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.


  1. Peter,

    I like the latest post and the racy new paint-job.



  2. Thanks Harry,

    I had a bit of help with the paint-job. Otherwise it would probably be a sort of bright green.



  3. Hey, how about a paragraph on how Guatama's influence got to China?

  4. Hello Peter,

    Thanks for your post.

    It seems to me that one of the corollaries of Dogen’s views concerning the inseparability of ones understanding, and their expressions is the ability to accurately evaluate someone’s understanding simply by examining their expressions.

    Although I have not seemed to develop this ability, when I read your posts I get the sense that you regard Master Dogen's handful of teachings on Zazen as the only the only essential fascicles in his massive corpus of writings.

    In your most recent post, for instance, you do not mention that Master Dogen's dangerous journey to China was precipitated by his realization that the authentic teachings of written texts were much more valuable than any inauthentic teachings of certified "Dharma heirs." Do you recall from your study Master Dogen's explaination in the Zuimonki about how he came to realize this fact when he compared the teachings of his own "distinguished" title holding teachers to those of the "eminent Buddhists" of the past:

    "…I came to realize that they differed from what my teachers taught. What is more, I realized that thoughts such as mine, according to their treatises and biographies, were loathed by these people. Having contemplated the nature of the matter at last, I thought to myself I should have felt rather humbled by ancient sages and future good men and women instead of elated by the praise of despicable contemporaries… In view of such a realization, the holders of the title of Great Teacher (daishi) in this country seemed to me worthless, like earthen tiles, and my whole life was changed completely."
    Zuimonki, V:8

    I know that Master Dogen’s insistence to "study this" "get inside these words" "penetrate this saying" "take up these words again and again" and similar exhortations is so constant throughout his works it is easy to become desensitized to their presence. Nevertheless, it seems a Zen priest would dedicate some time to discussing more of Master Dogen's treasure of teachings than just his straightforward guides on the basic instructions of sitting meditation.

    After all, Master Dogen’s insitence to take up and study specific phrases, words, koans, sutras, and so on must outnumber his instructions to dedicate ourselves to Zazen by at least 50 to 1.

    I hasten to add that I, of course realize that when Dogen urges us to "investigate these words," he means we should take them up in sitting meditation, as well as our other activities (at least that is what Master Dogen's records say).

    Just to clarify what I mean by his constant demands to "investigating these words" here are a few random examples of Dogen’s constant refrain concerning words:

    "At the same time we should investigate whether the Great Master’s words ‘I call this thing bamboo and wood,’ and Shin-o’s words ‘I also call it bamboo and wood,’ are the same or not the same, and whether they are adequate or not adequate. The Great Master says, ‘If we search the whole Earth for a person who understands the Buddha-Dharma, it is impossible to find one.’ We should also closely scrutinize and decide about this expression."
    Shobogenzo, Sangai-Yuishin, Nishijima & Cross

    "Good gentelman, when you meet a teacher, first ask for one case of [koan] story, and just keep it in mind and study it diligently. If you climb to the top of the mountain and dry up the oceans, you will not fail to complete [this study].
    Dogen's Extensive Record, The Eihei Koroku, Vol.8:14, Leighton & Okumura

    "Even a work produced latterly, if its words are true, should be approved."
    Shobogenzo, Butsudo, Nishijima & Cross

    "The truth expressed now in the founding Patriarch’s words ‘What people are able to hear the non-emotional preaching the Dharma’ should be painstakingly researched through the effort of one life and many lives."
    Shobogenzo, Mujo-Seppo, Nishijima & Cross

    "We should quietly investigate the principle of, and learn in practice the realization of words like this."
    Shobogenzo, Ganzei, Nishijima & Cross

    "Thus the words ‘being without the Buddha-nature’ can be heard coming form the distant room of the fourth patriarch. They are seen and heard in Obai, they are spread throughout Joshu district, and they are exalted on Dai-i [mountain]. We must unfailingly apply ourselves to the words ‘being without the Buddha-nature.’ Do not be hesitant."
    Shobogenzo, Bussho, Nishijima & Cross

    "Learning these words in practice, we should meet with the ancestral patriarchs of Buddhism and we should see and hear the teachings of Buddhism."
    Shobogenzo, Bukkyo, Nishijima & Cross

    "We must investigate these words quietly; we should replace our heart with them and replace our brain with them."
    Shobogenzo, Daigo, Nishijima & Cross

    It seems that the only time Master Dogen’s rhetoric becomes more passionate than when insisting that we take words, koans, and sutras seriously is in his attacks on those that dismiss or minimize the role of verbal and rational activity in the practice of Zen.

