Dhyana: settled, focused meditation

July 7, 2016

The Sanskrit word dhyana is translated as Chan in Chinese and Zen in Japanese. It means “meditation, absorption”. In the Zen sect of Buddhism our core practice is zazen. Za means sitting. Zen means meditation or absorption. This practice is introduces us to and grounds us in the compassion and wisdom of what we call the Buddha Way. There are many other practices of discipline and devotion that also do this, but it is the practice of zazen which, from the first sitting, plunges us into a direct confrontation with the body and mind we are relinquishing and reveals the body and mind dropped away.

We generally begin zazen by taking the form of a still sitting pose on a cushion or in a chair. We settle ourselves in a way that aligns the body, stabilizes us, and allows us to remain still for a brief period of time. We adjust all parts of our body to support us in our stillness: upright, either leaning forward or backward, left or right; seated on chair or cushion so that our spine is naturally erect with a slight curve in the lower back. On a cushion the legs are crossed in the familiar lotus or half-lotus position or kneeling in what is called the seiza position. On a chair the spine is not supported by the back of the chair, but by the natural tilt of the pelvis and curve in the spine. The feet are flat on the floor or flat on a small cushion.The eyes are in line with the shoulders, the nose is in line with the navel, the chin tilts a bit downward so the crown of the head points skyward. The mouth is closed, tongue resting on the roof of the mouth. The eyes look downward and remain half open. Shoulders relax and arms rest in the lap, open left had atop open right hand, thumbs touching lightly. The breath flows naturally.

At first we may be shocked by the busy chatter of our mind, perhaps even by the slight anxiety our intense self-consciousness evokes. We may feel distracted by the sensations of our body, by discomfort as our body adjusts to the posture of upright sitting. This is  all normal and calls for our patience, letting the thoughts and sensations arise and pass away. It is this noise that both distracts us and gives rise to the story that becomes our identity. This body and mind that we have come to believe in is what we will relinquish, first in the techniques of focusing on the breath, on the teaching stories passed down from the time of the Buddha until now.Gradually, accepting breath and being without anything to cling to, we breathe and sit freely. Zazen is not what people often mean when they say “meditation”. To many meditation often suggests there is an object that is the focus of meditation—the breath, a line of text, a koan, an image. Gradually we come to experience the settled stillness without an object of focus, even without sitting, without stillness,  without silence. When this practice is at the core of our being, we notice that it is not other than our just being, and until we are dead, we are always just being.

Early in his major text, the Fukanzazengi, or the Universal Recommendation of Zazen, Eihei Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen Sect of Buddhism in Japan, says about sitting zazen, “Have no designs on becoming a buddha. Sanzen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.” Zazen does refer to the practice of sitting Zen, but it also refers to a wholehearted presence to the unadorned state of the moment as it is right now. Master Dogen says, “Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward in practice is a matter of everydayness.”  Taking this seated form, taking this form more and more in everyday life, we become more accustomed to not adorning the moment with a story: just walk, just clean, just drive, even just listen and just talk. As body and mind drop away, concepts and belief in concepts falls away. Each time they return, they cling less tightly, they fall away more easily. Early in this text that recognizes the human potential for benefitting from this  core practice, Master Dogen says, “If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.

How do we carry this groundedness in suchness into the activity of everyday life? How do we meet “others” in the intimacy of “things as they are”, listen to them without the gap of self and other? How do we live in the everyday world of form grounded in the clarity that abides nowhere? This is our aspiration. This is the relinquishment that relinquishes nothing and is one with the ten thousand things.