Shikantaza is one of the central teachings of the Soto Zen sect, and the form of Zen that the Confluence Zen Center is associated with. Shikantaza is often translated into English as “just sitting” or sometimes we see this rendered as “only sitting.” Harada Roshi (my teacher) often explained that this is to sit in zazen leaving the six sense functions be completely open: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking. The function that gives us the most difficulty is thinking. Thoughts do come and go. We are taught that zazen isn’t to suppress thinking. At the same time, it isn’t to get lost in daydreams either. Harada Roshi often said in the simplest way that this is to sit in a dignified manner, still as a mountain, leaving thought as it is without interfering with it and without letting it disturb you. The Zen teaching is clear; it isn’t “me” who is creating these thoughts. After all, thoughts arise and disappear of themselves.
These days, many Zen teachers say that Shikantaza is to sit without having a goal. More specifically, this means that we mustn’t have the goal of awakening or enlightenment. They stress that this matter of “just sitting” is compromised if we hold onto a goal, something we hope to attain in the future. However, Harada Roshi often pointed out that the idea of not having a goal quickly becomes its own goal. In other words, a person who is taught there mustn’t be a goal in zazen begins from this premise, but this idea itself becomes a goal. Most people don’t realize that the idea “I’m going to sit without a goal” (“I’m just going to sit”) is a goal in itself.
Dogen Zenji said, “The zazen I teach is not step-by-step learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of comfort and ease. It Is the culmination of totally realized enlightenment.” These are truly wonderful words. Here, I believe he is saying that zazen itself is the goal. To be one with zazen is awakening. This is to truly just sit, where there is no longer any idea of “just” sitting.
We inevitably begin with the sense that “I” am doing zazen. However, as long as “I” am doing zazen, there is a separation between you and zazen. As long as there is a separation, we tend to observe the condition of our zazen and begin to fiddle with it hoping to make it better when we think it’s not going well, and trying to hold on to it when we think it is going well. Dogen Zenji’s teaching was that “Zazen is zazen.” This is where zazen is both the means and the goal. In order for this to happen, we must forget the “I” that is doing zazen. We must eliminate this separation. This is the challenge of our practice, not only when we are sitting but in every activity of our life. The goal of Zen practice is to verify for ourselves the formless perfection of the moment “now.” This can only be done by grinding up Shikantaza (or shikan koan) by means of the thing itself. This is to be the thing itself without seeking a goal and finally realizing that this is the way it has always been.
These are subtle points. If you have questions about any of these, feel free to speak to me about them in Dokusan.
Daigaku Rummé, July 17, 2023