Zazen-Only: True Objectless Meditation – Just Sitting; Shikantaza

Even though this is the ideal, there are some people today who, alas, are devoid of any fundamental spiritual aspirations, having no spiritual goal that they seek, and are not the least concerned over their delusive entanglements with both ordinary people and those in lofty positions. ~Shobogenzo, Keisei Sanshoku, Hubert Nearman

Commonly, promoters of simplistic “no goal” notions of Dogen’s “zazen” (sitting meditation) and “shikantaza” (sole-sitting in meditation) proceed as if Dogen only and always used these terms in the narrowest literal sense; that is, “just sitting,” they say, means literally sitting in a proscribed physical/mental manner.

This is usually combined with a discussion emphasizing the notion that this simple act is the only practice necessary to actualize authentic Zen practice-realization (some even suggest this practice is equivalent to enlightenment).

Attempts to authenticate this notion typically consist of a sampling of cherry-picked phrases from Dogen’s voluminous writings are cited as supporting this view.

A couple points, (1), in direct contradiction to their insistence that Dogen writings be read “literally” in relation to zazen, the same advocates frequently insist that other terms and phrases in his writings are metaphors, similes, analogies, etc. pointing to the literal act of zazen, and (2), the same proponents frequently expect a wide, liberal margin of tolerance for their assertions, while simultaneously demanding stringent, exacting conditions concerning the alternative views on others; if one of the “supporting quotes” that they snipped out of Dogen’s writings is challenged by contrasting passages, the  quotes contrasting with their own are roundly dismissed as being “out of context.”

The basic forms of such claims typically portray Dogen as teacher that advocated a unique and austere “single method practice” of zazen-only (or shikantaza) consisting, literally, of immovable sitting. The physical and mental aspects described are similar to those of Buddhism generally; resolute, objectless upright sitting in crossed-legged meditation.

The uniqueness of Dogen’s zazen is usually suggested as being associated with his meaning of “objectless meditation.” Again, this is interpreted in the narrowest literal sense as meaning “sitting in meditation without ‘objective’ devices.” In other words, they interpret “objectless” to mean that the body/mind does not make use of or focus on ‘objects’ like koans, the breath, mindfulness of Buddha, chanting, etc.

If this were true, it would indeed set Dogen’s method of ‘objectless meditation’ apart. Most Mahayana schools of Buddhism (of which Zen is included) also teach and utilize variations of “objectless meditation.” In fact, according to the teachings of the Mahayana sutras, ALL authentic Buddhist meditation is objectless. While some techniques of “no mind,” “spaciousness,” “open awareness,” etc. may sound to the beginners ear to be more objectless than others, the fact is, as long as “objects” continue to be experienced as objects (or subjects as subjects), authentic meditation is not being actualized – Mahayana rejects all forms of dualism, thus the unification of object and subject is a prerequisite of all authentic meditation; for the fundamental unity of “self and other” are the very basis of its teaching.

Fortunately, Dogen’s own writings on objectless meditation harmonize with this basic principle.

Nevertheless, proponents of the superficial view continue to insist that the “objects” connoted by Dogen’s use of “objectless” refers to the illusory “objects” as seen by deluded, unawakened beings rather than the unified (objectless; object/subject) true nature of all dharmas (i.e. things, beings, instances, etc.) proclaimed and experienced by Zen masters and Buddhas.

The most frequently quoted passage by those attempting to propagate variations of this simplistic notion does not come from Dogen’s masterpiece Shobogenzo, but from a separate text written by Dogen titled, Bendowa:

After the initial meeting with a [good] counselor we never again need to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite Buddha’s name, to practice confession, or to read sutras. Just sit and get the state that is free of body and mind. If a human being, even for a single moment, manifests the Buddha’s posture in the three forms of conduct, while [that person] sits up straight in sam?dhi, the entire world of Dharma assumes the Buddha’s posture and the whole of space becomes the state of realization. ~Bendowa, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Now, if Dogen is actually describing the mere literal action of sitting in a physically/mentally proscribed manner, are we supposed to assume that he is also speaking literally about manifesting “the three forms of conduct” (i.e. thinking, speech, and action; inclusive of ALL the activities of an enlightened being)? How are enlightened beings supposed to teach, work, eat, etc. AND also be literally sitting still in silent “objectless” meditation?

Fortunately, Dogen was a Zen master, not a delusional zealot; hence the language of his teachings are not literal but, like that of all true sages, mythic. Zen masters are not scholars of history or biography; Dogen’s teachings are concerned with human truth, not narrative description. If Dogen had been as biased as such superficial views suggest, he certainly could not have been regarded as Zen master. Fortunately, Dogen was no “single method” hack; like all the great masters he attested to the Buddhist teachings, acknowledging the myriad methods of Dharma; for example:

You need to discern and affirm for yourself the underlying meaning of his saying, “If you wish to see Buddha Nature, you must first rid yourself of your arrogant pride.” It is not that one lacks sight, but the seeing of which he spoke is based on ridding oneself of one’s arrogant pride. The arrogance of self is not just of one kind, and pride takes many forms. Methods for ridding oneself of these will also be diverse and myriad. Even so, all of these methods will be ‘one’s seeing Buddha Nature’. Thus, you need to learn both to look with your eyes and to see with your Eye. ~Shobogenzo, Bussho, Hubert Nearman

The words quoted in the first line of Bendowa also appear in Shobogenzo (more than once). In the Bukkyo fascicle Dogen says that these words were spoken by his Chinese Zen teacher, Ju-ching. In the same passage, Dogen makes it clear that Zen language is mythical, that is, metaphorical and figurative:

My late master constantly said, “In my order, we do not rely on burning incense, doing prostrations, reciting names of buddhas, practicing confession, or reading sutras. Just sit, direct your energy into pursuing the truth, and get free of body and mind.”

