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
patience
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.

 

The Sangha Jewel: Community as a Medicine for Modern Ills

The Sangha Jewel: Community as a Medicine for Modern Ills

Over the last year, the Bright Way Zen community, our Sangha jewel, has grown significantly. This growth has not just been in terms of numbers (we now have 50 members), it’s been in terms of maturity, commitment, investment, and strength.

More and more people consider Bright Way Zen to be their community – a group of people with whom they find social connection and support, a sense of being seen and appreciated, and a feeling of being needed. Belonging to a community can sometimes ask a lot of us – our time, energy, commitment, money, patience – but the knowledge that we’re a vital part of something can give meaning to our lives.

What does maintaining a vibrant, healthy, warm community have to do with Zen? At first it may seem like community is just a side benefit (or necessity) to maintaining a center of Zen practice. We come together to meditate and study, and sometimes we get to know people a little. Volunteers and donors are needed to make possible the practice place and schedule, so people have to work together. The important thing is our personal practice in our daily life, and we just come to the Zen center to strengthen that, right?

But loving community is absolutely central to our practice. Although we value our independence and privacy, as human beings it’s also essential we connect with others and have a sense of ourselves as being valued in relationship. We certainly can get some of our social needs met through intimate partnerships, immediate family, coworkers, and personal friends. However, for many people those personal relationships are lacking or not very close or supportive. We often live at a distance from family, and relationships with people we work with can be fairly superficial and limited to the workplace. Personal friends are great – but in modern society, our friends are rarely in same place at the same time, so we need to set aside considerable time and energy to maintain each friendship separately.

Sangha is different than our other relationships. It’s like family in that you don’t get to choose who’s in it, but it’s unlike family in that it’s a voluntary association of at least somewhat like-minded people with a common aspiration. It’s like our personal friendships in that, over time, we end up being known, seen, understood, listened to, and appreciated, but it’s unlike personal friendships in that our belonging has nothing to do with preference or whether we find one another fun or entertaining, or share hobbies or interests. You show up with sincerity and treat others with basic respect, and you belong. Period. As much as anyone else – regardless of your life circumstances, intelligence, social skills, financial situation, opinions, personality, etc.

Sangha’s like your social environment at work in that it requires you to interact and cooperate with all kinds of different people, some of whom inevitably challenge your ability to be patient, generous, honest, or kind. But Sangha’s unlike your work relationships in that we consciously aspire to do more than just tolerate one another; we strive to recognize the buddha-nature in each and every person, and create a harmonious and loving community. Like all relationships, Sangha can be frustrating, confusing, and disappointing – but, like all relationships, it can also help us know ourselves, progress on the path of practice, and put our growing wisdom and compassion to the test.

It’s difficult to prove, but it seems fairly obvious the fractured nature of our society and increasing isolation contribute to the current opioid crisis and other modern ills. In a fascinating study in the 1960’s or so, researchers placed rats alone in a cage and offered them two water bottles, one with plain water and one with water laced with heroine or cocaine.(1) The rats developed heavy addictions, choosing to drink primarily the drugged water, and most of them continued to do this until they died. A follow-up study in the 1970’s tried placing rats in cages with rich environments – fellow rats, toys, tunnels, good food – and again offering them the two types of water. These rats tried both the drugged and drug-free water, but very few ended up with an addiction and none of them died. Humans aren’t rats, but I think we all recognize how our behavior is incredibly affected by how supportive our environment and relationships are.

You personally may or may not need your Zen center to serve as your place of loving community. If you don’t need it, presumably (and hopefully) you find community elsewhere, and that’s wonderful! But if you recognize – or just want to explore – your need for community, and you’re fortunate enough to live near a Zen center, you have a great opportunity. Communities are what their members make of them, and there’s really no limit what we can do together.

 

(1) The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think, Huffington Post, 1/20/2015

 

You Don’t Need to Improve or Get Anything to Fulfill the Buddha Way

You Don’t Need to Improve or Get Anything to Fulfill the Buddha Way

You don’t need to improve one iota, change anything about yourself, or obtain anything you don’t already have, in order to fulfill the Buddha Way and directly experience the ultimate goal of Zen. You don’t have to lose weight, overcome your anxiety or depression, deepen your compassion, end your addictions, or improve your relationships. You don’t have to understand Buddhism, master the art of meditation, or experience special insights. No need to perfect your morality, generosity, mindfulness, self-discipline,[1] or become any more responsible or capable than you already are. Without a single improvement, without the addition of a single thing, this very moment you can awaken.

The nature of awakening is terribly (wonderfully?) ironic. It’s not about gaining or experiencing anything you don’t already have. It’s about realizing the indescribable preciousness of exactly the way things are – exactly the way you are – right here and now.

This can be difficult to grasp or accept, because of the doubt we feel about ourselves. This is fundamental doubt. It’s not just concern about whether you’re up to a particular task or challenge, it’s doubting that you have a rightful place on this planet, that you’re fundamentally worthy and lovable, that when your life is over it will have been well-spent, that you’re an indispensable part of the incredible beauty and wonder of this universe. Few of us are entirely free of this fundamental self-doubt! This is why 9th-century Chan master Lin-chi (or Rinzai) said:

“When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!”[2]

What is this self we’re supposed to have faith in? In some ways it doesn’t even make any sense to call it a “self,” at least in the sense that a self is conceived of as an inherently existing, independent, unique entity separate from all that is not-self. In Zen, sometimes we say our true self is no-self, in that all the ways we usually define self are illusions. Personality, history, habits, opinions, intentions, and accomplishments are irrelevant to our true self-nature, which is aliveness itself. We call it “self” because this particular, temporary, unique package of aliveness that we are is an active, conscious agent – creating order out of chaos, seeking ease and happiness, learning, growing, and drawn toward reunion with the greater reality of which we are a part.

What about our small, conditional self? When we awaken in a Zen sense, we then see clearly how our small self nature – our individuality, if you will – doesn’t in any way defile or obstruct our true self-nature. In fact, although our true nature, our buddha-nature, is luminous and completely unobstructed by the conditional details of our bodies, minds, and lives, that buddha-nature has no manifestation other than in the conditional details of our bodies, minds, and lives.

Our particular, peculiar manifestation in this life becomes our vehicle, our gift, and our learning experience. How can we make best use of who we are? How can we unravel our karmic knots and move more freely? How can we more fully enact the fact that our true self-nature is everyone’s self-nature, and we’re all part of something greater? What more can we learn? What have we not yet seen? The ways we can grow are infinite, and as long as we’re in a human body we will experience greed, hate, and delusion in some measure. This is why Shunryu Suzuki roshi famously said, ““Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”[3]

When we know our fundamental worthiness doesn’t depend on the outcome, our daily practice to improve ourselves can be done more lightly – even with joy.

(Want to read more on this topic? Read or listen to Domyo’s podcast episode on it: click here.)


Watson, Burton (Translator). The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.

[1] It is essential to work on this as well, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
[2] Watson, pg. 23
[3] Suzuki is widely quoted as saying this on the internet, but I couldn’t find any references to a book in which this quote can be found. If you know, email me!

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