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.


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