Do Nothing At All (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 2)

HipstamaticPhoto-554218618.998587This is the second part of a 6-part series on Keizan’s Zazen Yōjinki(“Notes on What to be Aware of in Zazen”). You can click here for Part 1

Let’s continue: “Drop through this bodymind”—bodymind is an important word—”and you will be far beyond such forms as sitting or lying down. Beyond considerations of good or bad, transcend any divisions between usual people and sages, pass beyond the boundary between sentient beings and Buddha.”

On the surface this sounds really big, but if we look more closely at what Keizan is doing, we see he has keywords, and the keywords are what we need to look at:

“Drop through this bodymind”—bodymind is a key word—”and you will be far beyond such forms as sitting or lying down.”

He’s also drawing contrasts: “Beyond considerations of good or bad, transcend any divisions between usual people and sages….”

But when he does this, he’s saying, there’s this and this—it’s not this or this. And then he sets up another one and he says how about this and this? It’s not that or that. He keeps talking about being between: “…pass beyond the boundary between sentient beings and Buddha.”

If we imagine that there are sentient beings, then we imagine that there are buddhas. And if we think it through, we might imagine that there’s a kind of a spot in the middle: that there’s someone who’s halfway here and halfway there.

Don’t imagine, he says, that this is either/or. And don’t imagine that this is a spectrum. Any two things between which you might get stuck—you have to drop it! It’s not a progression. It’s not win/lose. It’s something else.

And then he says, “Putting aside all concerns, shed all attachments. Do nothing at all. Don’t fabricate any things with the six senses.”

Do nothing at all.

There’s a perception of zazen—even by people who do zazen—that zazen is a kind of doing nothing.

There’s another perception of zazen, which I’ve mentioned a number of times before: maybe zazen isn’t doing nothing, but still, somehow it’s outside of the realm of cause and effect. This is a very popular idea. In this view, when you’re sitting in zazen, you’re not creating any karma. You’re beyond morality. You’re beyond questions of consequences. You’re kind of frozen in space and time, untouched, and untouching. I’ve heard this many times, from many teachers. However, as I’ve said before, it’s ridiculous. That is not what Keizan is talking about, though if we’re not careful we might read that into it. “Do nothing at all” can sound like we’re separating ourselves somehow, or we’re putting ourselves in a bubble.

For now, let’s read “Do nothing at all” as simply “Don’t fabricate.” In our activities, in our lives, in our practice, our default is to either push or pull. In everything we do, we push or we pull. We’re always pushing and pulling. Last week I said we always contract—it’s the same. There’s something that makes us tight. When you push, you’re tight. When you pull, you’re tight.

In zazen, if something comes into your mind and you think Oh, this is not zazen! I should not be thinking about this, you push. Even if your body looks serene, you’re contracting, you’re trying to hold something back. And then, when that idea is replaced by something that’s just too good to ignore, too juicy—either because it’s a memory that you kind of like to torture yourself with, or because it’s a fantasy that just has its own appeal—then you start to pull. And you know what it is to pull. You know what it is to hold onto a rope and to try to pull something towards yourself. You hold on. The effect is the same. In the body, in the mind—it’s the same, whether it’s attachment or aversion. You’re moving this way or you’re moving this way, and your body is dealing with that and your mind is dealing with that. You’re here in relationship to something.

What Keizan is talking about over and over and over again is the idea that there’s a space that’s neither. You don’t have to push or pull. That sounds obvious, but there are very few moments in an ordinary life when we don’t do one or the other. So we’re invited to consider: what is it to do neither? What is it to be here—not just in this posture but in this moment, neither grasping nor pushing away?

In kinhin, depending on how much you pay attention to your feet, you may be aware of your center of gravity. And when we’re balanced, when we say that we’ve found our center of gravity, that’s a moment when we’re neither pushing nor pulling.

Now, sometimes when you do kinhin, it’s very forced. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just because that’s how it feels that day, and so you lift your foot and the feeling is “now I’m going up, and now I’m going forward, and now I’m down” and it has a kind of robotic feeling. You’re really putting your energy into this thing, and so the actions feel contrived. Everybody who has done kinhin, I suspect, has had the experience of almost losing their balance—we’re doing something so simple, and yet it can be hard.