Few people clearly understand an expression like this. Why? Because to call “reading sutras” “reading sutras” is to debase it, and not to call it “reading sutras” is to be perverse. “You are not allowed to talk and not allowed to be mute: say something at once! Say something at once!” We should learn this truth in practice. Because this principle [of reading sutras] exists, a man of old has said, “To read sutras we must be equipped with the eyes of reading sutras.” ~Shobogenzo, Bukkyo, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

While anyone could “understand this literally,” “Few people clearly understand an expression like this.”

Calling it “reading sutras” debases it because that cuts the wholeness (i.e. objectless/subjectless) of reality (i.e. reading sutras/not-reading sutras) into an object and subject. Not calling it “reading sutras” is perverse because it ignores the truth of real form (i.e. “reading sutras”).

For the “few” that do clearly understand an expression like this, “reading sutras” is just-sitting (zazen-only), along with offering incense, bowing, chanting, and confessing. To clearly understand just sitting, reading sutras, or any other aspect of the Buddha Dharma, we must awaken and continuously actualize the Dharma-Eye. For reading sutras, the unawakened mundane eyes focusing on literal descriptions are simply not adequate for the task; “we must be equipped with the eyes of reading sutras.”

For those that have not yet opened the Dharma-Eye, there is a reliable method for distinguishing Dogen’s “zazen-only” of authentic Zen actualization from the ordinary practice of “sitting meditation” (which is, of course, also an essential element of Zen practice). Whenever “just sitting” is spoken of in terms of a separate and distinct activity, as one thing or activity among others (e.g. working, reading, etc.), it is definitely not Dogen’s zazen-only. Ordinary sitting meditation is zazen-AND other things or activities. Zazen-only is always inclusive of all possible manifestations of “the three forms of conduct” (thinking, speech, and action) – In Dogen’s zazen-only, reading sutras, introspecting koans, and raking the leaves are not, “reading sutras,” “introspecting koans,” or “raking the leaves,” they are zazen-only.

In this way, you need to thoroughly explore through your training the thousands of aspects, nay, the hundreds of thousands of aspects of just sitting. Your body should just sit as if you were sitting within a lotus blossom. ~Shobogenzo, Zammai-o Zammai, Hubert Nearman



7 thoughts on “Zazen-Only: True Objectless Meditation – Just Sitting; Shikantaza”

  1. Hi Ted
    Why is it that when I type “Flatbread Sutra” into Google it tells me I really want ” Flatbed Sutra” but when I type “Fathead Sutra” I get random junk?



    ps In my previous post I forgot to mention the fine quote from one of those Zen folks regarding the arsonist ” He must have been insane, because everyone knows stone does not burn.”……… HA, from the mouths of babes!

    1. Hello Pete,

      Ha! Then there was the woman who was asked why she did not have her husband committed since all he ever did was sit in the living room fishing from a bucket of water, “I would have him committed,” she said, “But we need the fish.”

      Clearly, the Flatbed Sutra has nothing to do with anyone having a fathead – Ha!

      Judging from book sales however, “flat-bread” may be an apt description…



  2. Hello Pete,

    Haaaa! That’s great. Worthy of going into the 21st century “Zen” compilation I call the ‘SueDoe-Roku’ (sometimes spelled with a “P”).

    Nine Full Bows


  3. Hi Ted

    Reading your post put me in mind of a news story I read some years ago in New Mexico. The story concerned a Zen Center in Hawaii. The headline and intro to the piece told of how someone had snuck into their Zen garden and set fire to the prized centerpiece of that place, a large antique Buddha rupa.

    “Wow,” I thought,” this is so great! One of the patriarchs has returned and given teaching!”

    My joy quickly faded when the rest of the story revealed how the Zen people completely missed the point, and were outraged, demanding that the police find and punish the offender.

    Further reading revealed how, not wishing their feathers to remain ruffled, the Zen folk were appealing for donations to have the Buddha image restored! It seems they didn’t like that the gasoline used had marred the ancient patina, of the rupa, or, should I say in this case the “idol”.

    I trust you can find the parallels in this story and your post.

    Offering you a light,



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  5. Hi Ted,

    I agree with some of your concerns about the simple, sectarian beliefs/ assumptions that have become associated with Dogen’s Zen. However, I think your eagerness to present a ‘type’ in contrast to your own view degrades your argument; and the limited polemic nature of your argument somewhat let’s down the breadth of Master Dogen’s vision (maybe this comes from your assumption that ‘Mahayana rejects all forms of dualism?’… doesn’t seem so ‘Maha’ to me). For example, it may well be a very necessary ‘skillful means’ to present and consider zazen as a ‘separate and distinct activity’… at other times, not so.

    Of course it really is a distinctly different effort/action/intention to, say, being asleep, lying around over-eating and farting, or getting drunk on whisky and beer in most instances. Master Dogen clarifies the simple, practical reason for the sitting posture in Bendowa: It’s really not rocket science or a big religious mystery (are you suggesting that Bendowa is in some way inferior as it is not part of Dogen’s ‘masterpiece’?… It is certainly very direct/ different in tone in places, but I wouldn’t go holding that against it as it may be employed very effectively in conjunction with Shobogenzo and Master Dogen’s writings as a whole… and not to prove or refute just one or two points, I mean).

    Becoming a two, three, five, seven, or sixty-two trick pony may not effectively be much of an improvement on a one trick pony.



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