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.


  1. Hello Peter,

    Thank you for your interesting posts on Gudo Nishijima's teachings about Zazen.

    I was wondering if your own personal reading of Dogen, as well as your Zazen experience affirm this interpretation?

    I am a little confused about a couple of things you said in the post. You say a number of things like this:

    "So we're not actively considering things or perceiving things... Our consciousness is clear and quiet... You're just sitting there... ...after a while that consciousness of thoughts and of posture subsides and you sit there without much going on in your head..."

    Yet, Dogen's own records, especially the Shobogenzo, exhort us to "investigate," "clarify," "examine," "inquire," etc. While we are sitting. How do we do that without "actively considering things" and simply dwelling in a "clear quite consciousness"

    For one example, Dogen says:

    "We should investigate AT THE VERY MOMENT OF OUR SITTING,
    are all realms vertical? Are they horizontal? AT THE VERY MOMENT WE ARE SITTING, what about that
    sitting? Is it a flip? Is it “brisk and lively”? Is it thinking? Is it not thinking? Is it making? Is it
    without making? Are we sitting within sitting? Are we sitting within body and mind? Are we
    sitting having sloughed off “within sitting,” “within body and mind,” and so on? We should
    investigate one thousand points, ten thousand points, such as these."
    ---Shōbōgenzō zanmai ō zanmai
    Translated by
    Carl Bielefeldt

    This seems much different than idea that "our mind gets less active" etc...

    In fact it sounds very similiar to Dogen's warning about one kind of wrong interpretation of Zazen where he said:

    "Recently, however, some stupid illiterates say, 'Once you attain [the state in which] the breast is without concerns, the concentrated effort at seated meditation is peace and tranquility.' This view does not compare with that of the scholastics of the Lesser Vehicle; it is inferior even to the Vehicle of Men and Gods. How could one [who holds such a view] be called a person who studies the buddha dharma? At present, there are many such practitioners in the land of the Great Sung. How sad that the way of the ancestors has become overgrown."
    ---Shôbôgenzô zazen shin
    Translated by
    Carl Bielefeldt

    Thanks again for the post. I am looking forward to your comments.

  2. Hi Ted,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I based this post on my own reading of Dogen and my Zazen experience, and what I learned with Gudo Nishijima. The expression “shin-jin-datsu-raku” that I looked at in this post, and the expressions I looked at in the two previous posts appear in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi. Gudo Nishijima used these expressions to describe his interpretation of what happens when we practice zazen. I had some notes on this topic from a talk he gave at one of his retreats and wrote about them.

    In the Shobogenzo, there are plenty of places where Dogen appears to contradict himself. He’ll say one thing in one line, and later on he'll write something that appears to contradict what he said previously. Nishijima's interpretation of this is that Dogen looks at a given situation from four different aspects. First of all he looks at something subjectively, then objectively, next he’s looks at it on the basis of action, and last of all he’s look at the actual situation.

    It helpa to keep Nishijima Roshi’s interpretation in mind if we’re having trouble understanding a particular part of the Shobogenzo. But even with Nishijima's interpretation, Shobogenzo can be a tough read. But it's a great book and well worth reading despite the difficulty in some parts.

    About the first example you mention about Dogen exhorting us to "investigate," etc. While we are sitting. The example you give is:

    "We should investigate AT THE VERY MOMENT OF OUR SITTING, are all realms vertical? Are they horizontal? AT THE VERY MOMENT WE ARE SITTING, what about that sitting? Is it a flip? Is it “brisk and lively”? Is it thinking? Is it not thinking? Is it making? Is it without making? Are we sitting within sitting? Are we sitting within body and mind? ..."
    ---Shōbōgenzō zanmai ō zanmai
    Translated by
    Carl Bielefeldt

    To me, in this part Dogen is looking at Zazen from the viewpoint of action. He’s encouraging us to investigate what kind of action Zazen is through the actual action of sitting. I think this is clearer in the Nishijima/Cross translation of the same lines:

    “Just in the moment of sitting, what is the sitting itself? Is it a somersault? Is it a state of vigorous activity? Is it thinking? Is it beyond thinking? Is it doing something? Is it not doing anything?...”

    At the end of that paragraph he says: “Sit in the full lotus posture with the body. Sit in the full lotus with the mind. Sit in the full lotus posture being free of body and mind.” In these 3 lines he seems to be looking at Zazen from three different viewpoints: body, mind, and action (“free of body and mind”).

