Assuming the Position: Zazen as a remembrance of things past and Zazen as awakening

When I was visiting with my old friend the Zen teacher Grace Schireson at the Empty Nest Zendo up in North Fork, California, I ran across a lovely summary for writing dharma talks. It was put together by Grace’s husband, Peter, also a Zen teacher. Both practice within the San Francisco Zen Center Dharma family.

The one thing in what I otherwise found extremely insightful and helpful that bothered me was how Peter stated right up front, “Keep the purpose of a Dharma talk in mind: to encourage practice.” Peter wasn’t present so I asked Grace what this was about. As, from my perspective, encouraging practice isn’t at all the matter at hand. Well, in a secondary sense, sure. But, not the direct pointing.

She replied that this is how that matter at hand is in fact often expressed within her Dharma family. As I thought about it I realized this must arise from Dogen’s great question, if we’re all awakened from the beginning why do we need to practice, and his famous resolution of that burning hot coal in his heart when deeply discovering, encountering as a fundamental moment that practice and awakening are one thing. Actually, not even one thing.

From my perspective the problem here is that many people on the Soto way seem to take this story and that term “practice-enlightenment” in a dead-letter way, where if they practice, whatever they are actually experiencing while on the pillow, they are and that is awakening. A truth, no doubt. But, if one assumes the position and then just rests there like a bump on a log, well, it is selling one’s inheritance for some cold mush. A popular pastime pretty much everywhere, I’ve noticed. Lots of people up to their necks in a river crying out in thirst. So, no particular knock on the “pure” Soto way.


Specifically within Soto a lot of people do seem to have run with this not quite hitting the mark, reducing zazen to a “liturgical reenactment of awakening.” A term with just enough truth attached to it to mislead the unwary, and for some to fritter away a life time.

The hazy moon with a heavy emphasis on hazy.

Rather, I suggest, when he calls us to practice-enlightenment our master Dogen is presenting a koan.

And not a koan in our contemporary popular use of a “thorny question,” but, rather koan as it was being used by serious practitioners in his day and in ours as a direct pointing to the great matter, and an invitation into a most intimate encounter. That encounter is primarily within one’s own being, but also one’s insight needs checking, and so, also, an invitation to meet a guide on the way.

If when sitting down and taking the posture of the Buddha someone raises the question, how is this just sitting awakening, and then lets the question hang there with their posture, with their breathing with their mind wandering or still, well, then something can happen.

In a moment.

In a year.

Something is noticed.

Rather than the mind wandering about or falling into mere quiescence, the energy follows new paths.

All of a sudden the world comes to us, to you, to me.

It presents in silence and in the great dance.

The way is fully presented.

Just this.

Actually, even those words are a heartbeat too much.

But, sometimes, we have to say something.


Just this.

Then the way of the buddha, all of them, is presented.

Real zazen.

Something we can take to the bank.

And out dancing…

A Pause While Preparing for the Soto Zen Buddhist Association Board Meeting
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  • Ellen Ska

    I appreciate this post, James. “… whatever they are actually experiencing while on the pillow, they are and that is awakening. A truth, no doubt. But, if one assumes the position and then just rests there like a bump on a log, well, it is selling one’s inheritance for some cold mush.” I’ve tired of the cold mush.
    Now what? There’s a school that believes the zazen position “does” something magical, but whatever I’m doing has just morphed my Great Doubt into Crippling Doubt. Some Zen folks have suggested that there’s nothing wrong with Zen, and that I just need to have a better attitude (which, no doubt, I do), but which smacks of “Jesus is in your heart whether you feel Him or not, and you may NEVER feel anything special; just continue to pray and have faith. Forever.”
    It becomes a DIY practice, something of a fraud. While all dogs may have Buddha nature, most of us dogs who seek will die without realizing that Buddha nature. As with music, very few will become concert-level musicians; there seems to be an aptitude for awakening that a few people have, but that most of us, sadly, lack.

    • Danny Fal

      it’s the act of seeking awakening that is hindering your awakening.

      it’s like a chinese finger trap. the harder you try the more stuck you are.

      just relax, let go. this is all there is.

