy (a hypothetical Zen practitioner) has been sitting zazen for a number of years. She spends much of the time on the cushion caught up in thoughts, but when she notices, she patiently shifts her awareness back to her breath, or sound, and experiences a moment of stillness. She does this a dozen times or more over the course of meditation period. She doesn’t usually experience anything that feels very special during zazen, but finds that it helps her feel more sane and joyful in her everyday life.
One day, Mandy listens to an annoying podcast by a Zen teacher that suggests her zazen could be more. She’s doubtful, because she’s tried awfully hard to be “more present” during zazen and it’s never worked. However, she tries to pay attention to her dissatisfaction during zazen. In one moment, she’s not caught up in thoughts and just notices the sunlight on the carpet in front of her. She tries to stay present with that experience, but then starts thinking about zazen, and what Julie said about it last week, and whether Julie has had special experiences during zazen, and…
As Mandy wakes up to the present again, she notices resistance within her to staying present. Her mind seems to be leaning away from the present, toward something more interesting or exciting. Staying with this reality for a bit, she realizes the resistance is reflected in her body, as if her energy is surging forward and upward through her chest and head and coming out the front of her body, as opposed to settling down in her lower abdomen and legs. She becomes aware of a conviction that she knows what’s going to happen next. She’s aware of this as a real attitude she’s holding, not as a thought about her experience. Exploring this attitude, she recognizes a conclusion that the present moment is boring, and staying aware of it – except for a second or two – is pointless. Therefore, she also recognizes – within herself – an unwillingness to attend to the present unless she knows there’s going to be some kind of payoff for doing it.
2) Renew Your Determination for Enlightenment
Okay, “enlightenment” is a pretty vague and lofty term, but essentially it refers to your deepest aspiration(s). What do you really want? Do you want to be free from your pain – not just temporarily, through distraction or coping mechanisms, but truly healed? Do you want to be as awake as possible for every moment of your precious life? Do you want to cultivate wisdom so you can respond as skillfully as possible to the suffering of the world? Do you want to access your innate compassion so you can respond with love to all sentient beings?
It’s okay to want stuff! Desire, like dissatisfaction, is not a problem in and of itself. As long as we work with desire and dissatisfaction appropriately – without making our happiness contingent on their resolution, or resorting to self-centered behavior in order to get what we want – they are the fuel for our practice.
So, go ahead and call to mind the spiritual – that is, nonmaterial – things you truly want. Remind yourself of why you practice. Acknowledge to yourself that your current understanding and manifestation is relatively small compared to that of a buddha (which is true for all of us), and think of all the amazing experiences that lie ahead of you.
Part of this process of arousing your determination is ditching low self-esteem as wholeheartedly as you can. There is absolutely no place in zazen for concluding you’re just not up for it. Imagine how effective that kind of attitude would be if you were learning how to walk on a tightrope; if you lacked the confidence that you were capable of learning to do it, you’d never make any progress. And this isn’t just about pretending you have no doubts. Actually, the doubts are natural and don’t have to hinder your efforts.
Instead, you acknowledge that conclusions about your inadequacy aren’t helpful, that you don’t really know what’s going to happen or what you’re capable of, and that the Zen ancestors assure you that zazen isn’t a matter of talent. As Dogen wrote in Fukanzazengi, “…intelligence or lack of it is not an issue; make no distinction between the dull and the sharp-witted. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is wholeheartedly engaging the way.” What do you have to lose in trying, except your pride?
3) Unleash Your Creativity and Find a Way Forward
Many people conclude they don’t know enough about meditation to deepen their experience of it. However, while it’s certainly true that suggestions from teachers, seniors, and even peers can be helpful, ultimately, we have to learn to navigate our own body-mind in zazen. We’re the only ones who actually know what’s going on in there, and we’re the only ones who can apply a particular technique or approach. You may need to tweak your body-mind in a way that no Zen ancestor or teacher has yet described.
Let’s return to Mandy’s story in order to explore this more fully. Having noticed a number of assumptions and attitudes she was holding, she tries letting go of them. She experiences what feels like a little energetic shift, but it doesn’t last long and pretty soon her mind’s just wandering again. So, she returns to the sensations of resistance to staying present. She also reminds herself of her aspiration to open herself up to a deeper experience of the Divine.
