63 - Buddha's Teachings 7: The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes - Part 1
65 – Dealing with Fear, Anger, and Hatred as a Buddhist

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.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Let Myself Just Sit? Are You Crazy?
Return to the Right Posture Moment by Moment
The Actual Results of Not Trying to Control Our Zazen
Why Zazen Works – It’s a Physical Practice
Why Zazen Works – Thinking Is Doing
Why Zazen Works – There Is a Place for Effort

 

Let Myself Just Sit? Are You Crazy?

This kind of zazen, in my experience, is rarely taught in the West. At least not in a pure sense. Most experienced Zen practitioners have an appreciation for shikantaza but shrink from presenting it as a practice for beginners or as a meditative practice you can rely on to the exclusion of all others. Instead, Zen people usually teach that you need to learn how to concentrate to some extent and calm your mind before you can be let loose with shikantaza. You should start with counting your breaths, or maybe following your breaths. Even after years of practice, you should “bring your mind back to the present” when you realize you’ve been caught up in thoughts.

It’s like we can’t fully trust ourselves, let alone beginners, to just sit. We’re afraid that if we give up trying to control our minds, they’ll do nothing but wander all over the place and waste our time. We’ll sit there on the meditation seat planning and rehashing memories and thinking random stupid thoughts unless the “executive I” exerts some discipline, or at the very least makes a wiser choice when the opportunity presents itself. If we just sit there, we’ll never improve or attain anything. Nothing will happen. Those lovely moments when the thinking subsides – when we’re intimately “present for our lives” and everything seems to fall into place – will evade us or become very rare. Just sit? Are you crazy? We can’t just let ourselves sit!

In our doubt, we cling to overt or subtle meditative techniques to minimize the amount of time we spend caught up thoughts while sitting zazen. Our natural preferences morph into judgments, even if parts of us resist those judgments: Silence = good, internal verbiage = bad. Awareness of the present = good, thinking about past or future = bad. Calm = good, agitation = bad. A sense of transcendence = good, a sense of being trapped in a small self = bad. Self-consciousness = good, forgetting we’re even meditating because we’re lost in thoughts = bad. We may learn to refrain from judging our meditation, but sometimes this is more about accepting we’re mediocre meditators (why make ourselves miserable about it?) than it is about entirely transcending judgment of our meditative experience.

Why is it so hard for us to wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to just sitting? Because it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s scary because we don’t trust ourselves. We’re identified with our sense of “executive I,” which we perceive as guiding us safely through this world. To set aside or ignore the “executive I” seems like laziness at best and madness at worst. But Zen says the “executive I” is an illusion, and therefore it’s an illusion it’s in charge of your meditation to begin with. Shikantaza challenges you to physically enact nonduality and no-self. When you let go of the struggle to control your experience and find out everything flows along perfectly fine anyway, this brings the Buddhist teachings home in the most profound and transformative way possible.

Return to the Right Posture Moment by Moment

I don’t honestly have much personal experience of how zazen is taught in Japan or China, the places where this kind of “just sitting” developed into its most refined form. I’m sure there’s a huge amount of variation, but I suspect our Asian Zen and Chan forebears are generally more comfortable giving someone the instructions to “just sit” and leave it at that. Maybe it’s because they’re freer of the western cultural sense that as humans we’re fundamentally flawed, subject to temptation, and in need of oversight and redemption from a higher source? Many Asian religious traditions include the premise that when we’re able to return to our natural way of being things work out for the best, so maybe it’s been easier for our Zen ancestors to understand shikantaza than it for us. Then again, maybe it’s always been difficult for people.

In any case, on the official website of the Japanese Soto School (or “Soto Shu”), the full instructions for how to do zazen are 1,074 words long. Of this, 156 words (~15%) are about the proper preparation for zazen, such as choosing the right location, time, and clothing; 826 words (~76%) are about the physical aspects of sitting including posture, the position of the eyes and hands, and breathing quietly without trying to control the breath at all. Only 92 words (less than 9%) address what you do with your “mind.” Here they are:

“Do not concentrate on any particular object or control your thought. When you maintain a proper posture and your breathing settles down, your mind will naturally become tranquil.

“When various thoughts arise in your mind, do not become caught up by them or struggle with them; neither pursue nor try to escape from them. Just leave thoughts alone, allowing them to come up and go away freely. The essential thing in doing zazen is to awaken from distraction and dullness, and return to the right posture moment by moment.”

As for breathing, the Soto Shu seems to have found it necessary to address what’s probably a common question: Shouldn’t I count my breaths? As I mentioned earlier, this is commonly taught to new meditators as a preliminary practice. After the zazen instructions on the Soto Shu website, there’s a quote from an ancient Zen text called the Eihei-koroku, where Zen master Dogen calls counting breaths a hinayana, or “small vehicle” practice. (Small vehicle practice is that done for one’s own benefit.) Dogen then quotes an ancestral teacher as saying, “It is better to have the mind of a wily fox than to follow the way of Hinayana self-control.”

