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If Zazen Won't Help Me Stop My Thoughts, Why Meditate?

Once, a monk presented the following verse to the Sixth Patriarch, composed by the Chan Master Wo Lun.

Wo Lun has ways and means

To cut off the movements of many thoughts

When the mind does not rise in reaction to circumstances

The tree of enlightenment will steadily grow.

Hearing this verse, Master Hui Neng said, "This verse indicates that the person who composed it has not yet completely realized the essence of mind." The Sixth Patriarch then showed the monk the following verse.

Hui Neng has no ways and means

To cut off the movements of many thoughts

The mind is often rising in reaction to circumstances

How then, can enlightenment grow?

“So if we’re not trying to still the mind by meditation what are we doing?”, “I meditate to still my mind.”, “When I meditate I enter a trance state where nothing happens.”, “I meditate because I want to lower my blood pressure.”, “I meditate to find enlightenment.”….and on and on.

There is a great misunderstanding of Buddhist meditation in the West. Much of it comes from the fact that many adults today were first introduced to meditation by the Beatles’ flirtation with Transcendental Meditation - or TM. Now that Buddhism is starting to expand rapidly in the West they carry that view of meditation to their Buddhist teachers and are disappointed when told that this is not what Buddhist meditation is. One of the great problems is that we use to term ‘meditation’ to refer to a huge variety of practices that have little in common.

Most religious traditions teach the benefits of meditations - even Christianity and Islam. Now in the West we are adding secular mindfulness meditation to this collection of practices. Some of these practices are mystically grounded, others pragmatic and others even materialistic; yet we call them all meditation. Even within Buddhism there are a number of activities taught as meditation - although most can be loosely grouped as either Vipassana or Zazen. Vipassana is a more active training technique for the mind - focusing it on the body and bodily sensations, etc. Zazen could be considered a more passive technique. Being in the Chan/Zen lineage I teach zazen - as did Patriarch Hui Neng above.

So, if even a Patriarch couldn’t “cut off the movements of many thoughts” what chance do we have? Why should we even try? Ah, but that’s the issue; in zazen we don’t try to stop the flow of thoughts we simply train ourselves to stop from entering the flowing river of thought and getting swept away. The great apologist of zazen, Dogen Zenji says of it:

Zazen is not "step-by-step meditation". Rather it is simply the easy and pleasant practice of a Buddha, the realization of the Buddha's Wisdom. The Truth appears, there being no delusion. If you understand this, you are completely free, like a dragon that has obtained water or a tiger that reclines on a mountain. The supreme Law will then appear of itself, and you will be free of weariness and confusion.

It is being satisfied in the moment, “like a tiger that reclines on a mountain”. Like the tiger you are not separated from the world around you but completely at ease within the world, being totally mindful of it. If you’ve seen a tiger at ease you know that there is little that looks so completely relaxed - and little that can react with more speed and precision when required.

Even though we normally - especially at the start - sit on a cushion to practice zazen; you can see from this description that it is actually a practice that can occur anywhere, anytime, in any situation. Because it does not cut you off from the world but connects you to it - without clinging - zazen can be seen as simply living the nature that humanity was meant to; what Dogen calls “the easy and pleasant practice of a Buddha”. Zazen occurs when we are aware and accepting of reality, not distracted from it - either by external or internal phenomenon.

This is also why Shifu Hui Neng ended his poem with that seemingly depressing line, “How then can enlightenment grow?” This is not a negative at all but the greatest positive recommendation for zazen. Enlightenment does not need to grow because it’s already there. When we sit within the flow of thought, the flow of activity, the flow of distraction without becoming caught up in them we are already experiencing the fullness of Buddha Nature. Going again to Dogen, he says:

Therefore, the very impermanency of grass and tree, thicket and forest is the Buddha nature. The very impermanency of men and things, body and mind, is the Buddha nature. Nature and lands, mountains and rivers, are impermanent because they are the Buddha nature. Supreme and complete enlightenment, because it is impermanent, is the Buddha nature.

Thoughts, activity, distractions are impermanent because they are the Buddha nature. Isn’t experiencing that better than trying to stop it?

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