    As you must well know, the coarsest language in Master Dogen’s records has been reserved for those that fail to take up and discern the koans, which he treats as the basic texts of Zen Buddhism. For example, in Shobogenzo, Sansuigyo, Dogen says:

    "They say that present talk of the East Mountain moving on water, and stories (koans) such as Nansen’s sickle, are stories (koans) beyond rational understanding… It is pitiful that the great truth of the Buddhist Patriarch is going to ruin. The understanding of these [shavelings] is inferior even to that of sravakas of the small vehicle; they are more stupid than non-Buddhists. They are not lay people, they are not monks, they are not human beings, and they are not gods; they are more stupid than animals learning the Buddha’s truth. What these shavelings call ‘stories (koans) beyond rational understanding’ are beyond rational understanding only to them; the Buddhist patriarchs are not like that. Even though [rational ways] are not understood by those [shavelings], we should not fail to learn in practice the Buddhist patriarchs’ ways of rational understanding… [The shavelings] do not know that images and thoughts are words and phrases, and they do not know words and phrases transcend images and thoughts. When I was in China I laughed at them, but they had nothing to say for themselves and were just wordless (sic)... They have the non-Buddhist view of naturalism."
    Shobogenzo, Sansuigyo, Nishijima & Cross

    His charge at the end of this passage concerning "the non-Buddhist view of naturalism" is also a topic that earns Dogen’s unrelenting scorn. His definition of what he means by such a "view" is remarkably similar to a style of "Zen" of which you are probably well aware is sometime advocated by so-called "priests" in modern times. Briefly, this view promotes a notion that "just sitting" calmly in "pure awareness" and allowing things to "be as they are" is the authentic practice of Zen. Some even use the common terms of naturalism like, "natural state," "natural man," etc. In modern variations, this "non-Buddhist view" is sometimes combined with the fostering of cultic belief in the supernatural influence of specific practices or rituals, usually a subversion of "Zazen." In such cases, the term "Zazen" is usually reduced to its most literal meaning of "sitting meditation," then equated with Buddhahood. Thus, the whole of Master Dogen's wonderful Buddha-Dharma is reduced and degraded to mere superstition: "to sit like Buddha" is "to be Buddha." But I digress.

    Getting back to Master Dogen’s constant refrain concerning words and language, in your own study do you recall how he defined one of his favorite phrases; "learning in practice."

    Master Dogen uses this term so often that I am sure that you, like myself, feel it is very important to understand exactly what he means. We can be grateful that he gave us a clear explanation about what he meant by "learning in practice" in, Shobogenzo, Mitsugo:

    "’Learning in practice’ means not intending to understand at once but striving painstakingly hundreds of times, or thousands of times, as if working to cut a hard object. We should not think that when a person has something to relate we will be able to understand at once."
    Shobogenzo, Mitsugo, Nishijima & Cross

    Reading this, and the multitude of similar exhortations on the rigorous nature of Zen practice, we should not not be too hard on those that would choose something other than the authentic practice of Zen.

    And maybe you are just compassionately allowing students to rest a bit because you can understand why some might prefer a "Zen" of "just sitting" and simply "letting go of" our thoughts and feelings. I don't think Master Dogen would have a problem with that either as long as we did not slander him by saying that it was his teaching on Zen Buddhism.

    Dogen’s repetitious insistence on "striving painstakingly hundreds of times, or thousands of times, as if working to cut a hard object" certainly may not sound as attractive as "just sitting" and "letting go" and "having no goal." But if we are going to use Dogen's records as any authority on his teachings, we need to truly explain what those records actually say.

