Lion's Roar

Thinking Non-Thinking

John Daido Loori, Roshi explains why non-thinking is right thought in this commentary on Dogen’s 300 Koan Shobogenzo, Case 129: “Yoashan’s Non-Thinking”

By John Daido Loori

John Daido Loori, Roshi explains why non-thinking is right thought in this commentary on Dogen’s 300 Koan Shobogenzo, Case 129: “Yoashan’s Non-Thinking”

The Main Case

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation1 a monk asked,2
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”3
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”4
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”5
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”6

The Commentary

Abide in neither thinking nor not thinking. Thinking is linear and sequential, a separation from the reality that is the subject of thought, and thus is an abstraction rather than the reality itself. Not thinking is suppressive. It cuts away thoughts the moment they arise, making the mind into a great impenetrable mountain-dead, unresponsive. Non-thinking has no such edges. It is the boundless mind of samadhi that neither holds on to, nor lets go of, thoughts. It is the manifestation of the buddha mind, in which the dualism of self and other, thinking and not thinking, dissolves. This is the dharma of thusness that is the right thought of all the buddhas in the ten directions.

The Capping Verse

When the dharma wheel turns
it always goes in both directions.
The still point is its hub, and from here,
all of our myriad activities emerge.
Rather than give solace to the body,
give solace to the mind.
When both body and mind are at peace,
all things appear as they are:
perfect, complete, lacking nothing.

The Footnotes

1. What is he doing? Even Kasho Buddha didn’t attain it with hundreds of kalpas of zazen.

2. Why doesn’t he leave the old man alone?

3. Huh? What are you thinking, venerable monk, in asking such a question?

4. He’s much too kind. It really can’t be explained; he’s just setting the monk to thinking.

5. Now they’re both in the same hole. Just shut up and sit.

6. How kind. But say, what does it mean?

There are many kinds of meditation, and in Buddhism different schools use various forms to develop concentration and insight: the breath, visual images, sounds or gestures. In Zen Buddhism, the form we use to see directly into the nature of the self is zazen, sitting meditation.

Here at Zen Mountain Monastery we engage two methods of zazen: koan study and shikantaza. Though the processes are different, both forms address the same thing: the study and realization of the true nature of the self.

Koan introspection is a directed and focused kind of meditation. Students use joriki, the power of concentration developed in zazen, to penetrate the koan which is the object of attention during meditation. Shikantaza, just sitting, is less pointed than koan study. It is zazen based fundamentally on faith-faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment, faith in one’s own buddhanature, faith in the process of practice itself. Most students in the Soto lineage of Zen sit shikantaza.

The Japanese word Zen—which derives from the Sanskrit dhyana—means meditation, and yet it’s remarkable that in all the literature on Zen, there is very little about how to actually do zazen. I remember when I first started sitting I couldn’t find any specific instructions. Everybody talked about how wonderful zazen was and how important it was and how everybody should do it, but there was very little to be found on how to actually do it.

Among those masters who did write about shikantaza, the first one to focus on it in his writings was the twelfth-century Chinese master Hongzhi, author of Cultivating the Empty Field. In the thirteenth century, Zen Master Dogen used much of Hongzhi’s beautiful, poetic descriptions of silent illumination-as he called shikantaza-to elaborate on this form of sitting. Unfortunately, for many years after that shikantaza became identified exclusively with the Soto school, while koans were thought to be used only by those in the Rinzai school of Zen. This simplistic view, however, can be easily refuted by the fact that Hongzhi was also the compiler of the Book of Equanimity, a collection of one hundred koans used for training in the Soto lineage, while Dogen himself collected three hundred koans in his Chinese Shobogenzo. His successor, Keizan Zenji, not only wrote the Zazen Yojinki, a manual for zazen, but also put together the Transmission of the Light, a volume of koans based on the enlightenment experiences of teachers in the Soto lineage. Furthermore, after students finish koan study, they take up the practice of shikantaza. So it is obvious that practitioners in either one of these schools make use of both sitting techniques during the course of their training.

