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The Way of Zazen
by Rindo Fujimoto Roshi              Main Page

the text



In Japan there are three independent branches of Zen (Soto, Rinzai, and Obaku). All of these three are paths to the same goal and utilize the practice of zazen. Though the ultimate goal is the same for all Zen followers, means to that end differ somewhat.

There are different practices in each sodo; (1) however, I will describe those practices which I know from my own experience and which I use for my pupils. In spite of superficial disparities, I believe my experience contains no important or basic differences from the experience of others who practice zazen.

Dogen (Joyo Daishi), the founder of the Soto school of Zen, did not wish to create a new sect of Buddhism; he had no interest in sectionalism or sectarianism, and he did not even like the term "Zen." In his youth he studied under various masters in his own country. However, dissatisfied with his understanding he finally sought a master in China, and under this teacher he experienced enlightenment. When he returned to his own country, he established a meditation center in the mountains, where he strictly disciplined his disciples in accordance with the spirit of Buddhism. I would just like to add that seen with the Zen "eye," the roots of the Soto way are the Buddhist spirit itself. Without the "Zen eye," I believe it is impossible to grasp the spirit of Buddhist doctrine.

The appurtenances for Zen practice are as follows: first, a zafu, (2) a small round cushion, about one foot in diameter. Anyone who wishes to practice zazen should, if possible, have his own zafu.

Secondly, it is a good idea for beginners to have a pencil and a small piece of paper beside them during zazen. This, however, is not necessary. We remember many important things while sitting, and it is a good idea to make notes of the problems or important questions which come up. (3) Sometimes questions arise while we are reading or occupied in doing something and we resolve to think about them later. However, when later comes, we have forgotten the problems. During zazen many things come to mind and it is best to write them down immediately, in order to free the mind for zazen.

When we sit, it is not always in a formal sodo, and our arrangements must depend on the time and place. In this lecture I will take up both the form and content of sitting; these two should harmonize. Correct form (adjustment of body and breath) lead to the right state of mind. Ideally we should be able to sit at any time in any place.

Shakyamuni became enlightened through sitting practice; so we of the Zen school follow this way. In some other sects of Buddhism, doctrine or philosophy come before practice; in the Soto school, practice comes before theory. "Experiment" (4) is most important and it is necessary to follow the instructions of an experienced teacher.

Next I will take up the proper position of the body. Sitting on your cushion, put the right leg on the left thigh and then put the left leg on the right thigh. This is called the lotus position. If it is not possible to sit in this way, the left leg may be put on top of the right thigh. This position is called the formal half-paryanka (Skt.). It is "formal" because reference to it is found in the "Fukanzazengi" (5) or "Instructions for Zazen" by Dogen, the founder of the Japanese Soto school. I imagine that the reason for placing the left leg on top is because the left leg symbolizes quietness; the right leg symbolizes activity. It is also said that the left leg is a symbol of Fugen; (6) the right leg is a symbol of Monju. (7) Therefore the left leg is traditionally placed on the top. (8) Though the half-lotus position is acceptable, it is better to sit in the full lotus position (kekkafuza, Jap.) if it is possible for you. However, it is difficult and beginners in meditation quickly become very uncomfortable while sitting in this manner. In my temple, each individual sits in the way that is most comfortable for him. In other temples, one should ask permission if one wishes to sit in the half-lotus position, with the right leg on top.

Next, it is important to balance the body properly. One should swing one's body first to the right and then to the left. This will loosen and relax the sitter. Swinging from one side to the other will make the sitting position stable.

It is important that one's clothes be loose; they should not pull or bind anywhere (for example men's trousers). When we sit for a long time we get very stiff, especially during sesshin. (9) Even those who are accustomed to zazen often experience this difficulty. People unaccustomed to sitting often get spells of feeling sick during a very long session. Therefore it is a good idea to massage the lower waist before and after zazen.

I will now speak of the way to keep one's hands while sitting. The hand position (inzo) (10) is important; however, we should not concentrate on it and if the position changes while we are sitting, we should not allow this to absorb our attention. The correct position is as follows: rest the right hand, palm upward, against the abdomen just below the navel; and then put the left hand on the right hand in the same position. Put thumbs together for support.