  • jamesiford

    I’m living proof, dearest Ellen, that a bad attitude is no hindrance on the great way. It is also my experience that pretty much everyone has had awakening moments regardless of spiritual practices. But noticing or accepting it can be a hard thing. For various reasons. I bet Daniel has a word or two for you on this…

  • Stephen Slottow

    Ellen, what does DIY mean? Do it yourself?

    • Ellen Ska

      Yes, “do it yourself.” (Sounds like you’re not reading enough online craft blogs, Stephen!) What I meant by that was the concern that the practice itself is just “whatever you make it,” if it doesn’t reference enough outside of my own mind to make it worthwhile — in which case, I could get similar effects from the disciplines of art or poetry. But I hoped Zen would have more than just what I brought to it initially.
      James, I hope that “awakening” moments aren’t just pleasant moments at Spring Lake. I was hoping for more of a cessation of suffering, myself …

      • jamesiford

        Stephen pointed out elsewhere how Aitken Roshi notes that these awakening moments are milestones, markers on the way. Shifting the image, the cessation of suffering, as I’ve seen it, comes about not as the extinction of our experiences but as widening the field, where the experiences remain but are part of a much larger fabric.

        • Stephen Slottow

          On the cessation of desire in the practice–in the past few weeks, something has bubbled up repeatedly: a bit of a conversation between Aitken and some students (from The Practice of Perfection, I think). The student has been talking about not wanting to attain anything, and Aitken retorts something like “of course you practice to attain something. Otherwise, why are you here?” I think that he’d gotten tired of too much talk of not desiring anything and not attaining anything, and felt it time to apply a corrective.

          • buddy

            All desire can be seen as just a perversion of bodhicitta, the energy to awaken, so the practice is definitely not to repress desire. If we can unmoor this energy from the particular forms and ideas it manifests as, and then just sit in it, some interesting thins can happen.

            I’ve come to see that the fire which is extinguished in ‘realizing Nirvana’ is not of the self or of desire, but rather the candles we burn in our hearts before the altar of our idols. Every time we turn from our fascination with our expectations, regrets and deliberations, a bit more oxygen is deprived of those flames. Whether they ever go out completely is speculation from my perspective.

          • pennyroyal

            having a little problem here with the word “perversion” here. I’m back in the Christian idea of sin and purity. Help?

          • buddy

            The Google dictionary puts it better than I could: ‘The alteration of something from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended’.

          • pennyroyal

            thanks. I will now attempt to rid myself of most of the centuries old definition and replace it with a mentally sound definition.

          • Gregory Wonderwheel

            Trying to hammer a nail using the claw side of the hammer is a perversion of the function of the hammer. There is no sin involved. Perversion just means “the wrong way.” The 8-Fold Path is a list of 8 “correct” ways of living and so not following these correct ways is following the “wrong” ways. “Turning away from the right course” is the actual definition of perversion. It is not right and wrong in the judgmental sense but in the functional sense of the right way to hold and use a hammer to get the job done. It is pure practicality, not worship of purity.

      • buddy

        Ellen, re: the cessation of suffering: we’re taught that the way to that elusive, blessed state is through the cessation of desire. I find that the most pernicious forms of desire are those attached to the practice itself. When I experience the sorts of doubts and frustrations of which you speak, I find it’s because I’m attached to my expectations of what practice is, rather than just being open to life in the moment and manifesting non-gaining. I find that by habitually noticing when these expectations are present- whether being actively engaged in or showing up as a subliminal tension- and then releasing them, their pull weakens and a certain simple satisfaction arises. Which of course becomes a new object of clinging, and therefore the need for endless practice

        • Jeanne Desy

          Buddy – I’m interested in what you said. Looked up pernicious, a good word, and those desires attached to practice can indeed make one miserable on a retreat. But I’ve found that the most pernicious-harmful-malignant-etc. forms of desire are for something in my life, rather than for something to happen on the cushion. Someone to love me more, my work to be more praised. I mean, most of my life takes place off the cushion.

          • buddy

            I totally struggle more with those desires as well, and esp the disappointment when there’s no attainment. I go to some dark places, but at least it’s very in-my-face. Whereas what i meant by practice desires being more pernicious is that they are often not seen as desires and therefore operate unexamined, resulting in the sort of malaise and frustration Ellen was referring to.

