Friday, April 18, 2008

Zazen Notes 4: Shikantaza - just to sit

Buddhism started off in India about 2,500 years ago. It was begun by a man named Gautama who was the son of the king of a small kingdom. Gautama had a very comfortable life as the son of the king. But he eventually began to wonder about “the meaning of life” and whether there was any kind of real truth. When he was 29 he decided to leave his family and his home to try to find some kind of truth. Gautama visited different teachers and tried different methods that they told him would help him. But after about seven years he reached a point where he'd became very thin and frail, and he began to wonder if there might not be a better way to find some kind of truth.

He left the small group of ascetics he was practicing with and started to eat and drink properly again. He also began to consider about what might be a better way to find the truth. At that time, he recalled an experience he had sitting under a tree as a teenager. He remembered the good feeling he had when he was just sitting under the tree. So he decided to try that kind of sitting again. He found a nice tree near a river bank, and began to sit under the tree in the cross-legged posture. This time, though, he just sat there without any particular aim. He wasn’t thinking about mantras or enlightenment or things like that. He just sat there in the cross-legged posture.

The story goes that one morning while he was sitting under the tree, Gautama saw a star in the morning sky and was awakened. After that he devoted his life to teaching other people what he had discovered. The basis for what Gautama Buddha taught people was the simple sitting that he had done under the tree. Gradually more people joined him and Buddhism slowly spread.

One of the places that Buddhism spread to was China. In those days, the main link between India and China was the Silk Road, which was a series of routes connecting East and West Asia. The early Buddhist monks made there way along the Silk Road and eventually reached China. It’s impossible to know exactly when Buddhism arrived in China, but it seems to have arrived there by around the second century AD. Some Chinese people who heard about Buddhism went to India to learn more. These people then translated some of the sutras they came across in India into Chinese.

So some Chinese people were already familiar with Buddhist ideas by the time the legendary Indian monk Bodhidharma is said to have arrived there around the fifth or sixth century. Bodhidharma is traditionally considered to be the transmitter of “Zen” Buddhism to China. He emphasized the importance of the simple sitting practice that Gautama Buddha used to do. There are a lot of legends surrounding Bodhidharma, although it’s impossible to know how accurate they are. One legend is that Bodhidharma spent nine years doing zazen at a cave in Northern China. This made the early Chinese Buddhists more aware of the importance of zazen. Up to the time of Bodhidharma’s arrival, the people teaching Buddhism in China had focused on Buddhist sutras and ideas, and not placed a great emphasis on the sitting practice. So when the Chinese saw the monk Bodhidharma doing this sitting practice so often, they thought it must be some kind of special Buddhist sect. So they gave it the name “Chan” (or “Zen”) Buddhism. “Chan” is a Chinese word that means “meditation”. But for Bodhidharma it was just Buddhism.

People were still doing that simple sitting practice 700 years later when a Japanese monk named Dogen arrived in China looking for a teacher. Dogen had studied Buddhism in Japan with the Tendai Sect and the Rinzai Sect prior to going to China. But he wasn’t satisfied with the Buddhism that he was learning in Japan. He felt that he needed to meet a true teacher to find out what Buddhism was really about. So Dogen decided to travel to China to search for a teacher.

But when Dogen got to China he was a little disappointed. Most of the temples he visited belonged to masters in the Rinzai sect. So Dogen ended up encountering the same kind of Buddhist teachers that he’d met in Japan. He travelled around China for two years but still couldn’t meet a teacher who could help him. He was just about to give up his search, when he met an old monk who told him to visit a temple called Keitoku-ji. A new abbot, Master Tendo Nyojo, had just been installed at Keitoku-ji, and the old monk told Dogen that Master Tendo Nyojo might be the teacher he was looking for.

Dogen had already been to Keitoku-ji temple once. But at that time there was a different abbot there. So Dogen went to Keitoku-ji temple and met Master Tendo Nyojo. When Dogen met Tendo Nyojo he was sure that he'd found the teacher he’d been searching for. Dogen stayed in China for two more years to study with Tendo Nyojo, and then returned to Japan.

The main thing Dogen learned from Master Tendo Nyojo was that just sitting in zazen is Buddhism itself. Master Tendo Nyojo used the phrase shikantaza to explain this to Master Dogen.

Nowadays, shikantaza is a well-known phrase in Zen Buddhism. It's made up of four Chinese characters 只管打坐. These characters are usually translated by dividing them into pairs.

The first pair is 只管 (shi-kan).
This means: nothing but / earnestly / entirely / single-mindedly.

The second pair is 打坐 (ta-za).
This means: to do sitting.

So the four characters in shi-kan-ta-za together mean:

nothing but to do sitting,


earnestly to do sitting,


entirely to do sitting,


single-mindedly to do sitting.

Take your pick.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Zazen Notes III - body & mind drop off

In my last couple of posts, I wrote about "non-thinking" and sitting in an upright posture. This post relates to both of those. It's about a Japanese expression shin-jin-datsu-raku which the Zen monk Dogen used to describe what happens when we practice zazen. Dogen first heard the expression from his teacher, Tendo Nyojo, when he visited China from Japan in the 13th century to meet a true teacher.

