Is Zen Ambivalent to Meditation?

Here’s another essay I found in my file of unused essays. I’m not sure when I wrote this. It must have been a long time ago because I don’t even remember doing an AMA on Reddit! But I must have because I wrote about it. In any case, I think the message of this essay might be useful. So here you go!

Not long ago I did one of those AMA’s on Reddit. AMA stands for Ask Me Anything and apparently it’s all the rage on the Interwebs these days. One of the oddest questions I got went like this:

“Suppose a person denotes your lineage and your teacher as Buddhism unrelated to Zen, because there are several quotations from Zen patriarchs denouncing seated meditation. Would you be fine admitting that your lineage has moved away from Zen and if not, how would you respond?”

In response I said, I do not know of any quotations from Zen patriarchs denouncing seated meditation. That wouldn’t make any sense! The very word zazen means “seated meditation.” “Za” means “to sit” and “zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word “dhyana” meaning “meditation.” A Zen lineage that denounces seated meditation would be like a bicyclist lineage denouncing two-wheeled vehicles with pedals. 

This provoked a response from another Redditor that said, “I don’t know if I should be surprised, but it looks like Brad hasn’t read the recorded sayings. Zen’s ambivalence towards meditation is pretty famous.” Since the word Zen means meditation, saying, “Zen’s ambivalence towards meditation is pretty famous.” is essentially saying, “Meditation’s ambivalence towards meditation is pretty famous.”

I was left scratching my head in puzzlement. I mean, I’m not the most scholarly guy in the world. But I’ve been around Zen Buddhism for more than thirty years now. That’s literally most of my life. And even though I don’t spend loads of my time researching arcane Buddhist texts like some people I know and admire do, I feel like I’m pretty well acquainted with the core material even outside of Dogen and his followers. Yet here’s someone saying that Zen’s ambivalence towards meditation is pretty famous. If it’s that famous how did I miss it for all those years?

Luckily the Redditor in question provided a link in which were listed several quotes intended to prove this point. The person went by the name Pretty Flowers, so I’m going to use feminine pronouns for her from now on even though I don’t know which pronouns she prefers. In any case, let’s look at some of the quotations she provided to prove that Zen Buddhism, whose name essentially translates as “meditation Buddhism” is ambivalent towards meditation, and even can be said to “denounce seated meditation” to the extent that what I teach could be characterized as “moving away from Zen.”

Pretty Flowers begins by saying, “Those whose experience of Zen comes mainly through attendance at a meditation center may sympathize with Brad’s response. Nevertheless, there is Zen critique of meditation, which sits (uncomfortably perhaps) alongside Zen’s well known advocacy of the practice.” 

She then offers this quotation from Linji, the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen (the Japanese pronounce Linji’s name something more like Rinzai). Linji said, “There are a bunch of blind baldheads who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Ch’an(aka Zen)-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence—but these aren’t Buddhist ways! The Patriarch Shen-hui said: ‘If you try to arrest the mind and stare at silence, summon the mind and focus it on externals, control the mind and make it clear within, concentrate the mind and enter into meditation, all practices of this sort create karma.’”

Pretty Flowers follows this with another story from the records of Linji. That one goes as follows.

One day Constant Attendant Wang called on the Master (Linji) and together they went to look at the monks’ hall.

Constant attendant Wang said, “This handful of monks—do they read sutras perhaps?”

The Master said, “No they don’t read sutras.”

“Do they perhaps learn how to meditate?” asked the Constant Attendant.

“No, they don’t learn how to meditate,” said the Master.

The Constant Attendant said, “If they don’t read sutras and they don’t learn how to meditate, what in fact do they do?”

The Master said, “We’re training all of them to become buddhas and patriarchs.”

Another Redditor, someone who goes by the name Urp adds an admonition from the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) a famous book of koan stories. There Mumon says, “To follow the compass and keep to the rule is to tie oneself without rope. To unify and pacify the mind is quietism, and false Zen.”

Interesting choices. OK. How about I add a few more of my own? In Fukanzazengi, or Recommending Zazen to All People, his famous treatise on zazen, Dogen says, “This sitting in Zazen is not learning meditation.”

I could also add a more contemporary koan-like story from the Dogen tradition. My first teacher Tim, once told me that he was sitting zazen with one of his teacher Kobun Chino Roshi’s groups. As was often the case, Kobun was late for zazen. He showed up after the bell had rung to start the period of zazen, then he looked around the room and said, “What a stupid thing to do!” Having said this, he plopped himself down on his cushion and joined in.

But one needs to understand these sayings in context. Linji, Dogen and Kobun all ran temples at which there were large rooms wherein groups of people gathered every day to sit cross-legged on cushions in silence. We don’t know much about Mumon, but I think it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that he ran a place with a room like that too.

When these folks on Reddit say that these guys and others “denounced seated meditation” those who hear such statements would be inclined to believe that these ancient masters said you shouldn’t sit silently, that such a practice was not “Zen.” They might be inclined to believe that there is some other practice that was more Zen than sitting on a cushion silent and still and waiting for a bell to ring to tell you the torture was finally over. What a relief that would be, to know that you can have your Zen without having to endure the pain and tedium of Zazen!

