Refreshing Zen

Arthur Braverman presents the life and teachings of Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, whose emphasis on the simple practice of zazen was a breath of fresh air amid the formalism of Japanese Zen.

By Arthur Braverman

Installation from the Artempo exhibition, 2007

While Shunryu Suzuki was igniting a Zen revolution in San Francisco in the late 1960s, Kosho Uchiyama was trying to foster a Zen reformation in Japan. It was perhaps an even more imposing challenge when one considers the power of the traditional Soto Zen sect in Japan.

Both masters believed greatly in the power of meditation, and both did a masterful job of transmitting the importance of zazen to their students. While Suzuki Roshi was attempting to get his American students to see the importance of many of the Japanese forms that went along with the practice of Zen meditation, Uchiyama was trying to teach his Japanese students not to be attached to the forms, but to let the forms grow out of the practice.

Kosho Uchiyama was abbot of Antaiji Temple in Kyoto from 1965 to 1975. Before that, he had spent twenty-five years studying under Kodo Sawaki, the most prominent Soto Zen master in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century. Uchiyama’s books include Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice and From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life, his translation with commentary of Zen master Dogen’s classic Tenzokyokun.

A few of Suzuki Roshi’s students who had gone to Japan to continue their practice, and meditated at Antaiji temple, returned to San Francisco and encouraged their teacher to develop a practice more like Uchiyama’s. They appreciated the abbot of Antaiji’s emphasis on zazen and his de-emphasis on many of the forms and rituals that developed as Zen migrated from China to Japan.

I recall Uchiyama Roshi once telling us that, at Antaiji, when you look at the vestibule during sesshin, a five-day intensive meditation, you will see many pairs of sandals in various degrees of order. He said that you could see from the range of care given to placing the pairs of sandals—from lined up neatly to full-blown disorder—the degree to which zazen had entered the students’ consciousness. He believed that as the practice of zazen became a greater part of the students’ awareness, they would realize that the sandals were not lined up and would fix them. He wanted the awareness to come from the zazen practice, not from being admonished by an authority figure, such as a high-ranking monk.

Uchiyama felt the same way about practicing in the zendo. He didn’t believe in using the kyosaku(encouragement stick) to wake up dozing mediators or correct the posture of slacking sitters. He said you would wake up naturally because you can’t sleep in that position for the fourteen hours a day of intensive meditation during sesshin, and eventually you would see that dozing and relaxing your posture were more painful in the long run. He wanted us to learn whatever there was to learn directly from the practice of zazen.

Uchiyama’s unique approach to teaching Zen was something very rare in a country as steeped in formalism as Japan. His teaching was a breath of fresh air to monks and laypersons alike.

The following is my translation of two chapters on meditation from Advice From Zen, a book of Uchiyama Roshi’s responses to students’ questions, transcribed and edited by one of his chief disciples, Rev. Shusoku Kashiya. The book was written for a Japanese audience, and, except for these chapters, has not been translated into English. In translating the text, I have followed Uchiyama’s advice as he talked about his own translations of Dogen’s writings. Rather than attempt a literal rendering, I have translated it according to my understanding of his words and the meaning behind those words. I tried to make use of my years of listening to Roshi’s teachings and the many questions I asked him myself when I trained at Antaiji in the 1970s.

Zazen That Amounts to Nothing

You can’t practice true zazen if your practice is for the sake of seeing positive results. There are many who say, “I once practiced zazen and felt clear-headed and I want to experience that feeling again,” or, “After my first Zen retreat, the landscape completely changed—everything sparkled. However, I’ve never experienced a similar feeling since then.”

True zazen is not about problems revolving around your little self. Whether you feel good or bad, you just sit, throwing out discriminating thoughts about the little self. That is the zazen of jijuuyuu zanmai, or “samadhi of the self,” taught by Zen master Dogen.

In my teacher Sawaki Roshi’s words: “Zazen is the self making itself the [true] self.” If I am to express it, I’d say: In your zazen practice whatever you see is your self which is only the true self.

