Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Issho Fujita: "Zazen is not Shuzen"

An interesting piece from the Dharma Eye magazine. I am posting it mostly because I think it is such a clear articulation of Zazen practice in modern Soto Zen, particularly in the Kodo Sawaki lineage. This is Dogen's Zazen according to that lineage.  I like this piece a lot. Enjoy:

My Footnotes on Zazen 1 Zazen is not Shuzen (1)
Rev. Issho Fujita
Director, Soto Zen Buddhism International Center

In my Zazen Sankyu Notebook (1)[Dharma Eye Number 2], I wrote, “Zazen as the body of text is always seeking to be freshly re-read with new footnotes under the renewed light of the present age. Those who practice zazen in this modern society are being requested by zazen itself to bring their own unique words to it”. More than ten years have passed since I wrote that impression and I still feel so. I would like to share with Dharma Eye readers some footnotes I have made during these years. I hope my little effort to add new footnotes to zazen will inspire, even a little bit, the readers to creatively make their own footnotes. 

Around early 6th century CE a strange Buddhist monk came to China from South India. Unlike other visiting monks, he did not bring any new Buddhist scriptures or commentaries. He did not translate nor give lectures on Buddhist scriptures, either. He did nothing that could be called “missionary work.” What he did was just sit all day long facing the wall in a room at Shaolin temple. So people gave him a nickname, “wall-gazing Brahman” (an Indian monk who indulged in meditation facing the wall). This monk was Bodhidharma who is now revered as the “First Ancestor of Zen”.

Except for his own disciples (small in number), very few could understand the true meaning of what he was doing by facing the  wall. For example, a famous Buddhist scholar- monk, Nanzan Dousen(Tang dynasty, a founder of Nanzan Vinaya School), classified Bodhidharma in a shuzen section when he complied The Sequel of Biography of Eminent Monks. That implies that Dousen thought of Bodhidharma as a shuzen practitioner, one who engaged in meditation to attain a special state of mind called “dhyana” (Sa. Jhana, Pa). But Dogen criticized Dousen, saying that such an understanding is completely wrong and irrelevant because zazen encompasses the whole Buddha Dharma, not a part of it. In Shobo- genzo Gyoji he wrote, “This was the utmost stupidity, which is lamentable.” According to Dogen, the sitting zazen facing the wall that Bodhidharma practiced in silence is totally different from what had been practiced as zazen to train (shu) a meditative state of dhyana (zen). What Bodhidharma did was authentic zazen, which had been correctly transmitted through generations of ancestors from Shakyamuni. “The ancestral teacher (Bodhidharma) alone embodied the treasury of the true dharma eye transmitted from buddha to buddha, from heir to heir”. Zazen is not a training of dhyana (shuzen) which is one genre of Buddhist practice, like the Three Studies (sila, samadhi, prajna) or Six Paramitas (dana, sila, kshanti, virya, dhyana, prajna) . It is a quite different practice from zazen. In other word shuzen is a personal training to achieve a human ideal (small vehicle, hinayana) and zazen is an expression of something transpersonal or universal (great vehicle, mahayana).

I believe that it is crucially important for us as zazen practitioners to distinguish zazen as the entirety of Buddha Dharma from shuzen as one genre of it, even though these two practices look similar at a glance. We should avoid confusing them. That is why Dogen repeatedly emphasized this point (zazen is not shuzen) in his writings (Fukanzazengi, Shobogenzo, Eihei Koroku, etc..). It could be said that the bulk of his wirings were written to clarify the criteria for discerning authentic zazen.

Then, what is the difference between zazen and shuzen? This is a very important question to consider when we practice zazen. Even if we are sitting with almost the same posture, it does not mean the content is also the same (“If there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth” Fukanzazengi). I am wondering how many zazen practitioners are keenly aware of the importance of this question. 

I stayed at a small zendo in western Massachusetts from 1987 until 2005 as a resident teacher and practiced zazen together with a group of people. That was a great experience for me to deepen my understanding of zazen. Luckily in that area many people were inter- ested in Buddhism and many Buddhist centers and groups (large and small, Theravada, Ma- hayana, Tibetan) were full of activities. Moreover, the colleges nearby all offered introductory courses in Buddhism and seminars on Buddhist philosophy. Those classes were very popular and many students attended them.

