Zazen Is Not Limited to the Mind

In the practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting,” says Josh Bartok, there’s a lot more going on than one might think.

By Josh Bartok

Photo by Rick Neves.

Contrary to popular understanding, zazen is not a practice of mind. It is not just a thing you do with your mind, even if the thing you’re doing is attending or concentrating. It includes the mind but is not limited to it. In American culture, people tend to identify themselves with the arisings and goings-on of their minds, but zazen is not overly concerned with such things. Zazen also includes the breath and body; even so, we don’t exactly apply the mind to the breath, nor do we focus specifically on bodily sensations. Rather, zazen is simply sitting in presence to breath, sitting in presence to mind, sitting in presence to body. Zazen is body, breath, and mind harmoniously “zazening.” Body, breath, and mind are in fact one thing. Or, more accurately, body-breath-mind is actually body-breath-mind-universe. As Dogen Zenji, the Japanese founder of the Soto Zen sect, wrote in Shobogenzo Yuibutsu-yobutsu (“Only Buddha and Buddha”), “The entire universe is the true human body…The entire universe is the dharma body of the self.”

In the lineage in which I teach, as in many others, the tradition is to encourage people who are new to zazen to begin by counting the breath. There are two common methods. One way is to breathe in, counting silently “one,” then breathe out, counting silently “two,” in “three,” out “four,” and so on up to ten, before starting again at one. The other way is to breathe in silently, without counting, and then silently counting “one” on the out-breath, breathing in with no count, then counting “two” on the out-breath, and so on up to ten. It doesn’t matter whether or not you get to ten. It doesn’t even matter if you get to two. The power of breath practice, the utility of the practice, is in beginning to familiarize yourself with the capacity for actively chosen presence—and also in getting to know the vast category of things Buddhists call “mental formations,” and the even vaster category of things we call “arising phenomena.” The value of breath practice is not in staying but in noticing when we’re engaged in any activity other than just touching body-breath-mind and counting. When we see that’s happened, we simply return. We come back to the arbitrary anchors of the breath and “one.”

This cultivates the capacity in our off-the-cushion lives to engage, with the power of intention and choice, with whatever arises. When fear arises, we don’t have to hide in fear. When sadness and grief arise, we don’t have to shrink from them or cover them over with anger. And when anger arises, we don’t need to lash out. Instead, we can choose to remain present and take action in alignment with our highest values. Zen practice offers us some suggestions for such actions in the form of the four bodhisattva vows and the sixteen bodhisattva precepts.

Though we initially rely on the scaffolding of counting the breath, we can also gradually begin to dismantle that scaffolding. There are several different approaches to practice, and none is any more advanced than another. They are simply different, and differently valuable at different times. To dismantle the scaffolding of counting, we begin to practice just following the breath without attaching a number, bringing our full attention to the physicality of breathing. When we notice our minds doing something other than being with the physicality of breathing, we desist from adding fuel onto that fire of doing. We unhook from it and bring our attention back to embodied breath.

We don’t try to control the breath. We’re not trying to force ourselves to have slow breaths or long breaths. Rather, we simply release some of the tension from the upper chest and let our breath fall down into the diaphragm. As we allow the breath to come and go, the belly naturally rises and falls.

Ordinarily, we locate our consciousness in the center of our head, behind the eyes, and we attend to our breath from there. But in zazen, we breathe from the hara—a spot about three fingers below the navel—and hold our center of attention in that place. It can be helpful to imagine pulling the single point of awareness that seems to be located in the center of the head down into the hara, and attending from there. When the mind moves, the attending tends to pop right back up to head. When we notice this has happened, we can imagine taking hold of it inwardly, bringing it back down, and commencing to breathe from the hara. It might be helpful to imagine a plunger descending on the head, a piston pushing gently down.

It’s important to understand all of these images are simply tools, useful contrivances, scaffolding for the practice of just following the breath, being the breath. Moreover, in all forms of breath practice, whether counting the breath or following the breath, we engage in a preference for breath as the object of mind. Whenever we notice the object of mind is not the breath, we replace it with the breath. This is a powerful, liberating practice.

All of these scaffolding elements—preferring the breath, counting, following, holding the hara, depressing the piston, replacing the object of mind—are effortful strivings and, as such, at some point they may start to feel contrived, like too much doing. When we start to notice that dissonance, there’s another practice we can move into called shikantaza, or “just sitting.”

Shikantaza is not accomplished by you; it is accomplished by the entirety of the universe inclusive of you.

Ultimately, shikantaza is absolute, radically nondual non-doing. It’s relying on no contrivance. Unlike breath practice, shikantaza does not prefer one object of mind over another. Like breath practice, it is still done with this one thing that is body-breath-mind-universe. We might say, “The entire universe of the true human breath, the entire universe, is the dharma body of the self.” In beginning shikantaza, we may find ourselves relying on the scaffolding of subtle strivings. At some point we may use less scaffolding, and at some point we may use none at all. Even within shikantaza, it isn’t the case that some version is “more advanced” than another version. Having no scaffolding is not inherently better than having a little. One subtle form available to us in shikantaza is discerning when the mind is engaged in the fires of doing, then desisting from adding more fuel. This is still an active thing we do. What differentiates shikantaza from breath practice is that we do not engage in the doing of bringing attention specifically to the breath; we do not enact a preference for breath as object of mind. We simply desist and carry on sitting with breath-body-mind-universe as the true dharma body of the self.

