Tuesday, June 28, 2011


In one of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo talks he speaks at length about Daigo. This is not the name of a monk. It’s a Japanese word that translates roughly as “Great Realization.”

Now that’s a dicey term in English as well as in Japanese. Many Zen intellectuals, including the renowned D.T. Suzuki, interpret “Daigo” as denoting enlightenment.

However, in all of Dogen’s writings he downplays the shopworn notion that enlightenment is the goal of Zen. Dogen insists that zazen—that is, meditation—and enlightenment—that is, awakening—are the same.

This is a wonderful example of where one plus one equals . . . one.

Therefore, according to Dogen, Daigo, or Great Realization, is something else.

Let’s take a look at what Great Realization might be.

To paraphrase Dogen: “To carry into effect great realization is to arrive at the truth without realizing it and to let go and act.”

That seems clear and straightforward. I’ll say it again:

“To carry into effect great realization is to arrive at the truth without realizing it, and to let go and act.”

Of course, Dogen, being Dogen, can’t leave well enough alone. He goes on to say that, first, Buddhist masters experience being used by the twelve hours. That could be said the other way around. Masters use the twelve hours in that they are fully aware.

In American terms, they are up to scratch.

Next, masters take things up, and they throw things away. That is, they live each moment totally, but they don’t cling to anything.

Finally, Dogen says that masters play with mud-balls, and they play with the soul.

Mud balls?

I see bewilderment on your faces.

What he means is, they live with the mundane, such as rinsing sand out of spinach, but they continue to be alive each moment, no matter how ordinary those moments may seem to an observer.

As radio-impresario Garrison Kiellor might say, they have the get-up-and-go to do the things that need to be done.

Dogen lists several kinds of humans that identify with great realization. Not to worry if you don’t immediately grasp the significance of these categories. Just listen, and let the words sink in. Maybe they will make sense today. Maybe they will tomorrow.

Here are Dogen’s four kinds of humans:

1. The innately intelligent. These are individuals who by living become free of life. Let’s be careful here. I don’t say that humans become immortal, or that they live for a hundred years. They do have—somewhere during their lifetime—a realization of their physical being. It’s a point at which they realize, “Hey, I’m a man, or I’m a woman. I’m not sure which, but, sure as shootin’, I am me.”

2. The learned intelligent. These are individuals who master the state of themselves. That is, Dogen claims, they realize the skin, flesh, bones and marrow of themselves.

A slight detour: Remember the occasion when Bodhidharma gathered his disciples to test their awareness, and one of them said truth is beyond affirmation or negation, and Bodhidharma said, “You have my skin.” Another said that Buddha-land is seen once and forever, and Bodhidharma said “You have my flesh.” Another said that spirit is reality, and Bodhidharma said, “You have my bones.” The fourth disciple didn’t say anything. Bodhidharma said, “You have my marrow,”

3. There are the people of Buddha-intelligence. In short, they are individuals who are free from the restraints of goal-oriented intelligence.

4. There are people of the teacher-less intelligence. These are individuals who don’t rely on counselors, or on sutras. Furthermore, they are individuals who don’t run around trying to drag others into their way of thinking.

Each category seems like a pretty good road map to living, doesn’t it?

So, what is the point of all this heady stuff?

The point is that these categories of Dogen are not individual niches for fitting oneself into. They aren’t road maps. They aren’t like blood types or post office boxes. They are collective examples of what Dogen calls great realization, and together they help to define an ideal principle.

The point is this.

Great realization isn’t enlightenment, or awakening, or a blessed state in which an individual transcends desire and suffering.

Great realization is not related to the past and future because it is a momentary state.

Great realization is you, right here, you right now.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Here we are, back to “All about Zazen.”

In Part I we talked about the best time and place for meditation. Now, in Part II, we will start with posture and position.

First, some traditional issues of floor-sitting, and then some practical matters.


Traditionally, zazen is done sitting on the floor, facing the wall.

If you choose to be traditional, lay down a mat or a folded blanket, and on top of it put a cushion, a pad, or a dense pillow. Feathers or down-stuffed pads are like store-bought white bread in that they’re way too fluffy. Any sort of firm cushion or combination of cushions will do as long as your bottom can settle comfortably without sinking.

Some people favor a wooden sitting bench, while others prefer a chair. Use what feels best for you. Sit barefoot or else in stocking feet. Shoes are clunky for doing zazen and they insulate you from the floor or earth.

In the traditional full-lotus position your right foot is placed on your left thigh, and your left foot is placed on your right thigh. Both of your knees are close to the floor. If you can’t manage the full-lotus, try the half-lotus by placing your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot under your right thigh. Keep your knees down. In the Burmese style your legs are not crossed but folded flat in front of you. The Japanese position is a semi-kneeling posture in which both legs are doubled under your buttocks, straddling your cushion.

Along with these nit-picking instructions remember that what you do with your mind in zazen is more important than what you do with your feet or legs.

Make sure your body is comfortable.