Because I was living in such a “hot place” of Buddhism, I was often visited by people who had already studied and practiced various traditions of Buddhism such as Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism, or Rinzai koan practice before coming to my zendo. I was, in a sense, forced to distinguish shikantaza (just sitting) from those types of sitting meditations. It is not a matter of showing off the superiority of my practice to the other but I needed to clarify what shikantaza is all about in comparison with other kinds of practice. Otherwise I could not fulfill my responsibility as a teacher of that practice.

In English speaking countries zazen is usually translated as “zen meditation” or “sitting meditation”. But this translation makes it almost inevitable that people think of zazen as an effort to control the mind and attain a certain state of mind by applying a certain method. This is exactly what shuzen means. Therefore I had to explain that zazen was different from meditation. When I talked about zazen, I decided to use Japanese word, zazen, instead of using English translations. Then it was quite natural that people started asking me, “Ok. Then what is zazen? What should we do to do zazen?”

I realized that when people tried to do zazen based on the shuzen-like assumption they first physically sat down with a certain posture and then applied some mental technique (with emphasis on the mental technique). They thought they had to do some psychological work l in addition to physically sitting. But zazen should be practiced within a totally different framework. So I had to clarify the difference between zazen and their deeply held assumptions.

Near the zendo where I resided there was a vippassana meditaion center founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. This center, formally called Dhammadhara (land of Dhamma), was the first meditation center in North America (founded in 1982) among about 100 centers worldwide. The center consists of 108 acres of land and many buildings, including a bathhouse, two dining rooms, meditation hall for 200 people, a 60 cell pagoda, separate residences for men and women and a center manager's house. Every year around 2,000 people participate in their 10-day course of vipassana meditation. (for more information, see their website at I attended 10-day courses offered by this center twice.

During the 10-day course, for the first three days they practice anapanasati, focusing the attention to the physical sensations around the nostril and the rest of the period they keep “scanning” the whole body by using the cultivated attention to the sensations ( for the details of this technique, see Art of Living by William Hart).

Later I met Larry Rosenberg, a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center and an author of an excellent book, Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation. He kindly invited me as a guest participant to the 10-day course for advanced yogis he led at Insight Meditation Center in Barre, MA. There I experienced another style of vipassana called “labeling” in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. In this practice practitioners are encouraged to keep noting/labeling every activity all day long.

Before I came to America, I had experienced 5 day or a week long Zen sesshin many times. But I never had a chance to experience 10-day meditation retreat in Japan. Physically it was not so hard for me to sit for many hours for 10 days. But it was the first time I had to apply a certain meditation technique for that long period. These were practices such as exclusively focusing on the sensations around the nostrils, or keeping scanning the whole body for a long time, or labeling whatever is happening in body and mind. Metaphorically speaking, I used “mental muscles” a lot which I seldom use during zazen. And I felt mental “muscular pain” from overusing them. In zazen our mind pervades throughout, resting with the body that is sitting and breathing. It does not engage with any other activity. In zazen we do not intentionally use or actively control our mind, applying a certain method and technique. In those two types of vipassana practice I had a different “taste” of sitting, compare to the one I had in zazen. Where does this difference in taste come from? It was very informative to think about it. Of course this is but my personal impression as a complete beginner of this practice. It is highly likely that the “taste” will change as I deepen the practice further. And also it could be that vipassana is quite different from shuzen. 

Another helpful hint for me in clarifying the difference between zazen and shuzen is Uchiyama Roshi’s definition of zazen. He says it is “an effort to continuously aim at a correct sitting posture with flesh and bones and to totally leave everything to that.” In his definition there is no shuzen element which assumes the central role of mind in shuzen practice. In opposition, the somatic element of zazen is strongly emphasized. If we can understand Bodhidharma’s “wall gazing” as an effort“ to keep sitting with bodymind being like a wall, whatever happens, let it flow as it is, without clinging to or fighting against it”, it is very similar to Uchiyama roshi’s definition of zazen. In this kind of practice, to do zazen means just to sit solely aiming at a correct posture. There is no other need to reach a certain state of mind as a goal or to attain a special experience. Therefore we are freed from anxiety and frustration which comes from seeking for a special state of mind and experience which we have not yet attained and are able to peacefully rest in the here-and-now as it is, nothing special. There can be no competition or ranking based on what is achieved because there is no fixed attainment target. All those human struggles are totally suspended in zazen. That is why zazen is called the “dharma gate of joyful ease”. We simply make a sincere and straightforward effort to sit zazen with body and mind all together without desiring to get something however lofty it may be. This is the way of zazen and in that sense it is quite different from shuzen.

