Zazen Part 2: How to Deal with Thinking, Stay Engaged, and Maintain a Practice

Zazen Part 2: How to Deal with Thinking, Stay Engaged, and Maintain a Practice

If you haven’t already done so, you may want to listen to Zazen (Seated Meditation) Part One: What Zazen Is and How to Do It before this episode.

In this episode, I cover how to deal with stimulus-independent thinking during meditation, how to stay engaged and energetic while doing a practice that’s essentially doing nothing, and how to maintain a zazen practice over time.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Dealing with Thinking during Zazen
Keeping Yourself Fully Engaged in Just Sitting
“Just Sitting” with Great Determination and Energy
Having Something to Do in Zazen
Returning to Our Natural State
Maintaining a Zazen Practice over Time

Dealing with Thinking during Zazen

If you’ve tried zazen (or any other kind of meditation), you’ll know that even if you really want to meditate, and you fully intend to be present without agenda for the whole period of meditation, you’re still liable to get caught up in thinking – usually many, many times over the course of a meditation period. What can you do about it?

In zazen, when we realize we’ve been caught up in thinking, we try not to react at all. We just return to wholeheartedly sitting. A classic analogy for this is trying to hold a bowl of water very still. If you shake, or the wind blows, the water will be disturbed, but there’s nothing you can actively do to make the water calm again. Any motion you make, like patting the surface of the water, will only make things worse; the only thing you can do is hold still. Stimulus-independent thinking is like the turbulence in the water, and absorbing yourself in just sitting is like holding the bowl still. Patting the surface of the water is analogous to evaluating your meditation and mulling over how to improve it, feeling frustrated with your mind or with yourself, judging thinking as being bad, or even trying to hold your mind on something in rigid way in order to brace yourself against stimulus-independent thinking.

Another analogy – one that works better for some people – is sitting on the shore of a river with the intention of simply relaxing enjoying the scenery. As you sit, boats pass by on the river. You enjoy just watching, but every once in a while you get excited, jump on one of the boats, and ride away on it. In this analogy, simply sitting and experiencing is zazen, the boats are your thoughts, and jumping on a boat is getting “carried away” by your thoughts. Even if there are lots of boats going by on the river (thoughts passing through your mind), that doesn’t have to disrupt your intention. And when you find that you’ve ridden a boat for a while, you just get out and return to your spot by the river.

The second you realize you’ve been caught up in thinking, that’s great – you’re no longer caught up! You’ve woken up to what’s happening in the present! Even if you had totally forgotten you were even meditating, even if you spent 15 minutes planning an elaborate meal you want to cook next week, simply be grateful that you remembered your intention to meditate and let go of past as quickly as possible. Forget about your previous mind-wandering as if it doesn’t matter at all, and throw your energy into just sitting. It may seem like it will help to strain harder, feel regret, or try to figure out what’s wrong with your zazen, but those things just make it worse.

This “forget about it and keep sitting” approach may seem foolhardy – as if you’re working on a practice but forbidden how to learn how to get better at it. But zazen isn’t ordinary effort; it’s more about not doing than doing. When you realize you’ve been doing (thinking, striving) all you can do is not do. More doing (such as thinking about how to meditate better) isn’t going to help at all.

It’s often observed in Zen that our brain keeps generating thoughts like a gland produces hormones. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a problem for our zazen. It can be frustrating, but in practice, the moment of letting go – of realizing you were off in la-la land, letting go of worrying about that, and just returning to the simple act of wholeheartedly sitting – is quite relaxing and profound. If you can do this just a few times over the course of a meditation period, it is very beneficial.

Keeping Yourself Fully Engaged in Just Sitting

Part of the reason your mind wanders during zazen is because your mental habit of engaging in stimulus-independent thinking is very strong. I described stimulus-independent thinking in the last episode; basically, it’s thinking unrelated to what you’re experiencing at a given moment, and you’re liable to engage in stimulus-independent thinking whenever you’re not actively engaged in a task or being entertained.

As we sit zazen, we’re very inclined to think, “Eh, nothing is happening,” or “I know what’s going to happen next, I’ve experienced this a million times,” or “I don’t really need my mind for a task this simple.” Then we check out and think about other things.

How can you keep yourself mentally engaged in just sitting? To some extent, you need to answer this question for yourself, through the process of trial and error. What motivates me to pay attention may be something different than what motivates you. But think about it – there are certain times and tasks where you don’t have any trouble at all paying attention. When you find something interesting, exciting, unexpected, pleasurable, challenging, or useful, you naturally concentrate on it.

The traditional Buddhist way of motivating yourself to pay attention to the present moment is to contemplate impermanence. You’re aware, intellectually, that your life may end at any time and everything you love is slowly but surely (or not so slowly) changing. If you allow yourself to contemplate this reality deeply (without getting morbid or depressing yourself), this very moment ends up seeming much more interesting and valuable than it usually does. Imagine the attention and appreciation you would give to your direct experience if you knew this was your last day on earth! Even things you usually think are boring or even annoying would be strangely precious.

It may also be helpful to think of your act of paying attention to your present experience in zazen as an act of devotion. We usually filter all of our experiences through our self-concern. We think, “Is what’s going on relevant to me? Is it pleasurable, or is there some advantage I can gain by paying attention?” We tend to tune things out or anticipate things based on our self-interest, and neglect working on our ability to be aware and present with whatever life is bringing us at this moment. Your life is sacred – in the sense that it’s worthy of great respect and reverence – just as it is. Each moment of it has value in and of itself, regardless of how it contributes to your overall goals and desires. Spending time in zazen is an acknowledgment of that fact.

