Zazen – Practicing with the Body
with the Whole Being

Lecture by Josho Pat Phelan

The tradition we practice in was brought to the U.S. by the Japanese priest, Shunryu Suzuki or Suzuki Roshi, in 1959, and it was brought to Japan from China by Master Eihei Dogen in the 13th century. Zen Master Dogen wrote, "We practice our way not for ourselves and not for others. We practice the way for the sake of the way." Suzuki Roshi commented, "There is no other reason why we practice our way. We just want to go back to our home as a duck wants to return to a traveler who comes back and lies down in his own bed at last.

When I was growing up, I went to a church that was founded in the 1880’s, and when I was in high school I heard that the co-founder of the church would sometimes meditate all night. I was really drawn to the idea of meditation and I tried meditating several times on my own, but nothing happened and I thought that something should happen – usually after a short time, I drifted into sleep or got bored and stopped. One thing that drew me to Zen was that it had a meditation practice; and later I found out that it even had instructions for how to meditate, which was a big help to me. I first heard about Zen when I read Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger and from it, I got the sense that Zen practice brought about a kind of authenticity, focusing on that which is most essential, at least that’s how it sounded to me. A couple years later I read a book by D.T. Suzuki and loved the poetic images of nature that are often used in Zen teaching, as well as the emphasis on non-dual experience.

I had wanted to meditate for five or six years before I finally found a Zen group at the University of Oregon where I had some minimal instruction. I did Zen meditation or zazen with the group sporadically for a couple of months. But then I realized that I was squandering an opportunity that I had waited for, for such a long time. So, I decided that I would sit everyday which I did with this small group. At first I was afraid to even try sitting at home by myself because I was sure, that before long, I would just get up and begin doing something, since it was so very hard for me to stay on the cushion for forty minutes. And it never occurred to me that I could sit for less than forty minutes. But after a couple of months, I did begin sitting by myself each day in addition to sitting with the group. After a couple more months, I was sitting four times a day, and I had the feeling or fear that if I missed a day, that I might stop and never sit zazen again. Finding the Zen group and beginning zazen practice, brought a great sense of relief and gratitude. Gratitude for the meditation practice itself, for the group of people I sat with whose presence helped keep me on my cushion, gratitude for the cushion, for the wall, and gratitude for the relief.

That fall, I sat my first sesshin or five-day meditation intensive, which was held in the lodge of a state park in Oregon and it was led by the Rinzai teacher Sasaki Roshi from Los Angeles. The sesshin was pretty intense and vigorous. Four months later I came to the San Francisco Zen Center and sat a sesshin led by Suzuki Roshi, which was also intense, but quiet. Since the first sesshin I sat was for five days, I just assumed that was what how long sesshins lasted. I didn’t find out that this was a 7-day sesshin until after I arrived. A couple of months after that, I graduated from college and during the summer of 1971, I moved into the San Francisco Zen Center as a residential student. The rest of that year, I was able to sit three sesshins with Katagiri Roshi and one sesshin in December with Zentatsu Richard Baker. Just before the first period of zazen on the first day of that sesshin, Suzuki Roshi died.

This period of time had a lot of changes, but it was such a relief to be able to sit zazen – to know how to do zazen, and especially to have zazen scheduled four times a day, with people to sit with and to have talks on how to practice. Each time I walked through the front door of the SFZC and smelled the residual incense in the air, I felt like I was finally home.

I had the opportunity to practice with wonderful teachers and to be able to sit lots of sesshins, especially in the early years, including practicing at Tassajara in the early 1970’s. This is how I spent my first eight years at Zen Center. I had still moments in zazen, but I also had many memories, emotions, desires, restlessness, and boredom. Then in 1987 I began reading Uchiyama Roshi’s books and the teachings of Sawaki Kodo; and a couple of years after that Shohaku Okumura began visiting and giving talks in the U.S. Even though the teachers at the San Francisco Zen Center taught zazen, I got a more pragmatic sense of how to do zazen through these teachings. In 1999 I began finding talks by Issho Fujita, whose teacher was a disciple of Uchiyama Roshi, and I continued to get a clearer and more concrete sense of Dogen’s way of zazen and how to practice it. Fujita Sensei led a Zen group in western Massachusetts from 1987 to 2005, and during that time he attended Vipassana or Insight Meditation retreats partly to study how zazen is the same as, as well as different from, other types of Buddhist meditation.

The instructions for zazen are pretty much the same for a beginner as they are for someone who has been sitting for ten or twenty years, but I think both our idea of what we are trying to do as well as our experience in zazen continues to become more refined. As we practice zazen year in and year out, the way we experience our body/mind tends to become more subtle, and our attention and awareness may settle and become more focused and clear, but the basic practice is the same. There’s a well-known saying that a moment of zazen is a moment of Buddha, meaning a moment of true engagement in zazen, is a moment of Buddha mind.

