Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Zazen Is Good for Nothing?

Sunset over Sea
Sunset over Sea, Helsinki, October 1, 2010

Kodo Sawaki Roshi is a pretty well-known Soto Zen teacher. Many contemporary Zen teachers in our neck o' the woods count him in their lineage. His best known saying is that zazen is good for nothing.

I'm sure that's true.

However, like all such truths, it's only true from a certain point of view. From some other points of view, zazen is clearly good for something. What's considered problematic is practicing Zen for what it's good for, rather that for what it's about.

Practicing Zen in order to cope with stuff is known in Zen circles as "bompu Zen." Most Zen teachers I've come across seem at least ambivalent about it; either they reject it altogether (like Sawaki Roshi in his "good for nothing" quote), or they make a point of saying that even though bompu Zen is all well and good, that's really not the point of Zen, and it can become a major obstacle for that which is the point of Zen, whatever that is.

The HZC is going to be at the Health and Beauty fair in another couple of weeks, so I guess we're not all that down on bompu Zen. I still think there's something delightfully out of place about it.

I can see that bompu Zen could become a problem if you make it the focus of your practice. You might get discouraged if the benefits stop manifesting, or if your practice brings up something that's not very nice, or if you manage to reach a state where you're comfortable enough with stuff that you feel you don't need zazen anymore. I'm not even sure how the latter is a problem, actually—it's not like there's some huge moral imperative to keep practicing if you don't want to.

Possibly another reason for this reticence is that there are plenty of people talking about, and offering, therapeutic meditation, intended explicitly to help you deal with stuff and make life more comfortable. There is even a movement of sorts to 'psychologize' Buddhism; to cut out all of the religious bits and the hard parts of the philosophy. Some Zen teachers want to make sure people understand that they're not therapists, that Zen practice can make you very uncomfortable indeed, and that any nice things that can come from zazen are side benefits at best. That is, if your purpose is to cope with stuff, there are other things out there that'll probably work out better.

Nevertheless, I'll risk a little Zen no-no. Here are some things that my zazen has been good for.

I have a volatile temperament, in both good and bad. I get excited easily. I get irritated and angry easily. I calm down quickly. I have a tendency to be impatient. I have a tendency to get the blues, or foul moods that make me want to snarl and snap at everything and everyone. I get sad and hurt very easily. I don't deal well with the sight of blood. I have a low pain threshold. I get carried away easily.

Most of this stuff poses no major problems in my daily life. Anger, however, does. I'm not physically violent, but I have a sharp tongue, and if anger takes over, I can say stuff that's probably as damaging as punching someone in the head. This has resulted in some bad stuff over the years—irreparably hurt interpersonal relationships, that sort of thing.

Over the past year, I have lost my temper this way exactly once. That was in December of last year. I'm hoping to make it through 2010 with that counter set to zero.

This is a significant improvement, and zazen did it. It has helped me be more aware of my emotional state, and catch myself before it spins out of control, some of the time at least.

I sometimes recognize that I'm starting to get angry, and instead of feeding that anger, do something else. Often the best I can manage is walk away and let it drop, which isn't good, but it's still better than the default course of action.

A few times, however, I've managed something better: to switch to another mode—listening to the situation, in order to understand what it is whoever is making me angry is actually saying, instead of doing what I'd reflexively do—i.e., start talking fast and loud to defend whatever it is I feel is being attacked, and work myself into more anger while I'm at it. It's difficult as hell, but when I can swing it, it's like a miracle. It really breaks the cycle that leads to the blow-up, and lets the anger go.

Another improvement is that my blues are a lot less tenacious. I get foul moods, but instead of lasting days, they last hours. Sitting a round of zazen might "cure" such a mood straightaway, and even if it doesn't, it'll make me feel better about feeling bad.

I'm eating better, and not eating too much. I'm more in touch with how food makes me feel, which means I find it easy to stop eating when I'm full, instead of taking another helping that I know would make me feel heavy and uncomfortable afterwards.

I find it easier to maintain a routine to take care of my physical health. Gym, stretching, that sort of thing.

I have discovered a pleasure in music that I did not have before. I'm able to focus on the music instead of letting my mind drift, and am opening up to it. That gives me a big kick.

