Our sitting practice is called zazen or shikantaza. We do only four things in our zazen; we sit in zazen posture, breathe deeply through the nose, keep the eyes open and let go of thoughts. That's all we do. Anything else is extra.
It sounds like a very simple practice, and it is -- but it's also profound, challenging, joyful and intimate. We are doing nothing more than being right here, right now with body and mind. Conditions change inside and outside of ourselves, but we just return to this moment over and over again.
When we sit down and let go of our ideas, we stop chasing after things we like and running away from things we don't like. The dust settles, and we begin to see more clearly: the interdependence of all things, the constantly changing causes and conditions of our lives, and the true nature of self. Our natural wisdom and compassion arise of themselves. Zazen is not a matter of trying to get to somewhere else, have some peak experience or become people we like better. As our dharma ancestor Kodo Sawaki famously said, zazen is beyond gain and beyond satori. In other words, zazen is good for nothing . . . but we do it anyway. We don't need to look for meaning in it; we're released from chasing a goal. Zazen is good -- but not for something. Zazen is good in itself.
There's a common thread that runs from the teachings of Shakyamuni through the Mahayana tradition, the teachings of Dogen Zenji, Sawaki and Uchiyama Roshis, down to Okumura Roshi and the practice of shikantaza at Sanshin today.
Okumura Roshi has written: "There are many different traditions in Buddhism --the Theravada tradition in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka, the Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and the Vajrayana tradition in Tibet. Each school has its own approach to meditation, and what it means to practice meditation. In Buddhism, skillful means are important. Those different paths are considered to be skillful means to encourage people not to stop practice. Teachers and teachings show a kind of a goal that encourages practice, and when a student reaches that stage, the teacher shows the next goal. That’s the way a student practices with encouragement. That’s the meaning of stages in Buddhist practice, but Dogen Zenji says our practice [of shikantaza] is very unique. He doesn’t use this kind of skillful means."
Soto Zen is situated within the Buddhist tradition, which began twenty five centuries ago in India and traveled along the Silk Road to China and Japan before coming to the West. Yet Dogen Zenji's shikantaza (just sitting) itself is a transparent practice that does not require a Buddhist container; thus it can be colored by any number of influences and contexts, Buddhist and not. We do only four things in shikantaza: take the posture, keep our eyes open, breathe deeply and let go of thought. Anyone from any faith tradition or none can do this and is welcome to join us in our zazen practice, so it's helpful for us to understand the basis of this transparent practice within the Sanshin style and spirit.
Okumura Roshi goes on to write: "Our zazen is based on the essential philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism -- that is, emptiness. Emptiness means no self and no other. Everything is connected as one thing. All beings are connected to each other. All beings interpenetrate each other. There’s no separation between subject and object, particularly in our zazen. The subject is this person, and the object is also this person."
When Shakyamuni realized awakening under the bodhi tree, he knew directly that clinging is the cause of suffering. He saw that we try to gratify sense desires by grasping at things we deem desirable, and that danger lies in that clinging because the loss of that desirable object is inevitable. The escape from this cycle of greed and fear is in taking up the Eightfold Path.
One of the things to which we cling most readily is the five skandhas or aggregates that make up the concept we call "me." Somehow we need to understand how five skandhas can be released from clinging to five skandhas. The Buddha taught that all conditioned things are empty of a fixed and permanent self nature because of both interdependence and impermanence. Everything arises because of causes and conditions; nothing comes into being by itself, so nothing can be separate from everything else around it (interdependence). Because these causes and conditions are changing all the time, the things that arise from them must also be changing (impermanence). If everything is connected to everything else and changing all the time, there's nothing we can identify as a permanent self-nature or essence -- and Buddha's teaching about emptiness must include this group of five skandhas called "me." This is also the teaching of the Prajna Paramita literature in the Mahayana tradition. The Heart Sutra says, "Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajna paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering."
The five skandhas being free from clinging to five skandhas on the basis of emptiness is the equivalent of Dogen Zenji’s shinjin datsuraku (dropping off body and mind), Sawaki Roshi’s “zazen is good for nothing,” Uchiyama Roshi’s “opening the hand of thought” and Okumura Roshi’s “1=0=∞ (infinity).“ This is what we actualize in shikantaza, which has been handed down to us directly from generation to generation.