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Zazen Is Good For Nothing

As often as we’re reminded that meditation is a practice without any particular goal, it’s hard not to get ambitious about it. The tendency to worry about getting things wrong, or to strive to get them right, is baked deeply into our nature.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear this talk by Shōhaku Okumura, a Japanese Sōtō Zen priest, reminding us that Zazen (and any meditation practice) is good for nothing. Meditation practiced for a particular purpose is not meditation at all:

We usually think that this meditation practice is to attain some kind of enlightenment or awakening. But Dogen said we should just sit without any expectation. Even enlightenment.

Because [if] we practice in order to get enlightenment then that is desire. Desire, our egocentric desire, is still working there in search of truth. So from the very beginning we just, in Dogem’s expression, throw ourselves into the way, without expecting any reward.

That is what is called, just sitting.

Fudoshin; the immovable mind.

Our minds are anything but immovable most of the time. In fact, most of the time, they’re a constantly moving, swirling mass of fears, insecurities and random thoughts. This state of affairs has become so normal that it feels like background noise, only bothering us when we’re left alone for too long with our minds.

But even if we don’t always notice the effects of our restless minds, they are felt by others when we act unreasonably, or panic unnecessarily, or speak unkindly. Our minds are not only tools for our use, they are powerful influencers of everything around us.

Given that, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn to remain calm and centred, even in the midst of great stress and anxiety? This is the development of what is known as Fudoshin:

From a Western viewpoint, the concept of a Warrior (Samurai, Bushi) without anger or rage, a peaceful warrior, can be quite difficult to understand and accept. Being exceedingly dualistic, we can hardly reconcile the ideas of violence with a peaceful and calm mind, but this state of mind was the essence of the Samurai and is today the essence of martial arts like kendo, judo, karate or aikido.

In our daily life, Fudoshin is the protection against the “Shikai” or four sicknesses of the mind; anger, doubt, fear, and surprise. Through the rigorous practice of Zazen, the students learn implicitly to center themselves and clear their minds, thus developing a Fudoshin mind.

"The essence of meditation practice is to let go of all your expectations about meditation."
Zazen is not the same as meditation.

I’m not too familiar with zazen so I had no idea what the difference between zazen and meditation might be, but it turns out it’s pretty interesting:

In most meditative traditions, practi­tioners start a certain method of medita­tion (such as counting breaths, visualizing sacred images, concentrating the mind on a certain thought or sensation, etc.) after getting comfortable sitting in full-lotus position. In other words, it is kekka-fuza plus meditation. Kekka-fuza in such us­age becomes a means for optimally con­ditioning the body and mind for mental exercises called “meditation,” but is not an objective in itself. The practice is struc­tured dualistically, with a sitting body as a container and a meditating mind as the contents. And the emphasis is always on meditation as mental exercise. In such a dualistic structure, the body sits while the mind does something else.

For Dogen, on the other hand, the objective of zazen is just to sit in kekka-fuza correctly—there is absolutely noth­ing to add to it. It is kekka-fuza plus zero. Kodo Sawaki Roshi, the great Zen master of early 20lh century Japan, said, “Just sit zazen, and that’s the end of it.” In this understanding, zazen goes beyond mind/body dualism; both the body and the mind are simultaneously and completely used up just by the act of sitting in kekka-fuza. In the Samadhi King chapter of Shobogenzo, Dogen says, “Sit in kekka-fuza with body, sit in kekka-fuza with mind, sit in kekka-fuza of body-mind falling off.”

If you truly embrace the idea of mind-body unity, this approach probably won’t strike you as particularly outlandish. Rather than saying that zazen and meditation are not the same, I think it’s more accurate to say that they approach the same thing from different perspectives. Still, it’s always interesting to hear about those different perspectives.