Well…are you just going to sit there?

By Chaim Wigder


“Just sit!”

Is Dōgen here passing on to us the pinnacle of the Buddhadharma, or a historically obscured instance of plain and simple trolling?

“The essence of Zazen is to just sit.”

So said the Rōshi at the first Zen sangha gathering I ever attended, after about twenty minutes of tedious rituals, including—but not limited to—walking in circles while chanting, placing offerings beside a statue of the Buddha, and bowing in every direction upon taking one’s seat. All apparently important remnants of tradition. Yet these were no more than mere traditional remnants, ancient social practices that, despite being quite foreign to a group of white, middle class Westerners gathering in present-day Massachusetts, were nonetheless an important aspect of “Buddhist practice”—whatever that term may mean. Ritual is extremely important, yes.

Zazen, though: now there is the “it” of it all; at the end of the day, the most important practice. Ritual, intellectualization, thinking, clarifying—damn it all to hell. Just sit!

Just sit. Whatever you do, make sure you spend time just sitting.

But, wait a minute. Just sit? What, precisely, can this possibly mean? Just sit, and do nothing else?

Perhaps I must clear my mind!

Lewis Richmond, a disciple and lineage holder of Shunryu Suzuki, says:

But what does this really mean—naturally aware? In early Chinese Zen, many people thought it meant to clear the mind of all thinking. The Sixth Ancestor of Zen tried to correct this mistake, saying, “Emptying the mind and dwelling in emptiness is not Zen.” So stopping one’s thinking is not the goal, though many meditators may think that.

Ah, so I must not try to clear my mind after all. That is a silly misconception held by amateur meditators!

Now we have clarified the matter. Only one who does not understand the true essence of Zen could say something as absurd as “Instead of gathering knowledge, you should clear your mind. If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours.”

That was in fact a quote by Shunryu Suzuki himself. Oops.

No, no, I must simply not understand the subtleties of Zen theory (remember, there is no theory!) I have clearly not yet gained the proper insight that allows me to transcend the law of non-contradiction, so I must simply learn how to practice, and then practice, and continue doing so until I have attained Buddhahood.

Okay. So I must sit. Just sit. That is, do nothing else but sit. No striving. No grasping. No pushing away. No doing anything. No taking any action whatsoever, other than the act of sitting itself. Open the mind to the wisdom of non-action.

Well, this is difficult! I sit down, yet I find myself doing other things. Let’s talk logistics, then. Let’s get to the bottom of what it is I should and should not be doing when just sitting.

When I sit, I begin ruminating on a variety of things: “What will I have for dinner later? I was supposed to respond to that email. I’ll do it later. But how should I respond? That colleague was quite rude.”

So, obviously, none of that. No rumination. Just sitting. Okay. What else?

My leg is about to fall asleep. The urge to reconfigure my posture grows. No! Don’t move. Just sit.

Alright, the discomfort has gone now. And would you look at that: I’m no longer ruminating! Have I done it? Am I just sitting?

That depends. Am I a dualist? Of course not! There is no separation between mind and body. I am a secular, rational, Buddhist practitioner. I know that there is no mind substance, no “I”, that is separate from the material substance of my body.

If there is no mind substance, no “I” that is separate from the material substance of my body, then what I am doing is what my body is doing, and vice versa. Oh boy. That salad I had for lunch is currently being processed through my digestive system. Must I stop digesting? Must I just sit?

Does it end there? I notice the air conditioner is running. So I am not just sitting at all. No, I am also actively incurring electricity charges moment by moment! Energy, furthermore, has to come from somewhere else. It has to go somewhere else. In this case, this energy is going into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide emissions, contributing to the catastrophe that is anthropogenic climate change. Must I cease actively increasing my utility bill? Must I stop contributing to the destruction of the Earth’s ability to sustain life? Must I just sit?

If so, where shall I just sit? I’d previously designated a corner in my bedroom to meditation. It’s a nice little area, complete with a comfy meditation cushion, some incense and candles, and a small Buddha statue I purchased on Amazon.

If I looked under that Buddha statue, or the incense holder, I might notice a little sticker attached to these items, each containing the haunting phrase: “Made in China”.

Did you know that fecal matter can travel up to hundreds of feet within its radius, infesting all that sits in its vicinity? What does this mean for that pristinely white Buddha statue, which was packaged by an Amazon employee who was forced to urinate and, quite possibly, defecate, on the warehouse floor, due to the company’s inhumane labor practices which heavily penalize workers who dare make the trek to the restroom to relieve themselves, wasting precious time that could be otherwise used to make Jeff Bezos’ $136 billion fortune grow even larger? Must I cease actively using grossly unnecessary consumer items which contribute to the exploitation and suffering of those who must produce them in order for their family to survive? Must I just sit?

If only I had been wise enough to pose these questions to the wise Rōshi who instructed us to “just sit.” I don’t regret not doing so. The response would have been boringly predictable: This is all just mere thinking. I’m just over-intellectualizing. I’m talking about something totally unrelated. I’m missing the point.

Or was the point in fact to realize that I had been trolled—given instructions which a complete and genuine attempt to apply only reveals its impossibility, its absurdity, its obfuscation of the Real of my human existence?

It’s not just that I can’t just sit.

I can’t just do anything that I’ve always imagined myself to be doing: chasing a career; amassing knowledge; maintaining mental and physical “health;” forming friendships or romantic relationships; saving up money to consume away my constitutive lack; practicing Buddhism. We’re told to pursue these ends, and that those ends are natural, and so are their means.

We must, we’re told, be mindful while we’re doing these things. Really be at one with these activities. Only focus on them, nothing else. Suppress any awareness of whatever other activities we are actually doing in our very act of doing the ones we imagine ourselves to be just doing.

I still find it useful to sit. But not to just sit. Rather, to sit so as to be reminded again and again that what I am doing is in fact impossible; that there is no just, no escape from the contingency and the interdependence of suffering which marks this human social existence, no activity which I can isolate from the web of causality in which it occurs.

“Just sit!”

Is Dōgen here passing on to us the pinnacle of the Buddhadharma, or a historically obscured instance of plain and simple trolling?

Are we certain that these are not one and the same?

 


REFERENCES

Suzuki, Shunryū, and Trudy Dixon. Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Boston: Shambhala, 2010.

Richmond, Lewis. Shikantaza: Just Sitting, Going Nowhere. Lion’s Roar, 2018. https://www.lionsroar.com/going-nowhere/.

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