Uselessly Doing Nothing: Zazen without Techniques

Uselessly Doing Nothing: Zazen without Techniques

Last Tuesday we had a lively class discussion on zazen that went almost 30 minutes overtime!

First, we read the “Nothing to attain, Nothing to enlighten” chapter from Rev. Issho Fujita’s book Polishing a Tile.(1) Then we debated whether zazen should involve any techniques at all. Based on Fujita’s teachings (which are based on Dogen’s, as well as those of many great Soto Zen masters), I proposed that true zazen, or shikantaza, is letting go of doing anything. No breath counting or following. No attempt to control the mind, concentrate, be mindful, or “bring the mind back to the present.” Nothing but sitting there, which is the meaning of shikantaza: Nothing but  (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za).

Fujita and Dogen emphasize that zazen is not “meditation practice.” In Japanese, “meditation practice” is shuzen (shu is “learning” and zen is meditation). Of course, technically zazen means seated (za) meditation (zen), but in Soto Zen zazen refers to much more than that. Zazen is the dharma gate of joyful ease, returning home and sitting in peace, and “intimately contacting the true self.”(2) Shuzen is engaging a practice with our usual, limited, gaining mind – something done with a goal. Zazen has no goal at all, which is why it is so beautiful and profound.

What about the “dharma gate of joyful ease?” Isn’t that a goal? And don’t we need to do something in order to make that happen? (On Tuesday, one of our members put it this way, “I’ve always heard Zen and zazen have no goal, but it sure seems like it’s ‘no-goal-wink-wink.'” Like we cleverly reach our goal by pretending not to have one…)

This is why zazen is such a profound teacher: We can’t bear the thought of doing nothing. We’re sure, if we don’t at least try to “be present,” our minds will wander the whole time we’re sitting and we’ll utterly waste our time. After all, it’s nice when the mind calms down and we appreciate the present moment for a while. Shouldn’t we try to make that happen?

No. Any effort to make anything happen is not zazen.(3)

But when we really let go of doing anything, things don’t necessarily unfold the way we expect. If you really give yourself complete freedom in zazen, what will you do? You won’t spend the whole time planning grocery lists or worrying about money. Part of you likes being calm and present. You’ll do some of that. Habit energy will take hold of you at times, but this is all contained within zazen. What matters is not the content of zazen but the space you’re creating for it by just sitting. It’s turning toward reality with graciousness instead of self-interest – even self-interest around your meditation experience.

Fujita sensei describes zazen more clearly and beautifully than any other modern writer I know of – I highly recommend following the link below to read some of his writings.


(1) Polishing a Tile has not been published but is available to download as a pdf here.
(2) The first description is Dogen, the second is Keizan, the quote is from Fujita sensei.
(3) Zen practitioners (both teachers and students) will disagree with one another passionately about this, even within Soto Zen. I was once at Soto Zen Buddhist Association conference where a bunch of us stayed up late talking and ended up on the topic of whether zazen should involve any techniques. The debate got so heated a couple people needed to go off and check in with each other to make sure no serious offense had been taken. It was great.


Our Sangha’s Response to Suffering in the World

Our Sangha’s Response to Suffering in the World

It’s tricky – we want our spiritual communities to be places of refuge from the over-stimulation and conflict in the world outside our temple walls. No one wants to come to practice at the Zen center only to participate in a political debate, or be told what they should be doing as a good Buddhist.

And yet… if we don’t challenge our comfort levels as a Buddhist community in order to witness and respond to the often acute suffering in the world around us, especially of those much less privileged than we are, are we fulfilling our bodhisattva vows? Are we missing an opportunity to test and deepen our practice?

Bright Way Zen’s new Sangha Stewardship Committee is thinking about how our Sangha might get involved in addressing the suffering in our community – some communal cause or project we could take on together, and explore compassionate response as Buddhists, together. If you have any thoughts on this, please speak to Domyo or Myoju (directly, or through email,

Here’s a very thoughtful, short, balanced article on this topic by a Soto Zen priest who leads a Sangha in New York:

Which River Will You Cross?

BY ROSHI PAT ENKYO O’HARA | NOVEMBER 10, 2014 – Lion’s Roar Magazine


Testimonials! Zazen Is Not (Just) Meditation Practice

Testimonials! Zazen Is Not (Just) Meditation Practice

Last Sunday, I asked Bright Way members in attendance at the Dharma Talk to write down why they love zazen – or at least why they continue doing it. These testimonials were anonymous – papers were folded and put in a basket, and then I read them out loud. You can find these inspiring and touching offerings below.

