Sometimes, when I find zazen challenging or dull, I engage it as a practice of trying to be completely joyful and at ease in this moment – just the way life is right now: in this body, with these aches, bad habits, and unfinished projects, in this moment’s confusing world that is so beautiful and terrible at the same time.
This approach contrasts with practicing zazen in order to achieve joy and ease. When I’m meditating in order to obtain a result (such as relief from stress, greater perspective on my life, a deeper sense of compassion, or spiritual insight), I keep making an effort to let go of discriminative thinking and return my attention to the present moment. I make this effort because it is a tried and true method of obtaining the results I want, even though I don’t really understand why it works. At times this effort is enough, but at other times zazen starts to feel kind of mechanical and boring.
That’s when I change things up. Fortunately, there are many different ways to approach zazen, because my body-mind finds ways to resist any particular one after a while. It seems to me all the different approaches – concentration, koans, metta – ultimately lead to the same place, which is something we can experience but not very accurately describe.
I think Zen master Dogen would approve of engaging zazen as practicing great ease and joy. In his Shobogenzo fascicle “Zazen-gi,” or “Rules for Zazen,” he states, “Zazen is not learning to do concentration. It is the dharma gate of great ease and joy.”
Note that Dogen says “the dharma gate OF great ease and joy,” not “the dharma gate TO great ease and joy.” Now, I realize that Dogen wrote in Japanese, and that language isn’t nearly as fussy about prepositional relationships as English is. Still, respected translators have chosen “of” instead of “to.”
I interpret this to mean the dharma gate IS great ease and joy, and this resonates with my personal experience. When I sit and practice feeling joy and ease in my life just as it is, my body-mind starts to settle. All my habitual thinking dies down because there is less compulsion to leap mentally out of the present moment. I access a sense of stability, patience, and peace.
Now, the key is that my ability to practice ease and joy is not dependent on conditions, the way I usually assume it is. When I sit ease-and-joy zazen, I notice where I am not completely joyful and at ease. I notice where I am worried, or anticipating things, or holding dissatisfaction. I notice a voice inside me that suggests I can’t be at ease “until…” I notice a resistance to taking joy in life just as it is “because…” Then I try to let those things go, just as I have learned to let go of discriminative thoughts. My myriad reasons to postpone sincere satisfaction and peace of mind have no inherent reality; if I stop giving them energy, they pass away.
This is nothing other than the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha: our experience can be utterly transformed by changing our own minds. Conditions certainly affect and influence us, but the inevitable challenges of life do not preclude great ease and joy.
Another Buddhist teaching highlighted by ease-and-joy zazen, at least for me, is the teaching that enlightenment is essentially understanding or embracing impermanence. Subjectively, I experience this as never, ever reaching a point of rest or resolution. The vast majority of things going on in my life and in the world are either in process or inevitably fated to change. Without realizing it, much of the time I live in anticipation of elusive point of completion and perfection where I will have earned my ease and joy. When I sit zazen, I wake up to the fact that this point will never come, so I had better give up making my peace of mind contingent on achieving it.
I like ease-and-joy zazen for a couple of reasons. First, it’s direct. It’s simply practicing enlightenment without any methods or shortcuts. It may sound hard, but the methods and apparent shortcuts aren’t easy either. Second, it appeals to my heart by identifying the essence of my longing, rather than highlighting mind-states or insights along the way that will theoretically lead to ease and joy. Finally, in the moments when I feel greater ease and joy in my life right-here, right now – well, let’s just say those are moments of my life in which I am awake.
Of course, next week I might be using a different approach to zazen, but I still think this one’s pretty neat.
 Translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi, from Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, North Point Press, New York, 1985.