Taking a closer look at one of Zen's most distinctive practices: 'just sitting'
It's often said that all spiritual traditions ultimately lead to the same place. While this may be true if they're taken far enough, it's certainly also true that they take radically different routes to get there, and travel through different territory along the way.
In my previous article, I offered an approach to practice which is grounded in the tradition of early Buddhism and the subsequent Theravada school, and commonly referred to as 'vipassana'. The basic premise of vipassana is that we experience suffering because we don't see the world as it really is, and so by training ourselves to improve our sensory clarity we can gradually become free from suffering. Vipassana thus tends to take a deconstructive approach: we take our subjective experience to pieces, then take the pieces to pieces, and so on, until we come to realise the lack of any inherent essence to any part of reality, and the confused view of reality we've held up to that point crumbles away.
Zen, however, takes a different approach. Zen belongs to the later Buddhist tradition - the Mahayana - where the emphasis is instead on non-duality: coming to experience the fundamental non-separateness of all things in our experience, and ultimately revealing the illusory nature of all dualities. Non-duality is typically much more difficult to grasp at first; whereas the vipassana approach uses our already well-honed analytical minds to divide and compare different aspects of reality, which is something that we're already very familiar with, it's tricky even to talk about non-duality, because our language is set up to describe things in dualistic terms, and so we may not even be able to conceive things in non-dual terms in the beginning.
Effing the ineffable
So how can we get our foot in the door of non-duality, if it's so hard to talk about?
One approach (common in Tibetan traditions, for example) is to start with the theoretical study of non-dual philosophy. Over time, students gradually begin to get their heads around a different way of conceiving what's going on, at the level of intellectual understanding. Then, when the groundwork has been laid, the teacher will introduce a series of practices designed to bring about a more direct experiential 'taste' of non-duality.
Zen takes the opposite approach. We start with practice, and dive deep into the direct experience of non-duality, trusting that the intellectual understanding will follow. Later on, students will study the classic texts and come to a fuller theoretical appreciation of non-dual philosophy, but that understanding will be fully grounded in direct experience at all times.
(Which approach is better? The one that works for you! Personally, I'm a big fan of the Zen approach, because it means I can share meditation practices with people from the very beginning rather than having to spend years teaching philosophy, but given that I run a meditation class, I'm not exactly unbiased.)
But how do we get that direct experience of non-duality, especially when we're starting from a place where we don't even understand what it is? Zen has two powerful styles of practice which are designed to give rise to non-dual insights: koan study (which we'll talk more about another time), and 'just sitting', which is the focus of today's article.
What is 'just sitting'?
Known by many names - Silent Illumination (commonly found in the Chan tradition), shikantaza (found in Soto Zen), resting in the Unborn (which comes from Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku), open awareness, Do Nothing (Shinzen Young's term), Dropping the Ball (Michael Taft's name for the same approach), and doubtless many others - just sitting is a deceptively simple practice. It's sometimes called the 'method of no method', but that probably doesn't help much!
Let's take a look at the instructions given by the great 13th century Soto Zen master Dogen:
"Once you have [set up] your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking. Not thinking — what kind of thinking is that? Non-thinking. This is the essential art of zazen."
We can find slightly more detailed instructions in the records of the late Chan master Sheng-Yen, who broke up the practice into stages as a way of helping new students to find their footing.
(Sometimes he would suggest that students could begin with a period of following the breath if that way of practice was familiar to them, to allow the mind to settle before turning toward the main practice. Even the preliminary stage of Silent Illumination can feel vague or ungrounded for people totally new to this approach, and if you're more familiar with working with the breath, it certainly won't hurt to start a practice session in this way. After all, we're aiming at Silent Illumination, not Silent Mind-Wandering...)
Once you're ready to begin Silent Illumination, Sheng-Yen offers these instructions as a way in:
"To enter the practice you need to do just two things: relax your body and relax your mind. First, make sure that all parts of your body are completely relaxed and at ease. Next, relax your attitude and your mood; make sure that your mental attitude, the tone of your approach, and your mood are also at ease. This relaxation is the foundation for success in practicing Silent Illumination."
He then goes on to describe a progressive relaxation of the body - starting at the head, working slowly down the body relaxing each bit as you go.