    He does not always focus on the neccesity of "striving painstakingly" of course, Dogen also highlights those rare and wondrous, blissful moments of Zen where mind and body drop away and "Buddha is not aware of being Buddha." This is the inexpressible, inconceivable "state of Buddha" that can only be realized through direct experience.

    And, even while acknowledging the impossibility of expressing this experience in words, Dogen goes to great lengths to express what can be expressed about it. In some of his more poetic moments he describes the indescribable in incredibly elegant (and eloquent) terms. The Shobogenzo, Bendowa, for instance, presents one his most memorable descriptions of the "experience" of the "state of Buddha."

    "At this time, everything in the Universe in ten directions - soil, earth, grass, and trees; fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles - performs the Buddha’s work. The people that receive the benefit thus produced by wind and water are all mystically helped by the fine and unthinkable influence of the Buddha, and they exhibit the immediate state of realization. All beings who receive and utilize this water and fire spread the influence of the Buddha in the original state of experience, so that those who live and talk with them also, are all reciprocally endowed with the limitless Buddha-virtue. Expanding and promoting their activity far and wide, they permeate the inside and the outside of the entire Universe with the limitless, unceasing, unthinkable, and incalculable Buddha-Dharma. [The state] is not dimmed by the views of these individuals themselves, however, because the state in the quietness, without intentional activity, is direct experience."
    Shobogenzo, Bendowa, Nishijima & Cross

    Dogen’s exuberance here nearly makes the inexpressible palpable--as when the sound of a child’s laughter causes us to laugh, so Dogen’s exuberance resonates and arouses a sympathetic response in our own body-and-mind. This sense of great joy and zeal for the Buddha-Dharma has a powerful encouraging effect on those that seriously engage in actively reading and implementing his work.

    In the (relatively few) passages when Dogen sings out on the marvelous wonders of enlightenment, they bring a refreshing moment of release similar to the sound of the dinner bell after a day of hard labor. Of course, in the overall context of Dogen’s Zen teaching, such exhilarating praises on the blissful wonders of Buddhahood are rare. Nevertheless, like the sound of the dinner bell at the end of the day, they are most welcome.

    Much more often, as you know, Master Dogen’s expressions sound more like those of an exacting taskmaster. Sometimes, the compassion of an old grandmother manifests as a thump on the head.

    For every expression about the "blissful" state transcending enlightenment and delusion, there are hundreds of expressions urging us to "grind our bones to powder" in our efforts to "get inside these words."

    I don't think Master Dogen is trying to make things difficult for us anymore than the kindly old grandmother administers her thumps simply to cause pain. Master Dogen has realized something marvelous and he wants to share it with us—no, he has to share it with us.

    For as he makes clear, understanding, activity, and expression always occur together. Master Dogen’s expressions are the activity of his continuous and ongoing understanding.

    Do you think that is why he believed that future students would be able to realize Zen based on words and letters, like when he wrote:

    The monastics of future generations will be able to understand one-taste Zen (ichimizen) based on words and letters, if they devote their efforts to spiritual practice by seeing the universe through words and letters, and words and letters through the universe.
    ~Eihei Dogen, Tenzo Kyokun

    Of course some try to say things like, "Dogen meant the words and letters of a true master with a certificate from a Soto institution." And sure, there will always be students who prefer the "authorities" to tell them what to believe, rather than check it out for themselves. Nevertheless, there will always be some free thinker who will have to find his or her own certitude.

    Just as Master Dogen himself was unable to merely swallow the bogus teachings of the highest certified teachers in his own time. When he undertook his dangerous journey to China he was determined to get to the bottom of it himself. If he had not found Tendo Nyojo, I would not have been surprised if went to India!

    Of course, many modern institutions would chide him if he tried to pull that off today. The audacity of using his own thinking mind! Yes, his THINKING mind.

