Talk at San Francisco Zen Center: A Sermon for Buddhists in the Climate Crisis
114 - Why Your (Real) Happiness Benefits Others

Two clarifications about my teaching on meditation: First, in my enthusiastic endorsement of shikantaza or, “just sitting,” I may have given the impression I think a real Zen student would only sit shikantaza. I want to go on record saying it’s fine to use multiple types of meditation in your practice. Second, I seem to have communicated the idea there’s no place in Zen for paying attention to, learning from, and working with your thoughts and feelings, at least not in meditation. In my tradition we tend to do this work off the meditation seat, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t devote some or all of your meditation time to it, if you find that fruitful.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Differences of Opinion about Meditation
What Kind of Meditation Should You Do?
Cultivating Mindfulness and Insight in Meditation
Cultivating Mindfulness and Insight Off the Meditation Seat
Practicing Both Insight Meditation and Shikantaza

Over the past several months I’ve been getting feedback on my approach to teaching zazen, or seated Zen meditation, so I wanted to take this episode to make some clarifications because I seem to have communicated a couple things I didn’t mean to. I have two points of confusion I’d like to address; I’m describe them briefly and then go into more detail.

First, in my enthusiastic endorsement of shikanataza, the practice of just sitting with no attempt to control one’s meditative experience, I seem to have given some people the impression I think a real Zen student would only sit shikantaza. I would never be so bold as to state that, even if, in my heart of hearts, I long to attract some fellow rabid shikantaza fans with whom I could unabashedly praise and celebrate this profound and transformative practice. (Which we know, in our heart of hearts, really is the best. Just kidding. Kind of.)

Second, I seem to have communicated the idea that there’s no place in Zen practice for paying attention to, learning from, and working with your thoughts and feelings, at least not in meditation. While it’s true that, in my tradition, we tend to do this work off the meditation seat, there’s no reason you shouldn’t devote some or all of your meditation time to it, if you find that fruitful.

Differences of Opinion about Meditation

Regarding the first matter, whether to sit shikantaza only or incorporate other kinds of meditative methods, there has been difference of opinion and approaches with respect to meditation throughout the history of Zen. I’ve cited many sources encouraging what I call “letting go” practice in my past episodes on zazen: Episode 64 – Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything; Episode 69 – The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying; Episodes 83 & 84 – Two Paths to Meditative Concentration: Directed Effort Versus Letting Go.

meditationWhile I can easily dredge up Zen quotations supporting the idea of shikantaza-only, I can just as easily find quotations encouraging directed-effort methods. For example, just off the top of my head, in Soto Zen master Keizan’s instructions for zazen, he says:

“If the mind wanders, place attention at the tip of the nose and tanden and count the inhalations and exhalations. If that doesn’t stop the scattering, bring up a phrase and keep it in awareness – for example: ‘What is it that comes thus?’ or ‘When no thought arises, where is affliction? – Mount Sumeru!’ or ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West? – The cypress in the garden.’ Sayings like this that you can’t draw any flavour out of are suitable.

“If scattering continues, sit and look to that point where the breath ends and the eyes close forever and where the child is not yet conceived, where not a single concept can be produced. When a sense of the two-fold emptiness of self and things appears, scattering will surely rest.”[i]

In other words, do something about a scattered mind. In my Dharma lineage, Zen master Keizan is only three generations after Dogen.

As a very new and relatively inexperienced teacher of the Dharma and meditation, it’s really difficult to know what approach to take. On the one hand, in our culture we tend to suffer from an excess of choice. We can read this or that, visit this or that teacher, and assemble our own style of practice drawing bits and pieces from religious and spiritual traditions that used to be separated by continents and oceans. Alan Watts says you don’t need to meditate, Thanissaro Bhikkhu thinks meditation without any attempt to influence your own mind is a deluded and useless activity, a Vajrayana teacher recommends tantric visualization as the by far the quickest and most expedient means to awakening, and Uchiyama Roshi tells you to physically sit upright and leave everything to your meditation posture. What are you to believe?

What Kind of Meditation Should You Do?

Even if you think a particular approach to meditation would work really well for you, what if you don’t have anyone around to guide you in it, assuming you want that kind of direction? What if, like many people at my Zen center, you like Vipassana meditation but your local teacher is a fan of shikantaza?

I don’t really know what to tell you, honestly. If you’re really passionate about a particular kind of meditation, I encourage you to go out and find someone to study it with. Travel and attend a retreat dedicated to the style of meditation you’re interested in. Go for it!

But in the end, I don’t know that it really matters what form of meditation you do, as long as you commit to it and keep at it. Or, you can do more than one form! We meditation teachers like to think the approach matters a lot but honestly, I think what really counts is putting in the hours on the meditation seat, getting to know your own mind, body, and heart. Absolutely no form of meditation is going to seem easy or fruitful or fun all the time, so just sticking with it is what seems to bring positive results.

