Yaoshanís Non-Thinking

Dharma Discourse by Abbot John Daido Loori

Master Dogen's 300 Koan Shobogenzo,* Case 129

Featured in Mountain Record 18.4, Summer 2000


 The Main Case

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation 1 a monk asked, 2
ďWhat do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?Ē 3
Yaoshan said, ďI think not thinking.Ē 4
The monk said, ďHow do you think not thinking?Ē 5
Yaoshan said, ďNon-thinking.Ē 6
[View Footnotes]

The Commentary

Abide in neither thinking nor not thinking. Thinking is linear and sequential, a separation from the reality that is the subject of thought, and thus is an abstraction rather than the reality itself. Not thinking is suppressive. It cuts away thoughts the moment they arise, making the mind into a great impenetrable mountain ó dead, unresponsive. Non-thinking has no such edges. It is the boundless mind of samadhi that neither holds on to, nor lets go of, thoughts. It is the manifestation of the buddha mind in which the dualism of self and other, thinking and not thinking dissolve. This is the dharma of thusness that is the right thought of all the buddhas in the ten directions.

The Capping Verse

When the dharma wheel turns
it always goes in both directions.
The still point is its hub, and from here,
all of our myriad activities emerge.
Rather than give solace to the body,
give solace to the mind.
When both body and mind are at peace,
all things appear as they are:
perfect, complete, lacking nothing.

The Footnotes

1. What is he doing? Even Kasho Buddha didnít attain it with hundreds of kalpas of zazen.
2. Why doesnít he leave the old man alone?
3. Huh? What are you thinking, venerable monk, in asking such a question?
4. Heís much too kind. It really canít be explained; heís just setting the monk to thinking.
5. Now theyíre both in the same hole. Just shut up and sit
6. How kind. But say, what does it mean?

[Return to Main Case]

Footnote: *300 Koan Shobogenzo is a collection of koans gathered by Master Dogen during his study in China. The koans from this collection, often called the Chinese Shobogenzo, appear extensively in the essays of Dogenís Japanese Shobogenzo. These koans have not been available in English translation but are currently being translated and prepared for publication by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Abbot John Daido Loori. Abbot Loori has added a commentary, capping verse, and footnotes to each koan.


There are many kinds of meditation, and in Buddhism different schools use various forms to develop concentration and insight: the breath, visual images, sounds, or gestures. In Zen Buddhism, the form we use to see directly into the nature of the self is zazen, sitting meditation.

Here at Zen Mountain Monastery we engage two methods of zazen: koan study and shikantaza. Koan introspection is a directed and focused kind of meditation. In it students use joriki, the power of concentration developed in zazen, to penetrate the koan which is the object of attention during meditation. Shikantaza ó just sitting ó is less pointed than koan study. It is zazen based fundamentally on faith ó faith in the Buddhaís enlightenment, faith in oneís own buddha nature, faith in the process of practice itself. Most students in the Soto lineage of Zen sit shikantaza. Though the process is different, both forms address the same thing: the study and realization of the true nature of the self.

The Japanese word "Zen" ó which derives from the Sanskrit "dhyana" ó means meditation, and yet, itís remarkable that in all the literature on Zen, there is very little about how to actually do zazen. I remember when I first started sitting I couldnít find any specific instructions. Everybody talked about how wonderful zazen was and how important it was, and how everybody should do it, but there was very little to be found on how to actually do it.

Among those masters who did write about shikantaza, the first one to focus on it in his writings was the twelfth century Chinese master Hongzhi, author of Cultivating the Empty Field. In the thirteenth century, Zen Master Dogen used much of Hongzhiís beautiful poetic descriptions of silent illumination ó as he called shikantaza ó to elaborate on this form of sitting. Unfortunately, for many years after that shikantaza became identified exclusively with the Soto school, while koans were thought to be used only by those in the Rinzai school of Zen. This simplistic view, however, can be easily refuted by the fact that Hongzhi was also the compiler of the Book of Equanimity, a collection of one hundred koans used for training in the Soto lineage, while Dogen himself collected three hundred koans in his Chinese Shobogenzo. His successor, Keizan Zenji, not only wrote the Zazen Yojinki, a manual for zazen, but also put together the Transmission of the Light, a volume of koans based on the enlightenment experiences of teachers in the Soto lineage. Furthermore, after a student finishes koan study, they then take up the practice of shikantaza. So it is obvious that practitioners in either one of these schools make use of both sitting techniques during the course of their training.

