Guidelines for Studying the Way

Adapted from a dharma talk given at Yokoji during the May 7-day sesshin.

Good morning. Thank you for making the effort to come to sesshin. It is good to see familiar faces and new faces. Each person has made efforts to be here and even a couple of days, the weekend, a single day, or an hour, is enough. As it says in the precautions, “The reward is one’s whole-hearted effort.”  The emphasis is upon being fully alive in this expression. Here, at the Zen Center, we maintain the traditional forms— somewhat simplified and always slowly being refined to reach the people of the day. For us, the concentration, the foundation of the practice, is zazen. All activity can be realized as zazen. This is the most direct method. This direct appreciation is most easily seen, recognized, and realized in the practice of still, upright sitting. Sitting together as a group cultivates great energy and true refuge. What we do with this period of time is really ours—it is in our hands. There is real freedom here. If we continue constructing the story of our life—what we’re going to do next, where we’re going to be next, what we’re going to do next week, continuously mulling over the concerns of our present circumstances, then we miss something. We miss the deeper experience that is always here, always alive, always now. Each strike of the bell is a reminder, a call to attention. Where are we? Are we here? Or are we off somewhere else spinning webs and creating stories?

I would like to bring up a few words from Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto tradition in Japan. It’s a miraculous thing, a wonderful thing, that these teachings and this way has been maintained over these centuries and comes down now into our hands. It is our responsibility—maintained and continued because it works. The forms that we uphold have been shown to be effective in awakening people—awakening people to life as it is, to what is real.  In service this morning in the dedications, we mentioned the historical founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha. The word “Buddha” means awakened one. It’s important to really understand that. It does not just refer to a figure from the distant past, and certainly not to someone who was better or more special than this one. Each person here is that. Whether it is realized or not is the work of sesshin.

The thought of enlightenment has many names, but they all refer to one and the same mind. The mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment. Master Dogen speaks to the human experience. Each day, each week, brings news and proof of our uncertain world of birth and death. All things, on the level of form, come and go. How are we to be satisfied? How are we to be at home in impermanence? The arising of such a question is way-seeking mind in itself. The precautions shared at the beginning of sesshin, remind us that all those who come to sesshin have way-seeking mind. Each person’s motivation and ingredients are a little different. The drive to come to a practice like Zen, to learn meditation, to sit, is a little different for everybody. What is it we wish to attain? Is there separation there? Is there something that needs to be realized or understood? It is good to honestly look at one’s motivation for practice. What is it? What’s missing? Is there some lack?

When we sit zazen, we find a posture which works for us, for our physicality, whatever that is. And then we begin the period of sitting. That is when the contract is made. The contract is renewed, over and over. We can sit there, constructing endlessly, pursuing the thought stream, endlessly pulling on one thing, pushing away another. Intrinsically, that’s fine. The world continues to turn, the sun shines down, something is unperturbed. We can do that. We can continue to spin the wheels.  But that is not the practice of zazen. Direct attention into being in itself. Notice what is real through the lens of the breath, the miracle of breathing, so easily taken for granted until it’s not there anymore or struggled for. To just sit and notice and experience breathing is enough. The mind begins to settle down. When we sit, how about allowing all things, inside and out, to be as they are—without prejudice, without a value system? The breath is a skillful way to drop an anchor into presence when we sit. At some point, though, to really sit, we let go of all method, all ways, and go directly to the living experience of this, which, so often, we find fault with. We’d rather be doing something else or we’d rather be feeling or thinking something else. When we sit, we have the direct content of mind revealed. We can see, if we pay attention, how our mind is grabbed by certain stimuli and how we are pulled off into our conditioned preferences, opinions, and judgments.

Always, there are challenges. Always, there is the unexpected. Always, things have the appearance of arising and passing away. We can turn that over and take each Dharma, each manifestation of this life, as teaching. We can sit, live, and suffer with the forms of life or each form can become the vehicle for liberation, illuminating what this is now. With practice, we cease manipulating this reality and relentlessly bending what comes in the gate through the lens of our own conditioned patterns. Can we leap clear of that tendency or push directly through? Whatever poor metaphor approaches it, each of us has to find that for ourselves.

