Learning to do zazen
The first time I tried to sit a sesshin at Tofukuji monastery in Japan, I washed out after one day. It wasn’t my first sesshin. Far from it. I had sat many in the States. But I couldn’t hack it at Tofukuji. Their style of sesshin was too hard, too noisy, too violent, too fast. Long periods of zazen. Very long. By the afternoon of that first day, I promised myself I’d finish the day and never come back. Pretty embarrassing. One day.
Clearly, I just wasn’t prepared. I had to learn a new style of zazen. Much more concentrated. More intensely focused. It was Rinzai style zazen, a style conducive to working on koans. Eventually, I learned that way of sitting and it has been helpful to me in practice. I learned to deepen Shamatha – single pointed concentration – in the midst of that challenging sesshin environment. I found a determined, muscular concentration that left no space for anything to intrude.
It was different from how I had practiced before. Previously, my way was more spacious and relaxed. Letting everything in. Tricky sometimes, because of the tendency to daydream. But also okay. There isn’t just one way to sit. Dogen describes three kinds of mind. Joyful Mind, Parental Mind, and Magnanimous Mind. Joyful Mind arises when we rejoice in just being alive and the opportunity it gives us to practice and care for others. Parental Mind is the mind of deep love, not limited to our children, but applied to everything, including the dishes you’re washing, or the person in front of you in line in the market. And Magnanimous Mind is the mind of impartiality, undiscouraged and undeterred by difficulties, unswayed and undistracted by delights. Solid and stable like a mountain.
These are beautiful ideals. And we immediately get the feeling of these minds because we all have some experience of them. Considering these three “minds” can help us remember our energies arise naturally in different ways. Even though we prefer one attitude or state of mind over another, the important thing is not to attach to some special state. It’s hard not to. It’s hard not to yearn for the appealing states. But deep practice, reliable practice, is making space for the actual reality of the moment. We like parental, joyful, and magnanimous mind, but the more familiar experience is probably with our less enjoyable emotional states. Things like anger, attachment, guilt, shaky self-confidence, depression, fear, pride, dullness, doubt, bitterness, jealousy, laziness, lust, loneliness, self pit, bruised ego…the list goes on. This is our more usual material. So in zazen, we make space for what’s actually alive in the moment. And the important thing is not the experience itself, the specific emotion or thought, but the space we make for it. The space is what’s important and what we work on. The space is awareness, as distinct from the contents of awareness. This is how we get in touch with mind, how we sharpen our awareness and let the space of awareness expand and align and unify with universal awareness. This is the deep practice of zazen as I have come to understand it.