Thoughts on just sitting

These are words on Shikantaza from Sōtō Zen teacher, Jundo Cohen Roshi:

Shikantaza Zazen must be sat, for the time it is sat, with the student profoundly trusting deep in her bones that sitting itself is a complete and sacred act, the one and only action that need be done in the whole universe in that instant of sitting. This truth should not be thought about or voiced in so many words, but must be silently and subtly felt deep down. The student must taste vibrantly that the mere act of sitting Zazen, in that moment, is whole and thoroughly complete, the total fruition of life’s goals, with nothing lacking and nothing to be added to the bare fact of sitting here and now. There must be a sense that the single performance of crossing the legs (or sitting in some other balanced posture) is the realization of all that was ever sought, that there is simply no other place to go in the world nor thing left to do besides sitting in such posture. … Zazen is the one task and experience that brings meaning and fruition to that time, with nothing else to do. This fulfillment in “Just Sitting” must be felt with a tangible vibrancy and energy, trusting that one is sitting at the very pinnacle of life.

Almost all experienced teachers agree on the basics: One should sit in the Lotus Posture (or, these days, some other balanced way such as Burmese or Seiza or in a chair), focus on the breath or the body or just be openly aware, letting one’s thoughts go without grabbing onto them. If finding oneself caught in trains of thought, return to the breath or posture or spaciousness. Sit daily for a certain length of time, but without objective or demanded pay-off. Do not seek anything from your Zazen, whether “enlightenment” or to become “Buddha” or anything at all. Just Sit!

That’s all correct. But by leaving out the vital ingredient, such explanations can miss the mark too. The description can leave students thinking of Zazen as just some relaxation technique or place to sit quietly without purpose. One may assume that “Just Sitting” is to sit like a bump on a log, the joined fingers but thumb twiddling. Talk of “nothing to attain” or that “Zazen is useless” may falsely lead hearers to the conclusion that there is no great value and treasure in sitting, that it is a silly waste of time rather than a state beyond all time and measure. Or, the student may fail to distinguish Shikantaza sufficiently from other meditation forms, which seek some gold ring as their prize. Failing to understand how and why Shikantaza is a taste of the end of all searching, the student eventually gives up, running hungrily to the next method or guru or self-help book. The point is missed that, in not seeking to obtain “enlightenment” nor grabbing after “peace” or “joy”, a certain Peace, Joy and, yes, Enlightenment is obtained which can only come in the freedom of not seeking.

I tell my new students to trust in the method until it proves itself. If need be, “fake it ‘till you make it” in nurturing these feelings. “Just Sitting is Buddha” is not a mantra that should be voiced in words during Zazen, nor something that must be unfailingly felt at each and every moment of sitting. Rather, there only needs to be a subtle, yet vital sense and faith, felt deep down in the gut while sitting, that “THIS IS IT! THERE IS NO OTHER IT!”

In fact, there’s a somewhat counter-intuitive trick to Zazen: I sometimes compare Shikantaza to the children’s puzzle of “Chinese finger-cuffs” which are escaped, not by forceful effort and pulling harder, but by non-resistance and letting go; by dropping the hunt for “enlightenment”, by giving up the chase, by allowing all to rest in the complete wholeness and acceptance of Just Sitting, by quenching all thirsts in the sheer satisfaction of sitting alone, one realizes a freedom and way of being which otherwise alludes us in this world of endless chasing and constant dissatisfactions.

The ability to be at rest completely, to realize the preciousness and wholeness of life in this moment is a skill we have lost in this busy world. We chase after achievements, are overwhelmed with jobs that feel undone, and feel that there are endless places to go and people to see. The world can seem a broken and hopeless place. Thus, it is vital that we learn to sit each day with no other place in need of going, no feeling of brokenness nor judgment of lack, nothing more in need of achieving in that time but sitting itself. We sit with the sense that there is nothing to fix or place in need of getting, because this “not needing” is a wisdom that we so rarely taste. How tragic if we instead turn our Zazen or other meditation into just one more battle for achievement, a race to get some peaceful place, attain some craved prize or spiritual reward. Or, on the other hand, how equally tragic if we use Zazen just as a break from life, a little escape, never tasting the wholeness and completeness of life. By doing so, Zazen becomes just one more symptom of the rat race, and the prize is out of reach. True peace comes not by chasing, but by resting now in peace.

Then, rising from the cushion, we may experience the world in a new way. The wisdom of sitting is portable. We bring the stillness of the cushion into the motion and calamity of life. Getting on with our busy day of places to go and goals to fulfill, a part of us is now beyond going and goals (nonetheless, we go and try to do what needs to be done). Working hard in the office or doing housework at home, we equally experience that there is no job yet undone (nonetheless, we roll up our sleeves and get to work). Seeing this world with all its problems and suffering, we experience that there is nothing to fix (yet we get busy to fix what we can and make this world better). It is as if we now encounter the world two different ways that are truly one: working for goals on the one hand, yet on the other, all goals dropped away; busy and pressed for time, yet tasting something beyond all measure of time. … When the doctor hands us the diagnosis we feared, when our loved one dies or leaves us, one may also experience a Wisdom free of coming and going, all life or death. Even as tears of grief pour down our cheeks, we may simultaneously bask in the warm embrace whereby there can be no separation, grateful for it all.

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