Whether students are working with koans or the silent illumination that Hongzhi wrote about, the ultimate purpose of both is realization. But that realization can’t be separated from our own inherent being, our immediate, moment-to-moment awareness. As Dogen points out over and over again, practice and enlightenment are one reality. On one hand, koans harness doubt so we can smash through our conditioned way of thinking. On the other hand, shikantaza is based on our own faith that practice and enlightenment are one. Koans can be seen and passed through, but shikantaza cannot be gauged by any standard. Students who do shikantaza and ask, “Where am I? How far am I from realization?” miss the vital point of shikantaza.

In a sangha like ours, where some people work on shikantaza and others sit with koans, people inevitably compare themselves with others. For students working on koans, breakthrough is pivotal. I need to speak about kensho to let them know that it’s possible, to encourage them. But when I mention breakthrough, all the shikantaza people say, “When am I going to see it?” Shikantaza can’t be measured the same way, but this doesn’t mean that one technique is better than the other.

As with anything else, both approaches have their shortcomings. Koan practitioners get stuck with results and accomplishments. Passing koans becomes some sort of race, and the process is forgotten. In shikantaza it is very easy for students to get lulled into a state of complacency, believing that, “Since I’m already enlightened, I don’t have to do anything.” People who think this end up sitting with no awareness and no effort, never appreciating what no-effort in shikantaza really is. What is the effort of no-effort?

When I was a kid, Charles Atlas came up with a form of exercising and bodybuilding he called “dynamic tension.” His advertisements showed him beating up bullies on a beach. He was a skinny weakling who, through this method of working out, developed an impressive physique and a worldwide following. Interestingly, the method did not depend on the use of weights. It simply relied on generating and maintaining effort against effort, muscle group against muscle group-just resisting yourself. Evidently it worked, and it developed a unique kind of body type. It wasn’t a bulky form with huge muscles, but a nicely toned body with remarkable strength.

When you’re doing shikantaza you don’t try to focus on anything specifically, or to make thoughts go away. You simply allow everything to be just the way it is. Thoughts come, thoughts go, and you simply watch them; you keep your awareness on them. It takes a lot of energy and persistence to sit shikantaza, to not get caught up in daydreaming. But little by little, thoughts begin to slow down, and finally they cease to arise. When the thought disappears, the thinker disappears. This is the samadhi of falling away of body and mind. Whether we work on the breath, a koan, or with shikantaza, zazen eventually leads to samadhi. The first indication is usually an off-sensation of the body. This happens most frequently during sesshin because of the long periods of sitting. When you sit for a while without moving the body, it stops receiving information about its edges through the senses, such as the friction of your clothing or an itch on your leg. So although you know the body is there, you don’t feel it. Some people get frightened at this point and involuntarily their body twitches and defines its edges. Then they slowly move to that place again, and gradually they learn to trust it and they begin to go a little bit further each time. Next comes the off-sensation of the mind. The mind is dependent upon thoughts, but when the thoughts disappear the mind disappears; the self disappears. That constant re?ex action that says, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” is the ego manifesting itself. This is when we realize that we are constantly recreating ourselves.

Sometimes during sitting people have what we call makyo, a vision or hallucination. Other times it’s smells or sounds. Students often think this means they’re enlightened-particularly if the image is related to Zen, like the Buddha sitting on a golden lotus-and they immediately run off to dokusan to get it confirmed. The teacher will usually listen and then say something like, “Maybe you’re not sitting straight. Sit straight. Don’t worry, it will go away.” It doesn’t matter whether we attach to a regular thought or to the thought of enlightenment. Whatever it is, it is still attachment.

There’s a famous koan of an ancient master who was a hermit. He had been practicing many, many years, living isolated in the mountains. One day he was cooking soup, and in the steam Manjushri Bodhisattva appeared and in a deep, resonant voice proclaimed the dharma to him. The old hermit immediately picked up the ladle and started beating him with it. “Get out of here!” he said. “Get out of here!” In other words, don’t put another head on top of the one you already have. Anything that we hold on to along the way-anything-is a dead end, because the minute we attach we create two things: the “attachee” and the “attachor.” That is not the intimacy of samadhi; it is not the intimacy of shikantaza.

One of Dogen’s fascicles concerned with shikantaza is titled Zazenshin. It is usually translated as “Admonishments for Zazen” but Carl Bielefeldt translated it as “Lancet of Seated Meditation,” which is a beautiful image for shikantaza. A lancet is a scalpel, a precise, very sharp surgical instrument that is used to cut away all the extra. That is what happens in shikantaza. We cut away all the stuff that we hold on to. Thoughts continuously arise but our attention dissolves them.

