Monday, January 28, 2008

The word 'Zen' is a Japanese transliteration of the word 'Chan' in Chinese, itself a transliteration of the word 'Dhyana' in Sanskrit. If you look it up in a dictionary, Dhyana is commonly translated as meditation or state of absorption or concentration or stability meditation or many other English descriptions.

Zazen is composed of two characters, Za - sitting and Zen - dhyana, so a reasonable English translation might be 'Sitting-meditation' however for me the English word meditation has become corrupted, it covers a multitude of practises, lots of magical thinking. So some practitioners of meditation think thoughts of loving kindness on their cushions or focus on the breath, some push down their diaphragms and try to attain states of insight.

What dhyana means to the Zen lineage is zazen, just sitting, naturally and comfortably in balance, just that and nothing else. When we are doing nothing but sitting in balance, we are practising sitting-dhyana / Za-zen.

Japanese monk Dogen Zenji transmitted Zazen to Japan from his master Tendo Nyojo in China’s Five Mountains Temple system in the early 13th Century.

Indian monk Bodhidharma had brought Dhyana from the Indian tradition of the Buddha to China, but what did he bring, a meditative state, a level of perfection, a form of meditation, a state of absorption?

These terms are abstract descriptions and can lead to us spending years trying to attain something illusory.

The emphasis in zazen is on ‘not doing’, not doing anything other than sitting. We ask, ‘Well, how can we do that?’ The answer is that we can’t DO it, we can’t do not doing. The skill of Zazen is not one to attain, it is in giving yourself and everything that you think you know away for nothing, with the expectation of nothing. Permitting all that we see or seem to subside is what Master Dogen refers to as ‘Turning around the light and shining.’

In our lives we are constantly expressing, expending our energy to run after things we sometimes don’t even know that we want. Zazen is the opposite to our normal activity of trying to get something, we relinquish profoundly on our zafu.

Remember 6th Century teacher Master Nagarjuna from last week.

‘I pay homage to Gautama, to he who out of compassion, taught the true dharma as the relinquishing of all things.’

And what is left, when what we imagine to be true has subsided?

Only this instant, our true inheritance, shorn of all projection and imagination.

What is this unvarnished and clearly apprehended reality?

It is uncategorised, undivided, it has no name, it appears before us immediately.

The past has gone, the future is not yet here, all there is of the past and of the future is contained in this instant of existence.

A great Buddha once said ‘Eternal existence is momentary.’ We imagine this might be a grand spiritual statement but it is not, it is a simple statement of fact.

Living life as this true fact is the life of a Buddha.

Bodhidharma brought Dhyana to China, the very root of chan and zazen but what he brought wasn't an abstract or magical practise, it was zazen, doing nothing other than sitting, fully awake and aware of each instant.

As Buddhists we return to this simple state each morning and each evening. Wobbling along our path this way, we maintain our balance.

This is the gate to true freedom in our lives.

(Given as a talk at Bloomsbury Zen Group 24/01/2008)