Not by Ourselves

Shikantaza demands our full self-expression, says Tenshin Reb Anderson, and this can only be realized when we meet intimately with others.

By Tenshin Reb Anderson

Photo by Mikael Kristenson.

For the past two hundred years in Japanese Soto Zen, the understanding of most teachers has been that shikantaza, literally translated as “just sitting,” was Dogen Zenji’s essential practice. In accord with this mainstream understanding, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi established shikantaza as our essential practice at the San Francisco Zen Center. A great deal of his teaching was intended to help us understand what it means to practice just sitting in its true sense. He also told us that his main job as a Zen priest was to encourage people to practice just sitting.

He would often say that our practice is just to sit, and then he would say that it might sound easy, but that actually it is rather difficult to understand what it means to just sit. In order to help us understand what this just sitting really is, he went on to say that it is just to be ourselves. Finally, he made it clear, at least to me, that we cannot just be ourselves by ourselves alone. We can only just be ourselves and thus realize the just sitting practice of the buddha ancestors by practicing in the same manner as the entire universe and all beings. Perhaps other Soto Zen teachers have taught just sitting in this way, but I have not heard it so clearly from anyone but Suzuki Roshi. I deeply appreciate the way he stressed this point.

Suzuki Roshi taught that, in order to actualize our way of just sitting by being ourselves, we must express ourselves fully. So, paradoxically, realizing the selflessness of just sitting depends on full self-expression. Full self-expression, in turn, can only be realized by meeting and practicing together with all living beings in the entire universe. Therefore, he taught that to realize the full function of the practice of just sitting, we must go and meet face-to-face with our teacher. Such meetings offer the opportunity to settle completely into the truth of just sitting. Only when we meet intimately with another person can we fully be ourselves. As the Lotus Sutra says, “Only a buddha together with a buddha can thoroughly master the buddhadharma.”

My understanding of Suzuki Roshi’s teaching of just sitting is that it encompasses a dynamic interdependence between two dimensions: an intrapsychic aspect and an interbeing, or interpersonal, aspect. According to this view, I see Shakyamuni practicing upright, just sitting under the bodhi tree, and attaining the way as only part of the story of just sitting. Only when he met his students and they attained the way together was the full function of the selfless practice of just sitting realized.

So, in our practice of just sitting, we cannot actually fully be ourselves unless we go to see the teacher, and the teacher cannot fully be himself unless he comes to meet us. Suzuki Roshi was a teacher who taught that sometimes we have to disagree and argue with our teacher and that sometimes we have to surrender to our teacher. Similarly, the teacher must sometimes disagree with us and must sometimes surrender to us. This interbeing aspect of just sitting generously encompasses all agreement and disagreement.

To be fully themselves in this formal student-teacher relationship, both must assert themselves completely and recognize each other fully. You will sometimes disagree with your teacher, and at the same time you must surrender to your teacher. Your teacher, of course, must bring herself to meet you, and must surrender to you. The only way that you can fully be yourself is if your teacher, and ultimately all beings, come to meet you. When Suzuki Roshi was alive, meeting with him was a very high priority in my life. I made a big effort to bring myself to meet him, but, often, as soon as I made this strong effort to assert myself in his presence, I became aware of my anxiety and vulnerability and wanted to get away. However, when I didn’t present myself strongly, if I was with him halfheartedly, I didn’t feel the need to escape. It was only when I presented myself wholeheartedly to him that I felt vulnerable.

When Suzuki Roshi ordained me as a priest, he gave me the name Tenshin Zenki. On that day he told me that “Tenshin” means “Reb is Reb.” Then he said, “People may have a problem with that, but there is no other way.” Today, the way I understand his teaching is that when Reb is fully Reb, when you are fully you, we are completely vulnerable. To what are we completely vulnerable? When we are fully ourselves, we are vulnerable to the entire universe. The second part of my name, “Zenki,” may be translated as “the whole works.” In just being fully ourselves, Tenshin, we open ourselves to the working of the entire universe, Zenki. This name describes how the entire universe works thoroughly through each person in the practice of just sitting. Over the years, I gradually came to understand what a wonderful gift he gave me in that name. Tenshin Zenki is actually a gloss for shikantaza. So now I see that just sitting is not something that I can do by myself. It is not something that Suzuki Roshi could do by himself either. It is something that we do together. We practice it together when we bring ourselves completely to our meeting and completely assert ourselves while completely recognizing each other.

When I discussed with a friend the various views of just sitting, he recalled that famous story of the blind men feeling the elephant. One person says the elephant is a wall, another person says the elephant is a huge leaf; one says it is a rope and another says it is a tree trunk. I thought to myself, “But in this case, there really isn’t such a thing as an elephant.”