In his fascicle called Learning Through the Body and Mind, Dogen says, “The stage of non-thinking is beyond egocentric cognition. If you reach the state of non-thinking you will realize the true luminous nature of mind. Non-thinking must become the eye through which you view phenomena. The activity of every buddha is based on non-thinking.” So what is this non-thinking? In The Thirty-Seven Conditions Favorable to Enlightenment, Dogen quotes: “An ancient buddha (Yaoshan) said, ‘Think non-thinking. How? By using non-thinking.’ This is right thought; sitting until the cushion is worn away is also right thought.” He very clearly distinguishes non-thinking from not thinking. So what is Dogen referring to when he talks about right thought?

In this koan it says, “When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation…” Yaoshan was a successor of Shitou and the teacher of Yunyan, who in turn was the teacher of Dongshan, one of the founders of the Soto school. Yaoshan’s practice of sitting in steadfast composure is the tradition of Buddhism correctly transmitted to him down through thirty-six generations beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha. But what does it mean to sit in steadfast composure? I added some footnotes to clarify the koan. The first footnote says, “What is he doing? Even Kasho Buddha didn’t attain it with hundreds of kalpas of zazen.” And the next line says, “A monk asked…” and the footnote says, “Why doesn’t he leave the old man alone?”

And the case continues, “What do you think about sitting in steadfast composure?” The footnote says, “Huh? What are you thinking, venerable monk, in asking such a question?” The next sentence in the case says, “Yaoshan said, ‘I think not thinking.’” The footnote says, “He’s much too kind. It really can’t be explained, he’s just setting the monk to thinking.”

That’s what happens with koans. Students read the question and when they don’t immediately understand it, they begin to think about it because that’s the way we’ve all been taught to solve problems. That’s the way we’ve earned our little gold stars in elementary school and our A’s in college-through good old linear, sequential thought. But thinking doesn’t help in seeing a koan. A whole other aspect of consciousness needs to open up. We need to exhaust that process of linear thinking, and when the mind finally stops functioning, out of the blue the realization of the koan appears. It is like a quantum leap. It’s a very different way of using the mind. It is non-thinking that is neither intellectual nor based on the subconscious.

In the next line the monk asks, “How do you think not thinking?” The footnote says, “Now they’re both in the same hole. Just shut up and sit.”

That’s ultimately what you’re going to be left with-just sitting. There is no handbook that tells you how to go beyond thinking and not thinking. You just have to sit, and it’s through the process of sitting that you will realize Yaoshan’s non-thinking. The final line is, “Yaoshan said, ‘Non-thinking.’” The footnote says, “How kind. But say, what does it mean?”

Indeed, what does it mean?

In the commentary it says, “Abide in neither thinking nor not thinking.” Thinking is one side. It’s linear, sequential. On the other side you have not thinking, which is blank consciousness. We call this state “eyes staring out of the coffin” or “making a living in a ghost cave” or “being stuck on top of the mountain.” Dogen’s Zen and Yaoshan’s Zen and the Zen of the great masters wasn’t about leaving the world, it was about manifesting the dharma in our everyday activities. Thinking falls on one side, not thinking falls on the other side. How do we leap clear of these two extremes? Yaoshan says: by non-thinking. Non-thinking has no such edges. It’s the boundless mind of samadhi that neither holds on to, nor lets go of, thoughts. But this doesn’t mean suppressing thoughts either.

In my years of practice I’ve seen a lot of Western students trying to forcibly quiet the mind by making it a big barrier that keeps things out. I’ve run into students who have been working on mu for ten or more years who are like boilers ready to explode because they’ve been suppressing stuff that needs to come up and be let go of. There’s no way that you’re going to see mu if you’re suppressing or holding on to anything. The mind must be truly emptied out before you can be mu. When the mind is finally empty, all the dualistic ways of looking at things disappear: thinking, not thinking; holding on, letting go; being, non-being; existence, non-existence. All gone. This is the dharma of the Middle Way; it is the practice of just sitting.

