Talks on the Fukanzazengi by
Eihei Dogen Zenji:

Universal Guidelines
for the Practice
of Zazen

Part IV

I really like a passage near the middle of Master Dogen's Jijuyu Zammai which is found in the text Bendowa. "If practice and realization were two different stages, as ordinary people consider them to be, it should be possible for them to perceive each other. But that which is associated with perception cannot be the standard of realization, because deluded human sentiment cannot reach the standard of realization." Dogen also expressed the idea that we can't perceive enlightenment or realization in the Genjokoan where he wrote, "Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent."

Uchiyama Roshi expressed this idea in his book Opening the Hand of Thought when he said, "...most people think that as long as there is an aim" to what they are doing, "that its only natural that there will be a target to hit. Because there is a target, we have something to aim for. But zazen is different from our usual activity." He said, "In zazen we have to vividly aim at holding the correct posture, yet there is no mark to hit! Or at any rate, the person who is doing zazen never perceives whether he has hit the mark or not. If the person doing zazen thinks his zazen is really good,...he is merely thinking his zazen is good, while actually he has become separate from the reality of his zazen." So in zazen, we aim at engaging our whole body and mind without judging or comparing, and we might go so far as to say, without caring, just doing our best moment by moment, allowing each moment or each breath to be a fresh start. This is traceless practice where we surrender any reflections, regrets, or attachments we might have from the past, so we can enter the present moment fully. Each moment is whole... and then it's surrendered — left behind, so we can engage this moment of living reality. Non-discursive experience dies when it becomes a thought.

Today, I want to talk about Dogen's instructions on what to do with the mind in zazen. In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen wrote, "Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen." So, what is the "non-thinking" that is the essential art of zazen?

These lines refer to an exchange between Yakusan Igen, or Yueh Shan, and a nameless monk, in 8th century China in the early days of Zen. Yakusan was the disciple of Sekito Kisen who wrote the "Merging of Difference and Unity." The story goes:

One day after Yakusan had finished zazen, a monk asked him, "What are you thinking of in the immoveable, mountain-like state of zazen?" Sometimes this is translated as the "still-still state of zazen," and repeating a word like this in Japanese intensifies its meaning.
Yakusan replied, "I think of not-thinking."
The monk asked for all of us, "How can one think of not-thinking?"
Yakusan answered, "By nonthinking."

When we read teachings like this, it is important not to take them too literally, try to remember that this is the way one person translated the passage, and it's up to us to look for the meaning behind the words. What was recorded in Chinese or Japanese 1,200 or 800 years ago may not have the same meaning or connotation today. In everyday language, it sounds like Dogen is saying to stop thinking. We all know what thinking is, and not-thinking is its opposite. But trying to stop thought by using discriminating consciousness to control consciousness, creates a narrow, controlled experience. Both thinking and stopping thought are found in the realm of duality; they are relative to one another. One can't exist without the other because they mutually define each other like hot and cold, light and dark, forward and backward. But Dogen's nonthinking is outside duality. Actually, the character translated as "non" in "non-thinking" includes the aspects of beyond, transcendent, or emancipated. Kaz Tanahashi translated "nonthinking" both as "beyond thinking" and as "before thinking." So, "nonthinking" is considered emancipated thinking which transcends and is free from both thinking and stopping thought.

Dogen was critical of meditation methods that involved stopping thought and controlling the mind in order to become absorbed completely in the object of meditation. This type of absorption usually removes awareness from the immediate environment and from one's bodily presence. According to the Dogen scholar, Hee-Jin Kim, "Nonthinking should be understood as ... radically non-dualistic thinking....objectless, non-referential thinking," which obviously isn't what we usually consider to be thinking. For me, non-thinking is simply consciousness without thought, or awareness without mental activity. Dogen referred to zazen as "total engagement in immobile sitting," in which we are awake and engaged, but before any comment or reaction arises.

Issho Fujita gives another perspective on non-thinking saying, "When we refer to the qualities of...beyond thinking (hishiryo) ... we mean that sitting posture is [itself] beyond thinking and has no thought,... not that we ourselves are. We will never be beyond thinking ... as long as we live. What we can do is sit with the faith that zazen posture itself is Buddha, that zazen posture itself is beyond thinking." He said, "We tend to think that we are sitting zazen. This is not the case. The entire universe is sitting zazen."

Nonthinking is also the practice of shikantaza. I think the Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion defines shikantaza really well as 1) abiding in a state of brightly alert attention which is characterized by being free of thoughts, 2) directed to no object, and 3) attached to no particular content. Shikantaza is considered the purest form of zazen, and it reminds me of the passage in the Diamond Sutra that talks about cultivating "an unsupported thought." According to the Diamond Sutra, an unsupported thought is a thought, or a mind that is not supported by anything, anywhere, which means no objects of mind. It is not supported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or any kind of mind-objects including ideas, mental images, memories, emotions, fantasies, dreams, and so on. So, the unsupported thought turns out to be no-thought or consciousness without thought-objects. In this state there is holistic awareness that may experience sounds, physical sensations, and so on, but these elements aren't perceived as something separate from ourselves.

