Just Sitting, Just Meeting

Edited from a talk by Katherine Thanas

Reprinted from Sangha: Newsletter of the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Zen Centers, January, 2000.

The practice we are doing–upright sitting–has been called inconceivable, unconditioned, a "wondrous way." In his fascicle Bendowa, Dogen tells us that this sitting practice is all that has been transmitted from Shakyamuni to us. Dogen translates this as "wholehearted practice of the way."

Words cannot explain, because this method is unfabricated. The practice of "just sitting" doesn’t interfere with the mind and body’s own course, rhythm, timing. It simply brings attention. There is no technique by which to rush this process. And yet, within this unfabricated practice of just sitting, we fabricate endless expectations, assumptions, hopes, dreams, terrors.

It has taken me years to begin to understand the depths of zazen. Buddha sat in meditation until he saw through his conditioned mind, and what he transmitted was the inspiration to follow his example, to sit until we understand the patterns and distortions of our own consciousness.

Like Buddha's successor Mahakashyapa who "pounded his bones and crushed his body thousands of times" until "his face was no longer his own" we sit until our face is no longer our own. As it is said, "Thus he received (Buddha's) face by means of face-to-face transmission."

True intimacy occurs when we directly experience reality for ourselves. Transmission, or true understanding, does not come from someone else, nor can we transmit to someone. We transmit to ourselves. Each one must find intimacy directly. Not through our thinking mind, but from immediate direct experience prior to the mind’s mediation.

True intimacy, unmediated experience, can be practiced anywhere, but in the zendo or in the dokusan room, where our activities are limited to "just meeting," opportunities for being intimate are increased. During a recent sesshin, while I was offering a stick of incense at the altar, the incense met the ash in the incensor intimately. The ash was thoroughly sifted and totally received the stick–there was no resistance, nothing to push against. The experience left no trace.

In our usual morning service, the attendant offers me the incense and we bow together. That moment of the stick being passed from hand to hand is most intimate. Because we are in the zendo we can notice such intimate moments. Each morning the meeting happens for the first time. We notice when attention wanders. This moment is especially profound in the stillness
of the zendo.

Meeting other people or other things is meeting ourselves. Because I may not understand the intensity of my feelings when I am with you, for instance, I may not dare do more than just touch you briefly with a glance. When do we feel safe to truly meet the other with our eye, our heart and mind? When we trust no more may be requested of us than we are prepared to give? With a friend, a homeless person, a partner?

Sometimes intimacy arises in unexpected ways. An oak tree at Tassajara caught my attention during one sesshin. As I passed, I was dimly aware that I was feeling something from the tree. I looked away, then looked back, and realized I was receiving compassion from the tree. Communing with trees is not an everyday event for me. What was going on?

I saw, I felt, the suffering of the tree. The tree was silent, upright, it stood regardless of rain or snow or the deep heat of the summer. It was uncomplaining. It was just there. It supported the zendo, it supported our practice life together and now it was directly supporting me. I felt so much inner ease realizing the strength of its willingness to endure, to be its life.

My mind formed the words: "It's OK to be me." This was a realization deeper than words. Katagiri Roshi has said, "Zen practice is about the complete opening of the heart." In case you thought it was something else, let me say again, Zen is a complete opening of the heart.

In this culture, we don’t know how to open our heart to ourselves. The more we do zazen, the more we realize we don’t do zazen. In the same way we realize we don’t open our heart, it opens of itself.

Are we willing to be exactly the being we are without distortion or fabrication? Am I willing to be an irritated fearful person? An anxious person? Not do I simply endure difficult feelings and wait for them to pass, but am I truly willing to be a person who has such feelings?

Our alienation from unacknowledged, rejected parts of ourselves is addressed in a ceremony we recently performed called the ceremony of nourishing the hungry ghosts. In Buddhist cosmology, a hungry ghost is described as the state of mind of lost, wandering beings absorbed by endless desire.

When we are in this state of mind we look outside ourselves to be satisfied or confirmed. In this ceremony we invite all these hungry ghost parts of ourselves to come forth and be nourished. The enactment of the ceremony makes vividly real the turning to the dark, rejected parts of ourselves as well as to the rejected parts of society, and helps open our hearts, inviting those parts into our Consciousness. We have to return to earlier states of innocence to do this practice of inviting forth the despised parts of ourselves. But it can be done. We never know when our practice will touch our own innocent heart.

© Copyright Katherine Thanas, 2000

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