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.