It’s difficult for me to guess if Pretty Flowers and Urp — whoever they might be — were trying to be ironic or funny, or if they really know so little about Zen Buddhism that they actually believe it isn’t all about sitting zazen — as its name implies.

The quotations they’ve chosen are not about whether it’s truly “Zen” to sit on a cushion very still and quiet. They’re about the difference between what is usually meant by words like “meditation” and “Dhyana” — the Sanskrit word usually translated as meditation or Zen — and what we actually do in zazen. 

Meditation, as it’s usually understood, tends to be a goal-oriented practice. There is a specific objective, and meditation is the means by which it is achieved. The objective may be a quiet mind, or spiritual purity, or a trance-like state called Samadhi, or bliss, or Oneness with All. Or the goal may be satori, kensho or other words indicating that nebulous something we usually call Enlightenment with a capital E in English. But whatever the objective, the meditative exercises prescribed by those who teach these goal-oriented practices are intended to bring about that state, and help practitioners achieve their goal.

This way of framing the purpose of meditation isn’t something new. It’s not some weird misunderstanding we westerners have invented because we’re so focused on achievement and success. It’s pretty much the way meditation was practiced even in India in Buddha’s time 2500 years ago. 

But these masters that Pretty Flowers and Urp quote aren’t saying we shouldn’t sit still and silent on a cushion. And they’re certainly not saying that we should pursue other more fun things if we want to be truly “Zen.” They said what they said in the context of a daily practice of silent, cross-legged practice. They weren’t saying, “don’t sit.” They were talking about the proper attitude for practicing zazen.

Master Rinzai said, “There are a bunch of blind baldheads who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Ch’an (aka Zen)-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence—but these aren’t Buddhist ways!”

He wasn’t saying that sitting zazen was not “Buddhist ways.” He was saying that “trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence” was not the Buddhist way. Demanding that our sitting practice conforms to the images we create in our minds about is an exercise in futility. It’s the reason so many people give up on zazen.

Rinzai quotes Shen-hui who said, “If you try to arrest the mind and stare at silence, summon the mind and focus it on externals, control the mind and make it clear within, concentrate the mind and enter into meditation, all practices of this sort create karma.” This, again, is not an admonition not to sit zazen. He’s talking about the futility of trying to arrest or control the mind during zazen practice.

Mumon says, “To unify and pacify the mind is quietism, and false Zen.” Again he’s talking about the difference between really doing zazen and sitting in meditation attempting to quiet the mind.

In the story in which Master Rinzai and Constant Attendant Wang are having that conversation while looking at the folks in the monks hall, what do you suppose those monks were doing? Hanging out? Chatting? Playing on their phones? No. They were sitting silently with their legs crossed waiting for the damned bell to ring!

Zazen is a goalless practice. This is one of the most difficult aspects of zazen to explain. 

Alan Watts put it this way, “We have a system of schooling in which we … put the child into the corridor of this grade system … you go to kindergarten and that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade. Then first grade leads to second grade and so on. And then you get out of grade school and you got high school. It’s revving up, the thing is coming, then you’re going to go to college… Then you’ve got graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school you go out to join the world. Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make, and you’re gonna make that. And all the time that thing is coming – It’s coming, it’s coming, that great thing. The success you’re working for.”

Far too many people practice zazen with that attitude. They’re working for something in the future, some great experience that they think will fix everything. But there is no such experience. Even the experience of unsurpassed, supreme, perfect enlightenment, when it’s an object, a goal to be achieved with a certificate you can put on your wall to impress your friends with, when supreme enlightenment is approached with that kind of attitude it’s not enlightenment at all.

That is the problem that those great masters were trying to address. It’s a problem Zen pracitioners have wrestled with for thousands of years.

Kodo Sawaki, one of my teacher Nishijima Roshi’s teachers, said, “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.” So as long as the practice is not good for nothing, it won’t be good for anything. I think that’s an interesting way to put it. 

This practice is good for nothing, meaning it’s not for establishing something. It’s not for making you a better person or more spiritual or for having some kind of special experience. It is for getting into your true experience, it is for learning how to not be chasing after something other than where you are right now. 

Any time you have a goal, even if that goal seems very lofty and beautiful, like enlightenment or becoming a better person, this is a construct in your mind. It’s something you’ve invented. You have an idea of what enlightenment should be or an idea of what being a better person should be or what being spiritual should be, or whatever it is. There are all sorts of goals you can put in there; but it’s not what’s going on at this moment, it’s something that’s off in the future or off somewhere else or embodied in someone else.

What we’re trying to do in this practice is get to our real experience unadorned— as it is—and see that for what it is. What happens when you do that is surprising. For me, when I finally started to understand what my own life really was. What I discovered was that it was much more subtle and beautiful and important than I ever could have imagined—my own real experience. 



September 1, 2021 LECTURE Turku, Finland

September 2-5, 2021 RETREAT Hämeenlinna, Finland

September 8-12, 2021 BENEDIKTUSHOF RETREAT near Wurzburg, Germany

September 15, 2021 LECTURE at LibrairieAlmora Paris, France

September 18-19, 2021 TALK and more in the Ashram de Gilles Farcet, Angles-sur-l’Anglin, France