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.

Sharing is caring! Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponDigg this

16 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. Chris
    Chris June 5, 2009 at 4:12 pm |

    I've been trying to find your e-mail address on the site, and can't. anyone want to enlighten me?

  2. Really
    Really June 5, 2009 at 7:00 pm |

    "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."

    Yep. That happens. Honestly put, Brad.

  3. Rich
    Rich June 6, 2009 at 4:10 am |

    I like to think about it as accepting whatever comes up. Sometimes this accepting leads to choices. While sitting it might be just letting go. Either way its just sitting with whatever you are.

  4. Mumon
    Mumon June 6, 2009 at 7:36 am |

    The reverse happens as well.

    Actually, at least in the Rinzai tradition, it's supposed to happen.

  5. PhillySteveInLA
    PhillySteveInLA June 6, 2009 at 8:39 am |

    Totally off topic but, RIP David Carradine.
    Tis a sad sad day

    …Has anyone else heard anything about supposed ninja involvement.
    Intriguing, but I have yet to hear anything convincing.

  6. Justin
    Justin June 6, 2009 at 10:34 am |


    I think these two very closely related practices actually compliment each other very well. Directing attention can be very good for developing awareness of your own psychology.

  7. Really
    Really June 6, 2009 at 4:29 pm |

    And that, Justin, is why so many attempts in these forums and blogs to describe, distinguish, compare and evaluate "different practices" are, I feel, not more than hot air: they have nothing to do with what actually happens when each of us does his/her own form of sitting meditation.

    The idea is very different to the reality. The theory is not the practice. Not ever.

    The disputes happen in the realm of thought. Never in the realm of action.

  8. alan
    alan June 6, 2009 at 5:54 pm |

    Really @ 4:29

    The title of Katagaris book "You Have to Say Something" has always appealed to me just for the title. I have not read it.

    I'm sitting, trying to figure out what is going on.

    In the meantime, words (though I'm told tell nothing about Reality ), give me something to ponder and maybe even inspire me to sit again.

    They may be, and probably are, just hot air.

    But for poor pitiful little me (he! he!), who is still (and probably will always be) caught up in thought, it is something to do between sittings.

  9. Jinzang
    Jinzang June 6, 2009 at 6:24 pm |

    The theory is not the practice. Not ever. The disputes happen in the realm of thought. Never in the realm of action.

    Practice ought to be informed by theory, just as that notable Buddhist, Karl Marx, said.

  10. Really
    Really June 7, 2009 at 4:23 am |

    I agree, alan and jinzang.

    I didn't mean to devalue thinking, writing and discussing. I do a great deal of it. I was only trying to clarify the DIFFERENCE between the realm of thought and the realm of action.

    I was a little frustrated with what I read as Justin's smug headline – that led me to use the phrase "hot air", which could I edit, I would. His subsequent point was valid, though – as IMHO, are yours.

    But still: "The theory is not the practice. Not ever. The disputes happen in the realm of thought. Never in the realm of action."

    I think we usually overvalue our enlightened thinking. I know I do.

  11. Really
    Really June 7, 2009 at 4:28 am |

    …but it is a truly wonderful thing, our thinking 😉

  12. PhillySteveInLA
    PhillySteveInLA June 7, 2009 at 5:59 am |

    Y'know what they say about theories?

    Even Communism works…in theory.

    So. Let us look at the noble USS…wait. no.
    Well Cuba's doin' gr…hmmm.
    But China! China is…err. Welll, they have a lot of money and people!

    Well, you see what I'm saying about theory?

  13. mysterian
    mysterian June 7, 2009 at 10:00 am |

    Focus: "We want your women."

  14. earDRUM
    earDRUM June 10, 2009 at 11:40 am |

    That's funny Justin.

    I guess capitalism worked in theory too, huh?

  15. anothernic
    anothernic June 11, 2009 at 9:07 am |

    Philly Steve – lets take a look at a non-totalitarian example of socialism and compare its citizen's quality of life to that of the United States.

    Oh wai…

Comments are closed.