Thursday, March 27, 2008

Notes on Zazen

I came across some notes I took about practicing zazen from a talk at one of Nishijima Roshi's Zazen retreats. I decided to post them here to organize them a bit. It's also part of my effort to blog more often.

In the talk Nishijima talked about zazen from four aspects. I'm going to write about the first one, "
not thinking", today. Probably nothing new here for anybody familiar with Zazen, but here goes.

(1) ้žๆ€้‡ Hishiryou
Hishiryou is an expression in Japanese Buddhism that translates as "not thinking". It literally means "denial of thinking". Nishijima described it as "transcending thinking and non-thinking".

There's a well-known zen story (a koan) in which a monk sees his teacher sitting in zazen. The monk asks his teacher "what are you thinking when you're sitting in zazen?"
The teacher replies "I am thinking the concrete state of non-thinking."
The monk asks him "How can you think about non-thinking?"
The teacher replies "It is different from thinking."

The point in the story about the monk and his teacher is that essentially zazen is different from thinking. Sometimes when we hear the word "meditation" we assume it involves thinking about something. That's not the case with zazen. Basically you don't want to think about anything at all. If your thoughts stop completely that's just fine. Just look at the wall. So the teacher in the story says that "zazen is different from thinking".

But when you sit down on your cushion and start doing zazen you can be pretty sure you'll be thinking lots of stuff. So what to do? Well, you might have heard this before but, when thoughts come up just let them go. Don't focus on your thoughts so much. Just let them come and go and come and go. Nishijima's advice is that if you find yourself thinking about something during zazen, just straighten your spine and concentrate on sitting with a straight posture. That might happen several times during one zazen period, but that's normal and just keep going. Thoughts come up, just let them go, straighten your spine, and after a while more thoughts come up and so on. That basically is the way it works. If you sit fairly regularly you might notice that the pace of your thoughts slows down
after a while, or that's there's a change in the thoughts that come up.

So why do thoughts come up when we sit in zazen? Isn't it supposed to be some kind of real calm and blissed out state?

Nishijima's idea on this is that we usually suppress a lot of our thoughts in
our day-to-day life. It may be because we're too busy to think about things properly or just don't want to deal with certain things. Whatever the reason, those thoughts and ideas get pushed down into our subconscious. But when we do zazen, all we have to do is just sit there with our posture straight. It's real simple. So at that time some of them thoughts that we've being suppressing start to appear. And when they appear, we should just let them go. Don't try to stop them coming up, but just let them go when they do. Don't worry, there'll be plenty more where they came from.

Nishijima gave a nice analogy for this thing about thoughts during zazen. He said it's kind of like a pot on a stove that's simmering away with its lid on. Once someone takes the lid off the pot, all sorts of steam and things start to rise up.

I noticed this thing about suppressed thoughts myself when I first did zazen at a one-day retreat years ago in Japan. Once I'd been sitting for a few minutes all sorts of thoughts started to come into my head. I felt like I could even see strange shapes on the wall paper. Then after a while my thoughts settled down a bit and I started to feel pain in my legs. By the end of the day, though, I felt a lot more active and I noticed zazen definitely had some kind of effect. Ever since then I try to practice zazen everyday.

Ok. So now go try some zazen and see if you
get to think the "state of non-thinking". Although, to be honest, in my own case I usually end up with the stuff out of the pot.


  1. Nice post. Keep writing.

    I'm a newbie to zazen. I picked up Hardcore Zen on a whim and became a Brad Warner fan. Also read Sit Down and Shut Up.

    I've started sitting but I don't make it everyday.

    I see that Nishijima-sensei is sick.

    I travel to Japan sometimes. Is there a way to just walk in and sit down at a temple and get a chance to talk with a Nishijima-traditioned instructor?


  2. Thanks rลren,

    Brad's a very good writer. He's introduced Buddhism to a lot of people who probably wouldn't have been interested otherwise.

    Getting into the habit of sitting regularly is the hard part. But it's worth sticking with it if you can. I started off doing 10 or 15 minutes at a time. It doesn't sound like much, but I began to notice that the days I did my 10 or 15 minutes went kind of smoother than days I didn't. That helped motivate me a bit.

    Yes, unfortunately Nishijima-sensei is sick. It's really worrying. Not much any of us can do now but wait and hope he's okay.

    Nishijima's group Dogen Sangha are still meeting in Tokyo. They meet on Saturdays from about 1 pm. The meetings aren't at a temple, but at a place connected to Tokyo University. It's a nice set up there, and the best place to go to talk with folks familiar with Nishijima's style. There's more information at

    All the best,


  3. Nice entry, Peter. Very practical.

    Thanks for the message re. Roshi.



  4. Thanks Harry,

    Felt like getting back to basics for a while.

    Hope things are well with you.




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