Presented by Ven. Jinmyo Renge sensei
Dainen-ji, September 22, 2018
If you're not already feeling the breath and the body, why is that?
Mindfulness is not a matter of making something happen. The sensations of the breath and body are already there because all of the nerve endings are already working. You don't make the sensations happen. The whole bodymind is alive with sensation moment after moment, so if you're not feeling the breath and the body what is it that you are doing instead? Whatever that is, stop it. Open all around it, all at once, all in the same breath.
As Anzan Hoshin roshi says, "The whole world is already ready."
Right now, are you feeling the breath at the diaphragm and tanden? Are you feeling your hands in the mudra, your legs and feet as well as the breath at the diaphragm and tanden? Are you feeling the sensations of the whole posture of zazen while simultaneously feeling the breath at the diaphragm and tanden? Are you opening to seeing and hearing as well as feeling the sensations of the whole bodymind, together with the sensations of the breath at the diaphragm and tanden and your hands in the mudra, together with the sensations of your legs and feet?
If not, why not? What else are you doing? Are you thinking about your practice? If so, stop that and actually practice, by opening attention to the sensations. Begin with the sensations of the breath at the diaphragm and tanden and use that as a starting point to open all around, all at once. Are you talking to yourself about how you can't do this? If so, stop that, and come back to the sensations of the breath at the diaphragm and tanden. Anyone can do this. If you are breathing you can do this because the sensations of the breath are already there. You're not making them happen. You just need to allow attention to fall open to what is already going on. Allow yourself to experience the whole of your experiencing instead of bits and pieces of it, filtered through the contraction that is self-image.
The habitual narrowing of attention on fragments of experiencing, on thoughts and feelings and storylines is very, very strong because that narrowing is what it has been doing all of your life. Narrowing and focusing is easier than questioning into what is actually taking place. And it's certainly easier than questioning how YOU are viewing things, let alone giving up the sense of certainty that contraction provides.
You can see this so clearly when you start sitting zazen. You sit on your cushion and you start off with the best of intentions to be mindful and before you know it, attention does what attention usually does. It focuses on a thought and away you go for five minutes or ten minutes, propagating and contracting and the focus becomes so strong that you don't even know that you are sitting in a room. But that can only go on for so long and no matter how deeply enmeshed you become in the storyline, eventually you will find yourself back on the zafu in a room that has nothing to do with your storylines. It's a bit shocking at first to see how completely you can be fooled into thinking reality is a certain way only to have that completely fall apart. And there's that wall again, exactly where it was when you checked out five minutes ago.
Students tend to alternate between narrowing and focusing attention into concentration states and spacing out. An example of a concentration state would be counting the breath or making up little lists of 'things to notice' - Telling yourself to "feel the breath, feel the mudra, feel the feet, open to seeing, open to hearing and watching and monitoring yourself mapping the bodymind and following the list. As though there were something that could roam around the bodymind flipping switches, twiddling dials, and making sensations happen. The antidote to this is to drop the list. There is no list. This is just part of the same habit you have of talking to yourself about everything. If you notice you are telling yourself "feel the breath", all you need to do is recognize that you are already feeling the breath, that attention was beginning to open to the sensations of the breath before the little voice came up that said "feel the breath". Attention is far more intelligent and expansive than the list-maker. The list-maker can't keep up with the myriad of details that attention can open to all at once, all in the same breath. The list-maker is a symptom of being too heavy-handed in your practice, too ponderous. Let attention be as light and quick as it actually is, able to open round and wide, able to attend to many details simultaneously.
And then there is the spacing out. Sometimes that is due to following thoughts and feelings and storylines quite aimlessly. And this is not as the Roshi would say, "sitting a round of zazen; it's just sitting around". And sometimes the spacing out can be the result of a deliberate effort to cultivate a state that is spaced out, as though that were some sort of goal.
For example, some people come to us saying that they are doing shikan-taza. They have read or heard Dogen zenji's phrase. Even the Japanese Soto Zen Church says that shikan-taza is sitting and just having faith that sitting is realization. But this usually means that they are just sitting around lost in their old nest of views, following the closed circles of self-concern as Dogen zenji warned against.