Now, as for the upper part of the body, it is very important to keep the spinal column absolutely straight; the head is kept in a straight line with the backbone. The shoulders and upper part of the body should be loose and relaxed. The eyes are always kept open; one should look straight ahead, about six feet and the eyelids will naturally close a little. One should not try to look further than six feet as it will be impossible to quiet the mind. It is important not to keep one's eyes closed for more than a few minutes in order to avoid becoming sleepy or "lost." It is all right to close one's eyes for a short time if this helps to quiet the mind; however, it is not right to lose contact with the everyday world. Buddhists should remember that Shakyamuni was enlightened when he saw the light of the morning star; we should not forget that Samsara is Nirvana. (11) 

Correct breathing is important for zazen, for one must achieve harmony of mind and breath. Taiso Daishi believed that certain bad mental states were caused by lack of harmony between these two. Before zazen, a few very deep breaths help quiet the mind. Then after swinging one's body from side to side in order to achieve balance, one should again breathe deeply from the abdomen for a few minutes before returning to normal breathing. This normal breathing should be silent and not rough. It is important not to inhale too much air for a long period, as it is tiring.

In the Rinzai school, strong pressure on the abdomen (while breathing) is perhaps overemphasized. It is not right to cling to the idea of breathing in a special way. A few deep breaths should establish the center of gravity in the lower part of the body. First, inhale slowly through the nose, using the air to expand the abdomen as far as possible; then exhale slowly (through the nose) till the abdomen has again contracted. It is necessary that the center of balance be in the abdomen. Chikara, (12) which means force or power in the abdomen, is essential in all traditional Japanese physical culture.

I will now speak of the proper functioning of the mind during zazen. Beginners often ask me about their problems; however, it is very difficult for me to be of any help to them. Neither a short nor a complicated answer to peoples' questions is really helpful. It is all right to ask me questions, but it is not enough. One must experiment for oneself and then one will understand. After reading a book on the subject of swimming one must get in the water and find out about it first hand. A book cannot give one the experience.

There are various ways of "quieting" the mind. The first way is "putting the mind In the left hand," which means projecting the mind into the inzo, or hand position. The inzo symbolizes the Buddha. When our mind is in the inzo, the body and breathing will be right.

In Rinzai training, the kosoku koan (13) is used to quiet (to clear) the mind. This is a good way to cultivate the Zen way of seeing; however, I think it is better to develop the Zen condition by shikantaza. (14) This means devoting oneself solely to sitting; by quieting the mind and putting it in the. left hand. The "Zen eye" finds its source in the Zen condition, and the Buddha's enlightenment is not the Zen eye, but the Zen condition. In Soto Zen we just sit; this is the most natural way. The main aim of zazen is to "let go of mind and body"; however, Buddhists sometimes pay too much attention to the mind and therefore they cannot get rid of it. The kosoku koan may be useful; however, shikantaza is better because one has a tendency to cling to the koan and to one's mind. Although we should "put the mind in the left hand," we must not pay attention to the mind. When we pay too much attention to the left hand, we are preventing satori. When we consciously put the mind in the hand, it is wrong. There are various kinds of good meditation. Satori is beyond all of these, and it is necessary to pass through the many regions of the mind before enlightenment.

There are several stages of good meditation. These stages are only views on the way to the real satori experience. It is only possible to go through different kinds of meditation (states of mind) if one is faithful and keeps courage, and these states of mind are transcendable if we sit in right zazen. However they are not ideal states of mind, but states of mind on the way to enlightenment. Sometimes, they are wrongly understood as conditions of great satori, and one is apt to remain in them because they are happy conditions. however, a static enlightenment is an impurity. There is the Absolute Reality when we continue on, abandoning all. Mahayana Buddhists stress the spiritual world; on the other hand, some people do not recognize a spiritual world. In our Soto school, some monks claim that we need not discipline ourselves with zazen; they think we need only believe in our original Buddha nature and realize that we are full of defilements (Skt. klesa). From the point of view of faith we all have the Buddha nature or honsho (15) (original enlightenment); indeed, we are all complete Buddhas. And honsho myoshu (16) means that original enlightenment itself is myoshu or real practice. Both original enlightenment and practice are different names for the same thing, and so belief in original enlightenment is realized in the form of zazen practice and discipline. Awakening without practice or discipline does not exist. Dogen's way is continued practice, which is an expression of original enlightenment and not just a means to an end. The only real practice is forgetting enlightenment; this is the real honsho myoshu. Therefore, he who disregards practice should not be called a Buddhist.

