No matter how long you might have been sitting, and some of you have been sitting for a good number of years, it is easy to slip into bad habits. By that I mean we do things that we think are helping with our zazen, but they really aren’t. In a sesshin, it may take four or five days to realize that we are playing games with ourselves.
It was always disappointing for me to discover that. I would come into sesshins and I would earnestly commit myself totally to whatever my practice was at the time. I told myself I wasn’t going to allow myself any mind games. I was going to have no expectations. You can see all the stuff I was doing even before I got to sesshin. So I would sit down and the very effort of not doing anything became an obstacle.
I want to review the physical fundamentals of zazen using some of Dogen Zenji’s instructions. He says, “Set aside all involvements and let the myriad things rest.” Myriad, meaning everything. Noise, all sorts of inner emotional turmoil, physical discomfort, cold, heat: those are the myriad things. As it says, “set aside” all of that. Don’t be entangled with that, let the myriad things rest. But, you say, what does set aside mean? It means don’t stand in opposition to those things.
Dogen says, “To abide in the realm of non-duality.” This is the enlightened state. The delusion that we suffer from, that all human beings suffer from, is the delusion that we’re separate. This is a very important point. What we’re talking about – this world of Oneness – is an actual, existing world. It’s not a theoretical world. It’s not a metaphor. It is a world that you inhabit right now. The discriminating consciousness, the discursive, ego-driven mind, sets up the delusion that “I am separate.”
He says, “To abide in the realm of non-duality, where settling oneself is not other than settling all things.” So, you start with your sitting. Don’t be in opposition to anything. Say you’ve just eaten and your stomach is upset. Your back is in pain. You’ve got a cold. The noises are bothering you. You’re not comfortable. Set aside those involvements. Don’t stand in opposition to them. “Let the myriad things rest.” Simply sit. Don’t reject anything.
You say, “But my mind is in turmoil.” Let it rest. That doesn’t mean trying to force it by an act of will. Simply let it settle, and accept that.
For some of you, this can be a very disappointing thing, because we come to zazen with much higher expectations. We come into the practice of Buddha Dharma to escape from the mundane, miserable existence that some of us experience. It doesn’t mean there aren’t times when we enjoy ourselves. Certainly, we have moments of fun, but they are so few, they are so fleeting. We want to clutch them; we want to hold them. Our grasping to hold the supposed good times also causes us pain, because we see it slipping away.
Dogen says that to actualize zazen, “set aside” all involvements. Do not stand in opposition to anything. Anything. And then “let the myriad things rest.” Let it be as it is.
He goes on to say that “Zazen is not thinking of good, not thinking of bad.” Now how often do you go in to a samu session, after a sitting block and say, “That was a bad sitting.” Good, bad? What makes that determination? Discriminating consciousness. Setting up what you accept against what you reject. It’s really neither good nor bad, it is as it is. If you sit and your breathing is short, erratic, the mind is churning, just accept it. Let it rest. Be in that state of turmoil. That’s all there is. That is what your zazen is at that point. For me, that was depressing, because I didn’t want to accept my mundane life. I didn’t want to accept what appeared to be all the limitations of the world that I existed in. But it’s an absolute necessity that you start there.
Dogen goes on to talk about this: that you have to have faith. Faith is a tremendously important part. Faith that you are, in fact, a fully endowed buddha, not actualized yet, but in the process of actualizing. To begin that process, don’t think of good and don’t think of bad. Your sitting is as it is. How many of us hear that? When the samadhi increases, when you’re feeling very good, you can come in and say, “Yes, I had this wonderful, great sitting. It’s so enlightening. Everything just as it is.” And a bad sitting? We don’t see it. This is a very important point, a critical point. Allowing your zazen to truly settle and the samadhi to deepen by itself.
Dogen says, “It is not conscious endeavor. It is not introspection.” It isn’t that you sit down and intentionally, with forced effort, attain enlightenment. Do not sit down with any expectations. You sit simply to sit. Expect nothing. Give up everything. Give up your hope, your fantasies, and just sit. Let the myriad things rest. As it is. Just do it.
