to The Art of Just Sitting: Hongzhi, Dogen and the Background of Shikan
One way to categorize the meditation practice of shikan taza, or "just sitting," is as an objectless meditation. This is a definition in terms of what it is not. One just sits, not concentrating on any particular object of awareness, unlike most traditional meditation practices, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, that involve intent focus on a particular object. Such objects traditionally have included colored disks, candle flames, various aspects of breath, incantations, ambient sound, physical sensations or postures, spiritual figures, mandalas including geometric arrangements of such figures, or of symbols representing them, teaching stories, or key phrases from such stories. Some of these concentration practices are in the background of the shikan taza practice tradition, or have been included with shikan taza in its actual lived experience by practitioners.
But objectless meditation focuses on clear, non-judgmental, panoramic attention to all of the myriad arising phenomena in the present experience. Such objectless meditation is a potential universally available to conscious beings, and has been expressed at various times in history. This just sitting is not a meditation technique or practice, or any thing at all. "Just sitting" is a verb rather than a noun, the dynamic activity of being fully present.
The specific practice experience of shikan taza was first articulated in the Soto Zen lineage (Caodong in Chinese) by the Chinese master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157; Wanshi Shogaku in Japanese),and further elaborated by the Japanese Soto founder Eihei Dogen (1200-1253). But prior to their expressions of this experience, there are hints of this practice in some of the earlier teachers of the tradition. The founding teachers of this lineage run from Shitou Xiqian (700-790; Sekito Kisen in Japanese), two generations after the Chinese Sixth Ancestor, through three generations to Dongshan Liangjie (807-869; Tozan Ryokai in Japanese), the usually recognized founder of the Caodong, or Soto, lineage in China. I will briefly mention a couple of these early practice intimations in their Soto lineage context before discussing the expressions of Hongzhi and Dogen.
Shitou/ Sekito is most noted for his teaching poem Sandokai, "Harmony of Difference and Sameness," still frequently chanted in Soto Zen. Sandokai presents the fundamental dialectic between the polarity of the universal ultimate and the phenomenal particulars. This dialectic, derived by Shitou from Chinese Huayan thought based on the "Flower Ornament" Avatamsaka Sutra, combined with some use of Daoist imagery, became the philosophical background of Soto, as expressed by Dongshan in the five ranks teachings, and later elucidated by various Soto thinkers. But Shitou wrote another teaching poem, Soanka, "Song of the Grass Hut," which presents more of a practice model for how to develop the space that fosters just sitting. Therein Shitou says, "Just sitting with head covered all things are at rest. Thus this mountain monk does not understand at all." So just sitting does not involve reaching some understanding. It is the subtle activity of allowing all things to be completely at rest just as they are, not poking one's head into the workings of the world.
Shitou also says in Soanka, "Turn around the light to shine within, then just return. . . . Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely. Open your hands and walk, innocent." According to Shitou, the fundamental orientation of turning within, also later described by Hongzhi and Dogen, is simply in order to return to the world, and to our original quality. Letting go of conditioning while steeped in completely relaxed awareness, one is able to act effectively, innocent of grasping and attachments. So the context of this just sitting suggested by Shitou is the possibility of aware and responsive presence that is simple, open-hearted, and straightforward.
When discussing zazen, Dogen regularly quotes a saying by Shitou's successor, Yaoshan Weiyan (745-828; Yakusan Igen in Japanese). A monk asked Yaoshan what he thought of while sitting so still and steadfastly. Yaoshan replied that he thought of not-thinking, or that he thought of that which does not think. When the monk asked how Yaoshan did that, he responded, "Beyond -thinking," or, "Non-thinking." This is a state of awareness that can include both cognition and the absence of thought, and is not caught up in either. Dogen calls this, "The essential art of zazen."
These early accounts would indicate that there was already a context of Caodong/ Soto practitioners "just sitting" well before Hongzhi and Dogen. The Soto lineage almost died out in China a century before Hongzhi, but was revived by Touzi Yiqing (1032-1083; Tosu Gisei in Japanese), who brought a background in Huayan studies to enliven Soto philosophy. Touzi's successor, Furong Daokai (1043-1118; Fuyo Dokai in Japanese) was a model of integrity who solidified and developed the forms for the Soto monastic community. It remained for Hongzhi, two generations after Furong Daokai, to fully express Soto praxis. Hongzhi, easily the most prominent Soto teacher in the twelfth century, was a literary giant, a highly prolific, elegant, and evocative writer who comprehensively articulated this meditation practice for the first time.
Hongzhi does not use the actual term, "just sitting," which Dogen quotes instead from his own Soto lineage teacher Tiantong Rujing (1163-1228; Tendo Nyojo in Japanese). But Tiantong Monastery, where Dogen studied with Rujing in 1227, was the same temple where Hongzhi had been abbot for almost thirty years up to his death in 1157. Dogen refers to Hongzhi as an "Ancient Buddha," and frequently quotes him, especially from his poetic writings on meditative experience. Clearly the meditative awareness that Hongzhi writes about was closely related to Dogen's meditation, although Dogen developed its dynamic orientation in his own writings about just sitting.
