Zazen: Or, No One's Going to Help You

This morning we had our first zazen of the program. We'll be sitting every morning at 7am, and every evening, with academic classes in the middle. Before we started, I gave very, very basic zazen instructions. I think basic instructions are best. Back straight, full or half lotus if you can, eyes open and looking down, hands in cosmic mudra. Take out any idea of Buddha or Enlightenment and just do the posture. That's basically all the instruction I ever got, so that's all I said. I've tried to coerce teachers into giving me more instruction than that, but they never do. I was really frustrated with this for years. What the hell am I supposed to be "doing with my mind?" Actually, I still think that sometimes. I'm still a baby when it comes to zazen practice.

After zazen, one of the students asked me a question about not being able to concentrate and having lots of thoughts. Is it okay to count breaths? I think this must be the #1 most popular question about zazen of all time, and it's a question I've had also. My understanding of zazen is that at the fundamental level you are just sitting there, embodying being a Buddha. You're not doing anything other than sitting there. Of course when we come to zazen we want all these things like peace of mind, concentration, tranquility, etc. And then the asshole teacher just tells you to sit with your back straight and get rid of any hope of enlightenment. Lame! I totally understand this student's confusion.

I'm not a teacher, by the way, and I'm not at all qualified to give people real advice, so all I could tell him was stuff other people have told me, kind of like a game of zazen telephone. I told him some teachers will say that if you're really, really, really scatterbrained, then it's okay to count breaths or focus on your breathing for the first few minutes, but that Dogen was pretty adamant that you shouldn't count breaths. In fact Dogen said it's better to have the "mind of a wily fox" then to count breaths. I told the student he could chose who he wanted to listen to. The exact quote from Dogen is this:

In our zazen, it is of primary importance to sit in the correct posture. Then, regulate the breathing and calm down. In Hinayana, there are two elementary ways (of beginner's practice): one is to count the breaths, and the other is to contemplate the impurity (of the body). In other words, a practitioner of Hinayana regulates his breathing by counting the breaths. The practice of the Buddha-ancestors, however, is completely different from the way of Hinayana. An ancestral teacher has said, “It is better to have the mind of a wily fox than to follow the way of Hinayana self-control."

If this were a book I would have to have a footnote about the term "Hinayana" and what it meant historically and how all paths are valid and not greater or lesser, as the name Hinayana implies. But personally, I think you just have to ignore when Dogen says offensive things like this and move on, kind of like when your teenage daughter says "I hate you,” or "I HAVE TO buy a pair of $200 designer jeans because EVERYONE ELSE has one!!!” You just gotta be like, "Sweetie, I love you, but no." And then you move on. You still love your bratty teenage daughter, but you just don't take everything she says so seriously, because you acknowledge she’s going through some hormonal things and probably insecure about her acne. That's how I relate to Dogen's when he gets into a "Hinayana scum" rant. Like, “You're still my favorite Zen patriarch, but I’m just gonna forget you said that, because clearly you’re just grumpy and insecure that not enough people are signing up for the One True Correct Buddha Way that you spent all that time and effort mastering in China.”

If you can get past the "Hinayana scum" feeling of this passage, what Dogen is getting at is that the zazen posture itself is perfect- there's no need to add our own ideas, techniques, etc. He brings up counting breaths not to just insult "Hinayana" Buddhism but to emphasize the utter completeness of physical posture. In my mind, it takes a lot of faith or hope in the unity of body and mind to just show up and sit without any expectation of enlightenment or even peace of mind, but that's exactly what Dogen is inviting us to do.

After this student asked me the question about counting breaths, I got to thinking about how much time I've spent worrying about not knowing what to do in zazen, and thinking I am not doing it "right." I think everyone must go through this. My relationship with zazen has of course changed over the years, and I don't worry any more about doing it "wrong" or "right," as long as I'm doing it. So when I was talking to this student I was very aware that nothing I could say or do was going to help him. I've had the same questions as him, and nothing anyone told me helped at all. The only thing that helped was sitting more zazen. The only good advice I ever got about zazen or Zen practice in general is "It takes time." I never wanted to believe this, but I think it's the only advice that anyone gives which is actually true. You just have to sit for a long time, for many years, and then something develops. There's no wise words that are going to help you, because there is no substitute for doing it yourself. There's no teacher who can say anything that will be a substitute for your own time and effort. I believe this based on the very few years I have actually spent sitting zazen, because even in a few years my relationship to zazen has changed so much. I can only imagine what it will be like 30 years down the road.

I think the only useful thing a teacher can do is to show someone that their life is their own life and their karma is their own karma. I’ve never had a teacher “help” me in any other way than that. The most common thing that Aoyama Roshi tells me when I go to her for advice about some problem is “It’s your life.” At first I took this as a really dismissive thing to say—it’s your problem, not mine, deal with it yourself. In a way, that’s what she’s saying, but there’s more. Another part of this teaching is that we receive life from the universe. Usually we think that we are in charge of our breathing and digestion, but this is actually happening without our consciousness. We receive our life, we borrow this life, and an infinite number of organisms support us in living. Once we notice this embeddedness we feel compelled to act and face the world from a place of gratitude and responsibility—to work and study deeply, to practice in every moment, to smile, to own our own anger and jealousy, to not waste time. No one else can do this for us, and there is no time to do it but the present moment. That’s a very powerful place to stand in. It’s a paradox; we receive life from the universe so it’s not only our life, but it’s our life because no one else can be responsible for it but us.

