At Bright Way, we’ve been discussing the Brahmaviharas lately, particularly goodwill (metta) and compassion (karuna). One of the main questions we’ve been addressing, naturally, is how to deal with anger and hatred – our own, as well as that of others. When someone is actively causing harm, what does it mean to feel goodwill and compassion for them? (I address that question in detail here.)
Last Tuesday we did an exercise to explore what authentic goodwill might look like when we can’t ignore the fact that someone is presently causing harm. I shared the basic metta prayer (May ____ be free from fear and anxiety, may ____ be at ease, may ____ be happy) and then asked people to call to mind someone for whom they find it very difficult, if not impossible, to genuinely feel goodwill or compassion. Then I asked people to write a short metta-based prayer for that person, praying for things specific to that person; what might inspire or allow the person causing harm to stop?
Here’s some of what people wrote for a person of their choice towards whom they feel resentment, anger, or even outrage:
I hope you will be able to one day slow down and view all that is around you. Truly take in all the wonderful and not so wonderful parts of life. Really get to know the people here and try to learn and understand their points of view. Life is short and this might be your only one. How will people speak of you when you’re gone?
May you know intimately the binds that hold you. May you be free. May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May you discover true affection. May you feel the love of family.
May you deeply appreciate others. May you feel honest respect. May you be kind towards others. May you be filled with understanding and compassion for all. May you help others be successful.
May you see our common humanity. May you want safety from all danger and harm for all citizens of the world. May you experience the intimacy and joy of non-separation from all beings, regardless of what they look like, how they live, or where they come from.
May you feel deep satisfaction. May you truly feel complete.
May you be who you deeply are. May you be at ease with yourself. May you know you are complete and loved even when you aren’t the center of attention.
May you be free of anger, insecurity, and fear.
May you learn the beauty of silence and reflection so your words and decisions may be skillful and beneficial. May your guardianship bring you peace and mental happiness.
May you see the beauty of nature. May your children’s children live and grow in a world where all children can flourish.
May you be at peace.
If our prayers come true, would the subjects of our prayers continue willfully causing harm?
Why view our zen practice as path? Our whole life, no matter what happens, can be ennobled by seeing it as path.
Path implies movement, progress, change, development, growth, discovery, and purpose. We don’t just turn 18, or 25, or 30 and then stop growing and learning. Thank goodness! Instead, there’s no limit to how much more skillful, wise, compassionate, and authentic we can become, and we continue on that path of development – hopefully – for our entire lives.
When we approach our lives and practice as path in Zen, it’s not about specific goals. There’s no timelines or deadlines. As long as we continue on this path it has the potential be a source of joy and strength. It’s the journey that matters.
That said, sometimes we don’t see our lives or practice as path. One of the key characteristics of depression or despair is a sense we’re stuck or not getting anywhere. At other times we may be kind of blissed out, seeking or enjoying pleasure, and see no need for a sense of path. Sometimes we’re dull and distracted, and likely to react with annoyance or resentment when we encounter difficulties instead of seeing them as opportunities for learning and growth. Even if we aspire to see our lives as path, we may resist doing so because it’s hard to accept our lives as they are. (Sure, I want to walk a path, but not this path!)
Here are a few ways to strengthen our ability to see our lives and practice as path:
1) Simply make a habit of framing your practice as path. Just opening up to the idea may shape the way you see things. There’s no need to evaluate the past, just from here on out notice growth, learning, discovery, greater freedom, etc. There’s also no need to keep track of your progress; just walk the path and enjoy the scenery.
If you notice a sense of repetition in your path (that thing coming up again?!), take heart in knowing this is very typical. We have personal koans that keep popping up in our lives, but each time we encounter them it’s a little different. For this experience my teachers offered a metaphor: Imagine you’re walking up a mountain by circling it over and over; you’re gaining altitude and progressing, but you keep returning to more or less the same views many times.
2) Pay attention to your “edge” and get more and more familiar with it over time. What are you working on, struggling with, curious about, longing for, still trying to understand? Who or what do your really want to be, or do? (In the deepest, non-materialistic sense?) Your edge will always be at least a little uncomfortable, so this means turning toward your discomfort, confusion, and resistance. In order to keep moving on your path, you have to go in the direction of your edge, or point of growth.
