By John Daido Loori
Zazen is a particular kind of meditation, unique to Zen, that functions centrally as the very heart of the practice. In fact, Zen Buddhists are generally known as the “meditation Buddhists.” There are many different ways to study the Buddha Way and to realize oneself. There are groups of Buddhists who primarily use what is called the Vinaya, or moral precepts of the religion, as the focus. There are schools that emphasize academic study. In Zen the emphasis is on Zazen; it’s at the core of the practice. We do get involved in the other aspects of Zen training, but we always return to the heart of the matter — Zazen.
Basically, Zazen is the study of the self. The first stage has the appearance of being what we ordinarily understand as meditation and, as a consequence, we often call it meditation. But it is important to understand that, actually, Zazen is not just meditation. It’s not contemplation, introspection, or the quieting and focusing of the mind. Zazen is sitting Zen. There are also walking Zen, working Zen, laughing Zen, and crying Zen. As Gary Snyder said, “Zen is a way of using your mind, living your life, and doing it with other people.”
The great 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 by the ten thousand things.” To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to recognize the unity of the self and the ten thousand things. Upon his own enlightenment, Buddha was in seated meditation; Zen practice returns to the same seated meditation again and again. For 2500 years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on. It spread from India to China, to Japan, to other parts of Asia, and then finally to the West. It’s a very simple practice. It?s very easy to describe and very easy to follow. But like all other practices, it takes doing in order for it to happen.
Most of us are preoccupied. We’re constantly carrying on an internal dialogue, constantly talking to ourselves. As long as we’re involved in that conversation, we tend to miss the moment-to-moment awareness of our life. We look but we don’t see; we listen but we don?t hear; we eat but we don’t taste; we love but we don’t feel. All of the data is there — the senses are receiving all of the information — but somehow cognition is not taking place. Zazen brings us back into that moment. The moment is where our life takes place. It can be said that if we miss the moment, we miss our lives.
Every other creature on the face of the earth seems to know how to be quiet and still. A butterfly on a leaf, a cat in front of the fireplace, even a hummingbird comes to rest sometime. But humans are constantly on the go. We seem to have lost the ability to be quiet, to simply be present in the stillness that is the foundation of our lives. Yet, if we never get in touch with that stillness, we never fully experience our lives.
When the mind is at rest, the body is at rest. Reaching that still point is not something unusual. It is a part of being alive and staying awake.
In Zazen you practice letting go of your thoughts and internal dialogue by bringing your mind back to the breath which will slowly get easier and deeper. The mind is like the surface of a pond. When the wind blows, the surface is disturbed, rippling any reflected images. When the wind quiets down, the surface is like glass, reflecting, not processing, just reflecting. A still mind is unobstructed — always open and receptive. It doesn’t hold on to anything. At any moment in time it is free.