Zazen – a Japanese term meaning, ‘seated meditation’; Chan in Chinese; Dhyana in Sanskrit.
In Buddhism, the main purpose of mindful meditation is to awaken to how the world is (dharma) and to learn to live in harmony with how the world is – a world of impermanence, interdependence and conditionality.
Here are some notes on my own (JD) practice of zazen – a method of meditation I began in 1965, following the advice of Dogen’s essay, Fukan-zazengi. As I had no contact with local meditation, Zen or other Buddhist groups (there weren’t any in my area) for almost ten years, I worked alone, sitting for long hours and studying what texts I could find. In the early 1970s I did two or three retreats at Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland (a Soto Zen centre), and around 1975 I had some direct teaching from a Japanese Soto Zen monk who was travelling in the UK.
Since then, I have guided retreats, workshops and seminars (including at Sharpham College with Stephen & Martine Batchelor, and at the Institute of Oriental Philosophy in Berkshire), and I have undertaken other retreats myself, including with Thich Nhat Hanh (2012). For many years I considered my lack of formal Buddhist training during my early years, as a handicap, I now think those years spent sitting alone, may have been a very precious and beneficial period, during which concentration, discipline and patience became ingrained in my zazen practice.
I offer these notes in the light of my rather unusual experience – a homegrown, self-taught, somewhat sceptical Buddhist, with no affiliation to any formal school or teacher. Zazen itself has been my primary teacher – learning from experience.
I usually sit for between ten to twenty minutes (or walk or draw – zazen in other forms), focusing at first on the breath, particularly the outbreath. Gently letting go of the breath, allowing the diaphragm to contract in an unforced way. At a certain point, often almost unnoticeable, an in-breathing begins and the lower abdomen (tanden) expands, as the air enters and fills the lungs – again, gently and unforced. And so it goes on, experiencing clearly and cleanly the motions of the body, the breathing, the outbreath and inbreath.
If the mind is settled, this process simply continues – until there is no breather only the breathing. The field of awareness expands until attention is paid to everything going on within the body, and outside – until there is no inside and outside, just gentle breathing, alert and alive. In this way, at each breath, the world enters and leaves. As Shunryu Suzuki says, we are like a swinging door.
Every time we breath out, gently letting go of the breath, allowing it to fade away, we are letting go of the clinging self, the ego, discriminating mind, attachment. If we try to hang on to a breath, we can no longer breath, and we will eventually die. Likewise, the present moment is ungraspable – let it go.
If the mind is more restless or agitated, I count the outbreaths. Sometimes, one-two-three, one-two-three, over-and-over again, or counting one to ten repeatedly – until, eventually, there is no counter, only the counting, and then even the counting is let go of. This is good discipline, the art of concentration – a very useful aspect of zazen practice.
The purpose of zazen is to see our existence for what it is (dharma) – a ceaseless process of change and transformation, an endless flow of experiences dependent upon the infinite ever-changing universe that appears and disappears at each moment of consciousness. To realise clearly how the world is, we let go of our tendency to comment on our experiences or make judgments about them. We set aside our opinions, beliefs and chattering commentary, so that we can see what IS.
In zazen, it is important just to sit, to be present, embodied in the moment – not to sit in the hope of becoming someone else, or to become enlightened, or to become calm or happy or free. Sitting in zazen is to be all of those things in the act of sitting, breathing, being present and alive – there is no purpose outside of the act of sitting and being here. We sit just to sit.
As we sit there is no need to chase thoughts or feelings or hopes or regrets or memories or plans. A Zen teacher, Sekkei Harada, talks about shikan-taza, ‘sitting in a single-minded way’ – that is, of one mind, whole, complete unto yourself. Harada describes shikan-taza as: “to sit in a dignified manner, without being moved by what is seen, heard, or thought.” The mind isn’t jostled or disturbed by our experiences. Don’t dwell on what arises. Don’t prolong or cling to thoughts, feelings, moods and perceptions – practice ‘non-dwelling mind’. In this way events and perceptions don’t stick to us. Kodo Sawaki says, “in zazen we become transparent.”
A Zen poem goes: Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.
As we sit we’re neither doing this, nor that; neither thinking this, nor that. Taizan Maezumi says: “don’t develop or cling to any thought.” Thoughts, feelings and perceptions become like clouds moving across the sky – brief, ever-changing, without fixed substance or identity, always merging and becoming something new. In zazen we experience the ungraspable, indefinable, empty nature of being here, being present – things-as-they-are (tathata – suchness, the thingness of things). No picking or choosing, but accepting everything just as it is.
In this way, the ‘self’, what we consider to be me or mine, becomes transparent, or actually expands to encompass the whole of existence. By letting go of the observer, the author and the controlling voice, our mind and self drop away, and we are who we are – and all that we are not – there is no distinction between us and the world, between me and you, between everyday mind and Buddha mind. In letting go of the clinging self or acquisitive mind, we let go of habits and conditioning – little mind returns to big mind, everyday mind returns to Buddha mind.
To practice zazen is to be mindful, and being mindful is also to mind, to care for, to look after. When we say, ‘mind your head’, or ‘would you mind the children for me’, or ‘I do mind’ – we are saying we are attentive and will take care. Caring for, and kindness towards, oneself, other beings and one’s environment, seem to grow out of the practice of zazen. Compassion is not a separate quality, to be cultivated in its’ own right, but is rather an integral part of mindful meditation. When we practice zazen suffering is eased.
Our embodied mind is always in process. In zazen I experience, as clearly and unhindered as possible, the endlessly changing states of mind and body that are who, and what, I am. At times agitated, at times calm; sometimes focused, sometimes unfocused; one moment at ease, the next uneasy; looking back, looking forward. Ultimately, these varied states have the same value. They are not stages of development, or steps on a ladder of achievement, with the apex of the ladder being ‘enlightenment’. They all have the same value and can come and go within one session of meditation. It is important to attend to, and care for, all states within this process, without dwelling on any of them. Equanimity, as well as patience, concentration and presence, are qualities that zazen demands and engenders.
Zazen can be considered as dispassionate attention to the whole fluid field of consciousness – being PRESENT, rather than being ABSENT; being OPEN rather than CLOSED; being HERE, rather than SOMEWHERE ELSE; being AWAKE rather than ASLEEP.
Through sitting, breathing, and paying attention to the flow of everyday experience without being moved or disturbed, we wake up to this life in all its transient variety and uniqueness. Zazen practice has helped me to live more in harmony with the way the world is – with all its ups and downs, births and deaths, meetings and partings. This is the humdrum zazen I’ve practiced for over fifty years.