In last month’s Dharma Byte, “Turning Points in Living the Zen Life,” I touched on a few of the time-of-life changes that we all go through from time to time, and the effect they may have on our practice, and vice-versa. One section, however, referred to turning points in zazen itself and that is where I want to pick up the thread this time.

The Most Important Thing in Buddhism

At one point more than halfway through Master Dogen’s tract titled “Fukanzazengi,” which means something like “Universal Promotion of Zazen” or “Principles of Seated Meditation,” he writes “Now that you know the most important thing in Buddhism, how can you be satisfied with the transient world?” It is difficult to know exactly which point he is referring to in the preceding sections of the long teaching, as he touches on so many aspects of Zen, as he is wont to do.

In the “Genjokoan” extract from “Bendowa,” which latter means something like “A Talk About the Way,” he lays out analogy after analogy about The Great Matter, and how to practice, at one point actually stating, “It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice-enlightenment and people are like this.” But what the “this” or the “most important thing” is that he is talking about is difficult to pin down. As Matsuoka Roshi would say, “Zen is something round and rolling, slippery and slick.”

It is tempting to throw words at this something, such as “zazen,” “enlightenment,” “study the self,” “compassion,” et cetera. But we find that nothing sticks, precisely because it is slippery and slick, receding ever more out of our reach when we try to pin it down. Also because language is designed to be definitive and dispositive, giving us answers rather than raising more questions.

Turning Points in Zen

So if we can sidestep the knee-jerk tendency to “name that concept” for the nonce, we may be able instead to focus our attention on the more practical matter of recognizing turning points in our practice and daily life that, while affecting Zen, are not the fault of Zen; and, ultimately, cannot get in the way of our apprehending the fundamental point of it.

The obvious ones are getting past the initial barriers—physical, emotional, mental and social—that pop up along the way. For example, those who are young and in good health usually find that sitting still is difficult, in spite of their relative advantage in being physically sound. The hormonal and other forces operating at earlier ages tend to foster issues that are as difficult to deal with as strictly physical resistance, such as develops in later years. Older folks have battle scars and injuries, accumulated wear and tear on the body that they can point to as the reason they have difficulty with zazen—lower back and leg pains, knee injuries, and so on. But only the most severely crippling conditions are actually a barrier to Zen practice. As long as one can sit upright—in a chair or on a cushion—one should be able to have a satisfactory meditation practice.

Sitting Upright
Why is sitting upright so important in zazen? Why can’t we do it lying down? Well, the truth is that it—the effect of zazen—has nothing to do, magically speaking, with sitting. In the “Metta Sutta, (Loving Kindness)” the line:

Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, in all one’s waking hours let one

cherish the thought that this way of living is the best in the world

succinctly captures this truism. Elsewhere Master Dogen and others, going back to at least Bodhidharma, make the point that we cannot establish any direct connection between zazen and awakening as the mother of all turning points. So what is the point of sitting in zazen?


I think, frankly, that it is simply gravity. That is, coming into alignment with the gravitational field of the earth, much like a metal filing lines up with the magnetic lines of a magnet. The brain and the spinal cord comprise the branching form of the nervous system, and coming into perfect balance with gravity probably has some effect, such as evening out, or relieving, any arbitrary pressures on the flow of neurological energy on the total system.

Of course, our direct interfering with the process of observation, e.g. by thinking too much about it as we go, is likely just as problematic in terms of misinterpreting and distorting the reality, as the physical stress, say, of standing on our tiptoes for seven days, as Buddha was said to have done. But ‘tis the gift to be simple, and approaching zazen on a plainly physical basis is a lot simpler than playing mind games with it the way we do everything else.

So here, gravity has two meanings: the physical surround in which our body-mind is floating; and the degree of gravity with which we approach our practice. The two are not-two.

What is the Fundamental Point?

There are many points in our training, any and all of which may contribute eventually to our coming to terms with reality in the Zen sense. All the teachings of Buddhism point to this one point. It may be helpful to use an analogy, ala Dogen. The skin of the orange is often used to illustrate the idea that all the bumps represent the many, while the sum total and the center of the orange represent the one. Each bump may be considered a model of a koan—the illogical riddles of Zen that articulate the variations on a theme of Buddhism’s truths—which, if punctured with a needle, will penetrate to the heart of the orange. Dogen’s third line from the Genjokoan:

The Buddha Way is basically leaping clear of the many and the one

suggests that we should not be confused by these analogies, or take them to denote the totality of reality as a duality. This reminds me of one of my coined phrases:

It seemed so simple at the time
We even tried to make it rhyme

In our efforts to grapple with the subtler teachings of Zen, we should not oversimplify, and try to dispose of the complexity that they are confronting. The fundamental point is inherent in all the relatively prosaic points. It is as if all the seemingly contradictory concepts you may conjure about what Zen is pointing to—such as the nondual nature of duality—belong to a nearly infinite set, with a finite truth at its core. The “thread running through”—one connotation of the term “sutra”—all phenomena is at one time a unifying, as well as a differentiating, factor. This is the “Harmony of Sameness and Difference” pointed out by the great Chinese Sage in “Sandokai.”

