Just Sitting is the Point

Last night I led off Dharma discussion with a question:

Why do you come here?

As expected, the responses tended to be very nice, from a bunch of very nice people. “I come to be with friends in a spiritual community.” “To practice the way and get enlightened.” “To meditate and become peaceful.” Unique utterances all, but falling generally along these lines.

Not necessarily any bad answers either, but I perceived a possibility to be even clearer. Simply put, I would say just, we come together to practice zazen.

That’s it. To the degree we are coming for other purposes, it’s possibly the degree to which we are missing the point a little bit. And as the teaching says, a hairsbreadth deviation and you might just find you’re 1000 miles away.

So I asked, what is this zazen?

There were many fine responses to this question too, but still things remained a little oblique. I cut to the chase a bit, especially in light of some recent confusion that’s arisen. Like with any group, but maybe especially with something that could be mistaken as carrying heavy “religious” baggage, people can “get it twisted”. It’s good to reorient, on a regular basis. To be blunt:

Zazen is Just Sitting.

In Buddha Dharma, we talk about the Triple Treasure, the Three Jewels, and taking refuge in them. These are called Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

 Then, what is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha?

Buddha can be the idea of some historical personage, or a concept of some transcendent principle. In Dogen’s presentation of zazen, however, we needn’t get caught up with these things at all. For us, Just Sitting is Buddha. Not a symbol of Buddha, or an idea of Buddha, but Buddha – more accurately Buddha Activity – itself, functioning freely without limit through the whole universe, seen or unseen. This is expressed in Just Sitting, dropping off our own body-mind; we open ourselves up to and into this wider, radiant reality (which we don’t even have to have any awareness of.)

Thinking Not-Thinking. Not-Thinking Thinking.

Sitting still and paying attention, while also dropping off attention: this seems paradoxical and ungraspable, but it’s what keeps zazen perpetually fascinating and compelling to me after nearly 30 years now, and for countless others stretching back over some incomprehensibly long period of time (be it 200 years, 2000, 20,000 or 20,000,000,000. Suffice it to say no living individual made this thing up.)

Zen never promises to be comfortable for the conventional, acquisitional mind.

Dharma means teachings, traditionally the documented words of ancestral teachers, or the spoken words of living teachers. What is the purpose of Dharma in Soto Zen? Dharma is that which supports and actualizes Buddha Activity, which in our way is ultimately expressed in the practice of zazen. Remember, Dogen teaches that zazen is not even “meditation” (with the implication of some goal-driven activity, no matter how wholesome), but rather, Just Sitting. With this one step, we are told we directly enter the Dharma gate of ease and joy. My teacher will often give quite beautiful, profound, involved teachings that can inspire and perplex, over days at a time in retreat, or hours at a time in a workshop or class. His final words will often be, please forget it. Don’t cling. It’s only there to inspire zazen.

Sangha is the community. This once just referred to the ordained monastic community. It came to mean anyone sincerely seeking to practice. That’s what it means for us, if we understand practice to mean zazen/Just Sitting. I find this is the aspect that actually keeps creating the greatest confusion. People today are understandably hungry for more authentic community. Many forces seem to act to split people, families, and even the nation apart. Some of these problems are extremely complex, entrenched, and in need of long term thinking. As much as I think about and can feel pained by them, I honestly don’t know how to fix any of them. What I do know is that I am tasked with and committed to making zazen available, as presented by my teacher and the tradition in which I am ordained. Possibly because people have confused ideas about what zazen is, they get confused about what a robe means, what these obscure-seeming poetic Zen writings are about, and why people come together to practice. It can maybe be easier if we remember that Buddha is just zazen. Zazen is just sitting. Just sitting is mundane and simple, yet also naturally profound. Dharma exists to inspire zazen. Sangha exists to manifest and support the Buddha Dharma, which means the possibility of zazen.

No more, no less.

We will naturally have some confusion at times, especially practicing with others. Communication is an art in itself, and zazen doesn’t magically produce those skills. But it does indicate the importance of listening and being full of care. We can employ this inspiration to our interactions with others. Relative simplicity, without denial, will help minimize distractions.