There are many sects of Buddhism and they are divided by different ways of discipline. In the Soto school we call the apogee of Buddhist doctrine honsho myoshu. In this belief we practice from the beginning. Therefore, we do not set any special stages to enlightenment and we do not emphasize doctrine. When we speak of putting the mind in the left hand, we speak in the spirit of honsho myoshu. If one puts his mind in the left hand with conscious attention on the mind or on the left hand, relativity results. We should sit in zazen forgetting the mind and the left hand.

In shikantaza one has a tendency to fall into a negative zazen which results in apathy and sleepiness. In order to avoid this we use a koan called genjo (lit. meaning: accomplished in the present) which means that the present, just as it is, is the reality of our ideal world. The man who clings to life suffers in this phenomenal world since he cannot see beyond phenomena. However, the enlightened ones see through the relative world with all its limitations to the absolute and infinite reality, and therefore are able to reside in this phenomenal world as a spiritual realm. The enlightened one and the sufferer who clings to transient phenomena see the same world in a different way. This is a wonderful question and therefore it is called a koan.

Beginners in zazen usually find their minds confused and disturbed. This is natural. There are two great obstacles to zazen. The first is konjin, (17) which means depression or a kind of melancholy. When a beginner experiences konjin, it is usually in the form of sleepiness. Experienced sitters who have calmed and quieted their minds sometimes feel faint. And if the zazen condition deepens more, the sitter may fall into musojo, (18) or "no consciousness." Some people believe that the zazen mind is simply loss of consciousness; however, this is wrong. In the right zazen mind, all aspects of consciousness do not function, but this does not mean unconsciousness as in sleep. The mind condition in zazen is called "shonen sozoku," (19) or the "succession of right-mindedness." This is different from the "no-mindedness" which implies no consciousness. It is a good thing to calm the waves of the mind; however, a sleepy or dead condition, is a kind of konjin. Some people feel they are in a deep fog or melancholy. One must rid one's self of such mental conditions.

The second obstacle to zazen is called joko. (20) For beginners this means to be in a fidget with many thoughts or ideas running through the mind. There are two types of mind waves: the first, ideas created by oneself from inside; the second, those which come from outside through the senses. Those who have experience in zazen may feel great elation; they may jump up from their cushions believing they have attained enlightenment. This can result from sitting intently in the wrong way. Or, they may see the great light of the Buddha (21) and feel grateful and ecstatic. Such experiences are serious obstacles; they must be overcome as quickly as possible.

These conditions are sometimes thought to be enlightenment; however, they are the result of bodily or mental fatigue or of a misunderstanding of the meaning of zazen. When zazen has deepened, one may feel bursts of great joy. The real satori is called "the mind of great joy." This joy, however, emanates from the mind which has transcended all relative joys as well as sorrows. Therefore we must not try to grasp these small joys; we must go beyond them, no matter how difficult and undesirable this may seem.

One way of avoiding joko while sitting is to look at the edge of the nose and lower the feeling to the abdomen. However, we must not make a conscious effort to look at our noses. To avoid konjin we may concentrate on the point between the eyebrows until the point rises and raise the feeling to the forehead, change the focus of our eyes or breathe deeply and silently. The best remedies for joko or konjin must come from our own experience.

The kyosaku, (22) or long flat stick carried by the monk who presides over meditation in Japanese sodos, is also a remedy for konjin and joko. When we feel sleepy or are in a bad frame of mind, we should ask for the kyosaku. The sound of the kyosaku will awaken our neighbors too. The kyosaku is better than any kind of advice; though it may disturb some people, this is not a bad thing. Those who have never practiced zazen sometimes think that the kyosaku is a dreadful object. Actually we appreciate it when we are sitting.

