Kelly (Doman) Stevens and Ralph (Shikan) Levinson

Meditation is central to Zen practice. There are meditations that are very specific to Zen, for example working on koans, the Zen stories are meant to lead to a turning, to a breakthrough that is to be experienced, not thought about. There are very complex meditations in some Buddhist and other traditions involving visualizations.  But you don’t need to be Buddhist or trying to answer the “big questions” of life and death to meditate. Meditation has become accepted and mainstream. This is not controversial. It has proven benefits, proven effects on the brain. There are mindfulness sessions for medical practitioners at UCLA. It’s good mental hygiene!

The Hazy Moon Zen Center website ( has a brief instructional video about meditating. You can stop reading for a bit and follow those instructions and in a few minutes you will have something you could do for yourself for the rest of your life.

Meditation is not just a way to make your life a bit better, though it will do that if you stick with it. At the end of the blog “The GUT of Zen” the suggestion was not to think deeply about it or to embark on a course of study, but to meditate. Meditation is a practice that changes the experience of reality in such profound ways that it will, in turn, lead to thinking about the world in very different ways. 

Philosophers often speak of their “intuitions,” in the sense of their instinctive judgments about reality. A particular argument might strike some as persuasive, others less so. This is a case of differing “intuitions.” Even a little experience of meditation will start to change basic intuitions about philosophical issues. Having a sense of how Zen practice changes one’s experience of the world will make it more understandable how practical and scientific people (like the two of us) can come to see the world and consciousness in a way that some consider challenges common sense.

From the Buddhist point of view delusion or ignorance is the fundamental human problem, the source of our suffering. This isn’t because of a failure  to read the right books or pursue the correct intellectual analysis, but rather it is due to a deep misapprehension of reality.

The “Buddha Way,” is to realize our true nature, our “Buddha Nature.” That is, to see reality as it is. Meditation is the central means of overcoming delusion.

Zen Buddhist meditation is called “zazen”, which literally means “seated Zen.” The Japanese word “Zen,” and its modern Mandarin equivalent “Chan,” derive from the Sanskrit term “dhyana,” which itself means meditation. We tend to avoid using the word “meditation” in Zen since it tends to suggest someone observing or contemplating something separate. In other words, it implies a duality between an observing subject and a separate object of attention. Meditation might also suggest rumination, in the sense of thinking about something deeply.

However, true zazen is a state characterized by the absence of the dominance of the thinking mind; and this absence reveals the GUT formulation of no separation, or non-duality. That is, that we are not separate selves confronted by a world of objects distinct from us.

In zazen we learn to settle the mind and body, or rather we learn to allow the mind and body to settle.

The process is often compared to water and mud in a jar; as long as the jar is in motion the water will be cloudy. But if you sit the jar down and leave it still, the water will become clear all by itself.  Another water metaphor is of a pool of water reflecting the “moon” of enlightenment (that is, the reality of our life at that moment). Turbulent, wind-swept water will not reflect the reality of the moon.

In the case of meditating there is the motion of the body and the motion (or commotion) of the mind that we want to settle down. We are in constant motion, externally and internally. We react to each new sensation, trying to adjust ourselves to be more comfortable, to avoid pain, or to increase pleasure. Our minds are constantly looking to be entertained, constantly evaluating what’s happening, ruminating on past events and planning for future ones. Whether based on anything but fantasy, hopes and fears or not. We are busy projecting out inner chaos on to the world around us.

A little time sitting in meditation will reveal to just how much of the time we actually spend talking to ourselves, reenacting past conversations or imagining new ones. It quickly becomes clear how this activity diminishes the clarity of our awareness of the reality before us and how it interferes with responding in a timely and adequate way to new situations as they arise.

We spend a lot of our time and energy thinking. Not thinking as a directed tool for a specific job, but just thinking all over the place.

All this thinking is analogous to the wind blowing on the pond of water; it prevents us from accurately reflecting the world as we experience it. Practically speaking, how do we deal with this in zazen? Not by suppressing thoughts through some strong effort of the will. That sort of effort is just another kind of mental activity. More commotion, more noise. The settled mind that we are aiming for is one that has simply ceased all the doing.

It is helpful to make an important distinction between random thoughts and what we call linear or discursive thinking.

If you pay close attention to your moment-to-moment activity, you will notice that in the midst of attending to one thing, new thoughts (or emotions) will just pop up. These may or may not relate to what it is that you are doing. The Zen teacher Hakuun Yasutani Roshi (Roshi is the title of a senior Zen teacher) used to say that the brain produces thoughts the way the gall bladder produces bile, thus reassuring us that the occurrence of these random thoughts is normal and not to be regarded as a problem. Our problem comes from our compulsively following these thoughts.

Rather than just noticing the thought in passing, realizing the thought is just a squirt of brain bile, we instead project our hopes and fears, our fantasies and phantoms, on this thought, we ruminate on it, reify it, privilege it by giving it power and value (good or bad), and then we develop complex narratives and imaginary situations in our minds in response to our projections. As if that weren’t enough we respond to our responses and stories! Around and around we go. This is the discursive thinking that we aim to drop during our sitting and, of course, during our daily life.

So what do we do?

What we do in zazen is so simple that most of us can’t really believe it at first. We invariably make things more complicated (and difficult!) for ourselves. We start our zazen practice with counting our breaths. Once we’ve sat down in a comfortable but erect position, we direct our attention to our breathing, following closely each whole cycle of inhalation and exhalation, counting each breath silently to ourselves from one to ten, and then starting over. One to ten, one to ten.

