What is Earnest Vivid Sitting, How it’s Often Missed in American Zen, and Why it Matters


Big life event – retired in early June from a thirty-some year education career (except for a few stints of full time Zen, I’d been at it since I was 22) and headed here to Portland, ME, to start a Zen training center, Great Tides Zen (oh, and please sign up for our newsletter updates in the bottom right sidebar).

Our apartment wasn’t going to be available until July 1, so we drove from Minnesota to Maine at a leisurely pace. I took the opportunity to listen to a half dozen or so dharma podcasts by as many teachers.

It’s really quite wonderful how available the dharma is these days and I enjoyed much of what I heard. There is a similar flavor to a lot of it, a distinctive and emergent American Zen, characterized by a fuzzy emotional tenderness. Quite lovely. If that’s what you’re looking for.

I chose podcasts that were about one of my long-time favorite subjects for inquiry – what is shikantaza? Shikantaza is also known as “earnest vivid sitting” and is misknown, I argue, as “just sitting.”

“Just sitting” has come to suggest a fuzzy, spacing-out, lulling vacancy that is not the way.

I began this inquiry in 1984 with all the energy of a youngster when Katagiri Roshi gave a series of talks extending over several years on Dogen’s Zazenshin or The Healing Point of Zazen, as I render it now. Of all of Dogen’s writings, it is this fascicle that most thoroughly unpacks the nature of what he elsewhere refers to as the wondrous (or mysterious) method of buddhas and ancestors – shikantaza.

Zazenshin is sometimes translated as The Lancet of  Zazen which is okay. The “shin” in Zazenshin is also the character used for the acupuncture needle – thus, “healing point.” But perhaps “dynamic balance point” would also work.

In any case, I’ve been at this inquiry for 30 years, doing zazen, studying, traveling to do sesshin, monastic practice, koan introspection, etc., all in the service of this inquiry.

In Dogen’s dharma milieu, the two most common expressions for practice had been Silent Illumination and Key-Word Koan Introspection. Dogen coined the term shikantaza specifically for the essential method of buddhas and ancestors, going beyond these expressions. One important point here is that Dogen didn’t see himself making up a new practice, simply finding a new and more accurate expression for what all buddhas and ancestors have always  practiced.

Dogen, a successor in the Soto line associated with the Silent Illumination expression, doesn’t use the phrase a single time in all his voluminous writings. That’d be like a successor in Suzuki San Francisco Zen not saying “beginner’s mind” ever in 2000 pages of dharma talks. Clearly, there must be some meaning.

In my view, a key point of Dogen’s Zen is to present a clear and lively integration of the Silent Illumination and Koan Introspection branches of the buddhadharma. He does this in part with the single word shikantaza.

Listening to the above-mentioned dharma talks, I noticed that what is called shikantaza in contemporary discourse bares little resemblance to Dogen’s shikantaza. It has become a catch-all term that includes things like bare attention, receptive awareness, panoramic awareness, mindfulness of mind, following the breath, and themeless meditation.

Another view has it that shikantaza is a mindfulness of body practice and regards the pose itself as sacred and drifts into cargo-cult (as John Tarrant has said) or fetish attitudes about it.

I’ve come to look at the difference this way – there is meditation practice in contemporary American Zen that is called shikantaza. Then there is the shikantaza that Dogen points to. They really don’t have much relationship.

I suspect that the Rev. Big-Mac Wrappers who go on about shikantaza as a method for vacant lulling, approach it as a belief system.

Why does it matter?

It matters because what we’re talking about here is the essence of practicing enlightenment and the above listed techniques are mostly forms of congealing in tranquility.

So what is shikantaza?

Dogen says repeatedly that “…it is the realization of the kôan.”

He goes on, “The ‘healing point’ in the Healing Point of Zazen is ‘the manifestation of the great function’, ‘the comportment beyond sight and sound;’ it is ‘the juncture before your parents were born.’ It is ‘you had better not slander the buddhas and ancestors;’ ‘you do not avoid destroying your body and losing your life;’ it is ‘a head of three feet and neck of two inches.’”

Yes, the old dog kindly and uncompromisingly gives us a nod toward the many faces of shikantaza as the presentation of the koan.

In our post-Hakuin world, I’d add this – shikantaza is the sound of one hand.

What can you do to begin the inquiry? I’d say that for most people, it might be necessary to do koan introspection (with someone who is clear and insists on clarity and doesn’t wantonly pass students through the system) to discover shikantaza.

Short of that (or in conjunction with that), “sit down, shut up, and pay attention” (as James Ford summarizes the path), is very sound advise.

So here in Portland, ME, we’ll soon begin again the work of this ongoing inquiry.

