One of the first questions a newcomer to Zen practice often asks is, “How do I meditate? What do I do when I’m sitting on my cushion?” This is a very big question, and at the same time, a very small one. Let’s look at it.
There are many types of meditation in the Buddhist world, and in the world of Zen Buddhism. They go by various names, and have adherents who advocate for one particular type of meditation over others. Some go back to the earliest days of Buddhism, and before. Some forms are directed at addressing particular questions, others are more general. Zen has evolved over many centuries to focus on several types.
In particular Zen has focused on two types of meditation: Soto Zen has given special emphasis to what is known as shikan-taza, which means “just sitting.” Shikan-taza is generally seen as a practice wherein one sits quietly and allows one’s awareness to dwell entirely in the experience simple contents of the present moment.
Rinzai Zen has given more emphasis to Koan practice. Koan practice is generally followed under the direct instruction of a skilled teacher. A Koan is a story, a “public case,” usually drawn from the history of Zen practice. Through focus on this story, which often presents a mystery or a conundrum, one can find one’s way to a new grasp of what it is to be conscious and aware.
While these two traditions seemingly take different approaches to meditation, what these two traditions have in common is the focus on attention. Zen practice is first and foremost about paying attention, attention to what one is doing, to what one is thinking, to what one is experiencing. There is a classic Zen story about this. As told, when Bodhidharma, the First Teacher in the Zen tradition, came to China from India, he met with the Emperor of China. The Emperor asked him, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” Bodhidharma answered, “Attention.” The Emperor replied, “Yes, but what is the deeper essence?” Bodhidharma replied, “Attention, attention.” The Emperor, somewhat exasperated, asked again for the deepest essence. Bodhidharma replied, “Attention, attention, attention.”
And that should be your guide, both starting out, and for as long as you care to practice Zen. Because Zen is about attention. It is about paying attention to all of the things about oneself one ordinarily takes for granted, the posture of the spine, the passing of the breath, the position of the hands, the feel of the cushion under your seat. When one pays very close attention to the world “in one’s head,” the world of one’s direct experience, one is likely to find that things are not exactly what they seem, that certain things we have been taught to take for granted, such as the existence of a continuous self, or the power of our emotions, or the reality of our pain and suffering, are not necessarily as obvious, or as substantial, as we might have thought they were. This can be the beginning of wisdom.
It is amazing how little attention we actually give to the passing of our lives, to the kaleidoscope of emotion, to the whirl of experience and memory, how rarely in our lives we actually take the time to simply sit and look at ourselves and the world that surrounds us. So what does one do when sitting on one’s cushion in the Zendo? One should start by simply paying attention. This is where we begin our Zen practice, simply sitting on a cushion and paying attention to what we think and hear and see and feel and remember and imagine, without becoming lost in it.
This last is critical. Because to learn to watch the world of our experience we have to learn to stand apart from it, to learn to recognize our feelings, such as anger or frustration or attraction, for what they are, transitory manifestations, without being taken away by them. Zen teaches us that moment by moment we vanish into our thoughts and actions, then reappear as independent entities. How can we do this? What does this mean? How might this knowledge change the way we see ourselves? This is where Zen practice begins. Pay attention!