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

What is Earnest Vivid Sitting, How it’s Often Missed in American Zen, and Why it Matters July 18, 2014


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.

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2 responses to “What is Earnest Vivid Sitting, How it’s Often Missed in American Zen, and Why it Matters”

  1. You’re welcome.

    In the interim, I have finished a piece you might enjoy; here’s a little bit of the concluding summary:

    “There is a certain well-being in activity that takes place without the exercise of volition, for example in the natural movement of breath.

    The sense of vision can be experienced separately from the sense of location and from the sense of placement and weight in the parts of the body; given such an experience, the relinquishment of volition can allow the sense of location to shift as proprioception and weight enter in, and anything that enters into the sense of location can be realized as activity of posture and carriage:

    “When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.”(“Genjo Koan” by Eihei Dogen, trans. by Aitken and Tanahashi)

    “Just make the transmission continue without a break from source to source, and then you will be a joyously alive person on the road of eternal life.”(“Zen Letters: Teachings of Yuanwu”, trans. by Cleary and Cleary, pg 92, ©1994 by J. C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary)

    A relinquishment of volition cannot be made to happen, any more than falling asleep or waking up can be made to happen. Shunryu Suzuki once admonished a student for thinking that they were the source of the activity of zazen (seated Zen meditation), apart from the practice that occurs:

    “Don’t ever think that you can sit zazen! That’s a big mistake! Zazen sits zazen!” (Shunryu Suzuki, Blanche Hartman interview on cuke.com)

    The seated practice of Soto Zen is often referred to as “shikantaza”, a Japanese word that Zen teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa said meant “sitting just for the sake of sitting”. He spoke about what sitting shikantaza meant to him:

    “…Sitting shikantaza is the place itself, and things. …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!”(lecture by Kobun Chino Otogawa)

    Not only did Kobun caution Zen students about the possible unseen nature of things that enter into the practice of zazen, but he also cautioned them that the practice might do more than just sit:

    “You know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around!”(lecture by Kobun Chino Otogawa (overheard by the author, at S.F.Zen Center in the ’80’s))”

    Presenting a koan is zazen, the misconception is that zazen in without action; zazen is without volitive action.

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