It would be nice if we could all sit "shikan-taza" or "just sitting", but this requires a LOT of sitting, a lot of practice both on and off the zafu. It requires practising the discipline of learning to open all around and all at once to what you are actually experiencing instead of following thoughts and feelings and storylines. I have a quote from Ven. Anzan Hoshin roshi on this topic, taken from the teisho series "The Person and World of Zazen, part one".
The Roshi says:
But there is a way of talking and thinking about zazen that I have seen some contemporary Soto Zen Buddhists do, especially in Soto Shumucho, in which zazen is treated as if it were a sacrament. It is an approach that says that "one moment of zazen is a moment of being Buddha" and so when one sits in zazen for that moment one is Buddha, regardless of what the bodymind is actually doing in the posture. For one thing, this can lead to a fixation on the posture, especially kekkafuza 結跏趺座 or sitting in full lotus, as if it were the only possible posture and that other than sitting in that posture, there is nothing else you need to do to be practising zazen. And if it doesn't feel like "you are Buddha" then you just do not understand the mysteries of zazen. It is like the Catholic Church's mystery of transubstantiation in which a piece of bread miraculously becomes the flesh of Jesus Christ. The fact that it is physically and in every way still a piece of bread and not human flesh, thankfully, is in that view actually the point. The confounding of rationality and making the leap of faith to believe that the bread is not bread is the point. And so when zazen is viewed in this way, it is not seen or understood as it is, as well.
It can look like zazen. Someone in black robes and a shaved head is sitting in perfect lotus posture facing the wall in a beautiful ancient hall surrounded by exquisite garan buildings on immaculate grounds with the song of a hototogisu wafting through the window from the surrounding bamboo forest. That looks exactly like zazen. What could look more like zazen? But if the person is just sitting around there thinking about breakfast or bukkake or even listening to the birdsong and is not open to whole bodily feeling and all of the other sounds, and the sensations of temperature and pressure, and fragrances and the play of light and colour on the wall and all of the other ten thousand dharmas that are straining to be experienced but are being shut away by that focus of attention, then it is not zazen. Not at all. Let alone shikan-taza and shinjin-datsaraku. It is just mild symptoms that are unrelated to the disease, whatever you might call it.
Zazen is not a sacrament to be received passively which sanctifies someone. It is a practice that is realized when it is actively engaged. This active engagement is releasing the someone and receiving the sacred totality of zazen through zazen with zazen. Then each moment is of equal merit if we allow them all to be equality without equal or mutodo 無等等 .
In our practice, we practise with our attention, with whole bodily sensation and with all of our sense fields. We practise in, as, and through the whole bodymind, opening all of the capacities of bodymind and the instructions for zazen are very clearly set forth by Ven. Anzan Hoshin roshi.
But our practice is not limited to sitting in zazen. What we are really practising when we sit zazen is opening attention all around, all at once, into the vastness of open space. Zazen has no limits. True zazen is each moment in which we sit beyond limits and then stand and walk and talk without ceasing zazen. Vastness is never hidden away or roped off from ordinary life. Ordinary life is always already vast. And so we must practise "Gyoji" or "turning the wheel of continuous practice". Gyoji is all-embracing practice without any sense of distinction between formal and informal situations because wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you can make choices about how open or closed attention is. You can make the choice to live with intentionality or just allow yourself to be swept along by the currents of discursiveness and contraction. This is true when you are sitting zazen and it is true when you are doing absolutely anything else that you do.
True practice is not creating or fabricating something new. It is stopping what you have been habitually doing, playing the role of the self you tell yourself, and have been told, you must be.
To practise more deeply, more sincerely, more openly, it is essential to practise the posture. First and foremost you are sitting and this is more important, more "real", and more revealing than any thought or feeling that might come up. This is what you are practising - the posture - because doing just that will show you what you need to see: how you drift, how you get lost in thought, so that you can stop doing that. Zazen exposes all of the ways in which you are not really doing zazen and so it exposes all of the ways in which you do not do all of the other things that you do. Nothing else will show you this as clearly as zazen will. The point of the posture is to sit in the reality of this moment. The posture points to the open space of reality all around and within and as the bodymind. So, feel the fingers and thumbs in the mudra, actually feel the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, the teeth lightly touching; feel the breath, the balance and alignment of the bodymind on the zafu and stay with that, moment after moment. Anything that pulls you away from attending to the posture is exactly what you need to release. Release it into the colours and forms and sounds and sensations and renew your effort to practise by opening all around it, all at once, again, and again, and again.