White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

The Tiny Book of Stopping and Looking

by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Zazen-ji, February, 1996

Talk 1: Samatha

Good morning.

Well, here you are sitting in the Zendo at Zazen-ji, doing our practice. Shojo no shu: realized-practice. The practice of alignment with what is true through opening to experience as it is without manipulation or strategy. Anzan roshi says: "The root practice is Awareness itself."

Dogen zenji says that this practice is the practice of shikan taza. Which means, "sitting exerts sitting" or even "sitting strikes sitting" or "sitting as BANG!" Anzan roshi: says,

Zen does not offer some little technique that one can do. It does not offer some shining bauble that one can play with. It demands, instead, everything that you are in order to receive what Zen offers... Our practice is not about meditation; it is about realization...

Our practice is the realization of Aware Space, of Awake Awareness, of Buddha which has been directly and intimately Transmitted from Teacher to student, from Buddha to Buddha. Buddhist meditation on the other hand, is meditation done by Buddhists...and it is very important that we do not stray into this.

Anzan roshi often says, "It is important that we understand our practice. If we misunderstand our practice, we will practise our misunderstandings."

All forms of meditation can be divided into two types: Samatha and Vipasyana. The Ratnamega sutra (Cloud of Jewels sutra) (Discourse Like a Cloud of Jewels) defines these quite simply. "Samatha is concentration. Vipasyana is analysis of details of experience."

Most meditations are samatha. Literally: "abiding in calm." The creation of states of concentration, states of calm. Dogen zenji called this "self-tranquillization"

Vipasyana is observing or analysing experiences, understanding through looking deeply.

Buddhist meditation can involve either, but usually both, with samatha being cultivated as a basis for vipasyana. In Kamalashila's "Stages of Meditation" it says, "Having pacified distraction towards external objects, one abides in a mental state of suppleness and delights in internal focusing."

The Suppleness, although it sounds attractive, is mental space folding into itself, folding in like a contortionist. Now this is what we do all the time, not just when we are sitting. This is when attention moves into and focuses on objects of attention.

"Having this state of calm and abiding therein, one investigates its Suchness. This is called vipasyana."

Now focusing in and interpreting any particular state of mind as being more meaningful or true than any other state is dangerous: because all states come and go. And approaching practice as a gradual cultivation of particular states, acquiring this and getting rid of that, is an approach easily co-opted by self-image.

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in his "Treasury of Knowledge" says that samatha is like the oil in a lamp, vipasyana is like the flame. Thus, first one cultivates samatha and then gives rise to vipasyana Another take on this metaphor which cuts through the gradualist approach implicit in this, was told to me by Anzan roshi. He said that samatha is the thin shell of glass protecting the flame of insight from the wind of habitual tendencies. They can and should be practised together. A little samatha is just being sincere, steady. Mostly, one should just look clearly at what's going on In Chinese samatha and vipasyana are called shi and guan and in Japanese shi and kan .

In both cases they mean stopping and looking.

Now they may sound the same as the shikan in shikantaza but they're not. And this is important. They are different characters, different meanings, different practice.

Chinese Tiantai Master Zhiyi who died in 598 C.E. presented a very comprehensive body of work on shikan. This was in Chinese, the "Mo Ho Shi Guan"; in Japanese "Maja Shi Kan ". And this the Roshi translates into English as "The Big Book of Stopping and Looking".

Zhiyi was later acclaimed as the Fourth Ancestor of the Tiantai school. Seven hundred years later Dogen zenji received Transmission from Rujing at Tiantong si quite close to where Zhiyi's monastery was located. This approach is of interest to us because it is pervasive in Far East Asian Dharma and as a young Tendai monk Dogen practised shi-kan on Mt. Heiei (along with such Mikkyo practices as goma).

Zhiyi saw samatha and vipasyana, shi and kan as the two wings of a bird in flight. In other words they should be practised together, each informing the other.

Shikantaza, on the other hand, is the sky the bird flies in.

Now samatha is a strategy of avoidance, a focusing and narrowing of attention. Our practice is opening attention, attending not only to what arises within attention but to the very structures that seem to limit and narrow attention Self-image is always practising a low-grade kind of samatha; focusing on hope and fear, thoughts and feelings, and bla bla bla.

High grade or quality samatha would simply result in being zoned out, a zombie, like a kid playing Super Mario Brothers.

Shikantaza is out of the reach of most of us when we begin to practise because it is the realized-practice of ungraspability. Some elements of samatha and vipasyana or shi kan might constitute some of the baby steps we might walk on this Pathless Path of the Buddhas and Awakened Ancestors. They might be like those little blow-up plastic water wings we stick on kids when they venture into the wading pool. Now, we might have to wear them at first when we are flung into the Ocean of Reality transmitted to us through the Teachings, but, as the Roshi says, the realization of this practice is to "drown in that Ocean".

Well, my advice is to know that you're wearing them, know how to balance them, and don't worry about it if you get a puncture.


Thank you for listening.

Talk 2: Vipasyana

Good morning.

