Last year I talked at Zen Nova Scotia about Keizan Jokin’s “Notes on What To Be Aware of in Zazen” (ZazenYōjinki), a text I feel an impulse to uphold—not just because it’s so good but because it’s so rarely part of the dialogue around what zazen is (or isn’t). Below is a slightly edited version of the first of those talks, with a few changes for clarity but all of the rambling quality of how I actually speak. My deep thanks to Mike Landay for so patiently transcribing this talk and all the rest.
At most temples and centers, when we chant the lineage, we stop at Keizan. It’s Dōgen, then Koun Ejō, then Tettsu Gikai, then Keizan Jōkin. The lineage divides in two from there, so he’s the last ancestor common to us all. But the fact is, we don’t treat him very well. We say that there are two founders, Dōgen and Keizan, and if you go to a full temple in Japan that has all of the statuary and all the stuff, there will always be a little statue for each of them; if not that, at least a little scroll for Dōgen and a little scroll for Keizan. Either way, they both get to be there. But even though we say that Keizan is the other founder, there’s a bias. He founded one of the two head monasteries, Sōjiji, and people who train at Sōjiji have a very strong feeling about him. But for everybody else, he’s kind of second, if that. The result is that we tend to overlook what he wrote—and what he wrote is remarkable.
You can’t really talk about Keizan without talking about Dōgen, and we know a lot about Dōgen because everything in this Sōtō Zen tradition seems to point straight at him. The Dōgen of our imagination was very upright and very strict, kind of pure. He had an idea about bringing back something that was authentic. So he developed monastic forms, and those forms were very much about moment-to-moment practice. He wasn’t so interested in what other people were doing, he wasn’t so interested in ceremonies, or at least not in the kinds of ceremonies that have since become standard in Sōtō Zen, in which people chant and then offer merit. That really wasn’t his thing.
His idea of ceremony was that when you brush your teeth, you do it just like this—after chanting a verse. And you hold a cup just like this. And you open a door just like this. That was his sense of ceremony. When he died, his whole funeral was that his disciple Koun Ejō chanted a very short little sutra three times—and that was it. That was the end, and it feels appropriate, given who he was.
The joke about Dōgen is that everybody wants to train the way Dōgen trained, but that probably the only person who trained the way that Dōgen trained was Dōgen. In all likelihood, the tradition started to change as soon as he died; no one had the patience to do every. Little. Thing. Just. Like. That. So immediately people start tweaking it, or they said, “You know, every fifth day you can skip that one part,” and so on.
Koun Ejō followed, then Tettsu Gikai. And so we arrive at Keizan. I have to confess, I don’t know deeply about Keizan’s history. I don’t know where Keizan came from – or maybe I did at one point but I’ve forgotten, because I’m wrapped up in all of this too. But when Keizan came along, he was considered to be a popularizer of Sōtō Zen. Until that time it had been a bunch of people in a monastery in the mountains with very little contact with the outside world, following this rigorous schedule. Then Keizan came along and he made it make sense to people outside the tradition. And one of the ways that he did that was by synthesizing with things that people were already doing, including these ceremonies in which we chant and we offer merit. So under Keizan, ceremony—in the sense of ceremonial—achieved a new importance.
What we find today is that even though there was kind of a political decision to acknowledge Keizan as a second founder—and honestly, I think it’s realistic to say that the lineage may not have continued without someone like Keizan coming along—there’s always been this feeling that Dōgen was the pure thing, and that Keizan somehow muddied the waters a little bit. It’s as if he’s earned our gratitude, but maybe not our full respect.
One genuine distinction between Dōgen and Keizan is that up until Keizan, the story of the lineage is that the Buddha transmitted to Mahakasyapa, Mahakasyapa transmitted to Ananda, and so on, and it was one-to-one: one teacher, one student, and then one student, and then one student… all the way to Dōgen. Still just one—Dōgen had one student to whom he transmitted (or at least one student we would call his successor). That student had one successor. That student had one successor. But that student was Keizan, and Keizan transmitted to two, and that was all it took for the Sōtō lineage to explode, because those two transmitted to a few, and then a few, and a few, and this thing that had been a straight line suddenly had branches, and the branches had branches. So today, when we chant the lineage, we only chant to Keizan because that’s the last name upon which we can all agree.