“Just Sitting” with Great Determination and Energy

Unfortunately, when doing shikantaza, it’s easy to fall into the trap of complacency or dullness. If we’re really just sitting – not even hoping to feel calm, happy, thought-free, or whatever – we’re inclined to check out. Rather than being taut with energy and interest, living this moment as if our life may end tomorrow, we go slack. Our bodies remain propped up in the seated posture but we daydream or tune out.

The good thing is, just physically sitting there still has benefits! I fell asleep every time I sat zazen for the first several years I practiced it. Let me assure you, I was not doing anything the least bit useful on the meditation cushion! Strangely, the practice of zazen still made a big difference in my life. Go figure! This leads me to believe that regardless of how focused our meditation is, it’s deeply transformative to take some time every day – or every few days – to literally put everything else aside and, at least technically, just sit.

That said, deepening your zazen can make it more enjoyable, and it can also help you gain insight into your life. In an essay on zazen, twelfth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen wrote, “Mindful of the passing of time, engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire.” That is, sit as if your hair is on fire and wholehearted zazen is the only way to put it out. (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi) How you do “nothing but sit” with that kind of energy and determination?

In order to deepen your zazen, you have to find a way to grasp your will without bringing an agenda into your sitting. It’s very tricky, but you need to make great effort without ruining your zazen by trying to make something happen or trying to get something out of it.

Having Something to Do in Zazen

It helps us as human beings to have something to do – some place to put our effort and energy, or some direction to aim. In shikantaza we are trying to do nothing, so in a sense we can put great effort into trying to do less and less and less. Our “just sitting” can get more and more refined as we recognize all the subtle ways we’re still separating ourselves from our direct experience, or still clinging to agendas and concepts, and let them go.

However, it’s usually not very motivating to tell yourself to “do less.” That might work for you – go ahead and try it! For me, the invitation to “do less” invites me to let up on my effort and go slack.

Here’s another, somewhat more positive or proactive way to channel your effort: Can you sink below the level of thinking and become aware of your direct experience of each and every moment, without wavering? So you don’t miss a thing? Not one sound, or sensation, or passing thought?

Sinking below the level of thinking is not dullness, where your awareness is dispersed or sleepy and you don’t really even notice what you’re doing. Rather, to sink below thinking is to pay attention to your somatic experience of sitting there, using your faculty of awareness. Your ability to be aware in this way doesn’t depend on thinking at all. The great thing is, as long as you’re aware in this way and not caught up in thinking, you don’t care about agendas or the passage of time. If you can settle into that way of being, you don’t need to motivate yourself to pay attention. You just are, in a very vital, calm, present, appreciative way.

In Zen practice, we aim to become more and more familiar with this aware-but-not-thinking way of being, which is zazen itself. We aim to be able and willing to rest here for longer and longer periods of time. And yet – and this is tough! – we aim without creating an agenda, without conceiving of a goal (such as, “I want to spend x amount of time in this state each meditation period,” or even, “I want to spend more and more time in this state”). When we create an agenda or conceive of a goal – as much sense as that seems to make, as tempting as it might be – we just create obstacles to zazen.

I know, it’s crazy. To deepen our zazen we have to try really hard (as if our hair is on fire!), aim to sink below the level of thinking, and then stay there, aware of our direct experience without missing a moment – but we can’t care how well we’re doing at this task!

Returning to Our Natural State

Zazen is difficult, but not for the reasons we think. We think it’s difficult because we’re not trying hard enough, or we’re haven’t figured out the right way to do it yet. But it’s difficult precisely because in zazen we’re aiming to return to a natural state of simple, open awareness.

Issho Fujita sensei (see the show notes for a link to his writings on zazen) offers this analogy: Imagine you’re holding a bamboo stick by the ends and then applying pressure so the stick bends. If you want to allow the stick to return to its natural state, all you have to do is release the pressure you’re applying. This bent state is our ordinary way of operating; we think it’s the way we have to be, the way things need to be, but it isn’t true. Our conscious efforts, self-interest, and discriminative thinking are extra things we add to our experience, like bending the bamboo stick. In order to allow our minds to return to a natural state of awareness, all we need to do is relax the extra effort we’re making.

But we all know it’s not so easy to “relax” or “be natural!” Habits are strong. For example, what happens when someone tells you to breathe naturally? It becomes more difficult to breathe naturally! So relaxing into our natural state of open awareness is not so easy for us. This is why zazen is difficult and requires almost Herculean effort – but not our usual kind of effort. If we strive harder, if we try to make something happen (or not happen), we are just applying more pressure to the bamboo stick. A significant part of our Herculean effort is becoming more and more subtly attuned to our experience so we can begin to recognize the extra things we are adding to our experience, and learn to let them go.

Maintaining a Zazen Practice over Time

First, where and when should you do zazen, and for how long? Generally speaking, it’s best to do it in a quiet, private space that’s not too warm or too cold. Your surroundings definitely don’t have to be silent, but it can be difficult to do zazen, especially if you’re a beginner, if you can overhear music, television, or conversations. In terms of timing, ideally you can find a time of day when you’re not too tired, and you won’t be interrupted. If you’re busy you may not have a lot of choice about when you do zazen, so just do your best. A daily meditation period of 30-40 minutes – or even longer – is ideal, but this is like exercise: Better to do a little of it than not to do it at all because you think you don’t have the time! Even 5-10 minutes a few times a week is good.

