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Sitting Still, Still Running

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

Sitting Still, Still Running

There are many ways to rationalize running away.” We can skip practice, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, I’ll start fresh tomorrow.” Some might quit practice, “That was interesting, but . . . “ Some are “experience collectors,” and chase after one so-called “powerful experience” after another. We might take vows with serious heartfelt intent. At other times, some folks act impulsively and then walk away eventually forgetting about the vows and related commitments. It’s easy to get caught in the same old habit formations. We can reject the teachings that don’t match our own unquestioned preconceptions or look for another religion or spiritual system that we think might better match our views. After all we have been told to trust our own experiences and to put the teachings to the test of our experiences. However, mind can be a trickster and operate in the service of resistance to practice. Our own unconscious resistances will provide well-rationalized fuel for such moves away from practice or from jumping from practice to practice, playing leapfrog, but never settling in anywhere. They might serve our resistances temporarily. However, if the resistance is not resolved, the new so-called “powerful experience” will fade away and the running sideways and collecting will begin again.

Some folks meet me for the first time and say: “I’m looking to see if we will have a good connection; if we will “see eye to eye.” I might say: “maybe the best connection would be a bad connection.” “Then you will be very quickly faced with your own stumbling blocks, your own personal wall.” In blindness there is no seeing “eye to eye.” In the absolute there is no “seer” and no “seen.” Who are you right now! Not yesterday, not tomorrow; now! What is your dharma position? What is your life context? What do you think that you are running away from, or running toward?” Docho-san, as we called Tanaka Roshi, the abbot of Hokyoji Monastery in rural Ono, Japan, upon meeting a group of us for the first time said: “I don’t care who you are or what you have done in your lives. You are here now!

Maybe the legends concerning the first ancestor of Zen in China, Bodhidharma, are not actually about exclusively facing a literal wall. Maybe the nine years he supposedly spent “facing the wall,” whether true or not, had to do with his internal “walls.” Maybe, to take it a step further, his wall gazing practice serves as a fine metaphor for all practitioners, that with authentic practice we all must sooner or later face our own private walls. In this regard this story serves as an allegory pointing to how deeply embedded our habit formations are; how they function as psychic walls; how they influence our perception of reality. The foundations were set very deeply very long ago as a result the causes and conditions of our lives. They can become blindly perpetuated in the present and the future. Tanaka Roshi cut through all of it by suggesting that in his own words that we “drop off body and mind” as Dōgen recommends. In this way the legend points to how difficult it is to work with our habit formations as they rise and fall and turn us over and over again in the same repetitive directions. This legend also demonstrates how in the simple act of shikantaza by not reacting in old familiar and habitual ways by just sitting we can cut through ego-centered habit formations and respond to situations with our innate wisdom and compassion. Maybe that is why when asked by Emperor Wu, “Who are you?” Bodhidharma answered, cogently, convincingly and clearly without a moment’s hesitation “I don’t know!” Bodhidharma was not confused about his true identity. He was not being facetious. As Kanpu Davis notes:

This was not a mere confession of ignorance; it was a pure self-presentation of the original face, that is, of the formless, ungraspable self, of the self that has, as Dōgen goes on to say in “Genjōkōan,” studied itself to the point of forgetting itself in its pure openness to the myriad things of the world.[1]

Sooner or later, with this approach, that is, running sideways and experience collecting, the runner can easily be drawn into complacency, arrogance, oblivion or other garden variety misconceptions ruled by these unconscious habit formations with our backs against the wall, poised to run again. As an alternative we could face the wall, following Bodhidharma’s example, and work with our delusions, confusions and ignorance; our aggression, hate or fear, as well as our dreams, our wishes for a better life and a better world. That was the Buddha’s solution as he sat under the Bodhi Tree and was confronted with his “demons.” He sat firmly and resolutely and said, “welcome,” “come right in.” He neutralized them. That was the key for Buddha. That was the key for Bodhidharma. That is the key for us. Dōgen tells us that if this practice was good enough for Buddha, for Bodhidharma, and for all of the ancestors, then it must be good enough for us. There is nothing to “learn” or to be “taught.” Dōgen is telling us to just sit shikantaza with mushotoku, no gaining mind. Forget about stilling the mind, inducing a trance, or becoming enlightened. Bodhidharma told his successor, Huike’ “Go find me the mind that wants to be stilled.” Huike’ practiced and practiced. He finally returned to Bodhidharma and said, “I can’t find it.” Bodhi responded, “Now your mind is stilled.” Huike’ worked with what needed to be worked with. He gave up seeking. He realized the truth of his being.

Shikantaza creates the opportunity to work with exactly what needs to be worked with. We simply allow for the rise, the coming into form, the dissolving, and the disappearing. No matter what is happening, we just continue sitting. The psychic wall slowly crumbles; reality becomes clear; our true nature finds expression.

We all have a choice. Are you going to run again and endlessly repeat the same old karmic formation or will you trust in the Three Gems: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, have faith in the practice and work with the resistance and urge to run?

We might also run while sitting still by playing mind games or using so-called “techniques,” such as focusing on a particular object or developing elaborate, fantastic visions during periods of sitting rather than “just sitting” as Dōgen teaches us. Or to conclude, as Zen Master Shohaku Okumura, Roshi puts it:

“This is really simple practice; we do nothing but sit in the zazen posture, breathing easily, keeping the eyes open, staying awake and letting go. That’s all we do in Zazen. We do nothing else.”

[1] T. Wirth, S. Schroeder, K. Davis, Eds., Engaging Dogen’s Zen (2017, Kindle Location 3684)

Next Session: What is Fundamental

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