I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on February 25, 2021.
My family lived a stone’s throw away from Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, and I was in college in nearby Denver from 1976 to 1980. I lived in Boulder off and on between 1985 and 1995, first as a grad student, then working as a young lawyer. Throughout most of this time, spanning nearly three decades, plutonium parts for nuclear bombs were being manufactured at Rocky Flats, a massive, underground, top secret facility just outside Boulder.
I can’t remember precisely when I first heard Sawada’s steady drumbeat come and go, but it was definitely during the time I was a student in Boulder. I was in the little cabin in Chautauqua Park where I lived, in a coffee shop, out on a run.
The first couple of times I heard Sawada’s drum, it was a sonic apparition. I turned to see the source of this unusual sound, but couldn’t locate it. The next time I heard it, I turned quickly and caught sight of Sawada, taking broad, swift strides, in full monk garb, beating his hand drum.
This was Sawada’s practice. Morning to night. For decades.
Sawada is part of a Buddhist sect that emphasizes walking meditation and work for peace. Much to his parents’ dismay, he became a monk as a young man, and ultimately moved to Boulder, alone, to bear witness to the madness of the nuclear arms race. Many years later, a couple of other monks from his order eventually joined him in Boulder, perhaps, in part, to lessen the physical toll this form of protest must have taken on Sawada.
Sawada’s presence in Boulder–the sound and sight of him at random times during the week–made a deep impression on me. I got curious about him again a few days ago, after talking about him during our Full Moon Zen Zazenkai last Saturday. While still alive, he is mostly forgotten now. There is scant evidence of his life and practice online, though I did find a few crumbs, including an oral history interview that is part of a series of interviews documenting protest activities at Rocky Flats. It seems memory of Rocky Flats, and even the Cold War itself, is fading. I worry about that.
Boulder is and was a center of Buddhism’s transplantation and growth in the United States, so it also was interesting to find an article in Tricycle about Rocky Flats.
In 1983, years before I heard Sawada’s drumbeat, I was one of the student organizers of a massive, peaceful protest at Rocky Flats. Nearly 17,000 people of all ages gathered to join hands around the above-ground perimeter of the facility.
Bearing witness to the cries of the world is an important ideal and practice in Zen. Roshi Bernie Glassman, my Dharma great-grandfather, made bearing witness one of the three pillars of the Zen Peacemakers order he founded.
I spoke about Sawada during our Zazenkai, because I was recalling and appreciating both the way in which his meditation was a practice of bearing witness, and how the monks who eventually joined him in Boulder made the practice communal, taking the baton from him throughout days and weeks to sustain the practice. People came and went during our Zazenkai, according to their availability and needs, yet there was never a time when any of us sat alone. I had this same sense of bearing communal witness Saturday, as we sat amidst the great turmoil and suffering of the present day.
The world seems at full boil. Perhaps what we do on the cushion, and what our time on the cushion inspires and helps us to do when we’re off it, will reduce the temperature just a bit.
I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on November 19, 2020. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
This Case 27 in The Blue Cliff Record, one of our koan collections:
A monk asked Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Yun Men said, “Body exposed in the Golden Wind.”
I meditate each day in an attic office. My cushion is placed near a small dormer window. The top of a giant tree hovers just outside. Its leaves were turning gold and crimson a few weeks ago, shortly after I last spoke during one of our evening sits. One morning the wind stirred up while I was meditating. I could hear the leaves shaking loose from the tree’s branches and rustling in the air, before falling to the ground.
I knew then that I wanted this talk to be about breathing in Zen practice. Most of us begin Zen practice by counting our breath.
Many people tend to regard meditation primarily as a mental practice. Early on, and despite the guidance we receive from teachers and experienced Zen students, most of us apply great mental effort trying to rid ourselves of mental activity, as if thoughts are bad and meditation were about banishing them completely. Perhaps the ancient Buddhist texts we encounter, which often use the term Mind (with a capital “m”) as a synonym for the Absolute or Emptiness, contribute to this confusion.