Since I began talking up shikantaza, the method of no method, I definitely have not been inundated with people reporting their new love for, commitment to, and curiosity about shikantaza. Actually, no one – either in my local Sangha or in the online podcast community – has asked for any more guidance on shikantaza than I’ve already given on the podcast. Maybe that’s because what I’ve already said seems to cover it? I doubt it, because I think it’s a very subtle and easily misunderstood practice. In any case, I have heard from lots of people who say, sometimes with a slightly confessional tone, that they do a little shikantaza sometimes, but that most of the time they follow their breath, or keep bringing the mind back to the present, or practice some kind of carefully chosen technique or process of inquiry, as you do in Vipassana.

I want to go on record as saying I think using multiple approaches is totally fine, and is probably more in keeping with the history of Zen than being a shikantaza purist. Perhaps it’s true, most of us are so caught up in our thoughts, emotions, and karma that we need directed effort approaches in meditation to even become present enough in our bodies to “just sit.” Do whatever practice keeps you meditating, whatever helps you feel more sane and compassionate! Calming practices like following or counting the breath, body scanning, or attending to sound can help you become more centered in your body, and in the here-and-now. Meditative exercises like Metta or cultivating gratitude can have a positive effect on your body and mind. Deliberate meditation practices like exploring the five skandhas or examining your internal emotional and mental processes can lead to transformative insight. Just sitting can be like returning home and sitting in peace. With all of these wonderful practice tools, I suppose it’s unskillful to insist people do only one of them.

That said, I wonder about the wisdom of certain Buddhist teachers of the past and present who unequivocally advocate a particular method of meditation to the exclusion of all others. Surely, whenever they lived, they alienated some people, and failed to provide some people with what they needed. And yet there’s an honesty and simplicity to the one-message-only approach to teaching. At times I think we have too many choices, and therefore never really go deeply into one thing. If we go deeply into one thing, our journey will inevitably include periods of challenge, doubt, confusion, barrenness, and frustration. If we just switch to a different approach when we hit these difficulties, we may never experience the deeper aspects of Buddhist meditation.

Still, of course, not everyone is in this to become a meditation athlete. Most people just want some relief and sanity in the midst of their daily lives. So, I don’t have the character to be a one-message-only teacher, because I care about all of you and want you to find what you need in the Dharma. I should also make it clear that even though I’ve confessed my own difficulties with directed effort or concentration meditation practices, that doesn’t mean I can’t teach them – especially if you’re not looking to become a meditation athlete! I’ve spent countless hours bringing my mind back to the breath, or exploring my internal landscapes with a particular agenda.

Cultivating Mindfulness and Insight in Meditation

That brings me to my second main point. Through my teachings on zazen in the last couple years, I seem to have communicated the idea that there’s no place in Zen practice for paying attention to, learning from, and working with your thoughts and feelings, at least not in meditation. Now, maybe that was my message in a few podcast episodes, because I was encouraging people to really give shikantaza a try instead of constantly feeling compelled to analyze and fix things. However, a huge and central part of Zen is paying attention to, becoming more aware of, learning from, and working with your thoughts and feelings!

The practices people tell me they do during meditation (other than shikantaza) are things I have mostly done off the meditation seat. Paying attention to what’s happening here-and-now, becoming more mindful of both internal and external experiences, learning to see the chain of cause and effect operating within my own mind, and finding ways to be more skillful while relating to my own thoughts and feelings – these activities have been central to my practice and are central in Zen, it’s just that in our tradition we tend to do them in the context of moment-to-moment mindfulness off the cushion, precept work, and other aspects of our practice. Unlike Theravada or Vipassana, Zen doesn’t usually give you explicit guidance on how to investigate and work on your stuff during meditation.

That said, I don’t see any problem with dedicating part of your meditation time to calming practices, self-reflection, and cultivating insight. The time you spend in meditation may be the only, or best, time for you develop and practice these skills. A member of my Zen center pointed this out to me recently, explaining how he finds it difficult to practice mindfulness and cultivate insight while going about his daily life unless he’s taken the time to practice these things in the stillness of meditation. When he said that, it made perfect sense to me. Our daily lives and habits of body, mind, and heart may be such that everything feels like a flurry; we may feel carried along by the current with little ability or opportunity to reflect on what’s going on.

Cultivating Mindfulness and Insight Off the Meditation Seat

My Sangha member’s comment about his need to practice mindfulness and cultivate insight during meditation made me worry that I have been leading people to close themselves off to greater self-awareness and insight in the interest of “just sitting.” Dogen’s zazen instructions to “Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views,” certainly preclude the deliberate identification and investigation of aspects of our experience. Classic instructions for shikantaza ask you give up your underlying agenda of trying to figure things out, even if that will lead to you being able to live in a way that generates less suffering. In other words, shikantaza is not vipassana, or insight meditation, the kind of meditation taught by the Buddha and by Vipassana and Theravadin teachers.

