Jundo Cohen - Treeleaf Zendo · Shikantaza is..... · Soto Zen Buddhism · Teachings of Dogen · Uncategorized

Shikantaza – Thoughts on Silent Illumination – Jundo Cohen

First, it is important to keep in mind that many very different approaches are being called “silent illumination” these days (maybe in the past too). Some, for example, seem to emphasize various degrees of concentration on the breath, and the attainment of varying degrees of “samadhi” with deeply concentrated mind states. Second, reading Master Dogen’s writings, it appears that he based Shikantaza on the “silent illumination” he learned in China, but just added a few very important (for Soto folks) touches and twists of his own that make Shikantaza the same, but rather its own way.

As to the first point, the flavor of “silent illumination” described in the article seems (at first glance) relatively close to Shikantaza in several respects. More than focus on the breath to attain a highly concentrated state, it seems to describe an “open awareness” not tangled in thoughts and putting aside judgments in favor of equanimity. This is much the same as Shikantaza, in my understanding (sometimes, in Shikantaza, we may place attention on the breath,especially for folks who might struggle with very active minds that make “open awareness” hard, but also not to attain deep concentration states … although they sometimes arise, which is fine too. We also sit untangled from thoughts and in equanimity whether following the breath or sitting with such “open awareness.”) We do not suppress thoughts, but simply are not caught by thoughts. We also sit vibrantly, not slack or just “twiddling our thumbs,” much as described in the article. A light will seem to arise which shines through, illuminates, all the division, friction and chaos of this samsaric world. So, this is very close or the same. ..

So, what is the difference?.

First, in reading the whole article, the author is actually pointing to attainment of something more, a rather special mind state that is necessary for this kind of meditation to be “successful.” The writer says. “The traditional way to enter Silent Illumination is by settling the attention on awareness of your body, the experience of sitting, the sense of bodily presence. … We discover that the act of sitting with full experience of our body sensation leads us to cultivate a full three-dimensional 360 degree awareness of physical body together with our inner and outer worlds. … It can be a difficult practice to stabilize, and it is wise to check your practice with a teacher. As the awareness is open wide there is so much more material for the mind to comment about and so the silence may be lost. ”

Master Dogen seemed to emphasize the act of sitting itself as a complete act, a whole act, with the act itself the sitting of a Buddha with nothing lacking, nothing more to attain, nothing which can be “lost.” Most meditation (such as the above quote from this article) seeks to attain a special state of mind and keep it.” For Dogen, the act itself is the one object to attain, sitting for sitting ‘s sake, with not one other thing to do besides this one action in this moment. Crossing the legs is the whole and complete action of a Buddha. Within doing so, of course, various mind states may arise such as the one described in the article, but they are neither the goal or point. One cannot make a Buddha through Zazen, for Zazen itself is already Buddha. It is the difference between our continued human hunger to get some prize, and our dropping all need for a prize (Zazen itself is the prize) in which the peace and equanimity results when we are no longer hungry and no longer need some prize to fill a hole of dissatisfaction within. It is a subtle but important difference. Humans are always hungry and need some prize, thus we encounter dissatisfaction and suffering (Dukkha) when we don’t get it, while a Buddha is totally at home in just the present state, thus free of dissatisfaction and suffering. Then a peace, satisfaction, wholeness and equanimity develops which is more than any passing human feeling of peace and satisfaction. It is a faith in Zazen like knowing that the moon is present whether seen or unseen. One is not only “successful” when seeing the moon. Merely sitting Zazen is the moon shining, seen or unseen, and there is no need to attain and sustain some special state of mind such as a feeling of peace and equanimity to be “successful.” Sitting Shikantaza itself is all success attained. This Zazen is not only “successful” when attaining and holding the state described in the article which (counter-intuitive as it sounds) then, in Dogen’s way, is the most profound peace and equanimity.

Thus, Shikantaza is a little different from meditations meant to attain some mental state.

– Jundo Cohen


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