The Power of Shikantaza Compared to the Jhanas

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At the edge of a forest filled with immense banyan trees a man wearing  ochre-dyed cloth draped over one shoulder, leaving the other bare, prepares a pile of mindfully gathered grass under large tree. Bending his knees to sit on the grass, he crosses his legs with great attention,  placing his right foot on his left thigh and his left foot on his right thigh. His back lengthens like a cobra rising. He sits stably, like a thick and heavy stone, unmoved by howling wind, pounding rain, or swirling emotional hurricanes. His eyes half open not here nor somewhere else.  His whole body seems to be covered with eyes. His face brightens as a subtle smile flowers forth.  The mere sight of him is like gravity in the belly.

What did this man, known as the Buddha, or awakened one, experience while sitting in ? What were the meditative states that constituted his awakening? Some of his early teachings offer a clue.

I compare an early Buddhist text, “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life,” with Soto Zen teachings on Shikantaza, or “Just Sitting,” as I understand it.  I attempt to show that ways of practicing and understanding Buddhist meditation (What was the Buddha experiencing under the tree?) have evolved over time.  Earlier forms of meditation have become hidden in later teachings.  Shikantaza is a unique practice within the Buddhist panoply of meditation practices that dispenses with earlier techniques, but at the same time assumes some of the “fruits of contemplative life” at the beginning of practice.  In other words, these fruits of practice are not something practitioners of Shikantaza can anticipate.  Rather, they are always present within Shikantaza from the very first time one practices.

Early Buddhism


What did this man, known as “Buddha”, “awakened” do while sitting in meditation?  What did he experience in that profound state?

The Buddha lived for 80 odd years, over half of which he spent teaching the way to what came to be known as “Enlightenment.”  Home leavers, wearing simple clothes, shaving their heads, sleeping under a canopy of trees, having cut family ties, having no job but to train for liberation of the heart/mind from this world of suffering, trading spiritual advice for food, clothing, and medicine, were attracted to him, and respectfully sought out his guidance.  Far more of his students chose not to leave the comforts of a roof.  They had their own families and jobs to tend.  They too greatly benefited from his teachings, from simply witnessing him sitting, standing, and walking.


Kings, both wise and stupid, even, sought the guidance of Buddha.  King Ajatasattu was such a person, plagued by fear and often acting with violence.  He asked Buddha, as recounted in the Samannaphala Sutta, about the fruits of meditation, what someone would gain from such a practice.  Buddha graciously responded to the King with his own set of questions, and thus a dialogue ensued revealing the fruits of a life of renunciation. 

King Ajatasattu was riddled with guilt and anxiety, having had his own father murdered so he could assume the throne.  He encouraged divisiveness within the Buddha’s sangha by supporting Devadatta, a former disciple and cousin of the Buddha, who, like the King, was thirsty for power, even attempting (though failing) on three occasions to kill the Buddha. The price of the King’s rise to prominence was mental illness.  In asking the Buddha for advice in spiritual matters he must have been experiencing bone-chilling regret and confusion, all affecting his internal peace. 


Out of Ajatasattu’s dialogue with Buddha emerges a teaching that includes, among many things, descriptions of what are known as the four jhanas.  The jhanas are the results of having generated mental stability through pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses, having ended unwholesome qualities of mind like greed, hatred, and delusion, and having stilled “directed” thought.  Having cultivated wholesome qualities of mind the practitioner experiences pleasure, rapture, joy, equanimity, and mindfulness, among other qualities.


Buddha describes the transition of the mind from delusion to Enlightenment and the practices that allow one to move through various jhanas.  This must have been a very prized teaching in the 5th century BCE, in a worldview that proclaimed that escape from the round of suffering is possible, but only after many lifetimes of assiduous and dedicated practic

Later Buddhism

A seismic change occurred with the emergence of the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana texts between the first century BCE and the  second century CE. The Mahayana texts are known for the radical proposition that liberation is available not only to monks who dedicate their lives to practicing meditation, but to everyone. No longer is there one Buddha–Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha who awakened under the Bodhi tree. Instead, there are many, including the solo practitioner who has no need for a teacher.  In fact, the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra predicts that all of his disciples, male and female, are destined for buddhahood. He even guarantees enlightenment to those who doubt it’s possible.

Mahayana made enlightenment accessible to lay people, including:

  • to ordinary men and women
  • to families raising children
  • to children
  • to people of all colors
  • to people of all sexual and gender orientations
  • to differently-abled bodies
  • old people


This was a radical proposition then, and I think it remains so today. From the time of the historical Buddha to the present, the Dharma has been flowing like a river, its waters turning and churning as it emptied into the forest and city geographies of East and Southeast Asia, and crossed the Pacific Ocean entering North and South America.