The simple posture of zazen provides many teachings, as do our forms. Putting palms together. Bowing. Touching our heads to the ground. Joining our voices harmoniously to recite vows and teachings. Facing the wall to face ourselves in zazen. Keeping the eyes open with a soft focus. Keeping the spine free floating, extended yet relaxed, breath expanding from the core of the body. The mind is held curious, alert, and detached from outcomes. Taking care of our cushion area, our own bowls, our own body-minds. Asking questions, and assuming good faith, being receptive to answers. It’s all in just these things.

It is not a social club, though we certainly should enjoy socializing after zazen, as we do. It is not a political activist cell, though we can lucidly and non-reactively talk about politics. It is not a philosophical study group, though it may at moments resemble one. It is not the stage for manufactured psychodramatical breakthroughs, though that might inadvertently be an occasional human by-product.

If we come, we should have an overriding interest in the mysterious activity of zazen, in supporting there being a place where this occurs without anyone being hampered. I think of it simply as, “a safe place to sit still and breathe deep.” That’s what I want for myself, and for others.

To help others feel secure to more deeply settle, we lead with questions, which is our heart-mind’s posture in zazen. We don’t presume to know or tell others what to do. We approach ourselves and others gently, with care and deep respect for the complex mystery we/they are, and for the natural boundaries of the situation (which usually aren’t so mysterious). Sometimes, we cross boundaries. So we apologize, without excuses. Sometimes, we have questions, concerns, doubts. We ask them directly, eliminating extras – extra words, extra ideas, extra steps, extra people, extra motives. There are precepts in our tradition, which again all exist only to protect and support practice, which is zazen. We can look to them for direction when we are confused.

So I think if we stay focused on the basic sanity of zazen, we’ll be ok. It is actually pretty hard (if oddly rewarding) work, in case you haven’t noticed. If we simply stay engaged with the problems it presents to us, moment by moment, surely these will keep us well occupied and out of some troubles. Others, well, they’ll just find us anyway. We can meet them, maybe with a zazen mind. At the very least, we can carry on appreciating zazen, engaging in it, and helping to make it available – without any assurances or expectations, but just for the joy and goodness of it.

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January 14 Half Day Sit

Please join us this Saturday in the profound practice of simple silence, and deepening presence.

The schedule is as follows:

1:00-1:35 zazen
1:35-1:45 kinhin (walking)
1:45-2:20 zazen
2:20-2:30 kinhin
2:30-3:05 zazen
3:05-3:15 kinhin
3:15-3:50 zazen
3:50-4:00 kinhin
4:00-4:35 zazen
4:35 Service and closing

There is no fee, and you may enter or depart at any point, preferably during the kinhin periods. Donations are welcome.

Please wear comfortable clothing in dark solid colors and that covers legs and shoulders. Make sure cell phones are turned off – please check that vibration also is turned off. Leave personal items, including watches and water bottles, in non-practice spaces (back cubbies or entrance way.)

We will be at our usual location, Dragonfly Yoga, 1301 Rio Grande, ABQ.

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Hongzhi Study Group

Just a word to say that we will be continuing to study Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi following zazen on Monday nights. We are only just starting his “Practice Instructions” (which comprise the bulk of this short text), and there is no need to have the book or read ahead. It is a bit holographic in that sense, like most Zen teachings. We can drop in at any point. I recommend reading the foreword and introduction for background, if desired.

This important translation of one of the Soto traditions most influential ancestors was guiding teacher Taigen’s first book. It remains a favorite of countless American Zen students and teachers. Our study of these teachings will likely last at least the next couple of months.

New Year’s Eve Zazen 2016

Please join us for extended sitting Saturday, New Year’s eve.

It’s been a challenging year for most everyone. Take advantage of this opportunity to reflect, breath deep, settle, and ground on this last night of 2016.

Open zazen will begin at 9:30. There will not be structured kinhin/walking periods, but people are welcome to stand, walk, or take breaks as needed; come for all or part. Enter and depart at any time. From 11:45-midnight, we will chant the Enmei Juku Kannon Gyo, a prayer for peace. At midnight, a bell will be struck 108 times, concluding the practice session. Please bring a snack or beverage to be shared afterwards.

Can you think of a better way to bring in the new year?

