Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.
“Think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Non-thinking.” These are the famous words of Master Yaoshan, who is in our lineage. Now a phrase like this could be elaborated quite a bit. But for our purposes, we can plainly take it as, make ourselves unconditioned and just sit. That unconditioned state is a state of non-thinking. Now more directly speaking, what is the unconditioned state? Don’t develop or cling to any opinionated ideas. Even make yourself very naive. Now in English, “naive” has a rather negative implication or connotation, but in Japanese there is a similar word which has very positive connotations: to make yourself very empty, like clean white paper. Whatever is drawn on it, you can see it very clearly. But if the paper is messed up or something is on it already, whatever you try to put on it then becomes ambiguous and unclear. So in sitting it is very important not to have your own ideas or thinking. That unconditioned, very plain state of mind, that’s the state of non-thinking. And with that state of mind, sit. Eliminate all kinds of mental activities, don’t even think of becoming Buddha. That’s what Dogen means. Even trying to become Buddha or trying to become enlightened becomes a hindrance, because we don’t know what enlightenment is until we get into that state. So whatever we think of merely becomes an idea. Right there the gap opens up between ourselves and the object we think about. In other words, eliminate that object too. By sitting, concentrating in zazen, we empty ourselves and at the same time we are able to empty the object. So the subject-object relationship is eliminated altogether. Then you become a total being. And that’s what he talks about; zazen itself manifests the ultimate reality. That’s the kind of zazen he talks about. That’s shikantaza.
So it is not denying the function of our consciousness to say that when we do shikan-taza, we can’t think of anything. Consciousness is vividly functioning in the sense of being conditioned by certain ideas or thoughts that we have. If we do that, then right there we find ourselves by those ideas. And that much we restrict ourselves. Actually, this happens all the time. For example, when we have difficulty or problems, we think, “someone is creating the problems for me.” But it’s not so. If there is any difficulty or problem, it’s a problem of our own making. Always that’s the case. It may not seem so but it is. In a narrower sense of the word it is so, and in a broader sense it is so too. Sometimes it is hard to take: for example, if the house next door catches fire, so that the building in which we live is burned out too. We are not doing anything bad, and yet that kind of thing happens. So we can blame others, and yet if we look at it from a larger perspective, they are also part of ourselves. Then actually no one is to blame.
When we really realize what is my self, then “my” becomes identical with “your” or “their” or even “its.” That is the state of non-thinking. So again, coming back to the point I made at the very beginning, make ourselves plain, as much as possible. Then just be as we are. Then our being becomes an absolute thing.
“Traps and snares can never reach it.” What are “traps and snares?” Our ideas, our own thoughts. So that very plain, mirror-like state, that’s the state that traps and snares can never reach. That is to say, we trap or snare ourselves. And again it doesn’t mean that we deny the significance or importance of mental function. Without that we simply can’t survive. But we should try not to have very fixed ideas of our own.
That also reminds me of that statement of Dogen Zenji in the Zuimonki compiled by Master Ejo. It says something like this, “If our teacher says worms and toads are the Buddhas, we’ll just simply believe that worms and toads are the Buddhas.” That’s the way to learn. In other words, make yourself very plain, empty, not having your own opinions. Then you can take whatever is poured in. There is a story in one of the sutras in which a very gullible monk achieved the four stages of arhatship when a senior monk threw a ball at him four times. This simpleton monk simply believed as literally true what the senior monk jokingly told him and because of his complete faith, he attained enlightenment. It didn’t matter that his teacher was not serious. Now that’s what I call faith.
And exactly the opposite thing can be said. Regardless of how fine a teacher you have, if you cling to something of your own, then that’s it. It happened at the time of the Buddha too, when he expounded the Lotus Sutra, the Saddharmapundarika Sutra, on Mount Grdhakuta. In the beginning of the sutra it says that 500 monks just stood up and left: “The Buddha is talking nonsense, let’s leave....”
I heard from Yasutani Roshi that Harada Roshi used to explain what the state of shikantaza is: that is to say, putting yourself into a state of non-thinking, and sitting strong. When we sit, two major types of disturbances may occur. One is scattered, busy mind, and another is dull, drowsy mind. And the way to eliminate these two while we sit is to concentrate in zazen as though engaged in a life-and-death duel. Unfortunately, we don’t sit like that all the time; that much we are untrained.
The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.
The term used here is “practice-realization” and it’s hyphenated. Practice is realization itself. Or practicing realization. Or realization practice. That’s our zazen.
Again it reminds me of Yasutani Roshi’s comment not only on zazen, but also on what kind of attitude you should have toward yourselves. Whatever you do is nothing but the Buddha’s action, expounding and manifesting the Dharma yourselves. And that is nothing but perfect unity and harmony altogether. Where’s the problem? Even difficulties are nothing but the Dharma itself. What to complain about? What to be frustrated by? What to be annoyed about? “The practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment” is “the manifestation of absolute reality.” What is it? In a way it’s zazen; and in a way it’s yourself. Your zazen is a total thing, and being so you also become ultimate and absolute. Now that’s the kind of zazen Dogen Zenji talks about.
Taizan Maezumi Roshi was one of the few teachers to receive Inka from both the Inzan and Takuju Rinzai lineages, as well as Dharma transmission in the Soto school of Zen. He founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles and the Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Human Values.
From On Zen Practice II by Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman. © 1976 by Zen Center of Los Angeles, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Zen Center of Los Angeles.