Zazen: Just Wake Up

Zen teacher Myoan Grace Schireson teaches Zazen, sitting meditation from the Zen tradition, a foundational Buddhist practice.

Grace Schireson
1 September 2010
Photo by Peter Hershey.

When an idea arises, just wake up. Sitting zazen is the dharma gate of bliss and repose.
—Dogen-zenji, Fukanzazengi

Sitting meditation, called zazen in the Zen tradition, has been described as just waking up—we wake up to the intimate reality within which we had been dreaming our lives. Zazen practice harmonizes body, breath, and mind, so that bodily posture, breathing, and mind’s activity become our most intimate companions.

The method begins with settling into a seated posture. Then, spine erect, we are aware of the breath entering the soft belly and we count each breath one through ten as it exits the body. Such a simple method, but it establishes our basic discipline to watch what actually is.

Zazen strengthens concentration while providing intimacy with our own mind. We begin to see ourselves with clarity and develop the tolerance to continue viewing and accepting whatever we find. Watching the actual workings of our mind, we are connected to the source of our life.

In the beginning our mind may wander, but as we settle into meditation we find we are truly nowhere else but intimately present. Whether on or off the meditation seat, we are always present in this intimate yet boundless space. It is intimate because we face ourselves unfiltered; it is boundless because there is a sense of spaciousness watching what is arising. We face ourselves in a reflecting pond, becoming more and more intimate with this awareness that self- reflects. We come to know that which is aware, and we see what we have come to call “me” and “my life” reflected within it. We see our thoughts and feelings just as they are, without any positive or negative spin. We see our longing and vulnerability. Through soft awareness on breath, mind, and physical presence, our concentration strengthens and we begin to accept this view of our inner life naked before us.

Of course, in the beginning we may be shocked by what we see arising. We may wish to turn away from what arises, saying, “Where is all of this selfishness coming from?” or, “I don’t like this; this isn’t me!” Beginning meditators are often shocked to see their thoughts and impulses so clearly, and they may wonder, “Was I always this awful, or is meditation making me worse?” No, meditation is not making us worse, but we are seeing more clearly than ever before how we add to our own suffering and the suffering of others. And once we see our many selfish impulses, regular meditation develops the discipline and steady view that support us in not acting out these impulses as they arise.

Honesty and courage are required to watch this just-as-it-is arising, but with continued practice the difference between the selfish thoughts and the one who views the selfishness becomes more apparent. The viewer develops a steadier gaze, and our thoughts, feelings, and sensations are seen to be just ripples on the pond, not the pond itself. We become more intimate with the true nature of this self-reflective water we are always swimming in.

More than any other quality, honesty is essential for zazen practice. There is just no point in fooling ourselves about how troubled we are just below our surface politeness, our thin veneer of civilization. When we have developed the intimacy and stability to stay present with our own mind, we see for ourselves how much help we really need.

The next quality necessary for zazen practice is the courage not to turn away, no matter how rough the waves seem, no matter what difficulties appear. Finally, patient and devoted effort is required to sit period after period through busy events and competing interests. Returning to the cushion to count each exhalation, one through ten, lacks the glamour of socializing with friends in interesting places. Yet through our patient and devoted effort we will become completely intimate with our personhood in the field of awareness, and pass through the dharma gate of zazen into the field of bliss and repose.

Grace Schireson

Grace Schireson

Grace Schireson is president of Shogaku Zen Institute (a Zen teachers’ training seminary) and a clinical psychologist. She played a key role in drafting the Zen Women ancestors Document, along with Jiko Sallie Tisdale, Peter Levitt, and Zoketsu norman Fischer.