On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
Top Ten Issues for Zen Today
The Deeply Settled Heart: Home-based Practice Period Invitation
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
  • Robert Schenck

    “It’s really quite wonderful how available the dharma is these days and I enjoyed much of what I heard. There is a similar flavor to a lot of it, a distinctive and emergent American Zen, characterized by a fuzzy emotional tenderness. Quite lovely. If that’s what you’re looking for.” I see a lot of this kind of thing online, Dosho, from Zen teachers and Zen practitioners, little putdowns, I guess I’d call them, damning by faint praise, claims of attainment, stated or implied, which inspire rebuttals and counter claims, descriptions and assessments of mental states, criticism of said descriptions and assessments, appeals to authority, Suzuki, Dogen, Buddha, etc., criticism of said appeals (out of context, poor translation, misinterpretation, etc.), the usual broad dismissals of any and all efforts to use language to describe or explain, and so on. I don’t know what to make of all this. To some degree I am guilty of it myself, as in this very comment, for instance. Certainly there is no dearth of individuals stating, implying, or insinuating that they’ve “got it,” have awakened, have realized, have “seen,” have been transformed, saved, reborn, received grace, are happy, are at peace, or know truth, and want only to help others “get” what they have “got” (though strictly speaking of course in Zen there is no getting and no got); no dearth of personal testimony, you know, “testifyin’”—what one of my Christian students once defined as “being okay even when the world is not okay.” Today to me it seems pretty clear that the world is not okay—the endless horror in Islamic regions, famine, starvation, and hunger among the world’s poor, violent crime and governmental corruption, degradation of the planet—and equally clear that millions of people (Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Socratics, Atheists, etc.) think they are “okay even when” and even though…. Sitting and walking in single-point meditation seem to do little harm, so I keep sitting and walking—that’s pretty much it. Nothing particularly fuzzy, emotional, tender, or lovely about it. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts.

  • Mark Foote

    Here’s Kobun’s explanation of the Japanese:

    ‘Shikan taza sounds very strong. Shikan is understood as identical to zaza. Shikan means “pure”, “one”, “only for it”. Ta is a very strong word. It shows moving activity. When you hit, that movement is called ta, so “strike” is ta. Za is the same as in the word zazen, sitting.’

    And something he said in the same lecture about the practice (it’s from the lecture on shikantaza on the Jikoji site):

    “Sitting shikan taza is the place itself, and things. The dynamics of all Buddhas are in it. When you sit, the cushion sits with you. If you wear glasses, the glasses sit with you. Clothing sits with you. House sits with you. People who are moving around outside all sit with you. They don’t take the sitting posture!”

    The place and things.

    I ran into a copy of volume II of the Blue Cliff Record over at my local used book store. Now I learn that when Shunryu Suzuki first started teaching Americans on Bush Street, he went through the whole Blue Cliff Record (thanks, Mel Weitsman, here.). Jakusho Bill Kwong mentioned that he worked through the whole Blue Cliff Record when he studied with Kobun.

    Dogen copied thirty-some-odd koans from the Blue Cliff Record before he left China, so I’ve read.

    Blue Cliff Record is apparently one of the things in “the place and things”, but one doesn’t want to miss the place for the things, I would say. I’m only reading it because Yuanwu comments in it, and he is the teacher who speaks to me with the clearest voice from among those I’ve read so far– apart from Kobun!

    • doshoport

      Mark, Thanks especially for Kobun’s commentary on shikantaza.

  • Stephen Slottow

    “Fuzzy emotional tenderness.” Yes, I’ve noticed that. A little cloying, a little sticky.

  • Guest

    “Listening to the above-mentioned dharma talks, I noticed that what is calledshikantaza in contemporary discourse bares little resemblance to Dogen’s shikantaza. It has become a catch-all term that includes things like bare attention, receptive awareness, panoramic awareness, mindfulness of mind, following the breath, and themeless meditation. . . .Why does it matter? . . . It matters because what we’re talking about here is the essence of practicing enlightenment and the above listed techniques are mostly forms of congealing in tranquility.”

    While one may agree or disagree with this assessment, I do wonder if it’s helpful. I’d be more interested in reading more in-depth insights about what shinkantaza is (based on key texts, trusted teachers, and personal experience) than what it *isn’t* or how some folks get it wrong.

    • doshoport

      Peter, yes one point of the post is to distinguish shikantaza from what’s sometimes presented as such. Another point is to say what it is and to encourage the discovery it. Thanks, Dosho

  • Zenki

    Soo da na! Wakarimashita…heh heh…I get it!…looking forward to being there with you to begin again the work of this ongoing inquiry…shikantaza and the whole shebang! In gassho…Zenki

  • buddy

    Another of your rants against just sitting, even though shikan taza literally means ‘nothing but precisely sitting’, or some similar variation. Unless that is you can cite an expert Japanese translation that it actually means ‘working on koan study’?
    At any rate ‘fuzzy emotional tenderness’ sounds like a much more desirable, and dare I say enlightened, state than ‘cagey dogmatic brittleness’.

