What’s the “Just” in Just Sitting All About?

Before the noon meal during sesshin the Katagiri Roshi way, we rise from zazen, offer incense, do three prostrations, and chant the “Self Enjoyment Samadhi” section of Dogen’s Negotiating the Way (Bendowa).

It includes the lines (a quote, really, unattributed here to Dogen’s teacher, Rujing), “From the start of your consultation with a wise teacher, have no recourse whatsoever to burning incense, prostrations, buddha-mindfulness, repentances, or sutra reading. Just sit and attain the sloughing off of mind and body.”

One common interpretation of this passage is that zazen-only is the one true way, and is the expression of pure and original Zen, while other practices are cultural baggage, secretions of other schools, and not something we Westerns really need to do. This is a common view in so-called Western Zen.

When I was young, I wrestled with this passage and the behavior surrounding it, sometimes delighting in the irony of offering incense, bowing, reading a sutra and then chanting that there is no need for these practices, then bowing again three times at the end of the recitation for good measure.

Other times, I confess, it was just annoying. Back then I was a zazen-only guy, or so I thought, and so resonated with Antaiji-style Zen that threw out everything but zazen (as I understood at the time).

Now I see it differently and so was delighted to read T. Griffith Foulk’s essay, “‘Just Sitting?’ Dogen’s Take on Zazen, Sutra Reading, and other Conventional Buddhist Practices,” in Dogen: Textual and Historical Studies, edited by Steve Heine. I beat up on the good professor in a post in the fall, Satisfying Hunger with Koan: A Critical Review of Foulk’s Scholarly Perspective, but I’m not a hater, generally speaking, so here’s lavish praise for the eminent scholar.

Foulk has written other pieces about this key Dogenophile passage and now takes it to a new level of thoroughgoingness. He first works through each practice that Dogen seems to be saying isn’t necessary, offering incense, bowing, etc., and cites passages where Dogen gives specific instructions for that very practice, “…explicitly and enthusiastically promot[ing]…” these practices.

“Those practices,” writes Foulk, “were not mere fomalities for Dogen, but heartfelt expressions of his Buddhist faith.”

Foulk concludes this section with this: “The vision of ‘pure,’ ‘original’ Zen that informs this view (that Dogen was a zazen-only guy), is largely wishful thinking on the part of academic apologists for the Zen schools of modern Japan. The projection of that ideal onto the figure of Dogen is scarcely defensible….”

And like I said above, not only the Japanese scholars have this view. There are plenty of practitioners and teachers who also embrace it because it so nicely aligns with the culturally-conditioned, self-serving dream that makes Western Zen something like a box of chocolates and we get to pick the ones we like and leave the rest. The dark chocolate fudgies for me, please, and I’ll leave the nasty milk-chocolate caramels for someone else.

That’s all well and good when it comes to chocolate selections but when we extend this picking-and-choosing mind to everything, particularly those things we can’t really choose – like life and death – our practice  becomes just another expression of our disease and dis-ease.

Preemptive comment: yes, prissy-assed offering incense, bowing, etc., might also be culturally-conditioned, self-serving dreamin’. Rejecting offering incense, bowing, etc., is wrong. Accepting offering incense, bowing, etc., is also wrong. Here’s the sweet old corner where we cannot move an inch.

What is right?

Foulk’s second movement in “‘Just Sitting’? Dogen’s Take on Zazen, Sutra Reading, and other Conventional Buddhist Practices,” involves his careful examination of the seven other times in his extant writings, from Hokyoki to Eihikoroku, where Dogen quotes Rujing’s admonition to “…just sitting and attain the sloughing off of mind and body.”

In Eiheikoroku, Vol. 9.85, Dogen goes so far as to elevate this saying of Rujing to a koan, including it with the classical koans, one of the three involving Rujing that Dogen includes in his 90-case koan commentary that is included in Eiheikoroku.

This phrase about sloughing or dropping body and mind, of course (for you old Dogen hands that is), refers to Dogen’s enlightenment experience.

And, by the way, a while back I mentioned that Shohaku Okumura argues in his Genjokoan book (see Was Dogen Enlightened? And an Important New Book on Genjokoan for more about that) that Dogen’s enlightenment story may have been made up by Keizan because Dogen himself doesn’t tell the story. But according to Foulk, Dogen “…relates [it] in his colophon to the Discourse Record of Chan Master Rujing…” so I can breath a sigh of relief that my self-serving dream about Dogen’s enlightenment story is real after all. Phew!

