“Zazen is just Action”

This is an unusual post, as a good part of it is a post from another blog – the Dogen Sangha Blog (http://gudoblog-e.blogspot.com).  I would have linked directly to the post itself, but the permalink didn’t work. The blog is very charming in it’s language and it’s lack of technical savvy.

What I found in this post is a functional description of “shikantaza”, or “just sitting”, which is a zen form of meditation. The question is about what to “focus on” and the answer is amazing.

posted by GUDO NISHIJIMA | 10:10 AM |


Ven. silentbell San’s question 10/05/05

Even though I have received a following questions from Ven. silentbell San, but I have failed to answer to him, and so I would like to send my answer by this comments.

His questions

During zazen what is it exactly that I am supposed to be concentrating on? Do I try to “feel” my body sitting straight, and bring my awareness back to my posture again and again? Or do I focus on any stillness that might appear between my thoughts? Or do I just sit not focusing on any thing, just letting everything come and go? Thank you again so very much for the teaching you offer.

Gudo’s Answer : First of all we should make our efforts to keep the lower spine straight vertically, and then we should keep the backbone straight upwards as far as possible. Pull the chin downward and backward to make the back of neck as far as possibly straight. Master Kodo Sawaki taught us that we should stretch our spine as if it were possible for our spine to pierce the ceiling actually. By stretching the back of neck our sight might be directed about 45 degrees downward.


During Zazen it is the most important matter to keep the posture straight vertically. It is never only feeling, but it is just the real Action. It is never the feelng, but Action itself. Therefore it is not awearness, but Action itself.


Therefore it is the most important matter for us actually to sit in the Actual Posture, not the mental consciousness or sense perception. Zazen is just Action, and so it is just the traditional posture.

If you are inclined to these sorts of things, give this a try. Sit as prescribed and continue “doing this Action” for the duration of the sit.  I’ve been reading zen for years and years and I thought I was familiar with this kind of practice.. but this explanation just blew me away. I tried it for my 50 minute evening sit last night*.  With the clarity and concentration I’ve developed through vipassana practice, I actually had some steadiness in this “just sitting” practice.

I just love how sitting 100% still can be described as Action with a capital A!

*Side note: I know that it is good advice to “take the one seat” as Jack Kornfield suggests and do one type of meditation steadily instead of jumping around. I’ve primarily stuck with vipassana meditation for many years.  As I start to journal my experiences and share them here, I am also curious about different types of buddhist meditation and I am trying a few to see how they compare and contrast.  This blog is all about seeing where practice leads…

Working with the “I” in Meditation

Typically, I stick with Vipassana meditation, essentially working with the 4 foundations of mindfulness.  But I have also been exposed to a few other types of meditation that I’ll do from time to time, including Advaita Vedanta teachings. These teachings have reached me through Nisargaddatta Maharaj and Alon Geva. Nisargaddatta is a fascinating character with some powerfully inspirational writings (transcripts of interviews with seekers) and Alon is a teacher I had the good fortune to meet and sit with in the Berkeley hills some years ago.

My understanding of these teachings is fairly simple, and relates directly to the meditation practice centered on the “I” or “I am”. This may or may not be called a mantra practice. I wouldn’t consider it a mantra, actually, because it’s not the sound of the word that counts -it is the direction it takes you when you work with it, that is, inward.

Sitting in posture, you can repeatedly bring to mind: “I am that I am”, “I am’ or simply “I”.  The important thing to do is to focus solely on the “felt sense of I am” as Nisargadatta would say. Working with this meditation makes the mind seek itself, in a way. It is looking for it’s own foundation. It’s seeking itself.  We all use the word “I” a zillion times a day.  What does it really mean?  In zen, there is a koan, “Who am I?” This is the same exercise as far as I can tell. Probing deeply into exactly who is doing this meditation leads you quickly to a sort of paradox. You can never see “something” that is adequately answering the question, “Who am I” — because anything you can experience is automatically being experienced BY the I and cannot therefore BE the I.  Yet you persist.

I’ve worked with this many times. At first it can feel uninteresting. It is more about repeating a word than anything else. Until it gets beyond the “word” stage, it’s not very enlightening.

I find that next comes the “cramped” stage, where my mind is trying to ‘turn around’ on itself and look backwards or something. This has a very contractive feeling. It can cause a headache, literally. Everything that comes to mind is rejected and the focus returns to “I am”. This makes it much like the Neti-Neti practice (but that’s another meditation and another post). This may very well be what the whole meditation experience feels like for a long time – or over many periods of meditation. It is a kind of brick wall.  It may help develop concentration, though, so long as the drive is strong to stay with the basic instruction and keep rejecting content and holding the “I am” as the only focus.

The point of this is that in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy (as I understand it), the individual self is born out of the universal self and is indeed identical with it, but it’s become lost or separated from the universal. The very first movement from the universal to the individual is the “I” thought.  The “I” becomes “Me” and “Mine” and “Other” and the whole of the phenomenal world is born. The way to get back to the universal is traveling back through the “I”, which when examined closely, with more and more subtle awareness and more and more concentration becomes a portal which plunges back into the Absolute.

