This is the last 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, Part 4, and Part 5. (The original talk can be found on the ZNS Podcast.) There’s much more to be said about this wonderful text; I’d like to come back to it sometime. For now, I hope these have been a useful introduction.
In reading Keizan’s instructions for zazen, we’ve been told, first, that we should understand who we are in the great scope of the universe (we were also told not to spend too much time on arts and crafts, and to watch what we eat). Finally, after pages and pages, he starts offering concrete sitting instructions:
When you are sitting in zazen, do not prop yourself up against a wall, meditation brace, or screen. Also, do not sit in windy places or high, exposed places, as this can cause illness.
Don’t slouch, and don’t sit in a place that might make you sick. You might think you don’t need to be told this, but there’s a long tradition of people sitting in zazen on the edges of cliffs. They scope out their meditation spot, their zazen rock. So we might hear in this—maybe—Keizan teasing a little bit about that impulse.
Sometimes when you are sitting you may feel hot or cold, discomfort or ease, stiff or loose, heavy or light, or sometimes startled. These sensations arise through disharmonies of mind and breath-energy. Harmonize your breath in this way:
Open your mouth slightly, allow long breaths to be long and short breaths to be short, and it will harmonize naturally. Follow it for a while until a sense of awareness arises and your breath will be natural. After this, continue to breathe through the nose.
Now, this is similar to how I would usually teach someone to sit. I was taught that when you first sit down, you take a deep breath in through the nose, then exhale through the mouth. (I was also told to exaggerate that a little bit, to push in those few initial breaths. That particular point doesn’t seem to be included in what Keizan is saying here.)
Harmonize your breath in this way: open your mouth slightly, allow long breaths to be long and short breaths to be short.
That’s a very classic instruction. The Satipatthana Sutta, which really goes into the breathing and the mindfulness around breathing, has this kind of talk about being aware of long breaths being long and short breaths being short. It sounds very natural.
The reality, however, is that when you first sit down, your breathing will not be natural. Nothing about this posture is quite natural. Just acknowledge that. Allow yourself, in the beginning, to pay attention to your breathing, to work with that discomfort. Somehow, we take up this posture, and suddenly we don’t know how to breathe anymore. Just notice that. Notice if you’re intentionally trying to breathe deeply. Notice if you’re having trouble breathing deeply. Spend a little time, and after a while…you’ll just breathe. When that happens—when you find that you’re just breathing—you can move on.
The mind may feel—
I want to interrupt and point out that Dogen doesn’t talk like this. Dogen never gets into “you might feel like this, you might feel like this.” It’s like a commercial for some sort of medication: “You may experience dizziness. You may have irrational fear.” But Keizan is happy to go there:
The mind may feel as if it were sinking or floating, it may seem dull or sharp.
These are all within the umbrella of zazen.
Sometimes you can see outside the room, the insides of the body…
One way or another, I suspect everyone has some version of this experience. If you’ve ever started to dream in zazen, then in a way, you’ve seen outside the room. I had a very intense experience of this when I first entered the monastery. So much of monastic life has to do with knowing where things go. I think the first place that I trained had eighteen altars. And they all had to be just right. Everyone else had it memorized: this goes here, and this goes here, and this goes here. So in those first few months, any time you’re in the room, you’re memorizing the room. You’re constantly memorizing the space. And what would happen was that very late at night, or very early in the morning when I was sitting in zazen, I would suddenly see, in three-dimensional space, another room in the monastery. I would be studying it as if I was actually there. And then—fooom!—I’d realize, Ah! I’m sitting here facing a wall. And it would happen again. As I got sleepy again, it wasn’t that I would dream about high school or about something interesting: I would just dream about the actual room next door, in all its particulars. It was very vivid. (I don’t think I’ve ever had Keizan’s experience of seeing the insides of the body, but it’s an interesting possibility.)
… the forms of buddhas or bodhisattvas.