  • Stephen Slottow

    On DIY: I remember that Pat Hawk once commented in a teisho that, considering the central importance of zazen, there is very little discussion or instruction on how to do it. As Aitken says, the teacher gives general instructions and then people go on to develop their own way of doing it–or, I think, don’t. An example of someone who was perhaps too specific was Katsuki Sekida in Zen Training (people have reported that his very explicit method didn’t seem to work for them), although he appears to have been mainly trying to systematize the Rinzai “long-exhalation” style (Shodo Harada Roshi, for instance). Counting and following the breath seems relatively straightforward. Koan practice and shikantaza are a different matter. With the former, some people align the koan with the breath, others don’t; on subsequent koans the advice of the Sanbokyodan is to go over the koan occasionally at the beginning of a round but to spend most of the time working on Mu or shikantaza. Other teachers completely disagree with this advice and advocated simply facing the memorized koan, or focusing on a few words that act as a nub or hua tou. Every time I sit I think I’m doing it wrong. James quotes John Tarrant when he says that of necessity instructions are insufficient. And Tarrant also comments that any approach that one cobbles together tends to fall apart. I’ve noticed this happens especially in sesshin, where one does so MUCH zazen. I’ve also noticed that in koan practice the teacher asks about the koan points but never about what one actually does while perched on the cushion (or walking in kinhin, etc.). When I’ve brought it up in dokusan, it usually seems somehow off topic. Kapleau and Bodhin Kjolhede say never to focus on technique, which is “always from the outside.” But this advice seems insufficient, especially while sitting there with the koan stuck between one’s teeth like a piece of grit and one feels wholly on the surface, imbecilic, and totally ungrounded. I just try to keep returning to the piece of grit anyway.

    Shikantaza seems even worse. Most instructions in print seem liberally sprinkled with what seems like a vague cloud of fanciful fluff–there seems to be very little practical instruction on what to do after “assuming the position.”

    It is true that the experience of zazen will begin to acquire more sureness with regular (not long, but regular) practice, but I wish that it was talked about more, in or out of dokusan.


  • Stephen Slottow

    Addendum: I should emphasize that one can drift into trying out different practices or techniques and then comparing their “effectiveness.” This is, I think, very dangerous, since one is always standing outside, watching and taking notes, as it were. It is tempting to do something like this during the inevitable long dry frustrating periods, especially in sesshin. That is why I think that consultation with the teacher is essential. However, some experienced people will say that they do a little breath counting, then a little Mu practice, then a little shikantaza. I guess it works for them, but if I tried that I’d become completely schizophrenic.

  • Koun Franz

    I read this post this morning while my kids listened to Elmo singing,
    “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose / It’s how you play the game.” Not
    necessarily in conflict with what you’re saying, but to my tired
    morning mind, a pretty clear summary of the Soto stance. :-)

    Nine bows,

  • Myo On Susan Hagler

    I’m ready to dance with joy!

  • buddy

    I believe the reason there’s so little concrete instruction on shikantaza is because there’s very little to do: just sit! I’ve been taught to take my best balanced posture and open to the sensations of breathing, and then to literally just sit there, doing nothing. When the mind contracts around a thought or feeling, we return to the posture (which maybe needs a bit of balancing out) and the breath, and then again to just sitting.

    I have found that sitting in this way, as opposed to other more directed variations I have tried, makes it very clear when I’m hijacking the process with my own agenda. And the energy behind this agenda becomes its own koan that I’m left to sit with as I continue to return to head balanced over ass.

  • Kogen 古 元

    Dear James,

    What if mush is all there is? What if it’s all painted teacakes to feed a hungry stomach?

    Palms together,

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    Hey James, I’m laughing at myself because I can’t find even one nit to pick on this post. Well said. I’m reminded of the old saying: first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. Most people just jump to the conclusion that the first mountain and the last mountain are the same and they conveniently overlook that the difference is in the middle where there is no mountan and this is where the gate of transformation is realized. The dead letter practice is the one that assumes “practice is enlightenment”–as an assertion of a thesis–is all there is and is enough without going through the Dharma Gate of the transfomational awareness of “no practice” and “no enlightenment.”

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    One good toot deserves another.