Taking Refuge in Zazen


This week I’d like to talk again about zazen not being meditation, and it not being something that we do, exactly. I highly recommend this essay by our guiding teacher Taigen, called “Dogen’s Zazen as Other Power.” With this as a starting point, let me clarify first what the term “other power” means. I have talked about this here in the past, but for new people, “other power” here specifically refers to what is normally considered a contrasting Buddhist tradition.

In Pure Land Buddhism, the emphasis is on taking refuge in the Buddha Amida. Amida means “infinite light and life.” We often venerate the bodhisattva Kanzeon, or Kwan Yin; Kanzeon actually is often depicted as a devotee of Amida. So there is an interesting relationship there. Zen has at times been thought of as a “self-power” tradition, meaning that through some kind of personal effort, freedom from a constricted ego-self is attained. And this attitude can seem to appear in the teachings.

Shinran, the founder of some of the most influential Pure Land traditions in Japan (which historically have been the most popular of all sects), lived about the same time as Dogen. After decades of dedicated spiritual discipline, he came to a realization that he was truly “hopeless” when it came to accomplishing any of even the most basic sorts of Buddha qualities, like constancy or mindfulness. He realized that he couldn’t even pray for redemption of his faults without Amida’s compassion making his turn toward Buddha possible in the first place. So he encouraged a humble turning toward Amida’s grace, simply expressed as the phrase “Namo Amida Buddha.”

It is possible, helpful, and maybe even quite important to consider our zazen practice as a similar turning toward an other, higher power, and as a prayer for redeeming grace. Dogen taught that all self-gaining ideas have to be suspended for our zazen to have the right attitude, or posture.

The last paragraph of Taigen’s essay says :

“Dogen’s zazen, without gaining ideas or reliance on self-power, remains available. But the first generations of American Zen practitioners probably still lack full appreciation of the devotional depths of Buddhist practice. This is due in part to the influence of some Western psychotherapeutic orientations that promote ideals of mere self-improvement. Consumerist conditioning has also led practitioners to seek to acquire dramatic meditative experiences as products. It may well be that American Buddhism will not become fulfilled until the value of “other-power” is recognized. In my humble opinion, it will be an indication of American Buddhism’s maturity when American Zen students appreciate the subtle teachings and perspective of Shinran.”

Someone was telling me that in New York and some larger cities, people are opening “mindfulness centers,” where you pay a monthly fee to basically attend meditation sessions like you would yoga classes. People are of course paying these fees intending to “improve performance” and “increase psychological well-being.” These are fine aspirations in certain contexts. But as Taigen says, this is hardly the essence of Buddha’s teaching. Buddha did not set out to create a self-improvement program. He taught something more radical than that, and more basic.

I personally think one of the greatest threats to the actual sustainability of Buddhadharma in our country and culture is “spiritual materialism.” In essence, this comes down to approaching Buddhism to improve your capacity to win at the games you are already playing. It could be argued that turning toward Buddha calls for a suspension of certain games altogether. For instance, if someone is involved the arms trade, that person in order to truly experience Buddha’s wisdom and compassion will likely have to stop that. It’s like Tony Soprano going to psychotherapy. It was pretty obvious that no matter how much he talked about his issues, his growth and happiness remained limited by his lack of will to actually change and, for instance, stop killing people. He was not really turning toward a “higher/other power”; rather he was trying to find a way to keep doing what he was doing, just freed from the natural guilt, fear, and shame his actions were producing in his heart and mind.

Dogen taught that when we sit or simply turn toward Buddha in various ways, we let go of everything, and we trust. In the case of zazen, we trust the instructions to lengthen the spine, lower our eyelids, settle, and enjoy our inhale and our exhale. Beyond that, “we let go and let god.” I heard someone recently translate “god” as an acronym for “greater order of design.” For some, this can mean “reason.” For some, “the heart.” For us, we use the term “zazen” as almost interchangeable with “Buddha,” and it extends well beyond crossing our legs and settling our minds.

Taigen has been emphasizing that there are indeed actual concrete benefits from such an attitude and practice; he’s pointing out that we don’t need to just accept an unnatural doctrine of “no benefits.” We just have to have balance. I have an interesting personal example. I once did these neurological tests, with the electrodes and whatnot. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that when I did “self-power” exercises like visualizations etc., the effects looked little different than my normal waking awareness. But when I followed our instructions and practiced the zazen of “dropping off body and mind,” something quite extraordinary (and measurable) occurred. I don’t need to repeat this exercise; for me, this was a nice personal confirmation that we are onto something here, and that the ancestors aren’t just selling us a bill of goods!

This dropping off of body and mind and this turning toward Buddha is not something we achieve and then don’t attend to any longer. As long as we live, if we look carefully we will find the intrinsic human impulse to turn toward Buddha, or a “spiritual” orientation. We intuit, and reason, how limited our conventional human, materialist viewpoint is against the backdrop of the jaw-dropping reality of our existence, and the challenges we sometimes appear to be facing, personally and collectively. Yet when we sit, we find the ground. From that ground, we can witness the development in our lives of more authentic movement, thought, feeling, and actions. Do we do it?  Or does Buddha do it? In zazen, we live out that question with vitality and faith.

– Keizan Titus