Practicing Zen is zazen. For zazen, a quiet place is suitable. Lay out a thick mat. Do not let in drafts or smoke, rain or dew. Protect and maintain the place where you settle your body. Set aside all involvements and let the myriad things rest. Master Dogen gives practical instructions. This is essential in zazen and is not restricted to just being on a zafu, or at the Zen Center. We have so many involvements! If you’re anything like me you have a hundred million things going on, all calling for attention, and they’re not insignificant on the level of things! On the level of form, there are all kinds of things to be taken care of in this life that we are. I read somewhere that in a day a modern human receives more varied stimuli than a hunter-gatherer would have received in a year.  There is so much pouring in all the time. It is essential to return to that which is intrinsic, that which is vast and empty. No matter the contents, no matter the noise, no matter how many things are going on, there is always enough room. Follow Master Dogen’s instructions. Take that living vow, on the cushion to set involvements aside and let all things rest.

If you can do it, if you can make that real, then that is zazen! If you can do it sitting, you can do it walking, you can do it driving, you can do it while on the phone and trying to listen to somebody else at the same time—the mind will conform to the present activity. All that is required is to meet it directly. And be here for it. This is the real turning point—set all involvements aside. If that’s not done, you are always slave to the circumstances. There’s always something else to do there—until there’s not! Let the myriad things rest. Zazen is not thinking of good; it is not thinking of bad. There’s no good zazen; there’s no bad zazen. Sometimes you hear someone say, “That was a good sit!”  What does that mean? Compared to what?  To sit when angry, to sit when tired or confused, to sit when fearful or jealous—to sit still in that is a test of strength! It is easy to sit still when feeling good, when feeling a little Samadhi, or feeling quite vast… but it’s not thinking of good and it’s not thinking of bad—it’s going right through, whatever this is. As Master Joshu said, “Can you value this without reservation?” These words are steep! Whatever is present, can you value it without reservation? Is it enough? Master Rinzai reminds us, “Put to rest the restlessly seeking mind, and you are no other than Shakya!” Shakyamuni Buddha put it to rest. And really, just one weekend, one period of zazen is enough to do that. Zazen is not conscious endeavor. It’s not trying to do something. It’s not trying to become someone or something. It’s not trying to lose something or gain anything at all. It is not doing.

The Daoist tradition has this wonderful expression—Wu-wei—which means Non-doing. It is who and what we are. It is not introspection. It is not turning in, analyzing, and weighing. There is no end to that. This has its place, but it is not the place of zazen to look for answers or solutions. Zazen is really to unobscure what is here, what our life is now, already—as it is. To put down the impulse to always look through the lens of thoughts, to always look through the lens of interpretation, and to directly experience this. We’re in a beautiful place to do that—big mountains, big sky, springtime, birds, rocks, the sunlight. There is no real excuse, is there? You have to work at being deluded. Just take a walk. Let the world in.  Let the environment wake you up.  Allow what is here to really come forth. In silence and in stillness you see it. If you ever walk into a wood by yourself, you might go crashing in there, maybe snap a few branches, but then you’re still.  You rest.  Maybe you sit down on a log. And you see all kinds of things—a trail of ants, a flower, the birds then start to come back. You sit a little longer. All life, everywhere, all things, coming forward. If you sit still long enough, maybe deer will come by. It is this way in zazen.  If we want to experience original self, then just be still and look. Original self is apparent.

Be mindful of the passing of time and engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire. A bit of a zealot, Master Dogen, of course, but he understands the passing of time. Sit solidly in Samadhi. Samadhi is one of these difficult words to translate. You could say concentrated absorption. Sit solidly in concentrated absorption. Concentrated doesn’t have to be small, it doesn’t have to be wide, it doesn’t have to be any size or shape. Just allow the mind to conform to whatever is thus. Each one of us has to find that art of zazen. Each one of us is a thinking machine, in a sense. We tend in our lives as human beings to put so much emphasis on what is between the ears, the activity of thought. As Uchiyama Roshi said, “the brain secretes thoughts.” That is what it does. In zazen you don’t have to buy into thoughts and attach value or no value at all. When you really sit, whether the mind is busy or quiet is irrelevant. The content of the mind is of no concern. What is of great concern is to sit still, sit straight, and notice, experiencing what is going on. Then you see, we see, how we draw the lines and chop the world up and obscure what is thus.

Zazen is the dharma gate of great ease and joy. It is undefiled practice enlightenment. The dharma gate of ease and joy—this is the standard Master Dogen lays down. Each one of us came in the gate here, whether 10 years ago, a month ago, a week ago, or at 10 o’clock last night for a couple of you. Each of us came through the gate to this place. We have these couple of days. We are literally inside this gate. Always, intrinsically, the gate is wide open. When you really look, you cannot find the gate—there is no barrier. So please be clear in your motivation and intention for zazen. If you wish to awaken fully, then awaken fully. No one can do it for you. Each person is in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, in order to realize this truth. Everyone. No one left out.