In this episode I focus on how zazen is the dharma gate of joyful ease, because experiencing it as such is so profoundly restorative at a time when our lives tend to be stressful in many ways. I also think it’s necessary to explore the way in which zazen is the dharma gate of joyful ease because that dharma gate is subtle and can be elusive because to enter it we have to let go of all of our normal ways of operating.
Disclaimer about this Episode on Zazen
It’s been a while since I sang the praises of zazen, so that’s what I want to do today. I hope to convey the message Dogen expressed in his writings when he said, “The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease.”[i]
I realize you may do some other form of meditation sometimes, or all the time. Actually, I know very few people who, like myself, only sit zazen. Even fans of zazen describe how they often start with breath following or some such concentration practice, or turn to such a practice if they find their minds are too busy.
Personally, I believe it’s best to commit yourself to shikantaza alone, because it’s a complete surrender to being present with whatever is happening without trying to control it. If you always have an alternative in the back of your mind – a form of meditation you can try if you don’t like what’s happening in zazen – then your surrender can’t be complete.
But that’s me. I believe this 100% but also can count on one hand the number of students who agree with me, despite a dozen podcast episodes pleading my case (e.g. 64 – Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything, and 69 – The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying). So, I hope you will bear with my rather fanatical ode to zazen in this episode and find something in it that’s useful even if you’re not as committed to shikantaza as I am.
Zazen Compared to Meditation
Language is just an expression about reality, not reality itself, so there are infinite ways to describe zazen. Today I want to focus on how zazen is the dharma gate of joyful ease because experiencing it as such is so profoundly restorative at a time when our lives tend to be stressful in many ways. I also think it’s necessary to explore the way in which zazen is the dharma gate of joyful ease because that dharma gate is subtle and can be elusive because to enter it we have to let go of all of our normal ways of operating.
Our normal ways of operating are completely compatible with meditation as we usually conceive of it. For example, we set aside some time for our zazen. We tell other people we’re “meditating” because at least these days most people have some concept of what that means.
Most people, perhaps ourselves included, think meditation means calming or concentrating our mind in some way for a period of time, because of the benefits that brings.
The benefits: (At least momentarily) more calm, independence from our emotions, perspective, insight, greater awareness, mindfulness… perhaps ability to control our minds to some extent so we’re not so caught up in thinking or worrying, fantasizing or stewing on afflictive emotions…
So meditation is something we do, similar to exercise or therapy or some other healthy activity.
Zazen Compared to Prayer
If it is comparable to anything, zazen is more like prayer: Setting aside time where we take up a humble, open attitude – where we listen, orient ourselves toward Something Greater, something that transcends, or runs deeper, than our ordinary daily self-centered concerns
Where we make space, set aside our ordinary activities and entertainments
Of course, zazen is unlike prayer in that we are not conceiving of some being or force who will receive our devotions
We’re not imagining a supernatural being or force is asking us to sit zazen, or will be disappointed if we don’t, or who will tip the scales in the favor of our good fortune because of our practice
But if you stop short of conceiving of some supernatural being or force in relation to your zazen, you can tap into a sense that the universe as a whole does indeed benefit from, and harmonizes with, and in a subtle way responds to, your effort
That there is, in a sense, a positive response to your act of making space, listening, bearing witness, being present for your life
Like prayer, zazen is also best done with no expectation of reward… theists – at least the more mystically minded – agree that prayers involving listening and openness and offering are more profound than prayers asking for specific favors.
Zazen is Not Something We Do
Therefore, I recommend making space for zazen in your life in way that’s somewhat similar to how you might make space for prayer in your life if you if you believed in God (or if you do believe)
This means dedicating yourself to zazen because it aligns you with a deeper reality, and doing it without an expectation of particular results – or even a particular experience
This is what is challenging to most people about zazen: It’s emphasis on spaciousness, stillness, and letting go. We want to know, “What are we supposed to do in zazen?” But that is the wrong question. We aren’t meant to be doing anything in the ordinary sense of the word.
You might say zazen is something we allow, rather than something we do.
Still… even with prayer there’s a difference between prayer done wholeheartedly and prayer done with resistance and distracted mind.
(Note: however, there is still great value in zazen even if/when it doesn’t feel like a dharma gate of joyful ease. Just as, as a theist, you wouldn’t stop praying – if you were truly devotional – just because your prayers don’t feel particularly profound at the moment)
Entering the Dharma Gate of Joyful Ease
The trick is to find ways to more fully engage your zazen without engaging in any kind of activity – any kind of effort to control your mind or your experience
In most forms of meditation you have an object of concentration, and when your mind wanders you “return” your mind to your meditative object
Many people think zazen is similar, but our “meditative object” is the present moment. So, when your mind wanders you return it to “the present moment”
But this involves an idea about the present moment. What is the present moment? Is the present moment defined as being our bare sensations with no thoughts attached?
