Shikantaza

July 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

The last post introduced the image of a baby bird learning how to fly by watching its parents. The image symbolizes a watching that naturally turns to flight without the intermediary of thought. As such, it is a symbol of shikantaza, or ‘just sitting’ meditation.

When practicing shikantaza you don’t focus on anything in particular or try to make thoughts go away. You simply watch whatever arises in the present moment come and go, allowing everything to be just the way it is. Sights, sounds, smells are left to rise and fall away on their own accord. Thoughts are watched with no attempt to follow or suppress them. You take the pose of a baby bird who diligently watches its parents knowing that in doing so your true nature will spontaneously manifest.

The key to practicing shikantaza lays in allowing everything to be just the way it is. Watching is not a looking for something. It is an alert looking at things as they are without any mental commentary of good or not-good. Your aim is to abide with whatever unfolds without interference or resistance.

In the koan, “Everyday Life is the Path,” this watching is described as neither belonging to the perception world, nor the nonperception world. As neither cognition, nor noncognition. It is the practice of placing yourself “in the same freedom as sky.” It is non-thinking.

On the simplest level non-thinking is awareness of awareness.

Right now, where you are, you’re aware of most things around you, but it is only when you direct your attention to one of these that you become aware of being aware of it. For instance, when you turn your attention to your breath it doesn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. You know you’ve been aware of your breathing before you turned to it. Keeping your attention on a thing is awareness of awareness-with-an-object. Taking a mental step back from the object by shifting your attention to the awareness itself is awareness of awareness-without-an-object. It is the baby bird watching its parents.

Though it may seem contradictory, awareness-without-an-object still contains objects of thought and the senses. In fact, it is because you are aware of objects that awareness-without-an-object is conceived as possible. And it is through watching that you begin to recognize the space in which these objects arise. This space is awareness- or consciousness-without-an-object.

Through continuous watching, thought falls away in what Zen Master Dogen called “dropping off body and mind.” What’s left is awareness-without-an-object or what the Buddhist calls emptiness. This dropping off happens naturally so there is no need to try and manufacture it. In fact, trying to make it happen only inhibits it’s natural arising, as in doing so your focus has returned to the objects of awareness and not the awareness, itself.

It naturally follows that when you practice letting everything just be as it is, that you include yourself in the equation. As much as possible you refrain from labeling yourself as good or not-good. You cease trying to fix yourself. Instead of trying to improve or change, you just watch yourself as you are. Everyday life is the best place to practice this because everyday life will always bring you back to where you’re stuck.

Life will always show you where you’ve boxed yourself in. Where you’re resisting. Where you turn away and close your heart. All things done out of a deep-seated fear of the vast and uncontrollable nature of life that leaves you feeling small and helpless, like a baby bird. But a baby bird does not think of success or failure. It does not see itself flying or falling out of the sky. It just watches its parents and in doing so its own innate ability to fly manifests itself. If you just watch your thoughts come and go in the present moment, practicing awareness of awareness, then your true nature will spontaneously appear, too.

I am reminded of a hike my brother and I took up Windy Joe in Manning Park. We had just come to a 180 degree turn when I spotted some baby quails sitting motionlessly beneath a bush. I called out to my brother but even though we were just a few feet away he could not see them. Again, and again I pointed directly at them until, suddenly, whatever was blocking him fell away and he saw the quails.

Enlightenment is like that. We sit with attention on the breath, a koan or in shikantaza. Watching. Letting things be just as they are. Then one day, a day in which we’ve done nothing different from all the days before, we see what has been before us all along. And we soar.

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