I am sure many of you have read this piece by Shohaku Okumura Roshi. Though long, it's a wonderful piece and distillation on the practice of zazen and where mind factors in. It can also be found on the Antaiji Temple website.
A Lecture by Shohaku Okumura Roshi
Posture, breathing and mind are the three most important points in our practice. This morning I'd like to talk about mind in our zazen or meditation. Actually, we do nothing with our mind. Why we do nothing is a very important point in understanding the meaning of our practice. I think Uchiyama Roshi is one of the few people who could explain why in an understandable way for modern people. So I'd like to share his teaching with you this morning about the quality or nature of our sitting meditation practice.
In "Opening the Hand of Thought," as a conclusion or explanation of how to sit and how to breathe, he said doing correct zazen "means taking the correct posture and entrusting everything to it." It seems very simple, and yet it's not easy.
So it is with our mind. We are usually doing something with our mind. We are always like a hunter. We want to hunt something, and we have tools to catch it. When we have some object or gain, we think, "What is the best way to get it?" When we don't have an object, how we can catch it? That's a problem. And we are confused about it.
Not only in the practice of zazen but in Buddhist teachings, the basic philosophy or understanding about reality is: no separation between self and others, subject and object. And since we are a hunter, there's an object and subject. As far as we are in that kind of relationship with the object or things we want, we are against the basic philosophy of Buddhism. Even when the gain is enlightenment or reality or peace of mind, if it's a gain or object, our attitude is going against the philosophy of emptiness. Emptiness means no subject and no object, everything working together. So actually this is one life, and there's no one who is hunting and who is hunted.
In our meditation, the whole is our life. When we want to attain peacefulness of mind or some kind of insight or wisdom, that is ourselves. The one who wants to do it is ourselves, so both subject and object are ourselves. And also in the case of meditation, we meditate and the object of meditation is reality or truth or nirvana or our true self. If we watch our true self, like we're watching the mirror, what we can see is only the reflection. We cannot see this person. So actually, subject cannot be seen. It's simple reality. We cannot see our eyes. This is a difficult point to understand and to practice. The problem is ourselves, and our intention to see it. We have to be very careful about this, and how we can deal with it. That is a main point to understand our practice.
Our practice is a really unusual, unique practice. We have no object to watch or meditate. So actually, our sitting practice is not meditation or contemplation, because there is no object.
It's really important to first have a kind of intellectual understanding about what our practice is. When we sit on the cushion, we should forget about it, and just sit. It's the same as when we drive a car, or when we learn how to drive a car. First we have to study about the parts of the car, and how to deal with it. But when we really drive a car, we should forget about that knowledge, and just drive.
The same is true for our meditation practice. First we have to understand it. When we really practice, we should forget it and just sit. Intellectual understanding is also important in our practice. While we are in the zazen position, if we continue our thoughts, we are thinking and no longer doing zazen. So we have to think before we sit and practice zazen, or after we stand up. Uchiyama Roshi says: "Zazen is not thinking; nor is it sleeping. Doing zazen is to be full of life aiming at holding a correct zazen posture." Thinking and sleeping, or in Dogen Zenji's expression, dullness and destruction, are two problems in our zazen.
Uchiyama Roshi says that if we become sleepy while doing zazen, our energy becomes dissipated and the body limp. If we pursue our thoughts, our posture will become stiff. He writes: "Zazen is neither being limp and lifeless nor being stiff. Our posture must be full of life and energy." So in our zazen, we should be really awake and full of energy. Zazen is not thinking and not sleeping, just being there.
And he says, this posture of not chasing after thinking and not being sleepy is important, not only in our zazen but in our day-to-day lives, too. He says it's like driving a car. If the driver is drunk, sleepy, or nervous, this too is dangerous. Being too caught up in our thinking while we are driving is also dangerous, because we don't see things around ourselves.
This really applies to any kind of work, any activity. The life force should be neither stagnant, or dull, nor rigid. It should be relaxed, awake and relaxed. The most essential thing is that our life force live to its fullest potential. Zazen is the most condensed form of life functioning as wide awake life.