Don’t Give Up

Where the rubber hits the road is when Zen practice becomes difficult. The number of factors that may bring this about are similar to the variables indicated by Buddhism’s “The Myriad Things,” or “The Ten-Thousand Things” or “Grasses” when referring to the world of Nature and/or of humankind. We are bedeviled by demands and conflicts on all sides, living large in the heart of today’s “civilization.” The pressures of population, with resultant more-than-we-wanted-to-know daily onslaught of information, mostly negative, pummel us, testing our patience, as well as our resolve, and our dedication to Zen practice. Clearly it is not a panacea.

In the midst of this maelstrom, we look for sanctuary wherever we can find it. When we find that Zen suggests that we do not even try to escape, but meet the madness head-on, we tend to reconsider. Maybe Zen is not what I am looking for after all. I need a respite, not a pep talk.

Matsuoka Roshi always encouraged us to not give up on Zen, in spite of our own failings, or it apparent inability to adequately address the demands of daily life, and the aspirations to a greater good for the greater number. With all the best intentions, we will still run smack up against the vagaries of Nature and the venalities of human nature. Which is why we aspire to Buddha nature, to be fully awake. To be fully awake to the downside is as important as the upside. Again, Master Dogen:

Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas
Those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings

Note that he did not bother to differentiate human beings from other sentient beings, in that last. This is because, as long as we do not have great realization of delusion, we are really no better than any other species of sentient being. As long as we have fantastical and self-serving ideas about realization, we are not awakened to the reality.

Give Up on What?

So what did O-Sensei not want you to give up on, exactly? Did he not want you to give up on spreading Zen to the hoi polloi; so that we convert the heathen to our way of living, that is so obviously the best in the world? Did he want you to not give up on establishing Zen as the “religion of the future,” as he declared it would be? Was he suggesting that you cling to your idea of exactly how and why your particular community (sangha), or your local Zen center should prosper for perpetuity? I don’t think so.

I think Sensei was simply saying that whatever you do, however awry your best-laid plans go, do not give up—yourself, personally—on Zen. However woefully inadequate your efforts appear in your own eyes; however futile and fruitless seems the outward lack of progress or growth of our Order of lay practitioners; and however frustrating the constant coming and going of the sangha—which is why we describe it with the analogy of a cloud, evaporating—you should never give up on your own practice. After all, it is the only thing that will accompany you to the grave (and beyond, according to traditional Buddhism).

Strange Bedfellows

Politics, they say, makes for strange bedfellows. You could meaningfully substitute any number of other nouns for “bed” in this expression. The political aspirations laid out in our founding documents as a nation, characterized by “forming a more perfect union,” set us up for all kinds of disappointment, as the inevitable machinations and maneuverings of the human beings called upon to implement these marching orders rise to the surface, like bubbles bursting on a polluted pond. You may prefer your own analogy.

When I hear members of our extended dharma family bemoaning this calamity, especially as it seems to be reaching a climax in its present, tiresome reiteration—not only in America but in so many benighted places around the world—my first reaction is always; Well, what did you expect? Buddhism is not alone in taking a jaundiced view of the nature of humankind in particular, and pointing out its natural place in the animal kingdom in general, not widely know for its altruistic motives.

But Zen may be unique in its prescription for what to do about it. We do not turn to a loving God, or the kindness of strangers, for redemption. We turn to ourselves, to question our own role, and our personal place, in this hot mess, the “whole catastrophe,” as Zorba the Greek put it.

We like to think that we can do better. That somehow just practicing Zen makes us better. But this is delusion. Practicing Zen does not change anything, fundamentally. But because it allows us to change, in our reaction to reality, it does offer hope. Along with its excellent method, zazen. If all people would practice Zen, they might go through a change in their worldview, a change of heart, that is self-induced. The suffering that can come to an end, according to the Heart Sutra—the mutually inflicted, unnecessary suffering visited by humanity upon humanity, other sentient beings, and the insentient world—might have a chance of coming to an end, or at least mitigating to a moderate minimum. Then we would merely have to deal with the natural suffering of aging, sickness and death. Which, one should think, is quite sufficient to command our attention, thank you very much.