Don’t worry about time, don’t worry about what you could or could not do, just sit. Sit for the sake of sitting. You’re not sitting to save a sentient being, you’re not sitting to attain the Way. He says, “not introspection.” It doesn’t mean to sit and go through visualizations, analyzing, trying to figure it out. You can’t do that! Analysis won’t get it. Sitting trying to visualize something in your mind – there are practices that do that – but that is not the practice of zazen.
Dogen goes on to say, “Do not desire to become a buddha. Let sitting or lying down drop away.” Do not desire to become a buddha. This should be rather obvious. For Dogen, zazen is the actualization of our Buddha Nature. When we truly sit. You’ve heard me say a number of times that the definition of zazen that I like is “no separation.” Isn’t that exactly what Dogen is telling us here? Set aside all involvements. Let the myriad things rest. As they are. With no separation. How it is: that’s how it is. The place, the time, the conditions, are karma – don’t get caught in trying to define these words to see if they have validity. Karma should be a simple thing to understand. Where you’re at: that’s your karma. Conditions produced it. The conditions that produced it spring out of a delusional mind, discriminating consciousness, judging this against that. So if you put that all to rest, not thinking good or bad, not involved in conscious endeavor to become something else, not doing introspection, deep analysis, critical observation, just settling here, then automatically, the conditions change. You’re leaving the world of delusion, the world of separation, of you against the rest of the world. When you put that to rest, you allow everything to rest. And we should see that: if you rest, everything rests, it has to, because this entire mandala is seen through this “I”. When this “I” sees turmoil, it’s all in turmoil. When it rests, it all rests.
So, very straightforward, I simply sit, and let everything rest. I don’t judge it as good or bad. I simply accept things as they are. And it isn’t even acceptance, because that carries with it the feeling of some sort of cognitive activity. It’s just to sit! If I’m following my breath, I follow my breath. It’s very simple. In. Out. In. Out. Nothing else is going on. A thought arises, I let it rest, meaning I don’t pursue it. A thought comes up, it disappears. I don’t know where the thoughts come from. I don’t know where the thoughts go. They are only a problem if I judge them as good or bad. If I do that, I become fascinated by the thought and I want to follow it.
“Simply sit, and let the myriad things rest. Do not desire to become a buddha. Let sitting or lying down drop away.” This sitting that Dogen’s talking about is the very cutting through of discursive thought. How do I do that? You can’t do it by word power. It isn’t a question of attaining; it’s a question of releasing. Releasing all the things that I’m grasping at. Releasing all the things that I’m rejecting. Letting it all rest. Simply sit with great faith and do your practice. Dogen goes on to say, “Body and mind will drop away of themselves.”
He gives more instructions. He says, “Straighten your body and sit erect.” So you do that to the best of your ability. Not in a rigid, military-type posture, but straight. He says, “Don’t lean to the left or to the right. Do not bend forward or backward.” Are you aware of that? Some of you lean way back, like I used to. Sometimes you lean too forward. Watch your posture. To the best of your ability, sit up. Don’t be hunched forward. You’ll close off your chest and restrict your breath. We’re not doing a forced breathing, we’re breathing naturally. So you’ll want to be sitting up. He says to watch your ears, aligning them with your shoulders, your nose aligning with your navel. Lift your body up, relaxed. Harada Roshi and Yasutani Roshi suggested that you rock before you sit. Let the body find its own plumb line. It settles by itself; then hold it. “Rest your tongue against the roof of your mouth and breathe through your nose.” I put emphasis on my exhalation. Release. Release. Let the body fall empty and still.
