Zazen: Just Sitting, Going Nowhere

The Zen practice of just sitting, says Lewis Richmond, doesn’t help us to reach our destination. It allows us to stop having one. But how do you “go” nowhere?

Lewis Richmond
20 September 2022
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

The practice of “just-awareness” is the essence of Zen meditation. The Japanese word for this, shikantaza, is usually translated as “just sitting,” but Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen, specifically taught that zazen is “beyond sitting or lying down.” Shikantaza is more than the mere physical posture of sitting, although it certainly includes that. Fundamentally it is the practice of just being here, being present—except that we are not rocks or stones, but aware beings—so I think “just-awareness” more fully captures the essence of the term. But awareness of what? That is the first question.

Most people new to zazen think that it’s a skill that can be learned, like tai chi. We come to zazen instruction and are told to sit a certain way, hold the hands just so, keep the eyes open, and pay attention to the breath. It seems rather easy; we look forward to becoming more accomplished in it. But Dogen admonishes us, “Zazen is not learning to do concentration.” He seems to be implying that our ambitions to improve are not quite on the mark.

We can be forgiven for thinking that if we do the same thing over and over, we will improve. But is “just being here” a skill to be learned? Do we ever get better at that? I don’t think so. From the first moment of life to the last, we’re always just here. Our pure awareness doesn’t develop, doesn’t change, doesn’t grow up and doesn’t grow old. I was recently talking to a hundred-and-five-year-old woman, and she said, “Well, I don’t feel a hundred and five. It’s just me.” She felt the same as she did when she was a young girl. So, from that point of view, none of us exactly grows old. Something grows old—the body perhaps, or our memories—but does our “being here” grow old? No. How could it?

Don’t try to get somewhere, to do something. Instead, be like a little child—naturally joyous, naturally aware.

This gives us a clue as to the kind of practice we’re talking about. It’s not some kind of yogic concentration practice, such as Gautama Buddha himself practiced early in his spiritual career. When he was young, Gautama went around to various yoga teachers and learned how to develop trance states and psychic powers. He became very accomplished at these; he “improved.” But in the end he felt that all these practices missed the fundamental point. No matter how good we get at something, eventually we grow old, become sick and die; all our powers come to naught. Gautama’s conclusion was that all of these concentration practices really didn’t work, because in the end they’re just states of consciousness to go into and come out of; they don’t really address the ground of being or the cause of human suffering.

Leaving all those practices behind, Gautama recalled a time when, as a child, he sat under a tree and spontaneously felt ease and joy. Remembering this moment, Gautama sat down under a tree again—the Bodhi Tree—and reentered the natural childlike state of pure awareness. And that was the practice that led to his enlightenment. The traditional life stories of the Buddha always include this moment of returning to a child’s experience. A young child doesn’t think much about gaining something, about being different or better. The child just rests in her immediate experience. That’s the point of another of Dogen’s zazen instructions: “Do not desire to become a buddha.” Don’t try to get somewhere, to do something. Instead, be like a little child—naturally joyous, naturally aware.

But what does this really mean—naturally aware? In early Chinese Zen, many people thought it meant to clear the mind of all thinking. The Sixth Ancestor of Zen tried to correct this mistake, saying, “Emptying the mind and dwelling in emptiness is not Zen.” So stopping one’s thinking is not the goal, though many meditators may think that.

Once someone asked my teacher Suzuki-Roshi, “What do I do about all my thinking in zazen?”

“What’s wrong with thinking?” Suzuki replied.

Dogen’s own instruction on this point is the famous injunction, “Think not-thinking.” Probably most people who hear that think it means we’re not supposed to think, that thoughts are somehow a hindrance, and that the goal is a completely thought-free mind. But Dogen doesn’t say, “Don’t think.” He says, “Think”; he uses a verb. We’re being asked to think something, to make some kind of effort. But think what? How do we think not-thinking?

Suzuki-Roshi used a beautiful phrase in explaining this point; he said that “think not-thinking” was “real thinking.” This is an awareness that tracks exactly what’s going on. So when you watch a plum blossom, he would say, you exactly track the flowering of the blossom—no more, no less. That isn’t like our usual thinking. Usually we’re thinking about some big problem in our life, or what we did yesterday, or are going to do tomorrow.

Dogen So means that we’re not trying to stop our thinking, but we’re also not paying particular attention to it or trying to do anything with it. Instead there’s a kind of deep acceptance or tolerance about everything. Thus we come to rest not in the track of our thinking, but in that which thinks. But who or what is that? We are back to some deep ineffable question at the root of our existence, our just-awareness. This means that in the midst of our childlike ease and joy, there is also some unusual and subtle effort—an inquiry that is beyond ratiocination or cogitation.

Without that effort—that deep questioning that drove Gautama to leave the comfort of his princely position and wander the world as a homeless monk—zazen can quickly devolve into a boring, enervated plopping down on a cushion. One Japanese Zen teacher liked to call this kind of too-passive sitting “shikan-nothing.” Shikan-nothing isn’t quite it either.

So what is “it”?

The best, and most sincere, answer is that we actually cannot say. There is something inexplicable about it—not because it is secret, but because our human condition itself is inexplicable. And that’s all right. All of us naturally want a spiritual practice we can understand or conceive of, and most of conventional religious practice is like that—prayer, ritual, chanting, visualization and so on. These are all practices that can be conceived of and understood. Zazen is a different sort of practice—mysterious and yet as simple and familiar as our own hand.