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December 10 Half Day Sit

Please join us the Saturday in the practice of simple silence and deepening presence.

The schedule is as follows:

1:00-1:35 zazen
1:35-1:45 kinhin (walking)
1:45-2:20 zazen
2:20-2:30 kinhin
2:30-3:05 zazen
3:05-3:15 kinhin
3:15-3:50 zazen
3:50-4:00 kinhin
4:00-4:35 zazen
4:35 Service and closing

There is no fee, and you may enter or depart at any point, preferably during the kinhin periods. Donations are welcome.

Please wear comfortable clothing that is preferably in dark solid colors and that covers legs and shoulders. Make sure cell phones are turned off – please check that vibration also is turned off. Leave personal items including water bottles in non-practice spaces (back cubbies or entrance way.)

We will be at our usual location, Dragonfly Yoga, 1301 Rio Grande, ABQ.

mudrazuisei11

November Half Day sit this Saturday, 11/12

Our monthly half day is here, just in time for post-election recovery. Please join us in the practice of simple silence and deepening presence.

The schedule is as follows:

1:00-1:35 zazen
1:35-1:45 kinhin (walking)
1:45-2:20 zazen
2:20-2:30 kinhin
2:30-3:05 zazen
3:05-3:15 kinhin
3:15-3:50 zazen
3:50-4:00 kinhin
4:00-4:35 zazen
4:35 Service and closing

There is no fee, and you may enter or depart at any point, preferably during the kinhin periods. Donations are welcome.

Please wear comfortable clothing that is preferably in dark solid colors and that covers legs and shoulders. Make sure cell phones are turned off – please check that vibration also is turned off. Leave personal items including water bottles in non-practice spaces (back cubbies or entrance way.)

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Taigen returns October 8, 2016!

Rev. TAIGEN DAN LEIGHTON, PhD
returns to Valley Dragon!
Saturday, 10/8/16
12:30-5:30 pm

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Cultivating the Empty Field:
The Teachings of Zen Master Honctefgzhi

Cultivating the Empty Field was Taigen’s first book. A personal favorite of many western Zen students, Taigen will spend the day revisiting and unpacking these rich, poetic translations of Soto Zen Ancestor (and major influence on Eihei Dogen) Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157). Taigen’s visit represents a rare opportunity to study these seminal and poignant Mahayana Zen Buddhist teachings with one of the foremost Zen scholar/practitioners in America today. The program will begin with zazen (silent sitting), and include questions and discussion.

 

  • Taigen will also be speaking as part of our weekly Monday night program, 10/10/16 at 7:15 pm (zazen begins at 6:30.)
  • Taigen is scheduling dokusan (private interviews) with individual students. Contact Keizan in interested: keizan@valleydragon.org
  • Taigen will be teaching at Upaya in Santa Fe. Please check their schedule for details.

 

Taigen Leighton is founder and Senior Dharma Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, and a guiding teacher of Valley Dragon Zen Sangha. He is a Dharma heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Monastery, the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia. Taigen is the author of many books, including a translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Faces of Compassion, Zen Questions, and Just This is It: Dongshan and the Teaching of Suchness.

65 suggested donation for the Hongzhi event; no one turned away. Kindly RSVP
more information: http://www.valleydragon.org
email: info@valleydragon.org

Dedication to Zazen

What is it to be dedicated to zazen? Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama talks about this in his modern Zen classic, Opening the Hand of Thought. He speaks poignantly about being a relatively bright young man with many capacities, but driven by this urge to find a unifying, practical foundation to build for himself the most elegant, refined, and true kind of life. He found this way of life in dedication to zazen. If we too find ourselves somewhat mysteriously compelled toward zazen, these kinds of people articulate ideas and inspire us to find out for ourselves what it’s all about.

In the “exoteric” sense, this dedication maybe means we simply do zazen everyday. My teacher Taigen recently (very quietly) celebrated 40 years of daily zazen – likely by just doing more zazen. I think that’s maybe the most important thing, and a good direction to point ourselves. But we probably don’t want to glom on to that as some kind of identity builder. Or maybe we do and that helps in some way for awhile. No problem. Eventually, as Jack Kerouac said, it all comes out in the wash. If there is some quality of competiveness or acquisitiveness in our Zen practice, it’s hopefully quickly revealed to be extraneous. Zen, which is just life, which is just our apprehension through the heart/mind, seems insistent that we eventually see (on some schedule that we aren’t likely to ever be fully privy to) all the facets of our stuff, from many angles.

