Methods of Zen Meditation
Full Moon Uposatha Day , February 7, 2012 index to series
In our comparison between Buddha’s meditation and its Zen variant we turn to method. Last week we considered prerequisites and next week we will consider the experience of meditation.
Removal of the hindrances. This step just prior to meditation, which I had discussed as a part of Right Effort, seems to be pretty much equivalent in Zen, though the five hindrances (lust, anger, sloth and torpor, restlessness and regret and doubt) are rarely listed as such. Zen puts a strong emphasis on seclusion values the monastic lifestyle. Specific instructions prior to seated meditation like the folliwng are common.
“Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think of good or evil, do not deal with right or wrong. Halt the revolutions of mind, intellect and consciousness; stop the calculations of thoughts, ideas and perceptions.”
Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight. Tendai master Zhiyi’s (538-597) early manual of what he calls serenity-insight (Pali: samatha-vipassana, Chinese: zhi-guan, Japanese: shikan) meditation is supposedly based fundamentally on the Sanskrit Agamas (equivalent to the Pali Suttas), so effectively on the Satipattana Sutta and the like. This suggests the the Buddha’s method was properly studied in China at roughly the time the Visuddhimagga was compiled in Sri Lanka, and was not replaced willy-nilly by some Taoist method early on.
“When you are first beginning to practice sitting meditation, dwell in a quiet place and directly contemplate your body and mind. You should contemplate the four elements and the five skandhas, the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind, and desire, anger and delusion … and soon through all the various items. From the very beginning they are unsubstantial and tranquil, neither arising nor disappearing, being equal and nondual.”
Although the Buddha’s method seems clear in this early passage, there seems to have been a subsequent historical process of paring down to the root elements in the Zen tradition that perhaps cannot be reconstructed in the scant texts available. I will skip ahead a few hundred years to Dogen to exemplify this. According to Dogen:
In zazen don’t do anything, don’t meditate, meditation is done by our mind, don’t count breath, watch breath, don’t chant, don’t contemplate, don’t concentrate mind on a particular object. We have no techniques. We really just sit with both body and mind.
If you study Dogen you realize that he is prone to hyperbole, and also to self-contradiction, the full meaning of a passage properly recognized as a counterpoint to something else given in the particular context. But what he says here is still very nearly true. Here is Dogen’s method from Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendations for Zazen):
“Sit in either the full-lotus or half-lotus position. … You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm on your right palm, thumb tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose. Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady immobile sitting position.”
Notice that all of the instructions so far — and he is almost done — have to do not with placing or pointing the mind in any particular direction, but entirely with the body. Okumura has stated, “Zazen is not something you do with the mind; it is something you do with the body.” Fukanzazengi completes the passage with three sentences concerning what do do with the mind:
“Think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Non-thinking in itself is the essential art of zazen.”
Oh, great! We get to the good part and he gives us a koan to sit with! The koan is in fact not even his own; it is a well-known Chinese koan spoken by Yaoshan (745-828):
“Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking.”
How does all this relate to the Buddha’s method, for instance, as described in the Satipaṭṭāna Sutta? Actually there are some parallels which are more obvious in practice than from examination of the texts.
Both the Buddha’s method and Dogen’s emphasize the whole body. Whereas in the Buddha’s method we are optionally but generally asked to attend to the (full body of) breath, I know of no reference in pre-modern Zen literature at all to following the breath, and you will notice that Dogen specifically discounts it above, though some modern Zen teachers are known however to fall back on the breath. What is remarkable in Dogen’s description on the other hand is the attention to every detail of the posture.
Recall our discussion from last week about the use of ritual, regulated bodily behavior, in establishing everyday Zen mindfulness. For Dogen zazen is at core a ritual, the grand ritual of sitting like the Buddha. And ritual seems to have a powerful effect in steadying the mind and indeed, according to experience, does result in jhana/samadhi. My own experience with this is that the awareness of the body is constant, but one need not attend to the details once the posture is established. If the mind later becomes scattered, one simply checks and readjusts the body the mind popsimmediately back to center.
