Zazen is a Physical Practice

Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master By Brad Warner.  New World Library.  306 pp.  $16.95.

Still pondering Brad Warner’s bookDogen goes on and on.

Brad does a paraphrase of the Fukanzazengi, the meditation instructions Dogen wrote (and largely cribbed from a Chinese document) when he returned to Japan at the age of 27, and which isn’t technically part of the Shobogenzo, though most translators include it somewhere.  It’s an extremely important and commonly chanted text, which I have been chanting for twenty years, and is the first Dogen text I ever had explicated, at my first sesshin, in 1995.  There are multiple translations.

The text begins—disingenuously—with the question that Dogen went off to China to answer: Reality is right before us, nothing whatsoever is hidden, why should we practice?  The reason, he says, is that if we begin to discriminate at all, and to have preferences, our minds lose connection with reality and are lost in confusion.  Then he continues; I’ll give first the translation I’ve always chanted.

“Suppose one gains pride of understanding and inflates one’s own enlightenment, glimpsing the wisdom that runs through all things, attaining the Way and clarifying the Mind, raising an aspiration to escalade the very sky. One is making the initial, partial excursions about the frontiers but is still somewhat deficient in the vital Way of total emancipation.”

It’s great to chant but doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.  Brad’s paraphrase is much simpler:

“If we think we’re totally enlightened, that’s just evidence that we’re stuck in our heads and have lost the vigorous method of getting the body out.”

Tanahashi does the passage this way:

“You could be proud of your understanding and have abundant realization, or acquire outstanding wisdom and attain the way by clarifying the mind.  Still, if you are wandering about in your head, you may miss the vital path of letting your body leap.”

I prefer these versions not because I know Japanese, but because they square with my experience.


When I was seven years old I did something psychologists say is common: my mother was giving birth to my younger brother, and I felt myself losing her favor and attention, so I sought solace in food.  If you look at me when I was six years old I was a skinny little runt; at the age of eight I was one of the fattest kids in the class.  I did it so fast!  Skinny to fat in one year.[1]

That way of using food—not as nourishment, but as a substitute for something else—continued for years (and I can still fall into it).  When I was sixteen I was 5’9”, weighed 200 pounds, and ate colossal amounts.  My father was dying of leukemia that year, died right in the middle of it; my way of stifling the feeling—I now understand—was to be full of food all the time.  Eating was not a pleasure.  It was a task I set about doggedly.

When I went to college I paid for food on a meal plan and ate in a cafeteria, so I didn’t get seconds and thirds the way I had at home.  That year I lost 40 pounds, with no effort at all.  I ate normal amounts and the weight fell off.  But the pattern of stifling feeling continued.  (If I couldn’t feel the sorrow of my father’s death I couldn’t feel anything, and I wasn’t able to do that; I was afraid I would go to pieces.)

If—instead of stuffing yourself with food—you tighten muscles and don’t let yourself feel, you can numb out.  It’s almost as effective as stuffing yourself.  But eventually you feel that tightness as pain.  When the pain got bad enough I sought help, with three different therapists.  Over a period of years they helped me work through much that I hadn’t been able to feel when I was younger.

It was after I finished with the third—around the age of 40—that I began sitting meditation.  My torso was like ground that had long been fallow.  Feelings sprouted like seeds.  They grew like weeds.

What was this?  What was happening to my body?

It was feeling.  It was life.

Was this what everyone else had felt all their lives?


I think that many people—for other reasons, and in other ways—go through a similar experience.  Something is too much for them to feel, so they tighten against it, and lose the connection with their bodies[2].  The mind uses thoughts to distract us from the body.  The feeling people have of being alienated, at odds with the world, embarrassed at the fact of being alive—“alone and afraid in a world I never made”—is actually a feeling of being out of touch with their bodies.  The instructions of zazen—don’t try to stifle your thoughts, but let them go, and come back to your physical feeling—is a perfect antidote to this situation.  It’s difficult at first, but slowly, gently, we come back into our bodies.  When we do, we find that our bodies connect us with the world.  With the universe.

It’s an astonishing thing to feel your body come to life (or feel it leap, as Tanahashi says).  It is like, Why did I stifle this all those years?  Why didn’t I let myself live?  (My first teacher, Larry Rosenberg, referred to mindfulness practice as Giving life to life.)  There’s a sadness about the past, but a wonderful delight in the present.  The hell with the past, when this is happening now.

Eventually the feelings—which seem infinite in variety, in contrast to our thinking, which plods over the same ground again and again—become more refined, until they are pure energy.  You feel that energy inside, also feel it outside; that distinction between inside and outside diminishes, and over time comes not to have much meaning.  (There was one time on retreat when I was hearing the birds outside in the trees and the thoughts in my head, the birds in the trees and the thoughts in my head, the birds in the trees and the thoughts in my head.  Then my thoughts were in the trees.  It is one of those things that makes absolutely no sense when you say it, but it happened.  The birds were in my head, too.)

Once you begin feeling energy in this way a quotation like this one from Shodo Harada makes perfect sense.  It isn’t theoretical.  It’s the truth of my experience.

“There are a lot of ways of cultivating ki, such as yoga, qigong, and Tai Chi. However, the ideal way to cultivate the all-embracing ki that informs our entire being is through zazenZazen is a matter of physically experiencing our essential oneness with the very existence of the universe, and it is through this experience that our ki develops. What is most important is that we partake of ki in its universal expression.

We can cultivate ki creatively as we go about our daily lives. Such cultivation in action is called dochu no kufu. However such a living practice depends on a thorough grounding in jochu no kufu, the quiet cultivation of seated meditation. There is no basic separation between “passive” and “active,” of course, but those who are unable to partake of universal essence in sitting will not be able to partake of it in action. The fundamental thing in zazen is to experience oneself not as a separate, limited body but as the body of the entire universe.

The body itself is central to zazen. When meditating we regulate the body, regulate the breath, and regulate the mind. But ki fills our physical being to overflowing, and expands through the breath to an ever-widening circle of our surroundings until it permeates the universe itself. This activation of our universal mind is the true meaning of ‘regulating the mind’ in zazen.”

I feel this thing that touches into this larger energy, this thing that seems to be infinite, as body.  Others—Larry Rosenberg for one—feel it as mind.  I don’t see that it matters what you call it, as long as you feel it.

Dogen saw it as body.  There’s evidence for that all through his writing.

[1] I say I “did” this, but of course I didn’t do it consciously.  It just happened.  Of all the things in my psychic life, this is one of the strangest.

[2] Physical abuse is one obvious reason.  Sexual abuse another.