    The expression “being free of body and mind” is a translation of shin-jin-datsu-raku. I interpret it as referring to our thoughts and our perceptions becoming less distracting while we’re sitting, and at some points we sit there without having distracting thoughts or being conscious of particular sense perceptions. But that’s just my understanding and I may not be describing it well.

    About the second example you gave:

    "Recently, however, some stupid illiterates say, 'Once you attain [the state in which] the breast is without concerns, the concentrated effort at seated meditation is peace and tranquility.' This view does .... How sad that the way of the ancestors has become overgrown."
    ---Shôbôgenzô zazen shin
    Translated by
    Carl Bielefeldt

    I guess I must be one of those stupid illiterates. But even though, I think it’s good to keep in mind the context in which Dogen is writing. When you read the full paragraph you see that he starts off discussing “the concrete state of not thinking”. Then in the sentences you quote he seems to be criticizing people who take an idealistic view that 'Once you attain [the state in which] the breast is without concerns, the concentrated effort at seated meditation is peace and tranquility.” People who say that kind of thing base there opinion on some idea they have that sitting in zazen must be just really great “peace and tranquility”. But when you actually sit zazen you find based on your actual experience that it’s not like that. Your legs may hurt or you might feel a pain in your back or it can be just hard to sit for the amount of time you expected to.

    Finally, getting back to zazen. In Fukanzazengi Dogen wrote his recommendations on how to actually practice Zazen. In one part of Fukanzazengi he says “This sitting in Zazen is not learning Zen concentration. It is simply the peaceful and joyful gate of Dharma.” Dogen returns to that idea several times in the Shobogenzo.

    Thanks again for you comment.



  3. Dear Peter,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. It is always nice to hear the experience and insights of fellow Zen and Dogen students.
    That Dogen! Great stuff.
    I will check back with you some time.
    Thanks again, gassho,

  4. Hi Peter,

    From my own experience in doing Zazen. I would disagree with what your teacher is saying about mind and body dropping off. Dogen states in the Shobogenzo (Norman Waddell and Masao Abe translation).
    And I quote:
    "My late master the old buddha said:"The practice of Zen (Zazen)is body and mind falling away. It is only attained in single-minded sitting.No need for incense offering, homage-paying, penance disciplines or sutra readings."

    When you let go absolutely. Mind and body do fall away, and it is this falling away that provides insight into the essence of time and being.But this is only one experience of satori. An experience not to get attached too, because a more important experience is the Buddha's "turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness" which he explains in the Lankavatara sutra that leads to full enlightenment. I no longer follow any teachers in the East or the West. You are better off to do it on your own. My advice is too read the Lankavatara sutra repeatedly along with Patrul Rinpoche "advice from Me to Myself.

    The Key is to--- let go of all concepts and thinking.

    All the Best
    Mark Jamison

  5. Also,

    Being Conscious is not body and mind falling away or dropping off. Dogen's body and mind falling away is consciously becoming unconscious like a stream of consciousness has been cut away, and you are fully aware of this stream being cut away. Time and a self no longer exist. When you regain consciousness you will feel very disorientated but more alive and aware then you have ever been in your whole life.
    The danger is too get attached to this experience because it is not enlightenment only a beginning stage.

    Mark Jamison

  6. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your comments.

    That’s a nice quote from Shobogenzo. It looks to me like it’s from the chapter titled "Zanmai-o-zanmai". Gudo Nishijima and his co-translator Chodo Cross, translate that part a little differently. Here’s their translation:

    “My late Master, the eternal Buddha, says, “To practice [Za]zen is to get free of body and mind. Just to sit is to have attainment from the beginning. It is not necessary to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite the Buddha’s name, to confess, or to read sutras.”

    It’s a bit different from the translation you quoted (if they’re referring to the same part). I took a look at the original Japanese, and I’d have to say that, if they’re translating the same part, then the Nishijima/Cross translation seems closer to what Dogen wrote. I don't know if it matters much, but here's the original Japanese:




  7. Hi Peter

    Thanks for your comments.

    It was interesting reading lecture 3 that your teacher gave at one of his retreats. And I quote" But real Buddhism is different, and this real Buddhism has also been maintained. One master who received the true Buddhist thoughts was Master Tendo Nyojo. Master Dogen met Master Tendo Nyojo and succeeded to the true Buddhist theory that practice and experience are one, and Master Dogen introduced this Buddhist idea into Japan. Relying upon his Buddhist theory we can understand Buddhist philosophy very clearly and theoretically. Therefore, I think his idea about Zazen is rather important.
    So when we think about the meaning of practicing Zazen, whether we believe in the existence of enlightenment which is other than practice or not, is a very important point. Many people believe in the existence of enlightenment, but in real Buddhist theory we think that practice and experience are one. Therefore Master Dogen insisted, just to practice Zazen. Just to practice Zazen is expressed in Japanese as “Shikantaza”.
    The word “Shikantaza” is rather famous even in western society today. People think that Zazen which is based on “satori” (enlightenment) and Zazen which is based on “just to practice” are both Buddhism, but I do not agree with that idea. Thinking about Buddhist philosophy exactly, I
    think only just to sit is Buddhist thought. Zazen to get enlightenment is a kind of idealistic philosophy, and idealistic philosophy cannot be Buddhism. So when we think about the meaning of Zazen, we should not expect the existence of enlightenment other than practice.

