Continuous Actualization of Sole-Sitting – The Keystone of Zen
To clearly see is to use the Dharma-Eye, sometimes called the “eye to read scriptures.” To use the Dharma-Eye it must first be opened, and thereafter it must be skillfully developed and continuously actualized; this ongoing development and actualization is the keystone of authentic Zen practice and enlightenment, it is the art of Zen that Dogen calls sole-sitting (shikantaza, zazen-only). Once the Dharma-Eye is active, Zen practice (zazen-only) is actively developed and expanded to become inclusive not only of meditation, studying sutras, training with koans, etc., but every aspect of life. Going to work, taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, and eating meals is Zen practice (just sitting). Shobogenzo provides detailed examples on the zazen of cooking, making robes, teeth cleaning, and even using the toilet. When the True Dharma-Eye is open, these are not the mundane tasks of cooking and cleaning, but the normal mind of the Tao, the authentic practice-enlightenment of Zen.
Once we find the Way that arrives at Buddha, we leave the area of the common person immediately. The people that have mastered this Way are few.
Himitsu Shobogenzo, Bustu-kojo-no-ji, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
From the perspective of Zen, the opening of the Dharma-Eye is simultaneous with the Zen student becoming a Zen practitioner. An authentic Zen practitioner, by definition, solely practices Zen. In a very real sense, for the Zen practitioner there is no “Zen practice” (zazen; meditation) and therefore nothing other than “Zen practice.”
Regardless of what “shikantaza” or “just sitting” might have come to be defined or interpreted as being by various groups and individuals following Dogen’s existence-time, the nature of the “just sitting” presented by Shobogenzo has nothing to do with the kind of sitting that is thought of, spoken about, or performed in the “area of the common person.” Indeed, it is inevitable that the vast majority of ideas, definitions, explanations, and interpretations of shikantaza are distortions and misrepresentations, for “The people that have mastered this Way are few.”
There will be those who dote on what has passed and try to mimic that, and there may even be demons who slander those above them and refuse to learn from them. Do not be attracted to either type or feel resentment towards either. Why do I say not to feel sorry for them or resent them? Because it is said that people who recognize the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion to be what they are, are rare enough, so there is no need to feel resentment towards those who do not. Even more importantly, you should not lose sight of the intention that arose when you first took delight in seeking the Way of the Buddhas. It is said that when we first give rise to this intention, we are not seeking the Dharma so that others will praise us, but are discarding thoughts of fame and gain. Without seeking fame or gain, we should simply be persons who hold to the true course of realizing the Way, never concerning ourselves with expectations of recognition or support from rulers or other officials.
Even though this is the ideal, there are some people today who, alas, are devoid of any fundamental spiritual aspirations, having no spiritual goal that they seek, and are not the least concerned over their delusive entanglements with both ordinary people and those in lofty positions.
Shobogenzo, Keisei Sanshoku, Hubert Nearman
Leaving pity and resentment aside, then, let us dive right into Shobogenzo’s own presentation of what “shikantaza” or “just sitting” truly is. First, the term “shikan” (or shikantaza) that is often translated as “just” as in “just sitting” (shikan; just, taza; sitting) does not denote “merely,” or “simply,” but rather, “solely,” “totally,” “wholly.” Here we want to mention a point that is worth noticing; “shikan” is a homophone of “chih kuan” (stopping and seeing, meditation and prajna, samadhi and insight), a central notion of Tendai Buddhism, the actual tradition into which Dogen was initially ordained and which remained a central influence throughout his lifetime. The Tendai notion of “chih-kuan” presents “solely, wholly, etc.” in a specifically nondual manner – Tendai expressions on “stopping and seeing” (chih-kuan) emphasize the unity of stopping-and-seeing so that stopping is stopping/seeing and seeing is stopping/seeing. The notion that Dogen intentionally employs the term “shikan” in some context of the significance of “chi-kuan” has been noticed and discussed in the scholarly community (e.g. Kodera, Heine) but has been largely dismissed as an interesting by unverifiable possibility. In view of Dogen’s characteristic use of homophonic language, and the fact that he was intimately familiar with the connotations of both terms it would seem that the intentional “double meaning” of “shikan” should be regarded as “given” and the notion it was unintended considered unlikely.
