In Dōgen’s first writing upon returning from China, Fukanzazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen1), he states:
“The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality.”
Why does he say this?
In meditation, it is usual to either take an object of focus, such as the breath, and practice to improve our ability to concentrate on that object and achieve calm abiding (shamatha), or else to investigate what is occurring in the mind during sitting (vipassana).
In Shikantaza2 we are doing neither of these things but instead resting in the experience of all that is, not seeking to change how things are by a single hair or molecule of air.
When the Buddha was the young Prince Siddhartha Gautama the suttas tell of a time when he was watching a ploughing festival and seeing how insects emerged from the soil following the movement of the plough. The sun was hot, and he sheltered in the shade of a tree, just resting in awareness of everything that was happening.
After he left the palace to pursue the path of a spiritual seeker, the Buddha-to-be practiced with a number of yogis and adepts, using a number of difference techniques to achieve altered states and to calm the mind. However, none of these gave him the permanent freedom from suffering which he was looking for.
Upon taking leave of a group of ascetics he had been practicing with, Siddhartha remembered his time watching the ploughing festival, and how had not set out to achieve a different kind of consciousness, but instead relaxed into a natural state of awareness. This was the attitude he was said to have taken into his six days of sitting under the Bodhi tree which eventually led to his awakening, realising that our dissatisfaction with life comes from wanting it to be other than it already is.
Sitting Shikantaza is like listening to a piece of music. We don’t listen to music to get to the end of listening. Nor do we (mostly) listen in order to improve our ability to concentrate or analyse what happens when we are listening. We listen in order to listen. There is no other goal.
Similarly, we sit in order to sit, and become intimate with all that is, resting in our natural awareness. There is nothing to achieve, and no end goal.
In Tibetan Mahamudra practice there is a short series of instructions from the Indian siddha Tilopa (988-1069) which I think is also good advice when it comes to Shikantaza:
Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.
There is no need to chase after what we are looking for. Just this is it.
1. Zazen translates as ‘seated meditation’. Although it does not necessarily refer to Shikantaza, in Sōtō Zen the terms are pretty much used interchangeably.
2. Shikantaza means ‘just sitting’, the form of Zazen which is central to Sōtō Zen practice, itself developed from the earlier Silent Illumination method of monks such as Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157).