Can you smell the incense in the air? Can you feel the breeze from the fan on your cheek, on your ear? Can you feel the left hand resting in the right hand? Can you see the seeing? Can you hear the hearing? Can you feel the space around you as bodymind exerts itself in the posture of zazen?

Are you drowning in the Ocean of Reality or are you clutching onto a little bundle of thoughts and feelings and descriptions of what's going on? Let it go...and just drown.
Drowning in the Ocean of Reality means being Reality itself, without separation, without stances or strategy. This is the practice of reality.

Whatever we have understood through this practice, we must practise it. Through this, we might begin to understand something of shojo no shu: realized-practice.

Now, perhaps our understanding was the smallest gap, the smallest hole, appearing for just a moment in the midst of our usualness. Perhaps, it was the hissing of air leaking from the little plastic water wings we have used as we have been bobbing about on the surface of that Vast Ocean.

The practice of samatha: calming or concentration, in isolation from vipasyana; insight, looking, is an attempt to hold ourselves still in the midst of the waves, the coming and going of experiences that our lives, inescapably, are. Samatha is attempting to control our thoughts, feelings, states through focusing on the breath, or whatever kind of technique or object our little samatha technique has involved.

Vipasyana, in isolation from really, stably, facing our lives as they are, puts us just as out of balance as a trance state would. Now, by vipasyana, I am not referring to a practice commonly referred to as vipassana. These are different. Vipassana is a Burmese revival of Buddhist meditation that really only has a history stretching back around 150 years. While, in many ways, vipassana is similar to foundational elements of our practice of zazen, in particular the emphasis on mindfulness, it is not the same. Vipassana is concerned with attending to details of experience.

In our practice, the subtle structures of attention and the presumption of locatedness, directionality and so on all must come into question, must be exposed through direct insight.

Now, it is certainly not my intention to critique Theravadin vipassana. Some of what we discuss here about samatha and vipasyana will however no doubt apply. Vipasyana is as Master Zhiyi describes, "observing, examining, introspecting."

Samatha has traditionally been compared to placing a stone on top of a weed, suppressing the weed. The problem with suppression is that we just save the nastiness for later. The stone will be on top of the weed but eventually there will be little tendrils, little pale bits, that will sneak out from around the edges of the stone. And when the stone is removed the weed will spring up again. Vipasyana has been compared to digging up the root of the weed.

However, instead of direct insight into the groundlessness, the Openness, the luminosity of experience revealing that there is nowhere for the weed to be rooted, often vipasyana becomes a strategy.

The Anzan roshi told me a little story about our stories using this metaphor:

To pull out the weed we begin to map out a plan of attack. We map out a diagram of winches and pullies, cables and packhorses, scaffolding, and a cafeteria for the workers. We become so involved in planning how to deal with the disputes between management and labour and so proud of the craftsmanship with which we have drawn such straight lines on our blueprint that we forget about the weed.

Or we look at the weed. We count its leaves. We measure the angle. We note how s they lie in relationship to each other. or...we count them ...add up the numbers, reduce them to a single digit, add it to the original number, double it, then subtract 76.9... And buy a lottery ticket with the results.

And as I myself have witnessed, sometimes we pluck the leaves from the weed, wrap them up ever so nicely in raffia...beautiful little bundles... and wave them around our heads to ward off bad juju.

Often, vipasyana devolves into a way of providing ourselves with a story that can explain away our confusion. Now if we have a good enough story, we can feel wise. If our story is maudlin enough, we can feel kindly, compassionate, or even...spiritual. In some cases, vipasyana has been called "looking deeply" when, really, it means looking away and looking towards and listening to our story.

The story might be that all is dukkha and nothing matters. Or it might be that what is called "I" is "a mere imputation upon a nominal designate which in actuality is the assemblage of the skandhas, ayatanas, and nidanas." It might be that... everyone is Buddha, so smile, smile, smile.


Direct insight is practised with the whole bodymind, balanced and open. Insight is, in fact, this exposure. Now, the samatha part would be doing this again and again and again in each moment. In particular, when we just don't feel like it. Self-image is always practising low-grade samatha, focusing on hope and fear, a face, shadows and lights, the flowers in the ikebana, the breathing of the person beside you. As well, self-image is also always practising low-grade vipasyana: trying to explain itself to itself, to find justification and resolution. To make it all fit. To make a more perfect storyline.

This practice, the one, of course, you're doing right now, is the practice of yourself as you are. It is simply attending to what is going on; seeing what you see, and hearing what you hear. This practice is attending to the process of experiencing as such. It is directly experiencing what you are experiencing. This is what we must understand.

Thank you for listening.

Talk 3: Balance

Good morning. Traditionally samatha and vipasyana have been compared to the two wings of a bird. As Tientai master Zhiyi said some 1300 years ago, the bird needs to have both wings in balance so that it can fly properly. The essence of our practice is to align ourselves with what is true about experiences and experiencing. This is shojo no shu, realized-practice. It is the practice of Aware Space, as taught by Zen Master Anzan Hoshin. This is the vast sky in which the bird soars.

States of samatha or focusing arise within your practice. When you fall into them for whatever reason, you don't recognize concentration as concentration, focusing as focusing, a state as a state, and your practice is out of balance. As you learn to recognize concentration states, states of samatha... you can apply what you have been taught to balance them out. The counterbalance to samatha, traditionally, has been vipasyana or insight, clear seeing or looking.