Hongzhi's meditation teaching is usually referred to as "silent, or serene, illumination," although Hongzhi actually uses this term only a few times in his voluminous writings. In his long poem, "Silent Illumination," Hongzhi emphasizes the necessity for balance between serenity and illumination, which echoes the traditional Buddhist meditation practice of shamatha-vipashyana, or stopping and insight. This was called zhiguan in the Chinese Tiantai meditation system expounded by the great Chinese Buddhist synthesizer Zhiyi (538-597). Hongzhi emphasizes the necessity for active insight as well as calm in "Silent Illumination" when he says, "If illumination neglects serenity then aggressiveness appears. . . . If serenity neglects illumination, murkiness leads to wasted dharma." So Hongzhi's meditation values the balancing of both stopping, or settling the mind, and its active illuminating functioning.
In his prose writings, Hongzhi frequently uses nature metaphors to express the natural simplicity of the lived experience of silent illumination or just sitting. (I am generally using these terms interchangeably, except when discussing differences in their usages by Hongzhi or Dogen.) An example of Hongzhi's nature writing is,
A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain's foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountains appear. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains vast interpenetration without bounds.
Hongzhi here highlights the ease of this awareness and its function. Like the flow of water and clouds, the mind can move smoothly to flow in harmony with its environment. "Accord and respond without laboring and accomplish without hindrance. Everywhere turn around freely, not following conditions, not falling into classifications."
In many places, Hongzhi provides specific instructions about how to manage one's sense perceptions so as to allow the vital presence of just sitting. "Respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds." Again he suggests, "Casually mount the sounds and straddle the colors while you transcend listening and surpass watching." This does not indicate a presence that is oblivious to the surrounding sense world. But while the practitioner remains aware, sense phenomena do not become objects of attachment, or objectified at all.
Another aspect of Hongzhi's practice is that it is objectless not only in terms of letting go of concentration objects, but also objectless in the sense of avoiding any specific, limited goals or objectives. As Hongzhi says at the end of "Silent Illumination," "Transmit it to all directions without desiring to gain credit." This serene illumination, or just sitting, is not a technique, or a means to some resulting higher state of consciousness, or any particular state of being. Just sitting, one simply meets the immediate present. Desiring some flashy experience, or anything more or other than "this" is mere worldly vanity and craving. Again invoking empty nature, Hongzhi says, "Fully appreciate the emptiness of all dharmas. Then all minds are free and all dusts evaporate in the original brilliance shining everywhere. . . . Clear and desireless, the wind in the pines and the moon in the water are content in their elements."
This non-seeking quality of Hongzhi's meditation eventually helped make it controversial. The leading contemporary teacher in the much more prominent Linji lineage (Japanese Rinzai) was Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163; Daie Soko in Japanese). A popular historical stereotype is that Dahui and Hongzhi were rivals, debating over silent illumination meditation as opposed to Dahui's Koan Introspection meditation teaching. Historians have now established that Hongzhi and Dahui were actually good friends, or at least had high mutual esteem, and sent students to each other. There was no such debate, at least until future generations of their successors, although Dahui did severely critique "silent illumination" practice as being quietistic and damaging to Zen. However, Dahui clearly was not criticizing Hongzhi himself, but rather, some of his followers, and possibly Hongzhi's Dharma brother, Changlu Qingliao (1089-1151; Choryo Seiryo in Japanese), from whom Dogen's lineage descends.
Dahui's criticism of silent illumination was partly valid, based on the legitimate danger of practitioners misunderstanding this approach as quietistic or passive. Dahui's critique was echoed centuries later by Japanese Rinzai critics of just sitting, such as Hakuin in the seventeenth century. Just sitting can indeed sometimes degenerate into dull attachment to inner bliss states, with no responsiveness to the suffering of the surrounding world. Hongzhi clarifies that this is not the intention of his practice, for example when he says, "In wonder return to the journey, avail yourself of the path and walk ahead. . . . With the hundred grass tips in the busy marketplace graciously share yourself." The meditation advocated by both Hongzhi and Dogen is firmly rooted in the bodhisattva path and its liberative purpose of assisting and awakening beings. Mere idle indulgence in peacefulness and bliss is not the point.
The other aspect of Dahui's criticism related to his own advocacy of meditation focusing on koans as meditation objects, explicitly aimed at generating flashy opening experiences. Such experiences may occur in just sitting practice as well, but generally have been less valued in the Soto tradition. The purpose of Buddhist practice is universal awakening, not dramatic experiences of opening any more than passive states of serenity. But contrary to another erroneous stereotype, use of koans has been widespread in Soto teaching as well as Rinzai.
