Saturday, March 10, 2012


Barring bad weather and acts of human frailty, we Zen practitioners meet regularly. To non-Zen observers who might see us sitting on the floor and staring at the wall, we are contemplating, or thinking, or pondering. Some scoffers may even think we are dozing.

Is anyone familiar with the word omphaloskepsis?

It means meditation while gazing at the navel.

As an aside, the phrase “navel-gazing” is often used to refer to self-absorbed pursuits, such as movies about Hollywood, or television shows about television writers.

However, we are not doing that or any of the above. We are Zen practitioners.

To show our colors, maybe we should sport a bumper sticker that proclaims “We are Zen practitioners.”

Not that anyone else cares.

That word practitioner is common enough usage. A practitioner is someone who performs or carries out a particular activity.

A trained seal performs by balancing a ball on its nose. To carry out is to empty the cat litter box.

The practice of meditation is neither activity.

Still, the word practice makes me think twice, and thinking too much goes against the grain of meditation. Of course there are other words for practitioner, such as devotee, fanatic, zealot, freak. But now I’m splitting hairs, which also rubs the wrong way against the concept of meditation.

And now I’m rambling, which seems to be characteristic of Zen teachers.

To describe meditation Zen Master Dogen employed the image of moonlight reflected in a dewdrop.

That is a lyrical metaphor. It suggests that in the way a dewdrop can reflect the entire moon, the realization of truth can be experienced by a human being in meditation.

We all know about meditation. Most of us have been doing it for years. We have been sitting silently emptying our minds of all thoughts, not focusing on any one thing yet being totally receptive to everything.

This is not a practice or an activity; it is a doing. We call this doing zazen, and have made it not merely a Monday night entertainment but an essential part of our lives.

Zazen is living fully.

As Dogen says (Moon in a Dewdrop, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi), zazen is not merely a method by which one reaches awakening; it is itself awakening.

Shakyamuni Buddha set the precedent for the experience known as enlightenment, or awakening. Of course, when I say the Buddha set the precedent, I don’t mean that one day he said, “Well, folks, today I will establish the model for awakening,” and he folded his legs and thought, Here we go with step one.

In Zen this experience is considered not a personal progression. It’s not a program leading from step one to step two, and so on until there is a blinding flash, and a person shouts, “Lordy, I see the light!”

Awakening may be instant or it may be gradual. Historically, judgment has been divided on this, and the idea still has its own camps. So don’t paint yourself in a corner expecting one or the other. Ignore the old song, It’s Gotta be this or That.”

One way or the other doesn’t matter.

What does matter is awakening is a total experience.

Zazen itself is awakening.

Remember the story of the Buddha denying he was a magician, or a saint, or a god.

When he was nagged for an answer, he said “None of the above. I am awakened.”

A person who experiences awakening—whether it’s sudden or whether it’s gradual—is known as a buddha. A buddha with a small letter b.

You don’t have to remember that bit of trivia.

As Dogen pointed out, the awakening experience is comparable to the full moon illuminating the entire universe.

Dogen composed a verse titled “On Zen Practice,” which appears in the book Moon in a Dewdrop:

“The moon abiding in the midst of serene mind;
billows break into light.”

That is to say, each drop of water is individual yet is part of every other drop.

And each drop is an image of the reflected moon. Here is the same as there. All is one.

Moments are timeless.

When a person is awakened, that person no longer lives one minute after another but fully in each instant.