This is easy to say but very difficult to do for us because we are usually driven by a desire to achieve something which does not exist here and now. When we hear that zazen is about no achievement, we immediately ask, “If zazen is that, how can I do it?” But this is a question exactly stemming from the framework based on “means and end” which is always behind the shuzen approach. It is nothing but an undertaking to grasp zazen using the shuzen concept. This shuzen attitude is deeply rooted in our way of behavior and thinking. That is why we should take a radically different approach to zazen so that we can avoid changing zazen into shuzen, consciously or unconsciously.

How can we clearly understand total difference in quality between zazen and shuzen?

(to be continued)

My Footnotes on Zazen 2
Zazen is not Shuzen (2)

Rev. Issho Fujita
Director, Soto Zen Buddhism International Center

I often use “Magic Eye” to illustrate a difference in quality between zazen and shuzen. “Magic Eye” is a picture of a two- dimensional pattern generated by a computer graphics. When you continue looking at it in a certain way, a three-dimensional image emerges out of the pattern. In Japan, it has become popular thanks to a sales pitch - “Good for improving your vision.” Some of you might have already had “Magic Eye experience”.

If you look at a Magic Eye picture in an ordinary way, the three-dimensional image hidden in the picture will never come out. If you stop seeing it in the usual way, tensing the muscles around the eyeballs to focus on the object and find out something – if you relax those muscles, giving up the effort to find something and wait patiently with a soft- focused eye (this kind of eye is called “Magic Eye”), a three-dimensional image suddenly emerges from nowhere. When we try to see the image more clearly, thinking “Wow, this is interesting!” and return to the ordinary way of seeing, the image immediately disappears. The attitude, the way of seeing and what is seen are interrelated. There is no way of cheating this relation.

An interesting thing about this “Magic Eye” phenomenon is that, depending on how we see the same picture - with ordinary eyes or with “Magic Eye” – a totally different visual world unfolds. I don’t know how we can see a three- dimensional image in a two-dimensional picture, but I am sure it is not just psychological but a matter of the physical way in which we use our eyes.

I think “Magic Eye” is an interesting and helpful metaphor for the whole different world of experience that unfolds depending on whether we sit zazen, in the shuzen way of using bodymind or in zazen way of “dropped- away bodymind.” In an old commentary to Shobogenzo, there is a phrase, “When sitting zazen, zazen becomes the self. It is not the self at ordinary times.” If we replace “self” with “bodymind,” it would go like this:” When sitting zazen, zazen becomes the bodymind. It is not bodymind at ordinary times”.

By extending the metaphor of the two types of eyes, ordinary eyes and “Magic Eye” and applying it to describe the characteristics and differences between ordinary bodymind and magic-eye-like bodymind, it is possible to say that shuzen is done with the former bodymind and zazen with the latter. With ordinary bodymind, we first set up the goal, control our body and mind in a certain way to accomplish the goal, and make a conscious effort to make result of our action match with the goal through comparing the two. Whatever we do, there is a basic structure of “I (consciously) operate my bodymind to accomplish a purpose.” In the case of shuzen, the purpose is to produce a certain state of mind which can be clearly described as “dhyana” and the practitioner applies a various methods (Dogen Zenji called it “means to brush it clean”), like counting breath, following breath, body-scanning, mental noting, etc.. With these methods, body and mind are consciously and purposely used to make progress toward the goal. It is an act of self-control - “I” control “my body and mind” - and an approach of actively doing something to achieve a goal.

In contrast, magic-eye-like bodymind is an approach of undoing what we do not need to do or what we should not do. Physically speaking, it is a state of deep relaxation with unnecessary tension totally released. Psychologically speaking, it is a state of resting ease in a relaxed way in which the ordinary way of actively run- ning the mind is put aside (Dogen Zenji called it “give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness”). In Dogen Zenji’s “Birth-Death”, he wrote, “Just letting go of and forgeting body and mind, casting them into the house of Buddha, being activated by the Buddha - when we go along in accord with this, then without applying effort or expending the mind we part from birth and death and become Buddhas”. I think this is a wonderful descrip- tion of magic-eye-like bodymind. Therefore zazen should not be a “job done by self-power.” Essentially zazen is not what we can ”do” directly by exerting our own power. Keizan Zenji wrote, “Just sit zazen. Do not fabricate anything. This is the essential art of zazen” in Zazen Yojinki (Notes on What to be Aware of in Zazen).