Hongzhi himself created two collections of koans with his comments, one of which was the basis for the important anthology, the Book of Serenity. Dogen also created koan collections, and (ironically, considering his reputation as champion of just sitting meditation) far more of his voluminous writing, including the essays of his masterwork Shobogenzo, "True Dharma Eye Treasury," is devoted to commentary on koans than to discussion of meditation. Dogen was actually instrumental in introducing the koan literature to Japan, and his writings demonstrate a truly amazing mastery of the depths and breadth of the range of that literature in China. Steven Heine's modern work, Dogen and the Koan Tradition, clearly demonstrates how Dogen actually developed koan practice in new expansive modes that differed from Dahui's concentrated approach. Although Hongzhi and Dogen, and most of the traditional Soto tradition, did not develop a formal koan meditation curriculum as did Dahui, Hakuin, and much of the Rinzai tradition, the koan stories have remained a prominent context for Soto teaching. Conversely, just sitting has often been part of Rinzai practice, such that some Soto monks in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries went to Rinzai masters for training in just sitting.
Although a great deal of Dogen's writing focuses on commentary on koans and sutras, and on monastic practice expressions, the practice of just sitting is clearly in the background throughout his teaching career. Dogen builds on the descriptions of Hongzhi to emphasize the dynamic function of just sitting.
In one of his first essays, Bendowa, "Talk on Wholehearted Practice of the Way," written in1231 a few years after his return from training in China, Dogen describes this meditation as the samadhi of self-fulfillment (or enjoyment), and elaborates the inner meaning of this practice. Simply just sitting is expressed as concentration on the self in its most delightful wholeness, in total inclusive interconnection with all of phenomena. Dogen makes remarkably radical claims for this simple experience. "When one displays the buddha mudra with one's whole body and mind, sitting upright in this samadhi for even a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment." Proclaiming that when one just sits all of space itself becomes enlightenment is an inconceivable statement, deeply challenging our usual sense of the nature of reality, whether we take Dogen's words literally or metaphorically. Dogen places this activity of just sitting far beyond our usual sense of personal self or agency. He goes on to say that, "Even if only one person sits for a short time, because this zazen is one with all existence and completely permeates all times, it performs everlasting buddha guidance" throughout space and time. At least in Dogen's faith in the spiritual or "theological" implications of the activity of just sitting, this is clearly a dynamically liberating practice, not mere blissful serenity.
Through his writings, Dogen gives ample indication as to how to engage this just sitting. In another noted early writing, Genjokoan, "Actualizing the Fundamental Point," from 1233, Dogen gives a clear description of the existential stance of just sitting, "To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening." That we are conditioned to project our own conceptions onto the world as a dead object-screen is the cause of suffering. When all of phenomena (including what we usually think of as "ours") join in mutual self-experience and expression, the awakened awareness that Hongzhi described through nature metaphors is present, doing buddha's work, as Dogen says.
modern Dogen scholars have emphasized the shift in his later teaching to the importance
of strict monastic practice, and supposedly away from the universal applicability
of shikan taza practice. In 1243 Dogen moved his community far from the capital
of Kyoto to the snowy north coast mountains, where he established his monastery,
Eiheiji. His teaching thereafter, until his death in 1253, was mostly in the form
of often brief talks to his monks, presented in Eihei Koroku, "Dogen's Extensive
Record." These are certainly focused on training a core of dedicated monks
to preserve his practice tradition, a mission he fulfilled with extraordinary
success. But through his later work as well as the early, instructions and encouragements
to just sit appear regularly.
1249 he exhorted his monks, "We should know that zazen is the decorous activity
of practice after realization. Realization is simply just sitting zazen. . . .
Brothers on this mountain, you should straightforwardly, single-mindedly focus
on zazen." (319) For Dogen, all of enlightenment is fully expressed in the
ongoing practice of just sitting. That same year, he gave a straightforward instruction
for just sitting:
The concluding two sentences of this talk are quoted from a poem by Hongzhi, further revealing the continuity of their practice teachings. Dogen also frequently describes this just sitting as "dropping away body and mind," shinjin datsuraku in Japanese, a phrase traditionally associated with Dogen's awakening experience in China.
For Dogen this "dropping off body and mind" is the true nature both of just sitting and of complete enlightenment, and is the ultimate letting go of self, directly meeting the cold, clear wind and moon. After turning within while just sitting, it is carried on in all activity, and throughout ongoing engagement with the world. Although just sitting now has been maintained for 750 years since Dogen, the teachings of Hongzhi and Dogen remain as primary guideposts to its practice.
Shitou does not use the words for "shikan taza," but the reference to
the iconic image of Bodhidharma just sitting, or "wall-gazing" in his
cold cave with quilt over his head is unquestionable. For "Soanka" see
Taigen Dan Leighton, with Yi Wu, trans., Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent
Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, revised, expanded edition (Boston: Tuttle
Publishing, 2000), pp. 72-73.
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