    For as Master Dogen also makes very clear, it is only that mind, that discriminatory, analyzing, judging, mind that can establish the bodhi-mind (Enlightened Mind). I bet if people denied that, you would simply show them Master Dogen's own record. Maybe the part where he says:

    In general there are three kinds of mind. The first, citta, is here called thinking mind. The second, hridaya, is here called the mind of grass and trees. The third, vriddha, is here called experienced and concentrated mind. Among these, the bodhi-mind is inevitably established relying upon thinking mind. Bodhi is the sound of an Indian word; here it is called "the truth." Citta is the sound of an Indian word; here it is called "thinking mind." Without this thinking mind it is impossible to establish the bodhi-mind. That is not to say that this thinking mind is the bodhi mind itself, but we establish the bodhi-mind with this thinking mind.
    ~Eihei Dogen, Shobogenzo, Hotsu-Bodaishin, Nishijima & Cross

    Of course we should not interfere with those that personally choose not to exercise our own "thinking mind" and simply believe, act, or submit to whatever spiritual authorities they like, but we should caution them to avoid slandering Master Dogen’s beautiful work by making claims that they have not personally experienced.

    Sure, if like an authentic Buddhist priest, they have undergone the rigors of years of careful study and practice, and they happen to gain some insight into his Master Dogen's life’s work, and that insight seems to be corroborated by Dogen’s own record, they might dare to presume to teach it to aspiring students that are could be harmed by unqualified teachers. It goes without saying that compassionate human beings would never presume to try and expound on what Master Dogen taught or believed based only on what we have heard second hand, and a half dozen readings of Dogens corpus of teachings.

    Not a single one of us would want to be identified with those "priests" that had not even mastered the Lotus and Huayen sutras of Master Dogen's lament where he said:

    "How sad; how sad! Evil demons and spirits, wild beasts, and domesticated animals now call themselves the Zen School… we should know that within Buddha Dharma there are the Lotus and Huayan and other [teachings]; and it is not that within each of the Lotus and Huayan and so on there are various different buddha dharmas. Therefore, the eighty-four thousand Dharma treasures within the Lotus, Huayan, and so on are all without exception what is simply transmitted by buddha ancestors. It is not that outside of the Lotus and Huayan there is the way of ancestral teachers."
    ~Dogen, Eihei Koroku, Volume 7, Dharma Hall Discourse 491, Leighton & Okumura

    Of course, while Master Dogen recognized and preached the necessity of authentic intellectual and verbal (and by extension, literary) activity in the practice of Zen, he also warned of the dangers of inauthentic intellectual and verbal activity. Clearly, for Master Dogen, authentic intellectual and verbal activity consists of illumining and discerning the practice and enlightenment of the Buddha-Dharma, which is illumining and discerning the practice and enlightenment of the self.

    I am sure you would agree that Master Dogen made it very clear that for him, inauthentic intellectual and verbal activity consisted of blind allegiance to authority, imitation, passivity, detachment, and rigid adherence to particular forms of practice and proscribed systems of thought.

    As he clearly presents his views that authentic intellectual activity functions as a creative and transformative process which manifests as an intense curiosity, playfully and energetically engaged in discerning and investigating life, the world, and the Buddha-Dharma. Master Dogens Zen is marked by the continuous polishing and deepening of realization and wisdom, and the refinement of personal conduct within the Buddha-Dharma. As we can see to this day, students following Master Dogen's authentic teaching describe Zen with terms like, "challenging, fascinating, rich, and unpredictable." This is truly the enactment of the life of prajna (wisdom) and karuna (compassion), the life of the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana.

    As I am sure you must have noticed, especially in the Shobogenzo, how Master Dogen outlines inauthentic intellectual activity as the willing acquiescence to the authority of others, an adoption of static, submissive passivity that is manifested as a sterile, resignation to a "things are as they are" type of naturalism. This sad abberant teaching is marked by the cultivation of detachment and disengagement from the world of thought, ideas, and emotion. People choosing this mode often describe Zen as "boring, calm, nothing special, peaceful, ordinary, and everyday." This is the life of arya-marga (no-more-learning) and the extinguishment of klesha (passions), the life deplored by Master Dogen as the "small view" of the Hinayanist.

    Okay, good enough for tonight. Please share your own ideas, insights and comments. Thank you!


  5. Rōren

    Thanks for your suggestion. I added a couple of paragraphs on Guatama's influence getting to China.



  6. Hello Peter,

    Thanks for the post.

    I just wanted to let you know about one small inaccuracy.