Whether students are working with koans or the silent illumination that Hongzhi wrote about, the ultimate purpose of both is realization, but that realization canít be separated from our own inherent being, our immediate moment-to-moment awareness. As Dogen points out over and over again, practice and enlightenment are one reality. On one hand, koans harness doubt so we can smash through our conditioned way of thinking. On the other hand, shikantaza is based on our own faith that practice and enlightenment are one. Koans can be seen and passed through, but shikantaza cannot be gauged by any standard. Students who do shikantaza and ask, "Where am I? How far am I from realization?" miss the vital point of shikantaza. In a sangha like ours where some people work on shikantaza and others sit with koans, people inevitably compare themselves with others. For students working on koans, breakthrough is pivotal. I need to speak about kensho to let them know that itís possible; to encourage them. But when I mention breakthrough, all the shikantaza people say, "When am I going to see it?" Shikantaza canít be measured the same way, but this doesnít mean that one technique is better than the other.

As with anything else, both approaches have their shortcomings. Koan practitioners get stuck with results and accomplishments. Passing koans becomes some sort of race, and the process is forgotten. In shikantaza it is very easy for students to get lulled into a state of complacency, believing that "Since Iím already enlightened, I donít have to do anything." People who think this end up sitting with no awareness and no effort, never appreciating what no-effort in shikantaza really is. What is the effort of no-effort?

When I was a kid, Charles Atlas came up with a form of exercising and body building which he called "dynamic tension." His advertisements showed him beating up bullies on a beach. He was a skinny weakling who, through this method of working out, developed an impressive physique, and a world-wide following. Interestingly, the method did not depend on the use of weights. It simply relied on generating and maintaining effort against effort, muscle group against muscle group ó just resisting yourself. Evidently it worked, and it developed a unique kind of body type. It wasnít a bulky form with huge muscles, but a nicely toned body with remarkable strength.

When youíre doing shikantaza you donít try to focus on anything specifically, or to make thoughts go away. You simply allow everything to be just the way it is. Thoughts come, thoughts go, and you simply watch them, you keep your awareness on them. It takes a lot of energy and persistence to sit shikantaza, to not get caught up in daydreaming. But little by little, thoughts begin to slow down, and finally they cease to arise. When the thought disappears, the thinker disappears. This is the samadhi of falling away of body and mind.

Whether we work on the breath, with a koan, or shikantaza, zazen eventually leads to samadhi. The first indication is usually an off-sensation of the body. This happens most frequently during sesshin because of the long periods of sitting. When you sit for a while without moving the body, it stops receiving information about its edges through the senses, such as the friction of your clothing, or an itch on your leg. So, although you know the body is there you donít feel it. Some people get frightened at this point and involuntarily their body twitches and defines its edges. Then they slowly move to that place again, and gradually they learn to trust it and they begin to go a little bit further each time. Next comes the off-sensation of the mind. The mind is dependent upon thoughts, but when the thoughts disappear the mind disappears, the self disappears. That constant reflex action that says, "Iím here, Iím here, Iím here" is the ego manifesting itself. This is when we realize that we are constantly re-creating ourselves.

Sometimes during sitting people have what we call makyo: a vision or hallucination. Other times itís smells or sounds. Students often think this means theyíre enlightened ó particularly if the image is related to Zen, like the Buddha sitting on a golden lotus ó and they immediately run off to dokusan to get it confirmed. The teacher will usually listen and then say something like, "Maybe youíre not sitting straight. Sit straight. Donít worry, it will go away." It doesnít matter whether we attach to a regular thought, or to the thought of enlightenment. Whatever it is, it is still attachment.

Thereís a famous koan of an ancient master who was a hermit. He had been practicing many, many years, living isolated in the mountains. One day he was cooking soup and in the steam Manjusri Bodhisattva appeared and in his deep, resonant voice proclaimed the Dharma to him. The old hermit immediately picked up the ladle and started beating him with it. "Get out of here!" he said. "Get out of here!" In other words, donít put another head on top of the one you already have. Anything that we hold on to along the way ó anything ó is a dead end, because the minute we attach we create two things: the "attachee" and the "attachor." That is not the intimacy of samadhi; it is not the intimacy of shikantaza.

