Ei Mei Kan - November - 2007
Zazen, Just for Nothing...?
by Chris Edwards
It’s early and all is quiet on the campus grounds, but take a look shortly after 6.00 am to see arising a tired and bedraggled gathering assembled dressed in a motley array of clothing from black to white, making their way to a quiet location, armed clutching cushions, mats, pillows and duvets to use against the burgeoning pressures of their upper bodies upon their lower joints. To sit quietly and motionlessly together as bound in a spell cast by each upon each other to hold in unspoken resolve.
A good sit was it? “Oh yes very relaxing, very rewarding, I get a lot from it you know”; are the kinds of comments you think you might expect to hear, but little in fact is said about the benefits of zazen. It’s perhaps a bit taboo to say too much. Far better to nod in considered agreement with someone you see as having greater experience than oneself.
Each year at summer school I have noticed with some intrigue by those that don’t sit with those that do. “So what’s the point? What do you get out of it?” are typical questions.
On one such occasion the discussion ended abruptly with a loud retort, “nothing, I get nothing out of it”, one sitter replied. This I am sure did nothing to encourage the non sitter to sit but on reflection it seemed a fairly accurate and honest answer and also had the intended effect of ending what was clearly seen as a pointless discussion. Sit and then you will know, might in hindsight have been more constructive advice.
To enter into zazen with a purpose is however counterproductive. I am reminded of the exercise of peripheral vision; to expand awareness focus on nothing and catch a glimpse of everything.
It’s hard to understand that in the modern world sitting contemplating ‘the nothing’ is a good return on the use of time but is it not so that the frenetic pace of modern life yields a less than optimal return from our constant effort.
‘To do is to be’ quoted the Greek philosopher Socrates. A simple exercise can demonstrate this idea.
During a busy working day there are many events and things we have to give our attention to. Stop between activities to pause, empty the mind of one activity before proceeding into the next, for this stops the residue of the past polluting the present and gives greater clarity of mind to the task in hand.
One of the greatest challenges to the practice of zazen is to control the functioning of the mind. To put the earlier peripheral vision analogy more accurately focusing on nothing is by way of focusing through something. Thus we can focus through the breath or through the passage of an inward repeating sound but not on it.
Similarly we cannot hope to empty the mind by blocking the information we receive through the senses or from spontaneous arisings of thought from within, that is events from the past and ideas about the future, but simply acknowledge their presence and allow them to exit as swiftly as they enter our consciousness.
To still the mind for me is like looking at a flowing stream. As I carefully fix my gaze upon the moving water there appears a constancy of pattern emerging. A riffle here an eddy there, for a moment it all looks still, frozen as in a photograph. Suddenly it is broken, a leaf has fallen and traces the flow and I am lost to it. I hear a voice from within saying “let it go”, “don’t get stuck”, “stay connected”. The voice sounds familiar, it’s the voice of my Aikido teacher. Is it the same instruction here for zazen? What does it mean?
Simply let go of what’s just happened, the leaf has gone. There are more leaves passing now and I have not noticed them. I have got stuck in a dream to the flow and the leaf and my attention to the ‘now’ has been lost.
Can zazen help in the preparation of the mind for the practice of our Aikido; perhaps. So why not try and see for yourself, for nothing ventured is nothing gained.
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