What is Shikantaza?

A Definition

Dogen called his meditation practice shikantaza, which literally means “just sitting.” In shikantaza we sit without the koans used in Rinzai Zen. In our zazen, body and mind sit without any techniques – koans, mantras, visualizations and so on. We find an upright posture, breathe through our nose quietly and deeply from our abdomen, and keep our eyes open. We let go of whatever thoughts arise within our mind. It is simply sitting upright without any expectation or gaining idea. - Shohaku Okumura
Soto Zen: An Introduction
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Many people are confused by descriptions of shikantaza.  It’s seems elusive, where there is nothing in particular to grasp, and nowhere to put your mind.

One of our YouTube viewers wrote in to say the following:

 

… I'm struggling with how to figure out, what it practically means to just sit with the "sensory doors open" … because my mind wants to focus on something - a sound, a visual object, my breath, a little pain in the neck etc. etc. - either because it enters the sensory doors spontaneously or because I start searching for something to focus on. So, what would you recommend I do when the mind starts wandering about?

I love this question!  It’s very honest as to what our experience may be when trying “to do” shikantaza. 

 

One possibility when sitting down “to do” shikantaza is to remember that every moment we have a choice.  We can choose to do several things with our attention.  The Buddhist tradition distinguishes between two kinds of concentration:  active and selective.  In other words, there are two ways to practice paying attention.

Active Concentration

Active concentration is where the meditator does not focus on one thing but allows “whatever” to come into one’s field of awareness.  The practitioner is aware of sounds, body sensations, thoughts and smells, but deliberately does not focus on any one of these objects.  The meditator simply allows them to come into their field of awareness without holding on to any of them.  Uchiyama Kosho Roshi refers to this kind of awareness as, “opening the hand of thought.”

 

Shikantaza can perhaps be put in the category of active concentration.  Of course, sometimes while practicing shikantaza a meditator will get caught in a particular thought or line of thinking.  For example, during my meditation this morning I began to think about how I would respond to the question that I am presently responding to.  I found myself mulling over in my mind what to say.  This is an example of what often happens when we sit down to meditate.  We get stuck in a mental rut that pulls our mind out of the present.

 

Here is where the practice comes in.  Once we notice what we are doing there are at least two possible responses with regards to active concentration.  We can beat ourselves up for getting caught in our own thoughts, thinking, “I can’t do this,”  “It’s too hard,”  “I’m not cut out for meditation,”  etc.”  Or we could practice patience and gently return to the practice of letting go of that train of thought, until then next train of thought comes. 

 

When I first began meditation, I found myself often involved in the first response – “I’m not good at this.”  To discipline my mind, I felt the need to deepen my concentration so that I would not let myself get hooked by my thoughts.  While I would not recommend this approach today, it is a possible response.

 

What I’ve described above constitutes the first kind of concentration – active.  Active concentration forms the base for shikantaza. 

Selective Concentration

Selective concentration is where the meditator chooses a particular object to focus on such as the breath, the body, the rise and fall of emotions, a particular sound, a koan story, etc.  In this case, when the mind wonders, instead of returning to “nothing in particular,” the meditator returns to their object of meditation. 

In selective concentration, like active concentration, the meditator may disparage their practice every time their mind wanders off.  Here, too, patience is required to gently bring one back to the object of meditation.  Meditators need to be honest with themselves during practice, recognizing that sometimes whole swatches of time go by, and we are lost in our thoughts, not focused on our object of meditation.  This is part of the process of meditation.  The problem is not our unfocused mind as much as our ego telling us to quit.  On the eve of his Enlightenment, even the Buddha faced the desire to quit.  He could have it good as a prince or a king.  Why bother with a practice that has him look at how weak and vulnerable he is?

Is your mind settled?

Shikantaza is like a mirror reflecting our mind. We might not always like what we see. But at least we see what is.

One form of concentration is not better than the other.  Active concentration is not superior or inferior to selective concentration.  Meditators always have a choice as to which one to employ.  Here’s where I would recommend finding a teacher to work with.  I don’t know how people do the practice these days without having a teacher to observe.  Meditation practice is not so much about a technique to do as much as it is about a relationship to develop with a teacher and a sangha, in my experience.  I learned to meditate by watching my teacher and other students, not just listening to verbal instruction.  I’ve found it indispensable to have an example, and to see that even a teacher doesn’t always “get it right.”  Sometimes we set our personal standards too high and expect too much from our practice.

One last thing to mention here is that meditation is only one part of the Buddha’s 8-fold path.  Other aspects of his path to healing include right livelihood and right action.  Right action refers to practicing the precepts in our daily life.  We need to include our actions and livelihood as part of our practice because they affect our meditation.  If we’re not at peace with our work, or we don’t study the precepts – not to lie, steal, commit sexual misconduct, etc – then our meditation practice will reflect that and be affected by that.  On the other hand, as we practice meditation – especially with proper guidance from a bonafide teacher – right livelihood and right action become clearer.

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