Second, don’t worry too much about whether you’re doing zazen “right.” An incredibly important part of the process of zazen is getting to know your own, unique mind and how you can manage to get yourself to settle below the level of thinking for a while. We keep learning about, developing, and strengthening our zazen over a lifetime. In this sense, zazen is like a martial art or some other kind of discipline – there are many levels of mastery, but the practice of the art is valuable all the way along. If you do your best and engage it with energy and curiosity, there’s no way to do it “wrong.”

Third, consider sitting zazen with others, if you live anywhere near a meditation group. Just as a gym membership or regular yoga class can keep you exercising, participation in a group can help motivate you and keep you practicing. Also, most groups have a teacher you can ask about your zazen; most of us who practice it regularly need some personal guidance. If you don’t live anywhere near a teacher, feel free to send your questions to me through Zen Studies Podcast website!

Finally, your conscious evaluation of your meditation – whether you’re good at it, or whether it makes you feel calm, or whether you like it – doesn’t matter all that much. Zazen affects you at many different levels, including physical and subconscious. The best thing is to make a regular practice of it and see what difference it makes in your life.



Zazen (Seated Meditation) Part 1: What Zazen Is and How to Do It

Zazen (Seated Meditation) Part 1: What Zazen Is and How to Do It

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

What Is Zazen? [1:10] When the Body Sits but the Mind Wanders [3:56] The Practice of Being Present [5:44] Physical Posture: Why It’s So Important [8:20] Spinal Position Is the Most Important Thing [10:46] Sitting on a Cushion, Bench, or Chair [13:10] Position of the Arms, Hands, Eyes, and Mouth [15:56] Staying Still and Dealing with Discomfort [17:47] Finally, What Do You Do with Your Mind in Zazen? [19:46]

What Is Zazen?

The term zazen comes from Japanese. It’s usually translated as “seated meditation;” “za” means seated (or sitting), and “zen” means meditation. Zazen is the central practice of the Zen school of Buddhism, which originated in China in the 4th and 5th centuries (where it was called Ch’an; for more, refer to my first episode, “How Zen Fits into the Context of Buddhism as a Whole”).

Buddhism began with the practice of meditation – Shakyamuni Buddha achieved his enlightenment through meditation over 2,500 years ago, and the practice of it was central to his teachings – but over the millennia, certain Buddhist schools have emphasized other kinds of practices, such as textual study, devotion, or ritual. The Ch’an, or Zen, school is a type of Buddhism that very deliberately takes meditation as its central practice.

There are two different kinds of zazen. The one I will be discussing here is called shikantaza, or “just sitting.” The other kind of zazen is “koan introspection,” where you focus your meditation on a traditional teaching story, or koan. If you’re interested in koan introspection, a practice typically associated with the Rinzai school of Zen, I recommend the book Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection, edited by John Daido Loori. (Ultimately, I don’t think there’s as much difference between koan introspection and shikantaza as it might first appear, but I won’t go into that more here because it’s a big topic.)

Back to shikantaza: A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen offers this translation of the term: “nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za).” Nothing but precisely sitting. When we’re doing shikantaza perfectly, we’re just sitting there. Really. If you’re anything like me, even when someone tells you this, you’ll still think in the back of your mind that there must be something else – something special – going on in Zen meditation. But no, it really is just sitting.

But what does this mean? If you’ve tried any meditation, you know that “doing nothing but precisely sitting” is not as simple as it sounds. (Note: From here on out, I’ll simply refer to shikantaza as “zazen.”)

When the Body Sits but the Mind Wanders

Usually our minds are wandering. While trying to do zazen, our bodies may be “just sitting” there, but our minds are on just about anything except sitting. In modern psychological research, this mind-wandering is called “stimulus-independent thinking” – thinking that has little or nothing to do with any stimulus you are receiving from your environment in the moment. You make plans, mull over memories, imagine future scenarios, and analyze – it’s really quite remarkable the kinds of complicated, abstract things the human mind can contemplate. For example, you can imagine what might have gone on in the mind of your friend if you had responded differently to her last week. You can design and execute a whole project in your head!

Research has shown that when you’re not engaged in an absorbing activity or being actively entertained, your mind uses what you see as “spare time” to engage in stimulus-independent thinking. We spend so much time doing this, psychologists have dubbed this our “default mode.”

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with stimulus-independent thinking. However, sometimes our habits of thought become so strong that we can’t disengage from them even when they’re dysfunctional, repetitive, or stressful. For example, has anyone ever told you something like, “It isn’t worth worrying about?” but you can’t stop worrying anyway? In addition, when your mind is wandering, you miss what’s going on around you. It’s difficult to fully appreciate your everyday life when you’re always thinking about something else.

The Practice of Being Present

In his famous book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” Thich Nhat Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation

In a way, we practice zazen in order to gain some freedom from the habit of stimulus-independent thinking we’ve developed and strengthened over a lifetime – that is, thinking about the past, future, abstractions, or somewhere else instead of directly experiencing our lives right here, right now. For the period of time that we’ve devoted to our zazen, however long it is, we aspire to sit in appreciative simplicity. This actually ends up being a very challenging practice.

Ironically, we naturally knew how to do this when we were kids! At some point, we were young and simple enough to sit in some sunny spot somewhere, with no agenda at all, just enjoying our direct experience. We weren’t planning what to do next, analyzing what happened last week, evaluating how likeable or successful we were as people, or imagining exciting alternative scenarios. We were hardly aware of the passage of time, and we certainly weren’t congratulating ourselves on how well we were “just being present in the moment.”

