Q: Am I doing Shikantaza right?
A: Are you sitting on the cushion and just resting with what is going on? If so, then you are doing just fine. In Shikantaza we drop thoughts of right and wrong but it is also true to say that to sit on the cushion and daydream is not Shikantaza. We do have the aim of being present with what is happening, but it is fine if this presence comes and goes. But as long as you are doing, that, sit away!
Q: I spend most of my Shikantaza thinking. Is that okay?
A: Mostly, yes. We do not try to cling on to thoughts and follow them, but human minds produce thoughts pretty much constantly and if we naturally end up following a chain of thoughts, this is fine. When the thought chain naturally comes to an end (whether of its own accord or when the bell sounds) we notice what has happened. Shikantaza is not a practice aimed at quieting the mind but just to sit with what is happening.
Q: But thinking is not being with what is happening?
A: If you are naturally following thoughts when you are sitting, this *is* exactly what is happening. Dōgen neither emphasises thinking or not-thinking during Shikantaza, instead pointing to ‘non-thinking’. Non-thinking means neither to try to stop nor try to follow thoughts but instead to let them arise naturally. However, it is likely we will end up following the thoughts and that is also a natural process.
Q: When I have practiced other Buddhist meditation techniques, there has been an aim to still the mind or develop awareness. With Shikantaza it feels like there is no point to the practice and I am sitting aimlessly. What is the point of this?
A: This is true with respect to other practices but Shikantaza takes a different approach. Instead of aiming to become still or more aware, we drop all goals and instead just rest with what is happening, becoming intimate with the present moment. In human life, much of what we do has a clear goal. For me, one of the wonderful things about Shikantaza is that it turns that on its head, and lets us sit with no goal. Our minds can find this quite difficult to be with, as we have often experienced a lifetime of parents, teachers and bosses telling us to use our time productively and not waste it. Because of this, taking time just to be still and become intimate with life right here, right now, is a revolutionary thing to do.
Q: Okay, I get that, but how does doing this lead to awakening or nirvana?
A: The second noble truth points out that we suffer when we try to grasp at experience, whether that is clinging on to things we like, or trying to experience something other than what is currently happening. Shikantaza allows us just to be with what is happening. Dōgen emphasises the lack of separation between practice and enlightenment, claiming that “When even for a moment you sit upright in samadhi expressing the buddha mudra [form] in the three activities [body, speech, and thought], the whole world of phenomena becomes the buddha’s mudra and the entire sky turns into enlightenment” (from his text Bendōwa, ‘On the Endeavour of the Way’). When we sit with direct experience, there is no difference between us and the Buddha himself. I can understand if this feels like hyperbole but American Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton has pointed out that Shikantaza is the enactment of being Buddha.
Q: What kind of attitude should I take to sitting?
A: Just sitting is something our bodies know how to do. It is entirely natural, and something we are used to doing as children, or on holiday when we give ourselves permission not to need to achieve anything. When Gautama Siddhartha, before he became the Buddha, realised that ascetic practices were not going to be the way to awakening, he remembered a time when he was young sitting watching ploughing under an apple tree in the sun. This was the attitude he took into sitting under the Bodhi tree which led to his awakening. Roshi Jundo Cohen talks about sitting with the faith that this moment is perfect and complete just as it is. It seems paradoxical but thoughts of doubt that arise are also part of the perfect completeness of the moment.
Q: What is the most important thing about practicing Shikantaza?
A: The most important thing about practicing Shikantaza is the consistency of practice. Get to your cushion every day and sit. If you miss a day then don’t berate yourself but just get back to it the next day.