How to Meditate, Interview – June 29, 2010
MH: Thank you for agreeing to interview. So, to get started, what was your first experience with meditation?
Seikan: My earliest memory of meditation is sitting on a sled in a lane in Prague, with big snowflakes falling all around me and on my body. The lane was flat, so I was just sitting there like a small hill. I would have been about 4 years old.
MH: Like a small hill? Your description is inviting. Did you know even then that this was meditation?
Seikan: I guess that depends on what you mean by "knowing". Small hills, young children, snowflakes, all are states of knowing in themselves. So did the 4-year old know meditation as an experience? Yes. Did he know meditation practice? No.
Meditation practice, particularly in Zen, is not so much about experience, as about a particular structure as a means of letting go. Most people that I meet who first come to Zen meditation seem to do so with a hope of experiencing special mind states. But in practice we either manage to settle for the structure of sitting meditation, or we soon stop coming and look for special experiences somewhere else.
So in Zazen, or Zen meditation, the often touted notion of "just being" ceases to be something abstract and starts being the physical reality of "just sitting". In the first instance, this can often involve sitting with some pain or discomfort. Ironically people come to Zen mostly looking for pleasant experiences of the mind, and instead we discover the body and usually meet with pain.
This reminds me of a story of Bodhidharma, the legendary Indian monk said to have brought Zen to China and to have spent many years just sitting in a cave facing a wall. When a young monk approached him there for advice on how to settle his mind, Bodhidharma's advice was that he should go find his mind and Bodhidharma would settle it for him. When the monk eventually returned to say that he had not found his mind, Bodhidharma replied: "So there you have it, I have settled it for you".
MH: Thank you for those details. I understand. You speak of structure being essential. Are you speaking of an imposed structure, or the structure that nature has provided? What I am particularly interested in, is how the structure that follows this intent in the mind to meditate makes a difference. Why is the body not structure enough? And perhaps you could include further explanation of this that you wrote - "we discover the body and usually meet with pain".
Seikan: As you point out, the intent to meditate first arises in the mind, as one of our many many ideas. Our thinking minds are indeed like factories for having ideas, enabling us to imagine, plan, remember, interpret, analyze, and so forth. In effect, we cultivate states which are out-of-body and out-of-time. These of course can happily feed on themselves, which is why it is so easy to become absorbed in the realm of our ideas.
The intent to meditate itself arises in the form of an idea, usually tied to something like "stress relief", "peace of mind", "spiritual development", and the like. However, so long as we hold on to these kinds of ideas of developing one outcome or another through meditation, we just remain in the realm of ideas and outside of meditation practice. Even in relation to our ideas themselves, we end up perpetuating the very circumstances that we were hoping to change.
Therefore it is the physical structure, rather than our intentions, which is paramount in Zen meditation. The physical structure is what supports our letting go of ideas and the gradual settling of our thinking mind. In this context, the physical structure of the practice and our physical body are one continuum. You asked, "why is the body [as such] not structure enough?" It is not enough because without the physical structure of a practice like Zen, most of us tend to let our body go, to a point where it turns into just another idea. In Zen practice, the body and our use of the body become inseparable, and through it our body becomes real.
If and when physical pain does arise from sitting straight, then that too is an important part of what gives reality to the body sitting. When it happens, our mind may well start thinking something like, "but this is pain, this isn't [my idea of] meditating." Different ideas come and go, and we remain just sitting.
So Zen practice is really a Trojan horse affair. It tends to set off as a wonderfully promising idea, then it connects us with our physical body and pain, and eventually it leads to not much at all, at least in the sense of nothing much to write home about. So again, as Bodhidharma may have remarked, there is our "peace of mind". Or as Bob Dylan sings it, "I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from".
The irony with Zen meditation is that most of us first engage with it to chase after rewards of one kind or another, and when those rewards eventually do come - not least because we stop being so fixated on them - there also no longer seems to be that strong sense of a separate "self" with its eagerness to claim them.
MH: Everything you are saying here is wonderful. I am enjoying the Trojan horse metaphor AND that of ideas being out-of-body states. There is something more I want to ask about structure and the body. I am trying to get clear on my inquiry. The body has its intelligence - the unconscious, spontaneously expressing itself as nature.
This is natural structure. We, as pure awareness witnessing nature, the body, etc. have the idea to meditate - to sit and be still and then we do it. Where did the idea come from? We have a sense of what it can do for us, and so we find ourselves sitting. We follow an impulse (nature). Is it like water wanting to level? I want to understand your take on all of this.
Seikan: Where the idea to sit comes from? My take on it is that these sorts of questions are interesting, but trying to answer them is of little relevance to meditation practice. It becomes just another trajectory into more ideas. Practicing Zen meditation is about just sitting, not about why we do it. As the term "practice" suggests, it is something practical rather than speculative or metaphysical. As Zen master Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965) described it: "To practice Zazen is to do self with the self by the self ... which is one with the universe".