In the fullness of the hand, front and back, we are all buddhas. To sit in the fullness of the whole hand has great power; it shakes the earth.

Our hand, though, has two sides: a front and a back.

Our ordinary life, our personality and conventional mental activity, are like the front of the hand. There’s nothing wrong with the front of our hand, but if that’s all we know—if we don’t accept that our hand has two sides—then it’s not really a hand. It’s some kind of one-dimensional shadow of a hand. If we say, “I just want the front of my hand,” that doesn’t make sense.

It is equally true that zazen is not just the back of the hand, because then we’d be falling into the trap of “emptying the mind and dwelling in emptiness.” Saying, “I just want the back of my hand,” is something like an idea or concept of emptiness; asking for just the back of the hand doesn’t make sense either. That would simply be another kind of one-dimensional shadow. A hand has two sides; that is its nature. We lift it up and immediately both sides are there. So we might say that zazen practice is the practice of the whole hand.

There is some way in which, going beyond all of that, we all find ourselves swimming in the same sea, lifting up the same hand. In the fullness of the hand, front and back, we are all buddhas. To sit in the fullness of the whole hand has great power; it shakes the earth. They say that when Buddha was enlightened the earth shook. For a long time I didn’t pay too much attention to such metaphors, but now I have a better appreciation of them. There’s only one awareness that’s deep enough and broad enough to encompass all of us, and that is the awareness of just-awareness, just being here. That is the awareness that can transform us all into beings of inexhaustible and intrinsic compassion.

Practice zazen like you’re just about to die.

Buddhist life is sometimes thought of as rather passive: sitting quietly, not saying or expressing anything, not celebrating things, not dancing, not playing music, not going to the movies. That understanding is a little too much back-of-the-hand. Zazen is not to reject one side of the hand or the other, but to equalize both sides so that the basis of our life has some deep compassionate support, some backdrop. We’re not trying to suck the joy out of our experience and live a drab, black-robed life, but to round out our life so it can become deeply and authentically compassionate and joyous. This includes everything—joy, sorrow, birth, death, delusion, enlightenment.

Jack Kornfield’s teacher said to him once, “You can’t help anybody if you’re afraid to die.” My teacher once said something similar. He said, “Practice zazen like you’re just about to die.” At first blush, that sounds kind of grim. But actually, what he said is very practical and true. I remember him smiling when he said it. When we’re about to die, there are a lot of things we don’t have to worry about. Maybe there’s a lot of sadness, or regret, but at least you don’t have to wonder who’s going to put the garbage out anymore. Whoever it is, it isn’t going to be you; you’re dying. So a lot drops away.

Dying is actually always here, throughout life. All human life is shadowed by the fact that we are mortal, that we are going to disappear. And our practice of zazen is to say, All right, fine, let’s bring that in and get familiar with it so it doesn’t frighten us anymore. Then we can be free of it, and fully embrace the compassionate mind that is our natural birthright.

In the last few years neurologists have been wiring up Zen meditators, and they’ve been discovering that the electrical patterns of the meditating brain look rather different than those of the normal waking mind. What does this mean? We might say that zazen is a different way to be awake. This difference may rest not so much in the cortex—the part that does thinking and logical tasks—but in the older parts of the brain, those having to do with emotion, spatial perception, and the faculty that defines the boundary of self and other.

This emerging neurological understanding may help us understand “think not-thinking” as a state where the higher brain functions are all operative and alert, but not purposefully active. We don’t shut down ordinary consciousness, as we would in states of deep concentration or trance. But we don’t apply our mind to anything in particular, either. Instead, we just rest in awareness itself, consciousness itself.

Could this possibly be all there is to it? Is the essence of Buddhist practice really this simple? Well, yes and no. Thrangu Rinpoche, an eminent teacher of Tibetan Mahamudra (which has many similarities to Zen) once said, “It may be difficult to trust the fact that something so relatively simple could actually bring one all the way to awakening.” On the other hand, the oral and written teachings of Buddhism are vast. The books of the Tibetan canon alone would fill a good-sized room, floor to ceiling, and that is just one tradition.

Yes, the essence practice of Buddhism—which is what zazen is—really is simple. It is we human beings who are complicated. It takes us a long time to trust the practice fully, as Thrangu Rinpoche implied. Consequently Buddhism offers us a great variety of other transformative practices—such as bowing, chanting, visualizing or the meditations on compassion—to encourage us on the path while we cultivate this trust.

Many, many people, through countless generations, have cultivated and refined these practices. We are the inheritors and beneficiaries of their lifetimes of effort. In this difficult world of ours, where there seems to be so much confusion, strife, suffering and terror, we must remember that Gautama the Buddha lived in just such a world, and confronted the very same imponderables as we—the same wonderment, hopefulness, confusion and despair. He got through it, and so can we. He was not a god, not a superman, but a human being with the same mind, body and faculties as we. At the moment of his enlightenment he exclaimed, “All beings are just like this—all of them are intrinsically buddhas!”

May it be so. May all beings immediately recognize their intrinsic nature as buddhas and become fully liberated!

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond is a Zen teacher and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice. His new book is Every Breath, New Chances: How to Age with Honor and Dignity, a Guide for Men.