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Stones in a Stream

Stones in a Stream: Essays in Shikantaza


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

By Seiso Sensei

By definition, Zen Buddhism is known as “meditation Buddhism.” The term Zen derives from zazen, which means “meditation,” but what is meditation? The answer will depend on whom you might ask. Specifically, the question that serves as the focus of what follows and that represents my personal orientation and training can be stated as: “What is shikantaza?” Shikan refers to wholeheartedness, which, as I see it, relates to the intention that we bring to practice.

This intention is multifaceted and includes the intention to raise Bodhicitta, the mind of true awareness, which means maintaining a balanced awareness to the rising and falling of all experience without judgment, attachment or aversion. In practice this means staying neutral no matter what without clinging to or pushing away one’s experience. We also make a commitment to practice with mushotoku or “no gaining (no profit) mind.” This intention requires an all-inclusive awareness. This means that nothing is excluded such as when for instance, concentrating on a koan, counting breath exhalations or reciting a mantra, or generating specific preferred psychological states through the introduction of desired thoughts such as “loving kindness,” which can engender a false sense of self and interfere with examining true self experience. We just sit with nothing extra added on, yet we exclude nothing.  Traditional teachings express intention through various admonishments such as “practice as if your head were on fire,” Practice as if you just swallowed a red-hot iron ball and you are trying to spit it out.” “Practice until you break the cushion.” Or, as I frequently assert, “Just keep practicing no matter what!”

            This approach is the central training practice advocated in Dogen’s writings. Steven Heine describes in his book, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, this practice as “the foremost training method” (2020, p. 4). He describes this practice as “ . . . the continuing and concentrated commitment to perform zazen, or seated meditation, through making sustained exertion (or effort)” (Gyoji). (2020, p.4).

            We can break down shikantaza as follows: Shikan is the total exertion of whole being with no part left out; being the action of just sitting. Za refers to zazen. Ta means to hit the bull’s-eye. In shikantaza the bull’s-eye is the present moment. We hit the present moment straight on and make each and every moment count. This specific form of zazen, translated as “just sitting” or “only sitting,” is fundamentally an objectless and goalless practice that expresses the core non-dualistic Soto Zen position that practice and realization are one. Shikantaza is typically but not exclusively associated with the Soto Zen School or Sotoshu, founded by the influential 13th C. Japanese monk, Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) upon his return from his pilgrimage in China between 1224 and 1227. I hope to unpack the questions raised above in what follows, but first, I will speak briefly about my own introduction to Zen study and practice.


During the 1960’s I had read about Zen Buddhism through D.T. Suzuki’s now classic Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series (1949). I can’t say that at the time that I understood the deep teachings conveyed by Suzuki very well, but I did get some initial hints that opened the door for me and left me standing at the threshold of a lifelong adventure. Although my understanding was minimal, his writings stimulated my interest and imagination. His approach was more intuitive than pragmatic. He did not offer any clues on how to practice zazen. My own meditation practice at the time had developed out of the Hindu yoga tradition and included a basic practice of “secret mantra” meditation. I place “secret mantra” in quotation marks, because I eventually learned that everyone in our group, without exception, had received the very same mantra! During the late 60’s I had the opportunity to engage in casual study with a teacher from the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Our studies were focused on the Bhavachakra or the Wheel of Life and Death, which I continue to study, teach, and practice with in the present. However, these studies were highly intellectual and not practice based at all. I continued to read Buddhist and Buddhist-influenced texts and found myself, despite my intellectual curiosity and fascination with the “mystery and magic” of Tibetan Buddhism, to be drawn toward Zen. I was taken in by its seeming simplicity, pragmatic and direct “here and now” orientation of what I perceived to be at its core. I appreciated Zen’s optimistic message that we are all connected and that we are right here and now the full expression of Buddha nature. I continued to read Suzuki, then Alan Watts (1957), Phillip Kapleau (1966) and whatever else I found available at the time. However, except for a few half-hearted and misguided attempts, actual authentic practice continued to elude me.

In 1979 I visited Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monastery in upstate New York that formally opened its doors in 1976. I felt a profound and deep sense of wonder and mystery in this lovely environment during this first visit to a Zen monastery. The structure was designed in the style of a traditional Japanese Zen temple and was constructed by Japanese crafts people. Dai Bosatsu Zendo is situated in the Catskill Mountain region of New York State on beautiful Beecher Lake bordered by beaver dams and surrounded by approximately 1,400 acres of pristine forests sharing a border with the New York State forest preserve. Back then the residents harvested and produced maple syrup.

