why do zazen?

Listen to this spiritual talk. You may download, but please do not repost.


Often, Zen teachers tell students to avoid setting goals and expectations for their Zen practice – not to expect any results. “Zen is not a self-improvement program,” they say. “You’re already enlightened and awake,” they say. And then they turn right around and list various qualities that students can cultivate through practice: Clarity – Equanimity – Compassion. I think I’ve done that myself during the past year.

Well, I have to say there are some things that people notice in themselves after doing Zen practice for a while – after reading, listening to talks, meeting with the teacher, and most of all, sitting. Doing zazen. We don’t become perfect people, but we may start to notice differences in the way we conduct ourselves and our lives. Or not! For instance:

We may begin to “see” more clearly the sound of our own being. See a sound? What can that possibly mean? Each of us emanates a sound in this world, a particular quality of being that shows up within ourselves and in our contacts and interactions with the other beings we meet. And as we practice, both in zazen and in our daily activities, this sound becomes clearer and purer and more resonant of the truth of our being. We may begin to speak our truth more readily in circumstances where we might normally hold our tongues. Or we may begin to see others as ourselves and to give them the benefit of the doubt, where before we might automatically have chided them for something they said or did.

We may begin to hear more clearly the harmony of being-doing. That is, our actions begin to come more into line with our own sense of being. And as our own sense of being originates in the root-source, in True Nature – or as some call it, Boundless Nature – our actions are less mediated by self-judgment and assessment and commentary. And we don’t fall prey to concepts and beliefs and outside influences. We learn to “be” without either clinging or resisting, without habitually grasping or yielding. We don’t find ourselves treading through weeds and grasses as much as we used to; our actions occur in the true light of being in the present moment. We become, in Fr. Greg’s words, “whatever happens to be happening.”

We may become more content to know while not knowing. The phrase, “I don’t know” becomes less disconcerting to us; we are more able to stand solidly upon what feels like shaky ground. A documentary about the film director George Stevens has him saying: “Life is a journey, and it’s always most interesting when you don’t know where you’re going.” So, we can take things step by step, moment by moment, in and as the normal course of our lives. We learn not to try to look way far down the road, which is, after all, not possible because that road is in the future, and we cannot see its features from our place in the present.

So, we don’t come to Zen practice hoping to gain something or to be a particular way. As the Heart Sutra says, there is in our practice “no wisdom and no attainment.” But in that very fact, we realize in our daily living “no hindrance in the mind; no hindrance and therefore no fear.”

We can go freely about the business of living, and in doing so, we free others to do the same. This is the great and beautiful fruit (though not the only one) of our zazen practice. Let us embrace it fully. 

Thank you.