One of the things I appreciate about Dogen’s presentation of zazen, what we call our Soto way of practice, is that the emphasis, the direction, is on consistent, non-achieving effort. This quality of practice is supported by one of my favorite of the Paramitas, or Perfect Practices: virya in Sanskrit, sharing a root with “virility”. It means an enduring, sustainable enthusiasm for practice, practice that possibly even extends life after life (if we go for that sort of idea). Sometimes, just being reminded that this is a possibility is the greatest gift. We can do this. We can honestly love practice, which is just some aspect of our own authentic selves – a self that even precedes name and form and circumstance, but which is also only manifest through them. So, at some basic level, love of practice is love and care for this own self, which we know from Buddhist teaching to be irrevocably connected to all other beings/phenomena.

These verge on being “esoteric” (hidden) ideas about practice. Zen doesn’t much go in for esotericism; it doesn’t intentionally hide anything away. It says, just sit, see for yourself what you find there. I like to investigate different practices and different ideas. I abhor all forms of fundamentalism. That said, I find a great relief in having encountered this simple practice of zazen, which says no matter what, when in doubt and even more so in confidence, sit; settle. Develop a relationship to a baseline, and keep checking in to that. Then let it go completely, and find the joy in being able to check back in again later. Whether we realize it or not, we are doing this anyway.

Many people only get something resembling this baseline during sleep. Science backs this up, revealing to us the brainwave states we traverse through the waking/sleeping cycle. Yoga talks clearly about this, too. Science now also confirms that people who practice things that resemble zazen and that generally get called “meditation”, are able to achieve sleep-like brain states willfully, and that this capacity has a tendency to improve quality of life in various ways. Zen ancestors might consider these pleasant side effects of a process that is more vital than mere self-improvement.

When we are dedicated to zazen, we are dedicating ourselves to life. I think there is a fundamental anxiety that the practice of zazen can help address. We might call it existential, or spiritual. It is the desire to plug in, to be connected, and to express an intrinsic support for life. We really want very much to support life, and be supported, and consistently find meaning in the daily mundane rhythms of things. It is obvious to almost everyone. Ever notice if when you say you meditate, people say “oh, I should do that. I could use it”? But mostly, they don’t.

Dedication is just doing (in this case doing not-doing.) You know what to do. “The wholehearted way is intimately transmitted. Preserve it well.” There is no objective measure we’ll ever be able to rely on. We’re not going to know the majority of the time, and in fact, not knowing is highly valued in the Dharma teachings (the saying goes, “not knowing is most intimate.”). Not knowing, we can just sit everyday, with faith. This faith is only in the possibility of more zazen! I don’t think anyone has ever regretted a period of zazen after it was completed. We just have to do it. Where does that energy come from? We don’t even have to know. Once we’ve received the “good news” of zazen, we can just do it, and see.

sawakigogo

Uchiyama roshi was a master of origami; he was famous for inventing many different patterns, while the origami world remained largely unaware he was also a dedicated Zen priest and teacher.

On the Tenzo Kyokun

To my mind, Dogen’s essay ‘Tenzo Kyokun’ expresses several important aspects of our practice.  First, of course it highlights the spiritual dimension of what we may think of as mundane daily activities.  Today, we do less cooking than ever before, but for millennia cooking was the epitome of daily housework.  It wouldn’t be crazy to think that the cooks in a monastery might have just been service providers – in today’s context, maybe the monks would just hire contractors to do the cooking while they focus on more important matters of the spirit.  Of course, we know that’s not what a spiritual practice is about – if our practice doesn’t bring meaning into our daily activities, what good is it?  So Dogen really emphasizes that not only is cooking a spiritual practice, it’s maybe the most advanced spiritual practice, only for teachers who are settled in the way.  This makes sense within a monastery – you want the person heading up the kitchen to be solid, to have a good understanding of the practice and to really be able to turn the kitchen into a place of practice as surely as the zendo is a place of practice.  This is not a unique perspective to Soto Zen or to Buddhism.  Brother Lawrence was a 17th century monk who wrote along these very lines:

The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.

