The koan of just sittingBarry Magid

The great 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen taught that Zen meditation was not a means to an end, not a technique for achieving enlightenment, but that practice and realization were inseparably one and the same. Dogen said: 

Zazen is not a meditation technique. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease; it is practicing the realization of the boundless dharma way. Here, the open mystery manifests, and there are no more traps and snares for you to get caught in. 

Over and over, Dogen emphasized that practice and realization are inseparable. This does not mean that the practice of zazen is a uniquely efficacious tool for achieving realization but that zazen itself, from the moment of our first beginner’s instruction, is the complete manifestation of the Awakened Way. This assertion, which formed the very heart of his own realization and teaching, is deeply counterintuitive when we first hear it and probably remains so for a long time thereafter. Zazen itself, the practice of just sitting, deserves to be called a koan, an expression of opposites that we are challenged to dissolve. 

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What do we mean by “just sitting”? “Sitting” means sitting, walking, working, eating, speaking, and being silent. “Just” means that there is nothing in the world that is not sitting. When we speak of just sitting, we are not limiting ourselves to describing a particular posture or practice. We are describing a way of being in the world in which everything we encounter is fully and completely itself. Nothing is merely a means to an end, nothing is merely a step on the path to somewhere else. Every moment, everything, is absolutely foundational in its own right. Zazen, defined in the narrow sense as seated meditation, is but one of an infinite number of possible paradigms for this state, yet at the same time it is the unique expression of the coming together of human nature and buddhanature. But because our every action is also zazen, in Dogen’s vision of the monastic life, we ritualize every aspect of daily life, from sitting in the zendo to working in the kitchen to washing ourselves in the bathroom. 

If we think of one of the central functions of the koan as being to illuminate and then deconstruct our habitual tendency to dualistic thinking in all the ways that we dichotomize our life, dualistic thinking in all the ways that we dichotomize our life, then “just sitting” becomes a way of expressing the resolution of the koan of everyday life at its most fundamental level. This is what Dogen called genjokoan, actualization in everyday life. It is in the explication of genjokoan that Dogen utters his most famous summary of life and practice: 

To study the way of enlightenment is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.
(Trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi) 

Condensed in these words is the entirety of our life and practice. We begin, as in so many koans, with a dichotomy we have created in our own mind between the “Buddha way” and our “self,” as if they were separate entities, worlds apart, and practice were somehow a matter of making the twain meet. But Dogen begins by asserting that to study the one is to study the other. Rather than being opposed or incompatible, they are, in fact, inextricable. Yet because we do not know what either the Buddha way or the self truly is, our understanding of each must undergo a transformation. 

That transformation begins in the next line of Dogen’s teaching: “To study the self is to forget the self.” This is a strange sort of study that leads us to forget the subject of our study. I am reminded of Lawrence Weschler’s biography of the artist Robert Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. This kind of study, this kind of seeing, involves a loss of boundaries, a letting go of our stance as a separate, objective observer, and instead places us in the midst of the very landscape we say we are studying. Or we might say that when we attempt to “study” our “self,” we find, as Shakyamuni did before us, that there is nothing we can pin down and call our “self” that is not constantly changing, constantly being constituted and reconstituted by ever-shifting interactions with the whole world. 

Dogen calls this interpenetration of self and world “being actualized by myriad things.” “Actualized” means being called into being, or being made what we most truly are. When we cannot find any boundary between ourselves and the myriad things, our mind, our body, the bodies and mind of others, all “drop away”—any distinction, any separate “having” becomes a fiction we no longer maintain. Where there is no separate body or mind, there also can be no separate realization. “Realization” isn’t some change taking place privately inside my personal consciousness; it is instead the experience of from-the-beginning embeddedness in all of life, an embeddedness with no beginning and no end, which “continues endlessly.” 

Dogen’s last sentence returns us to where we started: “When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs.” This recapitulates our initial misconception of dichotomizing Buddha way and self. “At the moment when the dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.” The gap is closed. The dharma is neither far away, nor is it something that we had been lacking and now have found. Our original self, the self-in-the-world that we have always been, is unceasingly revealing the Buddha way in every moment. Nothing was hidden; what we have found has been in plain sight all along. 

Dogen’s vision of the unity of practice and realization is often considered the height of esoterica, a mystical view that we ordinary types can barely fathom. Indeed, the record of his talks that have come down to us as the Shobogenzo, the “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye,” contains language that is deeply elusive, paradoxical, and ungraspable by any ordinary logic. What relevance can this perspective have for our day-to-day psychological issues? 

Let’s go back to the beginning where Dogen introduces the practice of zazen. He emphasizes that it is not a technique of meditation, and this seemingly paradoxical assertion will open many doors for us if we will follow its implications to the end. It is one of the most ingrained and unconsciously pernicious of our psychological habits to treat almost everything we do as a means to an end. Like a small child in the back seat of a car on a long drive, we constantly want to know: “Are we there yet?” 

Paul Wakefield/Gallerystock

The Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki (1880–1965) once asserted that “Zazen is useless.” If we truly engage this assertion, we discover that doing this “useless” thing is profoundly different from everything else we do in our lives. It may, in fact, be the only useless thing we ever do. Our whole lives are organized around one purpose or another. Everything we do has a purpose, whether it’s to earn money, have a good time, or do good for others. Everything we do can thus be judged on some scale of accomplishment. How am I doing? There is always an answer, sometimes out to three decimal points. We are so used to everything having a purpose, we may even find ourselves asking the question “What is the purpose of life itself?” We’ll never find the answer to that one, because the question itself makes no sense. We have hopelessly conflated “purpose” with meaning and value. 

