It begins: "The Zen practice of just sitting, says Lewis Richmond, doesn’t help us to reach our destination. It allows us to stop having one. But how do you “go” nowhere?"
Oh, this article hits the mark beyond 99% of the descriptions out there that purport to be "Shikantaza." Lovely. I would just drop in my own usual Jundo bit:The practice of “just-awareness” is the essence of Zen meditation. The Japanese word for this, shikantaza, is usually translated as “just sitting,” but Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen, specifically taught that zazen is “beyond sitting or lying down.” Shikantaza is more than the mere physical posture of sitting, although it certainly includes that. Fundamentally it is the practice of just being here, being present—except that we are not rocks or stones, but aware beings—so I think “just-awareness” more fully captures the essence of the term. But awareness of what? That is the first question.
Most people new to zazen think that it’s a skill that can be learned, like tai chi. We come to zazen instruction and are told to sit a certain way, hold the hands just so, keep the eyes open, and pay attention to the breath. It seems rather easy; we look forward to becoming more accomplished in it. But Dogen admonishes us, “Zazen is not learning to do concentration.” He seems to be implying that our ambitions to improve are not quite on the mark.
We can be forgiven for thinking that if we do the same thing over and over, we will improve. But is “just being here” a skill to be learned? Do we ever get better at that? I don’t think so. From the first moment of life to the last, we’re always just here.
It’s not some kind of yogic concentration practice, such as Gautama Buddha himself practiced early in his spiritual career. When he was young, Gautama went around to various yoga teachers and learned how to develop trance states and psychic powers. He became very accomplished at these; he “improved.” But in the end he felt that all these practices missed the fundamental point. No matter how good we get at something, eventually we grow old, become sick and die; all our powers come to naught. Gautama’s conclusion was that all of these concentration practices really didn’t work, because in the end they’re just states of consciousness to go into and come out of; they don’t really address the ground of being or the cause of human suffering.
“Emptying the mind and dwelling in emptiness is not Zen.” So stopping one’s thinking is not the goal, though many meditators may think that.
Once someone asked my teacher Suzuki-Roshi, “What do I do about all my thinking in zazen?”
“What’s wrong with thinking?” Suzuki replied.
Dogen’s own instruction on this point is the famous injunction, “Think not-thinking.” Probably most people who hear that think it means we’re not supposed to think, that thoughts are somehow a hindrance, and that the goal is a completely thought-free mind. But Dogen doesn’t say, “Don’t think.” He says, “Think”; he uses a verb. We’re being asked to think something, to make some kind of effort. But think what? How do we think not-thinking?
Suzuki-Roshi used a beautiful phrase in explaining this point; he said that “think not-thinking” was “real thinking.” This is an awareness that tracks exactly what’s going on. So when you watch a plum blossom, he would say, you exactly track the flowering of the blossom—no more, no less. That isn’t like our usual thinking. Usually we’re thinking about some big problem in our life, or what we did yesterday, or are going to do tomorrow.
Dogen So means that we’re not trying to stop our thinking, but we’re also not paying particular attention to it or trying to do anything with it. Instead there’s a kind of deep acceptance or tolerance about everything. Thus we come to rest not in the track of our thinking, but in that which thinks. But who or what is that? We are back to some deep ineffable question at the root of our existence, our just-awareness. This means that in the midst of our childlike ease and joy, there is also some unusual and subtle effort—an inquiry that is beyond ratiocination or cogitation.
Without that effort—that deep questioning that drove Gautama to leave the comfort of his princely position and wander the world as a homeless monk—zazen can quickly devolve into a boring, enervated plopping down on a cushion. One Japanese Zen teacher liked to call this kind of too-passive sitting “shikan-nothing.” Shikan-nothing isn’t quite it either.
So what is “it”?
The best, and most sincere, answer is that we actually cannot say. There is something inexplicable about it—not because it is secret, but because our human condition itself is inexplicable. And that’s all right. All of us naturally want a spiritual practice we can understand or conceive of, and most of conventional religious practice is like that—prayer, ritual, chanting, visualization and so on. These are all practices that can be conceived of and understood. Zazen is a different sort of practice—mysterious and yet as simple and familiar as our own hand.
"Just Sit as the one action to do, that needs to be done or which ever could be done, the one place to be or where one could ever be, in the whole of time and space during that moment of sitting."
Nine Bows to Richmond Roshi.