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On Thoughts in Zazen

Vladimir K.

One of our great vows was translated as “Though greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to cut them off.”  This has now be changed to “...I vow to abandon them.”  There’s a subtle, but important, difference between abandoning something and cutting something off.  To abandon has the feel of leaving behind, of no longer being concerned with.  To cut something off is an active termination, an act that is taken with due consideration and sometimes great effort.  Abandoning feels like a great effort isn’t needed, just an acknowledgment that what is being abandoned is no longer of any use. How we use language often determines not only how others see us and understand our thoughts, but it also influences our way of thinking.  When we think of “cutting off” we have quite a different mind set than “abandoning” brings forth.  To abandon greed, hatred and ignorance is to just leave them behind.  Dogen takes this up in Shoaku-Makusa (Not Doing Wrongs) when he says
And the scale of this realization is the scale of not committing. For people of just this reality, at the moment of just this reality —  even if they live at a place and come and go at a place where they could commit wrongs, even if they face circumstances in which they could commit wrongs, and even if  they seem to mix with friends who do commit wrongs — wrongs cannot be committed at all.  The power of not committing is realized...
This act of “not committing”, or abandoning, carries over into our practice.  We sometimes hear people talking about “cutting off” thoughts and one must be very careful how this interpreted.  There is a danger that when people hear (and think about) “cutting off” thoughts they slip into a dual way of thinking.  On the one hand we have these thoughts and on the other hand we try to ‘cut them off’.  This is dualistic.  This is separating ourselves from our thoughts.  Zazen is not “thoughtless”.  The En-mei Jikku Kannon Gyo says ‘Nen, nen ju shin ki; nen, nen fu ri shi.  Thought after thought arise in the mind, Thought after thought are not separate from mind.”  Zazen is not a mindless act.  When you actively try to cut off thoughts you are acting in a dualistic manner. To discover non-dualistic zazen we can go back to the 8th century master, Mo-Ho- Yen.  Mo-Ho-Yen had very clear and simple instructions about zazen:
When he enters a state of deep contemplation, he looks into his own mind.  There being no-mind, he does not engage in thought.  If thoughts of discrimination arise, he should become aware of them. How should one practice this awareness?  Whatever thoughts arise, one does not examine [to see] whether they have arisen or not, whether they exist or not, whether they are good or bad, afflicted or purified.  He does not examine any dharma whatsoever.
This simple instruction is the central point of our practice of zazen.  “Looking into the mind” is the practice of koan sitting, of counting the breath, of shikantaza, of just sitting.  Being aware of thoughts of discrimination is being aware of who and what you are.  But being aware is not the same as discriminating between good and bad or success or failure or any discrimination whatsoever.  Being aware is also not pursuing or chasing the thought.  When thoughts arise, leave them alone, abandon them, and they will go away of their own accord if one returns to one’s practice of breath counting or sitting with Mu.  When one penetrates deeply into one’s own mind, one then does not engage in useless thoughts.
If one fails to have this awareness of the arising of thoughts, or if the awareness is incorrect, one will act accordingly, cultivate meditation in vain ...and remain as a common man.
Here we are being warned about “incorrect” awareness.  Incorrect awareness is when one is not aware of arising thoughts.  It’s when we chase thoughts rather than let them go that we practice incorrect zazen.  Striving mightily to ‘cut off’ thoughts is chasing a thought.
The discriminating mind itself (has) no real substance, it does not arise, it does not cease.  With this very same body, which is the dharmadhatu, one should not contrive [conceptualize], rather, one should not pursue them, one should not oppose them.  It should be so that there is no artificial construction [of conceptualizations].
Notice that here Mo-Ho-Yen  says not only that discriminating mind does not arise, it also does not cease.  Discriminating mind exists constantly.  If we pursue or oppose this discriminating mind we are not practicing zazen.  Instead, we are practicing what we think zazen should be rather than what it is.  Zazen is neither pursuit nor opposition.  It is especially when we try to oppose our thoughts that we find frustration and dissatisfaction with our zazen arising.  Acknowledging that thoughts arise, we gently return to our practice — effortlessly.  This effortless returning develops ease and joy.
...if you are deceived by your own conceptualizations, there is no true cultivation of the meditation of former Tathagatas.  Therefore one should not mind (i.e., not reflect; not consider) any of these [conceptual examinations], but [simply] be aware [of them].
It is this awareness of thoughts that leads to the path of the Tathagatas, not the artificial cutting off of thoughts.  Awareness leads to the diminution of thoughts, naturally.  Do not be deceived by thoughts.
If concepts arise, then one [should] not think anywhere of being or non-being, purity or impurity, emptiness or the absence thereof, etc.  One does not think of non-thinking either.  Not to experience this non-examination and to continue to act according to these thoughts is transmigration.
Mo-Ho-Yen makes it quite clear that striving to cut off thoughts is not the Tao.  It is the not clinging, not picking and choosing, not chasing the tail of the dragon of our thoughts that is our path.  Those who seek a peaceful and ‘thoughtless’ zazen are living in a cave of darkness.  We live in a world of thoughts.  To deny this is to act dualistically.  To act non-dualistically is to not turn towards nor to turn away.
Yunmen asked Caoshan:  “Why is it that one does not know of the existence of that which is most immediate?”
Caoshan:  “Just because it is the most immediate.”
Yunmen:  “And how can one become truly intimate with it?”
Caoshan:  “By not turning towards it.”
Yunmen:  “But can one know the most immediate if one does not face it?”
Caoshan:  “It’s then that one know it best.”
"Exactly, exactly!”
Although this is a koan and needs a more intimate interpretation, we can benefit by applying it to our zazen.  “By not turning towards it” can be used to remind ourselves not to turn towards our thoughts but to leave them alone.  We can sit with our thoughts, unconcerned, practicing our zazen serenity. Our practice is our practice.  When thoughts arise, we do not get entangled with them nor do we attempt to artificially ‘cut them off’.  We simply return to our Mu, to our breath counting, our ‘just sitting’.  By returning to our practice, thoughts naturally diminish and become less important and our true Buddha-mind is revealed. This Buddha-mind is not a mind that is cut off from the world of the senses or of thoughts.  It is the non-discriminating mind.  That is, it is the mind which does not divide into object and subject.  It is the mind of awareness. 

