I am often asked how Shikantaza Zazen is different from most other ways of meditation -and other styles of Zazen too...
If one is sitting Zazen with the intent - in any way - to discover some Truth, "get enlightened," experience something special, change one's current life, attain some exotic state of mind or special wisdom, be happier or more peaceful, pierce some mystery or conundrum, solve some problem in life, understand "life and death" or the "meaning of time", taste "oneness", or accomplish some goal or purpose -in any manner, even but one of the foregoing - then that is not true Shikantaza by definition.
I think that one or more of the foregoing applies to most every style of meditation in some way. I think most styles of meditation pay at least lip service to dropping such goals and hopes... but I think that most folks actually continue to hold such accomplishments as the "pay-off" of Zazen in some manner.
In the sitting of Shikantaza, one radically drops (and is dropped from) all thought of discovery -"special" or not "special," attainment, wish for change, opposites of happy/sad peaceful/disturbed, all desire to pierce a mystery, worry of "problems" to resolve, concepts of "life" and "death" or "time", idea of "oneness"... all purpose to accomplish some goal. All of that is dropped... even the thought of a "someone" to do the achieving of some goal, too. All fully discarded, not needed in any way.
Of course, there is a lovely twist, a madness to the method. [Click through to read more and to "sit-a-long" with today's video.]
For in true Shikantaza, living without need to discover some Truth is -- precisely - Truth discovered. The forsaking of all desire for "something special" or to change one's life in some way is- profoundly -- special, working a radical change in life. Giving up all hopes of attaining exotic states of mind or special wisdom manifests clear and illuminating states of mind that are ever flowing with life's changing kaleidoscope... and thus a panoply of the Buddha's Wisdom in many shapes and colors.
By forsaking all need for peace and happiness in one's day-to-day, one finds the happiness of one's day to day just-as-it-is, at home where one stands -- standing everyplace and no place in particular (a "happiness" that does not even require one to feel "happy" all the time! )... and a peace that washes away and holds all reactions to peace or disturbance. (Thus forsaking even the demand on life that it cause us to feel "peaceful." Now, THAT's peaceful!)
Great mysteries are resolved when dropped from mind (like asking about "How many angels on the head of a pin"), problems are not "problems" when we simply stop thinking of them as such. (Even when the "problems" still remain! And that's very important: Zen practice won't cure your cancer, return lost loved ones or even fix a flat tire... but it may change how we react to such things.) Life and death are not "life" and "death" when the human mind stops cutting "life" from "death." (Same for "past" and "future" -- thus deconstructing "time").
Many people run around (and around internet forums!) claiming "enlightenment" because they have tasted, or can access, some feeling of "oneness." The seeker may have even seen for a time visions of "oneness beyond oneness beyond time or place" without even a separate see'r to do the seeing. They may know that that this world of samsara is like a dream. Such folks then proclaim themselves enlightened though they are "playing in the entranceway, still short of the vital path of emancipation." Such persons mistake "oneness" or "oneness beyond beyond" for truly being "at one" with this life of chaos, division, beauty and ugliness, peace and war. The error is that they want this world of samsara to feel like enlightenment -- or want to constantly see the multiplicity through the eyes of "oneness" or "oneness beyond oneness" -- but do not know the non-enlightenment of just allowing samsara to be samsara.
For by allowing samsara to be samsara, all conflicts are resolved, all thoughts and divisions of "how things must be" vanish. Instantly, samsara is not merely samsara... for the chaos, divisions, and weighing of beauty and ugliness vanish too. What presents is a peace which is of "one piece" whether there is peace or war. The infinite complexity of life is one with the infinite complexity of life. Greed, anger, and ignorance dissipate as all tension, division, and need for reward drop away. Merely by letting the world be the world, a better world results.
In that way, the "self" is put out of a job. It loses its functions, is rendered mute. For the normal work of the "self" is desiring, complaining, contrasting and dividing, wishing, regretting, remembering, anticipating, fearing et cetera, et cetera... Simply remove from mind-body all thoughts of desire (via faith in completeness), all complaint at "how things are," contrasts and divisions, wishes, regrets, thoughts of past and future, fear ... and the "self" loses its fire and goes out. POOF!
Then, rising from where we are endlessly sitting, we can return to a world of desires, incompleteness, contrast and divisions, wishes, regrets, past and future, sometime fears. Yet, something is different about difference... we taste the completeness of incompleteness, divisions undivided, wishes without fundamental care of attainment or not attainment... resisted pain that is not "suffering" because we human beings embrace and allow human resistance to the painful state.
One is not "one" with the universe or "enlightened" ... but "at one" with this crazy universe, just-as-it-is. Up down up down ... YIPPEE!
The roller coaster is just us! Then, even thought of "the ride" and "someone riding" is just a convenience.
True Shikantaza... Enlightenment itself.
Today's Sit-A-Long video follows. NOTE: THERE IS NO TALKING DURING TODAY'S SITTING, JUST SITTING. Remember: recording ends soon after the beginning bells; a sitting time of 20 to 35 minutes is recommended.