Shikantaza

October 9, 2012 § 4 Comments

I’ve been funneling my study of shikantaza, or “just sitting”, through the writings of Zen Master Eihei Dōgen.  I’ve learnt that in spite of its continuous use by Zen monks over the centuries there is no one universal description of the practice.  In fact, some say shikantaza is not even considered a practice or meditation, at all!

Shikantaza, at its core, is nothing but just sitting.  There are no chants, no counting of the breath, no subtle object of concentration, and no tool to focus the attention.  It is as it says, “just sitting”.  To say any more misses the point of describing shikantaza in this bare bones manner.  But as descriptions go, “just sitting” doesn’t tell you much so it does seem that some further elaboration is required.

There is a common theme in many writings that one must stop seeking enlightenment, as seeking is an outward looking, goal-oriented process that separates you from you.  Regarding this Dōgen said, “Conveying one-self toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion.”

“To carry out practice-enlightenment” is shikantaza.  “Conveying one-self toward all things’ is looking away from self towards objects. To convey one-self toward all things while just sitting is a delusional state wherein you are looking to the world of form to find the formless.

To avoid this objectification of nirvana Dōgen directs one to just sit with no aim or purpose, maintaining a heightened sense of awareness that takes no heed of any thought or form that arises in consciousness.   Dōgen describes this as, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”

Dōgen asserts that just sitting in a state of openness to every thought that arises and falls is “all things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment”.  But this accepting and letting go of form isn’t just a means to self-realization.  According to Dōgen, it actually is enlightenment or realization.

When Dōgen tells us that just sitting is enlightenment he is referring to correct sitting, not idle sitting with a blank mind in state of dualism.  This is indicated where he wrote, “When the Dharma is correctly transmitted to the self, the person is immediately an original person.” A correct understanding of the Buddha’s teaching results in sitting that actualizes the original person. Although a self-actualized original person sounds very new age, Dōgen’s usage goes beyond just an attempt to describe someone who is psychologically sound of mind.  To Dōgen the actualized original person is one who’s identity is solidly grounded in the original source, or one’s true nature.

A superficial understanding of Dōgen’s teaching may leave one wondering why just sitting is necessary if a correct transmission of the Dharma is all that’s needed to make one an original person.  However, it is through just sitting that the correct transmission of the Dharma ends in the recognition of the original person.  I say ‘recognition’ because the truth is you already are an original person, all you need do is recognize that fact.

When just sitting, we let go of thinking.  When just sitting, we let go of all aspirations, hopes, fears and desires.  These still arise but by not clinging they are released.  By not clinging we accept whatever springs into consciousness, neither negating nor affirming what arises.  We just sit, waking up, breathing and letting go of thoughts.  And in this, body and mind fall away and we come to realize that it was you all along, the original person, your true self or Buddha nature that was just sitting.  You just didn’t recognize it till now.

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