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Shikantaza and Mindfulness – Differences and Similarities – Jundo Cohen Roshi

Thread from Soto Buddhism Facebook page – Aug 28 2019 – Jundo Cohen Roshi

Someone asked about the differences (and samenesses) of Shikantaza and “mindfulness” If I may offer some views, that depends, I feel, on how one defines “mindfulness,” and the particular way a certain book or teacher presents “mindfulness meditation.”

If one means “mindfulness” as being the practice of scanning and labeling thoughts and emotions as they arise, it is a wonderful practice very much for all Buddhists … but we do not actively engage in such practice during the sitting of Shikantaza Zazen. In Shikantaza, one simply lets thoughts go without identifying and labeling their type, or particularly trying to witness (as found in some kinds of Vipassana meditation) their source of arising. In Shikantaza, one lets thoughts pass without grabbing on or stirring up, perhaps finding that there is also stillness between … and within … the thoughts too. At other times in life, it is lovely to become aware of one’s thoughts and emotions more, identify them so as not to buy into what they are selling so much. However, not during the sitting of Shikantaza Zazen.

Some types of modern “mindfulness” meditation are closer to “scanning and labeling,” but others are closer in various ways to (and have been influenced to some degree by) Shikantaza/Just Sitting. However. if one is following the breath in order to intentionally “feel peaceful” or to intentionally relax, then that is not really Shikantaza. In Shikantaza, one radically drops all need and intents, even to feel peaceful or relax. The only need and intent is to sit for sitting’s sake, with that a complete and fulfilled act in and of itself. (However, strange as it may sound, this very dropping of need and intent … even to feel peace or relax … leads to its own profound Peace because that very hunger and need is what causes human beings to feel lack and dis-ease in the first place!)

If one is sitting a kind of mindfulness “letting thoughts go, accepting the moment, no goals or demands” then that is obviously very very Shikantaza-ish! 🙂 However, even then, what might be missing? I would say that one might still be subtly sitting in order to get that “peace and relaxation” pay-off (which actually robs one of the real treasure). Second, there is a certain power to Shikantaza when one sits as a kind of “sacred act,” feeling that one is sitting “the one place to be. and the one action that needs to be done in that moment of sitting in all time and space.” One is truly a Buddha sitting sitting Buddha in that instant of sitting. One is sitting as a shining jewel at the center of all reality that is a shining jewel, wherein all things and moments are shining jewels shining in and out of shining jewels. Furthermore, the point of the sitting is not just to feel “peace and relax,” but rather, the hard borders that separate onself and the “not myself” world should begin to soften, or even fully drop away, such that one experiences the whole of the universe, and all the things, people and moments of time of the universe, flowing in and out and as each other … and as you and me too, and you and me just them. Then the true conflict between your “you” and the rest of the world (plus things like birth and death too) drop away as the separation and resulting frictions evaporate. Modern “mindfulness” training sometimes skips around such things, tending to be content with the pay-off of “just feel some peace and relax a bit.” That is a shame.

Other important aspects of Buddhist training may be left out, or undervalued, in Mindfulness courses, but they rob this Path of much that is important. As one example, the Precepts on avoiding the taking of life, not being greedy with excess desires, and the like may be undervalued (thus, for example, “mindfulness” courses are sometimes used to train soldiers to be colder killers, and business people to be more efficient and greedier money machines). Other Buddhist teachings, on how the universe is “Empty” and “Impermanent” free of only “individual self” (which is actually also its flowing Wholeness), constantly reborn and the like may be neglected. As well, the aspects about how we must continue to bring freedom from excess desire, anger and divided thinking off the cushion and out into life, even after Zazen time is over, may be neglected.

Oh, and one more thing: Sometimes folks understand “Mindfulness” to mean learning to do and experience one thing in one moment only, e.g., “when drinking tea, just drink tea; when washing the dishes, just wash the dishes.” It is a bit off topic, but I also emphasize to people that such is just a skill that we learn to live sometimes, when appropriate, not as our way to be every waking moment. It would be a bit crazy, and many things would not get done … it might even be dangerous and deadly … to try to live such way all the time. Even most Zen monks I know often “multitask” (so I say “when needing to multitask, just multitask … for that is what is happening in that moment too). 😉 One might say that our way is more about allowing the moment to be the moment, even if that moment is sometimes crazy busy or unpleasant sometimes.

So, those are some of the potential differences I feel.

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