Chan (Chinese for “Zen”) Buddhism, which developed in China in the sixth century CE, deepens the accessibility of Mahayana teachings to everyone by introducing the idea of “sudden and gradual enlightenment” .  One no longer needs to wait lifetime after lifetime for liberation, as in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Instead, one can catch glimpses of liberation in one’s own lifetime. Freedom from the round of rebirth and suffering is possible here and now, in this very life, regardless of one’s previous lives.


The jhanas, as described in the “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life,” are the product of a different mindset, one that takes reincarnation for granted.  Unlike modern America with its secular leanings, ancient India presumed a universe where we are continually reborn into a world of suffering until we have the means to escape this world (referred to as Nirvana) through meditative practices.  This escape was only afforded to those who could renounce the world and become monks.  According to “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life,” states of deep meditative absorption can be experienced in the here and now through exertion. However, unless one becomes a monk and dedicates oneself unremittingly to meditation, they are largely unattainable. A twenty-first century American reading the “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” might get the impression that such lofty states require a great deal of time, patience, and, perhaps, instruction from a teacher regarding proper technique that could be experienced in this life. However, they may not be aware that it was written for someone who had lifetimes of practice and previous incarnations before they attempted such practices. 


The practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting,” developed within a Chan context, and derived from a confluence of cultures, ideas, worldviews, and habits of the heart. While the idea of reincarnation was imported to Japan, this idea doesn’t play a big role in who could practice.  Moreover, there’s no mention of the jhanas or how to reach them in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, or “Universal Instructions for Zen Meditation,” written in the thirteenth century.   Where did they go? How does one “attain” them?


The following story found in the Denkoroku, or Transmission of Light, a collection of koans attributed to the thirteenth-century Zen master Keizan, is instructive:


Seigen Gyoshi went to study with the Zen master Daikan Eno and asked, “What work is to be done so as not to fall into stages?” The Zen master inquired, “What have you done?” Seigen Gyoshi said, “I do not even practice the holy truths.” The Zen master said, “What stage do you fall into?” Seigen Gyoshi said, “If I do not even practice the holy truths what stages are there? The Zen master recognized his profound capacity.


Both ancient and modern Soto Zen teachers discourage practitioners of shikantaza from actively pursuing special states of mind such as the jhanas describe.  Seeking them generates separation or clinging  and obscures awareness of anuttara samyak sambodhi, or complete perfect enlightenment. becomes identified less with a release from the world of suffering, and more with identifying oneself as the very world one lives in.


Soto Zen says, “stop grasping after anything, good or bad,” for to push away the bad only makes it worse. Rather, learn from the wave. Water rushes backward to go forward. Bad and good are two sides of one coin: delusion and enlightenment can’t be separated. Enlightenment can only be found within the deluded mind, not once all delusions disappear.


Zen Master Dogen used images to help the practitioner compassionately meet the mind that wants to eliminate delusion. In Universal Instructions for Zazen, for example, Dogen says“[t]he dragon attains water” and “the tiger returns to the mountain” .  The dragon, a mythical beast of great power and wisdom, dwells in water—that’s its home. But the dragon also dwells within us. The tiger’s home  is the mountain. That tiger is within us. Shikantaza is the practice of returning, or rotating, the mind to something–not a place or state-that has never left us. When the dragon attains the water and the tiger enters the mountain it is in its natural environment – it knows where its family is, and where to find things.


In my experience, people often take a “pauper to a king or queen” approach to meditation. They devalue their present state of mind, like King Ajatasattu in “The Fruits of Contemplative Life” (and who could blame him for wanting to feel differently?), and are seeking something grander – the mind of a Buddha, an “enlightened” mind. They might work their way through various mental states and after many hard years of practice begin to get some glimpses of so-called “Buddha Mind.” They may equate this “Buddha Mind” with some kind of privileged status, and if they attain it may even gain some recognition  from their  teachers or others in their meditation community.


Shikantaza practice within mainstream Soto Zen takes a slightly different approach. From the very first moment of meditation, we are kings and queens: we manifest Buddha Mind simply by sitting upright on our cushions. Indeed, Dogen Zenji says, “Shu sho ichi nyo”: practice and enlightenment are one.

 In shikantaza, we embrace whatever arises, so there’s no difference between the person who meditates for the first time, and the person who has been meditating regularly for 30 years. It’s not that people immediately experience the same psychological state when they practice shikantaza, but that whatever is present is given permission to be there.  The person who has been at it longer only sees this more clearly than the person who’s just begun.


