How Zen Buddhism Can Be Bettered
In this text, I will use Hakuun Yasutani Roshi's instructions on just sitting, as a source for commentary of my own, where I present an idea how the training paradigm of zen buddhism, could be greatly enhanced. For those not familiar with Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, a rather famous figure of Japanese and Western Zen of the 20th century, I recommend reading his Wikipedia page.
Yasutani Roshi's instruction of shikantaza, or just sitting, are from the book ”On Zen Practice: Body, Breath and Mind” by Taizan Maezumi and Bernie Glassman. You can read this chapter that I will quote and comment below, from here. I would ask the reader to read his instructions carefully, to be sure that with my comments I am not mispresenting him.
Quotes from Yasutani Roshi, with added comments.
In doing shikantaza you must maintain mental alertness, which is of particular importance to beginners - and even those who have been practicing ten years could still be called beginners! Often due to weak concentration, one becomes self-conscious or falls into a sort of trance or ecstatic state of mind...
When you thoroughly practice shikantaza you will sweat - even in the winter. Such intensely heightened alertness of mind cannot be maintained for long periods of time. You might think that you can maintain it for longer, but this state will naturally loosen. So sit half an hour to an hour, then stand up and do a period of kinhin, walking meditation.
During kinhin, relax the mind a little. Refresh yourself. Then sit down and continue shikantaza.
To do shikantaza does not mean to become without thoughts, yet, doing shikantaza, do not let your mind wander. Do not even contemplate enlightenment or becoming Buddha. As soon as such thoughts arise, you have stopped doing shikantaza...
Sit with such intensely heightened concentration, patience, and alertness that if someone were to touch you while you are sitting, there would be an electrical spark! Sitting thus, you return naturally to the original Buddha, the very nature of your being.
Kim's Comment: In his instructions, Yasutani quotes Dogen (see the original text), to indicate what shikantaza is. However, Yasutani's take on shikantaza is clearly different to Dogen's, because his instructions describe ”intensely heightened concentration”. Anyone who has studied vajrayana buddhism, and its clear expositions of meditation practices, can see that Yasutani confuses concentration practice or cultivation of one-pointedness (skt. samadhi, j. zanmai), as it is termed in zen buddhism, with effortless buddhanature sitting, which is what just sitting is. He confuses effort-based heightened concentration or heightened attention, with knowing awareness.
Yasutani: Then, almost anything can plunge you into the sudden realization that all beings are originally buddhas and all existence is perfect from the beginning. Experiencing this is called enlightenment...
Kim's Comment: Here, Yasutani describes how ”anything can plunge” the practitioners into ”sudden realization”, or kensho. This is where he unknowingly explains his erroneous pedagogy of just sitting. In the above bits, he gives instructions of sitting with high alertness, that can only be maintained for short periods of time, until it loosens. This is a classical description of samadhi meditation, which as many zen stories depict, is shattered by some sight, sound or event, which makes one see one's true nature (j. kensho). In a nutshell, Yasutani describes concentration practice of heightened intensity that is then plunged or shattered, which makes the natural state appear, to effect an insight, and he calls all of this with one term, that of shikantaza. This is where the pedagogical mistake is, for heightened concentration, or heightened attention is not the same as kensho, which is a synonym for shikantaza. For this reason, there is a significant difference between Yasutani's and Zen master Dogen's instructions.
Yasutani: In short, shikantaza is the actual practice of buddhahood itself from the very beginning - and, in diligently practicing shikantaza, when the time comes, one will realize that very fact. However, to practice in this manner can require a long time to attain enlightenment, and such practice should never be discontinued until one fully realizes enlightenment. Even after attaining great enlightenment and even if one becomes a roshi, one must continue to do shikantaza forever, simply because shikantaza is the actualization of enlightenment itself.
Kim's Comment: In correct buddhanature sitting, there is no beginning, realization or diligent practice. In correct shikantaza, there is no effort, nor distraction, such as drowsiness, to a slightest degree. I offer my further comments.
Samsaric beings, such as myself, have two kinds of minds: one bound by confusion (samsaric mind) and the other one free (buddhanature). The way to illuminate the samsaric mind and its many traits, in Rinzai-style of zen buddhism, is to focus strongly and keep focusing strongly (samadhi), for in some cases several years, until some spontaneous event from outside occurs, breaks the samadhi, and in consequence, the practitioner momentarily sees his or her buddhanature. What happens with concentration practice, is that one becomes focused, instead of being distracted, while at the same time, establishing calmness of the mind. This is how it ideally is, but in some cases strong concentration, carried over a long period of time, can also create great health problems. For this reason instructions like this, without learning how to relax well, can be altogether counterproductive. In regards to strong sitting, I find it questionable what is the benefit of this for older people, from middle-aged and older, who many are already calm and in general have less vitality than younger people.
Being concentrated is in a way, being self-immersed, self-indulgent. Because the mind is restless and distractive, it requires a lot of training to be able to create a samadhi, a state of complete self-immersion or absorption. In rinzai zen, the logic is to create this samadhi which when it is accomplished, will be automatically smashed into bits by a sound or a sight, such as view of mountains, red Autumn leaf falling from a tree, barking of a dog, sound of rain, seeing of a flower or a yell of a zen master. The main point here is that the cause that shatters the samadhi, never comes from the mind of the practitioner him- or herself, because the mind is in samadhi, in a state of immersion, without thought. In tantric terms, the cause that generates kensho, always comes from outside of the practitioner's energy field.
In my view and experience, as well as those of my students, it is not necessary to generate samadhi first. I have discussed this in Rethinking Zen and Kensho, which mentions how the whole process could be made more efficient, through dynamic concentration. In the instruction above, Yasutani speaks of dynamic concentration, done silently, actually at a medium, rather than high intensity.
If the reader is not familiar how concentration is used in Open Heart, as in Tibetan dzogchen, we use short sharp shouts, like short vocal explosions, to cut through the many layers of the mind, to access and recognise the natural state. This is not unfamiliar to zen buddhism where teachers and students yell to each other, or in some lineages have shouted MUUU! for hours on end to have kensho.
The main difference between medium and (truly) high intensity focus is that with short explosion the desired outcome, that of recognition of buddhanature which is kensho, is accomplished in few seconds, while with medium concentration it takes a lot longer, for the above mentioned reason that one constantly gets distracted. Medium intensity concentration also needs to be fed with energy which makes it demanding of vitality and can even ruin one's health, as in the cases of young zen master Hakuin, and my own, for example.
It is a simple fact that the process of samadhi can be bypassed, while prioritizing the recognition of buddhanature. The essential point is that it is not through concentrative focus but through many kenshos that one becomes familiar of one's buddhanature.
Thank you for reading,
- Kim Katami, 10.12.2018
In my book, available free of charge, I have given detailed instructions about dynamic concentration and its effectiveness, What's Next? On Post-Awakening Practice.
See demonstrations of dynamic concentration, playlist here.