Nevertheless, what is Dogen advocating in this passage? Fortunately, not just one thing. Dogen is a wonderful example of having a “thick” view of things. There are different nuances to each of the seven times he raises the quote. Sometimes it seems to be an admonition not to “use” anything, including zazen, but to authentically practice each thing wholly (see Koun’s “Authentic Practice” for more on this view).

Sometimes he seems to be saying that until a practitioner has sloughed off, the other practices will be counterproductive and so shouldn’t be done – using zazen as a means to an end in this case, horror of horrors! Dogen’s view also seems to shift from seeing sloughing off as a samadhi state of trance to realization or insight.

Like any real person, it is hard to pin the old boy down. This kind of careful study – Foulk’s that is – is great medicine for our proclivity toward fundamentalism, fetishism, and/or the tendancy to over-simplify so as to make the teachings into our own image.

So thanks! Professor Foulk for an excellent piece of Dogen scholarship.

  • Dave Laser

    At first I read ‘Self Employment Samadhi’, then I caught the mistake, then I thought well, this works pretty good when it comes to offering incense.

    • doshoport

      Thanks! I like “self employment!” Reminds me of a time that the chant leader was supposed to sing “Nothing surpasses the boundless mind” but instead sang “Nothing surpasses the moundless bind….” Yes, that works too.


  • Steve Har

    If you couldn’t use the word “faith” what word would you use?
    F is already incompressible in the Christian context
    What in the world to say in the B context?
    Being on a shure-footed path?
    A fish swimming, a bird singing, a flower falling, a un-pruned weed?
    Who has F and…& then… no F and so…

    • doshoport


      “Incompressible?” You are inimitable!

      Faith is trust, belief, confidence – saddha in Pali, and used frequently by the Buddha. Not a private mental experience but something we do. If we don’t do, that’s not faith.


  • Koun

    Thank you for this post, Dosho. I, like so, so many others (in the West, yes, but also here in Japan), once clung to this one passage as justification for what I saw as no-frills, “serious” Zen. I wanted it to be true, somehow, that the remaining 99.99 percent of what Dogen wrote was beside the point. I have a lot of respect for the sincerity behind much of the “zazen-only” school, especially when its advocates really practice what they preach–it’s no small thing for people to dedicate themselves so singularly to sitting. But there is a beauty and a joy and an immediacy to the practice–and more than that perhaps, a scope, a scale–that is sacrificed in that singular, exclusive focus. To just sit (in the sense of sitting as pure activity, not in the sense of sitting to the exclusion of other practices) is demanding and difficult, but without other frictive elements (perhaps here you would advocate koan practice), it seems next-to-inevitable that we will become trapped in our own story of what we’re doing. The rest of the practice Dogen lays out (from bowing to washing our face in the morning) doesn’t have to just be an extension of zazen–it can inform and deepen zazen, showing us what it really means to “just” do this or that.

    Even for those who put a lot of stock in enlightenment experiences or “openings,” it’s good to remember that very few people in the various stories had those experiences during zazen–Dogen’s story is a rare exception. When we imagine that bowing is removed from the center, we guarantee that we will never find the center in the act of bowing. And what a loss.

    • doshoport

      Hi Koun,

      Thanks for this. Again I share your views. Interesting that Dogen and Keizan are among the few who report kensho experiences while sitting – although Dogen had that crazy old guy yelling behind him so that flavors it a bit!


  • Harry

    “Dogen said this” and “Dogen said that”… Dogen was a guy who was immersed in a very different social and cultural reality many, many years ago.

    Not saying that he’s ‘wrong’, particularly in relation to points made ‘picking and chosing’ mentality, and bearing his context in mind and all, that is (i.e. he was pretty much a lifelong monastic, who probably would have seen all of our whacky, spurious approaches to Zen …especially mine… as highly degenerate).

    Honestly, give Dogen’s tired old zombie bones a rest and tell us what you think; and a well reasoned, practical proposal of same would be welcomed. Dogen was not the be-all-and-end-all of Zen. There were many other teachers and practitioners, and a lot of his blisteringly authentic sinocentric forms were quite quickly dropped like hot rocks so as to conform to native Japanese sensibilities, unless I’m mistaken.

