Posts Tagged ‘shikantaza’

For people suffering from hypertension, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety-related afflictions, many doctors now prescribe meditation. As a longtime practitioner, who has experienced the benefits of meditation over and again, I heartily endorse that prescription. But “meditation” is a large category. And even if you narrow it to Buddhist meditation, what you are speaking of is a loose aggregate of teachings, forms, and practices, some of them more useful than others.

Here in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are experiencing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis, any meditative practice that purports to be helpful needs to address that emotional landscape. At the same time, that same practice will be most beneficial if it also enables the practitioner to remain engaged and realistic. Absent that realism and engagement, meditation can become yet another form of escape, and its overall benefit will be limited at best.

Of the many Buddhist practices available and accessible to newcomers, I would recommend two in particular. The first is drawn from the Theravadan school of Buddhism, as practiced in Southeast Asia. The second is rooted in the Chan and Zen schools of medieval China and Japan. Worthwhile as these practices are in separation, they are even more so when skillfully combined. At once contrasting and complementary, they address the need for stability and concentration, on the one hand, and on the other, the need to remain open and fully aware of a rapidly changing social reality.

Mindfulness of the Body

Popular notions of meditation sometimes depict the practice as essentially cerebral. By various means, it’s assumed, the practitioner induces a kind of trance, leaving the cares of the world and the woes of the body behind.

Classical Buddhist meditation is quite the opposite. It grounds the practitioner in present realities, among them one’s breathing, posture, mental state, and physical condition. And, rather than prompt us to think, in general terms, about our bodies, the practice cultivates real-time awareness (a.k.a., “mindfulness”) of the positions, movements, and parts of our bodies, just as they are. The aim is not to objectify those physical realities but to bring a kind, contemplative attention to each of them, one by one. By so doing, we relieve existing tensions, and we also gain insight into the causal connections between our physical habits—our shallow breathing, for example—and the unwholesome states of mind those habits can engender.

To practice mindfulness of the body, we assume a comfortable, upright posture on a cushion or chair. Beginning with the crown of the head, we bring mindfulness first to our eyes, then to our shoulders, spines, lungs, and so on, as if they were stops on a journey. To facilitate this process, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends a sequence of meditative verses, each employing the formula, “Breathing in, I’m aware of my ­­­(eyes, shoulders, etc.) / Breathing out, I bring kind attention to my ____.” Silently reciting these verses, the practitioner cultivates mindfulness of breathing simultaneously with bodily awareness.


Approached with commitment, the practice described above can be transformative. In the space of twenty minutes, it can take us from a state of anxiety to one of stability and calm. Unfortunately, this outcome may be short-lived. Of more lasting benefit, in my experience, is the Zen practice known as shikantaza. Usually translated as “just sitting,” this practice is at once simple and difficult, straightforward and easily misunderstood.

Practicing shikantaza, we set aside all methods and resolve merely to remain aware of whatever is occurring, within and without. Whatever thoughts, feelings, and states of mind may come along, we acknowledge them, witness their presence, and allow them to disappear. Keeping our senses open, we also note whatever is occurring in our immediate surroundings. And throughout our sitting, we cultivate awareness of the impermanence of all conditioned things, the universal life-force within us, and the vast, interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

To undertake this practice requires two things of the practitioner. The first is a state of continuous mindfulness, clarity, and equanimity. If we have yet to develop those qualities, we are all too likely to be practicing “just sitting around,” or, as the late Eido Shimano Roshi once dubbed it, “shikan-waste-of-time.”

The second prerequisite is an attitude of wholeheartedness. Ideally, when practicing shikantaza, our minds are concentrated and relaxed. And undergirding that relaxed concentration is the intention to be fully present and to include everything in our conscious awareness. By adopting this attitude, as best we can, we develop the capacity to recognize and accept whatever may be unfolding and to let things go as they go.

In Conclusion

What I have outlined here is an unorthodox hybrid, but I can attest to its efficacy. If you are inclined to experiment, other pairings suggest themselves, such as Tai Chi and meditative reflection, or yoga and contemplative prayer. May your practice, whatever it may be, sustain you in this difficult time.


Photo: the author practicing shikantaza.


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Jundo Cohen, an American Zen priest who lives in Japan, often refers to the “tool kit” of meditative practices. Within the Japanese Zen tradition alone those practices include susokkan (counting out-breaths), kinhin (walking meditation), samu (work practice), oryoki (formal meals), contemplation of koans, and shikantaza (“just sitting” ). And that is to say nothing of the multitude of other methods, such as meditation on a text or repetition of a mantra, employed by the world’s contemplative traditions.

Jundo himself practices shikantaza, which is also known as “objectless meditation”. In most modes of meditation, the practitioner is instructed to focus on an object, tangible or intangible. In Zen practice that object is usually the flow of the breath, at least at the beginning of a sitting, but it can also be a koan, such as “Who hears the sound?” or “What was your original face before your parents were born?” In either case, we are enjoined to focus our attention, exclusively and singlemindedly, on a chosen object. By so doing, we enter the state of one-pointed concentration known as samadhi.

In practicing shikantaza, we dispense with all such methods. Insofar as we can, we do nothing but sit in awareness, noticing whatever comes along, including the sensations in our bodies, the coming and going of the breath, and the urge to be doing something—anything—but just sitting. Should we begin to slouch, we correct our posture, but apart from such corrections, we focus on nothing in particular. Instead, we cultivate a panoramic attention, opening our minds to all that is occurring, within and without. If thoughts cross our minds, we note them but do not pursue them. Nor do we attempt to analyze our thoughts or discern their emotional subtexts. We just sit.

Shikantaza is a composite word, made up of three discrete elements. Shikan is usually translated as “just” or “nothing but,” and it connotes wholehearted attention. Ta is an intensifier, literally meaning “hit.” Za means “to sit,” or more broadly, “to sit together.” Together these elements describe a practice of sitting in precise, continuous awareness.

Eido Shimano Roshi, a contemporary Zen master, explains the practice of shikantaza in this way:

This is zazen in which one neither seeks enlightenment nor rejects delusion. The purest zazen, it uses no devices as such; strictly speaking, there is no goal or method. Shikan taza practice is a manifestation of original enlightenment, and is at the same time a way toward its realization . . . . Zazen is both something one does and something one essentially is.*

To sit without goals or methods is not so easy as it sounds. In a culture as competitive as ours, where doing rather than being is widely prized, such a practice presents an extraordinary challenge. But for all its rejection of goals, “just sitting” affords the diligent practitioneer uncommon rewards. In contrast to object-centered meditation, it trains us to include whatever we experience—and to let the things of this world reveal themselves, just as they are.

Shikantaza is best practiced under the guidance of a teacher, lest it become what Eido Roshi once called “shikan-waste of time.” If you would like to explore the practice, I would recommend that you visit Jundo Cohen’s Tree Leaf Zendo at www.treeleaf.org. There you will find detailed instructions, as well as a daily opportunity to sit with Jundo in shikantaza.


*Namu Dai Bosa, ed. Louis Nordstrom (Theatre Arts Books, 1976), 251.

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