Significantly, Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have chosen the style of meditation he would use to attain enlightenment when he recalled a natural meditative state he spontaneously entered into when – you got it! – he was a child, sitting under a tree, waiting for his father to finish working (Maha-Saccaka Sutta). He had learned and practiced many styles of meditation, but in the end, he decided to return to the simple, profound method he naturally experienced when he was a kid.

So, how do you do zazen?

Physical Posture: Why It’s So Important

Zazen instructions usually start with physical posture. This isn’t because we’re picky about exactly how you look when you’re meditating, or because there’s something magical about a particular posture (although it does matter). We emphasize physical posture for two reasons: 1) we want you to be comfortable and not hate meditation; 2) zazen is a somatic practice.

Just Sitting

I use the term “somatic” in the sense it is used in the field of somatics, which includes various kinds of what is sometimes called “body work,” including yoga and Alexander Technique. In the field of somatics, the word “soma” refers to the body as experienced from within, as contrasted with the concept of the “body” as a physical object that can be observed from the outside, or directed to move by a separate entity called the “mind.” “Somatic” in this context means focused on your experience of soma, or tuned into your experience as an embodied being. For more on zazen as a somatic practice, see the writings of Rev. Issho Fujita, a Japanese Zen priest and teacher who first inspired me to think about zazen this way.

To translate this in terms of zazen: When we practice shikantaza, or just precisely sitting, we are wholly engaged in the activity of sitting, including all of our imagined “parts:” body, mind, heart, volition, etc. Body and mind are not actually separate; in zazen we don’t settle our body into a physical posture like a lump of clay and then leave it there while we engage in some meditative technique with our minds. Sitting is our meditation, so when we describe zazen posture, we regard each aspect of it as very central to the practice.

Physical Posture: Spinal Position Is the Most Important Thing

When you sit, the most important thing is not – as many people believe – getting down on the floor. By far the most important thing is to sit with the correct spinal position, even if it means you need to sit on a meditation bench or chair.

Spinal Position in Zazen

The correct spinal position is one where your spine and neck are straight and erect. Imagine the top of your skull is suspended from the ceiling by a string, and then let your vertebrae hang naturally in a row, so you end up with a sense of your spine being elongated but not stiff. There will usually be a slight concave curve in your lower back, and your chin will be slightly tucked instead of jutting out. Your ears will be lined up with your shoulders.

You can discover the right spinal position for you by playing around with the position of your pelvis. Keep the bottom of your pelvis (your “sit bones”) on the seat of your cushion or chair, and tilt your pelvis backwards. If you tilt far enough back, you’ll notice you slouch, your neck bends, and your chin juts out. Now tilt your pelvis way forward. You’ll notice you back gets over-extended and stiff, your chest sticks out, and your neck stiffens backwards. The right position for you is perfectly in between these two extremes; you can rock your pelvis forward and back using smaller and smaller motions until you find it; it shouldn’t take much muscular effort to remain there.

Achieving the correct spinal position is much easier if you are sitting with your knees at least a little bit lower than your hips. This tilts your pelvis forward just a little, and makes it much less likely that you’ll slouch. Classic meditation postures on a cushion on the floor involve a fair amount of flexibility; your sit bones end up on the raised cushion, but your knees ideally reach the floor. If you sit down on a cushion and your knees stick up in the air, I strongly encourage you to sit in a chair instead! Your spinal position is much more important than sitting on the floor.

Physical Posture: Sitting on a Cushion, Bench, or Chair

When people do meditate on the floor, they typically use firm, round cushions to sit on. In Zen these are called zafus (z-a-f-u) and you can buy them online (they work much better than a pillow or couch cushion because they are round and very firm). You sit on the very front edge of the cushion so it doesn’t press against the back of your legs and restrict blood flow or pinch nerves. All the cushion does is elevate your pelvis above your knees, tilting you forward just bit so it’s easier to sit up straight.

Then cross your legs in front of you, but not in the way people usually do, with both feet tucked underneath (See illustrations). If you sit like that, one of your legs is pressing down hard on the other and the bottom leg will usually go to sleep if you sit for longer than a few minutes. Instead, place one of your feet either on the calf (quarter lotus position) or the thigh of the opposite leg (half lotus position); this creates a space for your second foot to be tucked underneath without getting smushed. You can also simply place one leg in front of the other, so your calves are parallel and neither leg is on top of the other (Burmese position).

You can also sit on a kneeling meditation bench, or seiza bench. They’re 6-10 inches high, and you use one by kneeling with your knees close together, placing the bench over your ankles like a little bridge, and then sitting down on it. They are very popular with meditators – they don’t require as much flexibility as sitting on cushion does, and they make sure your knees are lower than your pelvis and that you’re sitting nice and straight.

Don’t hesitate to sit in a chair if you don’t feel comfortable on a cushion or a bench. When you sit in a chair, you would ideally not lean against the back of the chair, and would place something on the chair, if necessary, so your pelvis still ends up slightly higher than your knees. This is because the same guidelines about the spine apply when you’re sitting in a chair. If you need the support of the back of the chair, make sure you’re still sitting upright. Many chairs cause you to lean slightly backwards; if this is the case with your chair, put a cushion behind your back.

