The Fukanzazengi
Revisited: 2009

Rohatsu Sesshin Talk Number 2

by Josho Pat Phelan

Clear as pure light, no inside or outside —
Is there any body or mind to be shed?


The practice of Sensory Awareness was brought to the United States by Charlotte Selver. In the book Waking Up Charlotte said, "...many people have learned to say to themselves, ‘Stop thinking,’ and then they control their thoughts and try to stop their thinking. Like somebody who is being choked, thoughts are being choked off." [But] "we are sometimes very desirous to come to quiet....this state of quiet is something wonderful. Quiet is not dullness. .... Quiet is also not forbidding thoughts. Quiet is a different state into which we gradually ... come. You cannot stop thinking from one moment to the other without violating your thinking, but you can – when you feel you would like to rest — gradually allow the giving up of thoughts...let me call it allowing peace inside." She said, "... it’s not a command with the expectation that right away something will happen. It may be a long way which we have to go until we can gradually allow – altogether – more quiet..."

Today, I want to talk about Dogen’s instructions in the Fukanzazengi for what to do with the mind in zazen, which are, "Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen." This refers to a story about Yakusan Igen, or Yueh Shan, who lived in 8th century China. Yakusan was the disciple of Sekito Kisen who wrote "Merging of Difference and Unity." The story goes:

One day after Yakusan had finished zazen, a monk asked him, ‘What are you thinking of in the immoveable, mountain-like state of zazen?’ [or the "still-still state of zazen."]

Yakusan replied, ‘I think of not-thinking.’

The monk asked for all of us, ‘How can one think of not-thinking?’

Yakusan answered, ‘By nonthinking.’ [Kaz Tanahashi has referred to this both as beyond thinking as well as before thinking.]

When reading teachings like this, it is important not to take them too literally, try to remember that this is the way one person translated the passage, and it’s up to us to look for the meaning behind the words. What was recorded in Chinese or Japanese 1,200 or 800 years ago may not have the same meaning or connotation in today’s context. In everyday language, it sounds like Dogen is saying to stop thinking. I think we all know what he meant by thinking, and I would say that not-thinking is stopping thought or the opposite of thinking. It is using discriminating consciousness to control consciousness, which creates a narrow and controlled experience. Both thinking and stopping thought are bound to the realm of duality. One can’t exist without the other because they mutually define each other like hot and cold, and forward and backward. Dogen’s "nonthinking" is outside duality. The "non" in "nonthinking" means beyond, transcendent, or emancipated. "Nonthinking" transcends both not thinking and thinking while being free of both.

Dogen was critical of meditation methods involving stopping thought and removing awareness from the immediate environment or from bodily presence. According to the Dogen scholar, Hee-Jin Kim, "Nonthinking should be understood as...radically nondualistic thinking....objectless, non-referential thinking," which isn’t in the realm of our usual thinking. I consider nonthinking as consciousness without thought. Dogen referred to zazen as "total engagement in immobile sitting," in which we are awake and engaged in non-discursive awareness before any reaction or comment arises.

Nonthinking is the practice of shikantaza. The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion defines shikantaza as abiding in a state of brightly alert attention which is characterized by being free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content. This is considered the purest form of zazen, and it reminds me of the passage in the Diamond Sutra that talks about cultivating what is called "an unsupported thought." According to the Diamond Sutra, this is a thought that is not supported by anything, anywhere. This means no object. It is not supported by sights or images, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or any kind of mind-objects including memories, emotions, fantasies, and dreams. So, the unsupported thought turns out to be a no-thought or, again, consciousness without thought or any object. In this state there is awareness, but it is a holistic awareness that doesn’t perceive separate objects.

Suzuki Roshi said that when we’re practicing zazen, we shouldn’t try to stop our thinking but should let it stop by itself. He said, "If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means your are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will be come calmer and calmer.... That everything is included within your mind is the essence of mind."

