Dharma Q/A: Zazen – The One Non-negotiable?

There is a huge billboard on W. 11th that says, “Jesus, the only way to God.” I know Zen (unlike the Christian billboard) is not saying that zazen is the only way to realization, but why is it indispensable in Zen practice?    

As I say this often, I can imagine it sounds quite dogmatic, a quality that naturally evokes suspicion. I’m with you. As was the Buddha.

I talk about zazen as “the one non-negotiable” in practice, not to pass opinion as incontrovertible fact or exclude other spiritual paths. I say it so we can immediately recognize both the power of our aspiration alongside the hope we can make up our own rules. If you want to play the violin, listening to Vivaldi may create a sublime experience, but you eventually have to pick up the bow and touch the strings. If you want to bake bread, reading recipes may make the mouth water, but getting your hands in the sticky dough is the only way. While this is obvious, it’s not so obvious that reading about Zen, resonating with the truth of Buddhist teachings, and attending a weekly meeting or a retreat is not a substitute for regular zazen — the most reliable, affordable and loyal teacher we will ever have.

Although there are 10,000 distinctions and 1,000 variations, they just wholeheartedly engage the way in zazen.

~ Dogen Zenji

 There are two dimensions to this non-negotiable quality — one about effort and the other about being.

On Effort

 To practice Zen means to practice zazen regularly, to place it front and center in our lives. However we creatively integrate zazen into our everyday responsibilities as lay people, it responds when we value it equally with what we most care about — loved ones, health, justice, earth, vocation. Zazen is not an extra-curricular activity. It is the gate to realizing moment to moment life as spiritual practice.

For many of us, this takes years ebbing and flowing between showing up on the cushion, forgetting, avoiding and remembering all over again why we do this crazy practice in the first place. We experience directly how life goes when we are sitting and when we’re not sitting — which is why most of us keep returning to the cushion. Eventually, it becomes seamless, no different than waking and getting dressed and brushing your teeth. Everything in your life gets tossed into the soup pot of zazen to simmer and release its innermost flavor. From the point of view of effort, it takes time.

On Being

The other non-negotiable aspect is when we notice the subtle bargains we try to make within zazen. When will they ring the bell??? We are crafty. We attempt to limit what comes through our awareness or trick our mind into gaining special insights or desired states of thought-free ease. We are endlessly subtle in our pursuit of gain. But if we’re really practicing, we notice zazen will not negotiate with us.

Zazen is not meditation practice, it is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease. The practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. ~ Dogen Zenji

 When I intend to just clock my minutes in zazen or recreate a serene feeling I had yesterday, alas, I am face to face with just myself and my experience of irritation or hope for escape.  When I make bargains that I’ll sit just this much, expecting some return like feeling better for my good Zen behavior, no reward arrives. My inner manager cannot realize the fruits of zazen so I have to help her take a break. Zazen is a strict teacher and pointing at something more precious than these kinds of rewards. We let go over and over of trying to manage and negotiate with zazen, and when we do, zazen takes on another kind of surprising life. From the point of view of being, just this moment is it.

The mind of zazen by definition includes the entire world. It does not end when you get up off the cushion, it doesn’t disappear when you are upset or sleeping, it is the way you met the world and the way the world meets you. If we are awake at all, no two breaths of zazen are alike. It is uncanny we are even alive in this moment. No one knows what this zazen is really as it is always in flux. And yet, it is perfect in its unveiling capacity. In this way, zazen is the great unraveling — unwrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching, we free all living beings.

Thank you for your question. May your zazen go well.

With palms together,


*Dogen quotes from Fukanzazengi — “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen” – chanted in Soto Zen lineages everywhere.

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