Saturday, May 16, 2009

Aiming at No Target Sitting in the Midst of Contradictions

Here is part two of the talk I posted yesterday. Another good one. On a side note, Okumura Sensei's website has just been updated and has a very good introduction to zazen audio file.



Aiming at No Target Sitting in the Midst of Contradictions
Second in a Two-Part Lecture by Shohaku Okumura

When our discriminating mind tries to understand what zazen is or is "good" for, then zazen becomes the object and we become the subject. If we look at it that way, then we are already thinking. That is really a problem. In zazen, there is no self-observation and no self-evaluation. We need to go beyond this subject-and-object dichotomy.

In "Opening the Hand of Thought," Kosho Uchiyama Roshi writes: "When we actually do zazen, we should be neither sleeping nor caught up in our own thought. We should be wide-awake -aiming at the correct posture with our flesh and bones. Can we ever attain this? Is there such a thing as succeeding or hitting the mark? This is where zazen becomes unfathomable." We cannot measure or observe it. We cannot say: "My zazen is getting better." If we say it that way, we are already thinking, it's not zazen. It's the same as when we are sleeping. We sleep almost one third of our life, and yet we cannot say, "I am asleep." We can say, "I want to sleep" or "I'm sleepy." If I say I'm sleeping, I'm not sleeping. Zazen is the same thing.

Uchiyama Roshi writes: "In zazen, we have to vividly aim at the correct posture, yet there is never a mark to hit. Or at any rate, the person who is doing zazen should never perceive whether he has hit the mark or not." If we perceive it, we're already thinking and we're already off the mark. When we are hitting the mark, there is no perception. We are just sitting.

Uchiyama Roshi says, "If the person doing zazen thinks he is really getting good or that he has hit the mark, he's merely thinking his zazen is good, while actually, he has become separated from the reality of his zazen." Yet that is what we all want to do. We want to make sure we are in the correct zazen. We want to make sure this is good for me, that this practice is meaningful for my life. Unless we believe it or think this way, it's really difficult to practice zazen. So before we sit, we have to really try to understand this point.

Uchiyama Roshi says that when we have a target we can aim. But if we know that there isn't a target, who is going to attempt to aim? I think all of us know why we have to sit, just aiming without hitting the target. It is because the person hitting and the target are the same thing.

This is not only true in zazen. Say we are running. The action of running and the person running is one thing. What can zazen be unless it is this person? This person is zazen itself. And what is zazen unless it is this person sitting? Zazen and the person sitting really is one thing. There is no separation. But when we explain it, we have to say I am "doing" zazen. In that case, there's a concept of we and a concept of action-zazen or sitting. But in actuality, there's no action without this person and no person without this action.

Our zazen is based on the essential philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism-that is, emptiness. Emptiness means no self and no other. Everything is connected as one thing. All beings are connected to each other. All beings interpenetrate each other. There's no separation between subject and object, particularly in our zazen. The subject is this person, and the object is also this person.

We practice zazen with this body and mind, but we can't practice zazen if we don't think about sitting. We are here because we want to sit, and we think sitting is good. I came from Minnesota to sit together with you, and the reason why I'm here is I think zazen is good for me to practice. Without thinking we can't take any action, but once we make up our mind we should do our action with moment by moment awareness.

There is a Zen expression: "Break through the bottom of the bucket." In zazen, the bottom of our thinking drops out. It's like a ladle of water running through a strainer. We have to break through the bottom of the bucket, and yet, according to Uchiyama Roshi, zazen is not a method to break through to anything. Usually we think it is. We practice in order to attain a certain stage of mind that is free from thinking. If our zazen is a means to break through the bottom of the bucket, then there's a target. That's the problem. That is a common idea in Zen-we have to break through our thinking, and our zazen is a method to do it. If we practice in that way, already there is a target and the basis of our practice is hitting that target-that is to break through our thinking. That is a contradiction. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction, in the correct posture, not thinking and not sleeping.

There's no target, no way we can judge whether we are doing good zazen, there is no way we can make sure if this practice is good for us or not. This is a basic contradiction in our zazen. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction. That is our practice. Although we aim, we can never perceive hitting the mark. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction that is absolutely ridiculous when we think about it with our small minds.

Sawaki Roshi is my teacher's teacher. One of his most famous sayings is "Zazen is good for nothing." It's difficult to sell something that is good for nothing. It's like selling you the air. When we practice this kind of zazen and just sit, how unsatisfied or completely lost we may feel. Our zazen is not an easy thing.

There are many different traditions in Buddhism. The Theravada tradition in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. The Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and the Vajrayana Tradition in Tibet. Each school has its own approach to meditation, and what it means to practice meditation. In Buddhism, skillful means are important. Those different paths are considered to be skillful means to encourage people not to stop practice. Teachers and teachings show a kind of a goal that encourages practice, and when a student reaches that stage, the teacher shows the next goal. That's the way a student practices with encouragement. That's the meaning of stages in Buddhist practice, but Dogen Zenji says our practice is very unique. He doesn't use this kind of skillful means.

If a person is just thrown in the ocean without knowing how to swim, there is no step-by-step instruction. In the midst of the ocean of the Dharma, we have to learn how to swim by ourselves. We have serious problems in each moment when we practice in this way. We always have to be questioning. We always have to inquire about what we are doing, and whether our practice is heading in the right direction or not.

In our practice, the function of the teacher is different from the Rinzai school. In Rinzai, teacher and student sit facing each other and the teacher gives a question, and the student answers. In our practice, the teacher doesn't face the student. Uchiyama Roshi says, "I never face my students and watch them, but I am facing Buddha." And we face Buddha as well. As a practitioner, we have to walk with our own two feet in the same direction our teacher is walking.

In our practice there's no goal, no target to hit. We don't feel safe. But Uchiyama Roshi says this is the most important and wonderful part of our practice. When we are confused, and insecure, that is the best thing: "This small foolish self easily becomes satisfied or complacent. We need to see complacency for what it is-just a continuation of the thoughts of our foolish self." If we feel satisfied, we should question whether we are doing the right thing or not. When we are doing things based on my thinking, my desire, and even if our desire is desire to be enlightened, to be free from our egocentricity, from ourselves, there's a basic contradiction. This desire or aspiration which makes us practice is in a sense an obstruction in our practice. The goal of Buddhist practice is to be free from ego. Our desire to be free from ego comes out of ego. That is a problem. How we can go beyond this desire even to become Buddha?

This is really an essential point in our practice. Dogen Zenji said we should give up even the aspiration to become Buddha in our zazen. And this is the meaning of just sitting. When we practice in this way, just aiming at and letting go even of the aspiration to be enlightened, then Buddhahood is there. When we are actually doing that letting go, then Buddha nature is truly revealed. When we give up our gaining mind, then our true life force arises and is actualized.

He concludes by saying: "It is precisely at the point where our small foolish self remains unsatisfied, or completely bewildered, that the immeasurable natural life beyond the thought of that self functions. It is precisely at the point where we become completely lost that life operates and the power of Buddha is actualized."

This is a really important point. Keep this in your mind, when you practice or whenever you read Buddhist texts. Then you will find out what this means. And please don't think about this when you sit.


  1. Al,
    Thanks so much for posting this. It's directly addressing several things I've been struggling with lately.
    - Lauren

  2. I'm glad it helped Lauren. I must be going through some of the same stuff as that is the same reason I thought to post it.



  3. Thanks Al! You're blog is really great!