In an ancient text from the Northern Ch’an school, the Ta-ch’eng wu-sheng fang-pien men (The Five Upaya of the Mahayana: Northern Tradition) it says:
To give rise to the mind of conceptualization and description is to be fettered and not achieve liberation.  Not to give rise to the mind of conceptualization and description is to be free from attachments and fetters and is the achievement of liberation.
In our practice of zazen this means that we do not analyze thoughts nor do we categorize them nor do we examine them.  Thoughts are just thoughts and they arise and fade away.  Our practice is to be aware of the thoughts as they arise, leave them alone and return to what needs to be done. Clearly, there is no pursuit of “cutting off” for the followers of the Mahayana.  The term “to cut off” is often found in literature on zazen and practice but one must be careful how this term is interpreted.  What is the undisturbed, unmoving mind cut off from?  There are meditation practices which emphasize cutting off the senses and thoughts (witness the yogis of India who are able to be buried in coffins for weeks at a time) but this is not our path.  As Robert Aitken Roshi says, “It is possible to achieve this condition (to quieten all thoughts), but hardly desirable.  Our creativity would also be quieted, and where would realization come from?”   The bodhisattva way of the great Mahayana is to be in the world but to be undisturbed by the world.  Zazen is just like this.

The Role of Thoughts in Zazen

When we practice zazen thoughts arise.  We accept this.  As our practice deepens, thoughts diminish, and a state of samadhi may occur.  The term samadhi is often misunderstood to be a state where no thoughts occur or where concentration is intently focused on one point.  In fact, samadhi is when object and subject are no longer two, but are one.  Samadhi is the state of non-duality.  Zazen is the practice of samadhi.

If thoughts arise constantly during zazen, how are we to interpret this?  Can there be samadhi when thoughts arise?  I believe there can be samadhi if we understand the nature of thoughts and learn how to live with them. Dogen Zenji said, “Conveying the self to the myriad beings to authenticate them is delusion; The myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment.”  If we consider “the myriad beings” to include thoughts, we can begin to understand how clinging to thoughts can be a hindrance to our practice. 

Mindless mental chatter is “conveying the self to the myriad beings to authenticate them”.  It is our “small” or “inauthentic” self which engages in endless chatter to protect and prove to itself that it is all-important. And it fears the loss of its central position.  This self, this ego, will go to almost any lengths to protect its position as the center of the universe.  It is obsessed with its own security and endurance. Thoughts play an integral part in this process.  It is through the endless chatter of thoughts that the ego confirms itself.  Thoughts are there to give meaning to the ego.  Thoughts protect, gratify and separate the ego from the world around it.  During zazen, thoughts separate the ego/self from the practice.  When Mu becomes one with the ego/self, Buddha-mind arises, becomes evident. Dogen also said “In the Buddha Dharma, practice and realization are identical”.  This practice that Dogen speaks of is not the practice of mindless thought, of day-dreaming on the zafu, but the practice of dropping away body and mind.  The practice of dropping away body and mind is the practice of non-duality, of allowing the myriad things to come forth to authenticate us.  This includes allowing thoughts to come forth without becoming attached to them.  When we are no longer attached to thoughts, we stop the ego/self from attempting to dominate the universe and allow the universe (our practice) to take center stage:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self;
To study the self is to forget the self;
To forget the self is to be authenticated by the myriad things.
Self-realization comes about when the self (ego) is “forgotten”, when it is abandoned.  It no longer dominates the mind.  Each and every experience, including thoughts, come forward and with each the thought, with each experience, birth and death occur.  The realization of the transience of thoughts and experiences is “The whole universe is within the dazzling light of the self”.  In other words, the whole universe, including the ego-self is empty. When this is realized in the marrow of the bones, wisdom and compassion manifest and the Way of the patriarchs and Buddhas is manifested.

But even the Buddhas, the patriarchs, the masters, must manifest and reinterpret this Buddha nature moment by moment.  Not only is the ego-self impermanent, but so is enlightenment.  It is only through never-ending practice in each and every moment that Buddha mind can be manifested.  One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the impermanence of everything.  Why should enlightenment be different?  Everything changes.  Everything arises and passes away and Buddha mind cannot be any different.  When we recognise and accept this fact, we can begin to understand the nature of thoughts and their place in our zazen.  Thoughts, like walls, tiles and stones, are mind.  How could thoughts be “wrong”?  It is only because of our ignorance that thoughts during zazen cause us difficulties.  To allow the ego-self to use thoughts to maintain its position as the center of the universe is ignorance.  To strive to cut off these thoughts is to enter the dark cave of illusion.  To be as unconcerned about the arising and fading of thoughts as a grain of sand on a beach is unconcerned by the rising and falling of the tide is to practice the zazen that embodies and manifests the way of the Buddhas.  As Nagaku Daie said, "it is not that there is no practice and realization, just that they are not to be defiled.”