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What is Fundamental

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

What is Fundamental to Zen

 As I see it, what is fundamental to Zen is the direct experiencing of reality, as described in Part Three, “Being-As-It Is.”  Immo or “suchness” is a central guiding principle that is expressed, enacted and/or manifested as we sit. Its importance to Eihei Dōgen, the 13th C. founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, is reflected in the many times he mentions it in his writings on practice. Its primary practice is shikantaza that is a goal-free, and objectless form of zazen. This “choiceless awareness” creates a simple, uncomplicated realizational space. This practice in its spaciousness and simplicity is not a matter of collecting “beautiful” or “powerful” experiences or a matter of getting anywhere. Rather, it is an opportunity to work with our anxieties, frustrations, complacency, sleepwalking, greed, aspirations, hopes, dreams, fears, in short, whatever internal or external perceptual stimuli arise as we sit. We start by realizing life as it is, or what Dōgen describes as “Genjokoan,” or “actualizing the fundamental point,” “manifesting reality” or “The Issue at Hand.”

We have a choice because we take no fixed point. We experience more clearly the reality and what is required or needed in the currently manifesting situation. This creates a choice. We can face and work with realizational Truth or we can continue to negate, deny, disassociate, or split-off this fundamental Truth of existence and repeatedly cycle through our lives by continuing to go “sideways” as we run from one “powerful experience” to another, endlessly collecting and still feeling dis-ease and dissatisfaction. We talk about the beauty and power of each collected experience, but we are really running, speeding up, running from our suffering, as if we could outrun our pain. This continued running and collecting and accumulating experiences defines “ego.” From this perspective, ego is the process of running and collecting and over time that engenders a fixed, but false sense of identity or a sense of self. Ultimately, this sense of self is not solid so we keep the process going in order to feed and maintain this identity. Since it can deepen our sense of separation, it can also create a feeling of alienation and distrust in others. Such identities are rationalized in what are called in contemporary culture as “lifestyles” and in the global sense as “growth economies.” When we look deeply we can see that these accumulated choices that together make up a so-called lifestyle and our present identity are nothing more than the choices and activities that determine how we relate to each situation. By each situation I mean whatever arises internally, externally or relationally. The Buddhist Wheel of Life and Death points to these different styles of relating as the “Six Realms.” They include God, Asura or Angry Gods, Humans, Animals, Hungry Ghosts and Hell. These different styles of relating can unconsciously define how we sit with ourselves not only on the cushion, but also and perhaps more importantly in our relationships.

Zen offers an alternative as exemplified in this teaching story:

Two pilgrims were lost in the desert. They had run out of water and were tired, hungry, thirsty and frightened. They encountered a desert dweller and asked: “Where can we find water?” He responded: ”Right here on the ground where you are both standing!” The pilgrims where shocked. Here? Yes, right here, right where you are standing. Where else would you expect to find water if not right here and right now? He left them with these parting words: “Just dig straight down.” They both started digging. After digging down a foot or two one pilgrim said to the other: There is no water here, I’ll go dig somewhere else. He started a new hole. The other simply kept digging where he started. Eventually, after digging down about five feet, he struck water and quenched is thirst. Meanwhile, the other fellow and dug 50 one-foot holes and still had not struck water. The moral of the story is obvious. That’s my motto: “Just keep practicing no matter what!”   

To strike water we need to dig vertically, and deeply – not sideways. We stay in one place and continue digging. We stop running, collecting and accumulating. As Dōgen notes:

The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading . . . indeed the whole body is beyond the world’s dust. It is never apart from right where you are. What use is there of going off here and there to practice?[1]

Let’s be careful. Some folks have interpreted this quote as a critique of practice, but this is not correct. Some folks take this quote literally, but that is not completely correct either. What he is talking about is mushotoku or “no gaining mind.” That is, trying to attain something or trying to get rid of something. Shunryu Suzuki asserts this basic teaching in the reverse. He speaks of shoshin or “beginner’s mind.” He writes: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” [2] We sit on our cushions, our chairs, or our seiza benches and remain open to what is right in front of us. We embrace what is there and let it go. This sounds paradoxical. After all, the hub of the wheel tells us not to grasp; not to push away. But when we gently embrace and lightly let go there is a subtle difference. There is a release of pressure; a profound release; a gentle softening that Dōgen describes as simply the practice of “ease and joy.” That is what shikantaza does and in that manner is both the method and the result all at once.


[1] Fukanzazengi (1227). In: N. Waddell & M. Abe, The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, (Albany: S.U.N.Y., 2002, p. 2). S. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, New York: Weatherhill (1970, p. 21).

[2] S. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, New York: Weatherhill (1970, p. 21).

Part Eight: “Stones in a StreamLink

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