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?
When We Neglect Samadhi Power
What about neglecting samadhi power, and overemphasizing karma relationship? This is when we try to get free from our suffering, be a good and wholesome person, have harmonious relationships, and/or aspire to greater wisdom and compassion – and then we struggle in our efforts in same way we struggle with the rest of our ordinary tasks. Approaching things only from the relative perspective, we set goals or adopt ideals, work hard, notice when we’ve fallen short, devise another way, and try harder. Chances are good we also criticize ourselves, compare ourselves to others, and experience a mixture of frustration, pride, and shame. Caught up in the drama of the relative, we fail to see things from a larger perspective, and may succumb to arrogance, depression or despair.
Alternatively, we may think we’re fine just the way we are, and we don’t have much karma relationship or samadhi power work to do, but this is another trap. When we don’t have personal and profound conviction about absolute truth, our sense of self remains front and center – and most of our worldly problems stem from ignorance or neglect of what we touch in samadhi. Unaware of the sense in which we are empty of inherent, enduring self-nature, and how things just-as-they-are participate in one luminous, seamless reality, it’s easy to give in to our greed, fear, anger, judgmentalism, low self-esteem, etc.
Samadhi Power Supports Karma Work
Samadhi power complements, supports, and strengthens our karma relationship work.
First, our meditation practice teaches us to sit still and face reality, not run away or turn away – and this kind of stillness is necessary in order to do karma work. In the spaciousness of meditation, where we let go of all agendas and judgments, we have a chance of seeing our life clearly. Our discriminating mind only helps so much; if we’re facing a complicated life problem, our thoughts will often end up spinning – going over and over the same material, conceiving a million different plans, endlessly weighing pros and cons without coming to a conclusion. In meditation, or in the midst of a daily life supported by regular meditation, an answer, resolution, or way forward will sometimes arise out of our deeper intelligence and intuition.
Second, strengthening our samadhi power gives us a growing appreciation of absolute truth, and that larger perspective keeps us from getting too down on ourselves as we work on our karma relationship. A sense of the absolute balances and sustains us as we do the hard work of facing our karma, changing habits, and learning to take care of others. Over time, we find it easier and easier to remember that Buddhist practice is not a self-improvement project, but an awakening to our true nature, which lacks nothing.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
From a Buddhist point of view, a fully enlightened person has no need for moral restraints imposed by will. Having freed themselves from grasping, aversion, and delusion, they naturally act selflessly and skillfully. Beware of anyone claiming to be fully enlightened, though, especially if they seem to be acting selfishly and immorally. The Buddhist precepts, as I have discussed in the episodes on the precepts, can be said to describe enlightened behavior – so, bad behavior is a sign of incomplete understanding and integration.
Until we gain a direct and personal understanding of reality – of absolute truth, as well as how relative and absolute are not two separate things – the practice is to “fake it ‘til we make it.” In other words, we act as much like a buddha – or a fully enlightened person – as we can, even though it takes some effort to do so. Through our karma relationship work, we put the relative aspect of our lives in harmony with the absolute aspect. This gets things in order for the integration of insight, so we can quickly manifest whatever we learn. It also makes insight more likely to happen, because our lives are more peaceful, and our minds and hearts more open.
Ultimately, when we “make it,” we recognize how all of our efforts around both samadhi power and karma relationship, all along, have been the manifestation of enlightenment. No practice is wasted. It’s nice to consciously awaken to reality and have your doubts resolved, but even before that point enlightenment is there. In a moment of realization, you can look back at your struggles as confirmation of your awakened nature.
Our practice of zazen is also known as shikantaza, a Japanese term that can be translated as “nothing but precisely sitting.” The whole point is to just sit there. Doing nothing. A practice of not-doing.
This is so difficult for us, we can hardly even conceive of it. Instead, we imagine we are supposed to sit there meditating. We’re supposed to concentrate, or be aware of this moment, or something. Anything. Anything but really, really doing nothing.
When I settle into my morning zazen at home, I sometimes try to inspire myself by inviting myself not to meditate. Without even realizing it, I will have taken the seated position and started to do this practice of shikantaza. Then my mind will wander and I’ll think about how I’m not sitting zazen very well, and the whole thing will feel off. Laughing inwardly, then, I’ll remind myself I don’t have to do anything. Just relax and sit there!