In any case, zazen is presented by Shobogenzo as the archetype of authentic practice-enlightenment itself. While Zen practice-enlightenment is only and always portrayed by Shobogenzo as something specific and particular – never as something vague or general – it is definitely not presented as being limited or confined to a specific form or particular activity. True, the only actual instances of practice-enlightenment that has or ever will manifest, is the practice-enlightenment of particular Zen practitioners at specific locations-times, but the form (hence, essence) of those instances are not in any way restricted to particular structures or activities. Particular Zen practitioners and actual instances of Zen practice-enlightenment are not two (nondual); Zen practice-enlightenment is solely manifest by and as Zen practitioners, Zen practitioners are solely manifest by and as Zen practice-enlightenment. This truth is archetypally embodied and expressed in Shobogenzo as “zazen,” described as “zazen-only” (shikantaza; solely sitting), and methodologically presented and transmitted as “nonthinking.”
As an archetypal image, zazen presents (makes present) Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment on the “immovable spot” or “Bodhi-Seat.” The Bodhi-Seat is the instance of existence-time wherein the Buddha awakens; the moment-event of Buddhism’s supreme of the supreme, archetypally presented by the image of Buddha sitting upright in the lotus posture at the location-time of his enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree.
Described and explained as zazen-only (shikantaza), zazen is revealed as the “axis mundi,” the still point at the center of the Dharma-Wheel wherein the myriad dharmas ceaselessly rise and set in and as the continuous advance of the universe into novelty. Zazen-only demonstrates how the “three modes of conduct” (thoughts, words, and deeds) are wholly grounded in, at, and as the immovable spot; each and all the myriad dharmas are solely-seated in, at, and as this here-now of existence-time.
Methodologically presented and transmitted as nonthinking, zazen is made accessible for the liberation of all beings as the Buddha-Dharma itself; the “Great Vehicle” or “One Vehicle” (Mahayana or Ekayana) that is the essence of Zen. The “essence of Zen” being nondual with the “form of Zen,” is thus nothing more or less than Zen’s phenomenal expression in and as existence-time. As a spatial-temporal essence/form, the Zen is accessed by humans in the same manner and through the same capacities humans access any other manifest reality; the normal capacities of language, thinking, and reason. In Shobogenzo these capacities are most comprehensively treated by the vision of “nonthinking,” creatively presented as a unification and transcendence of “thinking” and “not-thinking.”
Thus, in Shobogenzo to engage in zazen is to be a Zen practitioner and to be a Zen practitioner is to engage in zazen. To be a Zen practitioner or engage in zazen is to be solely seated here-now; fully and totally enacting and being enacted in and as the myriad dharmas, in and as every thought, word, and deed.
It is not difficult to see that this vision of zazen is nothing more or less than the practical application of the principles of nonduality. For one that has verified that form is emptiness, all forms are empty; this cup is empty, this speech is empty, this boat race is empty – thus each particular dharma is solely-empty. Likewise, to verify the Buddha-nature of self (thus, of self/other), is to verify the Buddha-nature of all thoughts, words, and deeds; this memory is self, this utterance is self, this walking is self – each thought, word, and deed is solely-self (or solely Buddha). As the archetypal image of Zen practice-enlightenment, zazen is the embodiment of Zen practice-enlightenment, thus to be a Zen practitioner is to solely embody to be solely embodied as zazen.
In this sense, to be a Zen practitioner is to actualize zazen – to actualize anything other than zazen is not to be a Zen practitioner. Hence, a genuine practitioner is “solely seated” in and as existence-time here-now. Zen practice-enlightenment is, as it is, “solely sitting.”
From the Zen perspective it would be dualistic to regard practice-enlightenment as a distinct, independent reality; a Zen practitioner cannot “sit in zazen” and “study sutras,” or “sit in zazen” and “train with koans,” etc., for a Zen practitioner “solely sits” or “just sits.” As authentic practice-enlightenment is just sitting; any and all of a Zen practitioner’s thoughts, words, and deeds are just sitting. Zen practitioners do not teach, work, eat, sleep, and solely sit – teaching, working, eating, sleeping are solely sitting. All dharmas are solely emptiness; self and other are solely Buddha-nature; and the thoughts, words, and deeds of Zen practitioners are solely sitting.
For the Zen practitioner, then, there is sitting that is solely sitting and there is walking that is solely sitting; sitting is not walking and walking is not sitting, but both sitting and walking are solely sitting, solely zazen. The thinking of a Zen practitioner is not the speaking or acting of a Zen practitioner, but the thinking, speaking, and acting of a Zen practitioner is solely sitting, zazen-only.