    My comments to this lecture:
    I see this view that enlightenment is none other than practice (Zazen) as one of the main problems with the Soto sect. The great death is never mentioned. I believe Dogen must have gone through this process to have the understanding that he had. In the Blue Cliff records (Hekiganroku)Case 41 Joshu and the Great Death.And this is an important point. "The Great death is the condition that appears in absolute samadhi, in which the activity of consciousness is stopped and the state called "body and mind fallen off' is reached. In other words the delusive thinking of ordinary consciousness is cut off and your mind is purified."

    "This is called realization but you must become emancipated from your own satori experience."

    A Tibetan master Gundun Rinpoche has said that enlightenment is none other than the continuous cutting away of all your views and delusions. I would have to agree with him.

    This is really a sad state of buddhism today when people think that the practice of zazen is enlightenment itself. Rinzai isn't any better as they believe enlightenment is an attainment. Another wrong view.


    Mark Jamison

  8. Hi, Peter, hi Ted, hi James,

    Wonderful to find you all, here in our virtual tin-can & string. Many interesting thoughts as I read your entry, Peter, and the comments all.

    My point of view would be that the two respirations, pulmonary and cranial-sacral, utilize the sense of location as consciousness takes place to coordinate the involuntary activity of posture and open the ability to feel throughout the body. Helps me to know that the stretch of fascia and ligaments can generate the nerve impulses to cause muscles to contract, without conscious intervention. I don't have to do anything to wake up. Maybe body is like accepting involuntary activity in the muscles of posture, mind accepting that the location of mind prior intention generates the necessary activity of posture, and dropping the action out of feeling when pain and pleasure and ignorance are all the same. I don't know, but I feel three levels in Dogen's description, like the four parts of Fuxi's poem:

    the empty hand grasps the hoe handle

    walking along I ride the ox

    the ox crosses the wooden bridge

    the bridge is flowing, the water is still

    good night to all; yours, Mark

  9. & apologies to Mark Jamison for calling you James- strange tranliteration!- yers, Mark

    S'intersting to me that I don't like to talk about Zen, though I do like to talk about sitting in the lotus and zazen. Peaceful and joyful gate, not so in my heart of hearts, but I won't hold Dogen to that. Guess that's why I'm not a Buddhist?- I'm a failure at the relaxed calm that was exuded by the founder, 24/7, per those who saw and spoke to him. Then I think of those who followed his teaching and wound up committing suicide, and maybe it's better not?
    yers Mark

  10. I wish I could explain it to you all but dropping mind and body for me is nothing at all what you are describing. There are no words for what I experience. I can not transfer my experience to you by words if you have never had it. Sorry about that. but that's it.

  11. I see that two years have past since I last commented on this thread. Rereading the thread, I find Gudo's words about "whether we believe in the existence of enlightenment which is other than practice or not" to be an interesting kind of line in the sand.

    I'd like to address the main topic of your blog entry, Peter, and to speak now with the benefit of the vocabulary I have developed over the last two years.

    I have to believe that "being free of body and mind" or "dropping mind and body" is a reference to the same experience Yuanwu described as "the bottom falling out of the barrel". Right before I fall asleep, my consciousness seems to shift from place to place. I've discovered that if I attend to my sense of location as consciousness takes place, I can fall asleep or wake up, whichever is appropriate.

    Now you might think that the experience I describe is something personal, and that it has nothing to do with zazen. Let me say that three other people have now reported that they too can get back to sleep by close attendance to the place of occurrence of consciousness. Let me also say that to my surprise, the same experience now guides my practice in zazen, and increasingly I find that the action and the insight that I need seem to manifest appropriately.

    What I'm describing, I refer to as the practice of waking up and falling asleep. The moment when consciousness takes place freely, like waking up or falling asleep, cannot actually be made to happen, yet it happens all the time. Is this not what Dogen meant when he said:

    "...learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward."

    yours, Mark


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