If Zazen is Good for Nothing, Why Do It?

Someone asked me recently, if zazen is good for nothing, why do it?

Kodo Sawaki, my ordaining teacher’s first teacher, said, “Zazen is good for nothing.”

But Sawaki was a student of the teachings of Dogen Zenji. And Dogen said, “When even for a moment you express the Buddha’s seal by sitting upright in Samadhi (aka doing zazen) the whole phenomenal world … and the entire sky turns into enlightenment … Furthermore all beings … at once obtain pure body and mind, realize the state of great emancipation, and manifest the original face. At this time all things realize correct awakening … (and) you turn the dharma wheel and expound the profound wisdom (which is) ultimate and unconditioned.”

That doesn’t sound like good for nothing to me!

So, was Sawaki denying what Dogen said? I don’t think so.

Being in the moment is the big buzz-phrase these days. Everybody wants to be more in the moment.

But you are always in the moment. You can’t be more in the moment no matter what you do, because you can’t ever escape from being exactly in this moment.

All you can do is fail to notice that you are already in the moment. That can be a problem. You can make a lot of mistakes by thinking you are somewhere other than right here, right now. You can make a lot of mistakes by thinking that this moment is preparation for some other moment in the future.

You won’t notice that you are in the moment until you stop seeing this moment as preparation for something else. This is where Kodo Sawaki’s statement that zazen is good for nothing is useful.

The full version of the Sawaki quote goes like this, “What is zazen good for? Good for nothing. As long as this good for nothing practice does not penetrate our bones and we really practice what is good for nothing, it won’t be good for anything,”

In order for zazen to be good for anything, it has to be good for nothing.

What pulls you out of this moment is the idea that this moment ought to be good for something outside of this moment. Your vacation on a Greek island is for the purpose of making you less stressed out back at work in Burbank. You work at your job so you can party on the weekend. You party on the weekend so that you can forget about your job.

Right now they’re building some new apartments around the block from me. Every day from sunrise till sunset I hear hammering and beeping and guys yelling. You build an apartment building in the future by hammering nails into boards today.

That’s all well and good. But if you get too distracted today by a vision of tomorrow, you’re gonna hit your thumb with a hammer.

By making zazen good for nothing, we focus on the doing and not on the benefits we expect. If we do zazen fully right now, the benefits will take care of themselves.

I know why I do it. I know what I get out of it.

I’m not a nice, even-keeled sweetheart by nature. That’s not me. I’m bitter, resentful, angry, socially awkward and not easy to get to know. When I stress out, I stress all the way out. For me, Zen practice hasn’t been a way to go from well-adjusted guy to All Knowing and All Seeing Master, full of beauty and bliss and rainbows. It’s been a way to keep from going completely off the deep end.

Without the grounding Zen practice has given me, I would not be able to do what I do at all. I am keenly aware of that. When I sit down on my little cushion in my little apartment each morning and night I know that as boring and silly as sitting there looking at my closet door for half an hour might seem — even to me! — it’s what makes the rest of my life even possible.

Yeah, I’ve had some moments of pretty amazing insight. Not that I am amazing. But what I’ve seen has been astounding.

But that’s not why I get on the cushion each day.

I get on the cushion each day to survive it.

I look at zazen the way I look at brushing my teeth. When I was a little kid, my mom brushed my teeth for me. When I got a little bit older, my mom expected me to brush my own teeth. But I always had to be told to do it.

Then, at some point, I noticed that I felt better on days when I brushed my teeth than I did on days when I didn’t brush my teeth. From then on, I didn’t need to be told to brush my teeth. I just did it.

Nowadays, when I brush my teeth I don’t think about the benefits of it. I don’t think about preventing cavities or gum disease. I just do it because that’s what I do each morning and evening. Same with zazen. I never think about what it’s good for, I just do it.

And yet I know that all the goofy stuff Dogen said about the benefits of zazen, both for oneself and for the entire universe, are literally true. He wasn’t just spinning out cute metaphors. He wasn’t making stuff up to try to sound encouraging. He was expressing exactly what happens when you do zazen.

The entire sky really does turn into enlightenment. All beings actually obtain pure body and mind at once. They honestly do realize the state of great emancipation, and manifest the original face. All things literally realize correct awakening, turn the dharma wheel, and expound the profound wisdom, which is ultimate and unconditioned.

Seriously. No joke.

But it was only by doing a whole lot of boring-ass zazen that is absolutely good for nothing that this becomes apparent.

Weird, huh?


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