Zen Road
Zen Road
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Zazen and the importance of studying

by Kojun Kishigami Osho


A lecture given at the Rouen Dojo in November 2006

What is hishiryo(1)?1 It’s zazen when there are no thoughts. We do away with judgments of like or dislike. You have probably often been told to stretch your spine and pull in your chin. The whole posture has been explained quite frequently, I imagine.


You’ve been told, “Don’t think!” What is important is to feel that you are present with your whole body. So it’s not about thinking. You must trust, not your head and what you’re thinking, but your body sitting in its posture. It is important to tell yourself that you are sitting in the same posture that Buddha sat in. And then, in that sitting position, the energy of the universe can enter and penetrate us.


[A monk in black robes, sitting on a cushion on the floor in the zazen posture: eyes half closed; chin pulled in; the fingers of the left hand lying atop the fingers of the right hand, thumbs touching slightly; knees solidly on the ground; spine straight]

It is important to maintain this position. In the Sandokai, there is a well-known line that says,

“Maintain this position, keep this posture.”


Even if on the outside there are different sounds or smells which have certain effects on the body, we try to let go of them, to not react. We try not to get caught up in the sounds and smells by saying “I like” or “I don’t like.” We don’t attach any importance to what we hear or feel on the outside, or to the person next to us who’s doing this or that. We are simply sitting.


Don’t think about what you did yesterday, either, or what you’re going to do tomorrow or right after zazen. Thoughts, as you know, fly here and there, left and right. Don’t worry about them. Simply take care of what’s happening here and now.


Of course, some people practice zazen for a long time and they still don’t understand that this is the foundation. If you don’t practice zazen, when you are faced with yourself, you are immediately caught up in events and the emotions they may provoke; whereas people who have practiced learn to put a certain distance between themselves and events.


And it is only when you become aware of the fact that you can keep this distance, or when it takes shape in you, that you will be free.


What I’m about to say is a generalization, but there is a strong tendency in European culture to want to take possession of the environment; whereas in the East, the individual tends to try to harmonize with his environment. So it’s a very different attitude. In Buddhism and certainly in Zen, we try to change the heart, to soften it; we are more tolerant.


Imagine a shallow boat: a moderately strong wave would be enough to overturn it. But if the bottom is sufficiently deep, even if it capsizes, the boat will quickly find its initial stability. People who practice zazen, even if they find themselves in the middle of a storm, will quickly find their balance again. Imagine that you have plans for the day, but you have to cancel them, simply because it’s raining too hard. On a day like that, you say, “That’s fine, I can settle in and read.” And then, if the weather turns sunny, you can go out and have a picnic.


The four seasons also occur in human life, which is divided into periods: when we are young, we are active and working; when we are old, we rest more. Of course, every human being hopes to prolong his youth and stay alert and active right to the end of his days. Every season has its qualities and its offerings to be had: spring has its characteristics, take advantage of them; in winter, it will be something else – enjoy it. Make the most of every moment.


Imagine that you are ill. Don’t think it is absolutely necessary to completely recover. Accept the illness. It will disappear if you treat it normally. Healing does not occur by means of your own strength. Life itself, the vital force, the strength that you use in life, will give you back your health and heal you. Saying to yourself, “I was sick but I was able to go on living” is a teaching in itself.


Faced with events, don’t always take a position, saying “that’s good” or “that’s bad.” For example, there is a cup here in front of me. I can look at it from this angle or that, and every time I will have a different view of the cup. And when you are talking to someone, don’t always put forward your own ideas; see the other person’s point of view, too. So a third person would be able to observe both viewpoints, that of A and that of B.


[A moss-covered tomb with broken headstone]

Imagine that you are really angry; you’re at war with someone. You say, “I’m going to kill him, he’s my enemy.” But imagine if, in this situation, you say to yourself, “What will happen if I die tomorrow?” Your adversary may also die tomorrow in a car accident.


So continue zazen in this spirit, without saying, “I want this, I want that,” and tell yourself that you are doing zazen almost as if you were dead. [image: tomb.JPG] This is something that Kodo Sawaki often repeated: imagine that you are getting into your coffin and you are looking at life. Doing zazen is a little like getting into your coffin. So always have this outlook in mind when you do zazen.


Without putting your own thoughts first, tell yourself that you are living in the moment. In this present moment, don’t try to bring back thoughts from yesterday or other ideas. If one day you are terribly sad, don’t try to chase it away; try to be this great sadness. Don’t carry it around in your head; let it go down to below your navel, and carry it here [touches his hara]. If you leave it up in your head, it will explode.


When I was at Antai-ji [temple where Kodo Sawaki spent his final years], I was told, “You have to study Western philosophy.” So I attended classes at Kyoto University, and I encountered the thinking of Descartes: the idea that we are just emanations of thought, that “I think, therefore I am.” I was very disappointed. What’s left in the end? Reason, pure reason, the rational part of man. I do not agree with Descartes. To be exact, one must say, “I am here, alive, and that is why I think.”


