Posted inDogen, Koans, Other Teachings


December 4, 2015

The underlying approach of Soto Zen is “already”; the underlying approach of Rinzai Zen is “not yet”.


Soto Zen’s main practice is shikantaza, or “just sitting.” The main plus side of shikantaza is that it is completely natural and inherently personal. We find our own way to the fact that our sitting is the expression of the whole universe when we sit in shikantaza. At the same time it is completely universal. The injunction, “just sitting,” does not mean: don’t do anything but sit. It means: “only sitting.” The extent to which there is nothing at all but sitting is the precise extent to which the universe, existence as a whole, is able to participate in the sitting. That’s also the extent to which the true nature of the personal is revealed – which also shows us why we don’t need to resist our own actual experience, but rather can wholeheartedly enter it and be entered by it.

Yet there can be a negative side to shikantaza too – namely, that there is nothing to push us free of our own delusive sense of who we are and our ideas about our experience. It therefore can be a risky practice, in the sense that it can serve to reinforce all that our training is seeking to free us from. As one of my teachers used to say, it’s all too easy to find a cozy nook halfway up the mountain and decide to stay there.

On the other hand, koan study has its positives and negatives too. The clearest positive would be that it is an unparalleled path for clarifying the true message of Zen – exactly what it is that “Bodhidharma brought from India to China.” The koans are both a powerful path of opening, and a self-checking system. Wherever we are stuck, the koans will catch us. At the same time, like a scouring pad the koan itself will help to free up the place of attachment. Another clear positive is that koans bring us into the great family of Zen. We meet the living ancestors and come to know them intimately and to join them in their world, that is so different from the old bad dream of this world. This is surely a gift without equal.

On the negative side, in koan training we are never fully there. The best we can hope for from our masters is to be “eight-tenths there.” “Not yet” is the repeated response of the masters. Nor is koan study for everybody. We might think it ought to be, but it just isn’t. For some, the “mind-flower comes into bloom” more easily in shikantaza – although these students may be comparatively rare.

Koan study can be very frustrating. Of course, that’s one way it is effective – by bringing up our resistance, our craving for approval, our yearning to be “okay,” to get something we think we want from Zen – all of which, from the point of view of the koan itself, are illusory.

The style of Sanbo Zen is modeled on the training path of Dogen Zenji, in most though not all cases. The first nine years of Dogen’s training were in koan study. After that, once enough of his self-clinging was cleared up, he moved to shikantaza, and was able to practice true shikantaza, in which the nature of the “body and mind” is radically rediscovered.

The way of shikantaza is, in a sense, “already.” We already have it all, fully and magnificently.

The way of the koan is “not-yet”: the great Dharma can always be surrendered to more thoroughly, and seen more clearly, and can inhabit us more deeply.

On the other hand, the discovery that the koans are longing to share with us is precisely that of “already” – we are already perfect and complete. And the spirit that shikantaza seeks to arouse in us is “not yet” – the not yet of the free functioning of the Way, the becoming, the unfolding, the unstoppable creativity that is the activity of the Dharma is never over. It can never cease to function, even when this universe has imploded on itself in 15 billion years’ time, it will not stop. Not yet, not yet! How remarkable that we can discover our complete and inseparable participation in this vast act of ongoing creativity.


Written by Henry Shukman, taken from our Newsletter Archives.

Featured Image: Caterpillar, by Bergadder, from
Image: Person, by Pezibear from

footer support banner image

Support Mountain Cloud

You can show your gratitude for Mountain Cloud events, retreats, podcasts and other teachings by making a one-time gift, or by becoming a supporting member.

Donate to Mountain Cloud Become a Member