68 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 2: Wrestling with the Teachings
70 - Buddhist Practice: Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts and Emotions

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 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.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Zen Paradox: A Strenuous Effort to Do Nothing
The Goal of Goallessness
Don’t Assume You Know What It Means to Just Sit
Surrender to the Act of Zazen More and More
Let Yourself Be Embraced by the Buddhas

 

Zen Paradox: A Strenuous Effort to Do Nothing

Zen is full of paradoxes: For example, next week I’ll be in sesshin, a 4-day silent meditation retreat, with my Zen center (read about sesshin in Episode 21). We’ll get up at the crack of dawn and sit many sessions of zazen throughout the day, for a total of about seven hours spent on the meditation seat. You’ve got to figure there’s a good reason for this, or why would people do it? Inherent in the whole retreat situation is the suggestion we’re aiming for some reward or payoff that can only be achieved with enormous (often uncomfortable or boring) effort. Enlightenment? Peace of mind? Insight? Better meditation? Reduction of stress? Even if you’ve been practicing Zen for a while and know better, sesshin tempts you to get caught up in spiritual materialism.

And yet, for those 7 hours a day, we’ll be sitting shikantaza. As I discussed in Episode 64, shikantaza is the zazen, or seated meditation, of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism. It’s called themeless, or goalless, meditation. In a way, it doesn’t even make sense to call it meditation practice. It’s just sitting there. In shikantaza, you let go of all willful effort except the absolute bare minimum of sitting there without falling over. You don’t try to concentrate on anything, or stop yourself from thinking, or try to realize anything. You do nothing to influence your meditative experience.

Okay, maybe it sounds nice to sit shikantaza for 20 or 30 minutes, or maybe even an hour, as a nice break from your busy day. But seven hours a day for many days straight? Frankly, the whole scene strikes me as pretty insane whenever I’m about to enter a sesshin. And it is insane to sit staring at the wall all day if there’s really no point to it, unless it’s really fun, which it isn’t about 90% of the time. At least if you’re at a Rinzai sesshin and working on a koan you can imagine yourself to be doing something useful, although I suspect the moment-to-moment reality isn’t all that different. What’s going on at a Soto Zen sesshin, or, for that matter, whenever we sit shikantaza?

I’m sure I’ve answered that question in other ways in the past, but I’ll answer now from today’s inspiration: We devote ourselves to zazen (by that I mean shikantaza) in order to Awaken, and the more wholeheartedly we throw ourselves into zazen, the more likely we’ll awaken. We sit sesshin because there are no other situations in which we throw ourselves into zazen as completely. During sesshin we sit whether we want to or not, whether we like what’s happening or not, whether or not we’re hot, cold, tired, sad, bored, resistant, or mad. While sitting shikantaza, there’s nothing whatsoever we can willfully do hasten Awakening. And yet, we don’t need to sit there passively wasting away the hours. Instead, we can surrender to zazen more and more and more deeply, until it swallows us up.

The Goal of Goallessness

To understand what I mean by letting zazen swallow you up, let’s explore the Zen paradox of the “goal of goallessness.” In his essay “Fukanzazengi,” or “Rules for Zazen,” 13th century Zen master Dogen advises us to, “Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort.”[i] When I first encountered this teaching early in my practice, we recited a translation of this line from Shasta Abbey that’s always stuck in my mind: “Respect those who have reached the goal of goallessness.”

The goal of goallessness – what does that mean? It’s not that there’s no goal in Zen. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be Buddhism, and there wouldn’t be any point in practicing it. What is the goal? Well, it’s not a fixed thing that can be summed up in a single sentence or paragraph and repeated, but it’s still very real. Today, let’s call our goal Awakening to Reality. In reality, we have no inherent, enduring, independent self-nature. In reality, there is no fundamentally real boundary between things, including between us and the rest of the universe. Everything is part of a lively, seamless, luminous whole. Our goal in Zen is to awaken to this reality, and not just once. We want to awaken again and again, living more and more of our moments in accord with this deeper, uniting truth.

Okay, so in other words, there really is a goal in Zen! So maybe the goal of goallessness is to strive for the goal without appearing to do so? Is the point to look or act like you’re goalless? Or is it to know there is a goal but not think or care about it too much or try to achieve it, so you never get caught in spiritual materialism? Should you sit zazen in an automatic or rote way because even though there’s a goal there’s nothing you can do to achieve it? Or should you secretly hope to achieve the goal and lie in wait for it on the meditation seat, ready to pounce on it when it wanders by unsuspectingly?

