171 - Five Requirements for Effective Practice with Any Issue
173 - True Satisfaction: Dogen's Everyday Activity (Kajo) - Part 2

Putting everything down is what we do in meditation and sometimes when we’re practicing mindfulness in daily life. Caught up in things like worry, excitement, or anger, we often find it nearly impossible to put things down, but it is essential we create time and space to do so. It can help to remember that Zen practice is about getting comfortable repeatedly putting things down, picking them back up, putting them down, and picking them up.



Quicklinks to Rough Outline Headings:
What Is Putting Everything Down?
Resistance to Putting Things Down
Putting Things Down as If We’ll Never Pick Them Up Again
What It’s Actually Like to Put Everything Down
Putting Everything Down, We Experience the Essential
Putting Things Down – And Picking Them Back Up
Never Pitting the Essential Against the Contingent


Typical for me (probably for many): Unwillingness to put everything down during zazen

Zazen = primary time for this practice, but also can put everything down periodically throughout day (mindfulness)

What Is Putting Everything Down?

In our zazen, our meditation, we physically put everything aside at the very least (good to remember even when your zazen is full of thinking, or not focused or alert, etc.; as Keizan says, do not “become physically engaged in any activity”)

Obviously, to do zazen wholeheartedly, to open ourselves up most fully to the joys and benefits of it, we also want to put everything down mentally and emotionally.

Tuesday evenings: Readings about zazen

Dogen (Fukanzazengi):

“…put aside the intellectual habit of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward… Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs.  Do not think “good” or “bad.”  Do not judge true or false.  Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views.”[1]

Keizan (Zazen Yojinki):

“put aside all affairs, and let go of all associations. Do nothing at all. The six senses produce nothing.” And: “If you want to eliminate delusive thoughts, you should cease to discriminate between good and evil. Give up all affairs with which you are involved; do not occupy your mind with any concerns nor become physically engaged in any activity.”[2]

Chan Master Send Ts’an (Faith in Mind):

“The Supreme Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against.
For and against opposing each other
This is the mind’s disease.”[3]


“…other activities are like being outside of the gate. Zazen alone brings everything to rest and, flowing freely, reaches everywhere. So zazen is like returning home and sitting in peace.” [2]

To sit in peace, we have to set aside, put down, everything for the duration of our zazen

What does this really mean?

It is not that we experience no thoughts or emotions or concerns while sitting; we have little control (if any) over that situation anyway, and it actually doesn’t matter that much

What matters is what we choose to do whenever we have a moment of choice. When we recognize we’re caught up in thinking, worrying, planning, fantasizing, random, lazy mind wandering… what do we do?

Not judge or react and try to stop the thoughts, that’s just indulging in another kind of thought

We “open the hand of thought,” as Uchiyama Roshi says.[4] This metaphor makes it clear that what we’re doing is not regaining control over our minds, but letting go. If we are caught up mentally in involvements and affairs, contemplating good and bad, right and wrong, trying to figure things out, etc., we have willfully clasped the hand of thought around the content of our lives

Good news: Therefore, we can let go! Much easier than athletically wrestling with or disciplining “the mind”

Resistance to Putting Everything Down

But we don’t want to put things down! Or more accurately, part of us does want to (we have experienced benefits from meditation in the past, or we really want to investigate the recommendations of others who claim to have experienced benefits from this particular practice)

Parts of us resist, for many reasons, many of which have to do with our sense of morality, responsibility, compassion, love for others…

Cease to discriminate between good and evil?! Excuse me? What about morality? What is the good of a spiritual path where you give up discriminating between good and evil?

Do not judge true or false? Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness? Are you crazy? How do we take care of ourselves?

Give up all affairs with which you are involved? What about…

If you want the Way to appear, be neither for nor against. Passivity? Lack of compassion? What about moral responsibility?

Neither love nor hate, and you will clearly understand? Really? Give up love? If that’s the cost of “returning home and sitting in peace” – the zazen Keizan describes – is it worth it? Most of us would probably say no.

