Just Don’t Do It

A guy wrote to me recently saying that he couldn’t understand what to do in Shikantaza.

Shikantaza, for those who don’t know the term, is the type of zazen I teach. The word literally means “just sitting.”

But the just in “just sitting” is an emphatic just. It’s not like the just in “just sitting around.” It’s more like “DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE OTHER THAN JUST SITTING.”

The guy who wrote me was troubled by all kinds of thoughts he was having while trying to do Shikantaza. He’s thinking about chocolate cake. Then he’s thinking about sex. Then he’s wondering what monks wear under their robes. Then he’s thinking about a song he likes. And on, and on, and on.

That can’t be Shikantaza!

Can it?

So he asked his Zen teacher. She told him, “Imagine thoughts rolling by like clouds in the sky.” That probably works for her, but it wasn’t working for him.

Shikantaza is really hard to describe. I think everybody who tries to describe it does their best with an impossible situation. Dogen’s version was, “Think the thought of not thinking. What’s the thought of not thinking? It’s completely different from thinking.” It’s hard to do much better than that. 

The problem is there are no good ways to give instructions on how to do nothing.

Whatever it is you want to do with your mind in Shikantaza, don’t do it. Maybe that’s a way to put it. Sit up straight, try not to move too much, whatever thoughts come by leave them alone. It’s like you want to jerk-off, but you don’t. How can you describe the practice of not jerking off? It’s completely different from jerking off.

Maybe that’s too much of a male version. I should try something more universal. How about, it’s like you want to scratch an itch, but you don’t scratch it. How can you describe the practice of not scratching an itch? It’s completely different from scratching.

Let me see if I can describe what I actually do each day. I’ll be sitting there, trying to do good Shikantaza for quite literally the 723rd time that year alone. And some thought comes along. And I get interested in that thought. What if I wrote a rock musical based on the life of Buddha? Maybe it would be as big as Jesus Christ Superstar! I could get Zero Defex to play it live at the Highland Theater in Akron.

Shit. OK. Shikantaza. Leave that thought. Check the posture. Yup. I’m slumping forward. OK. Shoulders back. Chest open. Spine balanced on hips. Zhweeeeeeeeeee.

No thoughts intrude for a while. Nice. Nice word, that. Nice. So many ways you can say it. Noice! Or maybe Cockney. Naaaaice, guv’na! Or Nice, France. That’s spelled like nice but pronounced Nice. If I wrote that in a blog how would I make it clear…

Shit! OK. Shikantaza. Put away that thought. Check the posture. Yup. I’m slumping to the left. OK. Shoulders back. Chest open. Spine balanced on hips. Zhweeeeeeeeeee.

What’s that smell? Should I tell someone about that smell? How can I tell someone about that smell without making any noise? Noise annoys! I love the Buzzcocks. So sad Pete Shelly died.

And so on.

That’s the way Shikantaza goes for me and I’ve been doing it roughly two times a day since the Autumn of 1983.

The thing I finally learned after around ten or fifteen years of daily sitting was that every thought I had was just a thought. I know that doesn’t sound like much. Everybody knows that!

But I really didn’t. Maybe you don’t either. Not really.

Because I thought that some of my thoughts actually mattered. They were IMPORTANT THOUGHTS. Like if I had a really nasty thought, I’d think it meant that deep down I was actually a really nasty person. Oh no! Or if I had a really loving thought, I’d think it meant that deep down I was capable of genuine love. How lovely! But what about the nasty thought? How could I be both loving and nasty? I must figure this out! Maybe if I THINK ABOUT IT REALLY HARD then the answer will appear within my thoughts. And what a great thought that would be! I’d better get working on it! Think, man! THINK!

But after lots of Shikantaza, I realized deep down that none of my thoughts were very important. None of them meant anything except that my brain was active. I realized that there was no answer in my thoughts. I saw that the Big Answer I was trying to think myself to would never appear. And, by extension, there was no Big Answer in anyone else’s thoughts either.

There wasn’t any book out there that would tell me the absolute and final truth. All those people who pretend like they know what’s really going on are just as full of shit as me because they’re just responding to thoughts that they think are important, which are no more important than any of my thoughts. Same. Same.

It was the most freeing thing I have ever discovered, the understanding that all of my thoughts are just thoughts. It made all those years of sitting and trying (and failing) to do nothing worth the effort.

I’m not sure how else I can describe Shikantaza. Maybe “think the thought of not thinking” or “imagine your thoughts like clouds rolling by.”

Those are pretty good, too.

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