The eighth century Chinese Master, Ma Tsu taught, "This very mind, just this is Buddha." This doesn’t mean that whatever we happen to be doing or thinking is enlightened activity. It means that when we are able to collect our attention and engage our presence with what we are doing, we can experience our innate completeness, our wholeness of being. When we are awake to our present activity, then it is Buddha’s activity. Even if we are feeling angry or depressed or bored or uncomfortable, when we can surrender our resistance and completely accept our experience, undividedly, without trying to change it or improve it, this undivided acceptance, undivided presence, is Buddha-mind.

Uchiyama Roshi taught that our attitude in zazen should be to aim at maintaining the posture of zazen with our flesh and bones, letting go of thoughts, releasing our grip on feelings and emotions. He said, "When we think, we think of something. Thinking of something means grasping that something with thought." In zazen, we try to open the hand of thought that is trying to grasp something. Simply refraining from grasping is letting go of thoughts. In Buddhism, the process of grasping has two stages, the first is reaching out to the object of our desire; and the second stage is clinging or holding on, grasping something, which is compared to the way raw meat sticks to a hot, dry skillet. As we hold on to what we think we want, sooner or later, the result will be suffering.

In the book Soto Zen, Shohaku Okumura compared non-thinking to a car engine that is idling in neutral. Even though the engine is turned on and working, the gears aren’t engaged so the car doesn’t move. He said when we are thinking nonthinking, "We cannot say that there is no thinking. And we cannot say that we are thinking....Thoughts are simply idling." In zazen, the mind is alive and able to function but it isn’t actively, intentionally producing thoughts. When thoughts arise, if the mind is bright and alert, it is much easier to let them flow through without developing them. Okumura Roshi said, "by keeping an upright posture, without either rejecting or chasing after anything, we aren’t controlled by delusive thoughts."

Tatsugami Roshi was a Japanese priest who Suzuki Roshi invited to Tassajara in the early years to help establish the forms of monastic practice. He said that the way we think nonthinking is by throwing everything away which means to just go directly forward, without looking backwards or forwards, to the left or to the right. He said, "What will happen if you plunge into doing something, eliminating everything? Dogen teaches that no matter what you are about to do, throwing away everything should be the basic attitude towards life."

When we devote ourselves with complete wholeheartedness to an activity, we are revealed completely just as we are, and our activity is a manifestation of our whole life up to that point. But, if we are involved in an idea about Buddha or anything else, the idea is outside the present moment, outside our immediate experience; and it is just another distraction leading us away from actualizing the totality of Now.

Tatsugami Roshi went on to say, "In order to ... throw away everything, all you have to do is just sit. In the world of the practice of nonthinking, you must be yourself in the practice of samadhi. Samadhi means to eliminate [or let go of] everything. The person who can throw away everything anywhere at any time attains true freedom. "Letting go of everything" means letting go of how you think things should be and jumping in just the way they are, just the way you are. He said, "If you try to do something with complete wholeheartedness, you will turn out to be yourself." This is the secret of Zen. We dedicate ourselves to hours and years of upright sitting, developing our awareness and engagement in the present, and the result is that we are simply ourselves, completely ourselves.

A common misconception about Zen meditation is that the mind should be empty or void of thought, and sometimes it is. Soto Zen emphasizes waking up to our thinking and letting it go, releasing our grip on our thoughts, over and over throughout a period of zazen. So, what we are really developing is flexibility – the ability to let go of our mental world and return over and over to the actual world of the present. Suzuki Roshi compared the mind in zazen to seeing a movie. The movie screen is always there whether a movie is playing or not. Sometimes there is a movie with colorful images. Zazen is just watching the screen regardless of whether or not images appear.

Zen emphasizes knowing things directly without interference from our thinking. Katagiri Roshi said that "Direct" does not mean you get something directly.... Instead, properly put your body and mind in the appropriate place. Then you are supported and you are allowed to be realized. Instead of shutting yourself up in a small house ...called discriminating mind – throw open your heart."

So, moment after moment, breath after breath, just step forward without looking to the left or right, without seeking the future or referring to the past. Be willing to open your heart and let go of distractions, let go of insights, be willing to let the tracking mind stop and return to your being, just as it is. This practice is to develop our ability to return over and over again, to this complete, undivided moment.

© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan 2010

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