However, even those of us committed to shikantaza don’t sit shikantaza all the time. Sleep is necessary and restorative but we don’t sleep all the time. Exercise keeps us healthy but we don’t exercise all the time. Shikantaza helps prime us for the rest of our practice, which then takes up the rest of our waking hours. Shikantaza is about momentarily putting everything down, but then we pick everything back up again. Throughout our day we practice paying attention to absolutely everything – each thought, feeling, reaction, interaction, word, dish, car, door knob, child, breeze, and opinion. Nothing lies outside the realm of practice, no period of time is exempt from practice.

We pay attention to all of these things and experiences and cultivate a spirit of inquiry around them. What is this? What’s going on? Why am I reacting this way? What do I really want? What happens when don’t say what I’m thinking but instead take a few deep breaths? What happens in my heart when I don’t say what I’m thinking because I’m afraid? Why do I keep thinking about that person? Why do I keep replaying that negative event over and over in my mind? Where is my mind being drawn – the past, present, or future?

Our internal inquiry is informed by the Buddhist teachings like dukkha, not-self, the Eightfold Path, the precepts, emptiness, impermanence, and awakening. We learn to view everything that happens through a lens of practice. Every time we feel reactive or stuck, every time we break a precept or feel tempted to, we ask ourselves, “What am I holding on to here?”

So, if spending some or all of your meditation time reflecting on your experience of body, heart, and mind helps you extend the practice into the rest of your life, please do so! If you want to cultivate insight in meditation using a deliberate process of inquiry, visualization, or reflection, please do! These processes are essential to Buddhist practice, whether you do them on the meditation or off.

Practicing Both Insight Meditation and Shikantaza

One way to frame the relationship between insight meditation and shikantaza is to think of insight meditation as being focused on the relative, or contingent, aspect of reality, while shikantaza is inviting a deeper relationship to the absolute, or essential, aspect of reality. I’m not saying there’s some kind of authoritative truth behind this way of framing it, and clearly this is a Mahayana point of view, so just use this frame if you find it helpful. And before I explain what I mean, I should offer the disclaimer that I’m definitely not saying insight meditation is lesser, or easier, or that it isn’t also aimed at helping you achieve true liberation, wisdom, and compassion. After all, the absolute is not superior to the relative; these two aspects of our reality are like two sides of a coin.

That said, here’s my thinking: We can achieve great insight and liberation by attending to our direct experience in meditation. In moments when insight happens, cause and effect end up revealing themselves to us. We’re able to see more clearly what’s happening within us, and in our lives, and why. We see what choices lead to greater suffering, and what choices lead to liberation, wisdom, and compassion. We learn about ourselves at the karmic level, and then at the more universal level of being. Insight meditation is an enactment of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. It takes a lot of time and work, but we can gradually learn to live more skillfully, happily, and beneficially.

From the Mahayana point of view, though, as long we are engaged in insight meditation, we’re still caught up in the relative world: The aspect of our reality in which there is an “I,” and “my practice,” and “my life,” “my experience,” and “my meditation.” There is true and false, good and bad, helpful and unhelpful. There is improvement or lack thereof, which necessitates a goal. It’s only when we let go of all of this – or, more accurately, when we dedicate ourselves to repeatedly releasing all of this whenever we notice we’ve grasped it – in a form of meditation like shikantaza, that we have a chance to rest in the aspect of reality where everything is miraculous and precious just as it is. Our perfection includes beginning, end, and all of our efforts along the way. Our perfection includes our suffering and our efforts to liberate ourselves from it.

I’m guessing that for most people, a combination of insight meditation and shikantaza would be the most effective and potent practice. By that I mean serial practice of each approach: First one, then the other, because they’re pretty much mutually exclusive. I think it’s probably good to be clear with yourself which type of meditation you’re doing at a given time. You might practice some breath counting or body scanning to settle your mind a little. Then you might do some kind of deliberate practice like Metta, followed by an insight meditation reflection on your most salient thoughts and emotions at the moment. Most guided meditations lead you through some kind of practice that either helps you relax, settle the mind, cultivate mindfulness, or do an insight practice; there are plenty of such meditations available online and in books you can pick from.

Then, at some point, maybe you recognize you’re not really making any more progress in your internal investigation. Or maybe you just feel calm and peaceful. Or maybe the concentration required by the directed effort practices feels like too much at the moment. Then you can invite yourself to let go of all effort and settle into shikantaza for a time. I still believe you can do shikantaza from the beginning, or focus on it as your only type of meditation practice, but I’m sorry if my enthusiasm about shikantaza ended up sounding like I was leaning toward a one-message-only approach. A teacher learns from her students!

 


Endnotes

[i] https://terebess.hu/zen/Keizan_Study.pdf

 

Talk at San Francisco Zen Center: A Sermon for Buddhists in the Climate Crisis
114 - Why Your (Real) Happiness Benefits Others
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