Kodo Sawaki infamously said, “You can’t even share a fart with the next guy.” I realize now that he’s talking about zazen. It’s your beautiful zazen practice, not anyone else's. No one can sit cross-legged for you, or breathe for you. A teacher can keep the space, though. That's a big thing, and I don't want to undercut that. They can be a good example. They can invite you to practice. They can show up in their robes every day, on time, light incense, and ring the bell three times. But that's about it. At the end of the day, it’s just you staring at that wall, trying to decide if you want to count your breaths or not.

Dogen votes “not,” by the way. 


  1. Nice article. I'd like to comment on "I've tried to coerce teachers into giving me more instruction than that, but they never do. I was really frustrated with this for years.". This is typical in Soto-Zen and I think it's a big mistake. I've been sitting that way for 10 years and simply didn't get it. I thought I got it but I didn't. Fortunately I listened to some Dzogchen-Teacher (more or less accidentally) who was able to directly point out what the meditation thing is all about. Didn't take more than 5 minutes and I got it. Since then I was like why the hell didn't any of the Zen-Teachers give me a hint. Looking now at past zen-stories there have been lots of hints given (original face, no head etc) but nowadays zen-teachers seem to be unable to do this with their own words. Instead there's an endless discussion and reading of Dogens writings which are cool but out of date and hard to understand nowadays. It's a sad thing. Give people some hint, I've seen people who are sitting for 25 years and still are unclear about consciousness....

    1. Daniel, I would really love to hear the Dzogchen explanation you listened.

    2. But would you know what he is talking about without spending those years before? And if you would, what value would that information have for you?

    3. I've been interested in Dzogchen for a while and wanted to try it. I'm not sure that I will now at this point, though. There are many kinds of Buddhism(s) and they all have their own unique techniques, philosophies, strengths and weaknesses. The unity of practice and realization is something that seems unique to me about the Zen tradition, just as "pointing out instructions" might be unique to Dzogchen. I don't know so much about Dzogchen (or really zen, either. As I said I'm still a "baby" when it comes to zazen), but I've stopped being interested in finding the most superior or best form of Buddhism. To me, what's more important is the qualities I bring to my life and practice; cultivating curiosity, energy, humility, and commitment seem more important to me than finding the best kind of meditation. That's what I was trying to get at with "No one's going to help you." Ultimately my effort and energy is the most important, no matter what tradition. No matter what kind of Buddhism I practice, if I'm lazy, arrogant, or flighty about it, I'm probably not going to be able to find any nourishment in it, no matter how great a practice it is.

    4. "I'm probably not going to be able to find any nourishment in it"

      the table is always the same as set for Philip larkin

  2. Short version pointing out instruction:

    Take a fresh moment and sit in a quiet and still place. Let the mind settle down. Then notice the thought or image that is appearing currently in consciousness.

    Sense the clear knowing space in which that thought is appearing. Focus on that empty clear knowing space instead of the thought.

    It's not a forced focus of attention, rather its a delicate self-noticing. It's the always present core, the clear space of aware knowingness itself.

    Once noticed, relax into it.

    In this very subtle recognition of self-sufficient, self-awareness as being your essential nature, notice its total purity and changeless clarity; much like a crystal ball that is untouched by the reflections that appear within it.

    As you attempt to experience your own aware knowing in this way, the space in which mental events appear; know that the key is a complete absence of conceptualizing about this delicate inward noticing of what's noticing.

    It will clearly reveal itself as utter purity as the inward glance, glances within itself.

    It's the most delicate and subtle "seeing" possible. It's recognizing the changeless ground of the Great Perfection that you always are.

    Once recognized, it will never be forgotten. Then relax into that extraordinarily simple and pure Clarity again and again until stable.

    ~Jackson Peterson

  3. "Once recognized, it will never be forgotten. Then relax into that extraordinarily simple and pure Clarity again and again until stable"

    that's psych ward stuff ! : o)

  4. Great article, thanks! Came here from Brad Warner's, will be sticking around.

  5. I've just starting to read this blog. Could someone ban this an3drew person. Gee, so much negativity. an3drew have you ever heard of kindness and compassion? Or open mind?

  6. david, an open mind does not ask for people who we disagree with to be banned !

    "kindness and compassion" are a the sort of nonsense candy floss that certain saccharine addicted 'spiritual types' like to throw around ! :o)

    gesshin is in an untenable situation and if she allows an uncensored blog, it will help her work out of it, of course people like you just want candy floss worlds that asphyxiate in sugar ! :o)(

  7. Great article. Thanks for posting.

  8. Year after year, a moment, a day...when we really sit, it's pretty hard to make any distinctions at all. Yes, it takes a long time to find your way. And you really do discover that it isn't a "way" at all. Of course, I get tangled over and over in trying to figure out what I'm expecting to happen, and in who's even asking that question. But more and more, it doesn't matter. There's just sitting. Thank you for reminding me of that with your beautiful article.

  9. Hi! I've been practicing Zen on-and-off now for almost 40 years. There was even a time when I was practicing with a Zen group affiliated with the Sanbo Kyodan stream of Zen, doing koan practice under a Zen teacher. Right now, I'm back to my solitary zazen practice mainly because of chronic illness, which prevents me from going out. I'm home bound most of the time for the past 12 years.

    I just have to say that I now agree with Dogen's shikantaza approach. Personally, I found it refreshing and liberating just to sit. Now, I just sit... and it's enough.

    By the way, I'm glad that I stumbled upon your blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I found it insightful and illuminating. Count me in as one of your blog's regular readers...

  10. Sitting isn't the point. Prajna arises when the mind has become transparent and naturally empty.


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