From the time of Socrates and because of Descartes, Westerners think only with their rational minds, with their heads. In the East, we think with our whole body. This is why we see the body in another way: in the framework of the universe. The self carried around in the head is not the real self, because the real self is that which is felt by the body.


Of course, the brain is also important in the East, but we see it in the same way that we see that we need a hand to touch things, or eyes to see things. In the end, you must take care that this brain does not go off in all directions: hence the necessity of zazen.


The head can really go very very far. Try to control it and to simply sit. When you are sitting in zazen, it’s like a tree trunk that sinks into the earth, with its roots in the ground – the roots being the position of the legs in zazen, whether you are in half-lotus or otherwise. And so by stretching the spine, the tree grows.


[Dark, bare tree branches with a large black crow in the center, photographed from below]

What happens in the head? There are birds that try to make their nest in the branches, and they scratch a bit, they peck at the branches with their beaks and so on. This is the mind at work. Let it happen, but don’t pay attention to it. This is an essential point. So when you are in your thoughts in zazen, it’s the birds that are trying to make their nest in the branches.


This is the difference between zazen and meditation: in meditation, you observe the birds building their nest. By this I mean to clearly state that zazen is not meditation. Deshimaru must have talked to you about this, I imagine. You must try to calm your mind. For example, after three days of zazen, the birds will continue to make their nest in the tree, but you no longer put any importance on it. This is what happens; it’s the calm that is present in you after a few days of zazen during a sesshin.


It’s a matter of trusting your whole body and your instinct, rather than your brain. It’s the instinct at work. The autonomic nervous system is working when we do zazen. So the blood is diffused in the body and naturally the breathing deepens. When the body is as I just described, calm and concentrating, the mind also calms down. This is when we can no longer see the difference between the body doing zazen and the universe. What happens in zazen? The whole body accepts zazen or recognizes zazen.


So everything that falls within the province of philosophy – the Four Noble Truths, etc. – is an explanation of zazen, and follows the practice of zazen. The doctrine developed in India, but why is there a risk that this thinking will fade away? Because the rational side was overdeveloped. And the reason why Zen has been able to survive is that the Chinese monks who practiced it did so with their whole bodies, using their bodies in nature.


I have tried to explain hishiryo zazen to you. To sum up: first there was zazen, and then knowledge. The theory of zazen is subsequent to its practice. For example, the Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo is an explanation of zazen. You mustn’t get it backwards: don’t start by reading the Shobogenzo. Scholars and university professors begin by reading the Shobogenzo. They translate, they write their doctoral thesis… Some very dangerous things can come from this way of doing things. Only someone who practices can understand that errors have been made.


On the other hand, the danger for the person who practices only zazen, without having other guides, is that he risks getting into a perilous situation, psychologically speaking. He may have the sensation that his body has become enormous, or that he controls the universe – that kind of thing. He may have a feeling of ecstasy, or see strange images. If Kodo Sawaki or Dogen Zenji had been confronted with such a person, they would have told him to go see a psychiatrist. Zazen alone can be dangerous, so try to combine it with knowledge.


I’ll give you an image: a person who has learned to swim thinks it’s great, terrific; she continues to swim and swim, but in the end, she’s so impressed with her swimming that she dives into the ocean. This can be dangerous. It would be better not to go into the sea, but to learn under the direction of a master, and stay closer to the shore. And when you want to go way out to sea, it’s best to survey the scene first, the geography and the sea beds, before jumping in. This is an image to show you that academic knowledge, including the study of Buddhist texts, has its place.


So, on the one hand there is first intuition, the practice, and then knowledge. I can see today that Master Deshimaru taught the sitting practice very, very well; but to strengthen your foundation and develop the roots, I can only encourage you to continue your practice. It can be said that in Japan, intellectual knowledge about Buddhism has attained a very high level, but unfortunately the practice does not enter into it. To remain on the right Path and not take the wrong direction, keep in mind the two poles: continue practicing zazen while enriching your knowledge. They complement each other very well. This is also a point that was much emphasized by Kodo Sawaki.


[Kishigami in blue samui jacket and pants, white towel tied around his head, walking on the bamboo-lined path to his hermitage]

In my youth, I practiced zazen; I received many teachings from the master; and I studied Western philosophy. So I was very busy. It was especially at the end, after my master’s death, that I set about studying Buddhism. It was also at this time that I had feedback from nature that told me, “You are on the right Path; your zazen is correct. What you are doing is good.”


All this to say that practice is good, but it can become extremely subjective. And so to objectify and verify that you are really on the right Path, go see masters and enrich your knowledge. You can draw your teaching from zazen itself, from reading or, as in my case, from nature. I placed myself at the intersection of these three things, and I was able to understand that I was not making a mistake.



(1) Hi, beyond ; shiryo, thinking. Thinking/not-thinking, or thinking from the depths of not-thinking.


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