What to Think About During Zazen

When Zen Buddhist teachers instruct people about how to do zazen, it’s pretty common for them to say little or nothing about what to do inside your head during the practice. In Dogen’s main set of instructions on zazen, Fukan Zazen-gi (the gi part is pronounced with a hard ‘g’ as in ‘geese’ rather than a soft ‘g’ as in ‘gee-whizz’), he says a lot about what to do physically during zazen, but very little about what to do mentally. This is always frustrating to people who tend to believe that meditation is a mental exercise.

Here’s what Dogen says about the mental side of zazen. He says, “Put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases,” and “Do not think ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views.” Later in the same essay he tells us, “Think of not thinking. Not thinking  — what kind of thinking is that? Non-thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.”

The Japanese word translated here as “thinking” is shiryo. This is a word used to describe deliberate thinking and is often translated as “consideration” or “deliberation,” rather than “thinking.” The words kangaeru or omou are closer in meaning to the English word “thinking.” Dogen does not use those words.

The kind of thinking Dogen is talking about here isn’t the stream of random images and feelings  that crop up in our heads whether we want them to or not. He’s talking about deliberately pondering things, deliberately chasing our thoughts or investigating our feelings, or deliberately comparing what we imagine zazen ought to be with what our zazen right now actually is.

So Dogen is not telling us to silence our brains. He’s not saying that we should have an absolutely blank mind during zazen. He isn’t saying that if an image of Glen Danzig on a surfboard, or the memory of a really good almond Danish floats through your head during zazen you have utterly failed.

Instead, he’s saying that we should try not to spend our zazen time deliberately pondering stuff. When images, memories, feelings, and suchlike arise in our minds during practice we’d be better off trying to “open the hand of thought,” as Uchiyama Roshi said, and let them go without chasing, investigating, or judging them.

Uchiyama Roshi also said, “Thoughts are the secretions of our brains, the same way as stomach acid is the secretion of our stomachs.” The brain is a bodily organ with a job to do. It digests the impressions it receives the same way the stomach digests the food it receives. We don’t pay close attention to every little thing the stomach does to get on with its work, and we don’t need to pay close attention to what the brain does either.

But we’ve all developed the habit of being obsessed with the content of our thoughts. It’s not easy to break that habit. People often want to learn some special technique that will change that habit.

There are techniques we can use to mask our thinking habit. One of the most popular is silently repeating a mantra in your head. Whenever you find yourself thinking about something, you replace that thought with a meaningless syllable and silently repeat it over and over and over.

This has the short term effect of making it seem like you’re not obsessing over thoughts anymore. The problem is that you haven’t really done that at all. You haven’t addressed the habit. You’ve just replaced it with a different habit. It’s like dealing with alcoholism by smoking cigarettes instead. Maybe one habit is worse than the other, but you haven’t dealt with the root of the problem, which is the habit itself. In fact, you’ve reinforced it.

Zazen is a much more radical practice than any sort of technique-based meditation. There is no mental technique involved at all. Instead, we watch our posture. The mind and the body are intimately connected. In fact, they are two manifestations of the very same underlying something that is neither body nor mind.

Where the mind goes, the body will follow. Every time you get lost in some train of thought, your posture will change according to that train of thought. So when you notice that you’ve been thinking about something during zazen, check your posture. You’ll see that something has gone astray. Maybe your shoulders are rising up. Maybe your head is tilted at a funny angle. Maybe your back is curving or the mudra shape you’re making with your hands has gotten weirdly out of kilter. Whatever it is may be subtle, but I guarantee you’ll find something wrong with your posture. Fix that, and continue sitting. When it happens again two seconds later, fix it again. Repeat as necessary.

Sometimes zazen feels like the “Dharma gate of repose and bliss” that Dogen describes in Fukan Zazen-gi. And other times it feels like a noisy mess. Neither one is better or worse than the other. When Kobun Chino Roshi’s students asked him about the various thoughts and images that came up during zazen, he’d say, “That’s just the content of your enlightenment.”

Constantly judging the stuff in our heads is what made our brains a noisy mess to begin with. There’s no need to keep doing that during zazen. And even if you find yourself doing that, there’s no need to worry about it or judge it. Just keep sitting down, keep shutting up, and let the practice be exactly what it is.

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