I suspect most of us only half-heartedly let go during zazen… open hand of thought mostly… put something down but keep it right next to us… tell ourselves we should put it down but part of us says, “are you crazy?” and keeps a finger on it…

We let go for a moment but pick our concerns right back up again, out of fascination, excitement, worry, outrage, you name it…

Putting Things Down As If We’ll Never Pick Them Up Again

The thing is, in zazen (which isn’t limited to sitting or lying down!), if we really want to engage it fully, we need to put things down as if we’re never going to pick them up again.

That’s the degree of letting go that our Zen ancestors are recommending…

Not necessary to consider this philosophically, we know from experience the different degrees of letting go:

We might consciously try to put something out of our minds for a while…

We might try to embrace don’t-know mind… cultivate acceptance of a situation so our reactions to it are as compulsive…

But it’s very different when we really let go. Sometimes we manage to do this in zazen, or through practice, but sometimes it’s life circumstances which bring us face to face with the futility of our effort to hold on to things, or the changeability of our most cherished beliefs and opinions, or the illusions on which we have based so many decisions…

When we really put something down, with the same attitude as we might have if we were never picking it up again, there’s a radical quality to our experience. As the saying goes, if you love something, set it free (and don’t be waiting to pounce on said person or thing the instant they move away!) – if it comes back to you, it is yours.

Letting go can be scary, disorienting… when we open the hand of thought and fully release something we see as essential to our life, it calls into question every other thing we’re holding on to.

What if it’s all a house of cards? Who are we? How will we orient ourselves? How will we know right from wrong, or make good decisions?

For example, I believe we are on the brink of a climate catastrophe that will plunge the world into misery and chaos. I believe we all have a moral imperative to take radical action to minimize and mitigate the breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems by completely ending greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade.

How can I “put this down” during zazen, or at any time? How can you “put down” a terminal diagnosis for yourself or a loved one? If your life is an overwhelming mess of competing responsibilities, if other people depend on you for their well-being, how can you put such things down? If the greatest joys of your life involve family, or study, or creativity, why should you put such things down? If you witness injustice and cruelty, are you also supposed to put that down? Isn’t that selfish and immoral?

What It’s Actually Like to Put Everything Down

The “how” and “why” of putting everything down completely can be discussed, but ultimately, we can’t argue ourselves into letting go. We just have to try it and see what happens. The practice of zazen, or contemplative practice of any kind, doesn’t make any sense. It is outside the realm of sense. That’s where its power lies.

Sawaki Roshi (Antaiji lineage, Uchiyama Roshi’s teacher), famously insisted, “Zazen is useless.”[5]

We think, like Uchiyama, Sawaki Roshi’s student, that this really isn’t true. And certainly, if zazen literally had no benefit at all we wouldn’t do it. But the benefit of zazen is not the ordinary kind of benefit.

Perhaps it helps if I say, “Zazen is the practice of uselessness.”

When we actually put something down with the same attitude we would have if we never going to pick it up again, it’s like we wake up from a dream, or emerge from a kind of intoxication…

The best-laid plans never turn out exactly as we imagine, and yet we scurry about with deadly seriousness like ants building a pile of dirt that can be kicked over in an instant…

For however long our hand of thought remains open and ungrasping, we draw our breaths in a world which needs no justification…

The lively reality of this moment does not depend on the persistence of humanity, or on the persistence of me, or you, or any of our loved ones. It doesn’t depend on right or wrong, pleasure or pain.

What is left at our moments of completely letting go? Everything. Indescribable intimacy. Ease, like returning home and sitting in peace. The value and worthiness of ourselves and our lives don’t depend on any measure of worldly success or failure.

Putting Everything Down, We Experience the Essential

By completely putting everything down, we touch the Essential aspect of life. This is like one side of a coin; the other is the Contingent.

Essential/absolute/emptiness… doesn’t necessarily seem like embracing this aspect of life is going to be a good thing to do.

It ends up being surprising (and not just once!) that life is so full even when we let everything go.

I am reminded of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics to the song, “Love Itself.” Cohen was a singer/poet/musician for many years, then spent many years in a Zen monastery in the 1990’s. I think this song is about a moment of enlightenment (lyrics abridged here):

“Love Itself”

The light came through the window,

Straight from the sun above,

And so inside my little room

There plunged the rays of Love.