If we wish to receive the kyosaku, we must make gassho (23) when the monk in charge is directly behind us and move the head to one side. The monk in charge of the meditation is authorized to whack sitters when he thinks it is necessary. Especially during sesshin, even those with long zazen experience appreciate the kyosaku. Receiving whacks from this stick is an opportunity; the stick is the sword of Monju, which cuts through illusions.

Finally, I wish to discuss the content of mind adjustment. First, however, I will explain the meaning of daienkyochi, (24) or great mirror mind. Although this term is used descriptively in the Vijnanavada school, (25a) I wish to utilize it to try to explain the state of the zazen mind.

Those who are not enlightened have ego-centered minds which are the result of illusion. Their attitudes and behavior are egocentric. (26) However, a Buddha has no such egocentricity. Therefore, the difference between the unawakened and the Buddha depends on the degree of their self-centeredness. Adherence to self is called gashu; (27) the cause of gashu is called hosshu, (28) which is a kind of illusion created by a misunderstanding of phenomena, not conceived as interrelated and interdependent parts of the same reality. Therefore, when we free ourselves from ego-centeredness, our mind is the mind of Buddha and illusory knowledge is transformed into the four wisdoms of Buddha.

Of the four wisdoms, (25b) the daienkyochi is the basis for the other three. When we are not stabilized in daienkyochi, we are isolated from others and this isolation stimulates self clinging.

The secular mind reflects all phenomena. It belongs neither to the illusional nor to the enlightened world and it is the fundamental state of mind which can create either the former or the latter. Zazen, as a practice, transcends the sixth and seventh mind categories (25c) and can change arayashiki, the eighth state of mind, into an enlightened mind and the state of daienkyochi.

I like to use daienkyochi to describe the zazen mind in order to avoid two common misunderstandings. The first is that one should have a completely empty mind or should lose consciousness while sitting. Perhaps this misunderstanding arose because Hakuin Zenji in his "Song of Meditation" said that we should have a mind of no-mind during zazen. However, this means that the mind remains, even though we give up discriminating. If "no mindedness" is interpreted literally, the resulting condition is the death of the spirit. There seems to have been such a meditation in India before Buddhism. An empty negative mind in sitting is not a Buddhist form of zazen. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that we find the present world sordid because our minds are clouded; however, when the kokoro (29) (mind and heart) are clear, the present world is the spiritual world. The Mahayana teaching shows us a way to dispel illusion.

If zazen were only a rest for the brain, it would be better to lie down than to sit in zazen. However, we should not lie down, as a "sitting mind" is necessary for living and working. The real function of zazen is not to rest the mind but to establish a base or foundation for it. In order to establish a foundation or center in the mind we should:

1) learn true objectivity

2) make our minds clear

3) quiet our minds

In order to do these things, sitting is better than sleeping. Soto zazen superficially resembles what is usually thought of as contemplation. However, if one contemplates (while sitting) a Creator God or "the fundamental principle" or if one makes any concept or symbol a subject of the mind, this can only lead to mental illness. There can be no complete enlightenment as long as there is any concept or image. All concepts and images are relative and phenomenal. We should not try to retain anything at all in our minds, for this would be like trying to hold a full cup of water and to watch the water in order to keep it from spilling. A static condition is not the right zazen.

Real zazen is "letting go of the mind and body" (shinjln datsuraku). (30) This means there is no object and no objective of zazen. Though we must do our best to find the Cosmic Nature in the heart of infinity, this should not be understood as either u (31) (being) or mu (32) (non-being). When I say that one should stop all discriminating activity, cerebral people will feel uneasy. However, this uneasy feeling is a kind of egotism. I would like to add, that to try consciously to remove one's self from one's ordinary situation is very bad. While sitting we must exclude every kind of prejudice and we should eliminate purposive mental activity.