Also significant is the admonition to keep the eyes open. The Buddha never says what to do with the eyes, but most yogis naturally assume in meditation the eyes should be closed. Closing the eyes leads more easily to stillness, since the primary channel of sensual input for humans, and therefore a primary source for spinning off into thinking, is thereby cut off. Dogen asks us not to cut it off. If stillness is not thereby relinquished, this might just be part of the basis for insight.
“Think not thinking.” This is a wonderfully ambiguous koan, since it asks us both to think and not to think, but when we think it is a kind of not thinking, or rather non-thinking. It is not that thoughts are cut off, but that our relationship to them is different. Later on in the text he gives a further hint:
“… learn the backward step that turns your light inward to illumnate your self.”
This reflects something the great Chinese master Shitou (700-790) wrote about five hundred years earlier:
“Turn around the light to shine within, then just return… Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely. Open your hands and walk innocent.”
This theme of holding back and simply watching our experience is reflected also in the following quotes.
“Thoughts well up in our mind moment by moment. But we refrain from doing anything with our thoughts. We just let everything come up freely and go away freely.” – Dogen
“To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” – Dogen in Genjokoan (very famous)
“Respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds.” – Hongzhi
Zen literature on the experience of meditation is replete with references to mirrors. A mirror stands there and accurately reflects what passes before it, but never gets involved with whatever drama is unfolding there. Maybe this is thinking not thinking. It in effect steps back from, but is not oblivious to, these affairs. The natural question when we come from the perspective of Buddha’s meditation method is, What is being attended to here aside from the posture? The answer is awareness or consciousness itself, which is not in itself thought but simply a reflection of the six senses in the Buddha’s discourses. And this is completely consistent with Buddha’s very briefly presented and rarely discussed Third Foundation of Mindfulness, cittanupassana, mindfulness of mind. The cool thing about mindfulness of mind is that the mind reflects body, feelings and phenomena alike, but one step back, and in this sense satisfies the other Foundations of Mindfulness. This makes it a good basis for insight.
One last intriguing note seems relevant to Dogen’s essential method. He calls his method “shikan-taza,” often translated as “just sitting.” Word plays are very typical of Dogen and so whereas “shikan” means “just mindfully” or “wholeheartedly,” it also represents the Japanese pronunciation of “zhi-guan” (“samatha-vipassana”). Though Dogen writes “shikan-taza” with Chinese characters that disambiguate the meaning of “shikan,” his students would not have known aurally if he was asking them to sit wholeheartedly or to sit “samatha-vipassana.” Is this a clever allusion to the origin or true identity of his method?
Textually it is a challenge to bring Budhha’s method and the Zen method into concordance. Whew! But then the proof of the cooking is in the pudding: Next week we will compare the resulting experience of zazen with Buddha’s samadhi.
The Zen method I think speaks of an aspect of the East Asian mind: its ability to get directly at what is essential and put the focus there, to boil things down. If some readers have experience with East Asian literature, or with martial arts, you might want to weigh in with comments that deny or confirm this broad generalization.
Encouragement of active factors. I know of no specific practices for encouraging delight and other active factors; we will look at vipassana next week. But this quote of Hong-zhi is a typical description of the factors involved.
“Roam and play in Samadhi. Every detail clearly appears before you. Sound and form, echo and shadow, happen instantly without leaving traces. The outside and myself do not dominate each other, only because no perceiving [of objects] comes between us. Only this nonperceiving encloses the empty space of the dharma realm’s majestic ten thousand forms. People with the original face should enact and fully investigate without neglecting a single fragment.”
Adjusting and Balancing. The need to balance serenity and insight is well acknowledged.
“The ten thousand forms majaestically glisten and expound the dharma. All objects certify it, every one in dialog. Dialoging and certifying, they respond appropriately to each other. But if illumination neglects serenity then aggressiveness appears. Certifying and dialoging they respond to each other appropriately. But if serenity neglects illumination, murkiness leads to wasted dharma.” – Hongzhi