I remember when I went to my very first dokusan with Soen Nakagawa Roshi and I said to him, “Please teach me.” He said, “Have you sat before?” I said, “No.” I had actually been sitting for a number of years, but I wanted to get his instruction as a total beginner. I was doing a mixture of all kinds of things. I had no idea what meditation was really about. He said to me, “Put your mind in the hara.” And he took his long stick, the kyosaku, and poked me in the hara at a spot two inches below the navel. Then he said, “Put your mind in the hara and chant.” He had a deep, guttural, beautiful chanting voice. He went first, “Namu dai bosa. Do you understand?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Now you do it.”

And in a squeaky voice I said, “Namu dai bosa.”

He said, “No, no, no. Hara.” Poked again. “Namu dai bosa.”

I chanted, “Namu dai bosa.”

He said, “Ah, good enough. Day and night, namu dai bosa,” and he rang the bell. I took it literally and chanted namu dai bosa day and night. I would wake up in the morning, go to sleep: namu dai bosa. In the beginning I had no idea what it meant to put your mind in the hara, but I worked on it. Years of sitting went by and then it began: a feeling of warmth in a spot two inches below the navel, a feeling of buoyancy. That’s when my sitting began to change. It went much, much deeper. I began to recognize from my own experience that the hara was the spiritual center of the body, and later I found proof of it being the physical center as well.

Recently I read a very interesting article in The New York Times with the headline, “Complex and Hidden Brain in the Gut Makes Stomachaches and Butterflies.” It said, “The gut has a mind of its own-the enteric nervous system-just like the larger brain in the head, researchers say. This system sends and receives impulses, records experiences, responds to emotions; its nerve cells are influenced by the same neurotransmitter. The gut can upset the brain just as the brain can upset the gut.” They said, “It’s considered a single entity; it’s a network of neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins that zap messages between neuron support cells like those found in the brain. The brain proper and complex circuitry enable it to act independently, learn, remember, and as the saying goes, ‘produce gut feelings.’ The brain and the gut play a major role in human happiness and misery. But few people know that it exists.” Included in the article was a picture of the gut, and lo and behold! It was the hara. Yet you don’t need scientific proof to experience the fact that by simply putting your attention in the hara your body becomes settled and your mind quiets down.

The capping verse: “When the dharma wheel turns it always goes in both directions. The still point is its hub, and from here, all of our myriad activities emerge.” The turning of the dharma wheel in both directions simultaneously is the merging of the differences: good/bad, thinking/not thinking, up/down, self/other, on the mountain/in the world, monk practice/lay practice, and on and on. Our minds are dualistic and our tendency is always to look at things in terms of that dualism. In the Sandokai, (The Identity of Relative and Absolute), we chant, “The absolute and the relative fit like a box and its lid…it’s like the foot before and the foot behind in walking. Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light. Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness.” These are concepts that are hard to understand, but that can be experienced once the mind stops moving. “When the dharma wheel turns it always goes in both directions” refers to the Fifth Rank of Master Dongshan, where unity is finally attained, where absolute and relative, self and other, this and that, thinking and non-thinking become unified.

“Rather than give solace to the body, give solace to the mind. When both body and mind are at peace all things appear as they are: perfect, complete, lacking nothing.” If we can get out of the way and trust things as they are, the dharma of thusness is manifested. A person who is sitting deeply, whether they are working on koans or shikantaza, always manifests this reality. It shows in the way they interact with others; it shows in the way they live their lives. Ultimately, it all boils down to zazen, just sitting.

Please take up this practice of zazen. You don’t need any special props to do it. You don’t need complex instructions or monasteries and teachers. You just need a quiet corner to settle your body, settle your mind and taste your breath. Then just let the breath breathe itself. Think of non-thinking. This is the dharma of thusness that is the right thought of all the buddhas in the ten directions. It is Shakyamuni’s realization at the moment of his enlightenment: all sentient beings are perfect and complete, lacking nothing. You are perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Trust that. Trust the process of zazen. If you were to live for 100,000 years, you would never ?nd in this life anything more powerful, more healing, more empowering than the simple practice of zazen. Please don’t take it lightly. It’s an incredible gift.

Reprinted from Mountain Record: The Zen Practitioner’s Journal, Summer, 2000, by permission of Dharma Communications, Inc.

John Daido Loori

John Daido Loori

John Daido Loori, Roshi (1939-2009) was the founder and director of the Mountains and Rivers Order and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York.