That too was instrumental in keeping the school going, but when we tell the story, there’s a little bit of Come on… you couldn’t choose one? It seems wishy-washy. Keizan’s just not coming out on top.
Keizan was not as prolific as Dōgen, but he wrote a few things of huge importance. One is what we call now the Keizan Shingi, which was his set of monastic standards. Up until then, everyone trained using the Eihei Shingi, which was Dōgen’s set, but today no one does; if you train at a monastery in Japan, you’ll basically follow a modified version of the Keizan Shingi, in part because it just feels more practical. There were philosophical reasons why, for example, in Dōgen’s schedule the monastic day begins the night before—in his schedule, there’s a moment in the evening when it’s no longer the day that it has been, and now it’s the next day. These things make sense if you go through old Chinese texts. But Keizan said, “Well, we wake up in the morning, so the day will start the way normal people think that the day starts.” That, I think, was well received.
Keizan’s other really critical text, which we too often forget about, is called Zazen Yōjinki, “Notes on What To Be Aware of in Zazen.” These are his zazen instructions, and they are not the same as Dōgen’s—not in conflict, but definitely not the same. They don’t feel the same. Here’s the opening, just a taste (translation from The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza):
Sitting is the way to clarify the ground of experiences and to rest at ease in your Actual Nature.
Dōgen, in his instructions for zazen (Fukanzazengi), says, Zazen wa shuzen ni wa arazu: “Zazen is not learning Zen.”
Zazen is not some volitional practice. Whatever Zen it is, it isn’t Zen that you’re doing. And then he goes on to say: in fact, it is the Dharma gate of joyful ease. So they’re starting out on the same page. Here Keizan is saying: “Sitting is the way to clarify the ground of experiences”—that’s worth talking about—”and to rest at ease in your Actual Nature. This is called ‘the display of the Original Face’ and ‘revealing the landscape of the basic ground'”
So he’s beginning from this idea that there’s a starting point, a kind of home base for a human being. He calls this the ground of experiences, actual nature, the original face, the basic ground. And then he says we’re clarifying this and we’re revealing this, and we’re resting at ease in this.
When we encounter anything like this, it’s critical to not go where our mind automatically goes, which is to think of whatever this is as something other, or something lost, or something obscured.
When he says your actual nature, we think Oh, I have another nature that’s not my actual nature! And it can sound very exciting because I have a real one… I’m going to find it! I’m going to sit in zazen, and I’m going to reveal the thing that is true, and all the other stuff will just disappear! There’s adventure, there’s something you’re going to find. There’s a diamond, there’s a pearl.
That is not what he means. I’m sometimes hesitant to say something like that, because who knows what anyone actually meant? But I’m confident about this, because he’s coming out of a conversation, and the conversation is never that. The conversation is never that there is something that is the kernel of you, or that is an unformed part of you that should be formed because that would be somehow more true.
The conversation is that you, right here, right now, are one hundred percent—but also that it probably doesn’t feel that way. Why not? A lot of it has to do with this notion of resting at ease. We don’t rest at ease.
In the same way that the brainwave patterns of zazen so often happen to be the same as the brainwave patterns of deep dreamless sleep, the experience of zazen has to do with when you’re not trying to do zazen. The only thing more difficult than doing something correctly is not trying to do something that you think can be done correctly while you’re doing it.
What happens, then, is that when we sit, we take up this posture… and then we contract around it.
If you do yoga, you know that in order to stretch a muscle you have to contract a muscle. There’s no pure stretch unless you’re on a rack. Intuitively we understand this, so we sit here and we think I’m going to stretch my mind, and the way that we stretch our mind sometimes is by contracting everything else. Or, more to the point maybe, we think I’m going to stretch the part of my mind that I think is the spiritual part of my mind, and the way that I’m going to do that is by clenching the rest of my mind so that nothing else can interfere, nothing else can come in.