All of these approaches to the goal of goallessness miss the mark, although we certainly can’t be blamed for trying them out. The truth is subtler than that, and I honestly don’t think there’s any way to encounter it for ourselves without real life trial and error.

But, for what it’s worth, I’ll try to describe the subtler truth of the goal of goallessness. It has to do with the nature of this “Awakening” we’re aiming for. When we wake up, we accord with reality instead of being lost in a dream we create through our own mental activity. The unconditioned, boundless reality is always… and we can only experience it by dropping all of our self-centered activity, including any activity in meditation done in order to wake up. Any effort to control our zazen will just be more mental activity, causing us to get stuck in our concepts about self, reality, awakening, being asleep, clarity, etc. Any goal of Awakening is just our idea about it. So even though, ultimately, we want to Awaken, we can’t do anything willful about it or we’ll just chase it away.

Don’t Assume You Know What It Means to Just Sit

So, is there anything a meditator can do besides sit like a zombie and wait for enlightenment to strike like lightening?

The answer to this question is tricky, because the kind of doing we engage in in order to open ourselves to Awakening, or to let zazen swallow us up, isn’t really doing in the ordinary sense of the word. Yet it can be strenuous, passionate effort in a weird kind of way. Today I’ll share three important things we can do on the meditation seat to make Awakening much more likely.

First, we need to explore shikantaza and not assume we know what “just sitting” really is, or that in any given moment we’re actually doing it. It’s easy to be doing your idea of just sitting: “Here I am, physically sitting upright and a little uncomfortable, on a Thursday evening, feeling a cool breeze, with a wandering mind. Whenever I notice my mind is wandering I let the thoughts go and return to just sitting.”

At a certain level, of course, this is just sitting. At another level though, it’s maintaining a whole bunch of assumptions and mental divisions. There’s you, your body, the time, your life, your environment, your zazen, your mind, your intention, your consciousness, and probably an assumption you pretty much know what’s going to happen next.

By contrast, listen to Dogen’s description of zazen in his essay “Bendowa” (“On the Endeavor of the Way;” in this passage, zazen is called “sitting upright in samadhi,” and “buddha’s seal” is the essence of the Buddhist teaching):

“When even for a moment you express the buddha’s seal in the three actions [of body, speech, and mind] by sitting upright in samadhi, the whole phenomenal world becomes the buddha’s seal and the entire sky turns into enlightenment.”

And:

“…the zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time.”

Later in the same essay, Dogen says that if you think “the samadhi of all buddhas, their unsurpassable great method, is just sitting uselessly and doing nothing,” you will be one who slanders the great Buddhist Way.

How do we open ourselves up to the profundity of zazen, instead of letting our own ideas limit our experience? And open up without making “opening” a goal and then striving for it? It’s tricky, which is where effort comes in: Trying, failing, letting go, returning to zero, trying again. But it helps to approach zazen with curiosity, or a question. “What am I missing? How am I limiting my experience?” This attitude makes room for passion and energy without requiring any goal or mental divisions, especially when we drop extra words and concepts and just lean into what or how. And to clarify: this is not an intellectual inquiry, which will just get your mind spinning (“How will I know if my zazen accords with all things if that according is imperceptible?”). Instead, your question should be entirely experiential: what’s happening, right here, right now? Question your own experience.

Surrender to the Act of Zazen More and More

Second, we can open ourselves to Awakening by surrendering to zazen more and more completely. This doesn’t mean doing zazen harder and harder until we make something happen, although we’ll probably end up trying to do that at some point. Instead, this means entrusting ourselves more and more to the physical act of shikantaza without caring about ourselves at all.

Most of us are so identified with our consciousness, we assume zazen is all about our intention, our will, our effort, and what we consciously experience in meditation. Even if we accept the idea we’re supposed to let go of all effort in zazen, we still have an important sense of being in charge of that letting go. It’s all about me, me, me. It seems to us like folly to suggest the physical act of shikantaza is what’s important, as if all we need to do to Awaken is clock enough hours physically sitting on the cushion, even if we spend the time silently singing old show tunes in our heads.

Kodo Sawaki Roshi in Zazen

Kodo Sawaki Roshi, who adamantly maintained “Zazen is useless.”

