The Power of Zazen.7 min read

The Zen of Meditation Sect of Buddhism has for a long time been one of the most influential in Japan, where it has well over three million temples. Of these, by far the greater number belong to the Soto branch, the present Primate of which is His Holiness Rosen Takashina. Last year a book of his essays on Zen, written mainly for beginners, was published, and with Permission one of them is here given in translation. The title of the essay is The Power of Zazen.

`Zazen ‘ means literally `sitting in meditation’, although ‘meditation’ is hardly the right word because, when Zazen reaches maturity, the waves of mental activity called thought are given up in favour of a waveless pure consciousness of the true Self. This point is explained in another of the essays.)

WHAT is the aim of religion, and what is its raison d’etre ? People with a modern education clearly seem to be in doubt as to the answers. The trend of religion most obvious in society at large (particularly of most of the so-called Revivalist sects) is chiefly towards healing, fortune-telling, and rituals. These are made out to be the very essence of religion. Such things are, it is true, phenomena associated with religion, but they are not its essence. Mere alleviation of sickness, the attainment of health or of great wealth and prosperity if to get these is true religion, then it is indeed opium.

The real religious quest is never on the plane of fulfilling such empirical desires. It is to penetrate deeply into daily life, into the present world of experience, and to find the life of Truth in our own experience. This we can call the heart of religion. When we think over every-day life, we see that it is founded on a great contradiction, and that our self-existence does not rest on any sure and firm foundation. As we realize the vanity of the world and understand the deep sinfulness of our ordinary conduct, for the first time arises the desire for the world of Truth, of liberation, of unsullied purity. This is the manifesting of the religious spirit, and now the world of religion opens to us. But even when we do see the impermanence in our daily life, and the uncertainty of our self-existence, are we really awake to the contradiction in it ? Of course intellectually we may be aware of it, but not deeply. We may feel the contradiction in a way, but there is, isn’t there? Quite a bit of self-deception in the ordinary man’s life. (Which is why from the religious standpoint the world and the life of the world are called ” lies “.)

He who truly wakes to the impermanence and contradiction of the world is for the first time really awake. But the one who cannot in daily life see the Self which is his true nature, whose interests are vulgar crazes and the things of the world, whose thought never leaves the circle of gossip and public opinion, whose desires are just for empirical happiness, material things, fame and gain, where is his true nature ? In the viciousness called the world he has buried it, he has entombed the Self.

Not understanding that everything is passing, thinking that the old age, sickness and death, which are the lot of all, are things that happen to other people and deluding himself that somehow he will live for ever, passing his time in pursuit of name and profit and forgetting the real spirit of man, he has no serenity or philosophy. In this world governed by delusion and passion, religion does not exist, and in such a daily life the soul is broken. But from that very breaking for the first time spiritual thoughts are born.

He begins to reflect truly, and to seek a world where his self can live. About this Zen Master Dogen

says : ” What is called learning the Way is learning the self.” Again he says : “What is called learning the self is forgetting the self.” ” Self-forgetfulness ” means to liberate the true Self from the imprisoning ego. The word Ge-Datsu (`liberation ‘) is composed of two characters,” to be loosed ” and ” to escape “, and so it  means literally to come out of bondage and to have freedom. The bondage may be either physical or spiritual. There are people who are in bondage to duties, onto their feelings; there are those who weep under the burden of things which do not matter at all, those who, binding the mind by the mind, cannot rise from the depths. Everyone has heard about neurosis and hysteria and so on. Modern medicine tells us that in a great percentage of the cases, the cause of illness is psychological, the binding of the self by the self. The point is that to be caught, whether by facts, fancies, dreams or by illusions, is imprisonment. The bondage appears in innumerable forms, but the chief of them, the bond which is their source, is the problem of life and death.

The other minor problems just appear in the interval between birth and death. To this great fundamental problem, the teaching of Buddha offers a solution, ensuring us the supreme peace. That state of great peace is called` Nirvana, and it is a state in which there is identification with the Reality which is neither life nor death. Then is realized the world of divine compassion and peace. That Nirvana, transcending life and death, is universal Life, and the Life of our own eternal immortality. In that Life appears and vanishes the bondage of birth and death, our individual life of less than a hundred years, all taken up with trivial worries. For the average man it is pain and sorrow.

Who then is the villain of the piece ? Who brings upon us the agony of imprisonment by the things of life and death ? It is egoity, it is selfishness. Egoity will always find the excuses for us, never looks beyond external actions, always tries to fulfil the desires for the welfare of this little body alone.  The body, which from the universal point ‘of view exists but for an instant, wants against all reason to cling to life for ever. The universal Life pervades time and space without limit, but egoity sticks only to the life of one single body, and sets itself up against the great Life which is infinite.

Suppose, as an illustration, that a shade is put over the great lamp in the main hall of the temple. Now the range of its beams is restricted to a narrow area. This is like our human life, a tiny thing when compared with the great Life. But since it is fundamentally just a manifestation of that Life, by nature, it tends ultimately to become one with the great Life of Nirvana. If that Life is restricted by the shade of egoity, it becomes quite a small thing, and is bound, dissatisfied, tormented and in agony. It is imprisoned in all kinds of limitations. The imprisonment is felt as if imposed from outside, but the truth is that there are no chains, and it is imposed by the self; the self suffers, imprisoned by itself. And as when the shade is removed, the light rays suddenly illumine the whole hall, so the self of this present little life becomes, without changing, one with the great Life of Nirvana, and is able to experience the eternal Reality. This is called the life of non-egoity (Mu-Ga), or the life of Buddha.

Zazen has the power to bring us directly into the eternal Life of non-egoity. When that power is complete, then the distinctions between object and subject are transcended. ” That ” and ” I             I ” and ” that “, become the Absolute, and now the hidden springs of action are released. The Truth beyond everyday experience, purity beyond all passion, is revealed. This is the world of Truth ; it is reality beyond all the distinctions created by human individuality. Here the opposition of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, pleasant and hateful, enemy and friend, are annihilated, and there is a state of perfect Absoluteness. Thence is born the power to create a perfect and elegant culture ; in learning, art, economics and everything else there will be developments which will contain truth and reality. It will bring real human prosperity. It is the religious glory of Buddhism and the essence of Zen, which is the core of Buddhism, to discover that power.

By ROSEN TAKASHINA and translated by Trevor Leggett