Guilty? I am.
This is why—or this is part of why—when we do a Newcomers’ Night, I ask everyone to go ahead and contract from the beginning. Take a memory or a fantasy or a regret or a hope, and just go ahead before you even start: wrap yourself around it like you’re a cat with a ball. Hold it and play with it—exhaust yourself around that thing. And then experience just dropping it. Not pushing it out, but getting tired.
If you don’t really recognize what contraction is, then you don’t know what it is to let go. And most of the time we don’t realize the degree to which we’re clenching around something.
I was thinking about this recently because I attended a talk by Isshō Fujita in which he led us through an exercise and said that to find the posture of zazen, the first thing you do is you find the posture that it’s not. He continued something like this:
Go ahead and roll your back, roll back on your hips so that your back is round and your head is forward, and feel how even though this feels lazy, at the same time it’s exhausting to sit in this way. You’re actually working really hard, you’re working really hard in your stomach to do this. And then once you’ve done that, go ahead and roll forward, and then roll your hips forward as far as you can so that you feel that stretch in your back, you’re trying to push your belly button down to the ground, and roll your shoulders back. This is the other way we do it. And then drop that.
Zazen is in between. It’s not volitional. Sitting down is volitional; there’s a choice to be made there. But then you sit, and you let the blocks just stack. Leaning back is not a stack. Leaning forward is not a stack. And holding yourself rigidly in place means the stack isn’t supporting itself. But somewhere in there, you can find a place where your body isn’t doing anything.
Now, I’m saying this and you’re thinking, Ah, there’s a right way. And I’m going to find it. Next time I’m going to find it and I’m going to do it just like that. And I’m going to find the place in the middle and as soon as I find it there’s going to be a locking sound: ker-chunk! And I’ll just stay. Right. There. That’s not it. That’s not it either.
If you watch sped-up video of someone doing zazen, it is never a person who is perfectly still. If a person is perfectly still the whole time they’re doing it, I’m going to come out and say: they’re doing it wrong. Because in that perfect rigid stillness, there’s no relationship to the body. That’s someone who’s just able to clench for forty-five minutes. What you really see when you see people doing zazen, if they’re doing it in an active way and an honest way is that there’re sitting still, but every once in a while there might be a little turn, or they kind of find their neck a little bit. They’re always in the process of settling in.
In that same talk by Isshō Fujita, I learned a wonderful new word: pandiculation. Pandiculation refers to the involuntary movements that we make in response to our bodies. Think of how when you yawn, you stretch. Maybe this time I do it like this, because my body just needs to do that. I don’t think about it. If you think about it, it gets really weird. If you plan it, if you think I’m going to yawn, and this time I’ll do the wide arms, but next time I yawn, oh, maybe I’ll do something else, that’s weird. There’s something that your body just does. You see this with animals, you see this with cats. They just move. This is my understanding of what pandiculation is.
And when we’re doing zazen, if we are actually being active in zazen, if we’re really bringing ourselves to zazen and to this idea of rest, then there are lots of small versions of pandiculation going on all the time while we sit. Not these big stretches, but we’re responding. We’re here, and we’re letting ourselves move. Because it’s not that my mind is sitting in some sort of crystal cage doing zazen, and this is the platform for it that needs to hold it up. It’s that this body–mind is doing zazen: the whole thing, the whole organism. And the whole organism—really, the point of the whole thing—is that the whole organism actually knows what it’s doing.
There’s a degree to which zazen, or the tradition behind zazen, rests on a faith that we already kind of understand what to do. We’re already at a hundred percent. So there’s a trust when you sit. To a degree, yes, there’s trust in the posture because we’ve been taught this, but then once we get there, there’s this other trust that we know how to do this. And so… we adjust a little bit. We trust our bodies to do this. And in that trust, we relax. Not because it’s supposed to feel a particular way, but because it’s not supposed to feel a particular way. It just is what it is.