Zazen confusion

Discussion of meditation in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.

Zazen confusion

Postby duckfiasco » Fri Mar 16, 2012 5:33 pm

Hi, all.

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. :reading:
Namu Amida Butsu
The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise.
- Sengcan (tr. Suzuki)
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Re: Zazen confusion

Postby Anders » Fri Mar 16, 2012 5:54 pm

Hi DF,

I don't mind giving your questions a shot:

1. The notion of 'overcoming defilement' is part of what obscures just sitting, since there is fundamentally nothing to do. As for how they get liberated - Perhaps better to ask: what keeps defilement going? Shikantaza is about discontinuing that process at a most fundamental level.

2. Yes. Which is also why it is sometimes termed 'the universal gateway'. And I am sorry to say, an athlete interested in knowing the body at a meditational level and depth won't get proper results 'meditating' while running either. Samadhi requires a certain stillness and stability of the body and mind. As for your concerns about being the type who lives in abstract conceptualisation - Have you considered the possibility that you are basically playing into the hand of your own habitual tendencies by adopting a method that encourages such things?

3. As Hakuin Zenji put it: "One inch of Zazen is one inch of Buddhahood." In Shikantaza, momentary glimpses are not given much weight. Rather it focuses on practise itself being awakening. Practising skilful thoughts and replacing negative ones are useful as palliative devices, but are basically considered preparatory means to strengthen and prepare the mind for awakening. They can't in themselves produce awakening however. Since the aim of Zen Buddhism is awakening, it requires freedom from all thinking (both in the midst of thought and without) and this is what constitutes 'right thought' from this perspective. Seeing as Zen is considered a direct path to awakening, it goes straight to the core means of attaining that without dwelling too much on the gradual preparatory means that may come before that.

4. Shikantaza has merit because while it is true that fundamentally thoughts will come and go regardless of what we do about them, this is not how we experience life. Rather, it is awareness of this truth Shikantaza seeks to actualise, of things being as they are. The deluded mind is always getting caught up in the content of its own thinking and ideas and with that caught up in gain and loss and thus also subject to all the suffering and frustration that follows in the wake of this. Shikantaza allows thought, feeling and and ideas to naturally come to rest. Without sustenance, they fall away on their own accord.

Finally, I'll leave you with a quote from from the chapter on how to acquire Prajnaparamita in Nagarjuna's commentary on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, since it seems like it addresses a lot of your doubts:

Furthermore, the bodhisattva acquires the Prajñāpāramitā without practicing any dharma and without acquiring any dharma. Why? All practices (caryā) are erroneous and futile: from near or far, they present faults. In fact, bad dharmas (akuśaladharma) are faulty from close up; as for good dharmas, they are transformed and modified from far away; those who become attached to them will end up by experiencing pain and sorrow; thus they show defects from far off. [Good and bad practices] are like an appetizing food and a disgusting food both of which have been poisoned. As soon as one eats the disgusting food, one feels dissatisfied. When one eats the appetizing food, one feels pleasant satisfaction for the moment, but later it takes one’s life. Therefore both kinds of food should be avoided, and it is the same for good and bad practices.

Question. – If that is so, why did the Buddha preach the three practices, namely, the brāhmanic practice (brahmacarya), the godly practice (divyacarya) and the noble practice (āryacarya)?

Answer. – The noble practice consists of practicing the absence of all practice. Why? Because during all noble practice, one never departs from the three gates of liberation (vimokṣamukha). The brāhmanic and the divine practices arise insofar as they grasp the characteristics of beings (sattvanimittodgrahaṇa); although they do not show defects at the time they are being practiced, they will show them later on and the realities they actually pursue will all appear to be false. However, the saint (ārya) who practices these two kinds of practice with a detached mind (asaktacitta) does not commit any fault.

For the person who practices the absence of practice thus, nothing exists any longer: errors (viparyāsa), deceptions (vañcana) and the afflictions (kleśa) no longer arise for they are purified like space (ākāśaśuddha). He acquires the true nature of dharmas by holding his non-acquisition (anupalabdhi) as an acquisition. It is said in the non-acquired Prajñā: “Dharmas, form (rūpa), etc., are not empty as a result of emptiness; they are originally and eternally empty in themselves; dharmas, form, etc., are not non-perceptible because wisdom does not reach them: they are originally and eternally non-perceptible in themselves.”This is why we should not ask how many virtues must be practiced to obtain Prajñāpāramitā. Out of loving-kindness and compassion to beings, the Buddhas teach the practices in order to be in harmony with common usage (saṃvṛti), but there is nothing absolute (paramārtha) there.

Question. – If Prajñāpāramitā can be neither acquired nor practiced, why does the ascetic seek it?

Answer. – There are two kinds of things that cannot be acquired:

i) Worldly pleasures, which can be sought but which do not respond to the attempt, cannot be acquired;
ii)The true nature of dharmas, the definite notice (niyattanimitta) of which escapes perception, cannot be acquired. Not being non-existent, they include merit (puṇya) and increase the roots of good (kuśalamūla). Worldly people (pṛthagjana) who speculate about worldly affairs (lokadharma) have profit (lābdha), etc.; and it is the same for all the good qualities. But it is according to the mind of the world that we speak about acquisition, in the mind of the Buddha, nothing in acquired.

This is a summary of the meaning of Prajñāpāramitā; later we will speak of it at greater length.
"Even if my body should be burnt to death in the fires of hell
I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

--- Gandavyuha Sutra
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Re: Zazen confusion

Postby duckfiasco » Fri Mar 16, 2012 6:35 pm

Thank you, thank you, and thank you! I have a lot of food for thought now :) I'll reply with further questions after some digestion! *urp* :cheers:
Namu Amida Butsu
The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise.
- Sengcan (tr. Suzuki)
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Joined: Thu Feb 09, 2012 7:11 am
Location: Oregon


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