To you who are still dissatisfied with your zazen

by Uchiyama Kōshō Rōshi
Translated from Japanese by Jesse Haasch and Muhō as part of the book “To you”.


Dōgen Zenji’s practice of shikantaza is exactly what my late teacher Sawaki Kōdō Rōshi called the zazen of just sitting. So for me too, true zazen naturally means shikantaza – just sitting. That is to say that we do not practice zazen to have satori experiences, to solve a lot of koans or receive a transmission certificate. Zazen just means to sit.

On the other hand, it is a fact that even among the practitioners of the Japanese Sōtō School, which goes back to its founder Dōgen Zenji, many have had doubts about this zazen. To make their point, they quote passages like these:

I have not visited many Zen monasteries. I simply, with my master Tendo, quietly verified that the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. I cannot be misled by anyone anymore. I have returned home empty-handed. [Eihei Kōroku]

I travelled in Sung China and visited Zen masters in all parts of the country, studying the five houses of Zen. Finally I met my master Nyojo on Taihaku peak, and the great matter of lifelong practice became clear. The great task of a lifetime of practice came to an end. [Shōbōgenzō Bendōwa]

So that’s why they say, “Didn’t even Dōgen Zenji say that he realized that the eyes are horizontal and the nose vertical, and that the great matter of lifelong practice became clear? What sense could there be when an ordinary person without a trace of satori just sits?”

I remember well carrying around such doubts myself. And I wasn’t the only one, a significant number of the Zen practitioners who flocked around Sawaki Rōshi abandoned the zazen of just-sitting in order to try out kenshō Zen or kōan Zen. So I understand this doubt well.

We must know that Sawaki Rōshi had a Zen master’s character – just as you might imagine it. He was also so charismatic that many, as soon as they first met him, were attracted to him like iron shavings to a magnet. So when Rōshi said, “Zazen is good for absolutely nothing” (this was Sawaki Rōshi’s expression for the zazen which is “beyond gain and beyond satori” [mushotoku-mushogo], then they thought he was just saying that. They thought that their zazen practice would at some point actually be good for something or another. I think that goes for many who practiced with Sawaki Rōshi.

Perhaps those who lived outside and who just came to the temple for zazen or for a sesshin from time to time might not have had these doubts. But those who resolved to give up their former life to become monks and practice the day-to-day, intensive zazen life in the sangha around Sawaki Rōshi, these people sooner or later began to doubt shikantaza.

The reason for this is that no matter how much you sit, you are never fully satisfied with your zazen. “Not fully satisfied” means that it does not feel the way your stomach does after a big meal. So many young people who had dedicated themselves, body and soul, to the practice of zazen began at some point to wonder if they weren’t wasting their youth with this zazen that does not fill them up at all. And many finally left, saying: “Aren’t even the older disciples, who have already been practicing this zazen for years, at bottom just ordinary people? I need satori!”

This is why many people gave up practicing. This doubt brought me almost to the breaking point as well, yet in the end I followed Sawaki Rōshi for twenty-four years until his death. So I do understand those who entertain this doubt, but I have also finally understood the meaning of the shikantaza of which Dōgen Zenji and Sawaki Rōshi speak. That is why I would now like to try to play the role of a sort of interpreter between the two standpoints.

When I say “interpreter”, that doesn’t mean only that many Zen practitioners don’t understand the words of Dōgen Zenji or Sawaki Rōshi. I also mean that although Dōgen Zenji and Sawaki Rōshi do understand the deep doubts and problems of those who try to practice shikantaza, their words don’t always reach far enough to truly soothe the root of our doubts and problems. That is why I permit myself to attempt here to present and comment on the following words of Dōgen Zenji and Sawaki Rōshi in my own way.

What does that mean in practice? Let’s take for example the passage from Dōgen Zenji’s Eihei Kōroku:

I simply, with my master Tendō Nyojō, quietly verified that the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. From now on, I cannot be misled by anyone. I have returned home empty-handed.

How would it be to read it like this: “Taking this breath at this moment, I verify that I am alive.”

The reason why I can interpret it like this is because I don’t read the Shōbōgenzō as a Buddhist scholar who is only concerned with bringing order to the labyrinth of Chinese characters. Nor do I read it as a sectarian to whom every single word is so holy that he puts it on a pedestal, like a tin of canned food that will never be opened, and throw himself to the ground before it. Instead, I read it with the eyes of a person who seeks the Way, who is concerned with getting to the bottom of an entirely new way of life. And I believe that is exactly what is meant by “seeing the mind in light of the ancient teachings” or “studying the Buddha Way means studying the self.”

If we read this passage from Dōgen Zenji as an expression of our own, entirely new life, we will not get stuck in a flat and static interpretation. Instead we will realize that “the eyes are horizontal, the nose is vertical” is an expession of this fresh life we are living, breathing this breath in this moment. When we read like this, we see that Dōgen Zenji isn’t talking about some mystical state you might experience during zazen once you get “satori”. He is talking about the most obvious fact – this life right here.

That is why it is also written at the beginning of Dōgen’s Fukanzazengi, “The Way is omnipresent and complete. How can we distinguish practice from certification? The truth reveals itself by itself in every place, why make a special effort to grasp it?”