When I say that we follow the breath, I mean we pay attention with what has been called “bare awareness,” just registering the bare sensations as they occur without any thought (brain bile notwithstanding) or analysis. The counting is an extra “hook,” so to speak, that helps focus the awareness, and provides direct feedback on how settled and attentive your mind actually is.

This may sound easy, but it isn’t. We have a saying: Zen practice is simple but not easy! Our minds tend to wander off well before we get to ten. Sometimes you will find that you have continued counting past ten without starting over at one.

The key point to this practice is that when you notice that the mind has wandered off, you simply bring it back to the breathing and the count. It is this returning to the present moment that is transformative. Gradually your mind settles down and your power of concentration increases. Random thoughts occur less frequently, and, when they arise, they will not distract you from your undivided attention to each moment of breathing.

This power to not pursue a newly arisen thought or emotion is quite liberating.

It’s almost a cliché to advise someone to “just let it go.” “Relax and release”. Profound wisdom, but the problem with this advice is: how are you supposed to do this? Our natural tendency is to obsess on whatever comes up. A momentary feeling of depression and anxiety will lead to a vicious cycle of thoughts about what’s wrong in our life, which reinforces our feelings of anxiety and depression. If someone insults us, we can’t stop thinking about it.

We can’t seem to help ourselves.

This is what zazen does for you. The slowing down of the mind combined with the ability to stay focused on each new moment of experience allows us to, as it were, let thoughts or emotions just pass on through. What’s actually happening is that you are no longer pursuing and developing the thought. It’s really a very striking experience.

You realize that you are doing it to yourself.

What you come to realize is that it is your own active development of an initial thought or feeling that is causing you to feel as you do. We call this state of mind “samadhi,” a Sanskrit term usually translated as “concentration.” Nyogen Roshi prefers to describe it as being  “present in non-distracted awareness.” He will qualify that definition, though, by warning us not to underestimate the depth with which we can take this.

When speaking about the effects of zazen practice, sometimes Nyogen Roshi talks about a gap developing, a gap between a stimulus and our reaction to it. For example, say that someone insults us. We hear the words and feel hurt or angry.  The gap refers to a moment of time between our experiencing the hurt feeling and our acting in reaction to it. Rather than escalating the situation by saying something unkind in return, for example, there is a moment of just being aware of how we feel. This moment gives us time to choose not to react in a negative or destructive way. This is an example of what we mean when we say the mind becomes more stable. We become less reactive to each new stimulus, whether it is painful or pleasurable. We have the stability and time to react to the situation in whatever is the most constructive way we can. This stability is what people mean by saying that one is comfortable in their own skin or unflappable. It’s an appealing quality that we gravitate towards. There is an instinct to trust someone who isn’t jumpy, nervous, or capricious.

There is another sense in which a gap develops from practicing zazen: a gap between successive thoughts. Ordinarily we spend virtually all of our waking hours thinking, particularly when not engaged in something that requires intense concentration. This is what makes zazen so difficult; we are addicted to thinking. Our “normal” egocentric mind wants to keep moving, wants new stimuli. When we experience one thing, we immediately think about it, evaluate it, and then become bored with it.

We habituate.

This is true even with very pleasant situations. What was at first a luxury quickly becomes a necessity. With zazen practice this constant activity of the thinking mind subsides. One day you will notice that, even when just sitting and doing nothing, there was a gap between successive thoughts. During this moment of non-thinking you were still awake and aware of what was going on. You were still hearing sounds and seeing sights, you weren’t brain dead or blank in the sense of being unresponsive to your environment. If someone had come in and addressed you by name you would hear them and be able to react appropriately.

This is the point about being just present in awareness. The “just” means being aware without thinking about what you are aware of. What’s hard for people to understand is that this non-thinking mind is not incompatible with our intelligence. In fact, it includes our intelligence and past learning, but is not a slave to it.

Maezumi Roshi, Nyogen Roshi’s teacher, used to say that the intellect is a wonderful servant but a miserable master.

Nyogen Roshi loves to tell the story of when scientists from UCLA studied his teacher’s teacher Koryu Roshi. They measured his response to hearing a metronome. They wired up his head and had him do zazen while a metronome ticked. What they would expect from an ordinary person is to see a strong spike in brain activity with the first tock or two, followed by a decline as the subject became habituated to the stimulus. Instead, what they found with Koryu Roshi was that he never habituated to the sound. The scientists were amazed that his brain reacted to each new tock as if it were the first time he had heard that tock. The Zen Master for his part was equally amazed that theses scientists didn’t understand that each time was the first time hearing that tock. Each tock was in fact new and distinct. What makes them “the same” is our discriminating mind judging them to be qualitatively similar. While it may be true that one moment of our life is similar to a previous one, it is just the activity of the judging mind that creates the sensation of being the same, and thus the feeling of dullness, boredom and all the dissatisfaction that this entails.

In this state the world seems new and fresh, like looking out a freshly cleaned window, which had previously been very dirty. It becomes very clear that all of that thinking, far from providing great insight into our life, was in fact acting as a screen filtering and obscuring the reality before us.

Thus the old Zen saying “Name the color, blind the eye.” It is the activity of the thinking mind that produces the illusion of duality, of beginnings and endings.

So we return to Nyogen Roshi’s fundamental definition of zazen: zazen is no separation.

No beginning, no end.


30 Kushan Buddha

Kushan Buddha; photo courtesy of Susan Levinson

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