One thing that may set zazen apart from other forms of meditation is the extent to which we settle into our bodily experience, letting go of thoughts, but also letting go of trying to make anything happen. For me zazen is a way to connect with a more fundamental level of being, and it requires trust or faith to let go of our usual concerns and thinking, and open ourselves to non-discursive experience. Non-discursive experience is available through the wisdom or presence of our physical being. If we do this practice long enough we will be at home wherever we are, settled in our body – embodying our practice. In Zen, it is said that realization must penetrate every cell of our bodies, down to the marrow of our bones and out to each tip of our hair. And while insights have their value, transformation occurs when insight penetrates our body, penetrates our whole being through and through, until it becomes one with our lives. This is one difference between meditating for self-improvement or self achievement and just sitting.

Issho Fujita has studied different mind-body traditions including Alexander Technique and Sensory Awareness. Everyone has a different way of talking about zazen, but I especially appreciate how Fujita describes zazen. He wrote, "Zazen is to continue aiming at a dynamic posture. And it is the activity of unending awakening to the reality of life right here, right now. Therefore, zazen is the activity of Life that is continuously going beyond itself and is free with no stagnation.... It is so free and unrestricted that it cannot be captured with a fixed shape.... ultimately we can only say that zazen is zazen." He said, "Zazen can never see zazen itself.... It’s something that far transcends the frame of all conceptual and speculative limits and standards." When he says, "Zazen can never see zazen," I think he means that being totally engaged in the activity of zazen leaves nothing else or nothing extra to think with about what we are doing. (Dharma Eye, Oct. 2007, #20, p. 18)

One aspect of zazen is finding a balance between the intentional activity of will and the willingness to allow practice to happen. First we need the will or discipline to make space in our daily routine to sit, as well as to develop our ability to sit upright, without moving. But after we sit down and align our posture, we add to that letting go...letting go of our expectations, desires, irritations, fantasies, insights – everything – and simply aim at an alert yet relaxed presence.

I think of zazen or shikan taza as the whole-hearted practice of just sitting while 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 in us moment by moment. And in zazen, the environment we are sitting in is part of this total, holistic experience. I think the koan inherent in shikan taza is finding the balance between will and willingness, between the discipline and effort needed to practice and noninterference. Zazen isn’t a static or predictable exercise. There is no guaranteed method to produce the results we may want, or think we want. The dynamic activity of practice requires a continual sensitivity to find the right mixture of effort and ease, each time we sit.

I would like to look at some of Fujita Sensei’s teachings on zazen or shikan taza which helped me understand the practice better. First of all, Fujita said that "zazen is ‘being’ not ‘doing.’" He distinguishes between zazen and meditation practice, which he sees as having an intended result. He considers meditation "an effort to ...create one’s desired condition based on the calculation that ‘if such and such is done, this will follow.’" From the perspective of zazen, this kind of intention to create a particular experience stains our practice with the idea of a result or a spiritual accomplishment – you know, what we want to have happen in our meditation. This operates in the realm of duality or karma where, even though the activity is subtle, it is based on expectation and grasping – on something separate from or outside our present experience.

Fujita describes zazen primarily as a body practice saying that "Dogen ... tends to describe zazen simply by...body postures such as ... just sitting in correct posture, ...just sitting, ...sitting immovably like a bold mountain. He said that Dogen’s substitution of the word "sitting" for "zazen," "should not be [seen as] coincidental. 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." I think this is kind of revolutionary – that zazen is just our body sitting using up our whole being 100%, without trying to cultivate or influence our mental state. There’s simply holistic, undivided consciousness, with nothing left over for self-consciousness.

Uchiyama Roshi said that "To practice zazen is to leave everything thoroughly and continuously to the correct posture of zazen." Fujita Sensei compared the physical aspect of zazen to other forms of meditation saying, "Although... full-lotus position is regarded as the best sitting posture in other meditation methods... there seems to be a huge difference in how sitting posture is positioned in meditation and [how it is positioned in] zazen." (I am going to add the phrase "sitting upright" to his words "full-lotus" since almost none of us sit full-lotus when we practice zazen.)

Fujita said, "In meditation, practitioners start a certain method of meditation after sitting in full-lotus position (or in the upright position). In other words, it is full-lotus position (or sitting upright) plus meditation. (The upright position or) Full lotus here is the means of conditioning the body and mind optimized for mental exercises called meditation, not the objective as itself." This implies that the objective of zazen is just sitting, pouring our mind and body into the upright position, just being. He talked about the practice of meditation, in contrast to zazen as being "structured in a somewhat dualistic manner that the body sitting is a container and the mind meditating is the content. And the emphasis is always on meditation as mental exercises." The idea that meditation is a method or technique in which the body supports the mind to concentrate or cultivate a particular mental state is how I thought of meditation when I began practicing zazen, and I think this is a pretty common idea. But Fujita said that zazen is "full-lotus (or 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." So, you can see that zazen is simpler than other forms of meditation, but at the same time, the non-doing of zazen is a radical departure from the rest of our conscious life and in that way, not so easy to understand or to do. So, what is zazen? Sawaki Kodo said, "Zazen is to do what we cannot say in words and to practice what we cannot think." Even if we can’t define it, let’s support each other to do it.

In 1971, I moved from Oregon to the San Francisco Zen Center and practiced there until I moved to Chapel Hill in 1991. It has been such a gift to be able to practice here with you. I feel so grateful for practice – yours and mine – and for the support of your presence. May we continue this undefinable practice that confirms an authenticity beyond thinking.

© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan, 2016

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