Skip to main content

Zazen – All Day Sitting February 2014

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 02/23/2014
In Topics: Uncategorized

Norman gives a talk on Zazen to the All Day Sitting at the Headlands Institute. Due to technical difficulty the beginning of the talk did not tape.

By Zoketsu Norman
Edited and abridged by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

Learning how to trust our life is our practice. This is what we are all trying to grow into.

The way that we do that is by tuning our body and mind, like the way you would tune a musical instrument. You don’t think through how you do that. You do it by feel, and you do it by sound. You can learn how to do it, but it is not a conceptual learning. You practice it. You experiment: you tighten the strings just so much, not too tight, not too loose. Then you pluck one of the strings, and you see what that sounds like. If it doesn’t sound right, you adjust it again a little bit. Maybe in the beginning you don’t have such a good ear. It is hard to tell a right note from a wrong note, but you keep adjusting, and you try to listen with more concentration. Little by little, you can hear the note: Yes, yes. That must have been the right note. No, no! That was a sour note. So you find out by feel: This is the rhythm. This is the flow. This is the tone. This is the tune.

It is really important to keep a continuity of practice. Not to press too hard, making a big, heroic effort, which then causes you to take a giant break that might last for decades. Or maybe taking zazen for granted. Maybe going through the motions without really trying at all. Or we might say, Maybe I will sit once in a while. I am committed to the community. I want to be with the community, so I’ll sit once in a while with the community. And that’s it. We don’t really see what zazen can be. You don’t really take it up.

Actually, zazen is a serious and disciplined practice. It takes effort. It takes commitment. I think, for myself, it is actually quite fun. The essence of zazen is, as Dogen says, “The dharma gate of repose and bliss.” It is essentially something quite wonderful and pleasurable, because to be quiet is good. We need quiet to be peaceful. It is a pleasure.
So zazen is a pleasure. There is some playfulness, some creativity. You sit, and you never know what will happen next. You never know. But it is serious. You have to show up. Sometimes you show up even when it isn’t fun, even when you don’t like it, even when it doesn’t seem like such a great thing, because it is that serious. You need to make some effort, sometimes inconvenient effort. You can’t fool around too much. You have to stay on the beam of your practice.
There are no breaks in life until the end. Then there is a big break, but between birth and death there are no breaks. And there are no breaks in zazen. Every minute we are always alive, and that means that every minute we are always practicing. Every minute is a minute of body and mind. Every minute we are being asked to respond to life’s call.

So when we are sitting on our cushions that means that we come back to our breath. We stop. We pay attention to the body. We are not there to spin thoughts round and round and round. When thoughts come, we pay attention to them: Whose thought is it? Where are they coming from, these persistent thoughts? Where are they going? What world are we making for ourselves with these thoughts? We aren’t trying to have answers to these questions. Our practice is not about answers. We are not trying to solve anything. The point is not simply to take our thinking for granted, as though it were really true, as though it really belonged to us. Your thinking doesn’t belong to you. You didn’t invent it. You should be extremely doubtful. Where does your thinking come from? It comes from your language, your family, your culture – the deep, endless, painful, human past. What you think is shared by everyone; nothing is not shared. When you think that your thinking is yours,you suffer more than you need to.

In zazen, simply by sitting, simply by returning our awareness to the body, to the breath, we are questioning our thinking. We are creating a new context for our thinking. We are creating space within and around our thinking. We don’t take it at face value. We don’t just assume it. We don’t just assume that it is real and true. We just experience it. That’s how we learn how to let go. We use our body; we use our breath. Little by little, we begin to tune our body and our mind to our real self, to the real dharma, not to our confusion and our smallness.

When the Buddha went forth from his home to seek the dharma, he was a young man, a privileged, young man. He didn’t have much suffering. In fact, he had an exceptionally blessed life. Everybody loved him; everybody admired him. His family and community doted on him. When he left home to go into the homeless life, it was a huge blow to his family and community. When his driver, Chandra, came back to the community with a horse and no rider, the whole community that was happy and humming with promise, all of a sudden ground to a halt and was overcome with grief. He was like the sun in the sky for them. Why would such a promising young person “with his whole life ahead of him,” as we say, do such a crazy thing?

The Buddha had seen suffering in the faces of people. He saw people bent over and despondent with age and sickness. He saw the strange and disturbing spectacle of death. He realized that there was no way out. There was no security possible except in complacency and denial, and this he saw as an illusion. For this promising young man, it became absolutely impossible to go on with life as he knew it.

I can relate to this. When I was a young boy, I also could feel the suffering. Good parents always try to hide the suffering from their children, just like Buddha’s parents did, and my parents were no exception. But children always know. It would be nice if you could fool children, but you can’t do it. I was born at the end of World War II, right when it was over, just when the soldiers were coming home, with all the suffering that they could not talk about. My father was a soldier, and the fathers of my friends and relatives had been soldiers. As a Jewish little boy, I could actually feel the terror and the grief of Hitler, even though nobody told me about it. They didn’t need to tell me about it. Maybe it would have been better if they had told me, but they thought it was better to forget about it, not dwell on it, just move on.