MH: So the actual sitting is a mystery? Perhaps it is just what is done, and there is no reason to understand the why of it. You refer to structure as being so important. Why sit? Why meditate? Why not something else? I understand the quote too. I do. But "to do self with self by self" by imposing structure on self?
Seikan: No, sitting is no mystery. It is manifestly precise and clear. As for the "why" of sitting, yes, there is no need to try and create "understanding" here. Again, our wanting to understand is understandable, however it is a different pursuit and in a different realm. "Just sitting" is its own pursuit and its own end. As our thinking mind starts to settle, our sitting can start to know itself - that is, our body can sit itself, the breath can breathe itself, pains can feel themselves, sounds can be sounds, and so on.
Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), founder of Japanese Soto Zen, famously summed it up as follows: "To practice the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe." As we read this, though, it is important to be very clear that it speaks of something beyond intellectual understanding. So when we think we "understand", it is a good reminder that we have actually missed the point and are back in the realm of ideas. Likewise with Sawaki's saying, "doing self with the self by the self". To start thinking that we know only moves us further away from Zen practice.
So another saying by Sawaki Roshi may be more useful in this context - "What is Zazen good for? Absolutely nothing! This has got to sink into your flesh and bones until you actually practice what is truly good for nothing. Until then, your Zazen is just good for nothing." Sawaki's advice helps to bring us back to the essence of Zen meditation practice, without the usual detours into our ideas and expectations. Basically the choice is between either sitting for its own sake, or else engaging in other pursuits - such as developing ideas, or watching TV. The choice becomes clear and simple, and the practice of just sitting is itself very concrete and simple.
MH: I get what you are saying now, especially with your words "the breath can breathe itself, pains can feel themselves, sounds can be sounds". In this way there is no identification going on. Everything is happening by itself. You spoke early on of the intent to meditate as an idea-that this idea fades as we begin to actually just sit. The process is initiated out of the intent to sit and start meditation. I am curious about this intent.
When I ask about where the idea to sit comes from, I am really asking about what it is that draws us to meditation (i.e. the intent). Do you feel that the intent to sit is supported by this same simplicity-that the body knows of sitting inherently-just as the breath breathes itself? I want to assure that my intent here is not to talk in circles, but I suppose if we are talking then we must expect circles. There is something I want to get at in earnest and that has to do with this draw towards meditation. Otherwise, everyone everywhere would already be involved in sitting meditation practice.
Seikan: I do not know what it is that specifically draws someone to Zazen, and how their intent arises. Most probably it varies somewhat depending on the individual and their circumstances. Again, I would firstly say that it is not so important to try and get to the bottom of this. Having said that, though, our intent will obviously influence our approach and attitude to our practice. In Zen, the most direct path comes from an attitude which is wholehearted and non-expecting, in other words not weighed down by any particular intent. So I often use the phrase: "Let your motivation bring you to the practice, then leave it at the door."
A more common scenario is that we hold on to what has brought us to meditate, and this then upholds, but also complicates, our sitting practice for some time. I mean you are exactly right, if sitting Zazen was happening as naturally as breathing or having ideas, then everybody everywhere would be doing it now. One of the reasons why people do not sit Zazen is because there are countless alternative activities that are much more enticing, entertaining, pleasurable, distracting, and/or mind-numbing than to be sitting still. There are many many toys on offer in life, and naturally we tend to keep on playing with these toys for as long as we can.
If and when our toys of choice start to become unavailable or less effective, we can start practicing Zen more easily, even without too many promises or expectations. In my own case, I probably only started sitting wholeheartedly once I felt there was nothing better to do. So the starting point can sometimes involve a measure of despair, which then makes it easier to start sitting and accept the practice as it is.
So why sit Zazen? For no reason! It simply becomes a way of being at the most basic level, something along the lines of "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." - And yes, talking about it as we are now invariably involves dancing around in circles. So thanks for the dance Benjamin.
MH: I really like the suggestion of "Let your motivation bring you to the practice, then leave it at the door." I can relate to being fed up with the many toys available. They simply do not fulfill, but instead escalate to greater toys, but still they are toys- preoccupations instead of occupations- or rather being fully occupied (as in "present").
Something interesting happened just after I sent you my last question. I got a clear image of a flower facing the sun. It was compelled to lean in that direction. I took this to be a clear indication that - regardless of what might suffice as scientific proof for why a flower does this, the simple movement is still there - an entity being drawn towards its sustenance and source. Sitting is the simplest form of being both still and yet awake, and very much resembles a flower.
