There are two basic approaches to teaching zazen in this Sōtō Zen tradition. The first one—and sometimes the only one—that we learn is Dogen’s. It’s very straightforward: he says, choose a place that’s like this. Sit on a cushion like this. Put your hands just like this. Hold your back like this. This is what you do with your eyes. Go! That’s zazen.
If you were to go to Japan and ask for zazen instructions today, you would basically get that. No one would want to talk about your mind. No one would tell you, “Don’t think about this,” or “Do think about this,” or “This is what it might feel like.” They’d face you against a wall, explain the posture, and say, “Now do this forever.” There’s a tremendous faith in that, that those basic instructions alone are enough, so we don’t want to confuse you with anything else. That’s one flavour of Zen.
Keizan has a different approach, but one that ultimately speaks to the same thing. Instead of saying, ” Choose a quiet place” or “Sit on a cushion like this,” Keizan begins by saying, “First, realize your true nature—know who you are and your place in the world. Then do zazen!”
If there is something that is radical, something that is critical in our understanding about what this tradition is, it’s this: rather than practice to become something, we practice with that thing as the starting point.
We are told, in this tradition, that only a buddha can do zazen, that zazen itself is a gesture of awakening. Not a path, not a means, not a tool. It’s an expression of who you already are, what you already are, and what everything already is.
So Keizan begins not by telling us how to hold our hands, but how to hold ourselves in the world. It sets a high bar. Earlier, he said:
Putting aside all concerns, shed all attachments. Do nothing at all. Don’t fabricate any things with the six senses.
Don’t force anything. Bring no pretense to this. Sitting as buddha is not the same as sitting as if you’re a buddha, imitating one or declaring “I’m going to be a Buddha today!” It’s deeper than that.
Who is this? Its name is unknown; it cannot be called “body,” it cannot be called “mind.” Trying to think of it, the thought vanishes. Trying to speak of it, words die.
The language here gets very vague. When he says, “Who is this?” it’s not the same as “Who are you?” He’s asking us to question the relationship between body and mind. It’s not enough to call it “body”; it’s not enough to call it “mind.” Don’t imagine that they’re separate.
It is like a fool, an idiot. It is as high as a mountain, deep as the ocean. Without peak or depths, its brilliance is unthinkable, it shows itself silently. Between sky and earth, only this whole body is seen.
This is very poetic, and as we explore it, what we see is that Keizan is talking about something that we might call awakening, or that we might call buddhanature. And at the same time, he’s talking about your body. He’s talking about them as the same thing. “It is like a fool, an idiot”—this is language we hear echoed in Precious Mirror Samadhi (“With practice hidden, function secretly, like a fool, like an idiot”).
This is not advocating for idiocy. And it’s not celebrating ignorance. The fool, in the context of these teachings, is someone who is not caught up in his or her own mind. The intelligent person…what does the intelligent person do? The intelligent person thinks about stuff. And then, she thinks about what she thought about that stuff. And then maybe she brings in some other ideas that seem relevant to that, so that in one instant she can find herself twenty steps removed from the reality of what’s happening right now.
The fool is used in contrast to everybody else. Everybody else is the smart one. Everybody else is living inside his or her own mind. Everybody else is imagining that they are a vehicle for this pink, wrinkly mass that rides up here in the skull, looking out and seeing the world. The fool has no such idea. The fool isn’t thinking about the fool’s thoughts. The fool is just present. From a cultural standpoint, it’s too simple; there’s not enough depth. There’s not enough analysis. There’s not enough questioning. So compared to the person who has something to say and something to analyze, that person who is just simply there looks, well, like a fool.
The fool has no reference point, not in the way that we do when we identify ourselves with a thought, or a story, an idea. Often we think that we are the thing that we’re thinking, and if we’re desperate we think that we are something that we thought once, a thought that was just really, really good. We carry that idea like a trophy. But the fool is just here and here and here.
A karate teacher I met years ago came from Okinawa and was trying to give us American students a pep talk. He said that to be really good—at anything —you have to be a little stupid. It’s the same idea. He used the example of digging post holes. It’s repetitive work—there’s a tool you stick in the ground to pull up the dirt, and that makes the hole. You just do it again, and you do it again. He said, there’s a particular kind of mind that can do that, that can say, “I’m going to wake up today and I’m going to dig post holes, and I’m going to do that until the end of the day, and then tomorrow, because it’s my job, I’m going to wake up and I’m going to dig post holes again.” Smart people, he said, can’t do that. They’ll overthink it. They’ll ask themselves in every gesture, why am I doing this? Why am I here? What does this mean? What does this mean about me? What does this mean about my life? If you’re thinking that way, you can’t do it for a day, much less for a lifetime.
To dig really deep—into Zen, into an art, into a relationship, into your work—you have to be able to just do something over and over and over again, without asking why. This is true from the moment of waking up. If you’ve ever heard the alarm in the morning and lain in bed thinking, “Why? Why do I even get up in the morning?” then you’re being too smart for your own good.
Between sky and earth, only this whole body is seen.
We should understand this is exactly the way that Dogen talks about buddhanature: there’s nothing but this. We all have a reference point; we have that feeling of separation, an idea that there’s something else. Keizan is saying, there is nothing else. This thing that’s waking up in the morning is infinitely vast. Not because you’re important, but because everything is important.
This one is without compare—he has completely died. Eyes clear, she stands nowhere. Where is there any dust? What can obstruct such a one?
This image comes up a lot in Zen discussion as well: the dust. You can only have dust on something if something isn’t the whole thing. And you can only have dust on something if something is capable of being unclean. But if we’re talking about something that permeates, and we’re also talking about dust, it doesn’t work.
Clear water has no back or front, space has no inside or outside. Completely clear, its own luminosity shines before form and emptiness were fabricated.
We like to talk about form and we like to talk about emptiness. According to Keizan, they’re both made up.
Objects of mind and mind itself have no place to exist.
Again, you can only have a location, you can only have a reference point, if you’re distinct, and if you’re separate.
This has always already been so but it is still without a name. The great teacher, the Third Ancestor Sengcan temporarily called it “mind,” and the Venerable Nagarjuna once called it “body.” Enlightened essence and form, giving rise to the bodies of all the Buddhas, it has no “more” or “less” about it.
This is symbolized by the full moon but it is this mind which is enlightenment itself. The luminosity of this mind shines throughout the past and brightens as the present. Nagarjuna used this subtle symbol for the samadhi of all the Buddhas. But this mind is signless, nondual, and differences between forms are only apparent.
The moon has been a useful tool for talking about form and emptiness, or absolute and relative—the moon is always full, and yet it’s also useful to say that it’s not, that it’s always in flux, that it’s always changing. The moon shines, but not really—it just reflects something bigger. We have all sorts of stories about the moon. We look up and we say, oh, it’s at this stage, or it’s at this stage. In the same way, we look at our lives and we imagine we’re at this stage or at this stage. “I’m still young!” “Oh, now I’m in middle age.” We can see my peak; we can locate that moment in the past. Or perhaps we can see that peak just around the corner.
That’s one way of looking at your life. But there’s another in which it’s just full, and it’s always full, and it can’t be anything but that. And like the moon, it’s not that it’s shining from within: it’s made visible by the things around it.
I really love this text. I love how Keizan lays out the foundation of the practice. Remember, these are instructions for zazen. He’s saying, know thyself – first. First, know who you are. Not in a personal way. Not the you that has a name. The other one. That’s the one who’s going to sit like this. That’s the one who makes this gesture of awakening.