There is not actually something out there that is just sitting. It is just that we enter the reality of this wonderful practice by giving ourselves entirely to a situation where “the other” comes and meets us entirely. But since the other meets us entirely, just sitting can’t be a thing. What we do is not just sitting. Just sitting is the dynamic interdependence of what we give and what comes to meet us. That is not a thing. Nobody knows what that is. Even all the buddhas together cannot fully measure it. However, we can throw ourselves into it.

Although I say “throw ourselves into it,” even this is not a unilateral activity. We still need to have a significant other whom we meet face-to-face. Therefore, it is not so easy to throw ourselves into such a practice, because we may feel anxious or afraid of the unknown possibilities of such concerted activity. Nevertheless, we still have to jump wholeheartedly into the unknown reality of just sitting. There is a story about the great master Yaoshan just sitting. His teacher, Shitou, who was practicing together with him, asked, “What are you doing?” Yaoshan replied, “I’m not doing anything at all.” Shitou said, “Then you are just idly sitting.” Yaoshan replied, “If I were idly sitting, I would be doing something.” Finally Shitou said, “You say that you are not doing anything at all. What is it that you are not doing?” Yaoshan said, “Even the ten thousand sages don’t know.”

Zazen is sitting upright in the present moment, right here, in the midst of Buddha’s mind. There is a text about zazen by Dogen Zenji called Zazen Shin. There are two ways of understanding this title. Zazen means—well, no one knows what it means—zazen is zazen. Shin means “needle,” particularly the bamboo needles that were used in the old days for acupuncture. The first way to understand this title is that zazen is a needle that we stick into our lives; it’s the needle with which we care for life. If we put this zazen needle in the right place, it will tenderize our lives. We will become sensitive to the totality of our lives, tender to all beings, so responsive that we realize how deeply connected we all are. This tenderness transforms us and others. This is what happens when we understand zazen as an acupuncture treatment for our lives. The other way to understand zazen shin is as a medicine for zazen itself. It’s a needle to treat our attempts to practice zazen. It’s a medicine to treat our misunderstanding of the practice of zazen.

When we first begin, most of us practice zazen just as we do other things. We practice zazen to get something out of it, to improve some situation. We practice zazen as though there were something we could do by ourselves. We understand the self as something that can do things—do Buddhist practice, do zazen—and this misunderstanding is deeply ingrained in us. This is normal; we all do this.

Dogen Zenji wrote, “When you first approach the way, you remove yourself from its neighborhood.” When you first approach Buddhist practice, you go away from it just by the very fact that you are approaching it, rather than realizing it on the spot. We can’t help this. We’re looking to improve things. It’s the way we see everything; it’s unavoidable. Once we start practicing, we need treatment; we need a little medicine for our misunderstanding of what practice is. So may I insert a needle into your zazen practice?

Zazen is just like our lives, and our lives are like riding in a boat. You can’t ride in a boat by yourself. As Dogen Zenji says, you raise the sail, you sit up straight, you put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, you cross your legs, and you row with the oars. And although you row, the boat gives you a ride. Without the boat, no one could ride, but your riding makes the boat what it is. This realm of mutual creation with all sentient beings—where we make one another what we are—is the realm of zazen. Zazen is the way we care for our lives together.

We can care for our lives by ourselves, and that’s the way we’re accustomed to living. We have all done a pretty good job of it. You got this far because you did a good job of taking care of yourself by yourself. But this is not zazen. Now that you’ve taken care of yourself so well, you have a chance to enter the great mind of Buddha, to learn how to take care of yourself along with all sentient beings. This is “cultivating an empty field.” Cultivating the empty field is the same as cultivating the sky. Do you know how to plow the clouds? This cloud farming is done with all sentient beings. It’s also called zazen.

Someone once approached Suzuki Roshi and asked, “Why haven’t you enlightened me yet?” Suzuki Roshi answered politely, “I’m making my best effort.” He might have told the student to make more effort herself, but he didn’t say that. He said, “I’m making my best effort.” Zazen is the way I care for my life with all beings. I can’t do it by myself. Can you have faith in a way that you can’t do by yourself? Most people can trust only a way that they do by themselves. But living a life that you can do by yourself is unadulterated misery. Completely trusting a way that you can’t do by yourself, a way that you do with all sentient beings, is immediate liberation.

Some people say that Zen is hard to understand. It is hard to understand, but not because it’s obscure. It’s hard to understand because it’s like the sky. Look at the blue sky. It’s nice to look at, but it’s hard to understand. It’s so big and it goes on forever. How are you going to get it? It’s hard to understand all sentient beings, too, but it’s not difficult to sit upright and be aware of them.

One day, a monk asked the great teacher Matsu, “What is Buddha’s mind?”

