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The Art of Just Sitting: essential writings on the zen practice of shikentanza

Edited by John Daido Loori, Wisdom Publishing, 2002, pp241
book review by Vladimir K., February 2004

Zazen, sitting meditation, is the core practice of Zen Buddhism, the sin qua non of Zen. While almost all religious practices have a form of meditation as part of their practice, zazen is somewhat different. Fundamentally, zazen is "just sitting". As John Daio Loori says in his introduction to this volume on ‘just sitting’: "If you have ever wondered what kind of practice old Zen masters are doing, sitting so book coverlong and serenely year after year, the answer is: they are just sitting." (p. x)

This book is a collection of writings on shikantaza from the ancient Buddhas to the modern masters. Even koan students, after completing koan study, return to shikantaza, the form of meditation advocated by Dogen Zenji, first articulated by Hongzi Zhengjue (1091-1157; J. Wanshi Shogaku), who called it "silent illumination". The supposed conflict between koan practice and shikantaza is somewhat artificial. While it is true that some Zen masters were critical of shikantaza as being passive or quietist, both Rinzai and Soto use shikantaza as part of their practice, just as both use koans in their studies. Dogen's Shobogenzo is full of commentaries on koans and some Soto monks in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries "went to Rinzai masters for training in just sitting." (p. 6)

Loori says in the editor's preface: "Given the importance placed on seated meditation in the Zen tradition, there is a surprisingly scant amount of written work addressing its practice." (p. xi ) This volume brings together 22 writings on zazen ranging from Hongzhi's "Guidepost of Silent Illumination" to three essays by Dogen, two by Uchiyama, two by John Daido Loori as well writings by Keizen Jokin (author of the Denkoroku ), Hakuun Yasutani, Shunryu Suzuki, Daimin Katagiri, Reb Anderson and Taizan Maezumi as well as others. Also included is an interesting introduction on the history of shikantaza by Dan Leighton, former head monk of Suzuki's Tassajara who now teaches at the San Francisco Zen Center and Green Gulch Retreat Center. Loori has included as an appendix four ‘foundational texts’:Satipatthana Sutta of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Bloodstream Sermon of Bodhidharma, The Fundamental Expedient Teachings for Calming the Mind by Dayi Daoxin, Treatise on the Supreme Vehicle by Daman Hongren, Huineng's Platform Sutra and Liangjie's Jewel Mirror of Samadhi . There are also brief biographies of the main contributors (including the translators) to the volume as well as a very good index. All in all, a well put together volume that should find a place on the serious Zen student's shelf.

As this is a book about shikantaza, much of it is devoted to commentaries on Dogen's writings. Uchiyama comments on Dogen's Tenzo Kyokun , Norman Fischer and Maezumi both write about Dogen's Fukanzazengi , and Okumura tackles parts of Genjokoan . John Daido Loori provides comments on two cases from Dogen's 300 Koan Shobogenzo: case 8, Nanyue Polishes a Tile and case 129, Yaoshan's Non-Thinking. Geoffrey Arnold turns to the Shoyo Roku (the Book of Serenity) for his contribution, commenting on case 32, Yangshan's Mind and Environment.

This volume is probably more suited to experienced practitioners of zazen than beginners but I say this hesitatingly as even novices will find useful information herein. For example, Jiyu Kennett, founder of Shasta Abbey, gives some very basic instructions on proper sitting, such as posture, breathing, eyes, and what to do about fidgeting—things most experienced sitters are already aware of and can handle adequately. Sheng-yen, on the other hand, gives a lengthy commentary on Hongzhi's "Silent Illumination"(pp.117-126) which beginners may find a little daunting. Although almost all authors in this book recommend shikantaza, Sheng-yen, warns that he does not recommend shikantaza "too often" because "you can be silent without illuminating anything". (p. 118) Indeed! The practice of shikantaza may be more suited to those who have managed to still the mind through breath counting or some other method of concentration or focus which enables the practitioner to become settled in mind. Daido Loori tells of seeking instruction from Soen Nakagawa and being told to chant Namu dai bosa as a practice, rather than shikantaza. (p. 142)

A book such as this naturally raises some conflicting advice. Teachers teach in different ways and students need to find a teacher that resonates with something within that just sounds right. Soju Mel Weistman points out that some Zen masters claim that shikantaza is a "very special practice in which you sit zazen so hard the sweat pours out of your body…that's not the shikantaza that I know anything about or ever heard anything about from Suzuki Roshi." (p. 145) Hakuun Yasutani is one of these masters, declaring "When you thoroughly practice shikantaza you will sweat —even in winter." (original emphasis; p. 52) Weistman goes on to point out that Suzuki's teaching was about selflessness and he criticises the Yasutani style of shikantaza as "elitist" and "Olympic-style shikantaza: trying to accomplish some great feat."(p. 145) What kind of shikantaza attracts you will determine what teacher you will seek out and find. As one of my teachers constantly admonished his students: trust yourself or, perhaps more accurately, your Self. Zazen is infinitely subtle. Each student needs to find this subtlety. This book may be of help.

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