Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 13
Sitting beyond theory

A lot of people think that for zazen you first adjust your body, and after that you adjust your breath, and finally you come to adjusting your mind - and it is exactly this mind that those people are most concerned about. But this is a mistake. Because you body, breath and mind are not separate. To adjust your physical posture at the same time means to adjust your breath and your mind. So when after years of zazen you still think that something is wrong with your zazen practice, rather than trying a new breathing technique or trying to be even more mindful of your mind, I recommend that you first try to adjust your physical posture once more. Many will think that concentrating on the physical posture is only for beginners. Well, if that is true you should return to this beginner's mind. Of course watching the breath or counting the breath are also valueable techniques, and facing the great koan "why am I here, what am I doing here, why am I doing zazen, for what purpose have I been born and for what purpose am I going to die, who am I in the first place?" is certainly important. But if you try to work on it in a posture that makes you look like a pecking hen, you will never find an answer. If you are unsatisfied with your zazen even after years and years, check your hips, check your backbone, check your jaw. If your hips turn out to be pulled backward, push them forward to give your posture stability. If your back is bent, straighten it again. Pull your jaw back and push your head up as if you wanted to break through the ceiling with your skull.

Sawaki Roshi says: "Zazen is the Buddha that we form with our own raw human flesh."
In reality, zazen is not so easy to practice in a remote mountain temple with only 4 or 5 people, the road being washed away by the typhoon - a new provisory road has to be build, gasoline and other provisons have to be carried up the mountain, rice that is going to be sold in town is carried down the mountain, the fields are attend to and wood is chopped during the free time: That leaves not much energy when it comes to sitting in zazen on the cushion. The hips start to fall backwards, the back becomes bend and naturally people fall asleep. But here is where adult practice starts. It would be childish to excuse ourselves saying that it isonly human to sleep when we are exhausted. What have we come for in the first place? When we are exhausted, we have to sit in exhaustion. We sit with this exhausted body. When we try, we'll see that it is possible. It is up to us to manifest zazen - upright sitting facing the wall.

We sit with our body, not with our brains - this problem is not especially new in Buddhism. It existed also at the time of Dogen Zenji. It is sometimes said that Dogen was the first (or one of the first) to transmit zazen from China to Japan, but in reality was known and practiced as a meditation technique in Japan for centuries before Dogen, especially in the Tendai sect where Dogen trained as a young monk. Zazen was not only practiced as one practice among many others, there were also extremely elaborate manuals penetrating the depths of the technique. The most voluminous of those is called "Maka-shikan" in Japanese, meaning something like the "Great Treatise on Stopping and Viewing". Stopping here refers to what is called "samatha" in Pali language, while viewing stands for "vipassana". This treatise deplores over hundreds and thousands of pages how to work with all kinds of problems during zazen, especially how to adjust the mind.

Compared to the "Maka-shikan", Dogen Zenji's "Fukanzazengi" is not only much shorter, but also less deep. A work on zazen as rich as the "Great Treatise on Stopping and Viewing" should truely be called a manual for adult practioners. Young Dogen of course had read this treatise, but it did not solve his doubts concerning practice. He made his way to China where he dropped off body-mind in zazen and came back home "with empty hands". Back in Japan he wrote the extremely simple "Fukanzazengi" and went so far as to deny the Buddhism of his time. But why should he do that? Dogen Zenji said that Japanese Buddhism of his time was only teaching letters: Sutras and Buddhist treatises. Even though zazen was practiced as one meditation technique, it was understood intellectually, not manifested as "the Buddha that we form with our own raw human flesh". The Buddhists of Dogen's time (maybe just as many modern Buddhists?) tried to understand the mind with the mind, an essentially fruitless enterprise in Dogen's eyes. For the established Buddhist on the otherhand, Dogen Zenji's "Fukanzazengi" must have looked like an introduction to zazen for beginners, with as much weight as a fart: "Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel" - who wouldn't know as much as that? The Buddhist theorists of Dogen's time (and not only them) were not interested in platitudes like that. They wanted to know how to reach the state of "satori".

Now it is important to understand that clarifying the mind with the mind is just as impossible as understanding "satori" through theoretical investigation. That is why Dogen puts emphasis on the physical posture: When we try to adjust the mind with the mind, we might space out and have all kinds of mystical experiences, but we will fail to be awake in the here and now. Now we might understand why Dogen in his "Fukanzazengi" talks so much about the environment and even the clothes in which we should sit, then explains the posture in detail, and about breathing and the mind hasn't much more to say than: "Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking. Not thinking: What kind of thinking is that? Letting thoughts go (Nonthinking). This is the essential art of zazen."
And Sawaki Roshi can say "Zen isn't spiritual, we do it with our body". Still, it seems that we always try to understand intellectually before we are willing to "do it with our body". That is why our "head gets stuck in the entranceway, while our body has no clue how to get out". This is exactly the impression that I get from the articles from the Antaiji yearbook that I quoted in March and April.

But not only from the articles of my Dharma brothers do I get this impression - the same is true for what I wrote myself: For example the introduction to practice at Antaiji that I wrote when I was still a student in Kyoto, quoted in the "shitpaper" of June 2003.

"This is a place where you can create your own life as bodhisattva practice. Although you are expected to live harmoniously with the other practioners at Antaiji, the responsibility for your practice lies solely on yourself. There is no one to live your life for you. Nobody will wipe your ass for you.

What is most important is not to use the buddha way for your own purposes, but rather to give up your own ideas and throw yourself completely into the practice of the way. For this, you should be clear about the basis of your practice and the motive that brings you here. If you expect anything other from your stay than what life at this precise moment has to offer you, you will invariably be disappointed. Make sure you know why you want to come here - do not fool yourself or others."

In a way, these words are just as pretentious as those from my article in the yearbook of 1992, that I quoted also in last year's yearbook:

"At Antaiji, no one will make you practice. You have to search for the way on your own, and you have to walk the way by yourself. Thus, the place of practice will naturally open up by itself. The goal of practice is NOT to get a glimpse of something that can not be seen with ordinary eyes. Truth is simple and open for anyone to see. It is the 'depth of the ordinary'. The 'depth' is the depth of our practicing this ordinary truth. Each one of us has a 'temple' in his heart. The question is just how do we manifest this 'temple', the place of our practice, in the 24 hours of our daily life? The question is, how can I create Antaiji by myself, right here and now?"

What these words say isn't exactly wrong. It is just that they express an intellectual understanding that wasn't accompanied by the practice. I was chasing after an ideal, knowing exactly that Zen was beyond theory, but even this knowledger that "Zen isn't theory" was just another theory in my head.

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