The Process of Zazen

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.

[This is the third in a series on Dogen’s Zen, inspired by Brad Warner’s new book paraphrasing fascicles of the Shobogenzo.  Earlier articles are here and here.  My review of the book is here.]

Once he has established the necessity of practicing zazen—after all, the Buddha and Bodhidharma practiced it for years—Dogen gets into his instructions.  Brad Warner paraphrases the next few lines this way:

“We should stop chasing words, take a step backward, and turn our light inward.  This will cause body and mind to drop away so that our original face can appear.  If you want to attain it then just start doing it.”

Tanahashi’s version is not much different.

“Hence, you should stop searching for phrases and chasing after words.  Take the backward step and turn the light inward.  Your body-mind of itself will drop off and your original face will appear.  If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.”

Dogen’s statement about not chasing words and phrases seems to be a caution against searching for the truth in writing, an odd statement for a man who was to leave hundreds of pages of writing behind, and who was obviously also a scholar of Chinese teachings.  But it is like what Rabbi Rem Shapiro said about the doctrine of religion.  “The relationship of religion to truth is like that of a menu to a meal.  The menu describes the meal as best it can.  It points to something beyond itself.  As long as we use the menu as a guide we do it honor.  When we mistake the menu for the meal, we do it and ourselves a grave injustice.”[1]  Dogen himself was a great scholar of Buddhism.  But he knew that the truth of the teaching was only available through practice, where you know it by experience.

His statement about turning the light inward is vital.  Zazen—as Warner mentions—is an introspective practice; we are turning the light inward to look at ourselves, not the self that keeps yakking, which we’re quite familiar with, but the self beyond that which sees the yakking, the self that can see thinking and (the theoretical state of) non-thinking.  Yet we also, as Dogen instructs, keep our eyes open, and stay in touch with the world.  Zazen is not as introspective as other practices (like Vipassana) where the meditator might close her eyes and seek deeper and deeper states.  The Buddha himself practiced that way for a while.  But he eventually turned away from that as not what he was looking for, because those deeper states—though interesting—were temporary, brought about by causes and conditions.

Then comes the phrase that is very much associated with Dogen’s Zen, and which recurs numerous times in his writing, the dropping off of body and mind.  There is a story that Dogen himself became enlightened after he heard his teacher say these words, though modern scholars believe that story is a legend.  You can certainly see why an early biographer might have created the legend.  The phrase is all through Dogen’s writing.

I’ve pondered it for years.  It’s become personal koan.  Warner’s teacher Gudo Nishijima explained the phrase as “entering a state that is neither too spiritual nor too materialistic, neither too sharply focused nor too fuzzy and lazy.”  That certainly describes a state we encounter in zazen, and that echoes Nishijima’s teaching that we practice in order to enter the balanced state, where the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are in balance.  One of the things I love about Nishijima’s teaching is that it keeps our aspirations modest.  There’s no striving whatsoever in zazen as he teaches it.

I always assumed that body in this phrase refers to physical sensations and mind to thoughts, so dropping body and mind would describe a state where both thoughts and physical sensations fall away.  Everyone is always hoping their thoughts will suddenly fall away, their minds will go completely quiet.  (Some people claim that has happened to them, even that they can bring it about.)  The idea that physical sensations will disappear is a little stranger, and hard to imagine.  For one thing, when I’m sitting in zazen and notice my physical sensations, they mostly seem pleasant.  Deep into a retreat, even painful sensations turn into pure energy; I once felt sciatic nerve pain—much to my astonishment—as a warm buzz.  I’ve also encountered weird states where it seemed my body had literally disappeared.  On one vipassana retreat where I was sitting with my eyes closed, I opened them at one point and looked down, because I was convinced my torso was not there anymore.  I couldn’t feel it.