Whatever you’re sitting on, make sure you’re not leaning over to one side; it can help to rock back and forth in smaller and smaller motions until you’re centered and balanced. Then take a full breath of air and feel your spine, back, and chest expand. Let out the air, but don’t allow your body to shrink down; keep that expansive, energized feeling.

Physical Posture: Position of the Arms, Hands, Eyes, and Mouth

Hold your arms loosely at your sides, without slouching or squeezing the shoulder blades together too much. Rest your hands together in your lap; place your dominant hand on the bottom, palm facing up and fingers pointing toward the opposite side of the body; place your other hand in the palm of the first hand, using the same position – palm facing up and fingers pointing toward the opposite hand. Touch the thumbs of each hand to each other, touching lightly, so the hands form a little oval shape (see pictures).

Traditionally, we keep the eyes open in zazen and face something that’s not too distracting, like a wall or an open area of floor. This helps you stay alert and present. Some people are surprised by this and say that closing their eyes helps them concentrate, but in zazen we’re simply trying to be fully present in our act of sitting, not enter into some kind of altered state. As long as you’re not facing anything too distracting (like a bunch of books, or a mess, or a scene with lots of activity), it’s good to try to keep your eyes open in zazen, at least most of the time. You can allow your eyelids to gently lower about 1/3 of the way so your eyes don’t water too much, and keep your gaze angled down at about a 45-degree angle. As much as possible, keep the eyes fixed on one spot instead of letting them move around (although allow your gaze to be soft and unfocused, so you don’t wear your eyes out staring at one spot).

If you can breathe through your nose, that’s best; then you don’t have to worry about salivating and swallowing. If you need to keep your mouth open a little, though, that’s fine. Allow yourself to breathe naturally; in zazen we do not try to change our breathing pattern.

Legs Crossed Incorrectly

Quarter Lotus Position

Half Lotus Position

Burmese Position

Sitting on a Seiza Bench

Sitting on a Chair without Leaning Back

Sitting on a Chair If You Need Support for Your Back

Physical Posture: Staying Still and Dealing with Discomfort

In zazen, you want to stay as still as possible. Mind and body are not really two separate things, and when you physically fidget, which means reacting in some muted way to restlessness or discomfort – your mind will fidget too! Rather than staying absorbed in the activity of just sitting, your mind jump into stimulus-independent thinking. On the other hand, if you can sit still through minor physical discomfort, you also strengthen your ability to remain calm through mental or emotional discomfort.

This may seem like a lot of emphasis on physical posture, but remember that mind and body are not actually separate. In ideal zazen posture, we upright, calm, and dignified. We don’t lean toward anything or back away from anything, and for a time we give up trying to accomplish anything. Just sitting this way for a while has a profound effect on you.

How do you deal with physical discomfort during zazen? It’s sad to think how many people have given up on zazen or other kinds of meditation because it is physically uncomfortable! Don’t let this be the case with you. If you don’t like zazen, fine – but there is almost always a way for you to adjust your sitting so you don’t experience too much pain. A good rule of thumb is to think of a stoplight: Green is no pain, which of course is fine; yellow is the kind of discomfort you experience when you try something new, or give yourself a good workout, and for the most part yellow is fine, too. Red, however, is real pain – especially pain that seems to be caused by the meditation posture and lasts after you get up. Don’t make yourself experience red – talk to a meditation or yoga teacher about ways to change your meditation posture.

Finally, What Do You Do with Your Mind in Zazen?

Having discussed physical aspects of zazen, we come at last to the question of what you should do with your “mind” in zazen. As I was discussing earlier, in zazen – at least in shikantaza, just sitting – our only task is to sit with our whole body and mind, without dividing our experience up into categories like “mind” and “body.” Practically speaking, what that means is that you try to pay attention to your direct, somatic experience of sitting. Fortunately, this isn’t as boring as it might sound.

Maintaining the correct meditation posture is actually an ongoing process rather than a static thing, so you can always be aware of the position of your body. While sitting, you continue breathing, and perceiving with all of your senses – sights, sounds, smells, sensations… Anything you experience while doing zazen is part of your sitting experience, including the thoughts and feelings that pass through your mind as you sit! However, what you try to do in zazen is rest in your direct experience of things while remaining still; you refrain from mentally grabbing on to things that interest or attract you, or mentally pushing away or arguing with things you’d rather not experience. You let everything come and go as you continue just sitting.

Most meditation techniques involve mentally concentrating on something, so in this sense we don’t employ a meditation technique in zazen. You might call concentrating on “just sitting” a technique, but ideally when you do zazen, you engage sitting as wholehearted, undivided activity. As much as possible, you let go of a sense of separation between the “you” who is meditating, the “mind” which is being disciplined by concentrating on what the body is doing, and the “body” which is being concentrated on. It’s all you, and you’re just sitting.

Also, in shikantaza we don’t concentrate on any one aspect of our experience, even our breathing (which is a classic meditative object in many contemplative traditions). We let everything be part of our experience as a whole. However, it’s fine if you find yourself wanting to choose one thing to pay attention to, like the breath, or sound, if being aware of “your experience as a whole” seems too vague or challenging. If you concentrate very deeply on one aspect of your experience, you’ll eventually discover that you can’t actually separate it from everything else – that there’s no fixed boundary around it – and that the experience of it is one of ever-changing flow. At some point it may feel natural to let your awareness open up to include everything.


Now Give Zazen a Try!

I hope that’s enough to encourage you to give zazen a try! Just find a place and time where you can have some uninterrupted quiet, and sit down! You have everything you need to begin.

