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Part 1 Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle of Zazen, by Shohaku Okumura

Zazen is the centre of our practice and also the centre of Dogen’s teaching. The Shobogenzo Zazenshin is one of Dogen’s writings in which he discussed the essential nature of his sitting practice. He wrote this text in 1242.

‘Za’ means ‘sitting’, and ‘zen’ is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word ‘chan’ which is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word ‘dhyana’, meaning ‘meditation’. A literal translation of ‘zazen’ is ‘seated meditation’. ‘Shin’ means ‘acupuncture needle’. Today’s acupuncture needle is made of some kind of metal, but in ancient times it was made from bamboo. An acupuncture needle is a kind of instrument to heal sickness. My translation of this title, Zazenshin, is ‘Acupuncture Needle of Zazen’. Zazen is an acupuncture needle to heal our sickness.

Human Sickness

Buddhism Now cover Oct 1990. Art © Marcelle Hanselaar What is our sickness? I think it is very clear. Shakyamuni Buddha said that we have been shot with an arrow tainted by the three poisonous states of mind. These three states are greed, anger/hatred and ignorance of the reality of our life, that is: impermanence, egolessness and interdependent origination. Because of this ignorance, we think that we are independent and separate from all other beings. We grasp this as ‘I’ and think this is most important. To make this person powerful, important, famous, wealthy and healthy, these become the purpose of our life. If we are successful, then we are happy like heavenly beings. If not, we are miserable and it feels like being in hell. Because no condition stays forever, we transmigrate from one condition to another. This is the way our lives become transmigration within samsara [the cycle of existences]. According to the Buddha’s teachings, this is how our lives become suffering. This transmigration is actually happening moment by moment in our daily lives in this lifetime.

Buddha’s teaching is often called ‘medicine’ and the Buddha is sometimes called the ‘Medicine Master’ or the ‘Great Doctor’. The idea of the acupuncture needle is the same—to heal the sickness caused by the three poisonous states of mind. This is the basic meaning of this title, Zazenshin. Zazen is an acupuncture needle to heal the sickness caused by the three poisonous states of mind. And because the sickness is inveterate and obstinate, it is very difficult to heal.

Sickness caused by Zazen

There is another meaning of Zazenshin. Even though our practice of zazen based on Buddha’s teachings is a treatment of this sickness, zazen itself can be a poison and cause sickness. If our motivation to practise is influenced by the three poisons, that is, if we practise for the sake of making this person more important, more powerful, more enlightened or for anything else, then it is motivated by greed, ‘I want to get this or that.’ It may not be for wealth or power that we practise, but for something spiritual. If we practise in order to get something desirable, however, our zazen is generated by greed.

Also, if we practise in order to escape from our present condition, then the practice is motivated by anger/hatred toward this condition. In my case, for the first ten years, greed and anger/hatred motivated my practice. I practised because I didn’t like who I was; I wanted to make my life more meaningful. I really practised earnestly; I devoted my life to it. Without this greed and anger/hatred, I couldn’t have practised so earnestly for such a long time. We often call this ‘way-seeking mind’. But our way-seeking mind can be very deeply influenced by the three poisonous states. This is a strange contradiction. In order to practice to be free from the three poisonous states of mind, we need the three poisonous states of mind.

When we practise for certain lengths of time we find that our motivation itself is influenced by poison. Then we often have doubts about our practice and whether or not it works to lessen the suffering caused by the three poisons. Sometimes we might even quit because we feel it doesn’t work.

I think a most important koan for us is this: How can we go through this contradiction and continue to practise? It is like sitting on a cushion while trying to take away the cushion on which we are sitting. This is very difficult. If our practice is based on the three poisonous states of mind, then not only our sitting but also our entire practice becomes a part of samsara [the phenomenal world] and we suffer because no condition lasts forever. Sometimes we feel, ‘I am having some deep experiences and I am getting better.’ Sometimes we might even feel, ‘I’m enlightened!’ But such conditions do not last forever. We want to continue to have the same kind of fantastic experiences, but they do not occur any more and we create samsara within our zazen; we transmigrate within different conditions in zazen. So how can we be free from samsara within our Buddhist practice, within our zazen practice? I think that is the sickness Dogen Zenji discusses in Zazenshin. How can we cure this sickness? . . .

Shohaku Okumura This is the first in a series of lectures on Dogen Zenji’s Zazenshin by Reverend Shohaku Okumura during sesshin at Chapel Hill Zen Center in Spring 2001. It was published in the Fall 2003 issue of The Bridgeless Bridge and is reprinted here with their kind permission. In the next instalment, Shohaku-san will speak about his experience in relation to this teaching. He is a translator and the founder of the Sanshin Zen Community, Bloomington, USA.

Read the rest of, Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle of Zazen here.

From the August 2004 Buddhism Now

4 Responses

  1. Can just sitting be enough? Do we really find it difficult to do something without ulterior meaning and motivation? I found this article interesting, it resonated with some conversations had in the Zen meditation group I go and further, I related it to when I dance Butoh: do I have an ulterior motif..or do I dance for the invitation…dancing bliss, just dancing, because there is no because. What do you think? Does this relate to your practice?

  2. Can we heal our “sickness” with zazen? In this article, Reverend Shohaku Okumura shows us how the three poisonous states of mind: greed, anger/hatred and ignorance of the reality of our life are needed in order to practice to be free from the three poisonous states of mind. As this might be a contradiction of sorts, one cannot heal from suffering without suffering.

  3. This is wonderful teaching. Being honest of our intentions is difficult yet so important. Thank you for this.

  4. Excellent. Yet, I do not get the correct picture, may be I do not know much about Zen practice. As this article says,”… not only sitting..” but some comments by Zen followers, which I happened to read, says just sitting, or watching a stream, and so forth. I would be grateful, if some more information could be available.

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