Zen-sitting is the way of perfect tranquility: inwardly not a shadow of perception, outwardly not a shade of difference between phenomena. Identified with yourself, you no longer think, nor do you seek enlightenment of the mind or disburdenment of illusion. You are a flying bird with no mind to twitter, a mountain unconscious of the others rising around it.
Zen-sitting has nothing to do with the doctrine of “teaching, practice, and elucidation” or with the exercise of “commandments, contemplation, and wisdom.” You are like a fish with no particular design of remaining in the sea. Nor do you bother with sutras or ideas. To control and pacify the mind is the concern of lesser practitioners. Still less can you hold an idea of Buddha and Dharma. If you attempt to do so, if you train improperly, you are like one who, intending to voyage west, moves east. You must not stray.
Also you must guard yourself against the easy conceptions of good and evil: your sole concern should be to examine yourself continually, asking who is above either. You should remember too that the unsullied essence of life has nothing to do with whether one is priest or layperson, man or woman. Your Buddha-nature, consummate as the full moon, is represented by your position as you sit in Zen. The exquisite Way of Buddhas is not the One or Two, being or non-being. What diverisifes it is the limitations of its students, who can be divided into three classes—superior, average, inferior.
The superior student is unaware of the coming into the world of Buddhas or of the transmission of the non-transmittable by them: they eat when hungry, sleep when sleepy. Nor do they regard the world as themselves. Neither are they attached to enlightenment or illusion. Taking things as they come, they sit in the proper manner, making no idle distinctions.
The average student discards all business and ignores the external, giving himself or herself over to self-examination with every breath. She may probe into a koan, which she puts mentally on the tip of her nose, finding in this way that her “original face” is beyond life and death, and that the Buddha-nature of all is not dependent on the discriminating intellect but is the unconscious consciousness, the incomprehensible understanding: in short, that it is clear and distinct for all ages and is alone apparent in its entirety throughout the universe.
The inferior student must disconnect himself or herself from all this is external, thus liberating himself from the duality of good and evil. The mind, just as it is, is the origin of all Buddhas. In zazen his legs are crossed so that his Buddha-nature will not be led off by evil thoughts, his hands are linked so that they will not take up sutras or implements, his mouth is shut so that he refrains from preaching a word of dharma or uttering blasphemies, his eyes are half shut so that he does not distinguish between objects, his ear are closed to the world so that he will not hear talk of vice and virtue, his nose is as if dead so that he will not smell good or bad.
Since his body has nothing on which to lean, he is indifferent to his likes and dislikes. He negates neither being nor non-being. He sits like Buddha on the pedestal, and though distorted ideas may arise from him, they do so idly and are ephemeral, constituting no sin, like reflections in a mirror, leaving no trace.
The five, the eight, the two hundred and fifty commandments, the three thousand monastic regulations, the eight hundred duties of the Bodhisattva, the Buddha-naure and the Bodhisattvahood, and the Wheel of Dharma—all are comprised in Zen-sitting and emerge from it.
Of all good works, zazen comes first, for the merit of only one step into it surpasses that of erecting a thousand temples. Even a moment of sitting will enable you to free yourself from life and death, and your Buddha-nature will appear of itself. Then all you do, perceive, or think becomes part of the miraculous Tathagata-suchness (true nature).
Let it be thus remembered that newcomers and advanced students, learned and ignorant, all without exception should practice zazen.
Excerpted from Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews edited by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto 1965
Whether we think of ourselves as average, superior, or inferior students, we all share zazen as a practice, and probably for most of us we don't think of our “level” as students at all.
Not that we haven't wondered where we are in our evolution of practice, but sitting is sitting whether you just started practice or are an old hand at this. The more valuable thing to consider is that we continue in our efforts. If we fall away from our practice for a while, no judgments, just pick it all up again.
At some point, like walking in a fog, we become saturated with practice. In addition to the reminders of practice in our sitting space and the reading we do, incidents in daily life become infused with deeper implication.
What is it that causes this kind of transition? For years we may practice with a teacher or attend retreats where we feel supercharged, and the glow seems to last for a while. At some point, though, we need to make the leap into taking responsibility for ourselves each day. The koan given to you by a teacher to penetrate is different from the one your own life presents.
Your life koan can be the key to what ties this all together. It can be a question that arises after a challenging life event or a story from practice which becomes your own story to penetrate, or one of the six perfections.
Sometimes it is an action that has become mechanical and mindless; at some point you acknowledge this has become a “teachable moment,” and you wake up into the present through it.
Whatever it is, no one can legislate it for you; it is revealed through our lives and the choices we make. And this is where practice becomes truly dynamic; we cannot go through life being spoon fed principles of practice and life.
At some point we wake up and realize, it is truly up to us. The Buddha had to sit under the Bo tree himself and experience this first hand. In turn, at some point, so do we.
Zen-sitting is the way of perfect tranquility…Of all good works, zazen comes first, for the merit of only one step into it surpasses that of erecting a thousand temples.
May we Wake Up!