Mandy remembers a teaching she heard once that in order to hear the Divine, you have to listen carefully. She works on listening. Instead of her energy being centered around her face and chest, it now spreads more evenly throughout her body, as she settles into her somatic (embodied) experience. However, after a couple minutes her mind has wandered again because, she realizes, “nothing was happening” (that is, she didn’t “hear” anything from the Divine). She acknowledges this self-interested aspect of her experience, and it occurs to her that true devotion to the Divine involves the act of listening without the slightest expectation of a response.
Suddenly, Mandy’s energy settles down and even seems to penetrate into the earth. For a moment, she experiences a warm, embracing silence – as if she has, indeed, returned home to where she belongs. She has a sense that this supportive embrace is always present, even when she’s caught up in thoughts or self-interest. All she has to do is offer her awareness up without the slightest agenda in order to rest in it. A few minutes later, Mandy’s mind is wandering again, and for the remainder of the zazen period she doesn’t have another experience of embracing silence quite as deep as the first one – but the impression of the experience remains, spreading a kind of peace throughout her zazen.
4) Celebrate “Moments That Make You Dance” – and Then Let Them Go
Recommending that you “work on” your zazen is potentially confusing and harmful, I have to admit. Watch out for whether this recommendation makes you judge your zazen or yourself and get discouraged, or invites you to cling to ideas about what “deep” zazen is like, or causes you to compare yourself to others, or makes you dwell on the “special” experiences you’ve had and try to re-create them. If you find yourself doing any of these things, though, these are just more examples of dissatisfaction that you can work with.
Unfortunately, struggling against ourselves doesn’t usually result in anything other than frustration. So, it’s not advisable to set up an ideal and then strive for it – setting the part of you that holds the ideal against the lazy or stubborn parts of you that would rather get lost in thoughts or sleep on the zazen cushion. The kind of exploration and work I’m recommending you do in zazen is not like this. Rather, it’s a whole body-mind activity where, throughout, it’s just “you,” aware of your full and direct experience, curious and determined to push the edges of the zazen you already know.
When, or if, you have an experience of zazen like the ancestors describe – a dharma gate of joyful ease, bright and clear, like returning home and sitting in peace – it’s important to appreciate it but then let it go. If you set it up as an ideal and try to re-create it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to chase the experience away indefinitely. Try to trust that these “moments that make you dance” have informed and changed you at a deep level. They’re like a beautiful sunset – you’re never going to get them back, at least not exactly. Future moments that make you dance will be different and new, and you can’t predict what they’re going to be like.
We keep ourselves open to deepening our experience of zazen by doing the work I’ve described: Not just waiting passively for something to happen, but also not striving to make something happen. Instead, we navigate the dynamic Middle Way, staying alert, curious, and determined to master the elusive art of Right Effort.
In Case You Don’t Care about Dancing or Tightrope Walking
In closing, I’ll just say that, if you really don’t want to think about your zazen and work on it, that’s fine. It’s true that zazen and practice are beneficial regardless of whether you are trying to deepen or improve them.
At the same time, our experience of life is profoundly affected by what we do. One of my teachers used to point out that we are “one” with gravity whether we are dancing, walking, or falling down – but our experiences of dancing, walking, and falling down are quite different. In the same way, as Mahayana Buddhists are fond of pointing out, we are already interdependent with the vast, luminous, seamless reality in which nothing is perfect or imperfect, but how we engage our lives influences our experience profoundly. It’s up to us what we want to do, and really, there’s no moral failing in not wanting to dance or walk on a tightrope.
What’s important is that we refrain from concluding our limited experience is it. Perhaps we choose to walk instead of dance, but we can be inspired by dancing, and celebrate the possibility of it, and open to the wonder of it. And if part of us longs to dance, it’s a tragedy to hold back simply because we think we’re not capable of it, or because we’ve convinced ourselves it’s actually no different than walking. In addition, even if we never intend to be a professional dancer or acrobat, there are profound lessons to be learned just by studying these arts – lessons that may change the way we approach everything, even walking! To put that in terms of zazen: You don’t have to hold an ambition for complete, perfect enlightenment in order to discover valuable things while working on your zazen in the ways I’ve described.
And one more thing: the analogies of dancing or walking on a tightrope are limited in terms of their ability to convey the truth of zazen. Both dancing and tightrope walking can be seen as performance arts with external, objective criteria for how well someone does them. In the case of zazen, in contrast, only you know whether you have returned home and are sitting in peace.
 Reeves, Gene, translator. The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
 Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice: https://web.stanford.edu/group/scbs/sztp3/translations/gongyo_seiten/translations/part_3/fukan_zazengi.html
 Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000