Yet more on zazen

When Dogen was in China (c. 1223-25), he met Rujing, a teacher who advocated a simple but powerful approach to meditation. Rujing said, “To study meditation …. Is to drop body and mind; it is single-minded intense sitting (shikantaza in Japanese) without burning incense, worshipping, reciting, practising repentance or reading sutras”1 – Dogen was so impressed with this advice he studied with Rujing for two years and experienced a profound awakening. He returned to Japan, in his words, ‘empty-handed …. Knowing nothing more than the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical – this is Dogen being ironic, for he learnt an enormous amount from Rujing. Dogen was to develop and teach Rujing’s method of no-method until his death in 1253.

Dogen shared with Rujing the belief that zazen was ‘authentic practice’, and that practice and awakening are one and the same – just as zazen and daily life are synonymous. Practice is enlightenment. Dogen emphasised that zazen is something we do – it is an activity, to be undertaken for its own sake – with no thought of chasing after enlightenment or nirvana. Enlightenment is innate in us, and the only way to realisation is to let go of chasing after it, or, desiring to be someone other than we are. Indeed, the Japanese terms for awakening, satori and kensho, mean to ‘see into one’s true nature’ – which is also one of the primary meanings of the word ‘dharma’. Dogen says, ‘stop pursuing words and letters’ – for there is no purpose to zazen, other than to sit and be present. To practice zazen is to return to one’s original, true, nature.

At the heart of zazen practice is what Dogen refers to as, ‘non-thinking’ (hishiryo) – that is, neither thinking (shiryo) nor not-thinking (fushiryu). We need to learn to let go of our habitual tendency to interfere, react, comment on, or make judgments about, what we experience from moment-to-moment – instead, we need to let things be. In this way we actualise our natural way of being, letting go of the insular ego or self and returning, or opening, to the fluid relational self that we are, yet so often lose sight of. This is the ‘Buddha-nature’ that Zen Buddhists often refer to.

The approach taken by Rujing and Dogen echoes the experiences and the teachings of the Buddha 2,500 years ago. When the Buddha was sitting under the Bo-tree in Bodhigaya, he realised that there is no need to look elsewhere for enlightenment, for it is right here where we are. We are all gifted with enlightenment or nirvana, we only have to wake up to this fact by letting go of attachments to theories, intentions, analyses and delusions of all kinds. Instead, embrace all opposites and dualities and sit single-mindedly in unity with the universe. Suspend judgment, sit quietly, pay attention and be the Buddha you have always been. Trust in your own nature.


1. The Awakening of the West by Stephen Batchelor, Parallax Press, 1994.