Why practice zazen?

There are, of course, many reasons for undertaking Zen practice. In this brief talk I will focus on one important purpose of zazen – zen meditation, and that is: to realise our true nature and to live in harmony with who we are.

In one of his many essays, titled, Genjokoan, the influential Japanese Zen teacher, Eihei Dogen, argues that to study the way of the Buddha is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to let go of clinging to body and mind and find we are at one with the whole universe. These are memorable words, but what does Dogen mean.

To practice zazen or mindful meditation is to observe, as clearly and dispassionately as possible, the ‘self.’ So, what do I notice when I sit quietly observing myself? First, I quickly realise that there is no enduring substance to my ‘self,’ my identity, who I am? There is only a movement of thoughts, feelings and sensations – sounds and smells, aches and pains, memories and images, ponderings on this and that, desires and hopes, endless chatter and snippets of ideas, fleeting anxieties and joys – and so on and so on – the activity of the mind – mental activity. This seems to be the self that I know most about, that I tend to identify with, and assume to be ‘who I am.’

But all this activity takes place in another dimension of myself – in the mind. The mind itself is the space in which this ‘selfing’ occurs. It is the ocean in which thought-fish flit about, where mood-currents twist and turn, where feelings open and close like sea-anemones, where memories float along like jelly-fish. And this oceanic-mind has no boundaries. It merges with other mind-oceans. It is open, fluid and permeable.

As my zazen experience grows, I begin to realise that this is a far larger, more spacious dimension of my self – it is, perhaps, my true nature, in which my chattering ego-self swims and flows. This dimension of the mind is often referred to as Buddha-mind or Buddha-nature, and it is always there, even if we lose sight of it and identify only with the restricted chattering self. Yes, the thoughts, feelings and sensations are part of ‘me.’ Yes, the chatter and mental activity are aspects of who I am. But I am also, and more fundamentally, the space in which this activity happens – the creative boundless space in which I am formed and re-formed moment-by-moment.

When I realise that this space is my boundless nature, I feel a freedom that is not there when I am confined within, or clinging to, my thoughts, feelings, desires and sensations. I feel a lightness, spaciousness and peace that is home to the mental activity and chatter but not disturbed by it. I also feel connected to the rest of existence, rather than separate from other beings and from the world. I feel a sense of unity and harmony, rather than disunity and conflict.

When we ‘study the self,’ as Dogen advises, we quickly realise that the self is not what we often think it is – we ‘lose the self.’ When we let go of this misguided notion of what the self is, we let go of false divisions and distinctions – we ‘let go of body and mind.’ When we let go of these false divisions and distinctions, we realise that there is no boundary to our minds, to the self – we realise that ‘we are at one with the whole universe.’

The Buddha spent over forty years teaching his students to let go of anger, craving and delusion – and one of the biggest delusions is to think that the chattering clinging self is all that we are.

The English poet, John Donne, who lived from 1572-1631, in one of his Meditations (XVII) conveys something of the spirit of this expanded view of the self. Donne writes: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ Later in the same poem he continues: ‘any man’s death diminishes me / because I am involved in mankind.’

Donne offers us a glimpse of the boundless self or Buddha mind – an experience which is open to anyone who can sit quietly and observe their own minds. In the simple words, ‘no man is an island,’ Donne reveals a deep understanding of the scope and breadth of himself, a self that is without boundaries, an oceanic mind that seems not far removed from Dogen’s description of Buddha mind.

It is this realisation of an expanded, spacious identity – with no definite boundary between self and world – that can be developed and experienced in the practice of zazen. I have tried to convey something of this awareness in these lines from a poem written a few years ago:

so many openings

through which the world



melts into me

only to flow on

into others, world

into self,

self into