Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It the Zazen of Zen, are all realms vertical?

In Shobogenzo, Sammai-O-Zammai, Master Dogen offers a suggestion on how to apply ourselves to meditation while sitting. He says:

We should investigate: at the very moment we are sitting, are all realms vertical? Are they horizontal? At the very moment we are sitting, what about that sitting? Is it a flip? Is it “brisk and lively”? Is it thinking? Is it not thinking? Is it making? Is it without making? Are we sitting within sitting? Are we sitting within body and mind? Are we sitting having sloughed off “within sitting,” “within body and mind,” and so on? We should investigate one thousand points, ten thousand points, such as these.
Translated by Carl Bielefeldt

Yes! This is exactly how practitioners with genuine aspiration apply themselves to Zen meditation. Looking deeply, examining exhaustively, not only our own perspective but that of "all realms."

Master Dogen is not alone; all of the outstanding figures of Zen history testify to the eternal quest that is the source of what, who, where, when, how, and why---the very essence and function of the vast unnamable fathomless void. Zen meditation (Zazen) illumines the wonder and mystery of being alive.


Uku said...

Gudo Nishijima Roshi wrote in his and Jeffrey Bailey's book To Meet the Real Dragon:

(Jeff Bailey's question):
"Many books speak of transcending the self, or the ego, in zazen. If we are aware of ourselves in zazen, we haven't really transcended the self, have we?"

(Nishijima Roshi's answer):
"I think such explanations are very misleading. They give the impression that something called "ego" really exists, and that we must somehow transcend that entity, whatever it might be. But when we are practicing zazen, we can find no ego. We are sitting. That is the fact. That is the situation. So, in zazen there is no ego and no transcendence. There is only we who are sitting, here and now.

Of course, we can say that when we are practicing zazen, we can transcend the self which is separate from the external world, and we can transcend the external world which is separate from us - but again, these are only explanations. We should not take such explanations too literally. In the real situation there is only the momentary fact. There is only our action, here and now. So we say that zazen is "just sitting". Just sitting is not an explanation. It is our way of pointing at the real situation which is beyond words. Just sitting is zazen. In just sitting there is no ego. There is no transcendence."

Thank you for your inspiring and great post, Ted!

With palms together,

Barry said...

"At the very moment we are sitting, what about that sitting?"

Just this morning, while sitting and watching the mind wander around, I realized that I didn't really know anything about what I was doing.

I'm was just sitting and watching the mind wander around. Maybe that's not what Dogen is talking about - I dunno - but the investigation of sitting is all I can do while sitting.

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Uku,

Thank you for your comments.

I am somewhat familiar with the rationale of Nishijima Roshi's points (which accords with the standpoint of many contemporary Soto teachers), and I agree as far as they go. Nevertheless, it seems to me that such teachings are often a little over-stated. That is to say, the teachings about how "just sitting" is "our way of pointing at the real situation which is beyond words" is rarely balanced by illumining that "pointing" at the real situation that is not beyond words. Such one-sidedness can, in my view, be misconstrued as implying a disdain for words and even intellectual effort in Zen practice-realization.

Master Dogen illumined this issue by highlighting that "the form of words" was as much "Dharma" as was that which was "beyond words." For instance, in Eihei Koroku, Dogen says,

"In the teaching schools it is said, “This Dharma cannot be demonstrated; the form of words is quiescent.” What is the form of words? What is quiescence? I would say that this Dharma itself is the form of words and the form of quiescence."
Eihei Koroku, DW:8:4, Leighton & Okumura

I only point this out because I have met a number of students/practitioners that have been led to believe that Master Dogen's "Zazen", "Shikantaza", or "just sitting" amounted to nothing more than the literal physical act of sitting upright in cross-legged meditation. This notion, in my understanding, reduces Dogen's thoroughgoing instructions on the limitless nature of Zazen to a simplistic formula of physical posturing based on a kind of superstitious idea that "sitting like a Buddha" is the same as "being a Buddha."

Master Dogen's marvelous teachings illustrate many rich, subtle, and majestic aspects of the profound nature of Zen "sitting."

While that aspect of "just sitting" where there is "only the momentary fact" is profoundly important, Master Dogen urges us not to be complacent and become satisfied with any one aspect of "sitting." For that "is not the same as" other aspects of sitting. For example, he tells us that,

"Hence, there is a mind sitting, and it is not the same as a body sitting. There is a body sitting and it is not the same as a mind sitting. There is sitting with body and mind cast off, and it is not the same as sitting with body and mind cast off. Once you attain this state of suchness and attain the harmonious unity of activity and understanding possessed by the Buddha-patriarchs, you examine exhaustively all the thoughts and views of this attainment.
Shobogenzo,Sammai-O-Zammai, Waddell & Abe, p.100-101

This "examining exhaustively all the thoughts and views of this attainment" is, in my understanding, the nature and function of the authentic path of Zen practice-realization. And what an awesome ride it is!

Thanks again!

Ted Biringer

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Barry,

Thank you for your comments.

Good to hear from you!

You wrote: "...the investigation of sitting is all I can do while sitting."

I wish it was the same with me. Just this morning while sitting I won the lottery, quit my job, moved to Maui and enjoyed some snorkeling. Then the bell rang and I got up and went to work...


Uku said...


thank you for your inspiring comment. I agree that Dogen's and Nishijima's teaching of "just sitting" is not "just" sitting. I think, through my own experience and through teachers teachings that "just sitting" contains all aspect of life and Buddhist studies. If we don't practice wholeheartedly, how can we as Buddhists realize the reality just like it is? True effort leads to the reality, I think.

Thank you once again, Ted!

With palms together,