Shunryu Suzuki on Shikantaza and the Theravadin Stages

In one of his lectures, Shunryu Suzuki spoke about the difference between “preparatory practice” and “shikantaza”, or “just sitting”:

But usually in counting breathing or following breathing, you feel as if you are doing something, you know– you are following breathing, and you are counting breathing. This is, you know, why counting breathing or following breathing practice is, you know, for us it is some preparation– preparatory practice for shikantaza because for most people it is rather difficult to sit, you know, just to sit.  (1)

Suzuki said that directing attention to the movement of breath (“following breathing… counting breathing”) has the feeling of “doing something”, and that “doing something” makes such practice only preparatory.

Although attention can be directed to the movement of breath, necessity in the movement of breath can also direct attention, as I wrote previously:

There can… come a moment when the movement of breath necessitates the placement of attention at a certain location in the body, or at a series of locations, with the ability to remain awake as the location of attention shifts retained through the exercise of presence.

There’s a frailty in the structure of the lower spine, and the movement of breath can place the point of awareness in such a fashion as to engage a mechanism of support for the spine, often in stages.

In the “question and answer” period after the lecture, Suzuki mentioned first, second and third stages in Theravadin practice:

Of course, to have good shikantaza, we have preparatory zazen. You know, from old, old time, you know, we have that technical term, konpunjo. Konpunjo means “to enter,” you know. That is started from Theravada practice, you know. To prepare for the first stage or second stage or third stage, they practice some special practice. Those practice is not the practice of the first stage or second stage or third stage, but to prepare for those stages.  (1)

Suzuki’s assertion that practicing some special practice is not the same as practicing concentration accords well with Gautama’s teaching. With regard to each of the stages, Gautama said:

… for whatever [one] imagines it to be, it is otherwise.  (2)

Moreover, Gautama described the key to the attainment of each of the stages of concentrtion as “lack of desire”.

Suzuki mentioned three stages in Theravadin practice. Gautama generally spoke of four, and Suzuki’s omission here is curious, as he did speak of four stages in another lecture (3).

The fourth stage (the “fourth musing”) is different from the first three, in that a particular quality of mind is applied:

Again, a [person], putting away ease… enters and abides in the fourth musing; seated, [one] suffuses [one’s] body with purity by the pureness of [one’s] mind so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded with purity by the pureness of [one’s] mind.  (4)

“Pureness of mind” is what remains when “doing something” ceases. When “doing something” has ceased, and there is “not one particle of the body” that cannot receive the placement of attention, then the placement of attention is free to shift as necessary in the movement of breath.

In another lecture, Suzuki described the experience:

Sometimes when you think that you are doing zazen with an imperturbable mind, you ignore the body, but it is also necessary to have the opposite understanding at the same time. Your body is practicing zazen in imperturbability while your mind is moving.  (5)

Suzuki was expanding on the last line of a famous poem by the 6th century Buddhist Fuxi:

Water does not flow, but the bridge flows.  (5)

The flow of “doing something” in the body, of activity initiated by habit or volition, ceases in the fourth concentration. Instead, activity is generated purely by the placement of attention, and the location of attention can flow.

Nevertheless, Suzuki advised his students:

Let the water flow, as that is the water’s practice. Let the bridge stay and sit there, because that is the actual practice of the bridge.  (5)

The twelfth-century Chinese teacher Foyan similarly expressed a caution to his students:

In my school, there are only two kinds of sickness. One is to go looking for a donkey riding on the donkey. The other is to be unwilling to dismount once having mounted the donkey.

… Once you have recognized the donkey, to mount it and be unwilling to dismount is the sickness that is most difficult to treat. I tell you that you need not mount the donkey; you are the donkey!  (6)

Having experienced the placement of attention as the source of activity (“riding on the donkey”), the tendency is to want the activity of the body to come solely from the placement of attention all the time (“to be unwilling to dismount”). Foyan asserted that activity from the location of attention is inherent in human nature, and the unwillingness to relinquish such activity is not healthy.

Gautama did not express a caution with regard to the fourth concentration. Instead, he recommended a way of living that incorporated the experience, a way of living he called “the intent concentration on inbreathing and outbreathing”:

… if cultivated and made much of, (the “intent concentration”) is something peaceful and choice, something perfect in itself, and a pleasant way of living too.  (7, 8)

The “intent concentration” consisted of sixteen thoughts, each applied or sustained in an inhalation or exhalation (see “Appendix—From the Early Record”).

Applying and sustaining thought would appear to be a preparatory practice, but in Gautama’s “intent concentration”, the thought comes out of necessity in the free placement of attention in the movement of breath. The free placement of attention only occurs with clarity in the fourth concentration, but as Foyan pointed out, such freedom is inherent in human nature.