It’s true that counting the breath early in Zen practice is a way to use one type of mental activity to tame another. The idea at that point in our practice is to substitute a relaxed, focused form of mental activity for the frenetic, loop-de-loop sort of mental activity in which so many of us spend much of our lives lost. But that’s not because loop-do-loop, this-that mind is “bad” and must be suppressed completely. It’s just that it tends to be our default mode; we tend to get stuck there without realizing this is the frame of mind that sustains the illusion of separateness that causes so much needless suffering.
That frame of mind is like living alone in a castle in the sky, standing in front of a mirror in that castle, having a conversation with oneself about the world, without realizing its an extended monologue about figments of our imagination. We think we’re making real contact with the world, but we’re not.
Breath practice helps us gently disengage from that frame of mind just enough to begin stepping back from the mirror. It helps us exit the castle, at least for a while. It’s a first step along a new path that Zen invites us to travel.
As we travel this path, the castle recedes toward the horizon . . . and yet it’s also right here, and we can instantly find ourselves back in it. That’s fine. Now we know how to find the door to someplace more spacious if we find ourselves jabbering into the mirror again.
Eventually, we can let go of breath practice and just sit shikintaza, which is a rather formless form of meditation practice. From here, the path opens wider and wider, in every direction. It becomes an infinite field; one that manifests in and as our experience of life, right here, right now.
As our meditation experience shifts in this way, we might begin to relate to our breath differently. While counting the breath, it’s pretty hard not to control it, much as I might imagine or intend otherwise. When I stop breath counting practice, I’ll still become conscious of my breath from time to time, but I’ll be much more likely to feel as if my breath is breathing me, rather than the other way around. To experience just breathing.
All day long, and all through the night, breathing just happens, without willing it to happen. I don’t even notice this most of the time. As we take up meditation practice, we use this everyday, mostly unconscious aspect of our creaturely experience to reground our awareness; to coax it back to the here and now.
So, although many people wrongly tend to regard meditation primarily as a mental discipline, it’s fundamentally an embodied practice and experience. In fact, it’s a practice that tends to collapse the distinction between body and mind; our mind-body dualism.
Some of us may have a sudden, profoundly transforming experience during meditation, or as a result of it—kenshō, a direct experience of emptiness. Master Dōgen described his own kenshō experience as “dropping off body and mind,” not as a mental experience. Whether or one has a sudden experience of body and mind dropping off, however, that same realization tends to soak into us over years of consistent Zen practice, like a tree soaking up water through its roots.
In the koan with which I opened, Yunmen’s student is using the familiar Chinese metaphor of a withering tree and falling leaves to ask his old teacher what it’s like to age and approach death. Yunmen responds with another familiar Chinese metaphor, the Golden Wind—the wind that carries the autumn leaves away.
There’s a lovely Chinese myth about a cow herder and a weaver girl, whose love was forbidden. (I suppose Romeo and Juliet is our Western equivalent.) These lovers are banished, as stars, to opposite ends of the Milky Way. Once a year, as Spring and Summer, the periods of birth and growth, give way to Fall and Winter, the periods of decline and death, a flock of magpies forms a sky bridge, allowing them to meet for a day.
There are many poems about this myth, one of which contains this beautiful line:
One meeting of the Cowherd and Weaver amidst the golden autumn wind and jade-glistening dew, eclipses the countless meetings in the mundane world.
As the wind kicked up during my morning sit a few weeks ago, a thought passed by with the leaves levitating just outside: What is the wind, if not my own breath?
The wind is my breath, your breath, and old Yunmen’s breath.
And we are autumn’s leaves carried by that wind. And we are the sapplings that will sprout from soil nourished by those leaves, their roots soaking up Spring’s jade-glistening dew.
Through our practice, we find our place, and our peace, as vulnerable, noble, embodied beings, exposed in the Golden Wind.
I gave this teisho Thursday night.
I’ll start and end this talk with verses from Transmission of Light, one of Zen’s koan collections. This opening verse is from Case 7:
Though there be the purity of the Autumn waters
Extending to the horizons,
How does that compare with the haziness
Of a spring night’s moon?
Most people want clear purity,
But though we sweep and sweep,
The mind is not yet emptied.
I hear many people say they’ve tried to meditate, but have given up because they can’t stop their thoughts.
This is a misconception of what’s supposed to be happening in meditation, and I’m sure it’s one of the biggest reasons people don’t start or give up.