The usual English translation for shin-jin-datsu-raku is "dropping body and mind" or "body and mind drop off". Here's the meaning of the four Chinese characters (身心脱落) that make up shin-jin-datsu-raku:

shin (身) means "body"
jin (心) means "mind"
datsu (脱) means "shed"
raku (落) means "drop" or "let fall"

So shin-jin-datsu-raku literally means "body & mind are shed and fall". But the characters for datsu and raku go together, and mean "drop off". So shin-jin-datsu-raku is usually translated something like "body & mind drop off".

"Body & mind drop off" is a confusing expression. It's easy to think it means that when you do zazen your body and mind actually drop off and all that's left is some kind of "spirit". But that doesn't happen.

So what does "body & mind drop off" mean? My teacher Gudo Nishijima interprets it as meaning that when we do zazen our mind gets less active and our perception of our body sensations gets less active. So we're not actively considering things or perceiving things. Of course, we're sitting there with our eyes are open and we can see the wall and hear sounds, but we're not thinking about them. Our consciousness is clear and quiet. Master Dogen described this as "body & mind drop off".

One thing about "body & mind drop off" is that it happens naturally, without us having control over it. We do zazen and try to sit upright. When we're sitting, our thinking might quieten down and our sense perceptions might quieten down, and then we feel like our consciousness is clearer. We might not reach a point where our mind is completely blank and our senses have gone completely quiet, but we can feel like they're quieter than when we first sat down.

Nishijima uses the idea of +/- zero to describe what happens when we do zazen. When we first sit down our mind might be really active or we might be really conscious of our senses. And we can swing back and forth between a state where we're thinking a lot (a "+" state) and a state where we're really conscious of our senses (a "-" state). That can continue throughout our zazen. But at some point, our thoughts may slow down and our bodily sensations may ease off. At that time, there's not too much activity in our head and we're just sitting there. That's the kind of "zero" state.

Zazen is not about thinking. Zazen is a kind of action. You sit on a cushion and try to keep your back straight. It's a very simple action and a very pure action. There's not an awful lot going on when you're doing it. You're just sitting there. But you can notice your thoughts and notice your posture too. And after a while that consciousness of thoughts and of posture subsides and you sit there without much going on in your head. And when you get up from zazen you might feel a bit different from when you started. People who do zazen refer to that feeling as "balanced". It's a nice feeling. And if you practice zazen regularly, that feeling might stay with you for a good part of the day.

But you don't have to take my word for it. If you do zazen for a while you'll see for yourself.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Zazen Notes II - right posture

This post is about the sitting posture in Zazen.

The Japanese monk Dogen wrote instructions on how to practice Zazen in a text called fukanzazengi (Universal Guide to Zazen), which he wrote in the 13th century. His instructions in fukanzazengi are generally regarded as the standard instructions for practicing zazen.

In fukanzazengi, Dogen used the expression sho-shin-tan-za (正身端坐) when he was discussing posture. Sho-shin-tan-za is made up of four Chinese characters:

1. 正 (sho) means right, correct, proper, or true
2. 身 (shin) means the body
3. 端 (tan) means upright, erect, or straight
4. 坐 (za) means sit

Together sho-shin-tan-za mean "sit straight with your body right" or "straighten your body and sit upright".

"Straighten your body and sit upright" is fairly straightforward advice, but Dogen gave some more specific instructions about what he meant by sitting straight. He said:

"Don't lean to the left or right, or forward or backward."


"Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel."

He also said to keep the mouth closed and the eyes open, and to breathe softly through the nose.

Dogen's instructions are easy to understand. Just sit straight. Don't lean to the left or right, or incline forward or backward. Keep your ears in line with your shoulders, and your nose in line with your navel. Close your mouth and open your eyes, and breathe softly through your nose.

It's not that much to remember. The hard part is that it takes a while to reach the stage where we can concentrate on those points right through zazen. After we sit down to start zazen, our head can fill up with lots of different thoughts and after a few minutes we notice that we're slouching over or leaning to the side. Or maybe our legs hurt and we start to think about moving them or adjusting our posture. So it can be hard to "sit straight with your body right." But if we stick with the practice for a while our posture gradually starts to develop and it becomes easier to sit straight. And even if, like me, your posture isn't quite perfect, and you lean or slouch over sometimes doing zazen, just stick with it. It doesn't have to be absolutely perfect. And if you do find yourself slouching a bit, just straighten your spine again and continue.

Gudo Nishijima used to hold regular zazen meetings and retreats in Japan. Sometimes complete beginners would come along and Nishijima would show them the posture and explain what to do. But he didn't spend a lot of time going around correcting everyone's posture. Occasionally he would, but he seemed to think that it was important for people to just do zazen, without worrying too much about having a kind of perfect posture right off.

When I first started to do zazen I used to get a twitch in my shoulder sometimes. It used to really worry me, particularly if I was doing zazen next to someone at one of Nishijima's meetings. But Nishijima never seemed to notice, and at some point, I don't remember when, the twitch thing just disappeared by itself.

I've noticed similar situations with other people I've practiced with. When they first started off they had trouble sitting for even 5 or 10 minutes. During zazen they'd take a little break and then start again. It looked like they were having a really hard time just sitting there. But they stuck with it and after a while they'd be sitting for 20 or 30 minutes without much problem as far as I could see.

Zazen's like that. If you're starting off, don't worry too much about whether your posture is right or wrong. Just stick with it and try to sit regularly. Your posture will gradually work itself out. Doing zazen will itself help your posture. But don't forget Dogen's pointers for sitting.