Finally, he offers an entry into the main practice:
"Once you have relaxed your body, notice that your bodily weight has settled downward. Proceed to simply being aware of yourself sitting there and put your total awareness on your body sitting there. If you are relaxed and you have focused your awareness on yourself just sitting there, you have already entered the practice of Silent Illumination!"
The 'stages' of Silent Illumination
So we begin by relaxing, then bring our attention to the sensations of the body sitting. Even this, however, is still considered preliminary to the 'main' practice, which is the 'methodless method' of just sitting.
Sheng-Yen frequently emphasised that true Silent Illumination has, in a sense, no technique and no stages. Nevertheless, he found it helpful to lead people into the practice through the preliminary steps mentioned above, and he also described three subsequent 'stages', which are particular types of experience that may arise in the course of Silent Illumination.
0. The preliminary stage: mind and body are relaxed, aware of the body sitting.
As mentioned above, this is the entry into the practice. At this point the attention is still focused relatively narrowly, on the sensations of the body in its sitting posture.
1. Body and mind unified in sitting.
Over time, there's a sense of convergence and unification. Rather than the body being experienced as a collection of separate parts, you become aware of the total body. As Sheng-Yen puts it, 'The body is no longer a burden, and its sensation fades away, leaving a crisp, clear, and open mind.'
2. Self and environment unified in sitting.
At this point, the body, mind and environment around you become one - internal and external are united, or, to put it another way, lose their sense of 'differentness'. You may come to perceive your environment as 'your body'.
3. Silent Illumination.
The silence is experienced as a kind of vast stillness; you are undisturbed and motionless. The illumination is the clear awareness of things as they are. This is not a dark or stagnant stillness, oblivious to the environment; the mind is still yet open, aware of multitudes of forms.
(And if that still sounds pretty cryptic... Yeah. Sorry. You'll have to do the practice to find out for yourself!)
That's pretty much it in terms of the instructions. In particular, there's nothing that you do in order to move from one stage to the next; you simply continue 'just sitting', and gradually, over time, insight dawns.
At least, hopefully it does. The great Rinzai Zen master Hakuin was highly critical of this approach, which he characterised as 'do-nothing Zen' - Hakuin tells us that, in his time, it was commonplace to find temples full of self-satisfied monks convinced of their own 'inherent enlightenment' who simply sat around doing nothing (in the negative sense). Hakuin compared these practitioners to 'a cold pot of water on an unlit stove' - just sitting there, no transformation taking place.
But Hakuin is (characteristically) being a tad harsh here. Silent Illumination is a powerful, profound practice, and it can work - provided our stoves are lit.
The danger of giving too many instructions, and why I'm doing it anyway
The title of this article is a reference to Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku. Bankei was not a big fan of lengthy, elaborate teachings and scholarly study, feeling that the 'unnecessary words' merely served to clutter up the mind. Bankei would instead simply point out the nature of the mind to his students (which he called the Unborn), and then tell them to learn to rest in the Unborn all day, every day. Which is a lovely approach if it works, but unfortunately Bankei has been dead for a few hundred years now and isn't around to do the pointing-out for us.
However, there are legitimate arguments for not talking too much about insights and experiences which unfold through practice. As my teacher put it, 'If you give students a map of the insight territory, sooner or later they'll find a way to hallucinate what they think is the insight.' Taking preconceptions into meditation practice is a great way to set yourself up for confusion and frustration.
That being said, I do think there's a place for speaking more openly about this stuff. Personally, I would never have persisted with meditation if I'd been given Dogen's instructions and nothing else. I found the practice difficult and confusing at first. Fortunately, I'd already encountered teachers who were willing to speak about awakening, so I had some confidence that the practice was ultimately going somewhere, even if I couldn't see it at the time. In the modern world, it seems to me that there are many teachers who downplay, conceal or even reject the idea that transformative insight is the outcome of dedicated practice, and I think this is really sad - at best, it's a missed opportunity, and at worst, it's actively misleading.
With this in mind, I think it's worth taking a closer look at what we're actually trying to achieve in Silent Illumination practice - hopefully we can help to keep our flame alight without falling into the other extreme of hallucinating our imagined results.