One of Dogenís fascicles concerned with shikantaza is titled "Zazenshin." It is usually translated as "Admonishments for Zazen" but Carl Bielefeldt translated it as "Lancet of Seated Meditation", which is a beautiful image for shikantaza. A lancet is a scalpel: a precise, very sharp surgical instrument thatís used to cut away all the extra. Thatís what happens in shikantaza. We cut away all the stuff that we hold on to. Thoughts continuously arise but our attention dissolves them.

In his fascicle called "Learning Through the Body and Mind" Dogen says, "The stage of non-thinking is beyond egocentric cognition. If you reach the state of non-thinking you will realize the true luminous nature of mind. Non-thinking must become the eye through which you view phenomena. The activity of every buddha is based on non-thinking." So what is this non-thinking? In "The Thirty-seven Conditions Favorable to Enlightenment" Dogen quotes: "An ancient buddha (Yaoshan) said, ĎThink non-thinking. How? By using non-thinking.í This is right thought; sitting until the cushion is worn away is also right thought." He very clearly distinguishes non-thinking from not thinking. So what is Dogen referring to when he talks about right thought?

In this koan it says, When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation. Yaoshan was a successor of Shitou and the teacher of Yunyan, who in turn was the teacher of Dongshan, one of the founders of the Soto school. Yaoshanís practice of sitting in steadfast composure is the tradition of Buddhism correctly transmitted to him down through thirty-six generations beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha. But what does it mean to sit in steadfast composure?

I added some footnotes to clarify the koan. The first line says What is he doing? Even Kasho Buddha didnít attain it with hundreds of kalpas of zazen. And the next line says, A monk asked and the footnote says, Why doesnít he leave the old man alone? "What do you think about sitting in steadfast composure?" The footnote says, Huh? What are you thinking, venerable monk, in asking such a question? The next line says, Yaoshan said, "I think not thinking." Footnote says, Heís much too kind. It really canít be explained, heís just setting the monk to thinking. Thatís what happens with koans. Students read the question and when they donít immediately understand it, they begin to think about it because thatís the way weíve all been taught to solve problems. Thatís the way weíve earned our little gold stars in elementary school and our Aís in college ó through good old, linear, sequential thought. But thinking doesnít help in seeing a koan. A whole other aspect of consciousness needs to open up. We need to exhaust that process of linear thinking, and when the mind finally stops functioning, out of the blue the realization of the koan appears. It is like a quantum leap. Itís a very different way of using the mind. It is non-thinking that is neither intellectual nor based on the subconscious.

In the next line the monk asks, "How do you think not thinking?" Footnote says, Now theyíre both in the same hole. Just shut up and sit. Thatís ultimately what youíre going to be left with ó just sitting. There is no handbook that tells you how to go beyond thinking and not thinking. You just have to sit, and itís through the process of sitting that you will realize Yaoshanís non-thinking. The next line says, Yaoshan said, "Non-thinking." The footnote says, How kind. But say, what does it mean? Indeed, what does it mean?

In the commentary it says Abide in neither thinking nor not thinking. Thinking is one side. Itís linear, sequential. On the other side you have not thinking, which is blank consciousness. We call this state "eyes staring out of the coffin" or "making a living in a ghost cave" or "being stuck on top of the mountain." Dogenís Zen and Yaoshanís Zen and the Zen of the great masters wasnít about leaving the world; it was about manifesting the Dharma in our everyday activities. Thinking falls on one side, not thinking falls on the other side. How do we leap clear of these two extremes? Yaoshan says, by non-thinking. Non-thinking has no such edges. Itís the boundless mind of samadhi that neither holds on to, nor lets go of, thoughts. But this doesnít mean suppressing thoughts, either.

In my years of practice Iíve seen a lot of western students trying to forcibly quiet the mind by making it a big barrier that keeps things out. Iíve run into students who have been working on Mu for ten or more years who are like boiler factories about ready to explode because theyíve been suppressing stuff that needs to come up and be let go of. Thereís no way that youíre going to see Mu if youíre suppressing or holding on to anything. The mind must truly be emptied out before you can be Mu. When the mind is finally empty, all the dualistic ways of looking at things disappear: thinking, not thinking; holding on, letting go; being, non-being; existence, non-existence. All gone. This is the Dharma of the Middle Way; itís the practice of just sitting.