This means that daienkyochi is the state of Buddha, Infinity or the Absolute, in which there is no egotism. The Buddha mind is a large round mirror which reflects and shines on everything. Those who cling to the relative or phenomenal cannot know this state of mind. On the other hand, an enlightened one does not feel himself to be different from other people.

How may we achieve daienkyochi? For this we must not cling to our egos. The function of the mirror is to reflect what is before it; however, the mirror remains quiet in spite of the activity of the reflections. The mirror does not color its reflections. We must try to keep a mirror mind even though in actuality we have a strong self-will which is responsible for our quarrels and other such behavior. The ego can be compared to dark glasses; through these glasses everything looks dark. We should stop clinging to our egos and prejudices. The mirror has no color and reflects everything clearly; moreover, it misses nothing and embraces everything. A mirror state of mind is difficult to attain, so as we proceed, we must remain aware of our limitations. Even the enlightened must do this. We should not forget that we cannot change ourselves or our minds quickly and easily, and we must know clearly where our inadequacies lie.

When we speak of personality in its usual meaning, we are alluding to that which rests on the foundation of the personality, in the Buddhist sense. We should be able to see the latter through the former. And we should remember that as long as there is no real universality there will be much evil in the world.

Since the main aim of zazen is to rid one of blind egotism, Buddhists sometimes criticize and condemn ordinary common sense, which they confuse with ego-centeredness. Even enlightened ones use and develop their intellects; to kill the intellect is to kill humanity.

When we sit, we should not think about getting anywhere or about enlightenment. We should not think about entering enlightenment physically or mentally. We should not consciously try to create it. Furthermore, if we rely on "the power of Another" (tariki), (33) we cannot become enlightened. After experience in zazen, all our other activities should become zazen; meditation practice is not only sitting, but our whole lives. The most important thing for beginners is quiet sitting. In Buddhism since ancient times, zazen has been divided into two aspects, shi, (34) or stopping, and kan, (35) or a view. At first, by sitting, our moving or wavering minds of daily life are quieted and a calm and pure mind, able to see the reality of things, appears.

This is shi. And by this shi, daienkyochi, which is the true character of our minds arises, and we are able to have a truly objective view of the world as in a mirror, which reflects everything as it is. This is called kan.

The ideal quiet of zazen transcends relative moving and quiet, as the quiet of a mirror is that of quiet beneath all motion. Therefore in Soto zazen we do not divide shi and kan, we prefer to say, shi is kan and kan is shi. Moving and quieting are not two and zazen involves transcending both of these.

Daienkyochi is the great problem for our disciplinants. Our koan of shikantaza is the genjo koan. From the standpoint of honsho or original enlightenment, everything reflected in the mirror of our minds is a sight of the accomplished Buddha's Pure Land, and we call it genjo or the accomplishment-in-present, but actually it is a great unknown problem for us, and so it is in practice a koan. For the followers of Soto Zen, the original koan is the genjo koan, and we believe that even the people disciplined by kosoku koan experience great satori by the genjo koan. In other words, all their direct chances to daigo (36), or the great satori, have been through the genjo.

In conclusion, I would like to say that those who practice zazen should not mistake for enlightenment, a vision of life or of nature perceived as perfect or pure. Such visions are not satori. Beyond visions of purity, a strange indescribable mental attitude appears. We cry, cry for joy. This is the true satori experience. A loud laugh is not an expression of real enlightenment. (37) 

During our zazen, we should not be disturbed by objects of which our senses make us aware. We cannot refuse to permit sensations to enter our minds; however, we should not cling to the sensations. If one worries about noise or talking while sitting, one is very far from the satori experience. One should not be worried about anything. Sensations themselves are not maya (illusion) or bad for discipline, but one should not cling to them. When our minds are pure (clear), our senses are good things for us.

In the sphere of maya, our minds settle somewhere and become attached to a small relative world. Modern men do not like to allow themselves to stop discriminating long enough to enlarge their world and this is not a healthy mental attitude. When our minds become empty in the true sense, when we forget our mind's existence, then we find ourselves in the Buddha's joyous meditation. It is very important to strive towards the right zazen mind in our daily lives and for all our lives to become zazen.


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