Glaring zazen

Fix your gaze

I spent yesterday reading Suzuki Shōsan. I had plenty of time – I was on a cross-country flight, which seemed to take forever.

It gave me plenty of time to read, to reflect, to sit zazen. I basically hardly moved for 6 hours, which is an experience I’ve been trying to create for a long time. I have my plans to do sesshin or sit for extended periods, but then life brings me something that needs to be tended to.

So, in a way, yesterday was a gift. And I had a great opportunity to just sit. Sit and read Shōsan. And think about what he said.

One aspect of his teachings (as communicated in Arthur Braverman’s collection of Shōsan’s writings, Warrior of Zen, is “Nio Zazen”. I am working on understanding what this means. The Nio, as I understand them, are temple guardians who fiercely protect the Buddha nature. And Nio Zazen is something that appears to be particular to Japan. Winston Lee King writes about this in his book Death was his kōan: the samurai-Zen of Suzuki Shōsan, so I will definitely need to check that out. But for now, while I’m on this trip, I’ll stick with the simpler question of “glaring zazen” which Shōsan mentions many times.

The idea of sitting with your gaze fixed, your teeth gritted, and all your vital energy focused on something, seems at sharp contrast with most of the American Buddhist teachings I’ve heard. In the States, it seems that the whole point of Buddhism and zazen is to avoid that kind of intense experience, and to treat zazen and meditation as a path to healing. Shōsan doesn’t seem particularly concerned with that. For him, zazen is all about studying death, all about training yourself to go beyond death, and focusing your full attention on your vital energy.

This is something I can understand. All the fancy words and the delightful philosophies just end up confusing me to no end, and frankly it seems to me that those who hang their hats on specific philosophies inevitably and invariably end up devoting a vast amount of their time and energy to defending their positionings and shoring up their arguments, like so many ramparts around a village. But they build their walls and their defenses so high that the village within ends up cut off from the rest of the world, the rest of life, and they die from within… all the while with a beautiful castle constructed that impresses everyone who draws near.

Let the record show that I am pretty much of a dunce in most things. I have my moments, but the harder I try, the worse things seem to screw up. I seem to have been created with a built-in hubris-killer, which probably works in my favor. My castle walls have been torn down countless times, and my interior village has not only been exposed to the outside world, but it’s also been ravaged by waves of invaders, and I’ve had to rebuild a number of times.

This has not been much f’ing fun. It’s been a big pain in my ass, actually. But the end result is, I’ve got a village that — based on prior experience and observation — can withstand and survive just about anything.

So, there we have it.

And what strikes me about the urging of practicing “glaring zazen” — the fixing of one’s gaze on some intense image, or the fixing of one’s attention on some warrior focus — is the kind of thing that works exactly right for someone like me. Hell, I have no idea what’s to come, from one day to the next. My clever mind can tell me all sorts of BS, from day to day, and eventually I will learn — up close and personal — how limited that “inner wisdom” really is. And when I find out just how wrong I turned out to be, it takes a tremendous amount of energy and focus to put my affairs in order again.

I’m not talking about aligning my energies with the universe — I’m talking about paying bills and making amends to someone I’ve really pissed off. If I don’t have a fierce ability to focus and follow through — if my vital energy is depleted by self-doubt and niggling — if I am so caught up in my own head that I can’t pay attention to what’s really going on outside my head, well then, I’m well and truly screwed. And that’s no good.

It sucks, in fact.

See, here’s the deal. My daily life is pretty intense. I have always had a driving, active energy, and it’s taken me a long time to learn how to manage and direct it. Having a driving, active energy can get you in some deep sh*t, when you’re not paying close attention. When I back off and let myself off the hook, things start to get all “interesting” and the train heads off the tracks. Then I have to work overtime to set things to right again.

To do that, I  need the intensity of what I think the Nio have. Even to keep myself on track from the start, I need that intensity, that focus. So, at every step along the way, I have to maintain my vital energy and keep on point.

I don’t have a choice.

So, I have to do my zazen differently from others. I have to sit and breathe in a very specific way. I have to devote my attention NOT to just observing my thoughts and feelings arising, but to training my attention to stay focused, and holding myself on point and on-target.

I have to — as Shōsan describes it — grit my teeth and focus on death, so that vital energy is strengthened in me. This is not optional. It’s required. If I do any less, I am lost in the miasmic millieu of what I think is called “sinking zazen”, where I fall away and am left with what some call “satori” or “self-realization”, but I call a cul-de-sac of navel-gazing.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’ve had plenty of experience in that cul-de-sac.  I have had many, many experiences with being suffused with a sense of oneness where all divisions between all created things dissolves into the ethers of illusion. It’s amazing, it’s valuable, and it’s worth pursuing. But make no mistake  — it is a cul-de-sac that can and will take me off the path I need to be on, that can and will distract me from living the life that demands my full attention. And with my very human nature, I can easily delude myself into thinking that my “true” calling is to sit around all day and “anchor the energy” for the betterment of the world.

But the same voice that urges me to step away and steep my whole being in the Essence of Oneness, is the same voice that tells me that what is right in front of me is not worth paying attention to — and that’s BS. From what I’ve observed in my life, that what is right in front of me is the only thing worth paying attention to. It’s a gift, it’s a mitzvah, it’s an obligation (sometimes odious) that brings with it the chance to truly transform the experience — for myself and for others.

So, to make the most of the opportunities in front of me, I need to keep that focus, fix my gaze on the ideas and images that are put in my way, and make the most of them in that moment. For that moment will never, ever come again.

As Shōsan reminds us, “You will die! You will die!”


4 thoughts on “Glaring zazen

  1. I like your perspective. I’ve read a lot of Shosan too. In my path, i have oftern been frustrated with the “cul-de-sac”. I was taught the point of meditation was to become a real person in each moment. Meditation is not an end point, not a destination, not the mountain. Even zazen is a practice. it is all a tool to be used, a method to a closer relationship with God/Creation. It must be fluid, dynamic. Sitting still is no way to spend a whole life, only one part of the path. thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for writing. I’ve been through the gamut of emotions and experiences with sitting – from absolute euphoria and an intense sense of connection with all that is, to disaffected annoyance and the decision to just abandon it all. I went for a number of years of no-sitting-just-doing… after hitting a wall with that intense euphoria. As thrilling as it was at the time, it still was very much a comfortable cul-de-sac that I didn’t want to leave. And where I felt whole and good and complete, while I was in the zone (so to speak), as soon as I got back into regular life, I felt like crap. So, I stopped my formal sitting practice and just dove into life.

      After all, just sitting was not going to pay the bills, and if it actually made me feel worse in the outside world, then what was the point? It was just a drug and an escape. Shosan’s perspective brings it all back to where I need to be, and it mirrors the experiences and beliefs that I’ve got. In fact, he’s the first person I’ve read with a Buddhist orientation who actually does seem to be on my same wavelength.

      It’s great to know I’m not the only one out there. And I suspect there are more of us. Your comment just increased the number to three.

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