I stress about work less. I don't try to do other people's jobs as much as before, and I recognize that all I can do is my best, and if that's not enough, then it's not my problem anymore, and fretting about it won't help. I also deal with tedious and even tense meetings better; they don't tire me out as much, I provoke less conflict, and walk away understanding what they were about better.

I've given up on computer games, which I used to play with more than a smidgen of compulsiveness. I may give them another shot one day, to see if I can play them without becoming compulsive about it, if something really worthwhile comes along. Not just yet, though. No Civilization V for me.

I drink less alcohol, because I no longer enjoy the way it muddies the mind. Not that I drank all that much before, but now I'm down to one glass of wine or the equivalent every week or two. Ironically, I should probably drink a bit more, because it helps with cardiovascular health, for which I have genetic risk factors.

I find more enjoyment in chores, like our weekly cleaning.

I get less upset about small annoyances, such as catching a cold on vacation.

I get less annoyed about being annoyed.

All of this, and more, has happened more or less by itself, without any huge struggle or effort of will. The only resolution I've made, and managed to keep with perhaps a few exceptions made when traveling, is not to skip more than one day of zazen in a row, even if it's just a few minutes. The rest has happened on its own, just pieces falling into place.

Zazen is good for nothing? Perhaps so. Some days I do zazen for some of these benefits, for example because I figure it'll make me feel better about feeling glum. Sometimes I sit for other reasons. Most of the time I don't really think why I sit zazen, I just sit. Ultimately, I don't know how much it even matters. I don't know that I'd recommend zazen for someone with similar problems I have; perhaps starting to do zazen specifically in order to deal with those problems will ruin it. I do know that I'm a good deal happier, saner, healthier, and probably less of a drag to be around now than this time two years ago, and a lot of this change has to do with zazen.

Now, if I could learn to not get into scraps on the Internet…


  1. It's good to read that you have gotten such benefits from practice. I also got similar benefits. And other, some rather surprising benefits since then also.

    I've curtailed scrapping on the Internet about 90% since the old alt groups in Usenet. And even now I really choose my battles and try to stick with the issue and not get into the personality arguments.

    It was a little tempting today though when some n00b started lecturing me about Right Speech for the nth time. The impulse to react wasn't actually that hard to resist. I deliberately made myself busy with something that had a more useful intention behind it.

    The gaming and any kind of real competitive activity though does reinforce "unwholesome" tendencies. I now don't see much that could be called "healthy competition". It's just way too easy to get swept up in the play to win at all costs mentality.

    Though I do like watching cricket. But it takes 5 days to play a test match so it's slow and tactical almost like an art rather than a competition. And they have all those sportsmanship rules that prohibit rash outbursts. Cricket is only marginally more interesting than zazen. But without having done zazen I'd have never found such a slow sport interesting in the least.

    One other thing that could be mentioned is the ability to self-observe in fairly clear detail as you have so well demonstrated here. Most people who don't have some contemplative practice can't do that often and it's fairly obvious. Just ask some people what they are doing sometimes and the response is usually "Nothing". Same with feelings or thoughts. It's hard to communicate with people who are so alienated from their own existence. And I've learned that they don't want to hear about changing that either. Hence it's kind of useless to become a zazen or Buddhist proselytizer. It only makes people defensive.

    I'm happy for you that all these benefits have appeared. I really wish everyone could get some little taste of that just so they would know that all the discomforts, tensions, upsets and painful reactions can be relieved even to a partial degree. But we all have to find that out for ourselves.

  2. Thanks, NellaLou. I don't see the point of proselytizing either, and in fact it kinda gives me a rash.

    Still, I do see the point of sort of running up a flag; letting people know that we're here. For years, I never even entertained the possibility of starting to practice Buddhism, because the only way to do that properly was to find some crumbling temple in some insalubrious jungle in some exotic country somewhere; that the people over here were just play-acting at being monks or something.

    A part of that reason was, I think, that I ran across some 'spiritual tourists' during my year in Nepal in 1987, and they were seriously off-putting to the whole idea of Westerners practicing 'Eastern' religions. Especially as I also got to know a few Nepalis, and saw that the way they practice Hinduism has fuck all to do with what those tourists were doing. I filed the whole exercise under 'pretentious woolly-headed nonsense,' with all the nuance and thoughtful consideration of a 16-year old just awakening to his atheism.

