Here’s a question that came in the e-mail today:
In a few places in ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ you talk about focusing on a particular issue or aspect of yourself during zazen – e.g. ‘I’ve often focused my attention during zazen practice on understanding the real source of anger’. I was wondering what you meant by that, since I’d had the impression that zazen does not involve concentrated discursive thought. I’m guessing that I have not understood what you mean by ‘focus’. Since in your writings you suggest that a great many valuable insights came your way as a result of zazen practice I would really like to know more clearly what you mean here. If there is somewhere on your site that deals with this, please let me know.
And here’s my answer:
You are absolutely right that zazen does not involve concentrated discursive thought. You’re not really supposed to focus on anything in particular, at least in the Soto tradition.
However, that doesn’t mean that no one ever focuses on things anyway. Even the most diligent of shikantaza (just sitting) practitioners will, from time to time, use the practice to focus on and deal with something that happens to be a problem for them.
In the case of anger, what I was trying to get at was that I often sat zazen while angry about something — since I was pretty much always angry about something. So when I was angry during zazen that’s what I had to deal with. When you’re horny during zazen you deal with that. Or bored, scared, lonely, etc.
So it wasn’t so much that I’d plan it out, “I shall now focus on anger — go!” It’s just that anger came up and I had no choice.