By way of brief introduction, on Sunday I was talking about how the zazen advocated by Dogen and other Soto Zen masters is elevated far beyond a mere method for cultivating calm, insight, or even enlightenment. Instead, it’s portrayed as a sort of enactment or actualization of enlightenment itself. In Bendowa, for example, Dogen writes:

“When even for a moment you express the buddha’s seal in the three actions [of body, speech, and mind] by sitting upright in samadhi, the whole phenomenal world becomes the buddha’s seal and the entire sky turns into enlightenment.” [1]

(The “buddha’s seal” refers to the characteristic mind, or way of being, of an awakened being, and every person’s experience of it is seen as being fundamentally the same.)

Dogen’s description of zazen may sound transcendent or even grandiose: “The whole phenomenal world becomes the buddha’s seal and the entire sky turns into enlightenment.” Surprisingly, however, the actual experience of zazen is grounded and even mundane, but it tends to make such descriptions make a certain kind of sense. Someone’s first taste of expansive awareness or profound stillness may feel remarkable, but ultimately, in the space of zazen, the entire sky turning into enlightenment tends to feel… almost… commonplace. Kind of like, “Oh yeah, look, the whole phenomenal world is part of this same seamless reality.” And we just keep sitting there, breathing. It’s not that such an experience isn’t profound or precious, it’s just that it doesn’t occur in some parallel, rarified spiritual universe, or as a result of getting ourselves all whipped up. It’s just right here, as obvious as whether water is hot or cold when you drink it (to borrow an analogy Dogen uses later in Bendowa).

When trying to describe the reality of zazen, I feel it’s most effective when I return to my own, direct experience of it. I can’t say I’m very good at zazen, even after 20 years of practice. Most of the time I can’t stop thinking about my projects, or cool ways to describe zazen. Still, I absolutely love the practice, and just that is saying something, I think. Not that I love every minute of it – but the moments where everything aligns are so precious as to bring tears to my eyes. When I finally remember I am not “doing” zazen – that zazen is about being, and opening up to what Shunryu Suzuki called, “Things-as-it-is,” – there’s this enormous sense of relief. It’s like being accepted into loving arms, or, as Zen master Keizan put it, “returning home and sitting in peace.” Everything falls into place, and even if my life circumstances are troubling, intimately being with reality just-as-it-is feels like a balm.

Other people’s descriptions:

Zazen lets me pause to watch the drama of life without being swept up in it.

Through zazen and practice, I have experienced moments of complete trust and belonging. This has made all the difference in my life.

Zazen reveals itself off the cushion, like during work practice: Having a broken wheelbarrow, trying to rub a stain out of a carpet, or weeding blackberry thorns – this sucks. Wait, it’s okay, let go, breathe.

Going Home Sweetness
memories float by
What is important to do that day
Comfort and love
Hard to sit too long

Non-obstruction – The self and the things of the world are not two. An experience that cannot be reconstructed, nor truly clung to. Zazen only creates the conditions whereby this spontaneously arises.

For brief moment I feel like a veil has been lifted, everything that was there is still there, but somehow there is more. That more swells the heart and that is why I keep coming back to the mat.

That occasional moment of clarity when I’m quiet and see what going on in my life.

I am always beating myself up about having no self-discipline, so when I finally do it, I feel better about myself.

When I cease intention, it comes of itself. When I try to build it, it eludes me! Do I really do it at all?

Why do I like zazen? The conundrum of wondering if I’m doing “it” right.

For some reason, I’ve “come to believe”/to have faith in the efficacy of zazen… nothing special zazen.


Thanks everyone who shared!


[1] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. New York, NY: North Point Press, 1985


Bendowa: Zen Master Dogen on Why Zazen Is Such a Big Deal

Bendowa: Zen Master Dogen on Why Zazen Is Such a Big Deal

In the 13th century, a Japanese Buddhist monk named Eihei Dogen traveled to China to search for the truth. He discovered a teacher there who emphasized zazen above all else, and in studying with him Dogen found the resolution to his personal koan. Dogen then traveled back to Japan to share what he had learned, and although he generally eschewed sectarianism, we call the school of Zen that descends from him “Soto.”

Three years after his return from China, Dogen still hadn’t established a monastery. However, some students, lay and monastic, had begun to gather around him and ask for his teaching. In response, in 1231, Dogen composed an essay he called “Bendowa,” or “On the Endeavor of the Way.” In the text, the Zen master explains how he hoped to spread the teaching he got in China and thereby save sentient beings, but he was waiting until the time was ripe to establish a community and a monastic order. However, he says, so current students won’t be led astray in the meantime, he was composing Bendowa, saying, “I wish to leave for students of the way the teaching of the buddha’s house. This is indeed the essence.”

So Bendowa is, in a nutshell, Dogen introducing Japanese students to Soto Zen. In it, he addresses many questions his students naturally had for him, including Soto Zen’s position on whether the nature of mind is permanent, the importance of following moral precepts, the feasibility of lay practice, and why practice is necessary at all if, as some forms of Buddhism say, “Mind itself is Buddha.”

