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Clouds & Mind

Stones in a Stream: Essays in Shikantaza

Clouds & Mind:

Part Two in a Series of Talks on the Soto Zen Practice of Shikantaza

By Seiso Sensei

I’d like to talk about how we relate to the mind and the thoughts in shikantaza, which is the form of Zazen recommended by Eihei Dogen the 13th Century founder of the Soto Zen tradition in Japan. In Fukanzazengi, “Universal Principles of Zen Meditation,” written in 1227 upon his return from his studies and practice in China, he gives us very clear and detailed instructions regarding the preliminaries of the environment, dress, seating, and the physical mechanics of sitting practice. However, he says very little, almost nothing about how to relate to the mind and to our thoughts when we practice this form of meditation. He simply offers us a brief koan:

“Think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Non-thinking!”[1]

What does this terse and enigmatic instruction mean? The most straightforward answer is to just let the thoughts be. Leave them alone. I am using “thoughts” as a short hand for anything that arises internally including thoughts, feelings, fantasies, dreams, wishes, emotions, worries, evaluations or judgments. In short, anything that may come to mind as we sit in meditation. We simply sit without attachment or aversion. That is without judging or grasping the thoughts and without pushing them away. In shikantaza practice we don’t count or control the breath and we don’t particularly concentrate on the breath. We simply notice it when we notice it and we don’t notice it when we don’t notice it. Here is how Dogen describes this relationship to breathing during meditation:

“When there is a short breath, notice that there is a short breath and when there is a long breath, notice that the breath is long.”

And, just keep sitting. That’s all. We relate to the thoughts in the very same way. When a thought arises, notice the thought, when the thought fades, notice that it has faded and perhaps another thought arises. Or, perhaps awareness has been drawn to another sense perception such as the sound of a bird chirping or a truck motor revving, or a cloud passing by in the sky. Then we notice the next thought. Maybe an image of a bird will arise or a good feeling in response to the bird song. Maybe a feeling of annoyance will emerge as the truck’s engine revs and disrupts the silence. In either case, we simply continue to sit without attachment or aversion. The influential Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki describes our relation to thoughts like this:

Do not try to stop your mind, but leave everything as it is. Then things will not stay in your mind so long. Things will come as they come and go as they go. Then eventually your clear, empty mind will last fairly long. [2]

Mind is vast, empty and boundless like the clear blue sky. Thoughts are like passing clouds. Sometimes there are many clouds; sometimes the sky is overcast with clouds; sometimes there are few; sometimes there are none. We can have many different reactions to clouds depending on the context. On a hot sunny summer day, we might welcome a cloud or two and the gentle breeze that they might evoke. On a dreary overcast winter day, we might want to wish the clouds away although we know that we can’t. Sometimes the clouds feel light and airy as if they were just dancing in the sky. At other times, the clouds feel oppressive and heavy and the mood feels dark. At other times, our creativity and imagination take over and we identify all kinds of beings in the cloud shapes. At dusk the clouds can take on many hues and variations of color like the image at the top of this page. It is really the same with our thoughts. Some thoughts make us happy or relaxed. Some thoughts seem profound and insightful while other thoughts seem trivial like flotsam and jetsam. Other thoughts can be disturbing and put us in a bad mood. Just like the clouds, regardless of what emerges in our thoughts, we don’t push them away and we don’t cling to them. We may try, for example, to push the thoughts out of our heads, but that simply doesn’t work because the mind is supposed to think. That’s what it does. Also, the more energy that we put into pushing a thought away, the more energy the thought will often have. So, what can we do?  We take the backward step and simply watch their rise and fall, their coming and going, their transformation, without judgment, or even the self-judgment that we might be doing something wrong because we are having thoughts. The idea that meditation is the elimination of thoughts is wrong. What is important is our relationship to thoughts and what that relationship involves. To repeat, we sit without attachment or aversion or any effort to induce so-called “good” thoughts” or to get rid of so-called “bad” thoughts. If you try to suppress your thoughts, you are suppressing the natural flow and unfolding of the practice; the practice of just sitting with no gaining mind. You might end up pressuring yourself and creating more unnecessary tension. So simply relax and watch the rising and falling of all experience. This is the key to freedom and to comfort. This is the key to the deep awareness of your essential nature, your basic goodness.  This is why Dogen says in Fukanzazengi,

“The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss.”[3]

This process is embodied in the notion of hishiryo or non-thinking. When we get it that it is our relationship to thoughts and not the thoughts themselves that are the problem, you will find a relaxation of the pressure to stop thinking and here is where the deeper sense of peace can be experienced regardless of our thoughts.

So keep on practicing and, of course, if you have any questions, comments or insights that you would like to share, do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you

For All Beings,

Seiso Sensei


[1] N. Waddell & M. Abe, The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Albany, SUNY (2002, p. 4).

[2] S. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Weatherhill, NY. (1970, p. 128).

[3] N. Waddell & M. Abe, The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Albany, SUNY (2002, p. 4).

Next Session: Being-As–It-Is

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