Friday, May 15, 2009

Mind and Zazen

Here is one of my favorite articles. It was a talk given by Shohaku Okumura at the Stillpoint Zen Center in Pittsburgh. Enjoy!

Mind and Zazen
A Lecture by Shohaku Okumura

Posture, breathing and mind are the three most important points in our practice. This morning I'd like to talk about mind in our zazen or meditation. Actually, we do nothing with our mind. Why we do nothing is a very important point in understanding the meaning of our practice. I think Uchiyama Roshi is one of the few people who could explain why in an understandable way for modern people. So I'd like to share his teaching with you this morning about the quality or nature of our sitting meditation practice.

In "Opening the Hand of Thought," as a conclusion or explanation of how to sit and how to breathe, he said doing correct zazen "means taking the correct posture and entrusting everything to it." It seems very simple, and yet it's not easy.

So it is with our mind. We are usually doing something with our mind. We are always like a hunter. We want to hunt something, and we have tools to catch it. When we have some object or gain, we think, "What is the best way to get it?" When we don't have an object, how we can catch it? That's a problem. And we are confused about it.

Not only in the practice of zazen but in Buddhist teachings, the basic philosophy or understanding about reality is: no separation between self and others, subject and object. And since we are a hunter, there's an object and subject. As far as we are in that kind of relationship with the object or things we want, we are against the basic philosophy of Buddhism. Even when the gain is enlightenment or reality or peace of mind, if it's a gain or object, our attitude is going against the philosophy of emptiness. Emptiness means no subject and no object, everything working together. So actually this is one life, and there's no one who is hunting and who is hunted.

In our meditation, the whole is our life. When we want to attain peacefulness of mind or some kind of insight or wisdom, that is ourselves. The one who wants to do it is ourselves, so both subject and object are ourselves. And also in the case of meditation, we meditate and the object of meditation is reality or truth or nirvana or our true self. If we watch our true self, like we're watching the mirror, what we can see is only the reflection. We cannot see this person. So actually, subject cannot be seen. It's simple reality. We cannot see our eyes. This is a difficult point to understand and to practice. The problem is ourselves, and our intention to see it. We have to be very careful about this, and how we can deal with it. That is a main point to understand our practice.

Our practice is a really unusual, unique practice. We have no object to watch or meditate. So actually, our sitting practice is not meditation or contemplation, because there is no object.

It's really important to first have a kind of intellectual understanding about what our practice is. When we sit on the cushion, we should forget about it, and just sit. It's the same as when we drive a car, or when we learn how to drive a car. First we have to study about the parts of the car, and how to deal with it. But when we really drive a car, we should forget about that knowledge, and just drive.

The same is true for our meditation practice. First we have to understand it. When we really practice, we should forget it and just sit. Intellectual understanding is also important in our practice. While we are in the zazen position, if we continue our thoughts, we are thinking and no longer doing zazen. So we have to think before we sit and practice zazen, or after we stand up. Uchiyama Roshi says: "Zazen is not thinking; nor is it sleeping. Doing zazen is to be full of life aiming at holding a correct zazen posture." Thinking and sleeping, or in Dogen Zenji's expression, dullness and destruction, are two problems in our zazen.

Uchiyama Roshi says that if we become sleepy while doing zazen, our energy becomes dissipated and the body limp. If we pursue our thoughts, our posture will become stiff. He writes: "Zazen is neither being limp and lifeless nor being stiff. Our posture must be full of life and energy." So in our zazen, we should be really awake and full of energy. Zazen is not thinking and not sleeping, just being there.

And he says, this posture of not chasing after thinking and not being sleepy is important, not only in our zazen but in our day-to-day lives, too. He says it's like driving a car. If the driver is drunk, sleepy, or nervous, this too is dangerous. Being too caught up in our thinking while we are driving is also dangerous, because we don't see things around ourselves.

This really applies to any kind of work, any activity. The life force should be neither stagnant, or dull, nor rigid. It should be relaxed, awake and relaxed. The most essential thing is that our life force live to its fullest potential. Zazen is the most condensed form of life functioning as wide awake life.

The practice that directly and purely manifests that life is the most crucial thing in our life, and at the same time, a tremendous task. It's not an easy thing. You need to be really mindful, not too caught up in thinking or not sleepy. Then we can be aware of things happening inside and outside of ourselves. This is really difficult because we want to know the effect or result or benefit we get from that. When we are thinking benefit, then our zazen becomes object again-self and others, subject and object, separated. We cannot observe it. We can just keep doing.

Often when we try to understand, we have to use language. The basic function of language-thinking, using words and concepts-is separation. So there's a basic contradiction between our outer life, which is one with all beings, and thinking. Even when we think that we are one with all beings, still we separate from the idea that we are separate from all beings. There is no way to become one by using words. The only possible way is by using negative expressions-something like "not two." That's why Buddhist or Zen phrases or expressions are paradoxical or negative. Only by negating our thinking or intellection can we express the reality before separation of subject and object. [To be continued]


  1. May I ask: Where does this come from? Is it a transcript of the audio file at the stillpoint website. Or is it from a newsletter?
    Anyway, very good talk.

  2. Antaiji,

    If I'm not mistaken, it was from a newsletter. I've had the article(s)saved on my PC for sometime.