For a moment, just sitting there, the whole universe opens up. I’m awake. I’m here. I’m appreciative, intimate, dependently co-arising with everything. My embrace of my life, momentarily, is no longer contingent on this and that. So simple!
Then I’m off again, thinking about things. Often thinking about meditation and practice, ironically.
Or am I really “off again?” Who is “off again?” Who is me? Am I only my self-consciousness, the part that is aware of, “I’m sitting?” Am I not my body as well, which through all of my mind wanderings, continues to patiently just sit?
Still, it’s nice to wholeheartedly sit – to mentally and volitionally just sit, as well as physically just sit. As expedient means, therefore, we “practice not-doing.” A practice is something we do, although paradoxically, in this case, our practice is not-doing. Because human beings are so attached to doing, this is a clever way to get us committed to zazen.
How do you practice not-doing? Basically, you use whatever technique you can find that convinces you, or allows you, to stop doing. You might do as I do, and invite yourself to relax. Or you might remind yourself there’s absolutely no legitimate reason you have to think about all that stuff during the 20-30 minutes you’re sitting zazen; you’ll have plenty of time to think later. (If you really need to think about something that badly, you shouldn’t be meditating!) Or you might try to imitate a cat when it’s just sitting there, alert and watching everything, but just letting time go by.
Another classic way to practice not-doing is to gently follow your breath. This is a good way to sustain not-doing for more than a moment – but it’s important, from the perspective of shikantaza, that you don’t make following your breath into doing! Instead, you settle into not-doing, and because you’re not doing anything else, you can follow your breath. Okay, it’s a little bit of “doing,” but it’s a relative tiny and simple “doing.” You might even want to count exhalations 1-10, and then start back at one.
Sometimes beginners are taught breath following or counting as a way to learn to do zazen. If this works for you, great. For many of us, however, we actually have to gradually grope our way towards not-doing in a less straightforward way before we can follow or count the breath! It’s taken me 20 years of diligent sitting practice to be able to reliably count my breaths 1-10 and start back at one. This isn’t because it’s taken me 20 years to develop a skill, or 20 years to figure out how to do zazen! It’s because I’m really attached to doing, and it’s taken me 20 years to let go enough – to be still, simple, and spacious enough – to allow my breathing to be the most exciting thing that’s going on.
Whichever gateway into not-doing works for you – concentration or relaxation – the process of finding that gateway, entering it, and learning what it really means to not-do, is itself the beauty of practice. We continue to learn how to “do” zazen our entire lives.
It can be helpful to think of meditation as renewal time for our body-minds. The space of meditation, at least Zen meditation, involves a realignment of the self with the universe.
Getting caught up in activity can invite us to assert the self against the world, especially when we care deeply about what we’re doing. We get busy trying to understand, maneuver, express, create, change, hurry, finish, resist, and come up with an effective plan. Our actions may even be fruitful, but operating like this takes its toll. Our perspective shrinks. Our sense of ease and joy become contingent on the outcomes of our activities. A subtle but pervasive sense of imperative starts making everything more stressful.
When we sit in meditation we allow ourselves to just be. We try to be completely silent and still internally as well as externally. We try to refrain from commenting on anything – not judging anything good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, righteous or terrible. This silence is not about refraining from judgment because judgment is bad, agitating, or will interfere with our pleasant meditation. It’s not about pushing our legitimate concerns out of our mind so we can feel happy and calm. This meditative silence is about connecting with our living body-mind, a seat of awareness that doesn’t want to be constantly commenting, evaluating, and deciding. Our living self finds this moment inherently worth it, even with all of the suffering happening in the world. Not despite all the suffering, as if we were deciding, on the balance, that life has more good in it than bad. No – in that silent aliveness there is a vibrancy and willingness independent of conditions.
Not all moments of meditation are perfectly like this, of course, but being able to settle into this silence for even a little while is immensely beneficial. Having meditated, we can go about all of our activities with increased gratitude for the simple fact that we’re alive to do them.
When we pay attention to what’s happening in the world, we need to sit more often. We expose ourselves to the suffering and need in the world, and it arouses our compassion and concern. We allow our imagination free reign to come up with ways to help, arousing our excitement and ambition. It’s pretty easy to start asserting the self against the world again. Before we know it, this “little self” is stressed… and frankly, less effective. So then we renew ourselves in silence and stillness and reconnect with the aliveness that is always there under all the activity.
How do you make space for silence in your life?
Meditation by Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr – Creative Commons License BY 2.0