I recently started trying zazen because the sangha in my area I found that I really like is Soto Zen. As someone who spent most of my time on the cushion doing meditation on the breath, impermanence, no-self, death, and tonglen, I was very surprised to hear the Buddhist nuns there tell me they just let thoughts come and go. No attempts to directly experience aspects of the Buddha's teaching, nor attempts to work with defilements that come up.
After reading more about it and correct me if I'm wrong, the idea is to patiently allow the Buddha Nature to become apparent, once you stop paying attention to the normal mode of thinking that obscures it. Inherent to that Nature are the qualities other traditions strive to unveil through things like guru meditation, visualizations, etc.
So some questions that I hope aren't too silly or arrogant:
1. How are we supposed to overcome defilements that cloud this Buddha Nature if we never work with them directly? For instance, I found tonglen to be of immesurable help in opening my heart up to strangers. Before, I would never even make eye contact and hope cashiers wouldn't talk to me. Now, I'm finding the mere act of smiling at someone, wishing them well, to be a great source of joy. Were I never to start addressing my views of separation of self/others, I'm not sure this would have happened.
2. It seems a bit like using a one-size-fits-all approach instead of skillful means. If you're the type to live in abstract conceptualization and theories like me, why try to approach those difficulties with the maxim "let thoughts come and go"? The only time my mind is remotely calm is after directing that tendency towards concentration on a specific teaching, which then I try to experience directly. Zazen seems a bit like telling an athlete to look for awareness of the body in sitting meditation instead of while he's running in the morning.
3. It seems like short of becoming fully enlightened, an impermanent glimpse of your nature is what zazen will produce. If you're then encouraged not to even think about it or look closely, but just let it come and go, how in the world is this of benefit until you are fully realized? Isn't part of Right Thinking proliferating skillful thoughts and replacing negative ones? I suppose I just don't see how you can awaken compassion or selflessness if you never try to experience those qualities in yourself, especially in meditation. Doing is being, being is doing.
4. To speak in hyperbole, how is truly sitting zazen any different from being a corpse or a rock? Thoughts come whether we want them to or not. Bodily sensations come whether we want them to or not. If your goal is to empty your mind and just sit, and if nothing is happening nor do you intend for anything to happen, why set an intention at all, and what exactly do you dedicate as merit when you're done? We have the ability to cut to the heart of the matter and have direct insight. Zazen in this respect seems to be like that Chinese saying about waiting for roast duck to fly into your mouth.
5. Finally, I guess (in my ignorance) I just don't see the benefit of zazen as the sole meditation practice. It seems like a tool to collect your mind back together if it's scattered, or if you're already a very advanced practitioner and can experience direct knowing of reality.
I'm not sure where precisely my resistance to zazen is coming from. I perceive real benefits and changes from other techniques, and zazen appears to circumvent all that with its utter simplicity. I may also be stuck in the mindset of "do do do" instead of "be be be". But I feel we can't "just be" and experience nirvana or reality, since we have karma and many subtle mechanisms of mind creating delusion while we are totally unaware of their influence. Short of sitting zazen every day for years on end, I don't see how we can find these qualities in ourselves and let them go. To me, it seems all we can do as laypeople is attempt to reach the root by trying to alter the plant. I may never be strong enough to pull up a tree roots and all, but I can change what nutriments I feed it, or alter its environment and affect the roots that way.
Thank you for any insight on zazen or other meditation techniques. These are the musings of someone look at it from the outside, trying to determine if it's where I need to go. I realize that doesn't give me the same insight as a serious practitioner.
Please take the above post with a grain of salt.