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

Assuming the Position: Zazen as a remembrance of things past and Zazen as awakening July 19, 2013

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…

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