But there are other days—again, you don’t get a gold star for this!—when you do kinhin and you find that instead of lifting and moving and lowering and stepping, the movement is more like that of a gyroscope. At the end of the exhalation, when your foot is all the way down but the next foot hasn’t yet started to lift, you’re balanced. You’re completely balanced. You’ve found your center of gravity in that moment.

And sometimes when you start to lift, instead of feeling like you’re falling to the left, it’s more like you’re turning, and as you’re turning you can feel yourself moving around this point that you recognize. You recognize the point in the middle; everything is a kind of dance around that balanced point. It feels very, very different. This is not every day! It’s also not a “sweet spot.” This is the momentary absence of contraction.

The way that you find out what it is to push or to pull is not simply to stop. I can’t say “Stop pushing!” and then everyone stops pushing. This practice is more subtle than that. It’s the practice first of noticing what it is to push, and noticing what it is to pull. Zazen is a place to experiment with that.

But it extends to everything, so that when you’re in a meeting and you think of the thing that you really want to say, but the conversation is still going, and you kind of start half-listening to what everyone else is saying because now you’re rehearsing the thing that you’re going to say, and then eventually you’re barely hearing anything that anyone’s saying because now you’re looking for your opening to say it—you’re pulling! Or you could say that you’re pushing some things and pulling others.

When I tell my children to be patient, I really want my children to be patient. This is a virtue that I want my children to experience. But they’re nine and they’re seven, and they’re just not very patient. When they’re saying “Can we go? Can we go? Can we go? Can we go?”—in that moment, they are not patient. That’s the reality of that moment. This moment is only ever this moment. It is never the one that I want it to be. It is never the next. It’s this one, and this moment looks exactly like this and it feels exactly like this. So when my kids are saying “Can we go now? Can we go now? Can we go now?”—maybe we can’t go now. But I can respond in one of two basic ways. I can say, “No, we can’t go right now.” Or I can say, “YOU NEED TO BE PATIENT! WORK ON IT!”

In the first, there’s no push and there’s no pull. This is just reality. The reality is that they want to go and we can’t go yet. There’s no inherent friction there, there’s no problem. In the second, I’ve identified a problem and have pushed it on to them. Now we’ve completely disregarded the reality of whether we can or can’t go right now; instead, the issue is that they need to change who they are. I do this all the time. I fall into this all the time. “You need to STOP!” But when I say you need to stop, I’m really talking about the future, not right now. I’m trying to bulldoze someone into the next moment or the next moment or the next moment, where the situation is different. I’m not just staying still in the face of what is right now. What is right now, whether it’s a problem or not, is what is right now. I can’t pretend that it’s not. I can only respond.

“Putting aside all concerns, shed all attachments. Do nothing at all.”

This doesn’t mean “don’t respond.” It doesn’t mean “be passive.” It doesn’t mean “don’t try to fix something that’s wrong.” But we only fix things that are wrong—fix them—in the future. Things don’t get fixed. Things become the things that they are, and we kind of steer them toward eventually being the thing that they are. In this moment, nothing gets fixed. It’s impossible, because for something to be fixed in this moment is for this moment not to be this moment. In this moment, you have what’s been offered.

“Do nothing at all. Don’t fabricate any things with the six senses.”

Don’t create. Again, because these are instructions for zazen, zazen is where we start. You sit in zazen, and you try to make zazen out of zazen. We have this koan, the one my teachers returned to more than any other:

Nanyue went to Mazu to ask, “What do you intend by doing zazen?”  Mazu said, “I am intending to be a buddha.”  Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it.

Mazu said, “What are you doing?”  Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.”

Mazu said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”  Nanyue said, “How can you become a buddha by doing zazen?”

 It’s the same thing. Making zazen and making a buddha are the same thing. It’s an art project.

I sit and I fold my legs up just like this, and I put my hands just like this, and my shoulders are back like this, and then eventually my breathing is just like this, and then my mind…is the mind…of ZAZEN. Sometimes I can do that for a few seconds, just at the beginning—I can project onto zazen this idea of calm and spaciousness and acceptance and focus. When I do that, I construct zazen—just like I’m making a craft with paper and glue. That is not it.

They use different language, but Keizan and Dogen are saying the same thing over and over: don’t measure this. Don’t imagine that there’s a platonic ideal of zazen and that you’re working toward it. Throw that out!

The only zazen is the zazen that’s real, and the only zazen that’s real is the zazen that’s happening right now. The one that happened last week where it felt really good—it’s not real. And the one that you envision ten years from now, after you’ve been doing this every day and it’s really become a part of yourself—also not real.