Anyway, life goes forward, right? There is nothing else to do but go forward. That’s what everybody tried to do. I also knew about death in my own family. From a young age, I saw how difficult death was and how confusing it was, and how it left everyone feeling frightened and numb. You do suffer when there is suffering around you, even if you yourself are very fortunate, as the Buddha was, and as I was. The suffering is not far away. You don’t read about it in a book. It is right there in your own body.

You do what everybody does: you try to forget about it, you try to move on, you try to change the subject, think about something more salient, more profitable for life, and you can do that pretty well. Some people can do this 100% and be just fine. But even if you can do that, nobody escapes from life and time and what life and time will bring.
Whatever suffering arises in your own personal life has roots in all of human life. Those of us who are older may realize with a shock that even though we have been trying all this time, we have been unsuccessful in escaping our parents. Have you noticed this? Our parents have been dead for 25 or 30 years, and they are still yakking at us. Psychologists did a study with older people 85 and older. What do people 85 and older think about? What is their number one topic of conversation? Their parents. Maybe if you are younger, you may believe that there is still hope for you, and you could escape your parents. Well, best of luck! There are no rules, so possibly you can do it.

It’s not that I am saying that one’s parents are always a bad influence. There are all kinds of parents – good ones, bad ones. All parents are probably good and bad. It’s not our parents that are the problem. The problem is that there is a past at all. It is not only your parents; it is the whole of the past, all that has happened. And it doesn’t go away! The past doesn’t go away. You can never escape your past. It etches itself into your soul. It runs grooves in your brain. Maybe you think that you had a bad time of it with bad circumstances. A lot of us have been through hell. In the end, everybody has had a bad time of it. We have all been shocked – shocked – to live the life we have lived. The problem is, in the middle of this disaster, how do you find something true and real? How do you find feet to stand on the earth?

What I am saying is that, just like the Buddha found out, we all have suffering. The suffering that we have is not just the suffering of what has happened to us. It is about all of us, the whole human family: our fear of death, our fear of the unknown, all the ways we have disrespected and hurt and oppressed each other over the long generations. It’s a sad and horrible story, but if you look at it long enough, you also see it is moving and beautiful.

When you tune your body and mind and heart in zazen, you feel all the pain and all the beauty. When you feel it like that, it makes a huge difference in your living. This is what we are doing on our cushions. We are not practicing zazen to become good meditators. We are not practicing zazen to make us calm, to cure our psychological ills, or to help us understand Zen stories. We do not practice zazen so that we can understand our life. We practice zazen so that we can feel in our whole body, in our whole mind, and in our whole heart, the depths of the human adventure. To have the trust and willingness to accept it and live it – all of it – with appreciation and with one another.

As you all know, our particular tradition emphasizes steady and constant practice. Not intensity for one week or one month or one day, but constant practice every single day over a lifetime. Sitting every day. Sitting once a month with the community. Sitting sesshin every year, and especially letting the sitting practice, letting our zazen, pervade our mind and our heart and our whole point of view. When we practice zazen, not as an occasional, beneficial activity, or even as a religious practice, but as a whole and thorough way of life, we will come to feel different about absolutely everything. This difference may be subtle. It may take years to develop, to ripen, but the difference is absolutely unmistakable. It does not solve our life’s problems. It does not make us special in any way, but it does situate us fully and completely in this human world – to live it and to love it.

I love how in Tibetan Buddhism they always say that everybody likes to be happy. Everybody wants to be happy. Human beings are all alike and all equal in wanting to be happy. They say that, but I don’t entirely buy it. I don’t think that everybody necessarily wants to be happy. I think the Tibetans are very nice people and have not had enough experience of neurotic westerners to know that there are some people who really don’t want to be happy. I don’t want to be happy! I don’t give a damn about what anybody says! I’m not going to give them the satisfaction. I will be miserable my whole life! So I don’t know if everybody actually wants to be happy, but a lot of people do. I do. I would rather be happy. And maybe you do too.

I do think that our path is the path of happiness. It essentially is a path of happiness. If we are going to be really honest about that, we are going to say, in the same breath, The path of happiness goes through suffering. That’s how you get to the happiness. It is the only way. It is the only road that goes there, through the suffering. But the road gets you where you need to go. The truest happiness is compassion, caring for our own suffering and the suffering of others. To feel the suffering of others in our own suffering, equally, always together, and to feel it with love, with tenderness, even if we cannot change a thing – that’s happiness.

It is important for us to know that someone can feel and see and understand our suffering. No wall can ever be built tall enough or thick enough to shut out suffering. To build such walls inside us and outside us, and to maintain such walls for a lifetime, is painful. But to live with trust, on an open plain, under a blue sky, without fear, amazed and grateful for everything that you experience, is the promise of our practice. This is our aspiration.

Download file

Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.