    You wrote:"Master Tendo Nyojo used the phrase shikantaza to explain this to Master Dogen.
    Nowadays, shikantaza is a well-known phrase in Zen Buddhism."

    Actually, Master Dogen learned the practice and theory of "Shikantaza" before his journey to China. It was one of the fundamental teachings of Tendai Buddhism which, as you know, Master Dogen studied thoroughly.

    Perhaps you meant the phrase about "cast off body-and-mind" which most Soto teachers and scholars attribute to his time with Master Nyojo.

    Alright then, thanks again!

    Take care,

  7. Hello Ted,

    Thanks for that information. It's helpful to know.



  8. Hi Peter,

    What do you think is the role of relaxation in Zazen? Do you have any thoughts on the relationship between our effort to sit up straight and relaxation?

    I suppose this gets at the seemingly contradictory notions of making an effortless effort to sit up straight which is beyond any notion of sitting up straight.

    From another angle: can practice really be effortless if our physical body is not conditioned to sit up straight effortlessly?

    Zazen really seems to defy the law of gravity in my case because it hurts after a while. In sitting and accepting 'just hurting' are we sitting effortlessly? Must we accept the effort of defying gravity to realize effortlessness?

    ...I'm rambling now.



  9. Hello Peter,

    You are welcome. Thank you!

    Take care,

  10. Hi Harry,

    Thanks for your questions and sorry for my delay in responding. I was away from base for a while.

    Obviously it's nice if we can relax during Zazen. Unfortunately though, we usually have to make some kind of effort to sit up straight too.

    About the contradiction between making an effort and sitting without thinking, it might be similar to playing an instrument or sports or something. When you're playing, there are times where it doesn't feel like you're making a conscious effort to play. You can kind of play without thinking an awful lot about it.

    Your question about conditioning ourselves to sit up straight is a good one. It's probably a lot like playing an instrument or sport and practicing to play an instrument or sport too.

    About pain and so on, how we handle it depends on the amount of pain. If it's unbearable, we should move our legs or something.

    I think each person should decide for themselves about whether to accept the effort of defying gravity to realize effortlessness. That way, if we have any regrets afterwards, at least we can say it was our own choice:-)



  11. Peter,

    Dammit, I was going to send you the bill from my physiotherapist!

    Yes, truly 'I cannot be decieved by others'.

    Thanks & see you soon,


  12. Peter,

    Thanks for the China info.

    Is there "zen" in India anymore (of course under another name)?

    "...he devoted himself to what he had discovered." What had he discovered? To awaken, the legs must be crossed or that one can awaken? Just because I'm in a questioning mood right now, why does our tradition require, say, crossed legs, but not trees and morning stars?

    This, of course, may feed to Harry's question on relaxation and pain. It's not the crossed legs that matter, it's not that you had Indian take away the night before and stare at a picture of the morning star painted on your wall. It's that "something else" that is paramount.

    If Guatama had sat with straight legs would we be having this discussion?


  13. Hi Lauren,

    Thanks for your questions.

    There’s still some form of Buddhism in India, although I don’t know if many people there are doing zazen.

    Dogen discovered that practicing zazen is just Buddhism itself. Before he went to China he studied at Kenninji, a Rinzai temple, in Kyoto for 9 years. At Kenninji, he learned the Rinzai idea that practicing zazen is a method to become enlightened. But in China, Tendo Nyojo told him that practicing zazen and experiencing enlightenment are the same thing. That made more sense to Dogen. When he returned to Japan he started teaching people that kind of Buddhism. It’s one big difference between the Soto sect and the Rinzai sect today.

    Zen Buddhism doesn’t exclude trees and morning stars. It can be very nice to do zazen outside too.

    I think the paramount thing is to sit zazen everyday if you can. Lots of things are written about Buddhism, but by practicing zazen you actually get to experience Buddhism for yourself.

    I don’t know if we’d be having this discussion if Gautama had sat with straight legs.



  14. Hey everyone,

    I don't think it matters much how Buddha sat. We'll never know.
    Whoever discovered that sitting lotus was the ideal sitting posture must have sat everyway possible to have concluded what they did. No other postue gives you the pelvic tilt that lotus does. It is truely amazing.



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