Concentrating on the present moment also involves ideas about ourselves (“I” am now in the present moment, or a few seconds ago “I” wasn’t in the present moment).
Conceiving of the “present moment” as being thought free, or at least not being caught up in thoughts, divides our experience into times of “successful meditation” versus “failing at meditation”
This is not the dharma gate of joyful ease
Joyful ease means shining the light of awareness on everything that happens during zazen without judgement, and with appreciation because all of it is your experience of being alive
Zazen is based on the fact that it is a miracle simply to be alive, and therefore being fully present within our lives just as they are gives us stability, peace of mind, and even joy
What Do We Do When Our Minds Wander?
Surely “shining the light of awareness on everything that happens during zazen without judgement” doesn’t mean indulging in the various obsessions and fantasies and distractions that arise in our minds as we sit!
True, but during zazen we also do not fight the obsessions and fantasies and distractions
Believing we need to fight them prevents us from entering the dharma gate of joyful ease
Believing we need to fight them also sets some imagined “executive I” within us against our unruly hearts and minds
Zazen is about wholeness. Everything we encounter is our life, including our desire to control things and our unruly, self-obsessed hearts and minds
We simply shine the light of awareness on it all, and in that subtle and simple act, much of the inner turmoil driving us toward our obsessions and fantasies and distractions decreases or fades away
When we awaken from the dream of thought for a moment, this is not the triumph of some “executive I”
Centuries of Buddhism and modern research tells us there is no such thing as an executive I
Our conscious self is a narrative we construct to explain our actions to self and other
However, that does not mean we are without free will, without the ability to decide how we want our lives to go
What we have is moments of choice
When we awaken from the dream of thought, it is a precious moment of choice
We are not directly responsible for, or in control, of awakening from the dream
It happens, then what do we do? What do we do with that precious moment of choice?
We can make such moments of choice happen more often depending on what we do
In zazen, in that moment of choice, we shine the light of awareness on whatever is happening. This is an absolutely effortless, natural thing. You don’t have to work to be aware of you hand in this moment, do you? Or your breathing?
Now, it becomes work when then conceive of an “I” who is now aware of your hand, and who needs to remain aware of your hand for at least the next minute or so in order to succeed at meditation.
As soon as zazen become work, you shine the light of awareness on that, too. No problem.
Practicing Wholeness in Zazen
To practice wholeness, we simply include whatever has just happened in our embrace – include it our sense of our life, whether we like it or not, whether we approve of it or not, whether it fits with our sense of what spiritual practice or zazen should be or not
Whatever just happened – getting caught up in worry, or reviewing the plot of last night’s TV show, or drowsiness, or fantasy – is part of what is
Absolutely nothing that happens during zazen is excluded
Even our preferences about meditation, our hope for calm, our confusion, our resentments…
The light of awareness is what brings together all of the disparate and warring parts of ourselves; like a cool breeze it calms the waters; like a lullaby it tames the crying child…
As Zen Master Keizan wrote in Zazen-Yojinki: “Although we speak of ‘practice,’ it is not a practice that you can do. That is to say, the body does nothing, the mouth does not recite, the mind doesn’t think things over, the six senses are left to their own clarity and unaffected.”[iii]
When we hear this description, we’re likely to think of some placid, thought-free state we strive to achieve, but the practice of zazen is not about what happens during zazen, it’s about our attitude toward what happens during zazen, which is a microcosm of our life.
When our minds wander in zazen, we don’t “return to” some idea of “the present moment;” there is no “returning” because we have not gone anywhere, there is simply the light of awareness appearing and spreading out over what’s happening
The light illuminates and brings into consciousness, it doesn’t judge or exclude or avoid, it falls equally on everything
Ways to Deepen Zazen without Doing Anything
Still, there are subtle practices we can do to encourage ourselves to be more wholehearted in our zazen – practices that we try to use very, very gently, so they don’t become doing (trying to control our meditative experience, trying to achieve a particular outcome)
Set your intention at the beginning: For the next _____ minutes, I want to (insert what works for you here)
My version: For the next _____ minutes, I want to set aside all activity in order to align with what is most important.
Then, when I awaken from a dream of thought in which I’m planning a project or something, I shine the light of awareness on what just happened, on what’s happening, and my intention is also present, made stronger because of my explicit formulation of it.
Other approaches I’ve heard: Repeat a word or verse to yourself that helps you open up to the space of zazen (wholehearted… be here now… let go) – judge whether it works by its effect on your body-mind
Aligning mental/emotional posture with our physical posture – sitting upright, still, silent, simply be, shine the light of awareness on everything that arises (4 S’s maybe become 5?)