Hence, there is the mind’s just sitting there, which is not the same as the body’s just sitting there. And there is the body’s just sitting there, which is not the same as the mind’s just sitting. There is ‘just sitting there with body and mind having dropped off’, which is not the same as ‘just sitting in order to drop off body and mind’. To have already realized such a state is the perfect oneness of practice and understanding that the Buddhas and Ancestors have experienced. Maintain and safeguard your mind’s functions of remembering, considering, and reflecting. Thoroughly explore through your training what mind, intent, and consciousness truly are.
Shobogenzo, Zammai-ō Zammai, Hubert Nearman
Distorted, superficial, and superstitious notions concerning Dogen’s teachings on zazen-only abound in the contemporary Zen community. The majority of these distortions can be remedied by simply learning to appreciate the difference between metaphorical or mythopoeic language and the language of literal description, coupled with clear grasp of the basic principles of Buddhist nonduality. Many factors, including superficial views of emptiness and imitators attempting to cash in on the success of genuine Zen, have contributed to simplistic notions of seated meditation (zazen) over the course of Zen’s history. The fallacious notions of zazen embraced today are fundamentally the same as those that have dogged Zen throughout its history.
The most common fallacies combine elements of simplification and superstition; simplifications portraying zazen literally, as “sitting” (the physical posture of sitting), and superstitions about zazen (the simplistic literal sense) being the only element necessary to realize Zen liberation. Not infrequently it is even suggested that “just sitting” (in the literal sense) is enlightenment itself. Commonly dressed up in trite slogans about “no goals,” “nothing special,” “just this,” etc., zazen - the very keystone of Zen practice-enlightenment - is pawned off as a simple arrangement of the body-mind in a proscribed posture of physical sitting. Shobogenzo asserts what common sense already suggests concerning such notions:
Even if some appear to understand physical sitting to be what the Buddha taught, they have not yet grasped that ‘sitting there’ means “Just sit there!”
Shobogenzo, Zammai-ō Zammai, Hubert Nearman
Despite Shobogenzo’s clear instructions, the classical Zen teachings, and common sense however, such notions continue to be accepted and applied by groups and individuals far and wide. Routinely arranging their body-mind in an upright, cross-legged sitting posture for measured periods of time, such groups and individuals honestly believe they are enacting “what the Buddha taught.” This shallow mimicry of the Buddha’s enlightenment is, in their view, the “just sitting” that Dogen taught.
Of course, there is nothing wrong, or even unusual about erroneous understandings and false views; everyone has them, and even sages are compelled to continuously let go of old views in order to advance, expand, and clarify their understanding and skill. Sages know enough about stagnation and petrifaction to avoid becoming attached to any manner of fixed view; ego-centricity, spiritual pride, and sectarian allegiance however, can be extremely powerful obstacles for even the sincerest of genuine aspirants.
As noted, promoters of distorted versions of Dogen’s “zazen” commonly proceed as if Zen expressions are meant to be understood in the literal sense of descriptive language rather than the mythopoeic language common to all sacred literature (as well as true art). To support and impress the notion that “just sitting” literally means to just sit in the ordinary physical sense, and that this “activity” is the only thing necessary for actualizing authentic practice-realization, proponents commonly cite cherry-picked phrases from Dogen’s voluminous writings.
Parenthetically speaking two points are worth mention; in direct contradiction to their insistence on a “literal” reading of zazen, etc., these same advocates frequently insist on the “metaphorical” reading of numerous expressions in Dogen’s writings which they contend "actually mean" the literal performance of zazen. Second, such advocates typically assume a very liberal tolerance for their own biases while imposing strict constraints on the contentions of others; if, for example, one of their “supporting quotes" from Dogen is contested by an apparently contradictory quote from a different passage in Dogen’s work, the latter is likely to by dismissed as “out of context,” while the former is simply repeated as if its context were self-evident.
In general, then, the basic fallacy is that Dogen taught a unique style of Zen (i.e. Japanese Soto Zen) advocating a single method practice (i.e. zazen-only) essentially consisting of the literal performance of physically sitting still, commonly portrayed as being accompanied with a particularly “detached” mental attitude. The physical aspects described are technically equivalent to the basic meditation techniques common to most Buddhist traditions; sitting upright in the lotus (or half-lotus) position (a crossed-legged sitting posture). The mental aspect or attitude advocated is often described (again, in literal terms) as a kind of intentionally “goalless,” “objectless,” or “detached” state of mind. When pressed to elaborate, proponents of such notions tend to explain “goalless” or “objectless” in negative or apophatic terms; as meaning the abstention or avoidance of utilizing traditional Buddhist techniques such as mindfulness of Buddha, the body, mind, breath, koans, scriptures, etc. – zazen, they contend, is literally “just sitting” with no object in mind, maintaining a detached but focused awareness wherein thoughts, words, and deeds, if noticed at all, are simply to be noted and “let go of” without arousing questions or second thoughts.