At my request for Zen meditation instructions, after a tour of the property, a gracious and unassuming young monk invited me into the zendo. She sat me down on a zafu, which having been a yoga practitioner for many years was physically easy for me. However, she didn’t give me any specific instructions beyond the basic posture; no “secret mantras,” such as I was familiar with through my yoga training; no visualizations like those I had read about in the Tibetan Buddhist literature. When I asked her what I should do she simply said: “just sit and you’ll see.” That was it! This approach was very different from my previous initiation into yogic secret mantra meditation, a practice that included precise body, breath and recitation instructions. Sitting on the zafu for my first time in a Zen monastery, I felt a deep sense of wonder. But I also felt disoriented and at a loss. I thought to myself, “maybe I am supposed to feel this way.” “Maybe this is how one cuts through the illusion of ego.” “Maybe this is how you pierce the veil of delusion and enter Nirvana.” So many “maybe’s.” I did, however, go along with this terse and enigmatic instruction, curious to see what would happen next. My interior environment was filled mostly with fantasies, projections and expectations of amazing visions and imagined soon to be realized magical mystical experiences. That’s fine if you know how to relate without attachment or aversion to such inner experiences, that Zen Buddhists refer to as “Makyo,” which translates as “devil’s cave or “ghost cave” and refers to visions, hallucinations the mind can generate when meditating and that can be confused for enlightenment.  At the time, I didn’t have a clue. I was simply set to collect another “powerful experience” that I could package up and share with my friends.

However, despite this sense of disorientation, my eagerness to deal directly with my own suffering and dissatisfaction with my life, coupled with wonder and curiosity, which remained strong, I began sitting regularly at New York Zendo Shobo-ji located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Shobo-ji opened in the autumn, 1968. It was one of the first Rinzai Zen practice centers to open in New York City. I soon signed up for a sesshin, an extended silent retreat. Periodic interviews with the Abbot were an important part of these retreats. During an initial interview, he gave me limited, but more specific instructions for zazen than I had received from the monk.

Fortunately, I found validation for my initial experience years later upon reading John Daido Loori’s experience that he describes in his discussion of shikantaza in which he notes the lack of detailed or practical instructions available to him when he first became interested in meditation. He writes:

It’s remarkable that in all the literature on Zen, there is very little on actually how to do zazen. I remember when I first started sitting I couldn’t find any specific instructions. Everybody talked about how wonderful zazen was and how important it was, and how everybody should do it, but there was very little to be found on how actually to do it. (2002, p. 137).

With all of this detail available from both contemporary and traditional sources, I am struck by the seemingly sparse or almost non-existent instruction described by Daido and in my own experience.

In contrast, my other introduction to Zen practice experience occurred years later at Hokyoji, a beautiful 13th century Soto Zen monastery located in the mountains just outside of rural Ono, Japan where I participated in a retreat with a group of colleagues at the close of a conference on Buddhism and psychotherapy that took place at Hanazono Buddhist University in Kyoto, Japan. Three monks gave us extensive and highly detailed instructions and a demonstration on sitting shikantaza. One monk served as a model, another pointed out postural details and the third gave extensive verbal instructions.

More recently, during a conversation with Gao Yuan, the abbot of the Chan Buddhist Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York while on retreat, he described a similar initiation into meditation practice. He shared with me that his teacher, Sheng Yen, offered almost no instructions. This surprised me because Gao Yuan’s instructions were incredibly precise and detailed and that closely followed the highly detailed instructions described in Sheng Yen’s (2008) writings on Silent Illumination. He explained to me that the need for detailed instructions developed over time due to the fear evoked in novice practitioners when faced with the openness and ambiguity of no instructions.

 I also learned, as I began to become interested in Eihei Dōgen’s teachings, that he gave considerably detailed instructions on the environment, physical posture and the mechanics of sitting, in his first written document, Fukanzazengi (Universal Principles of Sitting Meditation) written in 1227 upon his return from his China pilgrimage and subsequently revised several times over the years as his practice and vision continued to develop and mature.[1]

Dōgen’s instructions in this brief document are divided into several sections. He takes practical account of the environment, clothing, the physical posture, the breath, mental attitude, and core religious teachings based on suchness.[2] However, he concludes with a rather brief description of the mental process, defined in this terse koan (encounter dialog): “Yueshan’s Thinking and Not Thinking.”

Once, when the Great Master Hung-tao of Yüeh shan was sitting

[in meditation], a monk asked him, “What are you thinking of, [sitting there] so fixedly?”

The master answered, “I’m thinking of not thinking.”
The monk asked, “How do you think of not thinking?”
The master answered, “Nonthinking.”

 (Translated & quoted in: Bielefeldt, 1988, p. 188-189)

He concludes this terse and seemingly enigmatic mental instruction by noting “This in itself is the essential art of zazen” (Waddell & Abe 2002, p. 4). I will return to an extensive and elaborated unpacking of this enigmatic encounter dialogue in future offerings. I make it as a matter of course to offer Fukanzazengi, a brief, highly condensed, yet comprehensive document to all new practitioners. Given the terse nature of these instructions, which contrast the detailed account of environment, dress, physical posture, I can perhaps understand my own initial introduction to zazen practice.