There’s nothing wrong with thoughts or thinking. Thoughts are just the mental activity that arises all the time. Thinking is giving our full attention to thoughts; conjuring thoughts, engaging with them, directing them. Our capacity for thinking is marvelous and immensely useful.
And, many of us, much of the time, are trapped in an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, in which our endless internal dialogue is all we perceive, and our main way of knowing ourselves.
In meditation, we take the lid off of this echo chamber, this hall of mirrors. In meditation, we see and hear this dialogue, and we discover it is not all there is. In fact, it’s just one feature of what is.
And, in truth, it isn’t a particularly good portrait of who and what we are. It’s an isolating perspective. For all the good our thinking sometimes can achieve, it also can contribute greatly to our own and others’ suffering, when we only inhabit the myopic world of thought.
So, what are we doing in meditation as we take up the practice? Well, in a nutshell, we don’t try to stop or resist thought or other mental activity — but we do gently relax its grip on us when we find ourselves lost in thought. We don’t engage with our thoughts or other mental activity the way many of us tend to do reflexively at other times.
So, for example, if I notice the thought “this seems to be going well” or “that was a car passing,” I don’t respond to that thought with another one. When I think “this seems to be going well,” I don’t then actively think, “but I’m going to bail early if my foot won’t wake up, because I’ll fall over when it’s time for walking meditation.” When I think, “that was a car passing,” I don’t then choose to think, “I wonder if that was Ginny coming home from the grocery store.” I just gently return my attention to my breath. If the response comes anyway, I just gently return to my breath after that.
If my lower back hurts, I don’t think about whether it’s okay to reposition a bit, I just do the least needed to reposition.
Sometimes you’ll hear it said that very experienced meditators reliably go through every meditation period with a completely quiet mind; without mental activity. This is simply not true. I know this from my own experience.
(Brain scientists are learning that meditation alters patterns of brain activity over time, rather than quieting mental activity altogether—whatever that might mean.)
Sure, there will be times and states that seem more clear and spacious, in which thoughts arise less frequently and assertively, and in which our attention is more relaxed, still, undisturbed, and focused, but focused on nothing in particular. These times may become more frequent and last longer over years of regular practice. Our tendency to get trapped in loops of discursive thinking will diminish, and when that sort of mental activity occurs, one likely will be quicker to notice, and to disengage. But a completely quiet mind? Without thoughts, ever? No.
What we eventually experience, as a sort of base stage to which one returns, is a relaxed, receptive (but non-striving) alertness. It will feel open, spacious, grounded, calm.
It’s not a blankness, or fog, or half-sleep sort of nothingness.
If you just find yourself being less anxious about periods when the thoughts keep coming, or of active thinking, that’s progress. When you eventually find yourself unconcerned about whether you’re making progress, even better.
What’s happening in meditation isn’t mainly happening on the plane of thought anyway. The goal isn’t perfect mind control, whatever that might mean.
Our problem in meditation, even at the beginning, isn’t thoughts. Our problem is thinking the problem is thoughts. Being sure that, in meditation, as in the rest of our lives, I’m doing it wrong; that there’s something wrong with life, and with me.
The very part of oneself that brings some of us to Zen practice is also the very part that tries to sabotage Zen practice once we start it. It’s the part that compels us to search for something other than this, because this just couldn’t be right or enough, could it?
We judge Zen and our practice just like we judge everything else. And it creates distance. Separation. It separates me from my own life.
On the other hand, Zen and other contemplative practices are sometimes criticized for being anti-intellectual and quietistic, in part because of this suggestion that thinking—and, particularly, rational thought, which has been so fetishized since The Enlightenment, which is such an ironic term for Zen types like us—defines what it is to be human, or at least what is best about being human.
But Zen has no issue with thoughts and thinking. Its leading lights have produced endless volumes of conceptual, discursive literature, and they show no sign of stopping. Some of our practices other than meditation invite reflection, like certain verses, such as the Meal Gatha (in which we’re asked to reflect upon how our food comes to us) and our dedications (in which we’re asked to remember specific other people and commit our practice to their memory or well-being).
Zen is not anti-intellectual, but its core practices—meditation and koan introspection—aim to help us grasp what thinking cannot.
