Shikantaza: Busy, Busy Karmic Consciousness – When Will it Rest?

My friend and teacher, James Ford, has a recent Monkey Mind post (click here), “Assuming the Position: Zazen as a remembrance of things past and Zazen as awakening,” and has awakened me from a summer-time blog slumber.

James begins by reflecting on the purpose of the dharma talk and whether it is “to encourage practice” or “direct pointing to the matter at hand.”

The venerable then goes on to address what has become a common perspective on practice in the Soto school, at least in the US and particularly in the San Francisco Zen flavor (I believe but please educate me via comment if you think I’m wrong), that zazen is the “liturgical reenactment of awakening.”

That’s what James refers to in his title as “zazen as a remembrance of things past.”

I agree with James throughout and think this is an important post that points to the matter at hand in Zen ever so well.

And I have one quibble: for Dogen, the past is present. This is his holochronic view. In Being Time (Uji), for example, Dogen says,

Each moment is all being, is the entire world.

Koun, btw, works this passage in his recent post, Dogen in E-Prime.

But back to the point. For Dogen, past is present and so authentic shikantaza (aka, earnest, vivid sitting) is a reenactment (a practice enlightenment), of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree and all the successive buddhas and ancestors in the past and future.

Yes, for Dogen and for any of us “…when the baskets and cages are broken (Zazenshin).”

That little word “when” is very important and I believe at the heart of James’ concern. Shikantaza as a dogma is a deadly disservice to our heart’s innermost (and original) request – to awaken and live in peace and harmony.

But I wonder if I’ve lost you, reader, in what Stephen in commenting on James’ post calls “… a vague cloud of fanciful fluff.”

Here’s Stephen’s fuller passage: “Most instructions [for shikantaza] 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.’”

Stephen also cites John Tarrant on koan practice that by necessity the instructions are insufficient. Not only is koan work a discovery process but what we discover is falling apart as fast as it is discovered.

The same holds true for shikantaza.

What practical shikantaza instruction can I offer?

The best I can do at the moment is to say that shikantaza is only “…the gate of repose and bliss” when it is the actualization of this phrase – “busy, busy karmic consciousness, when will it rest?”

  • Koun Franz

    Thank you for this–I like the dialogue on the blogosphere this morning. One small thing: I think the “re-” in “re-enactment” obscures the point. “Enactment” is just realization (making something real); “re-enactment,” to my ears, brings to mind bearded fellows in Civil War garb. :-)

    Nine bows,

    • doshoport

      Thanks and good point on “re”-enactment. Kinda like shaved head guys wearing 13th century Chinese court gowns. :-)

      • Jeanne Desy

        or lol at all of us.
        With a bow,

  • Paul

    Perhaps zazen as something other than liturgical re-enactment requires dokusan?

    A guide to keep the question in front of the sitter.

  • Kogen 古 元

    “After 30 years of trying to practice Dogen’s Shikantaza, I realized it doesn’t exist.” Did I read that here? Was that Katagiri Roshi?

    • doshoport

      Could be … but I can’t find it. Katagiri Roshi would have had about 30 years of doing that nonexistent thing when I met him in ’77 … so maybe.

  • Phil Martin

    Your post, along with James’, made me think of all those years practicing shikantaza. I don’t know if I read this, or concocted as a way to understand what koan practice might be about, since I didn’t have the actual experience of working with them to know. But I came to think that koans, (as well as some of the more perplexing parts of Dogen, I might add) were a message from the Absolute, or at leasta teaching from that stance. That that position was the one the monks and teachers in those stories were speaking from. And that practicing with those koans must be a way of “putting on” enlightened mind, as one might a coat, or pants, to feel comfortable in them, until they become part of one’s self-what is known in the colloquial these days as “acting as if.” Or in another metaphor, like a student of poetry or painting writing a poetm or making a painting in the style of a master, so as to understand the creative impulse and manifestation of that particular person.

    So I am wondering if the problem and challenge with my shikantaza practice in that “dead letter” way that James speaks of, was that I sat and expected through some magic for enlightenment to just arise? While I sat, trying to stifle my bubbling mind and still my aching body. What if I’d taken that old understanding of koan study, or apply the slightly more real experience with it now that i’m working with them? If I could deeply engage with the question, “how can this body and mind that I struggle to hold in this posture of enlightenment, really be that body and mind of Buddha?” This very quaking, quivering, rebellious, fearful, blathering body and mind really is Buddha? To sit with that question would be as compelling as working with Mu. And just as difficult, since said body and mind seemed farther from Buddha even than Joshu’s mangy dog.

    It also makes me feel a little more grateful to have been a student for whom sitting was such a challenge. All those years of hating zazen perhaps gave me much more to chew on in my practice than those for whom it seemed pleasant and easy from the start. I never thought I’d find myself saying that, but I’m glad I didn’t quit before I found myself loving it.

    • doshoport

      Me too! Thanks, Phil.

  • Stephen Slottow

    I just found this. This is my five minutes of fame!