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Why we sit

May 2, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Yesterday, a customer at my bookstore, who had noticed the flyer for our Monday night meditation group on the back table, asked me why it was necessary to take up such a difficult practice as Zazen.  It’s a good question that I return to periodically.  It was Dogen’s question too.  He asked:  “We are Buddha nature, so why do we need to practice?”  He responded by saying, if there is even a hairsbreadth of deviation, you will be lost in delusion and confusion.  Our practice is about eliminating any space between our temporal identity and our fundamental nature.  When we sit there should be no gap between us and zazen.  Our practice is about eliminating any sense of limit and discrimination between self and other; between inside and outside; between ourselves and zazen.  It is about experiencing the deepest interconnectedness of everything.  

Zen meditation like other forms of yoga has many psycho-physical effects that are helpful in our practice to awaken all beings. Katagiri Roshi, the founder of our lineage, said: “If you harmonize your breath and harmonize your mind, if you keep the functioning of your brain stem completely in balance, you create a strong feeling of being present right now, right here.  Your cerebral cortex works very naturally and smoothly, your hormones function well, your breathing is good, your mind becomes tranquil, and you feel strong vitality.” Without this vitality arising out of the harmonious balance of the forces within us we would be unable to express any of the bodhisattva vows in our lives.

While the effects of our practice may be helpful, we must remember that our practice is not about gaining anything.  It is about making contact with our essential nature. The moment we turn away from ourselves, we are headed in the wrong direction.  In my practice, I have experienced how “insights” come not from mental interpretations and reconfigurations of ideas but from some unknown place in myself.  It feels like they come “complete” and “from nowhere.”  I have talked to poets who say the same thing happens to them.  I recall that George Frederick Handel said that he saw in “in an instant” the entire Messiah before he wrote a single note. I think that some of what we call artistic inspiration is really our deepest nature appearing and expressing itself in words or colors or sounds.  A piece of music may include new lines of notes but it is really a variation on an ancient melody.  So, too, we need to make our day-to-day lives varying expressions of our original nature.

In dharma discourse 319, Dogen says “We should know that zazen is the decorous activity of practice after realization.”  Realization or enlightenment is simply just sitting in complete awareness of who and what we are. We do not sit to become a Buddha—we already are—we sit to express our Buddha nature.

Consider the life of the Buddha.  Although he had intrinsic wisdom at birth, he sat for six years.  He sat not to become wise, but as an expression of his wisdom.  This is the very heart of Zen practice.  Suzuki roshi said that the posture we take in zazen is the posture of enlightenment.  Zen history from the time of our first patriarch, Bodhidharma, is filled with stories of enlightened women and men who sat for extended periods of time, not to attain anything but rather to express their original nature.  Now it is our time.  As Dogen says, we must not “dispense with wholehearted practice.” 



From → Zen Buddhism

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