Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 17
Behind the wheel of zazen

Let me continue with my answer to last month's question: How should we concentrate on the breath?

I said that concentrating on the breath can be a way to calm us down during zazen. Now, there is no exact manual of zazen. We have to experiment and find out about the art of zazen by ourselves. Uchiyama Kosho Roshi, a former abbot of Antaiji, made the comparison to driving a car. At first, driving is not so easy, and it is important for you and the others that you know well how to drive. You have to learn to use the pedals with your feet: Give gas, step on the brake or use the cratch when you shift gears. Apart from shifting gears, your hands have to hold the handle firmly, but sometimes you have to use the winker, or switch on the wipers when it starts to rain. Your eyes should be on the road, you have to look for other cars, for traffic signs, for children playing by the road. Sometimes you have to turn on the radio and listen to information about traffic jams or weather conditions. Sometimes you have to stop and look on a map.

In driving school, you learn about all this, but your driving will not be natural and save as long as you understand the technique and the rules only intellectually: Left foot on the cratch, left hand puts gear into first, right foot gives gas, left foot releases cratch slowly, eyes watch out for pedestrians, use winker to turn left, check back mirror etc.
When your driving is really good , you forget about all this. The car has become your flesh and bones, and all your senses are aware, without your brain always having to check all the rules in the manual.

With zazen it is exactly the same. There are so many checkpoints regarding the posture of the body. All of them are very important of course, and we have to make sure that we know how to exactly adjust the physical posture. Then there is the breath. Then there is the mind. But, if we continue to monitor and check our zazen all the time, we will never be able to sit stable and firmly grounded in samadhi. When we are in samadhi, we completely forget about the body, breath and mind. Naturally, body, breath and mind take care of themselves. Sometimes, a disharmony occurs, and we have to re-adjust our spine, or relax our breathing, or move our awareness to a certain spot in our body-mind. This is like stepping on the brake or giving gas, making a left or right turn with the car. It has to be natural, according to the situation at that time.
Zazen should always take care of itself. We should not try to control zazen.

Sometimes people say you should only concentrate on the breath and forget about everything else. They call this "samadhi". It is possible to develop this "samadhi" so far that you forget about all other sense perceptions, so even when the bell rings after zazen, you do not hear - or to be more precise, you hear, but the sound does not register as the signal for getting up and doing kinhin. I have read about people who sat zazen in this kind of "samadhi" for two weeks, and when they finally woke up, birds had build nests on their shoulders. I have also heard about people who practiced so "seriously" in this way for three or more years and did not even know the faces of the people sitting next to them in the meditation hall. This "samadhi" is not a good state of mind at all if you practice in a sangha. Just as when you drive a car, you have to be aware of everything in the car, around the car, on the road and besides the road, you have to be aware even of dangers you can not see or hear but which could be hiding anywhere. To drive a car, it is not enough if you know how to use the brake only, or the gas pedal only, or the handle only. For zazen, watching the breath only is not enough. In a certain situation, watching the breath can be a very powerful and important technique to sharpen your awareness and calm random thoughts down. But it is not a medicine that cures everything, and it is certainly not a goal in itself.

In zazen, you have to be aware of everything, the whole of reality as it is, without holding onto anything. That means you are aware of everything, open to reality here and now, and at the same time you forget really everything, let go reality here and now.

I think this is what is really meant by samadhi. In this samadhi, the breath is not a problem. Just let it be natural. The pain is not a problem. Just let it be and let it help you to be aware. Sleepiness is not a problem. Realize that you are sleepy, maybe you have started to dream, now get back and stay awake anyway. Internal thoughts are no problem. Realize you have them, as all of us have, because we have healthy brains who's function is to produce such thoughts. Realize you have them and let them be.

We always try to concentrate and reach this or that state of mind, preferably some advanced state of samadhi or maybe satori or something. That is a big mistake, because when you think that you are concentrating, you are not really concentrating. You are seperate from the object of concentration. When you are in great pain for example, when you finally are THE PAIN, then you are really concentrating. There is no gap between you and the pain. There is no "I" that is in pain. The same is true for zazen. If "you" do zazen, it is not really zazen. Zazen has to do zazen. The breath has to do the breathing. "You" should not breath. "You" should not do zazen.

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