Based on Shakyamuni Buddha’s experience and the experience of the buddhas of the past, the main point of Dogen Zenji’s teaching is that zazen is just to become present in the process of zazen itself; this is shikantaza. It is not something you acquire after you have done zazen. It is not a concept of the process; it is to focus on the process itself. It is very difficult to understand this because even though we are always in the process, we don’t focus on it. There are even many schools in Buddhism that still handle Buddhism as a concept. But real Buddhism is to focus completely on the process itself. The process is you.
Zazen is completely different from other meditation. It is not a matter of philosophical or metaphysical discussion. All we have to do is do what we are doing, right now, right here. Whatever kind of experience we have through zazen is secondary. Whatever happens, all we have to do is to be constantly present right in the middle of the process of zazen. This is the beginning and also the end. You can do it; it is open to all people, whoever they are. This is shikantaza.
We are already exactly peaceful and harmonious. But still, when we do zazen, we want to try to be peaceful. Trying to be peaceful is no longer to be peaceful. Just sit down. We do not have to try or not try or say that we do not care. If I say something is this way, immediately you rush and try to grasp it. And then if I say it is not this way, you immediately try to grasp that. Then I say it is not that either, and then you are confused. Finally, you say you are neutral, but that is not good either. What we have to do is realize we are Buddha; this is a big koan for us. This practice is called shikantaza and is our koan for our whole life. There are hundreds of koans, but those koans are just leaves and branches, that is all; the root is shikantaza. We have to understand this. This is perfect peace, perfect harmony.
We are always thinking about something, always trying to acquire something. Some people criticize Soto Zen, because it teaches not to expect enlightenment, to just sit down. They say if one cannot expect enlightenment, then what are we doing? Even Soto priests do not always understand what shikantaza is. Then if they are criticized, their faith starts to wobble. This is very common. This is to be a human being, and includes not only my friends, and others, but it includes me. If someone criticizes us, then our faith starts to wobble.
If we look around, there are many things for people to be interested in. Very naturally, we think some other way would be better. So we pick it up and use it. But if we are wobbling, our feet are already not completely grounded. It is just like walking during a big earthquake. Even though we believe we are walking stably, we are not. If we are going to walk, we have to walk stably, no matter what happens.
This is completely beyond being a matter of discussion. To walk in stability means to just walk. “Just walk” is to be present in the process itself. The process of walking is exactly that our body and mind are nothing but the process. There is no gap between us and the process. This is shikantaza; this is to be peace. We are peaceful, we are harmonious fromthe very beginning. That is why we should not expect to acquire peace. Take off all conceptual clothes, and then what is left? Finally, there is nothing to think about. All we have to do is just plunge in.
For twenty-five hundred years the Buddha has been teaching us that we are buddha, that we lack nothing of the highest enlightenment. Still we do not completely understand, and even though we understand, it has not settled down in our hearts. That is why we have to practice constantly. We have to practice because we have a mind.
Mind is tranquility; it means peace and harmony. What is wrong with mind? Nothing is wrong with mind. What is wrong is that for many years we have given our mind the chance, the environment, the circumstances for it to be a monkey mind. Monkey mind means the mind is always going out, in many directions, picking up many things that are fun and exciting. If we always leave the mind to take its own course, finally before we are conscious of it, we are going in a different direction than we expected, and we become completely confused. That is why we have to take care of mind. We have to take care of chances, circumstance, time, and occasions.
For zazen, we arrange the circumstances in the Zendo so that it is not too bright or too dark, not too cold or too hot, hot dry or wet. We also arrange the external physical conditions, such as our posture and the amount of food we eat. If we eat too much we fall asleep pretty easily, so we have to fill just sixty or seventy percent of our stomach. Also, we keep our eyes open, because if we close our eyes we might fall asleep, or we are more likely to enjoy ourselves with lots of imaginings and daydreams. Next we arrange our internal physical conditions, that is, our heart, our intestines, our stomach, and our blood.
But these things are beyond our control, so how can we take care of them? The only way is to take care of the breath. If we take care of the breath, very naturally internal physical conditions will work pretty well. This is important. If we arrange the circumstances around our body, our mind, and all internal and external conditions, then, very naturally, the mind is also engaged in our activities. Then we are not bothered by the workings of our mind; the mind does not touch the core of our existence; it is just with us, that is all. When all circumstance are completely peaceful, just our center blooms. This is our zazen; this is shikantaza.
Shikan is translated as wholeheartedness, which seems to be sort of a psychological state or pattern. But shikan is not a psychological pattern. Shikan is exactly becoming one with the process itself. Literally, za of taza is zazen, and ta means to hit; so, from moment to moment, we have to hit the bull’s-eye of zazen itself. This is not a technique. In the sword of practice of kendo, one has to hit right in the middle of the opponent’s head to get a point. This is not a technique; it is the practice that has been accumulated day after day. Our practice must be very deep, unfathomable, and then we can hit the bull’s-eye. Shikan is exactly taza-full devotion to zazen itself, that is, to the process itself and not to a concept. This is the practice of zazen mentioned by Buddhas and ancestors.
Dogen Zenji says in “The Kind of Samahis Samadi”: “Even though some may have known experientially that sitting is the Buddha-dharma, no one knows sitting as sitting.” Even in Dogen Zenji’s time, no one knew this except his master, Rujing. Sitting as sitting is just the process of zazen itself; this is exactly life and death. If we look at our life, it is very clear.
How often in our lives have we had feelings of happiness, unhappiness, pros and cons, success and failure? Countless numbers of times. But we are still alive. Regardless of whether or not we awaken to how important the essence of human life is, basically we are peaceful and harmonious. In other words, our life is just a continuation of living; that is all “being living” constantly.
That is why everyone can survive, no matter what happens. Is it our effort that makes it possible for us to survive for twenty years or forty years? No. Is it our judgment? No. Strictly speaking, it is just a continuation of becoming one with the process of living, that is all. This is the essence of living. The truth of living is just to live. This is a very simple practice
Dainin Katagiri (1928-1990)
All of us have been known to complicate our lives and our practice at times. We over think problems, over dwell on emotional states from time to time, and try to quantify where we are in practice. To simply sit without the complications, the trappings of practice, even something this simple, can be challenging for us. To be at ease with life, to let things and people simple be as they are, to settle down and just sit is part of becoming one with the process of life.
We also seek guidance from those who have gone before us. While there are many relative differences in all the practices, as we become acquainted with teachings, ancient and more modern, there is a common thread running through them. In Buddhism we hear about the middle way; in practical terms it is more like a balancing skill rather than an attempt to reside in a static state. We go off too far in one direction and rebalance back toward the center. With practice sitting becomes part of our natural state and is no longer isolated to time on a cushion, but a continual way of living. We start to realize that thoughts and feelings come and go, and just like in sitting, not to get too attached for too long to any feelings or to react unnecessarily.
Things come up that draw our attention away from equanimity, peace, and compassion, and because of our years in practice the time in returning shortens. Some have described this process like walking through a fog or mist, vague and indistinct, but suddenly you’re drenched. Just as in beginning to set our posture for meditation, we rock the body side to side to find our center line, so in life we feel the movement away from center and the return which helps us feel the practical sense of meditation in action.
“We are already exactly peaceful and harmonious. But still, when we do zazen, we want to try to be peaceful. Trying to be peaceful is no longer to be peaceful. Just sit down.”