You don’t need to concentrate on your “edge” as if it can be nailed down or kept in sight so you can “work” on it in a normal, agenda-driven sense. You also don’t have to conceptualize it; that’s difficult to do anyway, as it’s a moving target. If you’re simply willing to pay attention whenever your edge makes itself felt, and are curious about it, over time you’ll get more familiar with it.
3) Appreciate your edge/challenges/difficulties/limitations/etc. These are your way forward. After a while, the path of growth is rewarding in and of itself, so even difficult and painful experiences have a positive side to them. You can even get to a point where recognition of a mistake you’ve made or a limitation you have strangely excites you, because you wonder what you might be able to learn.
4) Always look deeper. Underneath every one of our neuroses, negative habits, overreactions, fears, etc., is a fundamental spiritual koan. If we cultivate the habit of profound thought, we look below the surface of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and question why they are so. Why do you want that? Why do you care so much? What’s behind your resistance? What are you afraid of? What do you think will happen?
We don’t look deeper with our intellect. Instead, we just stay in contact with our edge, like keeping our hand on a closed door so we can feel when it starts to give. Our curiosity and openness will invite insight, and insight into our deeper koans can have a profound effect on our daily life and behavior.
5) Recognize and be satisfied with small or subtle changes. In order to embrace our own path, we need to let go of comparison and ambition and learn to recognize what’s shifting and changing for us – even if the changes are slow and subtle compared to our ideals.
6) Talk about our path with teacher and/or Dharma friends. This gives path a reality, supports framing our lives and practice in that way, and encourages us!
Lately I’ve been talking about pure zazen as being letting go of any and all effort. Even beyond our zazen, Dogen says in Fukanzazengi that those of us on the Zen path should “Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort.” In Roshi Kennett’s translation,[i] this is, “respect those who have reached the goal of goallessness.”
These discussions about effortlessness and goallessness has led a number of people, quite naturally, to ask: Is it okay to want to improve, and to use our Zen practice for that purpose, or are we “supposed” to give up any goal of improvement?
It probably won’t surprise you that the Zen answer to this question is, “Yes.” It’s okay to want to improve, and to use our Zen practice for that purpose, and the ancestors strongly advise us to give up any goal of improvement. (Stuck between a rock and a hard place, our Zen practice is rarely comfortable.)
In brief, gradually working to improve ourselves – deepening and strengthening our compassion, wisdom, and skillfulness – is essential. What kind of spiritual practice would Zen be if it encouraged you to be complacent about, or even obstinately proud of, your ignorance, selfishness, and negative habits? Humility and the desire for happiness for all beings – including yourself – is a prerequisite for practice and liberation.
And yet… how do we approach the work to improve ourselves? Usually, we have a goal in mind. Even if we’re not aiming at perfection, we’re sure aiming not to be who we are. We want to rid ourselves of some Buddhist version of Original Sin, after which point we will be okay in some ultimate and transcendent way. If we can just reach 50% perfection (or 30%, or 90%), we’ll be at peace… but we’re never seem to arrive at our destination.
In Zen, we don’t deny that the tools of practice can help you become happier, more mindful, more concentrated in your meditation, better able to deal with your emotions, etc. In fact, you’re expected to be doing that kind of work all along. That’s why we emphasize the precepts and how you conduct yourself in even your most mundane activities. However, in Zen, this is not the main point. What is the main point? I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I should say that even though self-improvement is not Zen’s main point, that doesn’t get you off the hook – you still gotta keep doing it, diligently, year after year.
Okay, what is Zen’s main point? You have access to ultimate peace and perfection right now, just exactly the way you are. Liberation isn’t dependent on the degree of your self-improvement.
Many of our practices aim at self-improvement, but we must refrain from making goals out of our natural desire to improve. To set goals is to get trapped in dualistic thinking, which then keeps us separate from the absolute reality in which everything is already okay. Zen demands we operate at both the relative and absolute levels simultaneously. We don’t get to hide out in one or the other, even though they appear to contradict each other.
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.
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.” 
(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!
 Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. New York, NY: North Point Press, 1985
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?