In the small book Soto Zen, Shohaku Okumura compared non-thinking to a car engine that's idling in neutral. Even though the engine is fired up and working, the gears aren't engaged so the car doesn't move. He said when we think non-thinking, "We cannot say that there is no thinking. And we cannot say that we are thinking....Thoughts are simply idling." In zazen, the mind is alive and able to function but we try not to actively, intentionally, produce thoughts or create a train of thought. When thoughts arise, if the mind is bright and alert, it is much easier to let them flow through without grabbing onto and developing them. So, the thoughts can flow by like a quiet stream, without sticking to anything. Okumura Roshi said, " keeping an upright posture, without either rejecting or chasing after anything, we aren't controlled by delusive thoughts."

Another Zen teacher, Koun Franz, in Nova Scotia, said that the particular word translated as thinking in Japanese that is used in this exchange between Yakuksan and the monk, is "about the aspect of mind that measures and evaluates, that holds a yardstick up to experiences or to thought-objects. It's a kind of directed thought." And he brought up 20th century findings on brain activity, saying, "Alpha waves can feel creative and inspired; beta waves are strongest when performing analysis; and theta waves are associated with more complex, generative thought, as in complicated visualization exercises. All three, in different ways, are part of the process of directed thought. Then he said that Delta waves tend to be really strong during just a couple activities. The first is deep, dreamless sleep. The second? Zazen. Delta wave activity is not reflective of directed thought; it is about receptivity, expansiveness, openness.

The 8th century Chinese Master, Ma Tsu or Baso taught, "This very mind, just this is Buddha." This doesn't mean that whatever we happen to be doing or thinking is enlightened activity. It means that when we are able to let go of the thousand things and engage our presence, to be present with what we are doing, we can experience our innate wholeness. When we are awake to our present activity, then it is Buddha's activity. Even if we are feeling angry or depressed or bored or uncomfortable, when we can surrender our resistance and completely accept our experience, undividedly, without trying to change it or improve it, this undivided acceptance, undivided presence, is Buddha-mind.

Tatsugami Roshi, a Japanese priest had been Ino at Eiheiji, was invited to come to Tassajara in the early years. to help establish the forms of monastic practice. Tatsugami Roshi compared Dogen's notion of the non-duality of practice and enlightenment to hitting a drum, the activity of hitting a drum and creating a sound are identical. It's not that hitting is first and the sound is second or that one is the cause and the other the result. Hitting the drum and sound occur simultaneously. Likewise, Dogen taught that "to just sit is to be Buddha."

Tatsugami Roshi gave several talks on nonthinking that were transcribed. In one talk, he said that the way we think nonthinking is by throwing everything away which means to just go directly forward, without looking backwards or forwards, to the left or to the right. This going "directly forward" leaves behind ambivalence and second guessing, reflecting on the past or trying to prepare for the future. He said, "What will happen if you plunge into doing something, eliminating everything? Dogen teaches that no matter what you are about to do, throwing away everything should be the basic attitude towards life." This is a way of talking about wholeheartedness, of devoting ourselves with complete presence to what we're doing. When we do, we are revealed completely just as we are, and our activity is a manifestation of our whole life up to that point. But, if we are involved in an idea about Buddhism or practice or anything else, the idea is outside the present moment, outside our immediate experience, and it is just another distraction leading us away from actualizing the totality of Now.

Tatsugami Roshi said that, "In order to ... throw away everything, all you have to do is just sit. In the world of the practice of nonthinking, you must be yourself in the practice of samadhi. Samadhi means to eliminate everything." [I would say to let go of or surrender everything.] I think "to throw away everything" also dindicates no gap — when you sit zazen, you become zazen, so there is no you trying to do zazen. He said, "The person who can throw away everything, anywhere, at any time, attains true freedom." Letting go of everything means letting go of our expectations, and desires for how we think things should be — basically letting to of our conceptualized world — and jumping in just the way we are. He said, "... you cannot truly understand something without devoting yourself to it. If you try to do something with complete wholeheartedness, you will turn out to be yourself." This is one of the secrets of Zen. We dedicate ourselves to hours and years of upright sitting, developing our awareness, settling deeply with fundamental, basic being, and the result is that we are simply, completely ourselves, nothing more or less.

A common misconception about Zen meditation is that the mind should be empty or without any thought, and sometimes it is and it's pretty nice when it happens. But Soto Zen emphasizes waking up to our thinking and letting it go, releasing our grip on our thoughts, over and over throughout a period of zazen. So, what we are really developing is flexibility — the ability to let go of our mental world and return over and over to the world of the Present. Suzuki Roshi compared the mind in zazen to seeing a movie. The movie screen is always there whether a movie is playing or not. Sometimes there is a movie with colorful images, but zazen is just watching the screen regardless of whether or not images appear.

Zen emphasizes knowing things directly without interference from thinking. Katagiri Roshi said that "Direct" does not mean you get something directly." "Instead, properly put your body and mind in the appropriate place. Then you are supported and you are allowed to be realized. Instead of shutting yourself up in a small house — ...called discriminating mind — throw open your heart."

Moment after moment, be willing to surrender, just step forward without looking to the left or right, without looking to the future or referring to the past. Be willing to let go of distractions, to let go of insights, be willing to let the tracking mind stop and return to your being, just as it is. Our practice is to return to this complete, undivided moment.

© 2020 Taitaku Josho Pat Phelan