In the same spirit, what does the following passage mean? “A difference, even the breadth of a hair, separates heaven from Earth. If you make a distinction between favorable and unfavorable conditions, your mind will be lost in confusion.”

Life is this moment is fresh, raw and new. But when we think about this essential fact as an idea in our heads, we get stuck, wondering about what we can understand and what we can force into our categories. When we think about “the freshness of life”, it isn’t fresh anymore, it isn’t alive. Freshness of life means opening the hand of thought. Only when we do so can life be fresh. Zazen is this “opening this hand of thought”. It is the posture of letting go.

Now I have to say a word about the actual practice of shikantaza. Sitting in zazen does not mean that we do not have any thoughts. All kinds of arise. Yet when you follow these thoughts, it can’t be called zazen anymore. You are simply thinking in the posture of zazen. So you have to realize that right now you are practicing zazen and it is not the time for thinking. This is correcting your attitude, correcting your posture, letting the thoughts go and returning to zazen. This is called “awakening from distraction and confusion.”

Another time you might be tired. Then you have to remind yourself that you are practicing zazen right now, and it is not the time for sleeping. This is correcting your attitude, correcting your posture, really opening the eyes and returning to zazen. This is called “Awakening from dullness and fatigue.”

Zazen means awakening from distraction and confusion and from dullness and fatigue, awakening to zazen billions of times. The zazen of living out this fresh and raw life means awakening the mind, certifying through practice billions of times. This is shikantaza.

It’s said that Dōgen Zenji achieved satori through dropping off body and mind [shin jin datsu raku], but what is this dropping off body and mind really? In his Hōkyōki we read,

The abbot said: “The practice of zazen means dropping off body and mind. That means shikantaza – not burning incense, doing prostrations, nembutsu, repentance or sutra reading.”

I bowed and asked, “What is dropping off body and mind?” The abbot answered, “Dropping off body and mind is zazen. If you simply practice zazen, at that moment you are freed from the five desires and the five obstructions disappear.” (Footnote: the five desires are the desires for the objects of the five sense objects, the five obstructions are greed, anger, indolence, agitation and doubt)

So dropping off body and mind means opening the hand of thought and returning to zazen a billion times. Dropping off body and mind is not some sort of special mysterious experience.

Only this sort of zazen actualizes “the entire, unsurpassable buddha-dharma”. It is also called the “main gate to the buddha-dharma” [both expressions are from Bendōwa].

I would like to compare our life to sitting behind the wheel of an automobile. When we drive, it is dangerous to fall sleep at the wheel or to drive drunk. It is also risky to think about other things while driving or to be nervous and tense. That goes as well for sitting behind the wheel of our life. The fundamental approach to driving our life has to consist in waking up from the haze of sleepiness and drunkenness and from the distractions of thinking and nervousness.

Zazen means actually putting these basics of life into practice. That is why it can be called “seeing the whole of the buddha-dharma” or “the main gate of the buddha-dharma”. That is also the reason why Dōgen Zenji wrote “A Universal Recommendation for Zazen” [Fukanzazengi], in which he clarifies the practice of zazen.

The body and mind of the Buddha way is grasses and trees, stones and tiles, wind and rain, fire and water. Observing this and recognizing everything as the Buddha way is what is meant by awakening bodhi-mind. Take hold of emptiness and use it to build pagodas and buddhas. Scoop out the water of the valley and use it to build buddhas and pagodas. That is what it means to arouse the awakened mind of unsurpassable, complete wisdom, and what it means to repeat this one single awakening billions of times. This is practicing realization. [Shōbōgenzō Hotsumujōshin].

It would be a big mistake to interpret this as a mere warning for all not-yet-awakened Zen practitioners to not neglect their practice. The billion-fold awakening of awakened mind does not mean anything more than the living breath of vigorous life.

Some people begin with the practice of shikantaza and then give it up quickly because it does not give them that feeling of fullness or because it bores them. They do so because they only understand this awakening a billion times in their heads. That’s why they think, “Oh no! I have to awaken the mind a billion times? What I need is satori! If I hurry up and get one big satori, I can wrap up this billion-times business in a single stroke!”

It is exactly as if we were told as babies, “From now on you will have to breathe, your whole life long, this very breath, again and again, every single moment. You will breathe in and breathe out billions of times.” What baby would say, “Oh no! I’ve got to find some way to take care of these billion breaths once and for all, with one really big breath…”?

Even if we tried, we would not succeed.

That is why it continues in Hotsumujōshin further: “Some people believe that practice is indeed endless but awakening happens only once and that afterwards there is no awakening of the mind. Such a person does not hear the buddha-dharma, does not know the buddha-dharma and has never met the buddha-dharma.”

People who try to get one big satori do not accept that they must live their life with all of its freshness and vigor. Even in strictly biological terms, we can only live by taking this breath in this moment. Living means breathing this breath right now. When it is a matter of living this fresh life, it is of course not enough to simply think about your life in your head. Instead we have got to accept it as the vigorous life that it is. Only like this will we discover an attitude and posture which is fresh and vigorous.

That is what is meant by, “The great matter of lifelong practice has now come to an end.” And at the same time this is where the real practice of shikantaza begins. This is called “the unity of practice and realization” or “practice on the basis of realization”.

That is why Sawaki Rōshi always repeated, “Satori has no beginning. Practice has no end!”