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Bendowa: Zen Master Dogen on Why Zazen Is Such a Big Deal
Our Sangha's Response to Suffering in the World

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
Our Sangha's Response to Suffering in the World