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.
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.