Dharma Talk on

In his book, You Have to Say Something, Katagiri Roshi said, "...Zen is everyday life — to live day by day. ...right now, right here. Right now, right here influences your whole life. To live life... means how you take care of life day by day. According to the Zen way, you must be the master of yourself, whatever situation you may be in. You have to realize who and what you are. For this, all you have to do is concentrate on your hands, your feet, your eyes, your mind — in the present moment. In other words, when you do zazen, just sit down and concentrate on the breath — counting the breath or following the breath. When you have breakfast, just have breakfast, When you wash your face, just concentrate on washing your face. When you walk on the street, walk on the street. Zazen is a fundamental practice. It is about taking care of this moment with wholeheartedness."

I would like to talk about shikan taza, the core practice in this Zen tradition. The word "shikan taza" is often used interchangeably with zazen. The first part of the word "shikan" means to just do whatever you are doing, and nothing else — to act whole-heartedly or with undivided attention. Shikan taza literally means to just sit or nothing but sitting, so it's the act of sitting wholeheartedly, with undivided attention. Sometimes we say shikan taza is bringing the wholehearted activity of our body and mind to the act of just sitting. In How to Cook Your Life, Uchiyama Rosh said, "When you sit in zazen, just sit, and when you work..., just do that.... This idea of concentrating completely on one thing is the cornerstone of the teaching of Dogen Zenji... this is called shikan."

In Dogen's Manuals of Zen Meditation, Carl Bielefeldt described shikan taza as a non-dual, objectless, non-referential meditation in which the essence of Buddhist truth is experienced directly. Uchiyama Roshi talks about the practice of shikan taza as trusting everything to the posture of zazen, saying the most important thing in sitting zazen is to completely let go of everything. Sawaki Kodo, Uchiyama Roshi's teacher, said, "The Buddha way is the faith that zazen posture is Buddha.... What we can do is sit with the faith that zazen posture itself is Buddha, that zazen posture itself is beyond thinking..... Shikan taza is only concerned with zazen posture."

I think of shikan taza as the whole-hearted practice of just sitting, engaging fully in the actuality of our being as it arises moment by moment. "Our being" means both my being and all beings; so engaging with the actuality of all-being as it arises moment by moment. I find the koan inherent in shikan taza is finding the balance between will and willingness, between the discipline and effort needed to practice and non-interference. We approach this by first, letting go of the tracking, thinking mind that keeps us located in our self-referential, fabricated world, and this, then, allows us to settle into the non-discursive presence or non-discursive wisdom of our body. Shikan taza has elements similar to shamata and vipaysana — of being still, letting go of thought and settling while at the same time staying awake and aware.

Because in Soto Zen, we usually sit for 30 to 50 minutes at a time, ideally without moving, it is important to be in a well-supported position to help prevent creating tension or some other imbalance of body and mind. I think it is important to take the time to find a position to sit in whether on a cushion, a bench or a chair that allows the back to be upright, the spine aligned, and the chest open.

After settling into the posture, we can attend to the breath. Many of us have a strong tendency to think about breathing or relate to the breath, the posture, or bodily sensations in a mental way. It's almost as if we imagine our breath or imagine ourselves meditating rather than feeling it directly. To practice with the breath in zazen, try bringing your awareness into your body by joining your breathing. You may count the exhalations during all of your zazen, or count for the first few minutes until you feel more settled, or not count at all by following your breath, by feeling the swelling and falling effect of the breath moving through the body. But try to stay with the complete inhalation and exhalation as well as with what goes on in between. Awareness of the breath is often the primary object of meditation and it may be the entire experience of zazen, but it isn't an exclusive object — one's focus should be open to other sensory experience such as touch, smell. and sound. I find practicing with sound especially helpful. Without seeking out sound, try to allow sound to enter your awareness the way your breath enters your lungs. There is no need to label the sound or make up a story about it. When I'm thinking, my mental activity shuts out quieter sounds so that it takes something louder to interrupt the stream of thought. The opposite is also true, if I am open or listening to sound, my mind is quiet. I find this helpful during zazen and occasionally I try to listen to sound when I'm on a walk or during other activity. It is really hard to do since I get carried away to easily. But being able to do an activity while being aware of the quiet background sound, takes the "me" away who is doing the activity.

When thoughts arise, don't force them away or try to cut them off, but simply let go of them and return your attention to your breath, posture, to your physical presence as a whole, over and over throughout the period of zazen. The practice of letting go of distraction and returning to the present, can then be extended into everyday activity.

Two important aspects of the zazen posture are the back or spine and the hands. The back is the foundation of the posture, ideally your spine will support your back, so that your shoulders and back muscles can just relax.