However! We should not use even these practices as corrections
Even these things we can apply as reactions when we realize our minds have been wandering, as a way to cut off the thoughts, or to return to a particular kind of experience we identify as being better meditation (calm, or pleasant, or thought-free)
Instead of using any of this as a correction, even returning to our intention/aspiration, engage in an utterly free, sincere reconnection with what we ourselves most want
We don’t even have to recall our intention, when the light of awareness is shining, our intention is there
Really, We’re Not Trying to Do Anything
Why will I be thinking that? I’m caught up in planning, worrying, writing, describing. Or I’m daydreaming about the plots of TV shows, movies, books… rehearsing things I’d like to say to people. Or falling asleep… Dull, unfocused. Maybe I only “awaken” a few times during a half-hour sitting
Then I realize I have some idea about meditation practice, some idea that I should be sitting there doing something, and I’m failing to do it
Then I remind myself zazen is nothing more than making space and seeing what happens. There is nothing I’m supposed to be doing, nothing I’m supposed to be achieving. All I’m doing is sitting there and seeing what happens
Whatever happens, as long as I embrace it, it is my zazen. And in that moment of embracing, there is a moment of joyful ease… letting go of the burdensome idea that something needs to be different, needs to be fixed or improved
Haha, I will think, look at my busy mind playing with its projects. This being really does have a lot of passion.
How nice that I awakened and have a moment of choice… with this moment of choice, I embrace it all
Even if such moments happen only a couple times during the zazen session, they are deeply restorative; they realign everything
When Zazen is Difficult
What is challenging, of course, is when what we encounter in zazen is something we don’t want to embrace: Pain, distress, confusion, anger, anxiety, random or disturbing thoughts…
When we are brought face-to-face with ourselves in zazen, we usually feel negative judgment about what we see
Our character, personality, practice, isn’t up to par – somewhere on the spectrum between utterly pathetic and worthy only of rejection, and vaguely disappointing.
Some people mention their minds are so busy they hardly have a moment of stillness, and this is unpleasant, makes them dislike zazen; but I suggest it is less that the mind wandering is itself unpleasant, than it’s unpleasant to witness the lack of control we have over our minds
In other words, what’s difficult to embrace is a sense of self that fails to live up to our expectations
Even if our self esteem is okay, a final analysis of ourselves is impossible because the self is empty of any enduring, inherent nature
So embracing whatever we encounter in zazen, whatever we encounter in our life, is not necessarily easy. Doing so does not necessarily result in an experience of joyful ease that makes everything better.
The embrace, the wholeness, is more subtle than that. But it is also profound.
We don’t have to like what we embrace. We don’t have to make a positive judgment about it.
We do need to recognize that whatever we’re encountering is part of our reality. In order to practice wholeness, we stop denying or resisting what has come to pass, what is unfolding in this moment.
In so doing, we surrender the conviction that things should not be this way.
Our embrace of whatever we experience or encounter says absolutely nothing about what actions we should take in the future. But for the moment, we establish a sense of wholeness.
That wholeness itself is what gives us some measure of joyful ease, some measure of sanity, some peace of heart and mind.
Giving Ourselves a Break When Necessary
Disclaimer: When things are really tough, it can be even more difficult to sit zazen; it is challenging to embrace our experience when it is painful, or when our minds get stuck in harmful loops of depressing or anxiety-producing thoughts
At such times we can do other forms of meditation that help us connect with our bodies, disrupt the harmful mental patterns, etc… it’s absolutely fine to do practices that nourish us in another way
Our zazen is not meditation practice. It is more like contemplative prayer – making space, setting aside self-interested activities, listening – although without an external object.
Regardless of our experience of zazen, we are sitting upright, still, silent, simply being.
How would we not be simply being? How can you be doing anything other than the reality of your life?
The main challenge is you may not like the reality of your life, so you try to reject, understand, improve, dis-identify with it
Our practice is to use our precious moments of choice to embrace whatever is happening. To include, to practice wholeness, to shine the light of awareness on everything
Over and over, without counting the number of moments of choice we end up having during a meditation session
But at the same time trying to be as wholehearted in our embrace as we can possibly be… this is the dharma gate of joyful ease.
We don’t have to do anything except shine the light of awareness on whatever happens, the easiest and most natural of activities.
[i] Fukanzazengi, https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/pdf/03/c01.pdf
[ii] Fukanzazengi, https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/pdf/03/c01.pdf
[iii] Zazen-Yojinki, https://terebess.hu/zen/denko-roku.html#z
[iv] Zazen-Yojinki, https://terebess.hu/zen/denko-roku.html#z