I had some good teachings along the way. One of the best teachings I got from Roshi was on talking, when I worried about how and when to engage the brain. Roshi said, “Just talk. Don’t you think a buddha knows how to talk?” You can apply that to breathing. Don’t you think a buddha knows how to breathe? Of course you do. Fix the mind’s eye and let breathing occur naturally. Don’t look for anything. You’ll find that the egocentric mind, the discriminating consciousness, becomes agitated. That’s called “monkey mind.” It has to have activity. Don’t try to suppress it; when the mind flutters just let it flutter, and come right back to your sitting. That’s the secret. Don’t stand in opposition to anything. Don’t try to force anything. And don’t carry the expectation that you need to do anything.
Now, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this is an easy thing we’re talking about! In Zen, it’s referred to the “effort of no effort,” and that’s considered to be the most difficult, most rigorous, most strenuous kind of effort. The effort of absolutely not doing anything. What kind of not-doing is this? Not following what’s in your head. Dogen says, “Do what your teacher says.” If the teacher says work on mu, what should you be doing? Mu. Mu. Mu. Mu. Just mu. Nothing else. Just muuuuuuu. Put yourself totally into that mu, so that there is no separation between you and mu. So that you can say, Mu muuus. “Well, but,” you say. Don’t think! Just mu. “Do what the teacher says.” If you’re counting your breath, just count the breath. Don’t think good, don’t think bad. Good and bad are in the realm of dichotomy. Don’t engage in theoretical discourse. And isn’t that what we do, even now? “Does he know what he’s saying? Does this really work? It isn’t working for me.” Well, that’s why! All of the dialogue we engage ourselves in! You come into the dokusan room thinking that you either have it or you don’t have it. Just come in and present yourself.
You really have to see this. You really have to experience it. The way you do it is the way we’re discussing right now. Set aside all involvements and simply let the myriad things rest. And then apply yourself to the practice, with no expectations, no desire to attain something. You are already it! What we are doing, and what we are working on, is allowing that to become manifest, so that it’s not dormant.
You can hear the argument, “Oh, I get it. We’re the manifestation of Buddha Nature. It’s already there. I don’t have to do anything at all. I don’t have to go to Tibet to get it, or run down the street to a special building, it’s all here, just as it is. My own life. Okay, fine, why do anything?” Why? One master went so far to say that if you have not experienced it, it’s nonexistent, meaning that until you bring it out and it’s manifest, it’s nonexistent. You don’t have it. In a certain way, I like that approach. You can go into the mountains around a mine and pick up a rock made of gold ore. I don’t care how you argue the point, gold ore is not a gold ring. It has to go through the smelting process. It has to be heated, forged, pounded, burned, formed, polished. There’s a lot of work that goes into producing a gold ring. You cannot say that the stone holding the raw ore is a gold ring, although all of the properties are there and inherent within it.
If we don’t practice and actualize Buddha Nature, then it’s the same as if it’s not there.
So breathe through your nose, have your lips and your teeth closed. The eyes should be open neither too wide nor too narrow. This is an important point. Are you concentrating or are you daydreaming? Am I up here trying to get a picture in my mind of emptiness? That’s where we stumble. If you close your eyes, you are “in” your mind. Yamada said that samadhi reached with the eyes closed doesn’t work in the marketplace. We have to open our eyes so that our samadhi works on a day-to-day basis. You don’t stare with a fixed gaze on something; you let the eyes go out of focus. There is a place where you’re not even aware whether you’re seeing or not seeing. I think sometimes in koan practice it’s a little easier to close the eyes; but in the main, keep the eyes open.
Dogen says, “Eyes should be neither too wide nor too narrow. Sit solidly in samadhi. Non-thinking is the art of zazen.” Again, don’t try to analyze that statement. It’s appearing right before us, and yet discriminating consciousness can’t make a statement about this most amazing space that you are the living experience of. You can see this in your zazen. You can realize that this space here now is beyond what the discriminating consciousness can define or explain. Non-thinking. It doesn’t mean that we try to suppress the thoughts; thoughts will come up, don’t attend to them.
You hear us talking about a lot of things that you “don’t” do: don’t close the eyes, don’t have them too narrow or too wide; don’t follow your thoughts; don’t suppress them.
