When we sit down to do zazen, it gets quiet. And when it gets quiet we notice things. We stop talking, we stop moving, and the room gets quiet. We sit still and concentrate the mind. And then the show starts, because when we slow things down and it gets quiet, we notice things we hadn’t noticed before. We notice what comes into our mind and how our mind meets what arises.
In zazen instruction in our Soto school, we’re taught to let go of whatever arises. Uchiyama Roshi says that doing zazen is just being yourself [small s] that is only the Self [capital S]. The small s self is what you think of as “me.” but the big S Self is the totality of the universe, of life. He says,
“While doing zazen we should refrain from doing anything, yet, being human, we begin to think; we engage in a dialogue with the thoughts in our mind. ‘I should have sold it that time; no, I should have bought it’, or ‘I should have waited for a while.’ If you are a stockbroker you will think like this.
If you are a young lover, you may find that your girlfriend inevitably appears all the time. If you are a mother-in-law who doesn’t get along with your daughter-in-law, you will think only of your son’s wife. Whatever situation you are involved in, thoughts will arise of their own accord while you are doing zazen.”
Uchiyama Roshi continues:
“Once you realize that you are thinking when you are supposed to be doing nothing, and return to zazen, the thoughts which appeared as clearly before as if they were pictures on a TV screen, disappear as suddenly as if you had switched off the TV. Only the wall is left in front of you. For an instant… this is it. This is zazen. Yet again thoughts arise by themselves. Again you return to zazen and they disappear. We simply repeat this; this is called kakusoku (awareness of Reality). The most important point is to repeat this kakusoku billions of times. This is how we should practice zazen.”
Uchiyama Roshi’s words are down to earth and beautiful at the same time, although the prospect of repeating this kakusoku billions of times may seem more harrowing than beautiful.
So I’d like to talk little in technical detail about how to do this. How to do what Uchiyama Roshi describes as returning to zazen, returning to Reality. He describes it as returning to nothing. I’ll repeat that portion of his teaching:
“Once you realize that you are thinking when you are supposed to be doing nothing, and return to zazen, the thoughts which appeared as clearly before as if they were pictures on a TV. screen, disappear as suddenly as if you had switched off the TV. Only the wall is left in front of you. For an instant… this is it. This is zazen.”
This description of zazen doesn’t quite mean that the thoughts are not part of zazen and only the “doing nothing” is zazen. If you think that, you’ll fight with your thoughts which is just another way of engaging with them and thinking more. Actually, the whole process is zazen. The whole thing.
Zazen includes the thought that arises, the recognition of its arising, and the turning, and the nothing. If you’re just in dialogue with your thoughts, that’t not zazen. Zazen includes all of it.
The term kakusoku was coined by Keizan Jokin and is translated as something along the lines of being wide awake living out reality. Or sometimes as “reality waking up as reality.” So when Uchiyama describes kakusoku as awareness of Reality, it’s with a capital R. It’s Reality that includes everything. Your thoughts are part of Reality with a capital R. In the same way as Self with a capital S is the Self that includes everything.
You yourself, with a small s, sit in the reality, with small r, of thoughts arising and dropping away and as you let go of these thoughts and of the feeling of your self as the one thinking, this is simultaneously Self capital S sitting in Reality capital R.
When we learn to use breath as the object of meditative attention, to count exhales from one to ten endlessly, you could say this is just a way of remembering to be doing nothing. “Oh, I’m in a dialogue with the thoughts in my mind and I’m supposed to be paying attention to my breath but I’ve lost count.” So you move your attention over to breath. Breath is natural. You don’t have to invent it or conjur it up or imagine it. It’s always available. There’s no mystery about where and how to locate it. There it is. My attention has moved over and returned to it.
But Uchiyama Roshi describes this as returning to nothing which may seem a little harder to understand. Where is this nothing? How do I find it? How do I know it when I find it?
I think it may be helpful to understand returning to nothing with slightly different words and think about it as “returning to silence.” This makes it a little more concrete and accessible.
In your actual zazen experience, you can discover returning to silence is just part of watching and counting breath. During zazen, even if your mind is flooded with thoughts, there are gaps between the thoughts and you can notice them, even if they’re very short.
Sometimes, the gaps are involuntary. In other words, sometimes there are naturally gaps between thoughts. That’s just your mind’s particular pace as it secretes thoughts. Those gaps are silence. Sometimes the gaps are on purpose. That’s that moment Uchiyama describes as the thoughts disappearing as suddenly as if you had switched off a TV.
Maybe you think, “That’s not my experience. The thoughts come flooding right back,” but there is an instant of silence. If you don’t notice it, you can learn to notice. There is an instant. That’s it. There is an instant of silence.
However, we’re not very well attuned to silence, not very well attuned to nothing. The nature of our attention, of our usual everyday attention, is to attach to something. Anything will do. Just something. If our attention is turned inward, it attaches to things like thoughts. If attention is turned outward, it attaches to the phenomena of the physical world, to things like sights and sounds.
And most of the time, it jumps around at lightning speed from one thing to another, inside and out. Attaching, detaching, attaching, detaching. It’s very hard to notice nothing. And because we’re so used to all the something, when we do notice a gap, it can feel uncomfortable. It’s foreign territory.
But in zazen, we become familiar with actual silence. In zazen, thoughts arise out of silence, and return into silence. Our habit is always to notice what arises, not the gap. Not the silence. If you’re counting your exhales from one to ten and really staying with your breath as it goes in and out, it turns out that there’s silence. Just like the breath, you could say the silence is always and already there. It is always there as the space from which emotion-thought arises and to which it returns.
If you can notice the silence with the same attention as the thought, there is refuge. We all need reliable refuge, a place of safety and relief. Shelter from the storm of thoughts. One of the reasons zazen can be difficult is because we’re so absorbed in what arises without noticing the silence, the nothing that’s also there. Learning to notice and abide in the silence is a kind of refuge.
When you do notice the silence, you’ll see how much of it there is. You may experience a kind of shift that is like the shift in a figure ground relationship. You will experience the silence – the nothing, if you will – as the great space in which feelings, perceptions, formations, etc. arise, not as an exception.
It’s quite vast and as you get to know it, you are actually having a glimpse of awareness itself. The space of silence is the space of awareness. That silence, that nothing, is awareness. Calling it nothing is a bit misleading because nothing in our usual way of talking sounds dead. But it’s not like that. The nothing that Uchiyama Roshi talks about, the doing nothing, is dynamic and alive.
But as he says, we may return to this nothing/silence only for an instant sometimes. I’m putting this emphasis on silence because it’s an important part of zazen and I think it’s often overlooked or unnoticed. But I’m not saying the point of zazen is to get rid of thoughts and noise and that good zazen is zazen of vast silence. Not so.
Everything that arises in the mind – thoughts, desires, preferences – is a manifestation of the life force, and is actually our very lives, not something to be shunned or eliminated. Uchiyama Roshi says,
“The important point is not to cause life to be fogged over by thought based on desires or cravings, but to see all thoughts and desires as resting on the foundation of life to let them be as they are yet not be dragged around by them. It is not a matter of making a great effort not to be dragged around by desires [or thoughts]. It is just waking up and returning to the reality of life that is essential. ”
So if what you notice when you stop talking and stop moving and take your place on the cushion is sometimes a very noisy show this is not a matter to be discouraged about. Just remember kakusoku: remember to return to breath, to return to nothing, to return to Reality. Billions of times. Even as difficulties arise, by practicing this way you will find a great space within which you can appreciate your noisy life.