(An Unauthorized and Incomplete Guide to Zazen)

Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, CAThe Japanese word “zazen” translates to “seated meditation”, but there’s more to the practice than meets the eye. Shunryu Suzuki, the first abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, once admonished a student who was ambitious to master the practice with the words, “only zazen can sit zazen”. Kobun Chino Otogawa, who came from Japan to assist Shunryu Suzuki, closed a lecture by similarly remonstrating his audience about their attitude toward zazen: “you know”, he said, “sometimes zazen gets up and walks around”.

You could perhaps say that zazen is the realization of selfless activity. Everybody realizes selfless activity in one way or another in the course of a day, so everybody is already doing zazen, to this way of thinking. Here’s the difficulty: if everybody is already doing zazen, then what’s the point of practice, and why would anyone care whether “zazen is sitting zazen” or not?

Dogen put the question this way in the opening of his “Fukan zazen gi” (“On the benefits of zazen”):

Fundamentally speaking, the basis of the way is perfectly pervasive; how could it be contingent on practice and verification? The vehicle of the ancestors is naturally unrestricted; why should we expend sustained effort? Surely the whole being is far beyond defilement; who could believe in a method to polish it? Never is it apart from this very place; what is the use of a pilgrimage to practice it? And yet, if a hair’s breadth of distinction exists, the gap is like that between heaven and earth; once the slightest like or dislike arises, all is confused and the mind is lost.

(“Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation”, Carl Bielefeldt, from the Koroku Fukan zazen gi; pg 175, ©1988 Regents of the University of California)

Dogen might leave the impression that zazen has strictly to do with the mind, yet as will shortly be established, he actually taught that the sages attained the way through their bodies.

The first ancestor of Zen in India described his way of life as “the (mind-)development that is mindfulness of in-breaths and out-breaths”, yet he was careful to offer his practice as a pleasant way of living, rather than as a means to an end; in this way, he avoided the question that Dogen put forward 1700 years later.


photograph of Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, California by Ingrid Ringel