In streams of light I clearly saw

The dust you seldom see,

Out of which the Nameless makes

A Name for one like me.


I’ll try to say a little more:

Love went on and on

Until it reached an open door –

Then Love Itself

Love Itself was gone.


All busy in the sunlight

The flecks did float and dance,

And I was tumbled up with them

In formless circumstance…


Then I came back from where I’d been.

My room, it looked the same –

But there was nothing left between

The Nameless and the Name…


I’ll try to say a little more:

Love went on and on

Until it reached an open door –

Then Love itself,

Love Itself was gone.

Love Itself was gone.[6]


Most of us probably think, “How terrible! What would be worse than for love itself to be gone?”

This is inexplicable, because the Essential and Contingent aspects of life and how they relate to each other is experiential, beyond the reach of the discriminating mind and the language it depends on.

But we use words to convey reality like we might use a finger to “point at the moon”: As wonderful as love is, it is still a contingent aspect of life. There must be a “me” to love “you.” Love refers to a warm and interdependent relationship among individual beings. Experienced in its essential aspect, life appears as a seamless whole, and makes no more sense to say I love you than for you declare love for your hand.

Putting Things Down – And Picking Them Back Up

We must always recall, however, that our practice is not to put everything down and never pick it back up again. We must put everything down with the same attitude of relinquishment we would have as if we were never picking them back up again, but if our practice was simply to avoid involvements and affairs, stop using our brains, stop discriminating between right and wrong, helpful and harmful, our practice would not only be useless, it would be morally bankrupt and selfish.

This is tricky! Wholeheartedly put down, wholeheartedly pick up.

Our dualistic mind wants to identify with one or the other. When we’re happily (or compulsively) engaged with affairs, we don’t want to put them down. When we’re feeling overwhelmed or miserable and we manage to put things down and at least momentarily “return home” to “sit in peace,” we don’t want to pick things back up again! Some of us have been to sesshin and experienced this unwillingness to get all caught up again…

But our practice is daily life, and precept practice, and bodhisattva service, and learning, growing, and compassionate response…

This is where the true challenge to our self-attachment lies: Putting down, picking up, putting down, picking up…

It doesn’t make any sense intellectually. But it makes total sense experientially. It is by putting everything down and drawing a few breaths in a world that requires nothing of us that we gain the strength and perspective necessary to fulfill our greatest potential.

Never Pitting the Essential Against the Contingent

Cardinal rule: Never pit the Essential against the Contingent.

When we do this, we are forgetting the nature of reality. We are getting confused, deluded, caught up in dualistic thinking.

The Essential and Contingent aspects of life are simultaneously true. It may seem like these aspects of life are contradictory, or mutually exclusive. Either there’s right and wrong, or there’s not! Either love matters, or it doesn’t!

It’s crazy making if we try to grasp it with our minds. But if we explore it in our experience, dipping our toe into the water, then wading in, then immersing ourselves, we see how these aspects can be simultaneously true, and how that fact is our deliverance.

As you practice putting everything down completely – in your zazen, or in moments of mindfulness – if you have a hard time, it may help you (as it does me) to remind yourself that the practice is both putting down and picking up. Zen is not a life-denying path, telling us to drop everything and seek peace by hiding out from everything. Putting things down completely complements the active times in our life, like sleep helps us function when we’re awake.



[1] Translation by Japanese Soto Shu: https://www.sotozen.com/eng/practice/sutra/scriptures.html (Fukanzazengi)
[2] Translation from Antaiji Monastery: https://terebess.hu/zen/denko-roku.html#z
[3] Translation by Master Sheng-yen, by Master Sheng-yen. Copyright 1987 by Dharma Drum Publications, DharmaNet Edition 1994. http://www.angelfire.com/nc/prannn/faithinmind.html
[4] Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice
[5] The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo
[6] https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/loveitself.html


Image by Jacques GAIMARD from Pixabay


171 - Five Requirements for Effective Practice with Any Issue
173 - True Satisfaction: Dogen's Everyday Activity (Kajo) - Part 2