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Three Ways to See Zazen

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/18/2004
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Everyday Zen

Sometimes when I get far afield with my practice, as I can too easily do, I have to bring myself back. I am doing a million things – there is poetry, my family, household chores; I am reading the bible, or science- it is all very interesting. But then I have to stop myself and ask, what am I doing? Where is my anchor, my home? What’s my basic commitment?Sometimes when I get far afield with my practice, as I can too easily do, I have to bring myself back. I am doing a million things – there is poetry, my family, household chores; I am reading the bible, or science- it is all very interesting. But then I have to stop myself and ask, what am I doing? Where is my anchor, my home? What’s my basic commitment? How does all this fit together? I have to be my own boss, my own good teacher. And then I remind myself: there is zazen. Zazen is the anchor, my home, my hearth, the warm fire that keeps my life on its right course.

These days I have a good spot for doing zazen, a little room upstairs in our house with a zazen platform and a cushion. I have an altar in three tiers. On the top I have a small statue of Shakyamuni making the earth-touching mudra. He is sitting on a beautiful small altar made for me by the sangha at San Quentin that Lee de Barros leads. On the next tier stands a beautiful wooden Kuan Yin statue that my dear friend and teacher Phil Whalen gave me. Below that is a Japanese Vairochana Buddha on a throne, a lacquer piece that Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi gave to me. I get out of bed in the morning, light some incense for all these luminaries, who carry with them so much memory and friendship and support, and then I sit down. It’s quiet and dark and I simply sit there, breathing in the semi darkness, with just a candle burning. These days it takes dawn a long time to come but eventually it does. My sitting seems timeless and it is wonderful. I wake up very happy to do it. It keeps me honest all day long.

Dogen wrote somewhere, “The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It has nothing to do with sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. It is the dharma gate of repose and bliss.” I appreciate that saying. Our zazen is not something we are supposed to do, not something we do because it does something for our lives, it’s not a skill, a technique- and really it can’t be defined or limited to what we think we are doing before dawn in our little room upstairs. Yet, at the same time, we can’t fool ourselves. We do sit down, as we have been sitting down all day today, and it is very important that we do so, and do so regularly, and live our lives in such a way- and if we sit, we will live our lives in such a way – that the sitting can always perfume our lives, pervade them, influence them in some way, we can’t really say how. But it happens. We all know that it happens.

It’s odd that zazen is something very simple and concrete that we do- we simply do it, we sit down this way, we breathe, we pay attention – and yet we seem to talk about it so much! Really what is there to say? But we say a lot. I do not think this is because there is so much theory to sitting. I think it’s because there is already so much theory in our minds. We have to talk to ourselves about zazen not so we can understand zazen but so that we can offer resistance to our natural inclination to understand it- and therefore to make it something small and manageable. When we make our zazen small and manageable and routine then we don’t want to do it so much. This is why we keep talking about zazen, endlessly, in so many ways. To defamiliarize ourselves from it. To remind ourselves that we don’t know what it is, and that’s why we are doing it. We don’t know what our lives are either- and that’s what makes them important.

In this spirit today I want to offer a few ways of looking at our zazen practice. Zazen as return, zazen as waiting, zazen as listening.

Our practice is shikantaza- just sitting. Just being present with body and breath- and with whatever is going on in our sitting. This is a tricky practice because it is so wide and so permissive. What’s the difference between just sitting and just sitting around? Between zazen, in other words, and just sitting around spinning our wheels? Well no difference at all- and all the difference in the world. The main point of Dogen’s teaching, and what makes him so wonderful, and Suzuki Roshi so wonderful, because Suzuki Roshi is a disciple of Dogen – is that he sees no real distinction between practice and awakening. Seeing self, time, and religious cultivation conventionally we would say something like this: I am an imperfect unrealized being, and I would like to improve, even perfect myself. So I will practice zazen and as time goes by I will become better. But Dogen is at pains to show us that this way of looking at practice fails to appreciate what self really is, and what time and religious cultivation really are.

Self is immense and ineffable. Time is not sequential. Religious cultivation is not an acquisitive practice in a relative realm but is rather an expression of enlightenment itself. So we sit not to achieve something over time but to immerse ourselves in the activity of our sitting, in the true immensity of our self, the true shape of time. Practice does not lead us along a linear path to realization. Practice is, moment by moment, the whole of that realization, whether we know it or not. I remember once in the dokusan room Aitken Roshi expressed this point to me. He held up his kotsu (small wooden Zen master staff) and made motions of slicing it into pieces with his finger. “Wherever you cut it,” he said, “It is pure gold inside. At the beginning as well as at the end.” So yes our practice has a beginning a middle and an end. From the outside it is that way. But at every stage it is the same- pure gold inside.

