December, 2016

Meditation Featured on ABC Evening News

Some years ago, a couple of people mentioned to me seeing a short segment on ABC Evening News with Diane Sawyer about meditation called “Changing Your Life through Meditation.” I don’t have a television, but a member of my Study Group sent me a link so I could watch the segment on my computer. According to the report, nearly 40% of Americans are turning to complementary or alternative forms of medicine and one of the most popular forms is meditation. The reporter explained that while meditation has been considered flaky by many people, more than three million people are now said to practice meditation in one form or another – from Marines to corporate executives to students to patients with intractable illnesses. One individual who has stage 2 lymphoma was interviewed. He explained that with just thirty minutes of meditation per day he is now able to undergo the treatment for the disease which requires him to use a body suit that makes him claustrophobic. Not only does meditation help him to relax, it also helps to lower his blood pressure.

The news report also said that meditation can even physically change the brain so that the parts of the brain related to self-awareness and compassion for others increases in size, while the part related to stress shrinks. Furthermore, the reporter said that robes, chanting, incense, or religious groups are unnecessary. All that is required are three simple things:

Sit comfortably;
Focus on the breath; and
When thoughts arise, gently return to the breath.

When Sawyer asked the reporter how long it is necessary to meditate each day to get the desired benefits, the reporter told her that studies show that only thirty minutes each day are sufficient, although indications are that even less time can also be effective.

The Zen sect is known as “the meditation sect.” So, one might wonder if this sort of meditation featured on ABC News is the same as zazen. This is an important question and one well worth asking, I think. In very general terms, the way many people practice zazen is similar to the three points mentioned above. Even though I find many people associate sitting in zazen with painful legs, certainly our aim in sitting on a round cushion in a quiet room is to sit comfortably and quietly.

Secondly, focusing on the breath is one way that many people use to focus the mind. In our everyday lives, we are often distracted by the never-ending stream of thoughts that pass through the mind. While zazen is clearly not a matter of stopping thought, it is also not a matter of indulging in daydreaming. In the case of the breath, we borrow the power of the breath (something which we are usually not aware of in our busy lives) to focus our attention on one thing. When various, miscellaneous thoughts arise – “Did I feed the dog?” “Where are my keys?” “What am I going to have for dinner?” – we are advised to gently return to the breath.

As far as this goes, the ABC News report on meditation is similar to zazen and if we are only interested in improving our health or lowering our anxiety and so on, I think this is fine. Yet, the zazen of Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto sect in Japan, is also quite different, even though he said at one point something quite similar to what was noted on the news report, “From the time before you go before your teacher and receive his or her teaching, it is no longer necessary to burn incense, make prostrations, recite nembutsu, make repentance, or chant sutras.” But then he adds, “Just cast off body and mind, sitting single-mindedly in zazen.” Here, the implication is that the distance or separation between the person who is meditating and the meditation itself disappears. For Dogen Zenji, zazen is letting go of the sense of an individual self and simply being the activity itself. This is what he referred to as “Zazen is zazen.”

Furthermore, he always emphasized that “the zazen I speak of is not step-by-step, learning meditation.” Zazen is the end itself and we must not seek results through the practice of zazen. Any expectations to achieve results are all things we project in the future. Zazen, to the contrary, is about realizing the perfection of the moment “now” where there is no time, place, or separation. It is liberation from expectations projected in the future and anxieties projected about the past. While it is no easy thing to accomplish this because our belief in an individual self is indeed very strong, I do believe this is the objective of all Buddhists and what Dogen Zenji taught as “practice and enlightenment are one.”

Let’s acknowledge, then, that there is another point for those of us who practice zazen:

To bring an end to zazen by thoroughly assimilating it.

Only then, can we truly join with Dogen Zenji in proclaiming that “[Zazen] is simply the Dharma gate of comfort and ease. It is the culmination of totally realized enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality.” In order to realize this, it surely won’t hurt to sit with other people. Everyone is cordially invited to participate in our regularly scheduled zazen at Zenshuji,

Rev. Daigaku Rummé (December, 2016)