And yet, while zazen isn’t just physical – as if our body was something separate from our mental experience – I would say the purely physical act of zazen is at least more important than our conscious mental experience of it. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, zazen isn’t limited to your body or your mind, but you’re more likely to wake up to this if you get out of your head and settle into your physical experience. Recently, I’ve been suggesting to people that during zazen they pretend all that matters is physical sitting there, putting in the time. For me, playing that little mental trick on myself causes a profound shift: Suddenly, my whole mental drama, including my effort in meditation, doesn’t seem very important. And because it’s not important, I lose some of my interest in it. Briefly, then, I get a sense, “Wow. Zazen is a whole lot bigger than my little effort.”

The act of sitting, if we really surrender to it, can end up feeling like a devotional gesture aimed at the Reality we’re seeking to Awaken to. We’re not separate from that reality, but as long as we hope to get a taste of it for our own self-centered reasons, it will feel as if we’re separate. By entrusting ourselves zazen, we’re already aimed at Awakening and preparing the way for it, so in the meantime we can give up worrying about ourselves and whether we’ll ever personally enjoy some kind of transcendent experience or insight.

To surrender to zazen in this way, lately I’ve adopted a particular response whenever I notice I’ve been caught up in thoughts. I automatically feel a twinge of self-concern – even if the self-concern is a subtle as “Oh bummer, I missed out on being aware of the last few minutes” – but then I challenge myself by saying, “Who cares? That’s got nothing to do with zazen.” As I do this, my sense of zazen expands beyond the limits of my skin… as if I’m part of a much larger process of celebrating what’s real.

Let Yourself Be Embraced by the Buddhas

The third thing I’ll mention today about how to Awaken without trying is this: Have every confidence in your Buddha nature and don’t doubt yourself. Let yourself be embraced by the Buddhas, and treasure your own, direct experience. You may think that because you don’t feel you’ve “Awakened” yet, or at least not very much, or least not as much as you’d like, that therefore you’re inadequate and separate. Those are just ideas.

The luminous reality you’re looking for is already in your own, personal, embodied, imperfect experience. It’s not that you work yourself into a state and then pierce through to some alternate reality. It’s not that you improve your mindfulness until you banish your unpleasant parts and dwell in purity. The treasure you’re seeking is exactly the life you’ve been dismissing all along. But we think, “Not this! Not me!”

The key is to be able to see ourselves and our lives as a treasure. Not by convincing ourselves that’s case through some intellectual argument, but by sincerely dropping the way we reject and dismiss the mundane details of ourselves and our lives. So, you might say effort in this direction is about softening the heart, acceptance, and simple-hearted gratitude and love. These may sound like strange qualities to cultivate in zazen, but without them we won’t be able to let go of the self-concern that gets in our way, or our assumption of separateness.

If we’re going to drop rejection and dismissal of our experience, we need to, alternatively, embrace all of it. There’s no room in zazen for pitting ourselves against ourselves: “me” (the executive-I controlling my intention) versus my aching body, versus my unruly mind, versus my disturbing emotions, versus my petty thoughts, versus my greed for Awakening, versus my laziness… If any sense of struggle or conflict arises at all, we’re off the mark. Everything we encounter is us.

What we’re working towards is integration and upright responsibility, open-handed acceptance of who, what, and where we are. This isn’t easy, which means, like the things I’ve already mentioned, it requires a strange kind of effort. Many of us resist “letting ourselves off the hook” and loving ourselves unconditionally instead. But the reward when we manage to do so is huge, because it opens us to Awakening: we have been part of the deeper, uniting reality all along, we just couldn’t recognize it because familiarity with ourselves and our lives tends to breed contempt. There’s no place in zazen for contempt.

 

There are, of course, many more ways to wholeheartedly engage Zen practice and zazen without chasing Awakening away by striving after goals, but for today I’ll leave you with these three: 1) Don’t Assume You Know What It Means to Just Sit; 2) Surrender to the Act of Zazen More and More, and 3) Let Yourself Be Embraced by the Buddhas.

 


Endnotes

[i] Soto School Scriptures For Daily Services And Practice – Courtesy of the Japanese Soto School: https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/scriptures.html

 

68 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 2: Wrestling with the Teachings
70 - Buddhist Practice: Dealing with Intrusive Thoughts and Emotions
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