The fifteenth of Gautama’s “thoughts applied and sustained” was:

Contemplating cessation I shall breathe in. Contemplating cessation I shall breathe out.  (9)

“Cessation” here is the cessation of “doing something”, while at the same time remaining conscious of inhalation and exhalation–the hallmark of the fourth concentration.

Gautama could experience “cessation” in thought applied and sustained by means of “the survey-sign”, an overview of the body as though observed from the outside. Gautama would arrive at the “survey-sign” after the fourth concentration, and although the “survey-sign” is not a state of concentration, he nevertheless deemed the sign “the fifth limb of concentration”.

Gautama let the water flow and the bridge just sit there, but the water could go still and the bridge could flow in his thought applied and sustained, by means of the “survey-sign”.

When necessity places attention, and a presence of mind is retained as the placement shifts and moves, then in Gautama’s words, “[one] lays hold of concentration, lays hold of one-pointedness”:

Herein… the (noble) disciple, making self-surrender the object of (their) thought, lays hold of concentration, lays hold of one-pointedness. (The disciple), aloof from sensuality, aloof from evil conditions, enters on the first trance, which is accompanied by thought directed and sustained, which is born of solitude, easeful and zestful, and abides therein.  (10)

Foyan spoke of “looking for a donkey riding on the donkey”. The degree of “self-surrender” required to allow necessity to place attention, and the presence of mind required to “lay hold” as the placement of attention shifts, make the conscious experience of “riding the donkey” elusive. Suzuki provided an analogy:

If you are going to fall, you know, from, for instance, from the tree to the ground, the moment you, you know, leave the branch you lose your function of the body. But if you don’t, you know, there is a pretty long time before you reach to the ground. And there may be some branch, you know. So you can catch the branch or you can do something. But because you lose function of your body, you know [laughs], before you reach to the ground, you may lose your conscious[ness].  (11)

Suzuki offered the analogy in response to the travails of his students, who were experiencing pain in their legs sitting cross-legged on the floor. In his analogy, he suggested the possibility of an escape from pain through a presence of mind with the function of the body.

The difficulty is that most people will lose consciousness before they cede activity to the location of attention–they lose the presence of mind with the placement of attention, because they can’t believe that action in the body is possible without “doing something”:

It’s impossible to teach the meaning of sitting. You won’t believe it. Not because I say something wrong, but until you experience it and confirm it by yourself, you cannot believe it.  (12)

(Kobun Chino Otogawa)

As I’ve written previously, there’s an opportunity to make self-surrender the object of thought and to lay hold of “one-pointedness” just before falling asleep:

… Just before I fall asleep, my awareness can move very readily, and my sense of where I am tends to move with it. This is also true when I am waking up, although it can be harder to recognize (I tend to live through my eyes in the daytime, and associate my sense of place with them).

… when I realize my physical sense of location in space, and realize it as it occurs from one moment to the next, then I wake up or fall asleep as appropriate.

When a presence of mind is retained as the placement of attention shifts, then the natural tendency toward the free placement of attention can draw out thought initial and sustained, and bring on the stages of concentration:

… there is no need to depend on teaching. But the most important thing is to practice and realize our true nature… [laughs]. This is, you know, Zen.  (13)

(Shunryu Suzuki)



1 “The Background of Shikantaza”, Shunryu Suzuki; San Francisco, February 22, 1970; transcript from
2 MN III 42-45, Pali Text Society III p 92-94; bracketed material paraphrases original
3 LosAltos17, 65-10-28; transcript
4 AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society III p 18-19, see also MN III Pali Text Society III p 92-93; bracketed material paraphrases original
5 “Whole-Body Zazen”, Shunryu Suzuki; Tassajara, June 28, 1970 (edited by Bill Redican); transcript from
6 “Instant Zen: Waking Up in the Present”, tr T. Cleary, Shambala p 4
7 SN V 316, 326, Pali Text Society V p 280, 289
8 SN V 320-322, Pali Text Society V p 285
9 SN V 312, Pali Text Society Vol V p 275-276
10 SN V 198, Pali Text Society vol V p 174; parenthetical material paraphrases original; “directed” also rendered as “initial” MN III Pali Text Society III p 78 and as “applied” PTS AN III Pali Text Society III p 18-19
11 “To Actually Practice Selflessness”, Shunryu Suzuki; August Sesshin Lecture; San Francisco, August 6, 1969; “fell” corrected to “fall”; transcript from
12 “Embracing Mind”, edited by Cosgrove & Hall, pg 48
13 Shunryu Suzuki, Tassajara 68-07-24, transcript from