I remember when I went to my very first dokusan with Soen Nakagawa Roshi and I said to him, "Please teach me." He said, "Have you sat before?" I said, "No." I had actually been sitting for a number of years but I wanted to get his instruction as a total beginner. I was doing a mixture of all kinds of things. I had no idea what meditation was really about. He said to me, "Put your mind in the hara." And he took his long stick, the kyosaku, and poked me in the hara at a spot two inches below the navel. Then he said, "Put your mind in the hara and chant." He had a deep, guttural, beautiful chanting voice. He went first, "Namu dai bosa. Do you understand?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Now you do it." And in a squeaky voice I said, "Namu dai bosa." He said, "No, no, no. Hara." Poked again. "Namu dai bosa." I chanted, "Namu dai bosa." He said, "Ah, good enough. Day and night, Namu dai bosa" and he rang the bell. I took it literally and chanted namu dai bosa day and night. I would wake up in the morning, go to sleep: namu dai bosa. In the beginning I had no idea what it meant to put your mind in the hara, but I worked on it. Years of sitting went by and then it began: a feeling of warmth in a spot two inches below the navel, a feeling of buoyancy. Thatís when my sitting began to change. It went much, much deeper. I began to recognize from my own experience that the hara was the spiritual center of the body, and later I found proof of it being the physical center as well.

Recently I read a very interesting article in the New York Times with the headline: "Complex and Hidden Brain in the Gut Makes Stomach Aches and Butterflies." It said, "The gut has a mind of its own ó the enteric nervous system ó just like the larger brain in the head," researchers say. "This system sends and receives impulses, records experiences, responds to emotions; its nerve cells are influenced by the same neurotransmitter. The gut can upset the brain just as the brain can upset the gut." They said, "Itís considered a single entity; itís a network of neurons, neurotransmitter and proteins that zap messages between neuron support cells like those found in the brain. The brain proper and complex circuitry enables it to act independently, learn, remember, and as the saying goes, Ďproduce gut feelings.í The brain and the gut play a major role in human happiness and misery. But few people know that it exists." Included in the article they had a picture of the gut, and lo and behold! It was the hara. Yet you donít need scientific proof to experience the fact that by simply putting your attention in the hara your body becomes settled and your mind quiets down.

The capping verse: When the dharma wheel turns it always goes in both directions. The still point is its hub, and from here, all of our myriad activities emerge. The turning of the dharma wheel in both directions simultaneously is the merging of the differences: good/bad, thinking/not thinking, up/down, self/other, on the mountain/in the world, monk practice/lay practice and on and on. Our minds are dualistic and our tendency is always to look at things in terms of that dualism. In the "Sandokai", the "Identity of Relative and Absolute", we chant "The absolute and the relative fit like a box and its lid... itís like the foot before and the foot behind in walking. Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light. Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness." These are concepts that are hard to understand, but that can be experienced once the mind stops moving. "When the dharma wheel turns it always goes in both directions" refers to the Fifth Rank of Master Dongshan where unity is finally attained, where absolute and relative, self and other, this and that, thinking and non-thinking, become unified.

Rather than give solace to the body, give solace to the mind. When both body and mind are at peace all things appear as they are: perfect, complete, lacking nothing. If we can get out of the way and trust things as they are, the dharma of thusness is manifested. A person thatís sitting deeply, whether theyíre working on koans or shikantaza, always manifests this reality. It shows in the way they interact with others; it shows in the way they live their lives. Ultimately, it all boils down to zazen. Just sitting.

Please take up this practice of zazen. You donít need any special props to do it. You donít need complex instructions or monasteries and teachers. You just need a quiet corner to settle your body, settle your mind, and taste your breath. Then just let the breath breathe itself. Think of non-thinking. This is the dharma of thusness that is the right thought of all the buddhas in the ten directions. It is Shakyamuniís realization at the moment of his enlightenment: all sentient beings are perfect and complete, lacking nothing. You are perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Trust that. Trust the process of zazen. If you were to live for a hundred thousand years, you would never find in this life anything more powerful, more healing, more empowering, than the simple practice of zazen. Please donít take it lightly. Itís an incredible gift.

John Daido Loori, Roshi is the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. A successor to Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Abbot Loori trained in rigorous koan Zen and in the subtle teachings of Master Dogen, and is a lineage holder in the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.

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