Avoid Getting Caught Up (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 5)


This is the fifth in a six-part series on Keizan’s “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen.” You can click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 (The original talk can be found on the ZNS Podcast.)



But yams are OK.


As we continue with Keizan’s “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen,” we learn he has something to say about arts and crafts:

Avoid getting caught up in arts and crafts, prescribing medicines, and fortune-telling.

I suppose the rule about arts and crafts can apply to anyone, but there was a time not so long ago, and certainly in Keizan’s time, when the village priest did a lot more than what you would think a village priest would do. So the village priest was also the local fortune teller, and he was also the doctor. Here, Keizan is saying, Don’t get sucked into what people expect of you.

Stay away from songs and dancing, arguing and babbling, fame and gain. Composing poetry can be an aid in clarifying the mind but don’t get caught up in it. The same is true for writing and calligraphy. This is the superior precedent for practitioners of the Way and is the best way to harmonize the mind.

Don’t wear luxurious clothing or dirty rags. Luxurious clothing gives rise to greed and then the fear that someone will steal something. This is a hindrance to practitioners of the Way. Even if someone offers them to you, to refuse is the excellent tradition from ancient times. If you happen to have luxurious clothing, don’t be concerned with it; if it’s stolen don’t bother to chase after it or regret its loss.

He also has some thoughts on old dirty clothes:

Although we shouldn’t be too anxious about bodily comforts, inadequate clothing, food and sleep are known as the “three insufficiencies” and will cause our practice to suffer.

And it just gets better:

Don’t eat anything alive, hard, or spoiled. Such impure foods will make your belly churn and cause heat and discomfort of bodymind, making your sitting difficult. Don’t indulge in rich foods. Not only is this bad for bodymind, it’s just greed. You should eat to promote life so don’t fuss about taste. Also, if you sit after eating too much you will feel ill. Whether the meal is large or small, wait a little while before sitting. Monks should be moderate in eating and hold their portions to two-thirds of what they can eat. All healthy foods, sesame, wild yams and so on, can be eaten. Essentially, you should harmonize bodymind.

It’s very practical – Eat well; don’t dress up too much.

But what interests me is this first part: “Avoid getting caught up in arts and crafts”—and songs and dancing, or writing poetry, or calligraphy, or whatever it is. A point that we come back to over and over—and it’s particularly relevant in talking about this text because there’s a lot of don’t—is that none of this is about morality. There are certainly Buddhist texts from this era that would say singing and dancing are immoral, so I don’t want to pretend that the idea isn’t out there. But what’s at the heart of this is not some idea about purity or impurity: he’s talking about preparing for sitting.

What is it that distracts you? What is it that invites you to disengage from being here? If you’re not sure, it’s an easy experiment. Go home, in the middle of all your stuff, and just sit down on the sofa, with nothing to do. And then start to feel what the magnet pull is for you. After you’ve been sitting there doing nothing for a while, when you start to feel antsy and star thinking, I should do something—notice what that is.

For many people today, it’s their phone. You think you have control over your phone, but if you could watch a fast-forward video of your life, you’d see that you’re just constantly checking it. You don’t know you’re checking it, but you’re checking it. I do this sometimes. I leave it in the kitchen and as I walk by I push the button, because maybe there’s something important that will reveal itself to me. And then I keep going, and I think, Oh look, I didn’t engage! But I engaged. I checked the window into another world and then I stepped back. Really, what I’m doing is I’m hoping something exciting happened so that then I can pick it up and play, so I can read something. Someone will tell me something I didn’t know.

When I was younger I didn’t have this; back then, I think my distraction most often was my own mind. I was a daydreamer. So if I just sat there on the sofa, pretty soon I wouldn’t be on the sofa anymore; my body would be on the sofa, but I’d be somewhere else. I wouldn’t stay where I was. If there was a remote control, I’d be in the television. And if there was nothing to do at my house, I’d get in the car and I’d drive around, or I’d go see a friend. I wanted to be in motion. I wanted to be engaged.

Now, in my mid-forties, I see myself on the other side of that equation, where my life contains so much encounter (kids! sangha! job! internet!) that I find I often want to withdraw a little bit. I catch myself thinking, Oh, I wish I could just sit on the back deck and do nothing but sit on the back deck. But until recently, when I hit that place of being overwhelmed, my instinct always was to find something, something to entertain my mind.

I don’t know what it is for you. Maybe it’s projects—some people feel they just have to have a project. Maybe it’s hobbies. Maybe it’s talking on the phone. It doesn’t mean don’t talk on the phone. It doesn’t mean don’t read the news. But notice what your relationship is to that. Notice how it goes beyond utility.

We have a natural impulse to disengage from the present. I think we’re just born with it. We’re born looking for some place for our minds to land. Certain things, out of habit, become our vehicle for that impulse. It isn’t my phone’s fault. It’s just that my phone is particularly suited to the task of taking me from where I am into something else.

Really try to notice this. I spend a lot of time thinking about this because I also spend a lot of time forgetting this. When I travel and I’m in an airport, I have three hours before anything exciting is going to happen. I sit down in a place where there’s nothing to do, and there’s no one I know. And I just start to feel this draw: Now I need something, I need an entertainment. I need something that will take me out of this wide view, which is sitting here watching all of these people walk around, these people from all these different places, with all these different destinations. Something that will take me out of that and into something that’s just for me. Something narrow. So I get out a book, or I get out my phone, or I listen to something. Anything to make my experience of the present smaller—and, if possible, to make it feel like I’m accomplishing something. Because what a great feeling: I can say I’ve finished that book, or I did some work.

Keizan says, avoid getting caught up. There’s a little humour in this: he’s talking about what you should do before you sit, but in this particular case, if you actually did it, if you get it, then you’re basically doing zazen already. You’ve snuck up on the act. I don’t know how you’re sitting in that moment or how you’re standing in that moment, but if you can figure this out, then you’ve largely figured that out.

It’s the same as earlier in the text, when he says to figure out who you are, first, before you sit. It’s not that if you do A then you can do B; it’s that if you do A, you’re already doing B. He keeps showing this.

At the end of this section, clothed in this conversation about whether or not you should be eating yams, he’s really saying, harmonize bodymind. Get in touch with that. Which, again, is another way of saying, do zazen. Figure out that relationship before you sit down—then you’ve solved your problem.

From every direction, he’s saying, implicitly, do not use zazen as a tool to accomplish something. Zazen is the end: it’s the endpoint. It’s the end expression of the practice. It’s not the metric and it’s not the means. It’s complete. It’s finished. Sit like that. Sit from the top of the mountain. Sit as Buddha, not as a Buddha-to-be.

And don’t eat anything alive!


5 comments on “Avoid Getting Caught Up (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 5)

  1. Susan Mcdonald says:


    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Genjun says:

    “Notice how it goes beyond utility.”

    I’m going to be thinking about that.

  3. Alex Paul says:

    “Notice how it goes beyond utility.”

    I’m going to be looking for that.

  4. […] on What to Be Aware of in Zazen.” You can click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. (The original talk can be found on the ZNS Podcast.) There’s much more to be said about this […]

  5. […] via Avoid Getting Caught Up (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 5) […]

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