In my next episode, I’ll go more deeply into the practice of zazen. I’ll suggest ways to deal with stimulus-independent thinking during meditation, how to stay engaged and energetic while doing a practice that’s potentially pretty boring, and how to maintain a zazen practice over time.



How Does Zen Buddhism Fit Within the Context of Buddhism as a Whole?

How Does Zen Buddhism Fit Within the Context of Buddhism as a Whole?

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

It All Begins with the “Awakening” of Siddhartha Gautama [2:40]
What the Buddha Awakened To [5:40]
Buddhists Since the Buddha [8:58]
Emergence of the Zen (Chan) School of Buddhism [11:40]
Zen Versus Other Kinds of Buddhism [13:45]
Five Things That Make Zen Zen [17:25]

Zen is a type of Buddhism, which is a 2,500-year-old tradition. When and how did Zen Buddhism arise, and what is unique about it?

It All Begins with the “Awakening” of Siddhartha Gautama

Over 2500 years ago in India, somewhere around 500 BCE, a man named Siddhartha Gautama was born. We don’t have much hard evidence about who he was or the kind of life he lived, but he later became very famous so we have all kinds of stories – myths, if you will – about him and the things he did. According to the traditional stories, he belonged to the warrior caste and his father was a wealthy ruler.

Despite growing up in luxury, Siddhartha was dissatisfied with life. Even though he was young, healthy, and fortunate, he noticed the suffering of others – in particular those suffering from old age, illness, and death – and realized that everyone, even he, would eventually experience those kinds of things. Basically, he got a strong case of existential angst: What does it all mean? What is it all for? Are we just doomed to enjoy things for a little while, but then eventually lose everything? Isn’t there something we can do besides just wait for the ax to fall?

Obsessed with these kinds of questions, Siddhartha took the radical step of running away from home. OK, he was a grown man by the time he did it, but his father wanted him to stick around and take over as the local ruler. Instead, Siddhartha followed a marginalized and yet somewhat traditional path for that time in India: that of a homeless, ascetic spiritual seeker who lived in the forests, survived on alms, and devoted himself full-time to practices meant to bring about spiritual perfection, insight, or liberation. Siddhartha lived this kind of life for six years, and according to the stories he was one of the most devoted and ascetic of them all, mastering several different kinds of practices and starving himself until he looked like a skeleton. Still, he didn’t find the answers he was looking for.

Eventually he remembered a simple kind of meditation he had spontaneously entered as a child, and decided to give up the ascetic practices in favor of something he called “the middle way” between asceticism and indulgence. He then experienced a great awakening, which gave him insight into human suffering and how to end it. Because of this experience, Siddhartha came to be known as the “Buddha” – Buddha meaning “awakened one.” Specifically, he was called Shakyamuni Buddha – Shakyamuni meaning “sage of the Sakya clan.” (Click here for a full story of the Buddha’s life.)

What the Buddha Awakened To

Now, there are many different ways to describe what the Buddha realized – and many of the episodes in this podcast will be devoted to unpacking that realization and what the Buddha subsequently taught to others – but I like to phrase the essence it like this: your experience of life depends largely on the state of your mind. This was contrary to the teachings of most of the spiritual traditions of his time, which said that your experience – whether it was pleasant or miserable or somewhere in between – depended on the circumstances of your birth (such as which caste you were born into), your performance of rites and rituals in a prescribed manner in order to appease the gods and spirits, your fate, or the devotion with which you dedicated yourself to processes of purification. Instead, the Buddha’s insight essentially parsed out into three essential points:

  1. The effects of your actions – on yourself and on others – depended largely on your intention when you did them. For example, the effects of causing the death of another living being were very different if you did so by accident, because of perceived necessity, or in order to advance your own self-interest.
  2. You will inevitably feel the effects of your actions, but the nature of that experience will be very different depending on your state of mind at the time you experience them. For example, if you are full of hatred and ill-will, the experience of losing your job will be much more excruciating than if you feel deep gratitude for what you still have.
  3. Because your state of mind is so important both to the effects of your actions and to how you experience things, the best way to liberate yourself from the inevitable suffering life brings is to work on your own mind.

Basically, the rest of Buddhism is about how you work on your own mind. Admittedly, I’ve radically simplified basic Buddhist teachings here; to further study this first teaching of the Buddha in more detail, click in these links: Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path. (I’ll also be doing whole episodes devoted to each of these topics in the future.)

Buddhists Since the Buddha

Ever since the Buddha’s death, Buddhists have been figuring out – and arguing about – the best ways to transform your mind so you’re less likely to commit harmful actions, and you’re more likely to be compassionate and generally at peace with life. The Buddha himself recommended meditation and mindfulness – basically, two ways to see life more clearly, so you’d recognize your mind states, learn how they arise, and therefore learn how to change them. You’d also eventually see through your delusions about the way life is – the delusions that make you selfish, greedy, and fearful – and thereby be freed from them.

Over the centuries, though, people explored all kinds of practices meant to lead to the kind of liberating awakening the Buddha himself experienced: study of philosophy or scripture, devoted prayers, chanting and bowing, visualizations, elaborate rituals, and strict moral behavior. Most forms of Buddhism included some kind of meditation, but they varied widely in how that meditation was done and what the perceived goal if it was. All along, there were usually bands of practitioners outside the mainstream who devoted themselves primarily to meditation, but they didn’t organize themselves into a separate school or sect.