We tend to see our intellects as the whole of who and what we are and intellectualism as our only, or as our best and highest, capacity. Because of this tendency, we may believe we can think our way out of or through everything. Many of us come to a practice like Zen in search of something we think thinking will help us find, and so we tend to approach practice that way.
In reality, our thinking mind tends to spin up predicaments and dilemmas that aren’t there, and then tries to think our way out of them, which thinking can’t do. Our thinking creates the hall of mirrors then tries to plot our escape from it.
But we can’t think our way out of the existential trap our—amazing and otherwise useful!—capacity for thought thinks we are in.
The Zen path invites us to step off that hamster wheel.
Zen exposes our questions and dilemmas as baseless, as hollow—as empty! It acquaints, or re-acquaints, us with the possibility of a different, and ultimately more satisfying, experience. One that’s always right here, right now.
The Zen path doesn’t really lead to answers to our questions. Rather, our intellectual questions tend to lose their force, sometimes swiftly, sometime slowly. They begin to lose their death grip on us as we begin to touch our own experience differently. As a different way of relating to life, of being in the world begins to take hold of us; as we begin to develop a different sense of who and what we are.
Buddha. Or, as Meister Eckhart said, “Though we don’t realize it yet, we are all sons and daughters of God.”
This new sense isn’t any less intellectual than our sense of sight. We can get very brainy about seeing, and analyzing and describing sight, but that is thinking about our sense of sight, not sight itself.
This new state of being, or orientation to life, isn’t any less intellectual than our sleep state. We can get very brainy about sleep, and analyzing and describing sleep, but that is thinking about our sleep state, not sleep itself.
We have no quarrel with sight and sleep, but most of us struggle to stick with meditation and Zen practice. Most of us struggle with our experience of life. We need to give up the fight, and our practice—with which many tend to struggle, to fight, at first—helps us do that.
Don’t let your practice become part of the struggle. Go easy on yourself. Lower your expectations at first. Sit for five minutes a day at first, if that’s all you feel you can manage initially, but stick with it. Every day, or most days, at least. When you feel you’re ready for five minutes more, start sitting for 10 minutes a day. Lower the bar enough to sustain your practice. Don’t judge it; just do it.
My 11-year old daughter sometimes fights sleep, even as she seeks it. I tell her that thinking about not falling asleep—the loop she gets stuck in, telling herself she can’t do it—is what’s keeping her awake. A few times I’ve laid next to her, holding her and encouraging her to follow her breath into sleep. At other times, she lies alone struggling. Either way, she eventually falls asleep! And then she has sleep, she is sleep, instead of being captive to thoughts about sleep and no sleep. Her fear of letting go into sleep has lost its grip.
Meditation practice is the same way. There have been countless times over my years of meditation practice—in the early days, or in the seventh hour of the first day of sesshin, or on the seventh day of sesshin—when I was struggling so; when the thought “I can’t make it” would arise. Then, “Ding! Ding!” The session was over. A session of mostly struggling and discomfort as meditation. And, then, getting up and carrying on with the rest of the day, the rest of the retreat . . . as meditation.
Zen, and what it reacquaints us with, is nothing other than this vital life we are living, right here, right now. Through our practice, we come to know and live life so intimately, and not as an “it,” as an object to our subject. Subject-object is not the mode in and through which we experience or comprehend life most deeply. Rather, we come to experience life neither in subject-object mode or not in subject-object mode—trusting life “in our bones,” in and as every fiber of our being, in and as every breath we take and release, without thinking about it. Matter. Of Fact. The Great Matter.
Best as we can tell, the historical Buddha merely called this state and sense “awake.” When people asked him what he was, and what made him different than other sages, he didn’t allow them to project anything too exalted on him. He simply said he was awake—and he no doubt knew what it meant to be truly awake.
Zen practice, including meditation, helps us let go of our fear of being alive, of being truly awake to life itself, as opposed to our ideas about life and how it should be. Fear of life loses its grip on us, just as my daughter loses her fear of sleep as she melts into it, whether she goes struggling or not.
Now, about everything I’ve just said:
Please don’t receive it in the mode of “too much thinking,” as my old Kyudo (Zen archery) teacher used to say. That’s what he would say when I released a shot that didn’t come from a heart centered in the place I’ve been talking about, even if the arrow happened to hit the target. I hope what I’ve just said speaks to your heart, more than your head. A heart centered in that place is the target. The target is life itself. Your life.
