Jundo Cohen - Treeleaf Zendo · Soto Zen Buddhism · Zen - Study

Dropping the Body – Jundo Cohen Roshi

Dropping Body – By Jundo

In our Shikantaza Way, Mind and Body are “not two.” Sometimes we speak of the body, sometimes of the mind, yet always just “bodymind.” Sitting in a balanced, stable and still way helps facilitate balance, stability and stillness of mind. As well, a balanced, stable and still mind allows one to feel so in body. All are integrated, in a feedback loop. Thus, we seek to sit Shikantaza Zazen in a balanced, stable and still posture as we can.

However, this fact can also lead to some misunderstandings about posture and the body from a Shikantaza “radical non-attaining” point of view.

Master Dogen wrote in Shobogenzo Zanmai-O-Zanmai:

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My late master [Jujing Zenji] says, “To practice [za]zen is to get free of body and mind. Just to sit is to have attainment from the beginning. … ” … Even if some physically understand sitting to be the Buddha-Dharma, none has realized sitting as sitting. How then can any be maintaining and relying upon the Buddha-Dharma as the Buddha-Dharma? This being so, there is sitting with the mind, which is not the same as sitting with the body. There is sitting with the body, which is not the same as sitting with the mind. And there is sitting that is free of body and mind, which is not the same as “sitting that is free of body and mind.”
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Just to sit is to have attainment from the beginning, and to be truly “Free” of body and mind is not necessarily what we think of as “being free.” To truly be “Free” is not a matter of always feeling free to do as one wished (rather, it is to sit in the wish to be as one is). A Buddha’s “Balance, Stability and Stillness” is not necessarily the same as always feeling “balanced, stable and still” in human terms. A Buddha’s “Balance” is at the still heart of all bodily balance AND inbalance, and like a body suspended in space, has no up or down or right or left, or any place to fall. The Unmoving “Stability” of Zazen is known even as the greatest quaking and shaking that life can muster. “Stillness” or “Silence” as felt and heard in a Buddha’s Ear is found in quiet places or in the most disturbing and noisy battlefield. “Freedom” is not the earthly freedom from rules and walls (the lesson taught in the highly restricted life of the monastery), and Zazen is truly Unbound.

As the embodiment of this Truth and Freedom, Shikantaza Zazen must be sat with the student profoundly trusting deep in her bones that sitting itself is a complete and sacred act, the one and only action that need be done in the whole universe in that instant of sitting. Sitting itself is whole and thoroughly complete, and the single performance of crossing the legs (or sitting in some other balanced posture) is the realization of all that was ever sought, that there is simply no other place to go in the world nor thing left to do besides sitting such sitting. Do not seek anything from your Zazen, whether “enlightenment” or to become “Buddha” or anything at all. Just Sit! I sometimes compare Shikantaza to the children’s puzzle of “Chinese finger-cuffs” which are escaped, not by forceful effort and pulling harder, but by non-resistance and letting go; by dropping the hunt for “enlightenment”, by giving up the chase, by allowing all to rest in the complete wholeness and acceptance of Just Sitting, by quenching all thirsts in the sheer satisfaction of sitting alone, one thus realizes a freedom and way of being which otherwise alludes us in this world of endless chasing and constant dissatisfactions. What a relief this is in this busy world, where we chase after achievements, are overwhelmed with tasks that feel undone, and feel that there are endless places to go … even in our spiritual practice.

Unfortunately, it is very common for people to bring a functional orientation and emphasis on attainng ordinary “balance, stability and stillness” into Zazen by attaining the “right posture” or manipulating the body in some way in order to feel some ordinary nice feeling in body or mind. Some descriptions advise to do X with the breath to realize some deep concentration, to do Y with the spine to release some special energy or the like. Sometimes there is a fetishizing of the physical manipulation and holding of a perfect “Lotus Posture” in a way not found in Master Dogen’s writings. This overlooks the true meaning of a Buddha’s “Balance, Stability and Stillness” and turns Zazen into just another goal oriented tool to achieve some nice feelings, not the radical Achieving of that Liberation of Nothing Remaining to Achieve.

For example, in all his available writings, Dogen Zenji never describes Zazen’s posture except in the most general terms. His instructions on breath merely state to let “long breaths be long, short breaths be short” and to breathe naturally. He does describe “upright sitting,” and the two Lotus Postures, but not much beyond that. In fact, his entire emphasis seems to be more about the sacredness of the act of sitting itself, and sacredness of the posture itself because it is the traditional act of a Buddha, rather than any special need to manipulate the posture in more specific ways. We sit so because it is a ritual embodying a Buddha’s sitting, a “non-method” method, not a technique to induce some effect (and thus the “effect” of realizing our original Buddhaness is realized in Freedom from all search for effect!). I even believe that, if faced with modern folks who may struggle with the Lotus, old Dogen would not have objected to any chair sitting, Seiza or other reasonable posture. As he wrote in Fukanzazengi, although giving barebones instructions for the posture of sitting, “How could that be limited to sitting or lying down?” and “The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized.”

As well, we have in our Sangha various individuals with physical disabilities and health conditions, some who need to sit or recline on the floor, some who are in chronic pain. Especially for them, sacred Sitting is not a matter of some “proper posture” but of realizing in their bones that the posture they can muster is proper for that “is what is.” This is the Balance, Stability and Stillness of a Buddha’s heart even when the body is less than the human being might desire.

It is my belief that what Dogen and the Buddha (also very silent on posture in the Teachings we have) truly meant is a posture that can be taken and then forgotten as best one can. As best one can, assume the posture that one’s body allows that is as upright, balanced, stable and still as possible (in ordinary terms) because it helps to allow balance, stability and stillness in mind in ordinary terms. We sit in the Lotus when we can (or some other balanced posture like Burmese, Seiza or in a chair), facing the wall in the quietest room we can muster as it is good to sit in a place and way that allows us to settle a bit from all our running around in the noisy city streets. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, we seek to sit each day in a quiet and still room, with as quiet and still a heart and mind as possible, all to realize that it was never just about sitting or ordinary quiet and stillness at all! As strange as it sounds, we sit each day in a quiet room, in balanced posture as we can, all to realize that Buddha is Everywhere, what need to sit at all? Thus we sit! (A Koan). If our body just will not cooperate because of health condition and pain, then it is more vital to realize an inner Quiet and Stillness which fully accepts that fact, and is truly At Home with one’s uncooperative body.

It is good to realize the ordinary balance, stability and stillness that we can (hard to do when slouching in front of the TV bombarded with sensory overload), all to realize the True Balance, Stability and Stillness that is present all along, even in the ugly news and flood of words pouring from the TV! However, the real meaning of “dropping body” is then to drop concern with the body, pay it “no nevermind,” radically accept things as they are including one’s poor health conditions, thus to find the True Posture of Balance, Stability, Stillness … the Silence which is all silence and the greatest earthly noise. Then, getting up from the cushion (or the chair, assuming that the body allows), we return to this world of daily movement, hustle and bustle and noise. Then we can realize that a Buddha’s true Stillness and Silence is found even at the heart of all that sensory overload, inside a monastery’s walls or in a hospital bed, in both quiet places and right in the noisy city streets, in every shape and form that the body can take.

Gassho, Jundo

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