Who is this we’re talking about? Who is this that has control? Who is it that doesn’t get caught in thoughts? That’s what you’re to find out. Dogen goes on to say, “Zazen is not learning to do perfect concentration.” It’s simply learning not to do anything. The old masters have said, “When I’m hungry, I eat.” That means nothing else. “When I’m sleepy, I sleep.” Nothing else. When I’m studying, I’m studying. Don’t complicate it at this point. Don’t look for explanations. Don’t set up hypothetical situations to see if you can disprove it. Experience it for yourself.
Perhaps what I’m saying seems redundant. For me, it helps if I remind myself that I don’t have to put myself through a struggle. Zazen shouldn’t be an ordeal. The degree that it is an ordeal is the degree that you’ve set up the dichotomy, the oppositions. What does Dogen say about this? He says, “Zazen is not learning to do perfect concentration. It is the Dharma-gate of great ease and joy.” Zazen shouldn’t be an ordeal, and if you don’t struggle with it, it won’t be.
Of course, many of us do have physical difficulty, and if you do, get a chair and sit in physical comfort. It has been many years since my knee went out, but when it did, I sat in a chair. I used to try and do all that macho stuff, but it doesn’t pay. You end up, at best, enduring the suffering. And if that were adequate, if that is what we were trying to do, wars would produce tremendously enlightened beings. Our zazen should be “the Dharma-gate of great ease and joy.”
If you’re wishing, let the need subside. Be who you are. Each time that little bitty worm comes up saying, “I want this, I want that, Oh my god, I’m bored,” let it be. Go back to your practice. Flow into your practice. Flow out of your practice. Allow it to settle. Allow the myriad things to rest. You do not have to desire to be a buddha. You are not inferior; not one of us is. You’re not lacking one molecule; you are perfect as you are. So turn the light inward, settle into your practice, and use the tools that have been given to us. Follow the breath. And then, you don’t have to accomplish something. You can rest.
If there is not an expectation that you have to be measured up against, if Dogen’s right, if Buddha said the same thing, if all of our people said the same thing, if you are in fact a perfectly endowed buddha, you should rejoice. There’s nothing more for you to do, but let the myriad things rest. Let yourself rest. Automatically, if you will do that, if you will stop the churning, when the mind spins, let it spin, very gently come back to your practice. Follow the breath. Just be the koan. Become the koan. What’s the spirit of the koan? Who are the characters of the koan? Become the setting of the koan. Enjoy it! Roshi told me that koan practice for him was fun. He told me that so many times, and I remember thinking, “Well, I’d like to make it fun but then I’m not being serious.” That was ridiculous! I made it a war zone! I approached each koan with my back to the wall. I dragged myself through it, bloody, whacking my sword, crying out, red-eyed, gasping.
You don’t have to. Make it enjoyable. When you do, the samadhi deepens. And when the samadhi deepens, nobody has to get you to the cushion. You want to be the cushion. No separation. This is simply the easiest way to do it.
The Dharma-gate: the definition Dogen uses is, “the gateless teaching, the gate of Truth.” And that’s what we are. There is nothing standing in opposition to me and the manifest Way. Dogen calls it “practice – enlightenment.” They can’t be separated. When you sit in this way, with no separation, you are a manifest buddha. Undefiled. A manifest buddha. The minute you go into the discriminating consciousness and try to judge if it’s good or bad, right or wrong, you’ll take it away from yourself. You can be stubborn for a long time, hold rigidly to your fixed notions, and if you’re lived long enough to watch people grow old, does that pay any dividends? No, it doesn’t.
So why not come in the other direction? No one’s asking anything of you. It’s just you, on your cushion. Have faith in the Way. And then settle into this samadhi. Let everything rest. No matter how crummy you think your sitting is, don’t judge it. Just go to your practice. And I promise you, the moment you really do that, you will turn every sitting period into a good sitting, and I don’t care what the conditions are. It’s literally true.
Given on Nov. 27, 1997 at the Hazy Moon Zen Center.