As promised, I’ll close with another verse, this one from Case 9 in the Transmission of Light:
Even Manjusri and Vimalakirti could not talk about it,
Even Maudgalyayana and Shariputra could not see it.
If people want to understand the meaning themselves,
When has the flavor of salt ever been inappropriate?
Meditation is what’s happening now.
Sitting meditation (zazen) is what’s happening now, while I’m sitting.
Whatever is happening.
This an an approximation of a talk I gave on May 31, 2017 at Bright Sea Zen, the sangha led by my dear friend, Kate Hartland.
“The meaning of zazen, the enlightenment and liberation of all living beings, is not brought forth by the power of personal effort and is not brought forth by the power of some other. Zazen doesn’t start when we start making effort, doesn’t stop when we stop.
We can’t do it by ourselves, and nobody else can do it for us.”
From “Guidance in Shikintaza,” by Reb Anderson
I want to use this passage from one of our chants tonight to talk about the notion of ceaseless practice.
The universe practices ceaselessly. Everything that’s happening right here, now – everything that’s happening everywhere – is the universe’s practice. The universe is universing. This is Buddha’s practice. It is Buddha nature expressing itself.
Buddha nature expresses itself ceaselessly. The universe practices ceaselessly. E ndlessly flows forth; erupts; gives its all; gives it all up for the sake of . . . giving it all up.
Kate and I just had a nice visit at her house before our sit. She definitely delivered on her promise to make a wicked grilled cheese sandwich. The sandwich and time with her were a real treat, yet the main event was a tour of Kate’s beautiful garden. Kate is an avid gardener, as I suspect you know. I’ve always appreciated and admired the way so much of her teaching is inspired by what nature teaches her.
Kate’s garden is radiant now. Many of the flowers are erupting. The universe erupting as Kate’s flowers.
And, later in the year, when the flowers die, their death is the universe erupting, too.
It’s the same with us. Each of us is the universe universing. We are flowers blooming. Our lives – our thoughts, speech and action – are the universe erupting. And our deaths are the universe erupting, too.
And, yet, many of us, much of the time, don’t seem to regard our lives this way. We have this gnawing sense of separateness, of isolation, of not-okayness. And we often, in more or less unconscious ways, respond anxiously to this sense, and often in ways that tend to compound it. We take refuge in thought, speech or conduct, in situations we create or gravitate toward, that are about escaping from the here-and-now. That aren’t about nearness to it and intimacy with it.
Why is this? I don’t know. In some religious worldviews, it’s a mark of our fallen nature. In some, it’s a pathology; a kind of sickness.
I’m more inclined to see it in the spirit of what Zen types call the “samadhi of play.” Why shouldn’t the one wish to flow forth and know itself in the many; in and as myriad dharmas, “the 10,000 things”; as you and me? And why shouldn’t the many, why shouldn’t you and I, truly feel distinct and separate, with the twinge of discomfort that entails (even as it also creates opportunities for joy). And why shouldn’t all delight in discovering, and constantly rediscovering, oneness-in-manyness and the boundless love manifested in and generated through all this?
But these are just ideas, and, so far as I can tell, the universe universing doesn’t seem to be dependent upon my own or anyone else’s ideas about it.
This is the “we can’t do it for ourselves” part. We can’t do it for ourselves, because it’s already done. From this perspective, there’s nothing at all to do. Polishing ourselves – trying to be wiser, more virtuous, more spiritual; shinier, newer or whatever – it’s all futile from this perspective. This is a come-as-you-are universe. The universe goes on erupting, despite and as our efforts, whatever our efforts may or may not be.
So why practice? We practice because of the opportunity it provides to become more and more aware of the universe universing, and to discover ourselves as participants in the universe universing. It helps us not to resist our participation, just as we are here and now. To attune. Zazen tends to help us attune.
This is the “nobody else can do it for us” part. Nobody else can live our lives, and nobody else can sit for us. Nobody else can practice for us.
Sitting is optional . . . we’re part of it all, no matter what, and the universe goes on practicing as me, whether or not I sit. Yet this attunement, this particular quality of willing participation, can matter so much personally and collectively. So much individual and collective suffering is attributable to our resistance; to our attempts to take refuge in someplace other than this. Someplace we think promises something more.