This is what I mean by return. When we practice zazen we are not going someplace, not voyaging outward. Neither are we going inward, deeper and deeper inward. We are just returning home, returning to our own place, the place we came from, go to, are now, and will never leave. Yes zazen takes effort- it might be difficult. We do make effort, it is necessary that we do. But the effort is the effort to return. To return home. To return to where we are and have always been.

But we have forgotten where we are. We are there anyway- whether we have forgotten or not. But it is painful to forget. When we sit down – even if our mind is wandering- even if we are reviewing the past or planning our day or week – simply by sitting down with faith and sincerity and making the best effort we can make, suffering through our emotional or physical pain if that is what is happening – or enjoying the peacefulness of the breath and the quiet of the universe – if that is what is happening – when we sit down we are always returning to our true home, and we are remembering that we are returning, and this makes a difference to us. Sometimes I say that zazen is something supremely useless. This is true I think. It is useless because whether we do zazen or not we are home. We are already Buddha, as Dogen felt from a very early age. If we are already Buddha, why do we have to do zazen at all? This was Dogen’s question, the question that spurred him on in his own practice. And his answer was we have to do zazen because we have forgotten that we are already home. We’re home anyway. But when we have forgotten we suffer a lot. And those we love will also suffer because we suffer.

Another way to understand- and to experience- zazen is as the practice of waiting. Waiting is now seen as something very bad. We are all so busy, we require that everything goes smoothly, that there are no delays, that we do not have to experience so-called dead time, time waiting in line, or online. So many business are always advertising about how fast and easy it is to access their goods or services. Waiting is frustrating. We tap our feet or drum our fingers against the tabletop. Hurry up! Come on! Lets get on with it. The source of our frustration with waiting is that we are waiting for something. We have action/result in mind, and there should be, we think, as little wasted time as possible between the two.

Zazen is certainly not waiting in this sense. It is waiting in the profound sense of waiting for nothing. Simply waiting. No expectations, nothing that is supposed to happen. No desired result. Just this moment of sheer presence.

Waiting – for what? If “nothing” seems too uninspiring and foreboding perhaps we can say we are waiting for God. This is the title of one of Simone Weil’s books, Waiting for God. That’s how God appears- not by summoning God, or by performing sacrifice, prayer, or something like that, so as to manipulate God, causing God to appear on demand, like a vending machine- put in the quarters and you’ll hear that satisfying clatter and bump. No, God comes when we wait. Just sitting, just being present, with a powerful and alert anticipation, a pregnant, focused, poised-at-the-edge-of-the-abyss awakeness. Hoping for, waiting for- exactly nothing. Plunging into the moment of being alive. Just that, and nothing extra.

A third way- zazen as listening. Living is being in connection with something. With ourselves, with others, with the world around us. There’s no way to live without living in connection. Even alone, far away from everything and everyone- friends appear. The sky. A tree. The sound of the wind. Memory. The face of another looming large. We are all literally born through others and when we die we will join – finally and fully- those others, mixing our very substance, body and mind, with them.

To be in connection is to listen, deeply to listen. To say and do nothing sometimes- just listen. When we do zazen we are listening. We sit with openness. Although we sit in a particular posture and often with focus on the breath in the belly these things are not the essence of what we are doing: they are just a container for it. What we are doing is listening. We are not trying to cut off our thoughts and feelings: we are open to them, listening to them. We sit with open ears, hearing the sounds of the room and outside the room. Not hearing in the usual way- with definition and annoyance or desire – but deeply listening, allowing the sound in, and allowing it to fade away. Listening to the universe, to the heart, to Buddha. And being moved by what we hear. This is also zazen.

Zazen is of course indefinable and inexhaustible. It is our anchor, our touchstone. It is what makes it possible for me- and for us – to range far afield, to be very open with our practice – because we come back to zazen. Zazen keeps us on track. If we really come home, if we really wait, if we really listen, we’ll know when we are getting confused, getting entangled, losing our way, and we’ll say so, and help each other to come back. Because of zazen we don’t have to be rigid with our practice. We can have a lot of confidence and openness and flexibility. Even in a crisis, when we discover all of a sudden that the life we thought we were living is not in fact the life we have been living and we are plunged into a deep and unsettling confusion – even then we will be ok, because zazen will catch us when we fall, and pick us up again, to set us once again upright on our cushions. Even if we are lying down at the time!

® 2004, Norman Fischer