Everything is Broken: What is Shikantaza?

My recent post, Satisfying Hunger with Koan: A Critical Review of Foulk’s Scholarly Perspective, got some discussion over at the Zen Forum International, especially about koan and shikantaza, a topic that’s been much discussed in those parts of cyberspace.

And here too, for some good reasons. Shikantaza, the actualization of the matter at hand, is a practice that is rather hard to pin down or to be done with.

Maezumi Roshi, in his commentary to Dogen’s “Universal Recommendations for Zazen,” notes that most translations don’t include a vital preface-like phrase, which he translates, “After searching exhaustively…” that Dogen offers before jumping into the whole thing about the Way being perfect and all pervading.

Now Maezumi Roshi and Katagiri Roshi didn’t agree on much but on this point they did. Katagiri Roshi often said that not many people (“Quite few,” he would say) really understood or practiced shikantaza, including those who had searched exhaustively. “There is no guarantee,” he’d say.

I suspect neither Maezumi nor Katagiri would include the other in their short-list of those who actualized shikantaza but they’d probably also agree that shikantaza is not what the plurality of views on a forum think that it is. I suspect that shikantaza is best discovered in shikantaza while practicing closely with a teacher of shikantaza.

A related issue is the relationship between koan and shikantaza. I notice what looks to me like defensiveness by some on this point. Why else go on and on about wholeness and how in shikantaza nothing is missing or lacking?

If nothing is missing or lacking, then koan would be included too, no? And how about our dear friends Missing and Lacking? While dogmatic shikantaza excludes them, true shikantaza expresses them as well.

Shikantaza is not a dogma of wholeness or some simple formula based on original enlightenment, so don’t believe that’s all there is to it – if you want to realize it yourself – no matter what ribbons and bows the person asserting such views has pinned to their uniform. If you’ve got a good bull shit detector you won’t settle for such views but will simply continue your search.

Blue Cliff Record, Case 91, makes an important point here:

One day, Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “It is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, bring back the rhinoceros.” The attendant did not answer.

Yanguan invites his attendant to bring him the rhino fan, the practice of vivid, ungraspable true nature. The attendant has searched exhaustively so doesn’t offer up some trivial Zen doctrine that doesn’t have the power or tenderness to satisfy hunger.

“It is broken.”

If the practice is broken, says Yanguan, then bring me the real McCoy!

The attendant and his practice are so broken that he shows it by simply standing upright in full vulnerable brokenness. Beautiful.

This is a powerful presentation of shikantaza, an expression of searching exhaustively until shikantaza and/or koan are broken through and through. When you reach this point, you might be just about ready to quit Zen, not knowing how close you are.

And so Dogen (Extensive Record #229) invents an epithet that sings the praises of the broken Buddha, “Broken Wooden Ladle Tathagatha” – the artifice of one who comes and goes thus is broken. Can’t even deliver a scoop of water.

Brokenness and Wholeness play well together.


Dogen and Koan: The Ultimate Truly Definitive Unquestionable Smoking Gun
What is the Withered Tree Way?
New Katagiri Archive: One Who Sees the Dharma Sees Me
Shikantaza: Busy, Busy Karmic Consciousness - When Will it Rest?
  • Harry

    Great post, Dosho. If you find me quoting you, please slap me!

    What I’m poking around lately is how all these ‘Great Theories of Buddhism and Everything’ that I lovingly construct are perpetuated by my own fear. Actually, I’m looking at fear as the foundation of many of my personality traits and actions.

    I find Zen Forum International unbearable. A fearful place. It may be beacause I am not strong enough in my practice to resist the temptation to jump in and be another Buddhist With Attitude, to wallow in avoiding my fear of not owning something that resembles my idea of an enduring self. I think a better practitioner, a more stable practitioner, might actually have something useful to contribute there though.



  • Mike Haitch

    I sometimes wonder if Zen is the art of talking about how to live some theoretical life rather than living some actual ‘imperfect’ life.

    This weekend I was happy that I could do simple things. One was to meet a friend where they were. Another was to meet myself where I was. Wherever that is I was at least able to find the energy today to enjoy the sunshine and the changing leaves and the sensation of being alive. Sometimes if you can enjoy being alive nothing else matters. Sometimes if you cannot enjoy that then nothing else matters.

    A koan springs to mind:

    “Have you been here before?”
    “Have some tea”

  • Gregg Winston

    Life as one mistake piled on top of another, includes formal zazen practice as well. Makes no difference whether it is shikantaza or koan practice, followed by washing dishes or emptying the cat box. Mistake, after mistake, after mistake. How lovely.



  • Desiree

    If everything is broken, how is the actualizing the matter at hand, not a job of fixing?

    • Desiree

      Maybe that’s a redundant question…

  • doshoport

    Hi Desiree,

    What’s to fix?



  • Desiree

    Hopefully not everything. But, certainly not nothing.

    Is the ungraspable always broken? Coming and going, one can’t hold on. Lips still sip water without a broken ladle. Droplets still cling to the wood, not knowing the whole has surpassed its original function.

    If everything is broken, it seems there is no real deal. Unless, the something broken is the some thing nothing can fix. But, then there’s no doing it that.

    Hunger unfed, but feeling full. Tears felt but not cried. Can everything be so crimson?

    Whats to fix? Whats to change? What’s the difference?
    Still questioning.



  • ronsem

    Thanks for the very interesting post, Dosho. ZFI is a bit like going to Bizarro World at times.

  • Bob Dahl

    Dosho, the picture reminds me of the top of the peak in Temperance River State Park.

  • Bob Dahl

    Just read David Darling’s ‘Zen Physics: The Logic Of Reincarnation’
    Well worth a read; I wonder, if we did not fear death, whether some of these mind problems of ours would vanish.

  • Khru

    Nothing is broken.

    Nothing is not broken.

  • http://www.zenforuminternational.org/viewtopic.php?f=64&t=7572 Carol

    Hi Dosho & All — I wanted to let you know that a really good conversation got going over at ZFI taking off on Griffen Faulk’s talk about Dogen & koans — here:
    it’s titled Koans are not about Santa Claus.

  • Faoshu

    How do you get from a rhinoceros fan to “the practice of vivid, ungraspable true nature”? I don’t see the connection.

    • doshoport

      No connection. Not by a long shot.