Zen Meditation: the Prerequisites
First Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , January 31, 2012 index to series
Today we begin looking at Zen meditation, or zazen (seated Jhana), and compare it point by point with the Buddha’s meditation as I have described it over the last weeks. I will try to follow the template I established two weeks ago to provide points of comparison.
This week: The Prerequisites!
Next week: The Techniques!
Prerequisites of Zazen.
Wisdom and Virtue. For the Buddha Samadhi depends on all previous factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, including the factors of Wisdom and of Virtue. This is also the case with Zen meditation, however each of these factors is treated differently in the Zen tradition. I mention the differences briefly.
First, Wisdom for the Buddhha begins with an intellectual understanding of the Dhamma. Traditionally Zen eschews intellectual understanding, and considers its tradition to be as Bodhidharma is reputed to have stated:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one’s] mind
It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.
The Chinese seem to have been holistic thinkers, unlike the analytical Indians, and Taoism, which clearly influenced Zen, had a decidedly non-dualistic understanding of things, so the appeal of Bodhidharma’s words should not be surprising. However, from the teachings and references of the ancient Zen masters I’ve always had the impression that they were doing a lot of studying of words and letters on the sly. Dogen, by the way, disagreed with Bodhidharma and was a great proponent of words and letters.
A prominent feature of Zen discourse are koans, very concise thought-provoking passages that are probably unique in the world’s scriptural traditions. An example is:
Once, hearing the sound of wind in the chimes in the hall, Sogyanandai asked Kayashata, “Is it the chimes ringing or the wind ringing?”
Kayashata said, “It is neither the wind nor the chimes—it is just my mind ringing.”
Traditionally koans have been used for consideration independent of zazen, and can be seen as a means of developing understanding much as reading the suttas develops understanding. Their genius is that their intention is less in conveying a rote teaching as in involving the Zen student in an active process of exploration; they lead the student so far then let him on his own to figure out what is meant. In a good koan it is difficult or impossible to pinpoint in intellectual terms just what is meant; the koan pulls the student this way and that and sometimes forces the student to accept two mutually contradictory theses at the same time. Sometimes the meaning is found between the concepts. Here is another:
A monk asked Master Yunmen, “What does ‘sitting correctly and contemplating true reality’ really mean?”
Yunmen said, “A coin lost in the river is found in the river.”
There are a number of traditional Zen commentaries on koans, but these never provide concrete clarification, only hints and spin-off koans. Koans are generally very playful. This one, starring the same Chinese Zen master, seems to be mostly fun:
A monk asked, “What is the meaning of ‘All dharmas are the Buddhadharma’?”
Yunmen said, “Country grannies crowd the road.”
The monk said, “I don’t understand.”
Yunmen said, “Not only you. Many others don’t understand.”
The significance of the shift from sutta to koan in Zen is that it gives an additional way to weave Wisdom into meditation, in the guise of short phrases that can rest in the mind and begin to do their work in meditation. In the later history of Zen the koans actually became objects of meditation, especially in the Rinzai school.
Second, Virtue gets an unsolicited boost in East Asian Buddhism by the Confucian society in which it is embedded. Confucian ethics specifies behavior clearly in almost all circumstances as obligations of children to parents, parents to children, employers to employees, kings to subjects, and so on that regulate behavior in detail. This does not entail that Buddhist precepts are not also observed; in fact monastics follow the traditional Vinaya precepts in most of East Asia (no longer Japan) and additionally follow a second set of “Bodhisattva Precepts.” However there tends to be much less specifically Zen discussion of Virtue, perhaps because it is redundant in a Confucian society. Shohaku Okumura, one of my teachers from Japan, reports that he was surprised to find so little attention given to Virtue or ethics in American Zen centers. He then realized what the problem might be: Zen Buddhism came to America, but it left Confucianism behind. Western zennies may have some backfilling to do here.
The significance of of the Confucian system of ethics I think is that it blends seamlessly with a similar Confucian influence on the practice of mindfulness, as discussed below.
Delight and pleasure. This template heading reserves a place for how these might these be encouraged independently of meditation itself. I will only state that these are encouraged at least in meditation. Hongzhi admonishes us to “Roam and play in Samadhi.” Dogen describes zazen as, “the dharma gate of great ease and joy.”