    Seems to me that ‘thick views’ aren’t borrowed or textually constructed, but may be the stuff of putting on the gum boots and mucking into the big, thick world of relatives and devilish details with all its unsatisfyingly human inconsistencies. Actually, the world of gross human inconsistency might be the best place to practice it.

    It seems unavoidable that we will ‘make the teachings in our own image’, but I don’t see that as any sort of barrier. I think Dogen acknowledged this actually (his ‘moon in a dewdrop vision’ springs to mind… which, TO ME, in latter day terms can be seen as a sort of very broad and inclusive phenomenological/ humanistic position), in fact, he seemed to celebrate it in places… but then, being a lazy layman who lives at home, eats meat, loves a woman and children, and isn’t interested in being some sort of pseudo Japanese or Chinese person/monk, I would say that!



    • doshoport


      I’m not suggesting that even though Dogen said this and that that we should listen to him or not. He’s just the nemesis I like to wrestle with. And yes I agree that we inevitably make the teachings in our own image. My hope is that our image be as fully informed as possible.



  • Harry


    Dogen Zenji hadn’t much good to say about his native Japan (in fact he makes some very barbed comments about the national charater and the Japanese people). In the interests of a ‘thick view’ (I’m liking that term!) maybe we should consider him as a sort of Chinese spiritual colonialist.



  • Bud Fritz

    I’m beginning to find this designation of Western Zen as inherently decadent and dillentantist quite tiresome. We must remember that Zen in Japan
    in the first half of the last century was in decline, and pioneers such as Suzuki, Soen, Sasaki et al, resigned to marrying and burying as temple priests, were quite pleasantly surprised to find zealous practioners to work with. I would go so far as to say that Zen benefitted as much from contact with the West as the reverse: it was ripe time for its patriarchal, feudalist and superstitious elements to be challenged by feminism, science, democracy, psychology, and socialism. Using the last point as an example, DT Suzuki was able to transcend his culture’s narrow, punitive view of poverty and oppression as being the result of personal karma through his encounter with socialist thought. ‘When we look for reasons for the plight of the impoverished in today’s society, we see that their poverty is due not so much to any fault of their own as to the defects of the social system and the maldistribution of wealth….’

    As for picking and choosing, I’m all for it! 100%. Every generation of practictioners has done it, from Guatama himself. (Does anyone still actually believe that any of the sutras or discourses of the Buddha as we have them were actually given by him, and not through decades and centuries of (often self-servingly sectarian) editing?) Of course there will be self-serving and delusional aspects to this buffet approach, but they will not stand the test of time for either the individual nor the culture that indulges them.

    • doshoport

      Hi Bud,

      Well, good points. I don’t mean to put Japanese Zen on a pedestal. Each cultural expression has strengths and weaknesses and you’ve identified a few of the Japanese. As a Western guy, I’m prissy and fussy about what we’re doing here … and not doing and why.

      I agree that there is much that the global culture can add to the actualization of Zen. So let’s get to it.


  • http://www.gregscottwrites.com Greg

    First off, I’m an avid reader and thanks for all the posts! I practice zazen by myself at home and I have a serious aversion to anything religiousy – I grew up in the ‘heartland’ of the US and things like robes, rituals, incense, and anything mysterious and/or supernatural gives me the willies.

    Can you explain or maybe direct me to an article or something about the religious aspects of Zen? What I mean is that according to the essay and your review, doing zazen only is inauthentic practice. We need the bowing, prostrating, etc. But I’m having trouble reconciling it all with my religious-phobic (and also deeply skeptical) way of thinking. Why is all of that needed?

    • doshoport

      Hi Greg,

      Maybe others could offer a good book on the subject too – my favorite is Paula Aria’s “Women Living Zen.” Also, Koun’s posts on this blog do a really nice job of expressing the importance of practices off the cushion, including the traditional set.

      As a Northern Minnesota swamp rat, all the bowing and swooping were also a shock to me and am still pretty suspicious of religious organizations.