To give zazen instruction, we often say, “straighten your back,” “keep your eyes half- open, half-closed” to regulate the body, “make your out-breath long,” “do abdominal breathing” to regulate breath, and “do not think anything,” “focus your attention on your breath” to regulate the mind. I think there is a big problem here. Zazen should not be something forcefully built up by imposing a ready-made mold onto our body-mind from outside. It should be what is naturally and freely generated from inside as a result of non-fabrication. There is a danger that a rote way of giving instruction is leading us to change zazen into shuzen.

In zazen, the spine should elongate by itself instead of our lengthening it by effort. I would like to briefly touch upon the topic of “outer” and “inner” muscles. When we try to lengthen our spine consciously, we use the “outer muscles” – the volitional muscles. These are designed for purposeful movement. When the spine elongates by itself, the body is using the autonomously-controlled “inner muscles.” These are the muscles of “being” – the non- volitional muscles - designed as a system of supportive movement (Jeremy Chance, “Alexander Technique”).

In many cases the natural function of inner muscles is blocked by unnecessary tensions of outer muscles. We must reactivate and fully develop the intrinsic functions of inner muscles by undoing unnecessary tensions in the outer muscles. The fundamental problem of human beings is that the outer muscles tend to take every chance to intrude where the inner muscles are supposed to play a main role. I think this is closely related to saying that zazen (inner muscle dominant) is not shuzen (outer muscle dominant).
Anyway, the principle of “it is good to spontaneously become so but not good to artificially make it be so” should be applied not only to spine but also head, eyes, hands, arms, legs and the all other parts of zazen posture, breath, and the mind. In zazen, we should not perform a special breathing method to control the breath but leave everything to the natural breathing, which is a life-sustaining activity of the body sitting with a correct posture. Dogen Zenji never tells us to breathe this way or that way. He just says, “breathe softly through your nose” or “your in-breath and out-breath are not long nor short (leave them alone).”

The idea of outer and inner muscles is about the body but I think we can also apply this idea to the mind. When we are absorbed in our thoughts, thinking of this or that - as usual - it is a function of “outer-muscle mind.” In everyday expression, we say “use your head.” In contrast, “inner-muscle mind” functions to support the appearing and disappearing of thoughts at the basic level. It enables intuition, awareness, and mindfulness to arise. Here again in zazen, we can say that we are calming down an excessive activity of outer-muscle mind and activating and manifesting the func- tion of inner-muscle mind which has been sup- pressed. Therefore as Dogen Zenji said, “stop measuring with thoughts, ideas and views.” We should avoid bringing the “side job” of various meditation techniques like the four foundations of mindfulness, Sun meditation, Ajikan meditation and so on, into zazen. When we engage in these meditation techniques, our mind inevitably becomes active and is dominated by “outer-muscle mind.” In zazen, the mind is dominated by “inner-muscle mind.” It is not focused on any particular spot. It evenly and softly permeates inside and outside the body, calmly receiving sensory inputs (including all kinds of thoughts) with equanimity. It suspends any reaction and control against the inputs whatever they may be.

So far I have been using strange metaphors like “Magic-Eye-like bodymind” and “outer muscle, inner muscle.” I did this to help you become familiar with the zazen approach in which we practice zazen as zazen, not as shuzen. For us the shuzen approach is much easier to grasp than zazen approach and we are much more familiar with it. Because it’s difficult to understand and unfamiliar, we often lose sight of shuzen being totally different from the zazen Dogen Zenji recommended so highly.
As a result, we are actually doing shuzen very hard believing it is zazen or zazen becomes “a dead letter,” a matter of appearance, or just an imitation of the form. I think something has to be done to change such a sad situation. It is the main reason why I started writing this article.

Of course, I do not have an ultimate answer to the problem. As I quoted earlier, “when we sit zazen, zazen becomes bodymind.” I am now exploring one step further to discover what kind of bodymind arises during zazen and what we should do in order to have such a bodymind. Zazen is not just a training or exercise for us to attain some preferable goals but a spiritual practice of “immediately entering into Buddhahood.” I really hope that we can open up the way we, today, can practice such zazen as a template of following what the buddhas and ancestral teachers practiced . 

another talk by Rev. Fujita on the same topic:

1 comment:

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