I find several similarities between the Buddha’s instructions to King Ajatasattu in “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” and Dogen Zenji’s, Universal Instructions for Zazen.  After introducing zazen as the practice of a Buddha, Dogen offers practical instructions for how to do it.  , First, he says, find a quiet room. Eat and drink moderately, and put aside all involvement with the world. To me, this mirrors the Buddha’s description in “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” of the home leaver who abandons worldly attachments and eats just one meal a day. Dogen, however, makes shikantaza accessible to everyone by advising practitioners to “eat moderately” instead.  Watch the quantity of food you put in your body so you can remain alert in meditation. You can have three meals a day, just eat in moderation.


Moreover, during the span of meditation practice—whether we are sitting for five minutes or 45 minutes, Dogen exhorts us to put aside worries about the day. Dogen was not opposed to cutting off ties to the world as the monks of the Buddha’s time did, but he also thought in terms of one meditation period. He encouraged practitioners to cut off worldly ties for however long they were meditating—five minutes, five hours, five days, five years, or a lifetime. Practice and enlightenment are always available immediately; there’s no need to wait for some special time. All of us, home leavers or not, can set aside five or ten minutes from our busy lives once or twice a day to let go of worldly attachments.


Buddha, in the “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life”, describes the ending of “directed thought as responsible for the emergence of a particular jhana. But ending directed thought, in my view, is not the same as stopping thought altogether. When the Buddha speaks of “directed” thought, he means concentrated thought:  focusing one’s mind on a particular object, and not losing that focus. People new to meditation often mistakenly think that the goal is to fix one’s mind so thoroughly on the breath that no thoughts whatsoever can penetrate the mind. This couldn’t be further from the truth, yet people will often think they’ve “failed” at meditating  because of this false idea.


When the Buddha instructs King Ajatasattu that one of the jhanas is the result of stilling directed thought, I believe he is describing the practice of allowing “undirected” thought—and this, in my experience, is exactly what shikantaza is about. In shikantaza we don’t try to fixate on a particular object, such as our breathing, or try to rid our minds of thought. Instead, we view our thoughts like a flowing river. Good and bad thoughts pass us by. There’s no need to hold on to the good ones or the bad ones. We just sit as if on on the bank of a river and watch the thoughts rush by. Practicing this way, the meditator may notice changes to the mind and may even experience  feelings of mental ease. But ease of mind is only a possiblity; it is not a guarantee, and it is certainly not the “goal” of meditation practice.


Another point of convergence I found between the Buddha’s descriptions of the jhanas in “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” and Dogen’s “Universal Instructions for Zazen” is the quality of joy that meditation can elicit. The Buddha says that joy is one aspect of the first of the four jhanas. The practitioner who reaches this state of meditative absorption will experience “rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal.” Similarly, Dogen Zenji describes shikantaza as anraku no ho mon—“the dharma gate of joy and ease.”


Joy ought to be present in our own practice as well. It arises from temporarily but responsibly turning our minds away from our incessant worries and desires.–We constantly want more: more money, more stuff, more attention, more sex. There’s no shame in mindfully observing these desires in ourselves.  The problem happens when we are not aware of how destructive these desires are for our own lives as well as our planet when actively pursuing them. 


The jhanas Buddha describes in “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” are stages—states of concentration that one passes through on the way to enlightenment. For Dogen, practice begins at Buddha’s finish line: we practice as if we are already awakened beings—because we are!  No former practice is necessary; there’s only now.  Dogen invites us to trust in our own inherent Buddha nature, something our rapacious minds delude us into thinking we have lost.


Two other areas of overlap between “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” and Dogen’s shikantaza are the practice of confession and of the precepts.  While, I will leave these for a later writing, it’s important to note that confession and the practice of the precepts are a common thread that runs through all forms of Buddhism, both in ancient and modern times.  While in modern times meditation has become accessible to everyone, and one can experience liberation here and now, we cannot presume that we are above the need to confess and to practice the Precepts.



On the surface there appears to be a great gap between shikantaza and earlier teachings of the Buddha. No doubt, shikantaza is not practiced in the linear fashion that “The Fruits of Contemplative Life” describes the jhanas. Because shikantaza doesn’t mention the jhanas, however, doesn’t mean they are not present in shikantaza. We see Dogen Zenji advocating for following the precepts, confessing, and leaving the world behind (even temporarily), just as Buddha either directly or indirectly supports in “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life.” While Dogen Zenji employs images like “the dragon attaining the water”, Buddha offers a more matter of fact approach – “if you do this, that will happen.” If you let go of worldly affairs, joy – the first jhana – will arise in the mind.


Lastly, the contrast between the Buddha’s approach and Dogen Zenji’s approach demonstrate the adaptability and flexibility of Buddhism across time and culture in meeting the needs of people where they are. Buddhism is not a monolithic tradition. There’s room for diversity of beliefs and practices, and we see that diversity fits well with the American mindset in the United States in the 21st century.


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