The practice that directly and purely manifests that life is the most crucial thing in our life, and at the same time, a tremendous task. It's not an easy thing. You need to be really mindful, not too caught up in thinking or not sleepy. Then we can be aware of things happening inside and outside of ourselves. This is really difficult because we want to know the effect or result or benefit we get from that. When we are thinking benefit, then our zazen becomes object again-self and others, subject and object, separated. We cannot observe it. We can just keep doing.
Often when we try to understand, we have to use language. The basic function of language-thinking, using words and concepts-is separation. So there's a basic contradiction between our outer life, which is one with all beings, and thinking. Even when we think that we are one with all beings, still we separate from the idea that we are separate from all beings. There is no way to become one by using words. The only possible way is by using negative expressions-something like "not two." That's why Buddhist or Zen phrases or expressions are paradoxical or negative. Only by negating our thinking or intellection can we express the reality before separation of subject and object.
When our discriminating mind tries to understand what zazen is or is "good" for, then zazen becomes the object and we become the subject. If we look at it that way, then we are already thinking. That is really a problem. In zazen, there is no self-observation and no self-evaluation. We need to go beyond this subject-and-object dichotomy.
In "Opening the Hand of Thought," Kosho Uchiyama Roshi writes: "When we actually do zazen, we should be neither sleeping nor caught up in our own thought. We should be wide-awake -aiming at the correct posture with our flesh and bones. Can we ever attain this? Is there such a thing as succeeding or hitting the mark? This is where zazen becomes unfathomable." We cannot measure or observe it. We cannot say: "My zazen is getting better." If we say it that way, we are already thinking, it's not zazen. It's the same as when we are sleeping. We sleep almost one third of our life, and yet we cannot say, "I am asleep." We can say, "I want to sleep" or "I'm sleepy." If I say I'm sleeping, I'm not sleeping. Zazen is the same thing.
Uchiyama Roshi writes: "In zazen, we have to vividly aim at the correct posture, yet there is never a mark to hit. Or at any rate, the person who is doing zazen should never perceive whether he has hit the mark or not." If we perceive it, we're already thinking and we're already off the mark. When we are hitting the mark, there is no perception. We are just sitting.
Uchiyama Roshi says, "If the person doing zazen thinks he is really getting good or that he has hit the mark, he's merely thinking his zazen is good, while actually, he has become separated from the reality of his zazen." Yet that is what we all want to do. We want to make sure we are in the correct zazen. We want to make sure this is good for me, that this practice is meaningful for my life. Unless we believe it or think this way, it's really difficult to practice zazen. So before we sit, we have to really try to understand this point.
Uchiyama Roshi says that when we have a target we can aim. But if we know that there isn't a target, who is going to attempt to aim? I think all of us know why we have to sit, just aiming without hitting the target. It is because the person hitting and the target are the same thing.
This is not only true in zazen. Say we are running. The action of running and the person running is one thing. What can zazen be unless it is this person? This person is zazen itself. And what is zazen unless it is this person sitting? Zazen and the person sitting really is one thing. There is no separation. But when we explain it, we have to say I am "doing" zazen. In that case, there's a concept of we and a concept of action-zazen or sitting. But in actuality, there's no action without this person and no person without this action.
Our zazen is based on the essential philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism-that is, emptiness. Emptiness means no self and no other. Everything is connected as one thing. All beings are connected to each other. All beings interpenetrate each other. There's no separation between subject and object, particularly in our zazen. The subject is this person, and the object is also this person.
We practice zazen with this body and mind, but we can't practice zazen if we don't think about sitting. We are here because we want to sit, and we think sitting is good. I came from Minnesota to sit together with you, and the reason why I'm here is I think zazen is good for me to practice. Without thinking we can't take any action, but once we make up our mind we should do our action with moment by moment awareness.