The moment of recognizing that you have fallen into focusing on a thought or on some quality of concentration is a moment of vipasyana. In the next moment, this recognition can become an opinion, a judgement. Vipasyana has then become out of balance and is now the propagation (or prapanca) of a state or a stance.

We really just can't seem to help ourselves. We need to make a big deal out of everything. I guess we're just all drama queens. Propagation or prapanca is such a habit for us. The Sensei was telling me something about the Sanskrit word "prapanca." It seems that "panca" means "five." So prapanca means something like "going on about it five times as long as is necessary."

So just stop!... And look! Remember, that in our practice, the practice of Awareness itself, samatha and vipasyana are not strategies. The point is to see how you are; dense or more open, or concentrated and focused, or seeing clearly. And to open to the basic clarity which is always already available past all strategies. In your practice this means seeing clearly the mechanisms of the movements of attention.


In the beginning you can't do that because you simply don't know how. Most of the things that Usual mind, the mind that doesn't do this practice, has tried out before are various and sundry, tawdry bits of samatha. There are many concentration practices that are recipes for the creation of dense states; focusing on the breath, a mantra, an object such as a candle; visualizations; affirmations ...They come in many disguises. Belief systems; belief in a higher self, spirit guides, spirit animals, channeling and so forth; They come as descriptions such as "being open to the light". They come as dancing, as drumming, as marching, as chanting. as ecstatic states. And people like them...because they suit the project of self-image. And that project is to produce such a dense state that self-image is not aware of itself.

Self-image gets so caught up in the state, and its descriptions of, and storylines about, the state; storylines such as being "spiritual", being "in tune", being "in harmony", being "at peace"... that it is oblivious to itself. Self-image is able to block out, momentarily, its usual repertoire of doom and gloom storylines, wishful thinking and fantasies, petty concerns, claustrophobic anxieties. It is also oblivious to seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, smelling...the rest of your actual life.

Now this sounds a bit like falling in love or....patriotism...a night at the disco...a good day at the football game... doesn't it? The coin of trade in the realm of self-image then, is basically samatha. And it's a counterfeit coin. It won't buy you anything. Not only will it not buy you anything, it robs you. It robs you of your life.

The other side of that coin is vipasyana. When self-image grabs onto it and stuffs it into its bank of "thingies", it becomes merely a description of "how things are".

Rather than actual insight or clear seeing or looking into the reality of this moment of experiencing, it is a description. It is counterfeit as well. You can't buy and sell Reality. You can't make a deal with it. You cannot invest in it or save it. It is free, all-pervasive, and rich. None of the strategies of poverty that are intrinsic to self-image have anything at all to do with it.

Vipasyana, when it is misunderstood, is a perfect subject for the manipulations and grasping of self-image. Self-image uses the concept of insight or clear seeing to manufacture for itself a nice bundle of misunderstandings about "understanding" what Zen practice is or what the Actual Nature of experiencing is or how well or badly it is doing. Rather than actually experiencing your moment to moment experiencing, you are experiencing your ideas, thoughts, storylines, about your experiencing. You have fallen into a stance towards, and strategy about, your practice.

Now, this isn't a problem. It isn't a problem because at some point, as long as you continue to do this practice, you will see the movement of attention into stances and strategies. (And if you don't, a Practice Advisor will point it out to you. If they don't, the Sensei will have our jobs.)

In your practice, you will experience a moment of vipasyana or clear seeing, or looking. You can't help it. Because despite your counterfeit coins, you're all basically honest.

It seems that for usual mind that the noticing of anything at all is done through focusing, through a kind of samatha or fixation. In this practice you will have learned to recognize the narrowness of that and it will strike you as unnecessary. Even uncomfortable. But when you notice the fixation, you loosen it a bit but wind up with just a subtler kind of samatha.

However, through mindfulness, through attending to the narrowing of attention, you eventually wear away the tendency to fixate or to tell yourselves and each other stories about what's going on. Samatha and vipasyana, concentration and insight, focussing and attending, stopping and looking, have balanced each other out. In fact, if either samatha or vipasyana are noticeably present in shojo no shu or realized practice, our practice is out of balance.

The main thing is not to struggle with it, to try to fix it, to salvage something. In this practice, you can just throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just throw it, throw yourself, throw everything, into the Ocean of Reality . Release whatever has been noticed into the Ocean of Reality .

Through moment to moment attending to the balance of body, breath, speech and mind, we are able to attend openly to experiencing. Through moment to moment attending to the presencing of bodymind we are able to recognize balance point. Knees on the zabuton, your bum on the zafu, hips open, the spine elegantly rising, head balanced on the spine, eyes open, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, breathing in, breathing out, recognizing the presencing of balance point...centred...whole...

As Dongshan Liangjie wrote in the "Hokyo Zanmai", The true centre subtly holds the rhythm and song together.

The true centre is not something fixed. It is not even something stable. The true centre is Reality. The true practice is exposure, opening.

Thank you for listening.