That brings me to the next important aspect expressed by this essay: the transformational quality of our attention.  When we wholeheartedly bring our attention and our efforts to what is right in front of us, we make our environment into what M.F.K. Fisher describes as a place.  “When you walk into a workshop or a studio or classroom of a dedicated teacher, you get this same magical feeling – The key is that concentrated, conscientious work is done there regularly.  In a place, something hangs in the air – a life, a spirit.  You are held there not merely by comfort, but by interest and expectation:  important things go on here.”

Finally, I think Tenzo Kyokun touches on another aspect of practice, our desire to have, as much as possible, experiences that are unmediated.  I mean this in a few different ways – Dogen emphasizes the importance of one-pointedness in the work of the Tenzo, paying close attention to the work at hand, not getting so wrapped up in one aspect of it that you lose track of the rest of the situation.  He also emphasizes the need to not judge the ingredients we are using – just do the best you can with simple ingredients, and don’t get too proud if you happen to have especially good ingredients.  So in this sense, I am referring to experience that is, as much as possible, unmediated by our own judgements, our own preferences, our own distractions.  It’s entirely enough to just cook the food.  Ed Brown tells a wonderful story about the early days at Tassajara, in fact it’s one of the founding stories of our tradition:

When I arrived in April of 1967 to undertake my role as head cook of the newly-founded Zen Mountain Center located at Tassajara Hot Springs, I soon became acquainted with the food habits and rituals of the residents. The center had not officially opened yet, but about twenty-five people were already living there. During my first meal preparation, someone informed me, “We do not use salt in the cooking.”

I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. “You don’t use salt?” I stammered. No, of course not. The custom was explained to me as though I was from another planet, as though it were the most obvious thing. “We don’t use salt in the cooking because salt is bad for you. Everyone eats too much salt.” The explanation didn’t explain anything to me.

Arbitrary rulings are pretty common in community life everywhere. Someone knows what is right for everyone else, and although the rationale is vague and incoherent –no real information is conveyed–the authority wants you to go along with it (for your own good).

I found the idea of not using salt upsetting and disconcerting, but not being particularly adept at negotiation or inclined to throw my weight around, I went along with it until I had a chance to consult with Suzuki Roshi, our Zen teacher. These are, after all the kind of matters that can be easily resolved by higher spiritual authority.

“What shall I do?” I asked him. “Everybody has all these different ideas.”

“Different ideas? Like what?”

“They don’t want me to use salt. They say it’s bad for you,” I told him.

“You are the head cook,” he said, “you can use salt if you want.” The things a Zen teacher has to clarify. I was relieved. I wanted everyone to be happy and to agree—but they didn’t. I didn’t want to side against anybody, but the Roshi’s authority settled it for me. I could use salt.

Then I asked the Roshi if he had any advice for me as the cook. His answer was straightforward and down-to-earth: “When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup.”

         Zazen is close to an unmediated experience – just our senses, our thoughts, moment by moment.  When we go to the mountains and feel refreshed by the cool air and the sights and sounds of the mountains, we enjoy the unmediated quality of the experience.  There’s something wonderful about experiencing the natural world in our bodies, with no assistance from binoculars or cameras or even sunglasses – just feeling the form of the mountains, hearing the sounds of the valley streams.

Today, so much of our experience is mediated by corporate culture – we drive to work in our Honda cars and use our Apple computers and eat food from Whole Foods, we are largely separated from the basic physical reality of our lives by corporations.  Corporate culture was not an issue, as far as we can tell, during Dogen’s time, but the practice of the tenzo, that personal dedication to the daily work of living, and sharing our efforts to support our community, is perhaps the greatest antidote we have to the rising tide of disconnection we face in our society today.  So, I am pleased to be able to tell you that tonight’s period of zazen was not sponsored by Coca-Cola, Bridgestone, or Toyota.  Nor was it brought to us through a generous grant from the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Instead, zazen was brought to us through our animal bodies and by our wild, fertile human hearts.