These two extreme approaches to introducing zazen to new practitioners reflect what might be viewed as a conflict. I’d like to approach this dichotomy in the form of a couple of questions: “Does Dōgen really need to provide us with more details than this terse and enigmatic ‘Thinking of not thinking’?” “Does he need to saturate our psychic space with elaborate instructions or details?” “Why would we impose an external mechanical structure over our natural and spontaneous capacity for intuited and experiential wisdom?” “Can we trust the teaching that ‘Whole Being is Buddha Nature’ and allow practice/realization to evolve through the experience of just sitting?” Yes, No? Dōgen tells us to “just sit and see!”

He is clearly critical of shuzen as what he describes as “learning meditation.” Why then would he indulge us by “teaching meditation” beyond the basic set up? Perhaps he has already told us enough and has provided the “essence.” That is, as he asserts: “non thinking” … “This is the essential art of zazen.” What more is there to say? Carl Bielefeldt responds to this point regarding zazen by noting “… it is precisely the unthinkable mystery of non-thinking” (1988, p. 147). 

 I shifted to shikantaza exclusively, as described by Dōgen as a result of my visit to Hokyoji, my studies, Dōgen’s critiques of other forms of meditation, that I will elaborate in the next chapter, and most of all, my experiences and study with Shohaku Okumura, Roshi. He teaches and describes shikantaza practice in a manner consistent with Dōgen’s instructions and he chose this form because it was the practice of his teacher Kosho Uchiyama, Roshi practiced and taught and as described in his book Opening the Hand of Thought. Okumura notes:

Soto Zen teachers practice and teach in various ways. Each teacher practices his or her own style. Since I am a disciple of Uchiyama Roshi, my own instruction is based on his approach to zazen – neither counting nor watching the breath. It seems to me this is what Dōgen Zenji describes in Eihei-kōroku when he says that inhaling or exhaling are neither long nor short (p. 17).

In my experience, shikantaza brings the practitioner to what is fundamental to Zen. So, what is zazen? Dōgen asserts: “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation.” (Fukanzazengi, In: Waddell & Abe, 2002, p. 4)

What! How could this be? “Not meditation!” The Zen school, as I noted above, is referred to as the “meditation Buddhism” or the practice school. How could Dōgen assert that zazen, which is interpreted as “meditation,” make such a provocative statement? I hope to unpack this question in what follows.

The Dōgen scholar Hee-Jin Kim (2004, 2007) documents Dōgen’s interest in “authentic practice,” which for Dōgen is without question shikantaza. Of course, I understand that nothing compares to the individual’s own experience of realization based on one’s own personal practice. I also understand that no reading will serve as a substitute for direct one-to-one instructions from an authentic teacher. Dōgen elaborates this caution in Bendowa (Wholehearted Practice of the Way). Regarding “authentic religious seekers whose desire for the Way takes precedence over all else” (p. 10) he writes:

They will be led vainly astray by mistaken teachers, and the right understanding will be arbitrarily obscured from them. They will become needlessly drunk with their own delusions and immersed forever in the world of illusion. How can the true seed of prajna be expected to quicken and grow within such seekers? How will they ever reach the moment of attainment? (p. 10).

I don’t think that it is a good idea to overload the new student’s mental space with too much information. I find it helpful to offer the basics, or what might be described as “keys to ignite practice” and gradually reinforce the basics and fine-tune with additional details as necessary over a period of time through Dharma talks, workshops and during Dokusan or one-to-one practice meetings with a qualified teacher. I believe that this approach is consistent with the Middle Way. That is, not too much; not too little. However, directions to the road are essential. This leaves me with the question: “What is the “authentic practice” that Dōgen advocates repeatedly in his extensive writings? Drawing from Dōgen’s original writings on practice, and contemporary scholarship, I hope to investigate this question and offer some practical direction from the Soto Zen perspective that connects directly to core Zen Buddhist assumptions. In this regard, it becomes very clear that practice functions as a direct expression of the teachings and especially of our original enlightenment.

 I’d like to begin with some background, a discussion of core Buddhist principles that might at first glance seem abstract, experience-distant and highly philosophical, but that upon closer examination are directly related to practice and that provide the driving force and purpose for action both on and off the cushion. I’ll begin with some basic definitions and then move on to practice instructions and pointers. My orientation or general approach to practice centers on the belief that every aspect of practice holds both a spiritual or realizational meaning and a practical meaning that together bridge the notion of the relative and the absolute.


[1] Carl Bielefeldt details this evolution in Dōgen’s thinking clearly and thoroughly in his book (1988), Dōgen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation. Berkeley: University of California.

[2] See Chapter Three: “Suchness.”


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