The quality of our lives – our thought, speech and actions – may begin to change as we attune. The universe goes on erupting despite our efforts and as our efforts, no matter what, but we do have agency. We participate. We have the ability to influence the universe erupting as our efforts.
So what we realize from our practice is simply that we are part of the universe’s ceaseless practice. We realize that we are already home. That we are practicing ceaselessly, too.
This isn’t exactly a destination, at least not in the way we’re accustomed to thinking about destinations. The universe’s practice is completely open-ended. And our practice must take on this open-ended quality, too.
Time and again in our practice, we must confront the idea that there is a goal, a destination, an ultimate point. This idea can arise in many different ways, sometimes with a positive, sometimes with a negative tinge: a belief that there’s something wrong with my sitting practice, or that my practice is going really well; a belief that I’m virtuous or not virtuous; a belief that I’m not enlightened and never will be or that I’m finally realized.
However this idea arises time and time again, time and time again we must let it go.
So it’s all sort of like the line in that old folk spiritual: “My life goes on in endless song. How can I stop from singing?” The universe goes on universing as me no matter what. Goes on in endless song. So why not sing in tune?
As we let go of our gaining ideas over and over and over again (including our gaining ideas about supposedly losing), we tend to begin to manifest a positive quality of poverty of spirit. By this I mean simply that we become more at ease with our practice and with ourselves and our lives. We tend to increasingly practice without striving.
Another word for this quality of practice with poverty of spirit is reverence. Simple reverence. Reverence with a light touch. Reverence with a sense of humor. Reverence that is loving, but not too precious.
Reverence for the 10,000 things. Reverence for your own life and experience. Reverence for others’ lives and experiences.
Experiencing things this way is a cue that our personal practice is aligning with the ceaseless practice of the whole universe.
The universe, you and me practicing together. Each breath. Each step. Each supernova bursting. Each grilled cheese sandwich. Each flower blooming. Ceaselessly.
We just removed the training wheels from my son’s bike. He’s still more than a bit wobbly, but he’s making progress.
For many reasons, learning to ride a bike is a terrible analogy for learning to mediate. Among other problems, it suggests that there are those who are proficient at it, and those who are not; that there are novices and adepts.
Our son is an expert at wobbly bike riding. His wobbly bike riding is perfect just as it is.
And, yet, his bike riding form is changing, and changing in a way we recognize as progress, as part of a natural progression in bike riding. His training wheel-free bike riding likely will become less wobbly; or, rather, the wobbles will become less pronounced. His instinctive recovery from an endless string of little wobbles will be almost imperceptible to him and to others, and he’ll recover more easily from the less frequent, bigger wobbles.
(Except when he doesn’t.)
Meditation practice tends to follow a progression, as well. In our little branch of the Zen family, those new to meditation practice are encouraged initially to use one’s breath as a sort of stabilizing device.
The basic instruction for meditation practice, as James Ford is fond of saying, is simply to “sit down, shut up, and pay attention.” Doing that for 25 minutes can be surprisingly difficult as one takes up this practice.
Paying attention suggests paying attention to something, and, for most of us, ordinary “paying attention mode” tends to require a focal point something. A something we attempt to attend to continuously, or at least that we return to when we feel our attention has drifted.
I pay attention to the ball in soccer.
I pay attention to the words on the page as I read.
I pay attention to you when we’re conversing.
Enter the breath in early meditation practice. We’re not encouraged to concentrate on it, to dissect and discern all its subtle features, but it serves as a point of reference to which we can return when we seem to be drifting away from other features of our experience.
(In some Buddhist traditions, one attends to one’s posture, or to the rising and falling of one’s diaphragm with the breath, or to something different still. Same idea.)
Initially, we invite people to count each breath gently until one has counted to ten, and then to repeat. One might then count only in-breaths for some number of months, and then switch to out-breaths.
Eventually one drops the counting altogether. We’re invited to give up this attentiveness to one’s breath entirely, and not to fill in the blank with some other reference point.