This is why it can be so hard to answer when our friends or relatives ask us why we practice Zen. The question presumes that Zen is a technique with a purpose, a practice with something as its goal. “Does it make you calm or happy?” As in the case of any koan, it doesn’t work to answer either yes or no. If zazen is truly useless, the first moment we do it, just as Dogen says, we have entered into a totally different realm. We are instantaneously off the grid, so to speak, of means and ends, of progress and goals. We are in a whole new world where what we are doing is not, cannot, be justified by something outside of itself, by what it’s going to get us, or where it’s going to take us. We just sit. We just are. Perhaps as we sit we will realize that everything in the world, from myself to the morning star, is equally useless and has no justification, no reason or meaning outside of itself. In our scientifically-minded age, the apotheosis of the idea that everything must be a means to an end is evolutionary biology. Every aspect of our existence as human beings, we are assured, is the way it is because somewhere along the line it conveyed a selective evolutionary advantage. Our hands, our minds, our taste for sweets all evolved in their current form because long ago on some hypothetical African savannah some ancestor of ours was able to reproduce more successfully, more prolifically, than his fellows because of a mutation granting this new trait. 

Do we believe that even the capacity to meditate is such a trait? We can make up a “just-so” story that meditation is a by-product of the capacity to sit still and concentrate, and the first meditators were hunters who were absolutely still and silent while they stalked their game. The most patient, concentrated hunter might indeed have an advantage over the competition. But how do we understand it when that capacity “evolves” to the point where those who are most drawn to silence and stillness and concentration forget about hunting and decide to become celibate monastics? 

It is difficult for us to step outside means-to-an-end thinking. Yet Dogen has shown us the way out of this cul-de-sac. The moment we sit down to do zazen, we are useless; what we are doing has no point outside of itself, outside of the moment itself. We just are, we just sit, and in the very act of sitting, we actualize the completeness of the act itself and we actualize our own full completeness as a useless human being, another name for which is Buddha.

Barry Magid is a psychoanalyst and dharma heir of Charlotte Joko Beck. He teaches at the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York City. This article was adapted from Nothing is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans by Barry Magid, © 2013. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.

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johnmarder's picture

Isn't the purpose of all Buddhism to find freedom from suffering?
Isn't that also the purpose of this 'not having a purpose'?

mike k's picture

The trick is to drop out into total detachment, and also at the same time drop totally into active involvement. Best of both worlds? In the world but not of it. Bring that inner peace into the noisy life of the marketplace. Witnessing consciousness not only does not preclude deep active involvement - it facilitates it!

maggiecsf's picture

Truly wonderful article, and, as always, exactly what I needed at this particular moment.

sallyotter's picture

Years ago, I was going through great turmoil. I remember repeating "What am I going to do?" over and over. At one point, the answer "You don't have to DO anything, you just have to BE" appeared in my head. Way before I had ever studied Buddhism. I sit in meditation because I'm practicing BE-ing. Freedom, lovely.

idaleung1's picture

Makes me want to go back to the movie on Dogen - I must have missed major points. Currently reading Sutra of Hui-Neng which introduces these points. Much thanks for elaborating.

Richard Fidler's picture

Funny how we insist religious practices be useful. Nobody asks why we wake up in the morning, eat, hear the morning birds, feel the rain on our faces. Why do we do those things? Isn't the question "why?" senseless and irrelevant? We just do them, that's all.

One more thing: the author brings up evolutionary biology, emphasizing that features must have survival value, fitness value. Not all evolutionary biologists see it that way. Many--like the late Stephen Jay Gould--saw evolutionary change as a grand mixture of natural selection and chance: beings are the way the are because of selection AND pure chance. The chance part--the unexplained part that may or may not confer advantage--is like Dogen's "?" aspect of being. Natural selection isn't wrong exactly, but it hardly explains how orchids, elephants, whales, and human beings got to be that way.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Orchids, et al "got to be that way" because other ways reduced "chances" of survival.

ljame54's picture

A completely useless human being–with tears in eyes, I surrender to there being no point and not getting it right and not finding a self who can write what's coming out of my heart. Is there freedom in this? It doesn't matter. The question is a goal and the reality is freedom is inherent in the truth of being without knowing what the point is...Thank you for this article, this reality-testing...

mfwilsonelm's picture

May I say how I enjoyed the photographs with this article. I have studied lichens and searched for them in nature and admired them. The message of the article is also very insightful. Just be, just sit.

Richard Fidler's picture

Me, too. Have you looked at real lichens with a ten power lens? Sometimes you can see reproductive structures, apothecia, that look like miniature dish antennae. Magnificent!

davidteplow's picture

Wow! What a beautiful explication of pieces of Dogen's work. Ironically, I'm reading Shobogenzo now, and it truly is a remarkable work---remarkable in its contradictions, paradoxes, and circular arguments---yet at the same time remarkable in its depth of thinking(?). No, that's the point, the 1000 pages you read with your thinking mind are not really comprehensible thus. That's the point.

"The Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki (1880–1965) once asserted that 'Zazen is useless.'” Indeed! Ah, but what do you think he meant by the word "useless?" Surely the meant the opposite, because if Zazen were useful, it would truly be useless.

julianw's picture

A great article, totally captures Dogen's practical approach to Zen practice.

ranjit's picture

-What Barry writes here is true for those who have been seeking something ..peace,nirvana,whatever...and having experienced the futility of seeking,now are ready to recognize that all things are just this,just so (yathabhutam in sanskrit),...and come to non seeking
-Barrys teacher,Joko Beck has written two great books on the this practice .They are"Nothing special" and "Everyday zen",and i would recommend them highly ,alongwith barrys own books