The most central question Dogen answers with Bendowa, not surprisingly, is why he emphasizes zazen above all else. In other words, why is zazen such a big deal in Soto Zen? One actual question recorded in Bendowa asks, “reading sutras or chanting Buddha’s name of itself must be a cause for enlightenment. How can zazen, just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment?”

Dogen responds, “If you think that the samadhi of all buddhas, their unsurpassable great method, is just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, you will be one who slanders the Great Vehicle. Your delusion will be deep – like saying there is no water when you are in the middle of the great ocean.”

Yikes! That’s quite a vehement response! And yet what Zen student hasn’t wondered to themselves, at times, “What am I doing sitting here?” At least in Rinzai Zen they do koan introspection, but in Soto we’re just suppose to sit in shikantaza and do nothing at all! How do you even go about that? How do you know if you’re doing it right? If you do it right, does something happen?

Part of the whole process of shikantaza, honestly, is to wrestle with these very questions. There is no end to the depth of zazen, which is simply Being itself. Any “doing,” any struggle at all, misses the mark, but on the other hand, when we’re truly sitting zazen we know why Dogen says it’s deluded and preposterous to think zazen is just sitting uselessly and doing nothing. In the absence of any struggle at all, this seamless moment is profound beyond description and tends to bring a tear to the eye.

It’s a mystery when we try to understand how It all works, but only because we’re trying to grasp It with our discriminating mind. When, instead, our whole body-mind meets It, it’s as obvious as knowing whether water is hot or cold when we drink it (another metaphor from later in Bendowa).

Do you have a taste of this, or not? If so, going forward is just a matter of deepening in your faith. If not, it’s best to hold this teaching with gentle, nonjudgmental curiosity. Elsewhere, Dogen calls zazen “the Dharma Gate of joyful ease,” and you aren’t going to get there through struggle or a sense of inadequacy. The only thing that needs to be done is to drop your preconceived ideas and you’ll instantly see why zazen is such a big deal.

Still, practice isn’t easy. Isn’t it comforting to know that Zen students in 1231 struggled with the exact same questions we do?


Calling on the Power of Compassion

Calling on the Power of Compassion

Many Buddhists throughout history have prayed to Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion, for succor. That kind of prayer continues today.

Kanzeon is also known as Avalokiteshvara, Kannon, and Guan Yin. Sometimes portrayed as male, sometimes as female, she’s hands-down the most popular of the Buddhist archetypal bodhisattvas. One of the standard Soto Zen daily chants is called the “Universal Gateway Chapter” (of the Lotus Sutra), which states:

“If floating on a vast sea,
menaced by dragons, fish, or demons,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
the billowing waves cannot drown you.

If from Mount Sumeru’s lofty peak,
someone were to throw you down,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
like the sun you would stand firm in the sky…

If, persecuted by rulers,
you face torture and execution,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
their weapons will thereby shatter to pieces.

If imprisoned in shackles and chains,
hands and feet bound in restraints,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
suddenly you shall be released.”

It may seem strange to some of us to “pray” to Kanzeon as if she’s a deity who’s able to respond to us using supernatural powers. That’s why I’ve somewhat adapted the version of Kanzeon’s “Universal Gateway” scripture we chant at Bright Way (it’s in Full Service B) in order to leave out the most magical-sounding of the verses. (We have brand-new people drop in for chanting on a regular basis, and I feel these verses need some explanation…)

But there’s another way to look at such prayer. Compassion, according to Buddhism, is a force unto itself – a reflection of interdependence and something that functions freely when we simply get ourselves out of the way. Rather than compassion being merely a feeling, something we create, or an ideal for personal conduct, we practice in order to tap into and more skillfully manifest the compassion that’s already inherent in the universe.

One way to tap into compassion is to invoke its power in a prayerful or devotional way. For fun, I tried writing a few new verses for the Universal Gateway Chapter that we might find it easier to relate to. As you read them, see if such a prayer resonates with you, even if you don’t believe in supernatural beings who can intercede on our behalf:

If selfishness and fear lead people to turn their backs
on their fellow human beings who are starving, dying, and without homes,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
those who are suffering and homeless will find succor and safety.

If ignorance and greed cause those with wealth and power
to exploit and oppress those without it, to an extreme degree,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
all beings will be cherished and given a chance for a fulfilling life.

If small-minded people torment others with hatred and xenophobia
because of the color of their skin, or any other arbitrary characteristic,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
human beings will recognize and embrace one another as kin.

If systemic greed results in a planet
stripped of resources and full of poisons
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
you shall find a way to heal the world.


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