We know from looking across cultures that in religious experience, people see what they’re looking for. So if you have one mindset and you settle into a certain kind of place, you’ll see angels; if you have a different kind of mindset and you settle into a similar place, you might think that you see buddhas. Or something else. None of it is real.
Sometimes you may believe that you have wisdom and now thoroughly understand all the sutras and commentaries.
Consider how he says that—and then doesn’t say anything more about it. The message is clear: if you believe these things, you’re wrong. Period.
These extraordinary conditions are diseases that arise through disharmony of mind and breath.
Again, disharmony of mind and breath is the disharmony of the mind with what’s happening now. These are juxtaposed. Multiple things are happening at once; it’s the whole organism, not a chicken and an egg. It’s not just breathing, it’s not just the mind. It’s the present. And when things are not on the same page, you go all sorts of places.
When this happens, sit placing the mind in the lap.
Okay… So, have your hands in the cosmic mudra, palms up, thumbs touching, and there’s this common instruction: place your mind here. Different people interpret this differently. Some people will say this means to place your attention here, meaning to keep your attention on your hands. It’s a way of turning the lens to where you are in space so that you’re not looking out here and out here and out here. It’s the positive version, perhaps, of “navel gazing.”
The other way to understand this is to literally place your mind where your hands are—to relocate mind (let’s not say your mind) to your centre of gravity, so that mind is operating from a place other than your brain. Some traditions take this very seriously, this idea of moving your consciousness around the body. I wouldn’t recommend dedicating your life to it, but as an experiment, I recommend trying it, sitting in this posture and trying to feel what it’s like to let your mind, to let the base of your consciousness, move away from your head. One thing you’ll find, or that I have found, at least, is that you can’t will it to happen, because you’re willing it from your head. To the extent that you can do it, it’s an act of letting go—and a fascinating one.
When the mind sinks into dullness, raise attention above your hairline or before your eyes.
Above the hairline is a really interesting place to be putting your attention. I was taught we should be constantly aware of our eyes when we sit. Specifically, we should be aware of how we narrow and widen the aperture, how our field of vision gets narrower and narrower as our mind gets narrower and narrower. When you see that clearly, you also see how easily you can just open it up; the degree to which we open it up is the degree to which we’re here.
When the mind scatters into distraction, place attention at the tip of the nose or at the tanden.
That’s the spot below the belly button.
After this, rest attention in the left palm.
In other words, the one that’s on top. (It’s OK to switch them, though.)
Sit for a long time and do not struggle to calm the mind, and it will naturally be free of distraction.
There are various zazen instructions that speak to what we should do if we start falling asleep, if we’re overcome by drowsiness. I hear some of that in this. Sometimes the advice is to splash water on your face, or hit yourself, or even get up and walk around. Keizan is offering us some more concrete tips—again, not to get into a particular mind state but simply to not get too distracted. And in every case, you’re bringing yourself back to here. None of it is very deep: think about the tip of your nose, think about the edge of your hairline (which perhaps you’ve never thought about in your life). Place your attention on your belly button, or in the palm of your hand. Come back to the body over and over and over again.
Although the ancient teachings are a longstanding means to clarify the mind, do not read, write about, or listen to them obsessively because such excess only scatters the mind.
That’s a very classically Zen thing to say: go ahead and read the sutras, but don’t get stuck on them. You can go listen to teachings, but don’t get stuck. Don’t let that be where you spend your time.
Any time you make a decision to do something, or be involved in something, or look at something, that’s a decision to have a certain kind of thought, to fill your mind with a certain kind of activity. It’s like food. And, just like food, it’s useful to start to recognize what different kinds of thoughts do to you, how they affect you.
To get there, you need patience. You need to pay attention. And you also need some faith in the process. Read any teachings you want to, but trust that you already have what you need. Go ahead, fiddle with your breathing a little bit, but trust that it’s going to come into its own. Play with your brain a little bit if you want to, even move your awareness around; you can trust that eventually it’s going to land where it needs to land.
Just don’t let yourself get caught up. Just don’t look away.