    • doshoport

      Yes, I’m proposing a different gloss on the translation.
      I don’t say that shikantaza is working on koan study but presenting the koan. An important difference.
      As for “cagey dogmatic brittleness” – I am not brittle! :-)
      Warm regards,

      • buddy

        On what linguistic basis do you present that gloss? Also I find it interesting that you posit what you consider a perversion of Dogen’s shikantaza as an American thing. One of the strongest proponents of the just sitting approach is the very Japanese Sawaki/Uchiyama lineage, which is fond of referring to Dogen’s description of zazen as ‘the dharma gate of joyful ease’ and his instruction to ‘think not-thinking’, approaches which you have basically devoted this post to denigrating.

        As the old man puts it, ‘Therefore, put aside the intellectual habit of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest.’
        He then gives very detailed instructions regarding posture and then says to just sit there, in joyful ease, as an expression of practice-realization.

        Thanks for your efforts.

        • doshoport

          I’m not coming from a linguistic basis (I’m no expert) – more of a practice perspective. Taigen Leighton came up with “earnest vivid sitting” years ago and it rung my experiential bell. Also didn’t mean to suggest that the Japanese necessarily get shikantaza – I just focussed on the present offerings in US. Katagiri Roshi, though, used to say that he thought there were about 3 monks in Japan who did shikantaza. Your quote of Dogen is very nice advice for koan introspection, as well. Spinning in the koan is not presenting it. In short, imv, we project the current separation between koan and shikantaza onto the past, onto Dogen and his work that was not there in Dogen’s mind or time. Rujing, for example, gives sound advice explicitly on how to practice mu.
          Here’s to joyful ease,

    • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

      The elements of the word shi-kan-ta-za mean “only-take care of-hitting-sitting.” Taza means “hitting the sitting” as we would say “hitting the books” for intensive study. Shikan means “only take care of” or “just manage.” Both “shikan” and “taza” were used before Dogen, but he seems to be the first one to put them together as a single label.

      On a fun note, I take Dogen’s use of the word “shikan” (只管) as a deliberate double entendre because it is the homonym of “shikan” (止觀) which is the Japanese pronunciation of samatha-vipassana which Dogen learned as a Tendai priest before coming to Zen. It seems obvious to me that Dogen was playing around with Japanese Tendai Buddhist emotional attachments to their practice when he was teaching a “different” kind of “shikan.”

      Actually, Dogen spoke of shikantaza only very seldom in his writings. The great craze for the term “shikantaza” only came about in modern times in the Japanese historical setting necessitating the sectarian differentiation between Soto and Rinzai. None of Dogen’s zazen texts that I have seen have “shikantaza” in them. Essentially and primarily, Dogen himself taught zazen, not shikantaza. Shikantaza was just a way to refer to the importance of zazen and the need to put zazen first. Dogen’s zazen instruction included the option of koan inquiry because he said “don’t think of good and evil” and other instructions that become koans when inquiring how to actually follow the instruction.

  • Richard Kollmar

    All attempts to define Zen meditation have an ideological component, often unstated, even–or perhaps especially–those of the intellectual puritans who would abolish talk altogether. Within the Soto stream there are various ideas about how best to introduce students to the culture of Zen, too, & a minimalist pedagogy of meditation.

    In addition, it’s become standard for teachers of Zen to borrow concepts & technical terms from other schools of Buddhist practice. The result is a salad bar. That’s okay if you’re the sort of person who is naturally inquisitive & willing to tinker, not so great if you need or prefer to be guided.

    It’s tempting to say, “Just read Dogen Zenji.” We know, however, that negotiating even the simpler texts is daunting without the help of a good teacher. Anyhow, I am sympathetic to your take on shikan taza, which for me had been the koan at the center of my exploration of Dogen Zen, & I like the way you’ve set up your distance course.

    • doshoport

      Thank you for your comment, Richard. Interesting point on the salad bar. Zen is made of nonZen elements … and yet.


  • Jeanne Desy

    Of course this post sits here for anyone to read any time, so I want to add a public comment that I did first share with Dosho privately. It is that criticizing other teachers, whether you name them or just refer to the name they use for sitting meditation, is a straightforward violation of the Zen precepts, and of the Buddha Way as espoused in the Eightfold Path. Right speech is a practice teachers need to think about, as too many of them feel free to criticize other teachers, as if they were particularly stupid competitors. There is simply nothing good about this. Offer what you have to offer for the elite few, and let other teachers, like John Kabat-Zinn, offer what he does for the humble masses. May all beings be at peace.

    • doshoport

      I agree that whenever strong language and criticism are used, reflection about their use is fair and important. Imv, sometimes the precept to speak what’s true is important as well and so the precepts present a pickle rather than a clear-cut, simple prohibition. Thank goodness that people sometimes disagree about the skillfulness of any particular presentation, as we do in this case. My commitment is to continue to speak the truth here as I see it and to do so as skillfully as I can.
      Best wishes,