This, then, or something similar, is supposed to by Dogen’s supreme method; so effective no other practice is essential for authentic Zen actualization; there is literally no need to offer incense, bow, chant, confess, read sutras, or perform any other traditional or nontraditional practice. To support such notions, the most frequently quoted “authoritative” passage comes from an early writing of Dogen titled, Bendowa:
After the initial meeting with a [good] counselor we never again need to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite Buddha’s name, to practice confession, or to read sutras. Just sit and get the state that is free of body and mind. If a human being, even for a single moment, manifests the Buddha’s posture in the three forms of conduct, while [that person] sits up straight in samādhi, the entire world of Dharma assumes the Buddha’s posture and the whole of space becomes the state of realization.
Bendowa, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
First, how does one that takes Dogen’s expressions literally go about manifesting “the three forms of conduct (thinking, speech, and action), while [that person] sits up straight in samadhi…”? Fortunately, Dogen was a Zen master not a delusional zealot, thus his language, like that of all the great sages, is mythical, not historical, mythopoeic not biographic – Shobogenzo is an expression of human truth, not an "objective" dissertation. If Dogen had truly believed practice-enlightenment consisted in the performance of a particular physical posture/mental attitude, he would not have dedicated most of his time and energy writing and teaching otherwise. Fortunately, Dogen understood, acknowledged, and taught that the real form of zazen-only was the myriad dharmas:
You need to discern and affirm for yourself the underlying meaning of his saying, “If you wish to see Buddha Nature, you must first rid yourself of your arrogant pride.” It is not that one lacks sight, but the seeing of which he spoke is based on ridding oneself of one’s arrogant pride. The arrogance of self is not just of one kind, and pride takes many forms. Methods for ridding oneself of these will also be diverse and myriad. Even so, all of these methods will be ‘one’s seeing Buddha Nature’. Thus, you need to learn both to look with your eyes and to see with your Eye.
Shobogenzo, Bussho, Hubert Nearman
Apparently the expression conveying the true nature of zazen-only presented in Bendowa had already been misconstrued as a literal description or formula of “Zen practice” rather than a mythopoeic expression of truth in Dogen’s own day. For in the Bukkyo fascicle of Shobogenzo, written only about a decade after Bendowa, Dogen again brought the expression out - only this time he did so in a manner that could never mistakenly be superficially misrepresented as a merely formal description of practice.
My late master constantly said, “In my order, we do not rely on burning incense, doing prostrations, reciting names of buddhas, practicing confession, or reading sutras. Just sit, direct your energy into pursuing the truth, and get free of body and mind.”
Few people clearly understand an expression like this. Why? Because to call “reading sutras” “reading sutras” is to debase it, and not to call it “reading sutras” is to be perverse. “You are not allowed to talk and not allowed to be mute: say something at once! Say something at once!” We should learn this truth in practice. Because this principle [of reading sutras] exists, a man of old has said, “To read sutras we must be equipped with the eyes of reading sutras.”
Shobogenzo, Bukkyo, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
Obviously, if this expression was meant literally, more than a “Few people” would have clearly understood it. Calling it “reading sutras” debases it because it reduces it to literalism, cutting it out of the nondual reality of its existent form/essence; not calling it “reading sutras” is perverse because it fails to discern the truth of its inherent uniqueness. For the “few” that clearly understand, “reading sutras,” along with offering incense, bowing, chanting, and confessing, is solely-sitting.
In any case, to clearly understand just sitting, reading sutras, or any other aspect of the Buddha Dharma, we must activate the Dharma-Eye. To read sutras, the ordinary eyes of literal description are simply not the appropriate tools; we must be equipped with the eyes of reading sutras.
Whenever “zazen” (or just sitting etc.) is treated or regarded as a separate activity or distinct action, as one activity among others (e.g. working, reading, eating, etc.), it is not the zazen-only illumined and presented by Shobogenzo. As the formal practice of seated meditation, zazen is simply one form of activity among many . As the actualization of the universe (i.e. genjokoan), however, zazen is not only wholly inclusive of “the three forms of human conduct” (thinking, speech, and action), it is Total Existence itself, the myriad dharmas as they are.
In this way, you need to thoroughly explore through your training the thousands of aspects, nay, the hundreds of thousands of aspects of just sitting.
Shobogenzo, Zammai-ō Zammai, Hubert Nearman
Enjoy the ride!