Developing awareness of awareness
Fundamentally, the path of non-duality is about exploring and clarifying our relationship with awareness. Our entire subjective experience, moment to moment, is nothing but awareness; we have no direct access to the external world 'out there'.
Ordinarily, we are oblivious to most of our awareness, because we use our attention (the mind's 'spotlight') to focus on particular aspects of what's going on around us. Indeed, in Sheng-Yen's preliminary stage of Silent Illumination, we're still using the attention to focus specifically on body sensations, as a way of stabilising the mind's tendency to wander - so at this point we haven't yet begun to explore the totality of awareness itself.
Over time, practitioners will tend to find that their attention naturally relaxes and opens up, and we perceive more and more of our awareness. Whereas attention is selective, intentional and effort-based, awareness is panoramic, all-inclusive, automatic and effortless. We can learn to rest in this awareness, to experience awareness-as-a-whole as opposed to picking out specific bits with our attention.
Once we have established a clear sense of this panoramic awareness, we can start to notice that we've had things back to front our whole lives. We typically think that 'awareness' belongs to 'me' - that it's a property of the brain, for example. But, actually, if we look more closely, we see that, in our direct experience, awareness comes first - you arise within awareness, rather than awareness arising within you.
At this point, it's common to come to see awareness as being like a mirror reflecting all things, or to see awareness as like an ocean, with the individual phenomena within awareness as being like waves in the ocean - each having their own distinctiveness, but all part of a larger field of awareness. At this point, talk of 'non-duality' starts to make a lot more sense - we can see that everything in our experience has the 'nature of awareness', so there's a quality of 'sameness' (or perhaps 'connectedness') to everything we see, hear, feel and think.
As the practice deepens, we see that even this is an illusion - there is no 'awareness' separate from that which arises within it, but rather the awareness of an arising is inherently part of the arising itself. Ultimately, we come to see the world as a magical, dreamlike, vibrantly alive experience of empty appearance. (There's a famous Zen story which describes this shift - the poetry contest between Huineng and Shenxiu. Look it up!)
Approaches to Silent Illumination
So, armed with this extra information, how can we approach our Silent Illumination practice?
One way is simply to follow Sheng-Yen's instructions. Begin by relaxing the body and mind, then focus on your body sensations. Trust that, over time, your experience will open up, and these insights will reveal themselves to you. In many ways this is the easiest way to practice, because there's nothing to remember.
Another approach, however, is to bring this idea of 'awareness of awareness' into the practice more directly. Perhaps you might start your practice by focusing on the breath with your attention, then gradually allow the scope of your attention to expand - first to include the whole body, then opening further outward to include your surroundings, and opening inward to include your thoughts and feelings. Open until you can't open any more - open until your attention and your awareness are the same size, taking in absolutely everything in your experience. Then rest here, and see what happens. (The 'Open Awareness' and 'Unborn' practices on my Audio page essentially take you directly into the openness and rest there, so you can give those a try if you want to experiment with this approach.)
A third approach actually introduces a bit of a distortion to the method compared to Sheng-Yen's instructions, but may help to clarify 'awareness of awareness' more quickly. This is the approach used by Michael Taft in his 'Dropping the Ball' practice, which you can find on YouTube. However, in brief, the idea is to notice whenever your attention has latched on to anything in particular (a thought, a sight, a sound) and drop it immediately, like a dog dropping a ball. This will tend to lead you into a state where you remain clearly aware, but not focused on anything in particular. Finding yourself 'aware' but not 'aware of...' can really help to clarify the felt sense of 'being aware', making it much easier to rest there.
Then, once you can rest in 'awareness of awareness' like this, you can allow yourself to start to notice sounds, body sensations and so on - but now with a different perspective. You can notice that awareness is 'already aware' of these sensations - there's no need to 'go out and get them', no need to 'do' anything in order to be aware. The sensations simply arise effortlessly as a seamless part of the field of awareness. Over time, practising in this way, you will gradually start to notice the 'taste' of non-duality, this quality of awareness and arisings as like an ocean and its waves. This will take you towards Sheng-Yen's second and, eventually, third stages of Silent Illumination, and the full experience of emptiness.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!