Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Why sit?

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone” 
 Blaise Pascal 1623-62

Sometimes when I'm on the cushion, or thinking about getting on it, I think that maybe I should be doing something else more productive. But in the cold light of day, I know there's nothing more productive than zazen. That's some statement, eh? So what's behind it? What do I mean by that? Well, this is how I see zazen and its purpose.

Who am I? It's the eternal question. We spend our lives trying to work it out. We build an idea of who we are, but it's usually pretty wooly, pretty imprecise. We have a name, and ethnicity, a sex, a history, a job, etc, etc, and from these things we build a picture of who we are. However, this intellectual pursuit of self is always doomed to failure. We cannot know ourselves intellectually. Nor do we need to. Zazen is the study of self, and it requires no though at all. In fact, it requires absence of thought. Here are two analogies that helped me understand Zen and zazen.

Consider the self to be an image of the moon reflected in a pool of water. So you sit there and you try to study the moon, but the wind keeps sending ripples across the water and the image is indiscernible. Then imagine that the wind dies down and the ripples subside, and you can get a clear picture of the moon. Now you can properly start studying it. Well, the ripples are thoughts, and they hinder you from seeing the self as it truly is. Self is what's left when thoughts subside, when the mind becomes calm and silent.

The second analogy deals with how do we make the thoughts subside, the wind die down. How do you make water stop rippling? Try using your hand to smooth it out, or even a clothes iron or some other implement. It won't work, will it? It only causes more ripples. Water will only settle when left alone, and the mind is the same. 

In zazen we sit and let go of thoughts. When thoughts arise we don't follow them though, we just let them go. When many of us first started zazen we counted breaths as a means of disengaging from the thought train. As I got used to zazen I just let my mind focus on my breath without counting. If I realise that I've got caught up in a thought I just let it go and put my mind back on my breath, no annoyance, no anger or loss of confidence or motivation, just a letting go of the thought. If I do this for long enough I find that thoughts arise less often and in time, almost not at all. My mind rests, and there is peace. And then I am revealed. The picture of the moon becomes clear. The simple awareness that I am appears from behind the clouds of thought, and true study of the self can begin.

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