To push the bike riding analogy a bit further before exhausting its usefulness, we might think of this transition not as dropping the training wheels, but as letting go of the handlebar. Letting go of the handlebar, we’re no longer capable of steering toward or away from something with the same decisiveness and agility. Bike riding becomes a less directed experience, in which we’re more vulnerable to what may come, even if we feel a paradoxical sense of stability poised upright on the seat.
Shikintaza, or “just sitting,” as this later approach to meditation is known, is the practice to which one typically progresses within BoWZ and some other Zen streams. One way to think of it is as meditation without the steering mechanism – or, better yet, meditation without a preference for steering or not steering.
Shikintaza is not a technique. Oh, I suppose there are elements of technique in this practice, but the technique is very spare, and very practical.
As with counting-the-breath practice, one sits in a stable position (normally on a meditation cushion, though a chair also is fine, as is standing). One remains reasonably still. Eyes are open – mainly so we’re not closing that window on the world, as closing ourselves to the world is the antithesis of what we’re doing in meditation – but one doesn’t look around.
That’s pretty much it for technique.
So, what if one’s mind drifts while “just sitting”?
Well, for starters, now we know we’re human.
But, what should one do about it?
There’s no need to do anything. We’re not seeking any particular experience in shikintaza – certainly not an experience of “25 minutes in which my mind doesn’t wander,” as if that were possible, and not even some experience of “not seeking any particular experience.”
Noticing our attention was “there” and now it’s “here,” we don’t bring ourselves back to anywhere or anything in particular. The noticing, and whatever follows it, and whatever follows that: that’s it.
The rain falls.
The baby cries.
The mind wanders.
Here is all there is. Here isn’t some void we need to fill in anxiously. (The void is full, in case one hasn’t noticed.) Even when we’re in “fill in anxiously mode,” we don’t need to overwrite that.
Shikintaza, just sitting, is simply being here, now. Our breath is part of what’s here now, but we don’t privilege it in shikintaza.
Shikintaza is simply letting one’s experience be its own reference point – trusting this, wobbles and all.
There are wobbles after we let go of the handlebars.
And even the wobbles are rock solid.
I didn’t attend Boundless Way Zen’s weeklong sesshin this year. It ended today.
I found myself “participating” sympathetically throughout the week, sometimes almost telepathically.
I was really missing our sesshin-attending sagha-mates at Tuesday night’s sit at the Greater Boston Zen Center. My legs became strangely tight and painful, much like they would after days on retreat, and not at all like I normally experience after 20+ years of 1-2 25-minute sits most days.
Sitting at home during the week, I sometimes felt like I was sitting in the zendo at the Boundless Way Temple, where our sesshins occur.
Lying in bed one night, I could almost hear the day’s closing chants, which end with this stark, ghostly reminder of how precious this life-time is:
“Let me respectfully remind you: Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken… awaken! Take heed! Do not squander your life.”
Long sesshins are wonderful. I have benefitted immensely over the years from the many week+ retreats I’ve attended — intensive practice periods, during which one sits and meets with teachers from early morning until late at night. I look forward to attending more of them in the future.
And extended, leisurely periods of time with family and friends, or with oneself, also are wonderful. For many Zen practitioners, and perhaps mainly for those of us with younger children and/or spouses who are not Zen practitioners (sympathetic, like my wife, though they may be), devoting a full week to sesshin each year can be a real challenge.
Most people still in the workforce have limited vacation time, and vacations may need to be coordinated with school schedules and a spouse’s schedule. Even if one can arrange time for sesshin, a week at a Zen retreat may mean a week of family vacation lost.
This is my current reality. We have school-age kids. I have missed a week of family vacation time for the past several years by attending our weeklong sesshin. My family is truly supportive of my Zen practice, and yet this just feels like too much. It certainly feels like a huge loss from my perspective, even though I know there’s much to be gained from intensive periods of practice.
One of the big projects inherent in Zen’s migration west — one of the big opportunities we’re presented — is about adaptation of the traditional forms and practices to this new context-era. Numerous features distinguish this new context-era from those in which the traditional forms and practices evolved, but perhaps none is more prevalent and salient than the relative leveling of lay life/practice and the path of priestly and/or monastic life/practice.
This leveling has many causes and many implications. It is bound up with other progressive trends, like democratization and increasing gender equality, in ways that make them impossible to separate entirely.