Another piece of scaffolding within shikantaza is the intimate, inward gesture of turning toward whatever is arising right here, toward what the universe is doing right now. This is the true human heart of body-breath-mind-universe. This turning toward is so small as to be almost nothing, but it is not nothing. A line from Shakespeare’s King Henry V captures both the smallness of this gesture and its power: “A very little little let us do, and all is done.”

Shikantaza is not nothing. Shikantaza is not a practice of just watching thoughts, though a mind-moment may arise in which one is aware of mental formations. Shikantaza is not practice of just spacing out, though a mind-moment may arise that has the content of “I have just been spacing out.” These mind-moments are neither themselves the practice of shikantaza nor do they negate or break shikantaza.

Dogen refers to the practice of shikantaza as being “unstained.” He tells us, “To be unstained does not mean that you try forcefully to exclude intention or discrimination, or that you establish a state of non-intention.” Touching on the radically nondual and non-doable nature of the practice shows us, in fact, that “Being unstained cannot be intended or discriminated at all.”

In shikantaza, we use body-breath-mind-universe to receive the entirety of body-breath-mind-universe. But don’t imagine this is accomplished by “you” alone, and don’t imagine it is accomplished by “mind” alone. This receiving is only ever accomplished with body, breath, mind, and universe together. We might also call it entrusting: entrusting the body-breath-mind-and-universe of this moment to this moment of body-breath-mind-and-universe, right here. This receiving and entrusting are also subtle scaffoldings.

Sometimes what we receive takes the form of understanding; sometimes what we receive takes the form of no-understanding. Regarding this, Dogen tell us, “When you understand, a moment of no-understanding does not come and hinder understanding, and understanding does not break no-understanding. Instead, understanding and no-understanding are just like spring and autumn.” In one moment of body-breath-mind-universe, it is spring, and understanding bursts forth. In another moment of body-breath-mind-and-universe, it is autumn, and understanding falls away.

Another piece of the scaffolding in shikantaza is expressed in “Affirming Faith in Mind” (or “The Heart of True Entrusting”), a poem by Jianzhi Sengcan, the second ancestor of Zen in China: “Immediately affirm not-two.” Whatever arises—whatever story of mind gone away, mind come back, focused, not focused, confused, not confused—immediately affirm not-two. Self/other, awake/asleep, vivid/dull, enlightened/deluded, good zazen/bad zazen, doing/not doing, present/absent—immediately affirm not-two. But make no mistake, this affirming not-two is not verbal. It is not necessarily even mental. It is the simple fact of the matter. With body-breath-mind-universe, immediately affirm not-two.

To practice in free fall in this way is to practice becoming comfortable with not-knowing, comfortable with uncertainty, comfortable with discomfort, with doubt, with our raging minds.

The phrase rendered as “just sitting” can also be stated as “simply getting on with sitting,” which is Dogen’s continual message. Shikantaza is not a thing you can do; nonetheless, right now, get on with doing it. Or rather, precisely because shikantaza is not a thing you can do, get on with doing it. Shikantaza does not accomplish anything, and so we sit in affirmation of that truth. Shikantaza cannot be done by your small mind and small intentions alone, but get on with doing it.

In shikantaza, we receive everything that arises into one category: stuff that arises. There aren’t two categories. There isn’t good stuff and bad stuff. There isn’t stuff we’re trying to have and stuff we’re trying not to have. There isn’t breath and body and sensations and traffic. It’s all just stuff that arises. Shikantaza is the embodied receiving of all that stuff into one category. It’s worth noting the recursive quality of this. Receiving is itself just another category of stuff that arises. And receiving everything that arises into the one category is another form of immediately affirming not-two.

One form shikantaza takes is releasing even the contrivances of receiving and the scaffolding of turning toward, of immediately affirming not-two. This is stepping off the cliff of the known, of the doable, of all certainties and entering the free fall of just sitting with this one thing that is body-breath-mind-universe. Shikantaza is not accomplished by you; it is only accomplished by the entirety of the universe inclusive of you. Practicing in this free fall of shikantaza lets us engage with the subtle mental formations of willing, intending, striving, and knowing.

In this free fall, we may try to grab on to some form of certainty to stop our fall, like Wile E. Coyote grabbing on to a branch as he falls off a cliff. Inevitably, that branch will break. In shikantaza we simply see the impulse to grab, without buying into the story of grabbing or the story of needing to stop our fall, of needing to apply an antidote to what we’re experiencing. To practice in free fall in this way is to practice becoming comfortable with not-knowing, comfortable with uncertainty, comfortable with discomfort, with doubt, with our raging minds. But make no mistake: this comfort isn’t some limited state of mind. It’s not some other state of mind.

Just this—always and inevitably—is it. And so we just get on with sitting.

Josh Bartok

Josh Bartok

Josh Bartok (Keido Mu’nen) is the abbot (head teacher and spiritual director) at the Greater Boston Zen Center. He is a Dharma heir of James Ishmael Ford Roshi in both of the roshi’s lineages: the ordained Soto Zen lineage of Jiyu Kennett, and the koan introspection lineage of John Tarrant.