Friday, October 1, 2010

In Defense of Zazen - Part 1: Its Merit As Secular Practice

This post will be mirrored at Bayou Buddhists at, my first actual post there.  If you came here from there, thank you for reading. Check out the archives and come back soon.  Otherwise enjoy the post.

 Due to our "peaceful and accepting" reputation outside of our community, it may surprise some that even Buddhists suffer the problems of sectarian differences.  There are fundamental basics that are more or less undeniable, but not all Buddhists believe the same things.

Very much like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic family tree, throughout history there have been divides.  Maybe I'll go into this deeper some other time but for now just know that at the very least, we have either agreed to disagree or just ignored each others' differences. We practice Buddhism to free ourselves from the selfish demands of the ego, not because we have already.  So of course we still get caught up in the delusion of my tradition is better than yours.

One of the issues circulating is that of the importance of meditation.  In the Zen tradition it is known as zazen, a Japanese term handed down to us through the Chinese chán from the Sanskrit word dhyana which basically boils down to "meditation."  While other traditions place different emphasis on meditation, in Zen this is it.  There are other ways of practicing, but zazen is the foundation and all other ways are just derivatives.

In some other traditions, meditation is a good description of what you do when you sit. defines meditation as "continued or extended thought; reflection; contemplation" and "devout religious contemplation or spiritual introspection."  Other traditions focus on an ideal to cultivate, whether compassion or the emptiness of suffering or something else.  There's nothing wrong with any of those, but it's not zazen.

So if it's not really meditation, what makes it so different? 

As most people know, a tenet of Buddhism is that existence is suffering.  Well this suffering is caused by desire.  These are simplified statements that actually have much deeper meanings, but for my purpose here, they'll work.

Desire is wanting something you don't have, but it's so much more than that.  In essence, the suffering caused by this desire is discontent with our current situation in the moment.  Why do I stress "in the moment?"  Because our discontent pushes our thoughts to plans, hopes, fantasies and worries about the future, or regrets and nostalgia for the past.  This prevents us from living life in the "concrete" world of the present, accepting life with an open mind and heart will bring peace.

In zazen, we sit.  That's it.  It's most descriptive term for what is actually going on.  In Japanese it's called shikantaza ("just sitting").  The sister tradition of the Zen tradition I practice, Soto, is Rinzai and they do things a little differently.  So from here on out I'm only discussing Soto practice. I will refer to zazen in English as sitting to distinguish it from meditation.

There's an anecdote told in our tradition concerning what's going on during shikantaza.  One monk asks his teacher about it and the teacher replies "it's thinking the thought of not-thinking."  The monk asks for clarification and the teacher's response is "it's different than thinking."  Yeah, it's confusing and humorous as Zen banter is often considered, but it has real meaning.  The thinking that it's different from is the calculating, reminiscent, fantasizing thought of daydreaming.  The thought of "not-thinking" is being present in the moment.  To think the thought of not-thinking is to not chase trains of thought around in your brain.

This youtube video is a fantastic example of how to sit.  From the beginning it stresses  that zazen is not a strictly Buddhist practice, or even a religious one at that.  This is the point that I'd like to drive home for you non-Buddhist readers.  Some people are sticklers for correct posture so this is a good resource for that care of Brad Warner.  I couldn't care less about enforcing posture, but I do know that your results will only be as serious as your effort.  An upright mind can only life in an upright body.  (Improved posture is actually a wonderful side effect.)

Zazen is a concentration exercise.  In Zen, other things may happen when practiced in that context, but essentially it is a secular tool that can be used by everyone.  Sitting is excellent as a secular tool because there are no visualizations or mantras or anything.  You just sit and stare at a wall, trying to be present.

Even if you don't buy the logic that living in the present without worrying, regretting, or fantasizing, everyone's a sucker for building concentration and focus.  There are supplements and medications marketed for this purpose.  I myself, was diagnosed with ADD at a young age and hated the medications I took.  I have found myself not saved by my faith, but by the practice of sitting mindfully concentrating on the present.

Everyone has those moments where they find themselves day dreaming and snap back to reality.  Maybe you walk into a room and can't remember what you came in for.  Or you may find yourself in a stressful situation and can't concentrate on what's at hand because you're worrying about what will happen if you do something wrong or what people are thinking about you, etc. Sitting won't cure you of these ailments, but it can help.

How you ask?  I'll lean on a metaphor that I came up with that explains the importance of sitting but that I also apply to practicing martial arts and potentially other things as well.  

Sitting is like going to the gym.  Just as we exercise our bodies, we must exercise our minds.  The gym is a controlled environment where we can work on specific muscles in a controlled way.  By eliminating outside influence and variables from a routine, specific muscles are strengthened in the most efficient way.  It may be boring, but it's the still the most efficient.  Getting fit in the gym allows for better performance when playing sports.  Sure just playing sports will exercise the body, but there are uncontrolled factors.  In something like tennis, you may not have to run all over the court or end up only returning forehand shots.  You don't work on cardio and one side of your body doesn't get used.

Our minds are muscles, too.  To quietly sit on a cushion is to limit outside influences to a very controlled setting.  It's unbelievably boring as I've explained before,  but you're not there to have a good time.  It requires discipline just like going to the gym.  And just like going to the gym, you won't see immediate results.  You won't even feel like you're doing it right after years of experience until you accept that it's about the exercise, not the results. 

So what does it exercise?  Sitting is the most efficient way to strengthen concentration.  Without the added distraction of activity outside your mind, errant thoughts are your only concern.  If you can't stay focused in this situation, how can you expect to keep your cool while taking that big exam, flying an airplane, or performing open heart surgery? 

Sure there are other activities to hone your concentration, but none are as efficient as sitting.  As this activity becomes a habit, grooves will wear into how your mind functions and you find it easier to find and fall into that "concentration place."  Throughout the day, you may be able to accomplish more with better results as your mindfulness increases.  Your mind may still wander, but when you notice, it will be easier to come and stay back.

If you've gotten down to this, the end of part one, you've already proven to have an open mind that may tolerate some boredom.  So give it a try, set aside a few minutes... say ten a day for a week and just sit.  Don't judge yourself, follow the instructions in the video above.  It may be a little painful or uncomfortable, especially if you're not used to sitting like that, but that's part of it and it will get easier. There's nothing religious about so don't think as soon as you sit down, Pow! You're a Buddhist!  I'll get into the interfaith issues next time.

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