What does it really mean when we say that zazen is good for nothing? If there’s no point, why do it at all?
Saying that zazen is good for nothing implies that it has no value. Yet Okumura Roshi saw an important nuance in his translation of Sawaki Roshi’s phrase. He explained, “Zazen is good—but not for something. It is good in itself.”
It’s enough that our practice of zazen is wholesome. We get to let go of our delusions and hindrances, and the attachments that give rise to our suffering. We get to manifest the authentic self that is not pulled around by karma. Sitting is something we can do freely and without obstruction, embodying the active life of the entire universe. Zazen is good. Period. It doesn’t have to be good for anything.
Okumura Roshi often tells of his experience harvesting blueberries in Massachusetts as a summer job. When inattentive harvesters mixed inedible dogberries in with the blueberries, the farmer would shout at them to stop picking “those good-for-nothing dogberries.” Okumura Roshi considered the relative values of dogberries and blueberries. “Dogberries are not edible, but they are pretty. Blueberries are pretty, too, but they are also edible, so they have market value. That means they’re ‘good for something.’ Dogberries have no market value so we consider them ‘good for nothing.’ But when we put aside our human evaluation, then blueberry and dogberry are the same. They are both pretty and just live to continue their lives. So I thought, dogberries are good but for nothing. That’s why I translated Sawaki Roshi’s expression that way: ‘Zazen is good for nothing.’”
We run into trouble when we try to separate this moment from the reward for this moment. We like to time-travel back to better days or forward to events we anticipate--even though we can’t take action in the past or the future. The only thing we have is this moment. The zazen of this moment doesn’t point toward an outcome in some other time, so there can’t be a reward for sitting. There is only the sitting that is happening now, because it’s always now. This moment contains everything there is about zazen and there’s nowhere else to look.
Okumura Roshi has written, “Meaning isn't an absolute, objective truth decided before we're born. Rather, when we begin to do something, like birds flying or fish swimming, help and meaning appear within us and in response to our activity, a meeting of ourselves and all beings.” When we’re sitting, we’re meeting the world with our zazen, and an action and a response arise together. This moment of zazen is complete in itself and isn’t a lead-up to something else, but we don’t understand that until we let go of our ideas about what sitting is about and what we can get from it. Even the idea that zazen is good for nothing is extra. There’s no room for it in a moment of zazen where our only activities are taking the posture, breathing deeply, keeping the eyes open and letting go of thought. As soon as we wonder whether zazen is good for nothing, it isn’t good-for-nothing zazen. We’re no longer focused on what’s happening here and now. We’ve left here-and-now and gone off to a place we’ve invented without realizing that we’re simply immersed in our own ideas.
And, of course, one of the key things about our assumption that zazen must be good for something is that there is a fixed and permanent self to receive the reward for that sitting. I want zazen to be good for something for me. That means I'm separate from sitting and from whatever I think arises from sitting. But if this moment of zazen really does contain everything there is about sitting, then I and sitting and the total dynamic activity of the universe aren't really separate -- and there's nothing I can identify as "me" that gets the prize. Even if we decide that we're sitting for the good of the world, non-separation pokes holes in that idea too. We can say "Zazen is good for nothing," but we can also just stop at "Zazen is good." Good is good enough. It doesn't need anything else.