When you seek an object other than your self, it can lead you to some kind of goal, if you practice a zazen in which “all is the self and only the self” from the start, there is no place to go. That is why it is called “zazen which amounts to nothing.” Sitting where “there is no place to go,” “a zazen which amounts to nothing,” or “the self which is only the self” is more important to this practice than anything else. Zazen in which there is no intention to seek anything elsewhere, or to gain or rid oneself of something, can be referred to as “unstained zazen.”

There is a popular notion permeating the world regarding zazen and nembutsu (reciting the name of Amida Buddha): Once you experience satori through Zen meditation or experience a settled mind through chanting Amida Buddha it is as though a red light has turned green and you become completely refreshed, and the feeling never changes. I have to say that talk like this is nothing more than a fairytale.

I say this based on the person I am today, having fancied myself from youth as a reporter on the quest for myself, practiced zazen from age thirty up to my early sixties and having chanted Amida Buddha from my mid-sixties. So the reporting I am presenting is from my Zen practice and my nembutsu chanting. Reporting from the experience of actual practice is quite different from that which so many people have drawn their conclusions up to now.

For example, people who view others in the wondrous pos­ture of zazen see them as feeling cool in the heat of summer or comfortably warm while sitting during the cold winter. The fact is, however, that for those actually practicing zen meditation in summer, because their bodies are confined in the heat, they become hotter and hotter; and for those practicing in winter, because they are immobile, the cold penetrates their bodies and they become colder and colder.

It also appears to those seeing it from the outside that people practicing zazen are clearly sitting in a state of satori. There are times of course when one may have that feeling. however, for the most part that is not the case. Thoughts float by one after another as if the practitioners were watch­ing TV, or, in a daze, the practitioners may have been dream­ing that they were doing zazen properly. (in the latter case it will appear to an observer as if the practitioners are sleep­ing, rocking back and forth as though rowing a boat.) The ones actually practicing zazen, however, would be waking up countless times either from thoughts that float through the mind or from drowsiness.

You may think that with this type of zazen it wouldn’t make a difference whether you practiced it or not, but in fact it does. Just as you can hear sounds much more clearly when you are quiet, when you practice zazen, sitting quietly, you will become aware of delusions that float around your head, which you normally would not notice. When you fervently work at letting go of those delusions as they appear, you will be practicing splendid zazen. When you reflect on this practice after you have spent time in zazen, you will truly understand this process. The time you spend practicing will allow you at least to have a fresh perspective on things you fret over; for example, in the case of the opposite sex—you will feel quite different reflecting on it during this practice than you will when you delude yourself flirting with your playmate.

The same phenomenon occurs with the practice of nem­butsu. you recite the nembutsu hoping to be embraced by the peaceful mind of Amida Buddha. in most cases, before you realize it, your recitation continues with your mouth as a result of a kind of inertia. however, your thoughts fly here and there like a wild horse or a monkey. you have to arouse the Way-seeking mind countless times, returning over and over to your natural state, simply reciting the nembutsu.

Whether we are referring to the practice of zazen or the recitation of the nembutsu, it is a big mistake to think that the practice will open up in you a special state of mind or a unique environment. The reality is that anyone truly involved in one of the practices will at least realize there isn’t any special state of mind. To the contrary, if you think there is a special state of mind, you are involved in nothing more than the creation of delusion.

However, i can say this much: practicing zazen truly has a positive effect on your daily life. When i was ordained, i lived in Daichuji temple in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture. i was practicing with five or six other monks. We had two ses­shins a month with the exception of July and August when the monks who came from home temples returned for the obon festival [a festival to remember the dead]. During that summer period students on break from school came to stay at Daichuji. There were often times when morning and evening zazen was suspended, which we called hosan. Though those of us who had practiced zazen regularly were happy for the lei­surely break from our regular practice, as we continued with this leisurely lifestyle, at some point something would hap­pen and we would begin arguing among ourselves. however, September would come around and we would resume sesshins and morning and evening zazen on a regular basis and before we knew it we would forget about the problems that arose over the summer and they would disappear.

I noticed that this pattern would repeat itself each year. While we practitioners were involved in religious practice together, we were teachers for each other in our common endeavor. But remove the common practice and we all became deluded people—a group of separate individuals who hap­pened to be gathered together.

