Zazen, clearing & compassionate disinterest

I would like to discuss two quotes from the American poet and environmental activist, Gary Snyder. As well as being a very well-respected poet and writer, Snyder has first-hand experience of Zen meditation practice in Japan. Between 1956 and 1969, he made a number of visits to Japan, where he took up meditation in various Zen temples under the guidance of the abbots Miura Isshu and Oda Sesso. Oda was the abbot of Daitoku-ji one of the most important temples of the Rinzai school. Snyder described Oda as being the ‘subtlest and most perceptive man I’ve ever met…. his talks were inaudible, his voice was so soft. Yet, as one of the head monks at Daitoku-ji, said years later, “Those lectures of Oda that we couldn’t hear, I am now beginning to hear today.” The author of The Way of Zen, Alan Watts, also met Oda and said later: ‘having a conversation with him is like dropping a pebble in a well and never hearing it land. The soundless pebble in the bottomless well.’ (Wikipedia Oda Sesso 2021)

The first quote of Snyder’s is from a book introduction published in 1991. Snyder reminds his readers about the importance of zazen and meditation in general:

‘In this world of onrushing events the act of meditation – even just a “one-breath” meditation – straightening the back, clearing the mind for a moment – is a refreshing island in the stream. Although the term meditation has mystical and religious connotations for many people, it is a simple and plain activity. Attention; deliberate stillness and silence. As anyone who has practiced sitting knows the quieted mind has many paths, most of them tedious and ordinary. Then, right in the midst of meditation, totally unexpected images or feelings may sometimes erupt, and there is a way into total transparency. But whatever comes up, sitting is always instructive.’ (in Johnson & Paulenich 1991: 1)

I like Snyder’s very practical description of meditation and its benefits. His reference to ‘clearing the mind,’ is, in my experience, very apt. The practice of zazen is a very effective way of shedding, or letting go of, the superfluous clutter that is carried along by the mind in its day-to-day activity. The gentle, patient practice of bare attention or ‘just sitting’ clears the mind-stream of obstructions, and of the sediment that builds up as the residue of unnecessary and habit-formed thoughts and feelings. There is also another image of zazen as a process of entering a ‘clearing’ as in a forest – of developing clarity of vision and experience, and lucidity of thought and expression – like stepping into the light of a forest glade after walking through an old dark forest full of fallen trees and branches, tangled roots and scratchy, clinging brambles.

The second quote comes from later in the same text, Snyder makes a distinction between Zen meditation and prayer. He writes:

‘People often confuse meditation with prayer, devotion, or vision. They are not the same. Meditation as a practice does not address itself to a deity or present itself as an opportunity for revelation. This is not to say that people who are meditating do not occasionally think they have received a revelation or experienced visions. They do. But to those for whom meditation is their central practice, a vision or a revelation is seen as just another phenomenon of consciousness and as such is not to be taken as exceptional.’ (Johnson & Paulenich 1991: 2)

In zazen every experience is treated equally – with the same degree of bare attention, but no more. The non-dwelling mind observes but does not interfere, pays attention but does not cling to, or dwell on, any particular phenomenon. A kind of benign compassionate disinterest is practiced – a holistic awareness of all that comes and goes.


Johnson, Kent & Paulenich, Craig, eds. 1991. Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. London: Shambhala.

Sesso, Oda. 2021. Wikipedia entry on Oda Sesso: – accessed 20 June 2021.