So.. how’s that going?  Well, it’s going ok, actually.  I’ve explored this type of meditation when my concentration is already quite good.  Like on retreat after establishing present moment awareness, it can be quite interesting to shift into the “I am” meditation and get absorbed into the depths of mind for a while. It sounds funny, but it’s really quite “dark” in there. If the focus is good, this type of meditation is very good at driving out competing thoughts. It can leave you feeling quite empty (in a good way!) when you’re done.

Have I poked back into the Absolute?? No.. I’d say, “not yet”. But I did have an interesting shift this past Monday while sitting like this for a longer (50minute) sit.  I finally got past the “cramped mind” stage. I realized that in looking for the “I”.. and the root of the “I” that I wasn’t able to manage it by looking “for” something. I had a real breakthrough when I realized that it was the old “that which you are seeking is causing you to seek” situation.  I began experiencing the “I” as the experience of looking itself. I was able to settle back into that which was already ALWAYS there. It was an experience of being with the core of my being in some way.. very relaxing, very very quiet and very familiar!  And talk about having a clear and empty mind once I left the cushion!!

I’ll keep going back there and hanging out in that space – in that pure witness.

As Nisargadatta says,

“The witness is the door through which you pass beyond. “

Dropping resistance & enjoying spaciousness

Be conscious of yourself, watch your mind, give it your full attention. Don’t look for quick results; there may be none within your noticing. Unknown to you, your psyche will undergo a change, there will be more clarity in your thinking, charity in your feeling, purity in your behaviour. You need not aim at these — you will witness the change all the same. For, what you are now is the result of inattention and what you become will be the fruit of attention.

– Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Lately, I’ve been enjoying a sense of well-being and spaciousness that seems to stem from formal sitting practice and an increase in mindfulness throughout the day.  It feels like my practice is reaching a ‘critical mass’, where the benefits are spilling into my day to day experience in a much more tangible way.

How does meditation lead to this feeling of well-being?

Holding something in mindful awareness changes our relationship to it. Being mindful with an object means not only placing our attention on something, but being open to it; dropping resistance to it.  Over time, being mindful with more and more of our experience begins to change us as well. Being open with mindfulness to more of our experiences translates into our simply being more open as beings. Dropping resistance to more of our specific experience translates into our experiencing less resistance in general. Having less resistance to the phenomena that arises is obviously beneficial, in that it causes less tension and reactivity – but it gets even better. When the objects of mindfulness are themselves part of the mind, like thoughts and emotions, then holding them with mindfulness and being fully and open and present to them can allow them to become less hardened, less dense. They soften and begin to flow, move, change and even… dissolve. This allows us to not only experience less resistance, but also more spaciousness.

Let’s take an example.  Mental chatter.  Monkeymind is one of the first things a meditator will notice upon starting practice. We talk to ourselves constantly. Bringing our attention to our internal talk is a huge part of meditation and especially so in the early years. As we bring awareness into this part of our being, we get more and more familiar with aspects of our internal talk that were previously unconscious. Some of our internal talk is quite obvious (even manifesting as actual external speech, as in “someone talking to themselves”) while some is quite subtle like an internal mumble or partially formed thoughts. All of this can be subconscious or it can be made conscious, through practice.

Once we develop a habit of watching our thoughts, becoming conscious of them, things can change. We don’t automatically ‘feed’ the thinking process. We learn to let thoughts come and go. We see patterns. We can see unhealthy patterns. We can slowly learn to identify these, stop feeding them and let them go, too. Through mindful attention, we are slowing down the reactivity; we’re not adding as much fuel to the fire. Eventually, this leads to a little more quiet time in the mind. Less chatter. More spaciousness. More freedom to be with our other, moment-to-moment experience!  Walking around with a quiet(er) mind is a joy! It has the taste of freedom.

At first this veil of constant chatter was not even conscious. With practice it became conscious, but seemed like a fixed feature, a given — and then with a lot of practice, familiarity, and acceptance – it begins to soften, to lessen, to sometimes even yield to silence. The sense of freedom here is the sense of having, to some small degree, gotten ‘out of our own way’.  Experiencing freedom from it, we come to see that the constant chatter has been a nearly omnipresent veil obscuring so much of our present-moment experience. Being in the world with a quiet mind feels like looking through a clean lens, or better yet, an open window.

Anything that can be experienced can be held in mindful awareness — from the gross to the very very subtle. This sounds simple, but it is profoundly powerful. Just like the chatter, once seen, any experience can become an object of practice and eventually cease to obstruct our awareness of the present. When we start to clear our consciousness in this way, we become aware of more areas where we are ‘holding’ or ‘solidifying’. We begin to make some space, allowing us to discover new, perhaps more subtle aspects of ourselves where we are ‘stuck’ or ‘congealed’ and as these become more fluid, more clear, and less in the way.. we experience more and more freedom. In this way, meditation continuously unfolds as a process of getting out of our own way and becoming free.