When the true living power of zazen manifests, a very subtle movement occurs. Because of its subtlety, it is not easy to grasp; all we can do is practice it. expressed in words, it is explained as, “Just believe in zazen and do it.” not accepting this approach, people inquire from another perspective, want­ing to understand before actually doing it.

In this regard, I have been asked: “I can’t always come here to receive instructions on how to practice zazen correctly, so how can I practice so that i won’t have the wrong mental attitude?”

I respond in the following way: “Your wife and your child will know better than anyone else whether you are practicing zazen correctly. If your zazen elicits remarks like, ‘Since Father has been practicing zazen, he easily loses his temper and yells at us. I hate it. I wish he would stop practicing zazen,’ then you are practicing incorrectly. If, on the other hand, you hear remarks such as, ‘Since Father has been practicing zazen, he has become a better person. I thought it would be an inconve­nience when he decided to start practicing, but I agreed because I thought it was better than having him play around elsewhere. However, our relationship at home has improved, so let’s be quiet when Father is meditating,’ this is the kind of response that is necessary to indicate that you are practicing correctly.”

So there is no need to trouble yourself over the proper effect of zazen. Just dive in and sit, or recite the nembutsu. At that time, if you practice zazen, the world of zazen will open to you, and if you recite the nembutsu, the world of nembutsu will open to you, in a clarity in which your personal thoughts will have no meaning. That is what we call shikantaza (just sitting) or “other power” nembutsu (the nembutsu that doesn’t come from your thoughts). At any rate, spending time in the practice of this kind of zazen or nembutsu recitation for a little while is without a doubt a splendid activity for us.

Uchiyama Roshi responds in this teaching to students who say they practice zazen because they want to experience sudden enlightenment.

Naturally I believe that the practice of shikantaza recom­mended by zen master Dogen, the practice that my teacher kodo Sawaki called “just sitting zazen,” is the correct under­standing of zen meditation. not, in other words, a zazen in which you attain kensho (seeing instantly into your own nature) or pass koans one after another in order to receive inkashomei (certification of your attainment), but rather a zazen in which you just sit.

However, at present, it is not surprising that more than a few monks who are students from Dogen’s school (what is referred to as the Japanese Soto Sect) have doubts with regard to this kind of zazen. What those people quote as the authority for their doubts are passages such as: “The master said from the high seat, ‘When I was in China, I didn’t spend time in many monasteries; as soon as I met Master Tendo I realized my eyes were horizontal and my nose was upright and I could no longer be fooled by people. I returned empty-handed to my home,” from chapter 1 of Eiheikoroku (The extensive record of eihei Dogen); and “I went to Song, China and visited vari­ous masters in Chekiang Province, where I learned the ways of the Five Schools of Zen. Finally, I met Zen master Nyojo (Tendo) on Mt. Taipai and completely clarified the great mat­ter of a lifelong practice,” from “Bendowa” (Talks on the Wholehearted Practice of the Way) in the Shobogenzo. These people ask, “Didn’t zen master Dogen say, ‘I realized my eyes were horizontal and my nose was upright’ and ‘I completely clarified the great matter’? Then for we ordinary people who haven’t experienced satori, isn’t a zazen of ‘just sitting’ rather meaningless?”

Not only do I have memories of thinking these same thoughts, I know of many others who practiced under Sawaki roshi and also felt this way; many strayed from roshi’s “just sitting” and changed to kensho zen or koan zen.

Kodo Sawaki had a special appeal as a human being as well as having a distinctive character as a true zen monk.

Until his death, serving as his attendant and continuing my zazen practice. So i understand how people feel when they have doubts about this practice. On the other hand, I also understand the meaning of shikantaza as expressed by Zen master Dogen and by Sawaki roshi.

Next, I would like to try to interpret the teachings of these two masters. I use the word interpret given the obvi­ous difficulty religious practitioners have in understanding the vocabulary of  Zen master Dogen and Sawaki roshi, and the troubling doubts that begin to envelop new practitioners of shikantaza. They may not understand these two outstanding teachers because the masters’ words do not seem to touch their troubling doubts. Though it may be presumptuous of me, in what follows I will give my commentary on the words of Dogen and Sawaki.

