I open my latest piece of writing (Shikantaza and Gautama the Buddha’s “Pleasant Way of Living”) with an excerpt from Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler’s “Two Shores of Zen: An American Monk’s Japan”:
“Shikantaza not here,” he insisted in elementary English, pointing to his head. “Not here,” he continued, pointing to his heart. “Only point here!” He drove his fist into his lower belly, the energy center that the Japanese call hara.
I have spent the last several years in an American Zen temple that by our standards is strict and intense, but my training, I am finding, seems moot here. I have labored for years to open out my meditation—which is, after all “just sitting”—away from reliance on heavy-handed internal or external concentration objects, and toward a more subtle, broad, open awareness. Roshi-sama is said to be a master of this wide practice of shikantaza, the objectless meditation characteristic of the Soto school. But he insists, again and again, weeping at my deafness, shouting at my stubbornness, that hara focus is precisely shikantaza. That it makes no sense makes it no less inspiring; it is his presence, not his words, that I believe.
“No grasping—only point here.” He rested his fist on his belly. I had nothing to say.
(Two Shores of Zen: An American Monk’s Japan, Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler, pg 4-5)
In my piece, I explore the parallels between the states of concentration that Gautama the Buddha described and Western medical research, after which I conclude:
Gautama’s description of the first and third concentrative states in some ways resembles the descriptions of the “tanden” (or tan-t’ien), while his description of the second and fourth concentrative states suggests something somewhat different. I would say that concentrative experience tends to follow from the distinction of the senses in a bent-legged posture, and the experience of the mind at the tanden is one such concentrative experience; as essential as such an experience might be when a bent-knee posture is held for any length of time, the rhythm of things in a natural way of living must also include experience that returns a person to just breathing in or out, and therein lies “something peaceful and choice, something perfect in itself, and a pleasant way of living too.”
I wrote to a friend and told him about my writing, and he said he looked forward to reading it. I wrote back to him:
“I have to say, if I didn’t have the opportunity to wash my head out on the dance floor on Saturdays at my local karioke parlor, I would feel like the caterpillar in the ‘toad and the caterpillar’ story, on account of my own verbage.”