Posts Tagged ‘zazen’

John Burroughs

“To learn something new,” wrote the American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921),”take the path that you took yesterday.”

As resonant as it is paradoxical, Burroughs’s remark has survived in our public discourse for more than a century. Only last year, the essayist Pico Iyer quoted it in Autumn Light, his meditation on impermanence in Japanese culture. On first hearing, Burroughs’s observation may seem puzzling, if not willfully obscure. Duly considered, however, it has the ring of half-concealed truth. And it closely accords with a cardinal principle of Zen practice. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention (more…)

Read Full Post »

For the student of Zen, the world provides a multitude of teachers. From rooted, resilient trees we can learn the posture of meditation. From the birds we can learn directness of response. And from other people, particularly those whose trades have taught them to live in the present, we can learn a fundamental principle of Zen practice.

Thirty-five years ago, my first wife and I were living in a rundown farmhouse on Elm Valley Road. Asphalt-shingled and lacking insulation, our house was drafty and expensive to heat. To make ends meet, we installed three woodstoves, which we fed with maple, beech, and ash throughout the winter. Most of the firewood came from our woodlot across the road. I bought a 14” Homelite chainsaw at Carter Hardware, and though I’d had no experience with such a machine, I learned how to use it.

Or at least I thought I did, until I met Howard “Chainsaw” Chilson, my neighbor from down the road. Driving his little Ford tractor past our house, as he often did, Howard spotted me cutting wood and stopped to help, offering some pointers along the way. He showed me how to adjust the chain and how to trim branches without jamming the bar. Most important, he exhorted me to pay attention—full attention—to whatever I was doing. Although I did not quite realize it at the time, my eyes, limbs, and indeed my life depended on it.

Howard had served as an MP in the Second World War. A rugged, lanky man with a bone-crushing handshake, he proudly claimed to be “one-quarter Indian”—Cherokee, as I recall. His own chainsaw was a green, 20” Poulan, which looked as weathered as its owner. But in Howard’s hands it might have been a scalpel, so prodigious was his skill.

Howard’s prized tool had also earned him his name. As he told the story, he was refused service at a local bar, having come in drunk. Disappointed with this lack of courtesy, Howard went out to his truck and returned with his chainsaw. “Either serve me,” he bellowed, “or I’ll cut your bar down!”. Although he did not make good on his threat, he was known ever after as Chainsaw Chilson.

Howard could be moody, but he was an amiable companion, and we spent many productive hours in the woods, cutting and hauling enough wood to heat two houses. Although he’d had little formal education, Howard had a woodsman’s expertise, which he generously shared, and a keen observant eye, which he often turned in my direction. In three summers of working together we never had an accident or sustained even a minor injury, thanks mainly to Howard’s vigilance. Although he called me “Boss,” it was he who kept us both from harm. And though he chided me for wearing something so unmanly as ear protectors (“ear muffs,”he called them), he provided protection of his own, bringing my sometimes wandering mind back to the work at hand.

That is exactly what a good Zen teacher does, and though Chainsaw Chilson, who passed away in 1991, had probably never heard of Zen meditation, he had something in common with the long lineage of Zen teachers. “Will you please write some maxims of the highest wisdom?” a man asked Ikkyu, a fifteenth-century Zen master. “Attention, attention, attention!” Ikkyu wrote. And in a well-known poem, Layman P’ang, a C’han master of the eighth century, trains his own attention on ordinary labor. “Who cares about wealth and honor?” he writes, “Even the poorest thing shines. / My miraculous power and spiritual activity: / drawing water and carrying wood.”


February 26, 2009

Read Full Post »

If you own a home in Western New York, you may be familiar with ice dams. These pesky obstructions occur when heat escapes from a warm attic, melts the snow on the roof, and sends water trickling down to the cold eaves. There it freezes into mounds of ice, blocking the further flow of melting snow. Unless your roof is protected by an asphalt polymer membrane, the trapped water may find its way under the shingles and into the ceiling below.

Ice dams can cause no end of trouble. And so can their counterparts in the inner life, if we allow them to form and grow. In his article “The Mind’s True Nature,” the Tibetan poet and meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains:

Water is soft and fluid, ice hard and sharp, so we cannot say that they are identical; but neither can we say that they are different, because ice is only solidified water, and water is only melted ice.

The same applies to our perception of the world around us. To be attached to the reality of phenomena, to be tormented by attraction and repulsion, by pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, creates a solidity in the mind. What we have to do, therefore, is to melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within.*

In this vivid analogy Dilgo Khyentse is describing dualistic thought: the process by which we habitually divide undifferentiated reality into concepts of this or that—into good and bad, beautiful and ugly, self and other, and so on. While necessary for survival, such concepts can all too easily freeze into rigid categories, to which we become attached, occluding our vision and blocking the stream of life.

But how do we “melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within”? Franz Kafka, author of “The Metamorphosis” and other modern parables, once described a book as an “axe to the frozen sea within us.” And Zen koans, which sometimes resemble Kafka’s parables, can also serve that function. Contemplating a koan such as “Who hears the sound?” or “All things enter the One. But what does the One enter?” we are compelled to abandon conceptual thought, making room for direct, intuitive perception.

But there is also a gentler and more gradual method. It consists of sitting still and watching our sensations, thoughts, and mental states arise, take form, and eventually dissolve. Bringing relaxed attention to that inner stream, we may detect the counterpart of ice dams in our psyches: fixed ideas, inflexible beliefs, impermeable states of mind. That’s just the way I am, we may be tempted to say. But should we continue to shine the lamp of mindfulness on those aggregates of thought and feeling, recognizing their impermanent and insubstantial nature, we may sense the beginning of a thaw. We may touch the ground of being—the common source of ice and water. And over time, we may taste the living water within.


* Shambhala Sun (January, 2009), 78-79

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »