A Note on Thinking in Zazen

Dogen says, “think non-thinking.” This is quintessential and also essential zazen advice. It is almost a word-photo of the experience of non-thinking. But it is advanced advice.

The ‘still-sitting’ practice of zazen clarifies our thinking. This is one of the first things zazen does. When our body is really still and our mind is becoming still, we can really see thinking happening – and thinking becomes more and more precise. Through still-sitting we can learn to observe thinking without making it our identity and our continuity. That lets us see around the corner of thinking, past and through thinking. Thinking becomes transparent.

We can feel/know the emotions in which thinking is embedded. And through the plexus of emotions, we can feel -and see- the pure field of mind in which thinking arises. This is good for us and necessary for practice. It happens through observing thought in zazen, and seeing beyond thought. For the sake of our personal development, it is good to clarify our thinking, and for the development of Zen practice, it is necessary to clarify thinking and learn to observe it without interfering with it.

Furthermore, during the first two years or so of sitting zazen, it is especially important for Western practitioners to open themselves to the flow of associative thinking that arises from the alaya-vijnana. This is the Buddhist word for the storehouse net of memory, karma, and of unconscious and nonconscious associations. This opening to the alaya-vijnana through zazen-mind permits a conscious recapitulation of our life. As well, it can allow us to know the unrealized parallel lives that often flow beneath our conscious life – including parallel Buddha lives; and it permits more openness to unrecognized insights and enlightenments that unbeknownst may have been what led us to practice.

We Westerners – in a different sense from Asians, where Buddhism developed – have a personal story and history that is the medium and focus of our identity and psyche. Our Western psyche-as-story should be understood and matured, and not denied or put aside through oversimplified Zen instructions as “don’t think in zazen.” A better instruction is: “don’t identify with thinking. Just let your thinking come and go without identifying with it.” Of course, our thinking is our own, but it is not the whole of who we are and how we exist.

One of the best ways to mature our personal story and its linked identity is simply to become as familiar with it as possible, to retell it to ourselves, and let it retell itself- let the alaya-vijnana show the story it knows, thus opening ourselves to the memories and formations left out by the selective nature of consciousness. There are many aspects of our story and being that are not available to consciousness, but that can appear within the more holistic zazen-mind. A fuller experience of being, mind, and story, widens our sense of life and transforms our relationship to our personal story and our embeddedness in the world. Our story, karma, and mind are all transformed through the clarity, flow of insights, detachment, and absorptive inclusiveness of zazen-mind.

But zazen would not be zazen, if it were only productive, insightful, inclusive, and karmicly fluid (although that is a lot). The calmness and still-sitting of zazen, within the movement of mind, allows us to see through the mind to its fundamental stillness. Past the constructed contents of mind, to the unconstructed, where “not a single thought is born.” ‘Fundamental stillness’ is not a dead place, it is a kind of activity and way of functioning – a knowing and condition for the ‘great functioning’ of being.

Through zazen we can clarify thinking, clarify the basis of mind itself, and then, through being able to see between, under, and around thinking, we can free ourselves from the discursive habits of ordinary consciousness. We can ‘think’, then, in Dogen’s view, by being present to the mode-of-thinking, yet without thinking. It is a way of suspending ordinary thinking and in that abeyance, allowing the world to think with us, through us, and allowing us the moment to think and act through the world. In these circumstances, by ‘world’, I mean the potentiality of ‘world-in-us-at-this-moment’, and by this, I mean the fullness of the three times carried as this moment, balanced as immediacy and potentiality. We know this potentiality through our own balance.

The world turns the world, circumstances, and objects of mindfulness in the ‘mode of thinking’, without discursive thinking. We and the world thus ‘think’ through our non-thinking. It is a mode-of-observation, a mode-of-knowing, that usually thinks, but dissolves the frame of observation and moves beyond thinking into the actualization of Being itself. It’s a kind of attention, knowing, and functioning without thoughts, in the larger context of Being. (When I write ‘Being’ instead of ‘being’, I mean Being that includes the experienceable dialectic of being/nonbeing.)

Look at this story of Yaoshan’s (763-840) sitting the zazen of non-doing and non-knowing. One day Yaoshan, Shitou’s disciple, was sitting quietly. Shitou asked him, “What are you doing?” Yaoshan said, “I am not doing anything.” Shitou said, “Then you are sitting idly.” Yaoshan said, “If I were sitting idly, that would be doing something.” Shitou said, “You say you are not doing? What is it you aren’t doing? Yaoshan said, “Even the ancients don’t know.”