The zazen of the person next to you that seems really, really solid, that person who sits like a rock—that’s not real. There’s one zazen that’s real, and you’re in it.

Don’t add something to it. Don’t try to shape it. Don’t try to sculpt it. Don’t try to give it a story. Don’t push. And don’t pull. And another thing: “don’t push and don’t pull” doesn’t mean there’s a sweet spot. It doesn’t mean there’s this magical place in the middle where you’re just in between doing this and doing that. “Don’t push and don’t pull” is wider than that.

If we imagine there’s a sweet spot, then we fall into the same trap again and we imagine that every time I’m not pushing or pulling, it’s going to feel just like this. But tomorrow, not pushing and not pulling feels different. And the next day it feels different. And the next day it feels different, because again, that’s the only one that’s real.

When you’re walking, you’re doing kinhin, that’s the only kinhin that’s real. Can you walk forward without pushing? Try it. This has ramifications far beyond sitting or walking.


2 comments on “Do Nothing At All (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 2)

  1. […] “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen.” You can click here for Part 1 and Part 2. (The original talk can be found on the ZNS Podcast, […]

  2. Mark Foote says:

    I’ve been trying to put some science to Kobun’s “sometimes zazen gets up and walks around” for a long time.

    I think the start is with Gautama the Shakyan’s “way of living”. The only real actions in Gautama’s “way of living” are relaxing the activity of the body (in inhalation and in exhalation), and calming down the “mental factors” (similarly in inhalation and in exhalation).

    He recommended his “way of living” (“the concentration on in-breathing and out-breathing) as being “peaceful and choice, something perfect in itself, and a pleasant way of living too.” (Sanyutta Nikaya V 322, Pali Text Society pg 285). The striving for enlightenment through the contemplation of the unlovely (and other means), which resulted in the suicides of scores of monks a day, he put aside here in favor of a way of living that he said was “perfect in itself”.

    Now I would say that relaxation can bring forward a one-pointedness in the location of awareness, one-pointedness not in the object of awareness but in the location of awareness. This is a function of the sense of equalibrium, of balance, provided by the vestibular organs. Inside the windings of the vestibular organs are the otoliths, that provide the sense of gravity in balance.

    The sense of balance is also informed by proprioceptors throughout the body, nerves that signal position and movement in the muscles, joints, and ligaments.

    The eyes have a very tight connection with the feeling of location that can be separated out. Together the four senses (equalibrioception, graviception, proprioception, and oculoception) are intimately involved in our feeling for the location of awareness, and as a consequence our sense of self (see the research of Olaf Blanke and Christine Mohr).

    “Calming down the mental factors” I would take to be calming down in the face of the precariousness of my situation, as relayed by the senses and especially with regard to posture. An upright posture is inherently precarious, as shearing force is generated at the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae from the weight of the upper body. Finding calm can serve to free the location of awareness to shift and move, even when the body does not.

    “Don’t fabricate any things with the six senses” becomes “Don’t fabricate any things with the nine senses”, and we could add the additional three senses to Gautama’s description here:

    “(Anyone)…knowing and seeing eye as it really is, knowing and seeing material shapes… visual consciousness… impact on the eye as it really is, and knowing, seeing as it really is the experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is not attached to the eye nor to material shapes nor to visual consciousness nor to impact on the eye; and that experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye—neither to that is (such a one) attached. …(Such a one’s) physical anxieties decrease, and mental anxieties decrease, and bodily torments… and mental torments… and bodily fevers decrease, and mental fevers decrease. (Such a one) experiences happiness of body and happiness of mind. (repeated for ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind).

    Whatever is the view of what really is, that for (such a one) is right view; whatever is aspiration for what really is, that for (such a one) is right aspiration; whatever is endeavour for what really is, that is for (such a one) right endeavour; whatever is mindfulness of what really is, that is for (such a one) right mindfulness; whatever is concentration on what really is, that is for (such a one) right concentration. And (such a one’s) past acts of body, acts of speech, and mode of livelihood have been well purified.

    (Majjhima-Nikaya III 287-289, Pali Text Society III pg 337-338)

    Relax, calm down, sometimes the cessation of activity gets up and walks around.

    After I wrote & posted this comment (it didn’t appear–problems with logging into, I wrote a more expansive explanation of “zazen gets up and walks around”, that’s here:

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