Everything is Broken: What is Shikantaza?

Everything is Broken: What is Shikantaza? November 27, 2011

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.


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