The Actual Results of Not Trying to Control Our Zazen

Personally, I find this ancestral Zen admonition corroborating and exciting. I know what it’s like to have the mind of wily fox! I’ll technically be sitting in meditation but I’ll actually be trying to find any way I can to amuse myself or figure out ways to do something other than just sit there. The amount of time I’ve wasted on the cushion indulging wily fox mind is, for me, a secret source of Zen practitioner shame – and I know for a fact I share that shame with most meditators, regardless of their tradition or method. But Dogen says that from the point of view of zazen, that’s better than trying to exert deliberate control over the situation.

In what sense is it better to have the mind of a wily fox than it is to exert control? This is where shikantaza has the potential to blow your mind. As far as I can tell from my own experience, our very non-resistance to wily fox mind (or anything else that happens) is the perfect enactment of zazen. In the exact moment of recognizing wily fox mind we just sit – no reaction, no judgment, no opposition to wily fox mind, no concern about ourselves or our meditative experience, no effort to “return to the present.” Like a dumb frog clueless about any sense of “executive I,” we don’t even make “not doing” into some kind of means to an end.

Subsequently – and this is the mind-blowing part – in our zazen wily fox mind gets absorbed into a larger reality like salt in the ocean. So, it’s not that Dogen is saying we have be subject to wily fox mind because it’s taboo to use Hinayana self-control. He’s saying it’s better to risk having the mind of a wily fox in our zazen, and to tolerate the times when we get sucked into thinking, than it is to compromise our zazen by trying to control it.

The irony is, this ludicrous-sounding method of no method can be a direct gateway into exactly what it is we’re looking for. In contrast to what we might expect of shikantaza – meditation sessions full of mind wandering and boredom – the Zen masters describe the practice like this:

[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)[i]

 

“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)[ii]

 

“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)[iii]

Why Zazen Works – It’s a Physical Practice

I think if more people abandoned themselves to shikantaza, they would be delighted to find that things take care of themselves. Any explanation of why this is risks us complicating the matter and making “just sitting” into a method we use for particular results, but I’ll take the risk of explaining because it might help someone have the guts to sit without any techniques or goals if they understanding intellectually how or why it’s a good thing.

First, zazen has a positive effect on our lives because it’s a somatic, or embodied, practice. The most important thing is that we’re physically “just sitting” there. Even if you’re reliving last night’s TV show or worrying about all the stuff you need to get done, as long as you’re not actually doing anything but sitting there, at some level you are doing zazen. Most of us find this reassurance cold comfort when what we really want is to be concentrated and aware of our meditative experience, but that’s because we’re overly identified with our consciousness.

What tends to matter to us is what we consciously intend, consciously do, and consciously experience. Few of us believe settling our bodies into a posture and sitting still for a certain amount of time will magically transform us if we don’t also make some kind of mental and moral effort. Trusting the physical act of zazen to have a positive effect on us doesn’t seem scientific or rational – it sounds like sitting passively on one of those machines they used to sell that supposedly jiggled your fat until it went away. Ha! Sounds nice, but we all know were there’s no work, there’s no payoff.

And yet, as Buddhism and modern science point out repeatedly, our conscious experience is only the tip of the iceberg of our whole being. It makes a big difference simply to take time out of your day to put everything aside and at least hold the intention to let yourself be instead of do. The physical enactment of calm sends a message to your subconscious and making time for zazen – even when the experience doesn’t end up feeling very concentrated or fulfilling – sends a message to your internal worrier that it’s okay, things actually manageable. Dedicating yourself to zazen even when you don’t really “get it” makes a place in your life for That Which Is Greater, and this can be the pivot point for the rest of your daily activities.

Why Zazen Works – Thinking Is Doing

The second reason zazen works is that, when we really pay attention, we realize thinking is doing. When we give up doing anything except just sitting there, in the process we give up thoughts. No effort, or doing, involved! No judgment needed! We simply return to the practice of sitting.

What sometimes seems like the bane of our meditation is what psychologists call “stimulus-independent thinking” – thinking unrelated to what’s happening right here, right now – and we tend to conceive of this phenomenon in one of at least two unhelpful ways. We see ourselves as somehow separate from “our mind,” which tends to behave like a spoiled, impulsive, recalcitrant child despite the great wisdom of “executive I” (who wants to meditate and be mindful). Looking at things this way leads either to endless struggle, or to the victory of “executive I” (who then becomes even more convinced of her importance and power, and all the more difficult to recognize as empty of inherent existence).

Alternatively, we see stimulus-independent thinking as a kind of autopilot we keep lapsing into despite the wishes of “executive I.” The “executive I” sees any time spent in autopilot as a sad waste of time because she isn’t guiding the ship or able to keep track of what’s going on. When we look at things this way we may engage in less struggle than if we set ourselves up in opposition to our unruly mind, but we often end up with a sense of powerlessness. How can we spend more time awake to what’s going on in our life instead of being pushed around by thoughts? This is a sincere and important question.