Fast forward to China in the 500’s and 600’s. There were many schools of Buddhism in China by then, and in the interest of royal patronage and popular support, schools needed to define what was unique about themselves. They produced scriptures, philosophical treatises, and polemical literature – that is, literature that pointed out the shortcomings of other schools and argued why a particular school or approach was the best. Some schools focused on philosophies transmitted from India; others focused on particular scriptures that they revered above all others; another taught secret rituals thought to be especially effective in transforming the mind. There was also a movement of Buddhists who advocated devotion to the Buddha Amitabha, who presided over a Pure Land where followers could go after death, and where everyone was assured of enlightenment.

Emergence of the Zen (Chan) School of Buddhism

Gradually, the Zen school emerged as a loose collection of fervent meditators strove to differentiate their path of practice from those of others. Actually, the eventual name of this school was Chan, not Zen – Chan being the Chinese word for dhyana, the Sanskrit word for meditation that was used in India. (Note that Zen is the Japanese word for Chan, so it only came into use when this school spread to Japan.)

Some Chan teachers focused on the practice of meditation to the exclusion of all other practices, while many included other Buddhist practices in their teaching but always emphasized the primacy of meditation. The Chan school came to be known as, “the transmission outside of the scriptures” – pointing out how practitioners of Chan could awaken to the same realizations as Shakyamuni Buddha without having to study and master lengthy and complicated texts or obscure philosophy. This approach appealed to many Chinese as much more egalitarian than the scholastic or scripture-based schools of Buddhism, which generally required someone to be a monk, study for many years, and be part of an exclusive system.

Eventually Chan spread to Japan, Korea (where it became known as Seon [sun/son]) and Vietnam (where it was known as Thiền [tien]). Chan was gradually spread further by Asian immigrants, and in the 20th century teachers brought Chan, Zen, Seon, and Thiền to the West, where converts from other cultural and religious backgrounds began practicing and studying them.

Zen Versus Other Kinds of Buddhism

That’s enough history for now. If you’re interested in Buddhist history and its development and spread, refer to episodes in my Buddhist History and Seminal Texts series.

How does Zen differ from other kinds of Buddhism in practice? As a Zen teacher, I get this question a lot, when people come to my Zen center because they’re generally interested in meditation, or maybe in Buddhism, but they’re new to this ancient and complex tradition.

I usually start out by telling such visitors that all forms of Buddhism are more less aiming at the same thing: the relief of suffering. I should take a moment here to clarify that in a Buddhist context “suffering” is not just physical, mental, or emotional anguish. The original Pali term, “dukkha” can be translated in many other ways, including disatisfactoriness, or unease. It’s the sense so many of us human beings have that something isn’t quite right. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Or, if things are great, we worry about how their inevitably going to change. So – all kinds of Buddhism seek to address dukkha, and help us find a way to get free from it the way Shakyamuni Buddha did.

The many different kinds of Buddhism simply differ in how they recommend relieving dukkha and finding lasting peace of mind. I mentioned earlier how different Buddhist practices and approaches evolved in China – and now imagine the same proliferation of teachings and techniques happening as Buddhism spread throughout SE Asia, Indonesia, and Tibet. Each type of Buddhism has ended up with a distinct character and flavor. To make crude generalizations, Theravadin Buddhism in SE Asia tends to be fairly rational, down to earth, and focused on the practice and attainments of monks. Tibetan Buddhism tends to be colorful, populated by many iconographic images of different buddhas (that’s right, there’s more than just Shakyamuni) and other important religious figures, and focused on using the messy aspects of human existence as fodder for spiritual transformation.

To make a crude generalization about Zen, I’d say it tends to be intuitive, poetic, filled with apparent paradox, and focused on getting each person to concentrate on their own direct experience. Oh, and of course it also involves lots of silent meditation.

Apart from the various polemical battles between sects of Buddhism throughout history as they strove to gain influence and primacy in one setting or another, for the most part different schools of Buddhism tolerate and even respect one another. As practitioners, we acknowledge the old adage “different strokes for different folks” and marvel at how a particular Buddhist teaching or practice can work like magic for one person, while the next person is completely turned off or confused by it.

Still, it’s nice when we secretly think our way is the best. Heck – that means we’ve found the right path for us, right? So I’ll finish up with five things I love about Zen – specifically, things that are fairly unique to Zen, or that I think Zen conveys especially well.

Five Things That Makes Zen Buddhism Zen

First, Zen emphasizes the original Buddhist message that your experience of life depends largely on the state of your mind to what you might call an extreme. Zen doesn’t say life can ever be free of pain – that is, physical, mental, and emotional pain when we encounter things like loss, trauma, injustice, old age, illness, and death – but we differentiate between pain and dukkha – that extra misery we add to our experience because of how we think about it. It’s actually possible to live an ordinary life, without hiding out from the tough stuff that’s bound to happen eventually, but still feel fundamentally okay with everything (because you know how to let go of the thinking that leads to dukkha). Some other Buddhist schools get a little more down on this world of inevitable change, loss, and pain – called the world of samsara – and are sometimes more escapist in flavor.

Second, and this follows from the first: samsara and nirvana – that is, the state of peace and bliss attained by a Buddha – are one and the same thing. What? How can that be? Surely when you experience misfortune or pain, that’s not peaceful and blissful! Well, according to the Zen teaching, the problem lies in how you see yourself, your life, and the rest of the world – not how these things actually are. This a profoundly optimistic approach, even if it’s difficult to get your mind around. Some Buddhist schools more or less agree with Zen, but many would adamantly deny that the world of suffering and the state attained by Buddhas are the same thing; awakened beings transcend the ordinary human state, and even then are only completely liberated when they physically die and pass entirely out of this troubled world.