There is a Zen expression: "Break through the bottom of the bucket." In zazen, the bottom of our thinking drops out. It's like a ladle of water running through a strainer. We have to break through the bottom of the bucket, and yet, according to Uchiyama Roshi, zazen is not a method to break through to anything. Usually we think it is. We practice in order to attain a certain stage of mind that is free from thinking. If our zazen is a means to break through the bottom of the bucket, then there's a target. That's the problem. That is a common idea in Zen-we have to break through our thinking, and our zazen is a method to do it. If we practice in that way, already there is a target and the basis of our practice is hitting that target-that is to break through our thinking. That is a contradiction. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction, in the correct posture, not thinking and not sleeping.
There's no target, no way we can judge whether we are doing good zazen, there is no way we can make sure if this practice is good for us or not. This is a basic contradiction in our zazen. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction. That is our practice. Although we aim, we can never perceive hitting the mark. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction that is absolutely ridiculous when we think about it with our small minds.
Sawaki Roshi is my teacher's teacher. One of his most famous sayings is "Zazen is good for nothing." It's difficult to sell something that is good for nothing. It's like selling you the air. When we practice this kind of zazen and just sit, how unsatisfied or completely lost we may feel. Our zazen is not an easy thing.
There are many different traditions in Buddhism. The Theravada tradition in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. The Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and the Vajrayana Tradition in Tibet. Each school has its own approach to meditation, and what it means to practice meditation. In Buddhism, skillful means are important. Those different paths are considered to be skillful means to encourage people not to stop practice. Teachers and teachings show a kind of a goal that encourages practice, and when a student reaches that stage, the teacher shows the next goal. That's the way a student practices with encouragement. That's the meaning of stages in Buddhist practice, but Dogen Zenji says our practice is very unique. He doesn't use this kind of skillful means.
If a person is just thrown in the ocean without knowing how to swim, there is no step-by-step instruction. In the midst of the ocean of the Dharma, we have to learn how to swim by ourselves. We have serious problems in each moment when we practice in this way. We always have to be questioning. We always have to inquire about what we are doing, and whether our practice is heading in the right direction or not.
In our practice, the function of the teacher is different from the Rinzai school. In Rinzai, teacher and student sit facing each other and the teacher gives a question, and the student answers. In our practice, the teacher doesn't face the student. Uchiyama Roshi says, "I never face my students and watch them, but I am facing Buddha." And we face Buddha as well. As a practitioner, we have to walk with our own two feet in the same direction our teacher is walking.
In our practice there's no goal, no target to hit. We don't feel safe. But Uchiyama Roshi says this is the most important and wonderful part of our practice. When we are confused, and insecure, that is the best thing: "This small foolish self easily becomes satisfied or complacent. We need to see complacency for what it is-just a continuation of the thoughts of our foolish self." If we feel satisfied, we should question whether we are doing the right thing or not. When we are doing things based on my thinking, my desire, and even if our desire is desire to be enlightened, to be free from our egocentricity, from ourselves, there's a basic contradiction. This desire or aspiration which makes us practice is in a sense an obstruction in our practice. The goal of Buddhist practice is to be free from ego. Our desire to be free from ego comes out of ego. That is a problem. How we can go beyond this desire even to become Buddha?
This is really an essential point in our practice. Dogen Zenji said we should give up even the aspiration to become Buddha in our zazen. And this is the meaning of just sitting. When we practice in this way, just aiming at and letting go even of the aspiration to be enlightened, then Buddhahood is there. When we are actually doing that letting go, then Buddha nature is truly revealed. When we give up our gaining mind, then our true life force arises and is actualized.
He concludes by saying: "It is precisely at the point where our small foolish self remains unsatisfied, or completely bewildered, that the immeasurable natural life beyond the thought of that self functions. It is precisely at the point where we become completely lost that life operates and the power of Buddha is actualized."
This is a really important point. Keep this in your mind, when you practice or whenever you read Buddhist texts. Then you will find out what this means. And please don't think about this when you sit.
(Talk given by Shohaku Okumura at the Stillpoint Zen Center in Pittsburgh. Okumura Roshi is the teacher at the Sanshin Zen Community.)