By Enrico Blanca
“Of all the modern economic theories…Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability…. [Marxism] is concerned with…the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need….” ~ Dalai Lama
For about four years now, I’ve been a student of Barry Magid’s at the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York City.
Barry encourages all his students to do a form of sitting meditation called shikantaza. Now, at most American Zen centers which I know of, this type of zazen is considered an advanced practice. But at OMZ we all meditate this way. I think that Barry is a bit of a radical in this approach. I once asked him if I could just follow my breath and he said, “if you must.” So I have been trying shikantaza and, while I know a fair bit about it, it is only recently that I have experienced anything like “just sitting.”
Shikantaza (a Japanese translation by Dogen of the classical Chinese “silent illumination) was first introduced to 12th century China by Hongzhi and Rujing. These masters were central to the Caodong Chan school which in Japan (and now the West) became Soto Zen. After a trip to China in the 13th century, Dogen brought back to Japan and developed “silent illumination” into shikantaza. The great master considered this practice to be essential to Buddhism.
Barry likes to quote what Kodo Sawaki told Kosho Uchiyama (then a timid young monk) who finally got up the nerve one day to ask his formidable teacher if zazen would make him more like the confident and fearless Sawaki. “Absolutely not! Zazen is useless,” was the answer.
My teacher always says that what was meant was that zazen is not instrumental, not a means-to-end practice. It is not something you do to get a new and improved version of yourself, as we go to school to get a good job, work to make lots of money to buy lots of stuff, find the right partner to have a better life, work out and eat right to be healthier, have kids to…well, why do we have kids?
This practice is different from Rinzai koan practice in that we do not do it to have kensho—become enlightened. It is different from almost everything else people do in life. We do it just for its own sake. According to Dogen, we don’t practice to become enlightened. Zazen is already an expression of enlightenment. There is nothing to be gained.
Magid Roshi says that what we do at OMZ puts us “off the grid” of our psychological life patterns.
Since I do not separate Zen from its embeddedness in the economic, political, social and cultural structures of the United States, I interpret off the grid as situating ourselves outside of (and inoculating us to) the capitalist system of getting and spending. Our society prioritizes the relentlessly driven pursuit of profit, relegating other concerns such as freedom from material want, good health care, inequality, and all that prevents the full development of human capacities, entirely secondary.
Anyway, here is how I do skikantaza (or it does me). Since I sit using a chair, I don’t have to manage half-lotus or such and from the waist up it is all the same. I guess the posture I aim for is standard: back straight with a slight curve, sternum up, head straight with the spine, hands in what’s called the cosmic mudra. Barry emphasizes sitting as still as possible because being able to tolerate itches, discomfort, feelings of restlessness and so forth is a physical correlate to handling feelings of anxiety and psychological distress that may arise.
Soto Zen people say you should breathe naturally, but for many people shallow chest breathing is natural until they learn to breathe from the belly. This was true for me, so now my natural breathing starts with gently expanding my abdomen then chest fully and then exhaling back down to my stomach. I do this until I feel settled. Now let me get to the mind stuff.
Zazen has now ripened for me so that I don’t have the usual train of one thought following another then another etc. I don’t really regurgitate and chew cuds of thought any longer. Things come up and go. I may go off into a fantasy or internal monologue, but then just gently come back to my breathing (feeling the body breathe, as Barry says). For me, zazen is this coming back. Now for the marrow of the matter.
After really settling into my breathing so that it becomes pleasurable, I watch my mind closely, trying to notice the earliest emergence of a thought. Sometimes, I don’t see much for a while. Then something like a feeling or idea arises— then space. I let myself really be aware of the sounds coming from outside. And then I just attend to it all: the rise and fall of breath, passing thoughts and emotions, whatever goes on outside; it all comes together as a unified field of awareness. I wouldn’t so much call it being alert, but rather easefully aware of everything. It really is quite wonderful.
For me, shikantaza can be viewed as a kind of authentic passivity.
In this seeming passive state of “just sitting,” we remove ourselves from the means-to-an-end thinking that in this society results in a driven, desperate struggle to get more money to buy more consumer goods which we don’t need and chains us to stultifying and unfulfilling work. It throws an inkin in the machine. And in a world where our imaginations and even unconscious are colonized by capitalist ideology via mass media, Zen meditation has the potential to function as a vaccine against images which convince us that happiness comes through consumption.
But further, I believe that just the hopeful, faint glimmer of separation, via the non-separation from experience lived fully as it is, from an ideology which not only obfuscates our domination but invades our dreams, is revealed by shikantaza.
This is revolutionary.
We cannot know what future comes after revolution, but those seeds cultivated in the field of conscious open awareness carry the hope of a more humane future in which each of us, according to our abilities, provides for all of us according to our needs.
“Cancel All Debts”
Robbers never plunder the houses of the poor;
Private wealth does not benefit the rest of the nation. Calamity has its source in the accumulated riches of a few, People who lose their souls for ten thousand coins.
Ikkyu, 15th Century Zen Master.
This morning I sat shikantaza as usual and it was especially interesting. My concentration was quite strong and I was able, without much distraction, to focus on all the thoughts, feeling, images etc. as they passed through my mind. I really had a sense that I was not a homunculus sitting in my brain looking out and controlling the show. There seemed to be no clear distinction between in here and out there. I definitely did not feel like an isolated individual.
It now occurs to me how different this is from our normal sense of ourselves as atomized individuals, alone with our families and so vulnerable to the imperatives of consumer capitalism. The way of thinking which drives us toward material success and equates buying things with pleasure and happiness is inculcated in us early and is pervasive in American society.
Zen meditation may function as a kind of inoculation to it. I think it might require something as singular and powerful as shikantaza to give us hope for a better future.
Enrico Blanca is a free range intellectual (of pecking intelligence), poet, flaneur, socialist and cosmopolitan bon vivant who lives in New York City. He has had a nearly 30 year career as an academic librarian and is now embarking on a second one as a substance abuse counselor. A long-time Zen practitioner, he now studies with Barry Magid at the Ordinary Mind Zendo. He has a passion for music, cooking, writing and performing his poetry, and cherchez les femmes. Right now he is all about Ikkyu.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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