Everyday Mindfulness. Buddhism seems to have tapped into a very rich resource in East Asia: Confucianism and perhaps a more general tendency to ritualize or regulate nearly all aspects of behavior. This blends ethics and etiquette. For instance, anyone who has practiced in a traditional Japanese Zen center in the West, will learn exactly how to hold the hands while walking in the area around the meditation hall, which foot leads in crossing the threshold, when to bow, which direction to turn, even how to place chopstick and spoon while eating. The entire Zen experience is infused with etiquette, ritual, right ways of doing things, and there are people at hand who will correct your mistakes. This is why I compare the Confucians with Victorian aristocrats, who for their part demand that their various forks and crystal drinking glasses be placed in a particular order, and who take care to wear attire appropriate to the current situation, be it theater, brandy and cigars or fox hunting.
Ritual is regulated behavior, and this is a bit different than the everyday mindfulness described in the Satipattana Sutta, which simply keeps the mind attentive to movements that are themselves presumably unregulated, for instance, knowing you are lifting your arm as you lift your arm because you want to close the window. Nevertheless ritual entails this same close attentiveness and reminds you to be mindful lest you mangle the minutiae.
Now Indian Buddhism was never without a level of ritual and etiquette, it is just not so pronounced. The Buddha notably declared clinging to rules and rituals as the third fetter, to be eliminated prior to stream entry, however his concern was with the assumption encouraged by the brahmins that these things had a kind of supernatural efficacy or ability to manipulate the deeper forces of the universe. He certainly encouraged etiquette and appropriate gestures of respect. In fact all the lesser rules of the Vinaya are essentially rules of etiquette.
A good source for the way conduct is regulated in the monastic context is Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community, which is in fact a rough rewriting of a much earlier Chinese text. It describes even how to do the various physical tasks involved in running a Zen monastery, such as cooking. I worked in the kitchen at Tassajara Zen monastery in California during a three-month practice period about ten years ago, and I can report that you can attain samadhi while chopping carrots! I have always regarded this ritualization of everyday tasks as typically East Asian, but was surprised more recently to find a large section of the Theravada Vinaya that has a very similar flavor, presumably representing the intent if not the very words of the Buddha. This section had to do with the duties of a junior monk to his preceptor and includes very detailed instructions about washing and drying robes, when to open and close windows, etc., for instance, to hang a robe over a horizontal rod always by reaching under and throwing it toward yourself, rather than over and away, and making sure the two lower edges of the hanging robe are not aligned. All of these have pragmatic motivations, like much of Japanese ritual. If Vinaya was not written on the cover of the book I was reading I would have thought I was reading Pure Standards. It seems the history of everyday mindfulness is deserving of further study.
Dogen is known to have emphasized repeatedly that zazen is the entirety of Buddhist practice. Famously, but not quite as famously, he also said that ritual conduct is the entirety of Buddhist practice. Which is it? I think the answer is that he conceived of zazen as ritual practice, as we will see, and ritual practice as something that encompasses Virtue, as the Confucians see it. We have to be careful in the West because we often think Dogen advocated abandoning Virtue in favor of meditation only, and whatever wisdom might emerge from that.
Effort but not striving. Here is another famous koan for you:
Once, as a monk named Mazu Daoyi was assiduously engaged in zazen, his priestly teacher Nanyue Huairang happened along and asked what he was doing.
“Zazen,” replied Mazu, “I am practicing seated meditation to become a Buddha.”
Huairang picked up a tile he found lying on the ground and began energetically rubbing it with a stone. Perplexed, Mazu asked why he was doing it; and Huairang said, “I’m polishing the tile to make a mirror.”
When Mazu asked whether that was possible, Huairang replied, “Is it possible to become a Buddha by practicing zazen?”
This koan naturally has to do with effort. Zen has a mixed history with respect to striving, or meditating with a goal in mind. It began as a “sudden enlightenment” school, in contrast to the Buddha’s gradualist approach. It has been suggested that the appeal of sudden enlightenment has to do with the social mobility of Chinese in contrast to Indians: their expectations tended to be higher. Americans would certainly fit into the Chinese pattern. Perhaps as a counterbalance there has been a strong trend to deemphasize sitting with a goal. Equating practice and enlightenment is one way this is done; it is something like Gandhi’s “Become the change you seek.” Soto Zen people are often critical of Rinzai zennies for being too goal-oriented. Twentieth Century Japanese Soto master Kodo Sawaki puts it quite simply:
Zazen is useless …
Then he adds, creating a nifty koan in the process,
… and until you fully realize that, zazen really is useless.