    There are lots of hurdles to practice; to starting it in the first place, and to sticking with it to the point where it starts to be something other than just sitting on a cushion with achy legs, losing count, and bored to tears waiting for the bell to ring. That took me a couple of months, but it did become easier from there on out. Side benefits they may be, but that doesn't make them worthless.

    Maybe I'll figure out Right Speech on the Internet too, one of these days.

  3. In our school, we've offered instruction in Zen meditation in "bompu" settings like phys. ed. classrooms, health fairs, and the like. Occasionally, by encountering practice in a classroom setting or other setting, someone makes the decision to visit a Zen center or get involved in a Zen group. Sometimes it works out a different way, with people using sitting meditation as part of some other path, which is fine, too.

    The important thing is to be honest (and non-judgmental) about Zen practice. I've been asked to talk about Zen meditation as stress reduction, for instance, and I'll often start out the talk by saying, "Zen meditation does not reduce stress." At the most, it can help us feel less stressed about being stressed. Since it is about awareness (and using the awareness to wake up ever more deeply and fully), it brings attention to whatever is going on in our heads and bodies -- which is not necessarily a "peaceful" experience.

  4. There can be a kind of magic about it, though. It's sometimes happened that I'm in a really foul mood, and then I decide to just sit with it, feel what it's like, and accept it, and when I get off the cushion, suddenly I'm not in a foul mood after all. OTOH sitting specifically to cure a foul mood doesn't work, 'cuz that turns into trying to psych myself into some other mood, which fails miserably, on or off the cushion.

    It's a cool trick if you can do it, a bit like Douglas Adams's trick of learning to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing.

    I think that I tend to latch onto those moods quite a lot, and shifting to accepting and observing them releases that hold and lets them dissipate. Doesn't work every time, of course, but even so I'm "less stressed about being stressed."

  5. (1) 凡夫禅
    I had not herd the phrase "Bompu Zen" so I looked it up:

    凡夫禅 = Ordinary Person Zen
    凡 = "Bon" = ordinary, mediocrity
    夫 = "Fu" = man, husband
    凡夫 = ordinary man, lay, common man, ordinary people
    Sanskrit = prithagjana

    The word "Prithagjana" seems rather derogatory.
    Nonetheless, I found it interesting that in Zen Buddhism there is a distinction between practicing for benefit and practicing because it is the right thing to do.

    This controversy exists in Christianity too. Worshiping and serving God for self-benefit vs. doing it because it is right in and of itself. Even this Christian notion can be wrapped up with transcending self. A Christian should submerge themselves in God not for self-benefit but for love of God. So heck, it seems that for Buddhists and Christians alike it is tough for the common person (凡夫) to not look after themselves occasionally as the long-term goal seems unreachable at hard times.

    "I'm hoping to make it through 2010 with that counter set to zero."
    Boy, that sounds like a goal! :-) But a noble goal!

  6. I think the purpose of the prithagjana/aryasravaka distinction is to point out that not everybody who wears robes and shaves his head is an enlightened master capable of teaching the Dharma, and not everyone who doesn't, isn't. From where I'm at, there appear to be a quite a few prithagjanas teaching Buddhism, and a quite a few aryasravakas who don't; it also appears that this has always been so. So perhaps these terms and distinctions are worth discussing. The distinction certainly has been around for a very long time.

    Re (2), yeah, I thought you might latch onto that. It's still not a goal, though, and if you figure out why, you will have understood something about what makes me tick.

  7. The distinction is useful indeed. But what I find interesting is the comparative religious aspect of practicing with a goal vs. practicing without a goal (thus my second jesting). Within Buddhism and Christianity their seems to be a tension between the value of practicing because the practice is right and good in-and-of-itself [long term], versus the value of practicing for a personal goal [short term].

    I think the tension exist for a real human reason -- something that transcends any particular faith's insights.

    That was all. I was just trying to illustrate that another faith (and probably many others) wrestle with yet again a fundamental issues that your post aptly showed that Buddhists wrestle with also.

    It was a fun post!

  8. great post... I too chafe a bit at the "bompu" Buddhism that crops up in the mass media today... nicknamed "McMindfulness" in one article I read. On one hand, its difficult to convince people to adopt this on-the-surface-strange practice without promising some sort of positive outcome. But these must be abandoned as one's practice progresses.