      I’ll be leading a sesshin this weekend on the theme of Reviewing and Renewing Buddhism, inspired by a talk of Katagiri Roshi’s on the theme. In it he says,

      “From now on, we have to begin to study Buddhism very deeply, understanding human beings, human world, instead of dealing with mystical religious stuff. By researching very deeply human life, human being then Buddhism becomes great thing and we can display it in the universal market, not small religious market. Then let the people make a choice of Buddhism by individual human being. That is very important.”

      Imv, that’s spot on. So please do your research on your cushion and in your life, and let the tenderizer of zazen work through you. If you let it do it’s work, then when given the opportunity to bow, you can bow. No problem.



  • Harry

    “He’s just the nemesis I like to wrestle with.”

    Hee hee, I never had you down as the ‘Antidogen’ himself, but they do say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch.

    Regards (in peace and/or war),


    • doshoport

      I’ve been called worse things!

  • Jack Cram

    Hi Dosho,

    Surely, when Dogen says “have no recourse whatsoever to burning incense, prostrations, buddha-mindfulness, repentances, or sutra reading” he is offering us the antidote to the sickness of attachment to forms and rituals, the classic Mahayana negation of all arisen elements. The danger of this is attachment to the antidote, which results in throwing overboard anything but zazen and sometimes even that too is discarded (i.e. Alan Watts). Those who would discard all forms and rituals are missing the third part of the Mahayana dialectic which goes something like: First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain and finally there is a mountain.

    From Nagarjuna: Buddhas say emptiness is relinquishing opinions. Believers in emptiness are incurable.

    Jack Cram

    • doshoport


      Good to hear from you and very nicely put. That is one view … and Dogen shifts around in various ways, perhaps including this one … although I don’t remember seeing anything from Dogen where he sees the practice mandala such that it would need an antidote.

      Nevertheless, the caution is certainly appropriate for us today when the forms of Zen become fetishized and magical.

      Thanks (and for the reference below – haven’t seen this one),


  • Jack Cram

    Hi Dosho,

    For discussion of form and ritual in Soto Zen I recommend Taigen Dan Leighton’s new book “Zen Questions” especially the chapter Zazen as enactment ritual.

    Jack Cram

  • http://what-is-zen.blogspot.com/ David Musgrove

    ‘Picking-and-choosing’ what is relevant to one’s spiritual practice is what keeps great teachings and traditions relevant. Universal truths are shared by differing societies this way. This is at the heart of most mystics’ and spiritual teachers’ practice.

    Be well,.

  • Oreb

    Though I’ve always felt very attracted to Soto zen in general, and the Shobogenzo in particular, there is something problematic with the slight attachment to the forms that seems to creep in, and the way that ties the tradition to the japanese feodal past. Growing up a catholic I have no problem relating to liturgy, and the zen spin on forms, zazen and … that other thing is obvious. But what if zen had passed through Germany, Soto supporting the party during the war and american zen teachers running around calling themselves Wolfgang and Herman? Someone told me Ama-Samy had commented that bonsai trees can be beautiful, but seeing the same thing done with people not so much. Sounding anti-japanese which is not the point either, so much of what I love comes from out of that culture. I don’t know how to express these things in a good way.
    And “just” is as much a story to meet, embrace and leave as anything else. I like Seung Sahn’s admonishion not to be attached to sitting … or anything else. Drop it.

  • donryu

    As an ancestor put it, “You should have been beaten when you first thought of practicing Buddhism.” ;~) I was recently listening to my old teacher, Maezumi Roshi talking on the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, the True Heart of Nirvana, U-Ji. After a while, he mentioned a monk who uttered this jakugo/capping phrase on the Shobogenzo Nehan Myo Shin: *What is this?* *Kore nan zo*

    Tenkei Denson calls it “the grip that is not transmitted by Buddhas or Zen masters.” Practice is realization only if it is your practice, your realization.
    Please continue.

  • gary robertson

    Maybe just sitting and not chanting, bowing etc. is about getting what is a hindrence out of the way, and seeing what is most important. Maybe one starts to think all the etc. becomes what one needs. Then it becomes a hindrence and takes over as the practice. Someone a long time ago said lets bow, lets chant these words etc. and this will help. Maybe they help, or maybe not. How do you know Dosho? How can anyone know.

  • gary robertson

    Didn’t Shohaku Okumura’s teacher have him just sit without all the toys? Which teacher knows?