The search for meaning
Our problems begin when we follow our natural human tendency to look for meaning in our activities. We usually don’t do anything without knowing the point of that action. We ask ourselves what the outcome is, why it’s important, how others are affected and whether or not there’s a benefit for us. By extension, we look for the meaning of our lives.
Okumura Roshi had the same kinds of questions. As a student, he wondered about societal expectations that everyone would do well in school, get good jobs, make money and buy impressive things. He questioned the value of competition for wealth, power, fame and luxury. Was this really a useful measure of what was good and what was not? He read widely in a variety of disciplines looking for answers, but “Whatever I read seemed to be one person's idea from his limited experiences in a certain time and society. I wanted to know the meaning of meaning.”
Then he encountered Sawaki Roshi’s teachings. “To stop looking for meaning and simply do good-for-nothing zazen seemed like liberation from that endless circle of a dog chasing its tail.”
Not surprisingly, when we first come to shikantaza we’re looking for something. There are varieties of meditative or contemplative practices designed to improve concentration, deepen one’s connection to God, lower blood pressure, enhance creativity, manage anger, cultivate spiritual powers, and many other things. Within the Zen tradition there are practices aimed at moving one toward an experience of satori or kensho. We can be forgiven for assuming at first glance that shikantaza is also a means of changing ourselves in some way and that perhaps if we approach it as though we were training for a marathon or studying for a qualification we will get the reward we seek.
But shikantaza isn’t like that at all. In other kinds of endeavors, we might say that keeping one’s eyes on the prize or never losing sight of the goal is a fine demonstration of commitment and strength. Doing a lot of sitting with gaining mind—searching for a peak experience or some personal benefit--is actually a hindrance. It keeps us tied to our conceptual thinking and feeds our ideas about what “our” zazen “should” be, even though zazen is not the practice of an individual but the activity of the universe as a whole. We take the posture, breathe deeply, keep the eyes open and let go of thought. These four things are all we do in zazen, so there's no way to maintain focus on a goal. We have to release our hold on prizes.
That’s not to say that we may not notice ourselves becoming calmer, more balanced, or more clear-sighted after we’ve been engaged in sitting practice for awhile. However, zazen is not a method or a therapy designed simply to improve our daily functioning. It won’t turn us into people we like better or give us qualities we don’t already have. Okumura Roshi’s teacher Kosho Uchiyama harbored these kinds of hopes when he began practicing with Sawaki Roshi; he wanted to be more like his charismatic teacher, but he discovered that zazen wasn’t a means to that end, and that he was perfectly fine as he was. “ A violet blooms as a violet and a rose blooms as a rose,” he concluded. “For violets, there's no need to desire to become roses.”