Matsu said, “Mind itself is Buddha.”

Later someone told Matsu, “I hear you said, ‘Mind itself is Buddha.’ ”

“I say that to children, so they will stop crying.”

“What do you say after they stop crying?”

“I say, ‘No mind, no Buddha.’ ”

The practice of “no mind, no Buddha” is based on great faith. This is trusting what is actually happening. This is trusting “what.” Put aside your doubts and trust it. Trust what. Don’t trust it, a thing that you can think of. Trust what you can’t think of. Trust the vastness of space. Trust every single living being. Trust cause and effect: vast, inconceivably complex and wondrous cause and effect. This faith has unlimited possibilities. Think about not moving. Think about giving up all action. And remember, giving up all action does not mean stopping action. That would be another action. “Giving up” means giving up the attempt to do things by yourself, and embracing the way of doing things with everyone.

Trust Buddha’s mind. Trusting Buddha’s mind means trusting all sentient beings. This is fearless love. You can give it all up, and then you can love every single thing.

Dogen said, “Mind itself is Buddha. Practice is difficult; explanation is not difficult.” People like a practice where you can explain how to do it. It feeds the deluded karmic mind. First you do this, and then you do that, and then you do this; people like this. But what is easy to explain is difficult to practice, because the explanations move us further away from the practice itself, and we need all kinds of antidotes to get us back on track. “No mind, no Buddha” is not difficult to practice, but it is difficult to explain. Sitting still is not difficult to practice, because it’s just like the sky, but it’s as difficult to understand as the sky.

Practicing goodness is like riding in a boat. When you make a bag lunch and give it to someone who is hungry or take a present to someone who is sick, if you think you are doing this by yourself, you’re missing the point. You can’t ride in a boat by yourself. You need the boat; the boat gives you a ride. If you make a lunch for someone, the food gives you a ride; the food makes it possible for you to make the lunch. All sentient beings give you the food. All sentient beings make the lunch through your hands and your eyes and your body. Without you, the lunch couldn’t be made. Without them, the lunch couldn’t be made. Now let me ask you: If the practice of all the buddhas and ancestors is being realized right now, who is it being realized by?

If you answer “All beings,” you’re right. Yes—all beings! All beings are sharing the way at this moment. Never graspable, yet totally available. There is no other thing outside of this. My question is do we trust it?

Looking at myself, the only thing I can find that holds me back from completely trusting the practice in which all sentient beings are now engaged is lack of courage: lack of courage to affirm all life, which is the same as the lack of courage to affirm death. Without being able to affirm death, I cannot affirm life. This is the courage that comes with insight, so I could say that what holds me back is a lack of insight.

When I’m with some sentient beings, I lack the courage to meet them. I’m afraid of what he or she may do, and what I may do in response. So I hold back, and by holding back, I don’t affirm life. Holding back, I’m unable to care for the other person completely.

But I can make a vow, which, for me, is the same as practicing zazen. The vow will not be to meet each person completely by my own willpower. I will not make that vow. I will vow to trust that all sentient beings meet in my life, as my life. I will witness the arrival of all things as my life. That’s my vow.

What will be your vow? Do you want to commit yourself to the way of Buddha, the way that all sentient beings practice together? Or do you wish to continue an ancient karmic pattern of living by your own willpower? Consider my question and tell me the answer. Again and again, tell me the answer, so I can understand the heart of your zazen, the heart of your love, the heart of your wisdom.

I recently saw a good example of the practice of just sitting in the form of Olympic women’s figure skating. These young women—actually girls, fourteen to sixteen years old—fully expressed themselves. They asserted themselves with extraordinary energy, strength, precision, and grace. What was so touching to me was that, at the very moment of their fullest self-assertion, they simultaneously surrendered to the entire universe. At the moment of most powerful self-expression—when they were flying through the air, performing amazing feats of turning through time and space—at that very moment they were completely vulnerable to the whole world. They were vulnerable to falling on the ice, they were vulnerable to nineteen judges’ minute and severe scrutiny, they were vulnerable to their parents and their coaches. A billion people were watching them. Right in the midst of their transcendent wholeheartedness, they were completely vulnerable and open to the support and love of the entire world. It is this concerted and cooperative activity of all beings that the practice of just sitting celebrates and realizes.

After the competition, these young champions were interviewed. They were shown tapes of their performances, and they were asked what they were thinking at the moment of their total, impeccable self-expression and complete openness to the universe. As I remember, they weren’t able to say; they didn’t know what it was they were “not doing.” As Yaoshan said, “Even the ten thousand sages don’t know what just sitting is.”

Adapted from Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains: Dharma Talks on Zen Meditation by Reb Anderson. Copyright © 2005 by Reb Anderson. Used with permission by Rodmell Press.