But I don’t think Dogen is describing these weird states, which do sometimes happen in sitting and which meditators are instructed to ignore.  Once in a public ceremony at the end of sesshin I asked my teacher, Josho Pat Phelan, what the phrase drop body and mind meant, and she replied, “No boundary.”  That sounded right.   For me this phrase implies not that our thoughts and sensations disappear, but that we no longer identify with them.  They’re happening out there in space, along with everything else (in another teaching Dogen mentions that the bodies and minds of others also drop away) but we don’t latch onto them as ours.  Thoughts are just thoughts; sensations are sensations.  We don’t make an elaborate story out of them.

When we’re not creating the story, or trying to avoid or cling to sensations or thoughts, then we see plain reality, things just happening.  There’s no boundary between us and all that.    That’s what I take Dogen to mean by the original face, and by Warner’s it, and Tanahanshi’s “just this.”  Everything is just happening.  We don’t distort it into a story, or a wish.

That’s what Dogen means later in the piece when he says “Think not thinking.”  It isn’t that random thoughts don’t occur.  It’s that you don’t engage with them, and make them into something.  You don’t sit there and think.  You sit there and see thoughts.  (And when you do start to think, as you inevitably do, you come back to seeing thoughts.)

Following the brief passage about thinking[2], Dogen makes another statement about the process.  Warner renders it, “Zazen is not meditation or concentration.  Zazen is the peaceful and joyful gate to the dharma.  The whole universe opens up to you.”

Tanahashi says, “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation.  It is simply the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease.  It is the practice-realization of complete enlightenment.  Realize the fundamental point free from the binding of nets and baskets.”

Whenever I read this passage, I think of the book I wrote with Larry Rosenberg, Breath by Breath, on the teachings of the Anapanasati Sutra.  That sutra most definitely was about learning meditation.  It included sixteen steps which led on a gradual path to nirvana.  Larry didn’t actually teach that way.  He said, for one thing, that you could spend your whole life focusing on any one of the contemplations.  You didn’t have to progress through them.  He also, himself, spoke of his own practice as just sitting, with no agenda whatsoever.  What his practice had become, at the point we were working together, was virtually the same as Dogen’s zazen.

He told me that the road to that simple practice had been difficult, because he had in his head all the techniques that he’d learned through the years for various eventualities, and they kept coming up; he had to eliminate them before he could sit there.  Any vipassana teacher would state that the ultimate goal of meditation is that act of just-sitting.  You begin by calming yourself with an exclusive focus on the breathing; once you’ve mastered that you open up and just sit, allowing everything to happen.

The difference in Zen is that you do that from the beginning.  You begin at the end, as far as other practices go.  The disadvantage is that, in the early days, you feel the need for more instruction, which a competent Zen teacher can give.  (I spent many hours talking to Josho Pat Phelan in my early years.)  The advantage is that you’re not trying to accomplish anything.  When I practiced samatha-vipassana I was always trying to calm myself, or at least stay with the breathing, and could never do it, at least not consistently.  I couldn’t get past the first step.

Abilities don’t matter in zazen.  You’re just sitting there with what is happening.  Anyone can do it.  Warner cuts the passage short where Dogen points that out.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or dumb.  Anyone can pursue this way, regardless of intelligence.”

Dogen said more than that.  In Tanahashi’s translation:

“Thus, do not be concerned with who is wise and who is stupid.  Do not discriminate the sharp from the dull.  To practice wholeheartedly is the true endeavor of the way.  Practice-realization is not defiled with specialness; it is a matter for every day.”

What he’s saying, I think, is that you don’t require special abilities, some special capacity.  And we’re not talking about meditation as preparation for some spectacular event.  It’s a way to live your daily life, to live every moment.

Daily zazen sets the stage.

[1] Tricycle Summer 2016 p. 116

[2] I don’t mean to avoid this section, but the issue of thinking is a whole subject in itself, and Warner deals with it very well in his book.  Here’s how he translates the whole passage:

“Think the thought of not-thinking.  This is totally not the same as thinking.  Try it and see!  This is the essential secret of zazen.”

Tanahashi’s version is more conventional.  “Now sit steadfastly and think non-thinking.  How do you think non-thinking?  Beyond thinking.  This is the essential art of zazen.”