I believe I am left with one more question, unless of course you have anything else you would like to share. If this is the case, please do. Here is my question - Your first response was a powerful one, and so compelling. You, as a small hill with snow falling is a powerful image, and with personal human identity nowhere to be found. Is this dropping of identity and with it personal desire representative of an experience of freedom - freedom from the entry point you mention - namely despair?
Seikan: Yes, "freedom" stops being an idea of independence and countless options, and simply turns into our reality of this moment - like your example of a flower turning to face the sun. Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1998) repeatedly referred to flowers in illustrating this reality of freedom: "A violet is a violet. A rose is a rose. You give expression to the flower to your self, the flower of here and now, and allow it to blossom as completely and naturally as it can in every moment."
So freedom involves, as you say, dropping our identity that has been constructed, and giving complete expression to the flower to the self - here, now, blossom, stalk, sun, rain, wind, and earth. Even despair is nothing other than freedom. As we said, Zen practice is not about one experience over another, but about a structure for letting go and being here and now - again and again and again.
To put it another way, Zen provides a kind of picture frame, so that we may let our life paint itself freely as it is. And every day is a good day.
MH: I have got so much out of this discussion. There is a strong level of trust behind all of what you have shared here. You spoke about despair as one particular instance behind our being drawn towards meditation practice, reasons to meditate. This despair in contrast to trust is so great, and yet what is it that we are trusting but a mystery? What is it that supplants despair, and how do you view what I am referring to as trust? I also want to invite you to speak about what you are doing there in Melbourne in terms of teaching, classes, retreats, or any other meditation-related activities.
Seikan: Yes, trust is very important - both in relation to whatever despair that may have brought us to engage with Zen in the first place, and in relation to letting go fully into the practice and into life itself. Again, to say this is just another idea, and as an idea it may well appear to be "but a mystery". But in practice its application is very concrete and simple, not mysterious or mystical. Zen practice involves being engaged in very concrete ways, here and now, again and again.
As I remarked earlier, the structure of Zen provides a live picture frame whereby we can let go of trying to control and comprehend the nature of the picture itself. So we adopt the picture frame - in sitting, bowing, working, eating, sleeping, and sitting - and we choose to trust it. So when there is despair there is despair, when there is joy there is joy, when thoughts arise thoughts arise, and when there is stillness there is stillness. Having and trusting the frame enables us to accept the present painting as it is - and gradually or suddenly we realize just to be that painting, now and now and now.
In my case, there is a number of community projects that I am involved with here in Melbourne. One is Melbourne Zen Meditation (www.zenmeditation.org.au), which I run with the aim of engaging people from all walks of life in "just sitting". There are different meeting formats, as well as talks, courses, etc. Then there is the Melbourne Zen Hospice (www.zenhospice.org.au), which is an organization providing free practical, emotional, and spiritual support to patients nearing the end of life, including their carers (caregivers) and families, across Melbourne.
I also have some interest and involvement in some other areas, such as cancer and mind-body medicine, drug rehabilitation, homelessness, prisons, corporate training, and private counseling - partly as income generating activities. Generally speaking, I am most interested in being engaged around the roadblocks which all of us encounter at different times and in different ways. As a web portal for all of the above there is www.zen.org.au, which is itself a registered non-profit org, and has as its mission to develop and operate "projects that offer practical and spiritual support to individuals and the community in ways expressive of Zen".
MH: The picture frame metaphor really helps me, in relationship to acceptance and trust. I am compelled to ask one more question, and then I would like to conclude the interview. I have thoroughly enjoyed this process and want to thank you so much for participating and sharing so much. My last question has to do with the apparent duality present in the recognition of the picture frame and the recognizer of the picture frame. Do you see a relationship here between witness and picture, or is this question another "out-of-body" entertaining of ideas?
Seikan: Metaphors can be helpful, so long as we let go of them before too long. If one metaphor works from one angle, it will not work from another. This is why practicing Zen and sharing ideas about Zen are in different ballparks. Ideas, even the most interesting ones, are essentially about creating stops and closing things down, whereas Zen practice is more about opening up and letting things move. So in dealing with ideas, the most Zen way is perhaps to contradict one idea with the next, hence the Zen method of Koan practice.
But you are right about the presence of duality - and not just between "recognition" and "recognizer" in the picture frame metaphor, but as earlier mentioned also between "intent" and "letting go" in the way we normally begin to practice. Without the presence of duality, there would be no need to practice Zen in the first place. But then in the course of practice, especially from the core of sitting meditation, duality begins to recede and reality sets in. In practice even the duality between the relative and the absolute is not a real issue - "form is emptiness, and emptiness is form".
MH: I understand. Of course. Well said. Thank you so much for your willingness to share and discuss your understanding of Zen and meditation practice in this meditation interview.