While other Buddhist traditions include a variety of practices, Soto Zen Buddhism emphasizes shikantaza zazen, or “just sitting,” a seemingly simple meditation that requires tremendous dedication. Descriptions of shikantaza zazen typically include the very basics: Sit upright and stably in the lotus or Burmese postures or, if needed, with a bench or chair. Breathe deeply, but naturally. Follow the breath or sit in open awareness, letting thoughts go without becoming tangled in thought. Be choiceless, avoiding judgements. Keep the eyes open a bit, the tongue on the roof of the mouth, hands in the zazen mudra. Sit for a certain length of time each day. These basic instructions are all right and good.
However, they leave out so much that is vital—the very heart of “just sitting” zazen. The following four aspects are the true power of zazen, yet they are rarely stated clearly in introductions to shikantaza. Their inclusion makes all the difference in the world.
1. Sit Wholeheartedly
First, we sit with a radical, non-demanding self-fulfillment in zazen, unvoiced yet felt deep in the bones. It’s a trust and faith that sitting itself is the fulfillment of sitting, with not one drop lacking, not one thing to add, no other thing to do or place to go in all the universe, apart from this moment of sitting itself. We say that sitting itself is the Buddha sitting, and the whole world is sitting as we sit. Sitting—just as it is—is the flowering of all life. It is the medicine for our endless human need to add, remove, fix, change, do, get somewhere, and attain some reward. Yet this freedom from bottomless desire for reward, attaining, change, and need to arrive somewhere is a grand reward and wondrous change thus attained, in each step true arrival.
2. Accept Your Practice, Good or Bad
Second, zazen is good, even when it’s bad. We let thoughts go, we do not grab on. We step back from stirring up and wallowing in emotions. We also trust, however, that shikantaza is like the weather—sometimes clear and open, sometimes cloudy or downright stormy. Yet, even on stormy or cloudy days, we have deep faith that the sun and sky are still present and shining, seen or unseen. Don’t think that zazen is only “good and right” when it feels good, calm, peaceful, and right. It is “good and right” even on those days when it goes wrong. Then, perhaps, the light will emerge even from within the dark or rainy clouds, which somehow become translucent. The next day, maybe the sky is clear and open without a single cloud again. Then maybe the next day, the weather changes again, but the sky and sun are always present every day. Do not cling to or demand pleasure, calm, bliss, silence, or peace, for they may come and go. Realizing such is true peace shining at the heart of all the world’s noise and calamity—the still point at the center of all coming and going.
3. Don’t Measure
Third, when sitting, radically drop all thought of points, progress, and that “more time is better.” Rather, zazen is always good. There’s nothing to measure and each second of zazen is infinite and timeless. Just let thoughts go, without grabbing on, put aside other judgments, measures, and weighing, and know that zazen is always complete. Although zazen is beyond all measure and time, we still sit each day for a certain time (not a paradox to Zen folks).
4. Go Beyond Your Self
Fourth, learn that one can see through and drop away one’s ego, thoroughly and completely, and experience a reality free of an individual ego, without a separate sense of self. Go beyond all the frictions and fears that a separate self creates between our ears when it bumps into the other seemingly separate selves of the world, or desires something, or fears for its own non-existence. As strange as it sounds, one can experience this so thoroughly and completely even while one retains a human ego for living day to day (also not a paradox for us). For Zen folks, a cup can be totally empty, open and perfectly clear, while also full to the rim with tea, much as the sun shines even during the darkest night. The result is not some nihilistic nothing, not a loss of life, but a wholeness, fullness, and flowing that sweeps in and through all separate things.
We learn to keep balance in the self that remains. We become less of a prisoner of the push and pull of our desires, drives, excess emotions, and destructive thoughts, so that our thoughts are moderate and balanced, like an ox well tamed. We can do all this at once, as one, as if encountering the world through two eyes which, both open, give perspective and clarity. We become a moderated self that picks and chooses, and no-self at once—each infusing and perfuming the other, both seen at once as one, in a new and clear perspective. (Even so, some days, that ox will still get away from us, and life will still knock us out of the saddle, vision cloudy. That’s okay. Dust off, wipe the eyes, grab the reins again, and get back on the ox! Get back on the zafu!)
Zazen is crossing the legs, sitting upright, breathing, and letting thoughts go for some time each day, and yet that alone is neither the beginning nor the end of zazen.
Ride and rider, empty circle and space, not the same and not different, up and down, moving on yet with no place to go … shikantaza.
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