In the sometimes cryptic utterances of the Zen masters two plain words are often to be heard. Considered singly, they define two distinct aspects of Zen meditation. Considered together, they point to the core of the practice.
The first of these words is just, as in the Zen saying, “When you walk, just walk. When you eat, just eat.”
In its most common adverbial usage, just means “no more than,” and it serves to limit its object. “That’s just George being George,” we might say of an eccentric uncle. “Oh, that’s just my arthritis acting up again,” we might say to ourselves.
As used in Zen practice, just conveys a similar meaning, but it also connotes a wholehearted, one-pointed concentration. When you walk, just walk, giving full attention to your walking. When you eat, do the same. In contrast to so-called multi-tasking, the word just exhorts us to do one thing at a time, and to give undivided attention to whatever we are doing. A person washing the dishes just to wash the dishes is cultivating this quality of attention. A person watching CNN while walking on the treadmill is doing the very opposite.
No less than just, the pronoun this holds a promiment place in the lexicon of Zen. “This is everywhere,” we read in the Diamond Sutra, “without differentiation or degree.” “Zen is this,”writes Roshi Bernie Glassman, “this moment, this stick, this thisness.” The word may also be found in the Zen slogan “This is it” and the Zen koan “What is this?” In all of these instances, this adverts to whatever is present, right here, right now. More specifically, it refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of concepts, opinions, or dualistic thinking generally.
Stepping outdoors in early March, we feel the heat of the sun. We may go on to check the thermometer, or describe the day as unseasonably warm, or attribute the unseasonable weather to global warming. But before any of that occurs, we feel the heat of the sun. By saying “this is it,” we remind ourselves to be present for that transitory experience. And by asking “what is this?” (followed, in Zen training, with “I don’t know”), we challenge our preconceptions and open ourselves to the depth of our experience.
Taken separately, just and this represent the two main components of meditative practice, which are often described as “stopping” (samatha) and “looking” (vipassana). Taken together, they form the slogan “just this,” which, as James Austin observes in his Zen-Brain Reflections, offers a key to understanding and a practical tool for meditation. Practicing with just, we gather our energies; practicing with this, we bring our gathered energies to the penetration of reality. If the first trains us to focus on the one thing we are doing, the second invites us to look deeply into the present moment.*
If you would like to try this practice, seat yourself in a comfortable, upright posture. Place your mind on your breathing. With your in-breath, say just silently to yourself. With your out-breath, say this. As you breathe in, feel the concentration of your energies; as you breathe out, surrender yourself to whatever you’re experiencing. Continue this practice for several minutes, encountering this, this, this, just as it is.
*James H. Austin, Zen-Brain Reflections (MIT Press, 2006), 33-37.
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