Maybe some people’s minds are different than mine, and such people find these two typical ways of conceiving of stimulus-independent thinking helpful. Clearly, there are many dedicated practitioners of meditative methods that aim to tame the unruly mind or keep you from reverting to autopilot, and some of those practitioners claim wonderful, liberating results. I’m not making any kind of argument against approaches to meditation that involve concentration or self-control. The point I think is wonderful and fascinating is that you don’t have to conceive of stimulus-independent thinking in either of the two ways I described above. You don’t have to struggle against it, or cling to a state that’s free of it, or even wish it away.

Instead, what happens to stimulus-independent thinking when you let go of doing anything? (Except, of course, sitting there, but that’s pretty much the absolute minimum of what you can do as a human being and still be awake.) Well, one of the things you don’t do is conceive of your wandering mind as separate from yourself. When you’re caught up in thought on the meditation seat, it’s because you got pulled into the habit of doing. In preparation for the future, you plan and worry. To predict the future and control the present, you analyze the past. To ease your psychological discomfort or boredom you fantasize or try to figure out why things are happening the way they are. Behind every thought is an obvious or subtle compulsion to do something – to fix, improve, protect, seek, grasp, etc.

In zazen we don’t judge our compulsion to do, but we take full responsibility for it. Were you sitting in meditation plotting revenge on an enemy, or silently singing the inane lyrics of an old song? Well, that’s what you were choosing to do instead of just sit there. Okay, now what? Maybe you don’t actually want to sit zazen, in which case you can get up from the meditation seat or daydream. If you do want to sit zazen, that’s enough. You return to the practice with a minimum of fuss, letting go of doing anything. You chill out like you naturally did when you were a kid: Letting time pass on a mellow summer afternoon, noticing the bees buzzing around – without any ulterior motive or any thoughts about how mindful you were being.

Why Zazen Works – There Is a Place for Effort

The third and final reason I’ll present regarding why zazen works is this: There is room for effort in it. I know this sounds contradictory given zazen is supposed to be letting go of all doing and shouldn’t involve any effort to control our experience, so let me explain first why this important, and then how it can be.

It’s important that there be room for effort in zazen because that’s the way we operate as human beings. Passivity makes us dull, sleepy, and disengaged. In everything we do – at least everything we do well – there needs to a be some sense of purpose, energy, and movement. This is a lesson I took away from Shinshin Toitsu Aikido, a Japanese self-defense art, where they used the metaphor of vibration: A wire vibrating relatively slowly will move with a large and visible amplitude, while a wire vibrating faster will appear more “still” even though it’s actually moving quicker and with more energy. This is the kind of stillness we aim for in zazen – not moving, not doing, but only because we’re vibrating at such a high frequency, not because we’re slack. It may sound like a weird analogy, but it’s an actual physical experience we can have.

But how do we “vibrate at a high frequency” – or maintain a vital sense of purpose, energy, and movement – while doing a practice in which we don’t try to control our experience or bring about any particular result? It’s very tricky, actually, and most of us discover how to do this only through a gradual process of trial and error (and even then, it doesn’t always work). In brief, the effort in zazen is to let go of doing more and more and more.

I’ve already talked about how obvious stimulus-independent thinking is doing, but there are an infinite number of ways we’re exerting effort every moment without even realizing it. We maintain views that help us make sense of the world and our place in it. We hold assumptions about the nature of self and reality, and subtly avoid or deny certain facts or experiences. We anticipate what’s going to happen next, and what our lives are probably going to be like from here on out. We gloss over our direct experience, categorizing it as something we’ve seen before, or something not worth our attention. In a strange way, we believe we’re holding reality together with our minds.

In zazen we can make energetic efforts to relax all of these efforts. Of course, this is not the usual kind of effort. It’s more like what you need to do if a massage therapist tells you your shoulder muscles are really tense and asks you to relax them. Or what you need to do if you’re feeling insecure in the water and someone tells you to relax and float. Or what you need to do to make friends with a standoffish cat. Direct, willful effort isn’t going to work, but you need to put a lot of effort into paying attention, being sensitive and aware, letting go of what isn’t helping, and trusting the process. You also need to take a leap of faith that something beyond your sense of “executive I” – your body, the water, the cat, the universe – will respond and support you.

Gradually, zazen teaches us we don’t have to hold reality together with our minds. In fact, we realize reality is perfectly fine on its own, and the world we’ve constructed in our minds is only a pale reflection of it.

I’m guessing other meditative approaches, as well as the spiritual practices of other religious traditions such as prayer, can eventually get you to the same place. I certainly resonate with the descriptions of the divine and transcendent from mystics from all traditions, so clearly zazen isn’t the only way. What’s consistent in all peak spiritual experiences of human beings, however, is a transcendence of the sense of self. I believe zazen is an elegantly simple and direct practice that very cleverly asks you to leave behind the “executive I” from the outset, so you don’t have to struggle to shed it later after it’s appeared to lead you to all kinds of great spiritual rewards.


Endnotes

[i] Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice: https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/pdf/03/c01.pdf
[ii] https://terebess.hu/zen/denko-roku.html#z1
[iii] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000

 

63 - Buddha's Teachings 7: The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes - Part 1
65 – Dealing with Fear, Anger, and Hatred as a Buddhist
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