How remarkable that thousands of years ago just through sitting still and observing their own process of being, people realized what modern science is just beginning to discover – that all existence is one single never-ending process made out of nothing
A brief but thorough lesson in shikantaza, or “just sitting,” from Master Yakusan:
Sekito found his student Yakusan sitting in the zendo.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Yakusan said: “I’m not doing anything.”
Sekito said: “So you’re just sitting around lazily then?”
Yakusan responded: “If I were sitting around lazily I’d be doing something.”
Sekito then asked: “You say you’re not doing anything. What is it that you’re not doing?”
To which Yakusan answered: “Not all the buddhas and ancestors can say.”
To do nothing at all may be especially hard for us westerners to accept, reared as we are both in the work ethic, and the cultural inheritance of the threat of eternal damnation if we don’t measure up.
But first off, that is precisely the challenge and invitation of authentic shikantaza (just sitting) – it really is “just sitting.” Nothing more. There is nothing to be done. We do nothing at all. That’s enough. Better than enough. It is, somehow, the truth itself.
Secondly, what would we want to do, what would we feel was worth doing, if we clearly knew that there really were nothing to do? In other words, if the inner fires, demons, cravings and fears that ordinarily drive us had been extinguished, if we clearly saw the marvel of the empty Dharma, if we personally knew what Bodhidharma meant when he was asked about the highest truth of holiness, and answered, “No holiness, just vast and void” – granted all the above, what would we then do?
That is basically the question, and the motivation, that drives “bodhisattva activity.” As the Diamond Sutra says: “There are no beings to save; therefore I save beings.”
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The Dharma offers an unparalleled situation for human growth. All kinds of things will come up in our sitting and our training in Zen, especially if we are working on Mu or any of the other koans, all of which we have to work through in the cauldron of our zazen. Various kinds of resistance – anger, frustration, disappointment, misery, self-condemnation, and so on – will be unavoidable at times, often flavored with our own unique blend of spices, and that’s all to the good. Character is being forged. We don’t want to be too pure in our Zen. We want the “impurities” to well up and be welcomed. But at the same time, we should be wary of making too much of them. As Dogen’s Dharma grandson Keizan Zenji said, “Feelings are not unimportant, but they’re not that important.”
So while many obstacles and blocks may rise up along our path of training, if we glorify them or exaggerate their importance, we are somehow missing the point. Mostly they all boil down to just more things to let go of, and if we take them too seriously, we may end up being unnecessarily deflected from our practice. The most pertinent question or attitude is generally, “I wonder how long I’ll be holding onto this.”
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The idea is to “realize,” and then so deeply absorb what we have realized that we just naturally let it become who we are, so we can forget all about it. Then our real personality can shine as our “own bright light,” as Unmon put it, without any self-conscious awareness on our part at all. But this may be an advanced stage of practice.
Brilliant flarings followed by gloomy clouds… this may be common for some of us. But over time the “bright light” should settle down to a long, quiet glow, rather than spectacular displays of brightness and darkness. For some of us, though, this can take a long time.