After settling into your physical presence and feeling a sense of ease in the posture, I suggest working with the second aspect of posture, the mudra or position of the hands. I think the mudra is a subtle expression of our energy and attention. I suggest placing the hands so the thumbs are at the height of the naval, and this should be done in such a way that allows the shoulders, upper arms and elbows to be relaxed and comfortable. And rather than trying to hold the hands up which may feel like work and create tension, I prefer the attitude of allowing the energy in my hands to rise to this place, so they are being supported in an effortless manner. Trying to be aware of the very, very light contact between the thumbs. The thumbs should just barely touch which requires ongoing attention or presence in this area, the thumbs don't just barely touch automatically or out of habit. Feeling the contact between my thumbs keeps me in my body, which is always in the present, and it helps my attention not to wander.

The mudra or hand position used in zazen is called the universal or cosmic mudra, in which the hands are held in a round, open position that shouldn't feel fixed or static or as if they were resting like a dead weight. The hands are open but connected, intentional, yet allowing an aliveness or dynamic quality. The arms and shoulders are also in an open, but connected position. And if you are sitting cross-legged, the legs will have this same kind of connectivity, a collected but alive connection.

Dogen taught, what I think of as, the radical non-duality of body and mind. One of his favorite terms is "body-mind" which he used to mean one's whole being. For Dogen, actualizing practice involves our whole being — all aspects of body and consciousness. Because body and mind aren't separate, I like the approach of accessing consciousness through the body, to help circumvent the thinking mind.

In the on-line journal of the Soto Zen School, Dharma Eye, Issho Fujita wrote, "Dogen ... tends to describe zazen simply by ... body postures such as ... just sitting in correct posture, ...just sitting, ...sitting immovably like a bold mountain." Dogen's substitution of the word "sitting" for "zazen," according to Fujita, should not be [seen as] coincidental. He said, "In Dogen's view, the main point of zazen must be, first and foremost, the holistic body posture or sitting posture, not the state of our minds." Zazen is "full-lotus (upright sitting) plus zero. ... there is no dualistic structure that the body sits while the mind does something else ..." "In zen, both the body and mind are simultaneously used up completely just by the act of sitting."

Some teachers including Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi taught counting the breath or following the breath in zazen, but breath awareness as such is not practiced in shikan taza. I've been told that Dogen didn't talk about practicing awareness of the breath even in zazen; and the instructions for shikan taza do not mention attending to the breath or any part of the body apart from the whole bodily presence. Rather than cultivating awareness of a particular thing, like the breath or sensations, shikan taza involves withdrawal from an exclusive focus on a particular physical or mental object and instead supports an intent awareness of all sensory input as a unified totality. Two elements common to this practice are not separating out or focusing on a particular object of awareness and not looking for a result. This experience is available when our body/mind is finely tuned or balanced between an alert attention and a relaxed quality of ease, neither grasping nor rejecting any particular aspect of this wide field of awareness.

On the other hand, the difficulty in trying to practice with this wide, open field of awareness is in getting lost in thinking or falling asleep. For this reason, I think it is better to develop awareness of the breath while becoming grounded in the practice for awhile — maybe years — before beginning the practice of shikan taza. Or maybe this will happen on its own during longer sitting or meditation retreat. But, again, being present with sound, without seeking it out, can be a big help in staying present.

Before I end, I also want to read Chan Master Sheng-yen's description of shikan taza from the Chinese Zen tradition. He said, "It is your body sitting in meditation and your mind aware of your body sitting in meditation, and nothing else. You must have a correct posture, know the sensation of the total body, and be alert. Do not focus on parts of the body; be aware of the totality of the body as a unity. Although parts of the body may have one feeling and other parts have another, be aware only of the whole body, in the act of sitting. Your awareness of your body sitting there should fill your mind. If you wander, or get lazy or drowsy, whatever happens, first check and correct your posture. Then go back to being aware of your sitting, and its sensation as a total entity."

I moved into the San Francisco Zen Center in 1971, sitting sesshin initially with Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi and then with Zentatsu Richard Baker until 1982. My memory is that they didn't tend to differentiate shikan taza from zazen — and that they talked about zazen. When I left in 1991 to move to Northa Carolina, I remember feeling a little puzzled as to exactly what shikan taza was. I knew more about what it wasn't. Reading Uchiyama Roshi's book How to Cook Your Life, Taigen Leighton's Cultivating the Empty Field, and the chapter on silent illumination in Hoofprint of the Ox by Master Sheng-yen are where I have found the practice of shikan taza articulated.

Taigen Leighton wrote, "The awareness that nobody can experience the truth for another led to the characteristic Soto style of usually not giving explicit directions, leaving students to realize personally their own inmost nature." If shikan taza is the whole-hearted practice of just sitting, fully engaging the actuality of being as it arises moment by moment — when we actually are able to do this — it is a non-dual experience. Of course, non-duality can't be controlled or willed or even taught; but through our upright still body, and attention to this presence, we can allow ourselves to be open to the experience of shikan taza.

© Copyright 2019 Josho Pat Phelan