In Buddhism there is a wide variety of methods related to meditation and spiritual practice, and of course there are many more in other spiritual traditions. In Zen, we also have a number of methods such as “turning the light around”, following the breath, locating the attention in the hara, focusing intensely on a koan, and so forth. However, in its essence Zen practice is radically simple: in meditation we just sit, and in life we just live, attending to each moment directly as it arises. We might affirm that this essential reality is present in all approaches to meditation and life; even if it is not named.
What does this mean? How do we practice just sitting, just living? Aren’t we always just living? Roshi Bernie once gave a talk in Germany, and at the end asked if people had questions. Someone raised his hand and said, “Roshi, how can I be here now?” clearly referring to the phrase made famous by Ram Dass. At that point Bernie looked at the audience and said, “Whoever’s not here now, please stand up.” No one stood up, and that was the end of that. We are always here now, yet . . . we often feel like we’re not. It’s a paradox. We’re not just sitting, we’re thinking about stuff that happened in the past, or might happen in the future. So we’re not just sitting; we’re sitting and thinking, sitting and worrying.
So our practice of just sitting means we let go of our addiction to thought, and we just sit. Whatever arises just arises Of course thoughts arise. So we let them arise and gently let them go, refocusing on the simplicity of our sitting, just breathing and being aware.
We might say that Zen practice is the practice of suchness. Yunyan proclaimed to his student Dongshan, a founder of the Soto lineage: “Just this is it!” Pondering his teachers statement led Dongshan to his own enlightenment, which he described as merging with suchness.
Tibetan Buddhism has a huge variety of meditation methods— but at their heart is something very much along this line. I read an explanation of a core Tibetan meditation which is called the samadhi of suchness: Here are the instructions: “Start out by relaxing your mind from within; don’t follow after any deluded thought. Mind itself is empty yet aware — a bare reality beyond anything you can think or say. Settle for a moment in this simplicity . . . This is the absorption (samadhi) of suchness.” This is also known as the practice of emptiness — we could say “not-knowing.” The Tibetans go on to name a second absorption, which the samadhi of total illumination, which is simply the natural radiance of the suchness practice, manifesting as compassion towards all beings.
In this way, in just sitting, in letting go of following after our thoughts, and settling into just sitting, the natural radiant heart of our being arises.
Thus we begin in paradox. We feel like we’re not here, when we already are here. Then, like big goose dummies (to borrow a colorful image from Chaung Tzu) we practice being right where we are. In doing so, our natural energy and compassion unfurls itself. We benefit as our inner energies are freed up from their habitual, obsessive patterns, and we experience the development of our inner chi, the jori-ki as they say in Japanese Zen. We also benefit others as compassion arises, and loving actions manifest naturally.
In meditating daily, we are practicing being right where we are, aware and present, and we develop our joriki, our natural inner energy. We can also complement our sitting with the Three Tenets as a way to focus the natural unfolding of our practice via Not-knowing, Bearing Witness, and Loving Action.
In this way we can expand the circle of our practice into all the arenas of our lives.