Those who heard his zen dis­course for the first time were immediately drawn to him as iron is drawn to a magnet. So despite roshi’s declara­tion that the practice of zazen will come to nothing (his way of expressing the character of zazen for which there is “no gain and no satori”), many of his audience would conclude that in the course of practicing zazen they would surely attain something. That’s why so many became his students.

Those lay practitioners, who come to sesshins from their homes to join us in zazen may not have thought as deeply about shikantaza as those who shaved their heads and were ordained by roshi, devoting their lives to zazen. They may not reach a point as many of the monks did where they have doubts about shikantaza. no matter how much these monks practice zazen it doesn’t completely satisfy their hunger. it’s as if they never feel completely full no matter how much they eat. For them not feeling sufficiently satisfied now means they haven’t had their fill of the thing called satori.

Young people, in particular, who have thrown themselves into a religious practice will wonder whether it is meaningful spending their early lives practicing a zazen in which nothing stays with them. Once they start feeling this way, they begin to feel that the seniors who have practiced for many years are all deluded beings once their exterior coat has been peeled off. So, they presume, they had better attain satori. For this reason many leave roshi’s community. I too was riddled with doubts. however, I stayed with roshi for twenty-five years troubling doubts. Though it may be presumptuous of me, in what follows I will give my commentary on the words of Dogen and Sawaki.

An example of what i am referring to is the quote, “I realized my eyes were horizontal and my nose was upright and I could no longer be fooled by people. I returned empty-handed to my home.” how about if I interpret it as, “Breathing this breath now, I realize my life in the present?”

I’m not interpreting the Shobogenzo as a Buddhist scholar might, trying to be consistent with a classical text; nor am I reading it as one who is a so-called follower of a sect—stick­ing strictly to each word and phrase as if he were opening a can to be worshiped as is. As much as possible I read it as a seeker in pursuit of a fresh way to live my life. To my mind i am reading the Shobogenzo in a manner to shed light on the true mind of the ancients. And I believe I am interpreting it in a manner consistent with Dogen’s words, “learning the Buddha Way is learning about your self.”

When you read Dogen’s words with a fresh mind, even his statement about the eyes being horizontal and the nose being upright will be understood not as a flat inflexible statement but, I think, it will be properly understood as the recognition of one’s fluid, raw life, as in the living presence of breathing this breath now. And when you approach it this way, you will see it not as some mystical occurrence as a result of practic­ing zazen and intentionally becoming enlightened. It will be a natural expression of the life of reality for everyone.

It is for this reason that the opening of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi (universal recommendation of zazen) states, “The Way is complete and universal. how can we distinguish practice from enlightenment? The vehicle or reality is in the self. Why should we waste our effort trying to attain it?” now what does Dogen mean when he goes on to say, “yet if there is the slightest deviation from the self, you will be as far from the Way as heaven is from earth. if adverse or favourable conditions arise to even the smallest degree, you will lose your mind in confu­sion.” Though the basic reality by which all live is this pure fresh life, it gets hindered when our thinking mind tells us we have “caught hold of it” or conceptualized it. Because the “freshness” created by thought is not the “freshness” of life. The living freshness is when you let go of your thoughts—the place where thoughts are let go of is the very place where true freshness begins. zazen means to truly let go of thoughts—it is the posture of letting go.

Here I must say a word about the actual practice of shikan­taza. Even when we practice zazen we are not in a state in which thoughts do not appear. Various thoughts float into our mind. however, if we chase after them, though we happen to be sitting in the zazen posture, we are just thinking. At such times you tell yourself, “I am practicing zazen, this is not the time to be thinking,” correct your posture and return to zazen. This is called “waking up from absentmindedness.”

Then there are times when we become sleepy. During these times, return to zazen, telling yourself, “I am practicing zazen, this is not the time to be dozing,” and correct your posture. This is called “waking up from darkness.”

Waking up from both absentmindedness and darkness, returning to your practice countless times is zazen. That is to say, shikantaza is arousing the mind of “practice-enlight­enment” over and over; it is the meaning of zazen, or the experience of raw life.