The practice of sesshin developed in context-eras in which there were sharp distinctions between the laity and monastics, whether they be lifelong monks or young men spending some months or some small number of years in a monastery as a rite of passage.
And these monks were mostly childless men. If the monastic life was their permanent vocation, it was their livelihood, their work. They begged and contributed to the institution’s other income producing endeavors throughout their lives. If they were passing through, they begged and contributed to those same endeavors while they were there, knowing they would eventually return to lay (and likely family) life and some form of work less conducive to spending weeks or months on a cushion all day.
Fast forward to today . . .
On the one hand, a week isn’t a long period of time, particularly compared to the month+ retreats that are common in many Asian monasteries, even still.
On the other hand, see above.
From one perspective, perhaps there is something to be said for making a stoic effort to attend longer retreats, despite family and work obligations and opportunities, but I’m not much moved by that perspective.
These sorts of discussions and thoughtful experimentation are happening within BoWZ, and I’m very excited to be part of this organization and this project. In addition to our annual weeklong sesshins, we have several shorter sesshins each year and numerous daylong intensives.
The weeklong (or longer) retreats truly are wonderful. For some, “shifts happen” in these longer, intensive periods of practice, and perhaps would be less likely to happen for them in another context. Bonds develop.
And, I must say, in recent years I have found my most profound shifts happening, and my most transformative bonds developing, within the context of family life. Of course, Zen practice, including the weeklong sesshins I’ve attended, has been hugely supportive of this. That’s the point, as BoWZ’s teachers continually remind us.
One of the really exciting and heartening things about this BoWZ project is the community’s recognition that Zen practice needs to work in the context of people’s ordinary lives. Indeed, that Zen is our ordinary lives.
And, yet, there is a tradition that we have received, and that tradition transmits to us a treasure trove of forms and practices that people have found powerfully useful for awakening to the full richness of this ordinary life. The adaptation/experimentation project is tricky.
It’s important not to cling slavishly to traditional forms, holding up intensive practice — the longer and more frequent and more ardent, the better — as “real Zen.” And it’s important not to dilute the forms down to nothing. They’re nothing in one sense, of course, and yet most definitely not nothing.
At least until our youngest (who’s now four) goes to college, I suspect my rhythm will be marked by frequent short retreats and daylong sits, and only very occasional long sesshins. I settled down relatively late in life, and I am fortunate to have participated in many longer retreats before starting a family.
Every Zen practitioner should experience longer retreats. If one feels one benefits from them and can swing it, one definitely should participate in them regularly. Looking over the arc of my 20+ years of sitting practice, I now see them not as more valuable than other forms of practice, but as differently valuable — and as having been differently valuable particularly at specific points in my own journey.
For those who find that hard to do or otherwise legitimately undesirable, however, I’m very interested in seeing us continue to develop adapted forms of intensive and/or extended practice that offer folks some of the immense benefits of longer intensives in more flexible packages. Not as a substitute for sesshins, but as a complementary sort of opportunity. The wonderful, much westernized, “drop in and out freely” Ango practice period that’s occurred at the temple (and, simultaneously and by extension, at many of our homes) the past couple of years is a marvelous example of this.
I look forward to the time when longer sesshins fit more comfortably into the parameters of my life. And, in the meantime, I really look forward to those family vacations.
And to continuing to be a part of this living, communal project of ours . . .
Sit on my cushion.
Set timer for 25 minutes.
Pick up timer to make sure it started.
Of course it started.
Set timer down.
Lots ‘o stuff percolating.
Settling . . .
Stuff and settling . . .
Time passing. Life happening.
Noticing mind-and-body not really Mind. And. Body.
Not noticing noticing . . .
Just noticing . . .
Noticing . . .
. . . stuff.
A ways back I said sitting is bad for you.
I was talking about sitting at a desk all day, but I mused that meditation retreats, during which one may sit on a cushion for 8-10 hours daily, might be bad for us in similar ways.
I actually doubt that (though I obviously don’t know for sure). The studies of office workers examined subjects who sit 8 hours a day or more, five days a week, 48+ weeks a year, year in, year out. It’s hard for me to believe that a week on sesshin could shorten one’s lifespan if one isn’t sedentary during the other 51 weeks of the year.