Third, Zen emphasizes that what gets in the way of your seeing everything the way a Buddha does is just extra crap you’ve created in your own mind. Your natural state is that of a buddha – clear-seeing, calm, compassionate, selfless, generous, even joyful. This is good news. If you created the stuff in your mind that gets in the way, you can get rid of or change it. Essentially, the obstacles between you and a fully awakened life are an illusion. A very convincing illusion, it’s true – so Zen practice is by no means easy – but what you’re searching for is actually right in front of you and nothing substantial obstructs you from experiencing that – even your limitations, or past harmful deeds. Some other Buddhist schools present awakening as a much more gradual process: slowly but surely you need to purify your own mind and heart, develop powers of concentration, gain insights, and let go of your attachments. (Zen recommends these things as well, but not as a means to an end.)

Fourth, Zen acknowledges that there are all kinds of delusions (that is, illusory stuff you’ve created in your own mind that gets in the way of your real happiness), and that Buddhist practice can help you see through them, but it insists that there is one delusion that “rules them all.” Call it the “master delusion” which exacerbates all other delusions: The master delusion is your conviction that you have an inherently existing, independent, enduring self-nature. Basically, as human beings we have consciousness of time and are aware of the continuous nature of our lives; we realize our bodies and minds change somewhat over time, but we assume that there is some essence within us that travels through time and defines who we are. Consequently, we compose a dramatic narrative about our lives in which we play the leading role.

It would take more time than I have in one podcast episode to explain fully why this belief in an inherent self-nature is such a problem. Later I will devote at least a whole episode to it, and it’s a major recurring theme in Zen. For now, let’s just say that the life-narrative we compose based on an idea of inherent self-nature tends to make us extremely self-absorbed and worried about how “numero uno” is going to fare in the drama. Everything is impermanent and therefore impossible to hold on to, so life can often be very anxiety-producing or depressing.

Zen’s point is that we don’t exist the way we usually think we do, and if we can wake up to our true self-nature we will be liberated from a great deal of trouble. In reality we exist as a flow of causes and conditions. Only this very moment is real, although we are the result of previous causes and conditions and the choices we make will affect future causes and conditions. The narrative we compose about our life can be very useful as we navigate our daily lives – and make sure we pay our own rent and not our neighbor’s – but it is not inherently real. The narrative is a provisional gloss, open to interpretation, not the ultimate truth.

Other forms of Buddhism, in contrast, may teach that our delusion about self-nature is an important thing to see through and let go of but, as far as I know, no other school places such a priority on doing so. Other schools emphasize that there are many insights to gain, abilities to perfect, characteristics to cultivate, and attachments to let go of. Again, Zen agrees with them but teaches that if you manage to see through the delusion of inherent, independent, enduring self-nature – that is, see the “emptiness” of self – you will be forever changed, and your subsequent work will be much easier.

Fifth, the central practice of Zen Buddhism, zazen, appears to be meditation, but it’s not. In fact, one of the most important historical Zen masters, Dogen, specifically wrote, “The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.” Wow! How do you like that? The dharma gate of joyful ease sounds pretty great, but what does Dogen really mean? It’s awfully hard to describe – it’s something you have to experience directly, and even then it’s not as easy as it sounds – but this basically means that when we sit in zazen, we are allowing ourselves to settle into our natural state. We don’t do anything special with the mind. We don’t discipline ourselves to concentrate, or change the content of our mind, or contemplate great spiritual matters. We let go of all agendas and just allow ourselves to be.

Of course, when we try to do this, we realize that we’ve forgotten how to be natural. We’ve forgotten who we really are – decades of dramatic narrative get in the way. But what’s cool is that, at a certain level, we do know how to just be in a natural way – we knew how to do it as children! At some point in your life you were able to just sit in the grass in the sunshine and hang out – without wondering about who you really were, or thinking about all the stuff you need to do in order to achieve real happiness. You were just completely content, without any notion of time. Remember how Shakyamuni Buddha tried all kinds of spiritual practices, but then finally returned to the simple kind of meditation he had spontaneously experienced as a child? That’s it! (See Episode 3: Zazen – The Central Practice of Zen for more.)

Most schools of Buddhism that include the practice of meditation teach a form a meditation – particularly to beginners – that is similar to zazen. The meditator is instructed to sit still and calm the mind by keeping their awareness focused on something very simple, such as the breath. However, in other Buddhist schools this kind of meditation is usually seen as a way to settle the mind in order to do other kinds of meditation. (One exception to this is the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which ends up sounding uncannily like Zen – as if the two independent traditions simply happened upon the same thing.) Anyway, in Zen, just sitting in zazen is seen as the practice for beginners, masters, and Buddhas alike.

I could go on about what makes Zen uniquely Zen (it’s definitely not limited to the 5 things I just described), but I should wrap up by relating Zen back to Buddhism. While Zen has its own emphases and practices, it does not deny anything that came before it. You can follow a line of teachers and teachings from the arising of Chan in 7th century China back to Indian Buddhism, and then back to Shakyamuni Buddha himself – and Zen includes all of it. A particular Zen teacher may or may not make much reference to older teachings, but the truth and relevance of those older teachings is a background assumption – in a way, they form a foundation on which Zen builds.[/DAP]