Do you realize that zazen is the most profound thing we do? For many of us, zazen becomes a habit we maintain because it benefits our lives, and this is great! However, we’re missing out if we don’t realize – at least occasionally – that zazen is much more than we usually think it is.
First of all, how do we usually think of zazen? We just sit there, trying to be present. When our minds inevitably wander, we “bring them back” to the present by directing our attention to something simple like our breathing, or the sounds we can hear. We put in our time – 10, 20, 30 minutes – and there you have it!
Amazingly, even if we never get a sense that zazen is more than this, it still increases our sanity, peace of mind, and appreciation for our lives (among other things).
However, here’s another way to look at/experience zazen:
We diligently strive for the “sweet spot” between trying to make something happen and tuning out because nothing is happening. Our normal, self-centered way of being has three modes, or ways to relate to whatever it is we encounter:
- I like this or I think it’s going to benefit me, I want more of it!
- I don’t like this or I think it’s going to hurt me, I want it to go away or stop now.
- This is irrelevant to me, I don’t need to pay any attention to it.
Doing – or allowing – zazen (that is, shikantaza, or “just sitting”) directly challenges our normal, self-centered way of being. It asks us to be as alert and attentive as if our hair was on fire (!) even as we give up every single agenda, no matter how subtle. We let go of trying to improve ourselves, understand, feel more calm, gain insight, relax, everything. We even let go of “trying to be awake for each moment of our life” in a kind of greedy way. It’s amazing how pervasive and subtle our agendas are… there’s almost always one lurking below the surface if you look for it.
But then, as we let go of our agendas, we slip into dullness, distraction, or torpor. We’re not trying to get anything or make anything happen, so we check out. Frankly, we don’t even know how to pay attention if there’s no agenda involved! Or maybe it’s that we’ve forgotten how to pay attention if there’s no agenda involved; I like to think we naturally knew how to do this when we were children. We could just sit and be. We could just let time pass without even thinking about how mindful we were being.
It’s not at all easy to find that sweet spot between self-centered effort and self-centered tuning out. That’s part of the whole koan of zazen! We need to keep exploring and experimenting with our own being until we find zazen.
Here’s where zazen gets profound. We assume that if we manage to allow true shikantaza, it will be pretty boring. We’ll just be sitting there. Sure, we want to be awake to our life moment after moment, but how many moments of sitting staring at a wall do you really need? But our assumptions about what zazen will be like are entirely wrong. When we manage to allow zazen – even for a moment – it’s like waking up from a dream.
In a moment of true zazen, we just are. We need nothing else whatsoever to validate our life. None of our agendas need to be fulfilled in order for us to be complete. We notice how our Being interpenetrates the air we breathe, everything around us, everything we perceive, all beings, the planet, reality. There is no one who hears separate from that which is heard, there is only the intimate phenomenon of hearing, which depends on ear, mind, hearer, the heard, air, sound waves, the right timing, and everything that led to all of those things existing.
This is not a far-out, “spiritual” experience, it’s just a moment of simply being. The most profound thing we can do. It’s immensely calming, healing, and connecting. As Zen master Keizan put it, “zazen is like returning home and sitting in peace.”