Zen master Dogen was said to have been enlightened by “dropping off mind and body,” but we have to ask what is this “dropping off mind and body?” in the Hokyoki (a record of Dogen’s life with his teacher nyojo) it is stated, “The high priest Docho (nyojo) said, zazen is dropping off mind and body; it is not through lighting incense, reciting nembutsu, confessing transgressions, or reading sutras—it is only through shikantaza. A monk asked, What is dropping off mind and body? The master (nyojo) said, Dropping off mind and body is zazen. When practicing shikantaza, you should separate from the five desires and rid yourself of the five delusions.”

As i’ve said, it means to let go of your thoughts—the zazen in which you let go of your thoughts countless times is the zazen of “dropping off mind and body.” “Dropping off mind and body” is not some special mystical experience.

It is the kind of zazen Dogen wrote about in the “Bendowa” when he stated, “Truly you should know that this is the com­plete path of the buddhadharma—nothing can compare with it.” And again in the same text, Dogen called it, “the right gate to the buddhadharma.”

We can think of our lives as being somewhat parallel to driving a car. When driving a car, it is dangerous to drive when you are dozing or when you are drunk. It is also dangerous to drive when you are lost in thought or are very tense. It is the same when we drive the vehicle that is our life. Dozing and drunkenness are “darkness” and thinking and tension are “absentmindedness.” And in each of these cases, waking up is the basic way to operate the vehicle, which is your life. zazen is the very thing that will activate this basic way; the way to drive this vehicle, which is your life. When you practice zazen, you are following the “complete path of the buddhadharma” and the “right gate of buddhadharma.” This is why Dogen taught the way of shikantaza and it is his reason for writing the Fukanzazengi.

In the Hotsu Mujoshin (“Awakening of Supreme Aspira­tion,” chapter 69 of the Shobogenzo), Dogen stated, “The body and mind of the Buddha Way are grasses and trees, tiles and pebbles; they are wind and rain, water and fire. Ponder­ing this and giving rise to the Buddha Way, you will arouse the Way-seeking mind. you should create a Buddha image or stupa from empty space. you should create a Buddha image or stupa by scooping water from the valley stream. This is arous­ing anuttara samyak sambodhi (from the Sanskrit, meaning enlightenment)—arousing the one bodhi-mind countless times. Practice-enlightenment is like this.”

It is a great mistake for those unenlightened practitioners to interpret the statement, “wake up to the Way-seeking mind countless times” as a caution that you should ease up on your religious practice. Arousing this mind countless times is the raw original life, the living and breathing raw life. As i said previously, to begin to practice shikantaza and to consequently say you get no affirmation and therefore you will quit this meaningless practice is a result of interpreting the statement “wake up to the Way-seeking mind countless times” idealistically. As a result, you will think how terribly difficult it is—“I have to arouse the Way-seeking mind countless times because I haven’t had satori yet. I want to have a satori experience and put everything right.” It’s as if when you were born and heard that from now on throughout your whole life you will have to continue breathing every minute, you think “Why can’t I just have one big breath and be done with it?” It is ridiculous. That’s why in the Hotsu Mujoshin, the quote about waking up countless times was followed by the statement, “however, if you understand that arousing the Way-seeking mind means one arousal and no further arousals—that practice is unlimited while realization is one awakening—you have not really heard the buddhadharma, you do not understand the buddhadharma, and you cannot connect with the buddha-dharma.” Which means that if you expect to be enlightened in one fell swoop, you will never understand this raw original life as it is.

Even our biological existence is based on our breathing each moment through­out our lives—each time i breathe, I breathe a new life. hence living your raw life is also like this; it is not some­thing you can think into existence. To live this raw life there is a proper pos­ture. That’s when you realize the Great Matter of a life of practice, and for the first time the true practice of shikan­taza begins. This is what is meant by “practice and enlightenment are one” or “practice beyond enlightenment.” That’s why kodo Sawaki roshi repeat­edly said: “Beginning-less satori and endless Practice.”

Arthur Braverman

Arthur Braverman studied at Antaiji temple in Japan under Uchiyama Roshi from 1970 to 1975. He is an author and translator, whose works include Mud and Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Master Bassui, and a recently completed novel, Dharma Brothers Kodo and Tokujoo. He lives in Ojai, California.