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Working With

“Working With”

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

What do I mean by “working with,” if, as I described in previous discussions that shikantaza is a non-dualistic, goalless and themeless practice of choiceless awareness? We strive to practice with mushotoku or no gaining mind. We remain equally open to all experience. What is there to “work with?” What is the “with?” Usually working with means that we are trying to get somewhere; to make something happen; to reach a goal, or accomplish some desired outcome such as a preferred state of mind. However, Dōgen and the succession of ancestors all advise us to sit with mushotoku, no gaining mind; that sitting, as I described in the previous session, is the expression of Immo, “just this is it.” My preference for using the term “working with” relates to the point that Dōgen expresses an “actional” and “relational” view of practice. [1] He is critical of attempting to achieve static or preferred states of mind. Additionally, “working with” as an alternative to other widely used terms such as “being with,” for example, which might unintentionally convey a sense of passivity and quietism. Shikantaza is not a passive process or an attempt to silence the mind. Dōgen exclaims: “Practice as if your head were on fire!” And “Practice until you break the cushion!” We practice with mushotoku, but that’s is not the same as being passive. Maybe we can call it paradoxically the “no work -work” or the “doing of not doing,” or what the Chan teacher, Sheng Yen describes in his teachings on silent illumination as “The Method of No Method[2] Or as exemplified in the encounter dialogue quoted in Session One: Origins:

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


The “work” that we do in shikantaza is motivated by the intention to maintain Bodhicitta, that is, as I noted before, is the mind of full awareness of the rising and falling of all experience free from our habitual tendency to grasp at what feels pleasant or to push away what feels unpleasant. We practice without attachment or aversion. We constantly return over and over again to the simple and basic fact of just sitting in the present moment. Uchiyama Roshi conveys this “working with” beautifully through his active expression “Opening the Hand of Thought.[3]

Ancient Mirror

One day when Nangaku came to Baso’s hut and asked, “What have you been doing recently?”

Baso replied, “I have been practicing seated meditation.”

Nangaku asked, “What is the aim of your seated meditation?”

Baso replied, “My aim is to achieve Buddhahood.”

Thereupon, Nangaku took a roof tile and began rubbing it on a rock.

Baso, upon seeing this, asked, “Reverend monk, what are you doing?”

Nangaku replied, “I am polishing a roof tile.”

Baso then asked, “What are you going to make by polishing a roof tile?”

Nangaku replied, “I am polishing it to make a mirror.”

Baso said, “How can you possibly make a mirror by rubbing a tile?”

Nangaku replied, “How can you make a Buddha by doing seatedmeditation?”

In Kokyo (Ancient Mirror) Dōgen writes, “When Mat-su (Baso) becomes Mat-su (Baso), zazen quickly becomes zazen[4] And, I’d like to add, when you sit in shikantaza, you become truly you. Dōgen’s emphasis here is on the activity of practice, not on some imagined result. This activity, represented by the act of polishing the tile, is already realization. So we just keep practicing no matter what! To repeat, we practice without attachment or aversion. In Zazenshin, Dogen offers this advice:

Do not hold the remote in high regard, and do not hold the remote in low regard: be accustomed to it as the remote. Do not hold the close in high regard, and do not hold the close in low regard: be accustomed to it as the close. Do not think light of the eyes, and do not attach importance to the eyes. Do not attach importance to the ears, and do not think light of the ears. Make the ears and eyes sharp and clear.[5]

In practice this means that we allow ourselves to simply and naturally be ourselves. We stay firm but not rigid. This means not holding the mind too tightly. We remain relaxed but not lax. We don’t completely let go. We stay in the middle with no gaining mind. We maintain a sense of moment-to-moment presence.

This is why the practice, the goal and the result are all the same. We are here right now and we don’t step away. Shikantaza, just sitting, is spacious and infinitely open. We create space for our hidden habit formations to emerge rather than burying them in mantras, visualizations, breath counting and other techniques that Dōgen describes as “contrivances.” This is a very practical matter and makes life workable.  Life becomes workable because we exert a realizational common sense actualizing Genjokoan, the fundamental point, without exaggeration or minimization. This is a very natural and unfettered practice. Its not restricted or complicated and our consciousness is not suffocated by techniques. Its not a big deal, yet paradoxically, and at the same time, it is what Zen describes as fundamental. We need to be careful that zazen too can become a contrivance or what Katagiri Roshi describes as a “decoration.” Ego wants to accumulate and is quite the trickster so we must be vigilant, So, please, for the sake of all beings, just keep practicing no matter what!

[1] For elaboration see: Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist. Boston: Wisdom (2004).

[2] S. Yen, The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination. Boston: Shambhala (2008).

[3] K. Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice. Boston: Wisdom (2004).

[4] C. Bielefeldt, Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation. Univ. of California Press: Berkeley (1988, p. 143).

[5] G. Nishijima & C. Cross, Translators.  Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 2. London: Woods Hole (1996, p. 93).

Next Session: Bodhi’s Wall

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