What do you do with your hands? Place one of them palm up, in your lap. Position the other hand, palm up, on top. Position your hands just below your navel, pressing their back edges against your abdomen. In Japanese this site is called the tanden, and it is considered to be the body’s center of spiritual energy.

Once you’re in place, rock back and forth, then from side to side. Let your shoulders drop back naturally without forcing them, and imagine a string is attached to the top of your head, pulling you upward. A catch phrase for zazen sitting is “chin in, shoulders back.”


Breathe normally. Inhale and exhale regularly, neither overfilling your lungs nor forcing the air out.

If your mind refuses to calm down and wants to stew about something, or if it hops all over the place, breath-counting can often have a calming effect. You can count inhalations as “one” and exhalations as “two,” and so on up to ten. You can count inhalations only, or you can count exhalations only. Whatever method you choose, when you reach “ten,” start over with “one.” Usually after a few cycles of breath-counting your mind will have quieted down.

A monk once asked his master what one should think about while sitting, and the master answered, “One thinks of not-thinking.”

“How does one think of not-thinking?” the monk persisted.

The master replied, “Without thinking.”

When you finish a session of zazen get up gradually. Straighten your legs and wiggle your ankles. Your muscles have been in repose and they’ll appreciate being roused gently.

Zazen can be tiring for a novice, so beginners should sit for five to ten minutes during their first half-dozen sessions. As one’s comfort and assurance grow, sitting times can be increased by five minutes. The maximum time per session for most people is forty-five minutes. During sesshin—a Zen retreat—several such sittings a day are common.

Kinhin is walking meditation.

Keeping your body erect and your gaze directed downward at a forty-five degree angle, slide one foot forward in a half-step. Don’t take a large stride, and don’t lift your foot high. Inhale and exhale with each step. Keep your chin in and your shoulders back.

Doing zazen with others provides a sense of companionship, which can be a benefit to your practice. However, meditating alone is neither harder nor easier than meditating with others, and solitary sitting can help develop a feeling of self-confidence. When you do zazen alone try to sit in a place that’s free of household responsibilities such as children, overactive pets, and telephones.

Remember that zazen and awakening are the same. That means zazen should not be scheduled like a golf game. Zazen is awakening, and awakening is daily life to be lived.

To paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki: “When you are able to sit, the meaning of your everyday life will be completely different.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


For want of a better title, I’m calling this talk “All About Zazen.” However, it covers a lot of ground, so I’m dividing it into Part I and Part II.


Zazen began as a monastic form of training. Therefore it was secluded and contemplative, disciplined and austere. The earliest practitioners were monks, and they were either mountain hermits or they lived in out-of-the-way, sheltered communities.

Historically Zen followed the nonverbal custom of Taoism, since words tended to be changed from labels into notions. Both Zen and Taoism are concerned not with an abstract concept of a thing but with the thing itself.

Remember what Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching had to say about verbalization:

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

Zen doesn’t renounce words altogether. If it did, you wouldn’t be listening to me drone on and on. In today’s world Zen needs to use words to instruct. Still, as D.T. Suzuki put it, verbalism can lead from one complication to another.

So, listen to what I say, but take everything with a pound of salt.

Think of Zen as a house. In order for a house to be livable it has to have a good foundation. The foundation of Zen is zazen. Meditation. We’ve talked about the fundamentals of zazen before, but they’re worth repeating from time to time.

Once a child is taught good manners, the words “Please” and “Thank you” come automatically, and they usually last a lifetime. However, over time even a person who is well grounded in zazen may become lazy about the practice. If that happens, the structure’s foundation may begin to sag.

Zazen shapes the heart of Zen. In fact, Zen Buddhists are generally known as “meditation Buddhists.” But zazen isn’t just sitting quietly. It’s the study of the self.

The study of the self.

As Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened.”

As a welcome change from my blathering about obscure subjects I’d like to echo some practical words on zazen. A rehash of the basics won’t harm any of us, and it may even remind us of some fundamentals we’ve neglected.

Dogen was explicit about meditation when he said if one wishes to attain enlightenment one must practice zazen.


Many Zen masters and teachers claim there’s a best time and best place for zazen. Some suggest that the ideal time is at sunrise or sunset when the body cells change, and that the best location is a silent room that is neither hot nor cold.

Not everyone has the choice of such a site because many people live in military barracks, or communes, or apartments that are so small the mice have round shoulders. Furthermore, not everyone has a timetable that permits them to say “Good morning” or “Good evening” to the sun.

A quiet place for zazen is best, but if you’re really into your practice you’ll be able to meditate on a subway car that’s jammed with people.

As for the best time to do zazen, don’t be too fussy, because any part of the day or night is suitable. As you perfect your practice you’ll learn to not just do zazen but to live zazen.

That is, at any time you’ll be detached from your environment, but you’ll be aware of it.

“Direct experience will come when you are completely one with your activity, when you have no idea of self.” Words by Shunryu Suzuki.