Thursday, 8 December 2016

Just-Sitting Zazen (Shikantaza) & The End of Suffering

Shikantaza means “just sitting”, literally “nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za)”; ta is a powerful word, it suggests moving activity such as when an arrow hits the target, it emphasizes single-mindedness; while za as in zazen means sitting. Some have suggested that shikantaza bears a phonetic resemblance to the Pali word “vipassana”, but any etymological link is far from certain.

In Shikantaza, there is no focus. Whatever thoughts and feelings arise, one neither indulges nor pushes them away. Not adding, not taking away. Just being, letting the thoughts and feelings arise and pass. It’s very simple, but not necessarily easy in practice.

I would like to give a perspective now on how this relates to the end of suffering. Suffering (dukkha) is one of the three marks of existence, along with impermanence (anicca) and no-self (anatta). Suffering is at the heart of the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching: the four noble truths. These are that: suffering exists, the cause of suffering is craving, there is an end to suffering and the way to the end of suffering is the eighfold path. 

First thing to say is that suffering exists. In Pali, the term for it is dukkha, and the all-pervasiveness of this word is remarkably difficult to translate: it’s not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, being separated from what we like, old age, disease, death. Suffering had a pivotal role in the life of the Buddha. It is said that as a young prince, he came across four people that changed his perspective on life. The first three were an old person, a sick person and a dead person. Then the fourth person that he saw was a wondering monk. Something about that person really spoke to him. He saw an inner peacefulness. It became his all-absorbing spirital quest: what to do about suffering. It’s the same for us. If everything were satisfactory, then we wouldn’t be interested ourselves.

Buddha asked three questions: (1) Why is there suffering? (2) Is there an end to suffering? (3) How can we find the end to suffering? The answers he found are given by the four noble truths. The first noble truth says that suffering exists. Trying to escape the suffering we get nowhere. We have to sit in the heart of suffering. It requires much coruage and this is where zazen comes in.

The second noble truth tells us that the cause of suffering is craving (tanha). A feeling arises, pleasant or painful. That’s not a problem so long as it does not progress onto craving. What do we do when a feeling arises? This is the point we have a choice. The crux is our reaction to the feeling. We tend to crave what’s pleasurable and try to ignore or be rid of what is unpleasant. If we avoid, it may come in another form. Even pleasurable things can cause problems because they’re impermanent, so if we try to hold onto them, they create disappointment. The more we indulge feelings of like and dislike, the more we consolidate these  ingrained patterns of discrimination, so suffering continues. At the next step, “I really want” becomes “I must have”. This is when craving can turn into clinging. I must have material goods, experiences, achievements. Even if I get all that, I worry that I’ll lose it. Whilst craving has the elements of desire, want, need, once it turns into clinging there’s also an element of fear, of desperately holding on, an insistence, a hardness.

Let me give an example: I’m feeling hungry, and I could nibble on some tea biscuits, but I remember there’s some chocolate ice cream in the freezer. But when I go and take a look in the freezer, I find there’s only a spoonful left, and I could really do with more of that. I can’t settle with that, so I head out in the car to get some more ice cream, but the store is sold out. You can guess how I’m feeling now. There’s nothing wrong with wanting chocolate ice cream. The tipping point is the development of the craving when I find there is not enough left. It’s the arising of the driven quality. 

The example I gave shows all three of what are called poisons: greed, anger and delusion. The greed and the anger are obvious, but there’s also the delusion of thinking I must have this chocolate ice cream for my completeness. In pursuit of what “I must have”, I might do things which harm myself, harm others, and later regret.

The third noble truth is that there is an end of suffering, and that this is possible in this life. We have a choice whether to be driven by our cravings, or whether we meditate on them.

The fourth noble truth is that the way to the end of suffering is the noble eightfold path. This is (1) right understanding, (2) right thought, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. One way of looking at the eightfold path is that this is a description of zazen, so the fourth noble truth is that meditation is the end of suffering.

Great Master Dogen went much further than this. As part of his teachings in non-duality, he said “training and enlightenment are one”. Meditation is not the path to the end of suffering, it is the end of suffering.

Suffering is caused by the belief in a separate permanent self, an “I”. Then, I’m always seeking reassurance for this uncertain sense of “I”, and look at the world through the lens of the ideals, expectations of the self, thus distorting the world, not seeing things as they really are. The more we try to shore up our self, the more we are driven by fear and desire, and so we enter a spiral of discontent. Suffering does not originate from trying to shore up the sense of self, but comes from the sense of separation itself. We can’t think our way out of suffering, but it involves an assimilation at a deeper level. So we just sit. Non-duality is something we come to see concretely for ourselves.

It’s not about what I want, but what’s the best thing to do. The driven quality of craving can be used for a good cause, but we have to be honest with ourselves about our motivations, we can be imaginative about alternative ways of doing things, and it’s never for us to judge the motivation, craving or delusion of another, but to look within ourselves first. This is where the precepts can be useful. They are a description of compassion in action. Zazen and the precepts together help us to manifest compassion and wisdom from within.

We’re not trying to get from one point to another, suffering to not suffering. This would involve a duality. Accepting "what is" undermines the craving that underlies our greed, hate and delusion. Instead of "being me", "just being". Let the wholeness of the experience just be. It’s a paradox that we have to be willing to learn to just be with suffering in order to end suffering. Whatever is here right now is accepted. Nirvana is not somewhere else, or some time else. It doesn’t work if we look for freedom from suffering. Freedom is found within the circumstances of our life.

Let me finish with a quote by Great Master Dogen about suffering and the end of suffering. Great Master Dogen says, “Could it be possible for us to understand that life and death are, of themselves, nothing more than Nirvana. There is obviously no need to try to escape from life and death or to search for Nirvana. And for the first time, freedom from life and death becomes possible.”

Source: This is merely written up by me. The speaker was a Zen nun. The video is Gudo Nishijima Roshi talking with Gustav Ericsson in Tokyo 2005 about the meaning of Shikantaza. The photo is mine.

Published originally on Buddhist Travellers in 2012.

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