Updated: Apr 6
I don't profess to be a guru, a Lama, a Rinpoche, a Roshi, or any other titled spiritual master. I have an almost 50-year spiritual practice that I refer to in the course of instruction. I am educated in religion and spirituality in several traditions. I've studied and instructed over years, so, I might be called—in the vernacular—a teacher.
At CloudMeditation, we prefer normal western terminology: Instructor, mentor, counselor, coach, or colleague. Spiritual practice is—at its essence—a solitary endeavor. But, we all need occasionally to seek knowledge and aid and counsel along our solitary path. CloudMeditation always intends to be embracing and collegial and—above all--helpful.
Our talk today is foundational to the way we look at spiritual practice at CloudMeditation. While today's examples derive from Japanese Zen Buddhist practice, the underlying lessons are universal and, we believe, universally applicable.
Today's talk will introduce two of my favorite figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism, one from the 13th-century and one from the 20th-century. Each from a different stream or school of Zen. Yet, if one studies them, one feels their unity of purpose and understanding—Two beings, different, yet the same—separate, but ultimately, one voice.
Our first figure, Eihei Dogen lived from 1200 to 1253. Dogen was a writer, poet, philosopher, and the founder of Japanese Soto Zen. Soto is associated with the silent sitting meditative practice.
Our second figure, Sokeian Shigetsu Sasaki was born in 1882 in Japan and died in 1945 in New York City. Sokeian was also a writer and a poet and the first 20th-century Zen master to reside most of his adult life in America. Sokeian trained in the Rinzai stream of Zen Buddhism. The Rinzai school is associated with koan training; meditation on perplexing paradoxical anecdotes, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Indeed, Rinzai practitioners also practice silent sitting.
Sokeian arrived in America in 1906 and spent almost a decade walking and working, exploring the country. He began talking Buddhism in a New York City bookstore in the 1920s and founded a Buddhist Society in the 1930s, which would become the First Zen Institute of New York, which still exists. Sokeian passed away from ill-health aggravated by internment in a US Government enemy alien camp during World War II.
The theme of this talk derives from Dogen's Shobogenzo, an essential text for Soto Zen, but, I believe, valuable to just about anyone pursuing a meditative/contemplative practice. There are several good English translations. I'm currently reading Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo by Shohaku Okamura. I'm finding it a useful translation and clarification of Dogen's thought.
Sokeian's available works can be obtained through the First Zen Institute of New York and some online bookselling sites.
Dogen provides our theme:
To meditate IS to awaken!
Lots of human activities are commonly labeled meditation: Physically still practices are probably best known: Silent sitting, introspection, centering prayer, and others.
There is also physically active meditation: Mindfulness while doing and labyrinth walking, martial arts, yoga, contemplative dance.
And then there are devotional meditations: Chanting, ritual, creative/artistic, and work practices. Sokeian, a skilled artist, storyteller, pantomimist, and woodcarver combined many of these. All can be meditation.
Common to these different meditations are the dual purposes of attaining acute awareness of and/or complete communion and connection with ultimate reality, however each sect or religious division defines the ultimate.
Warning! This is likely where we might fall into the dualistic black hole of language. Spiritual discussion most often devolves into a ping-pong debate on the definitions of terms: “What do you mean by meditation, or awareness or ultimate or reality?” Yadda. Yadda. Spiritual discussion quickly deteriorates into an endless closed loop, like mice running an endless wheel. We don't do that here.
We assume that we all have a fairly similar vernacular understanding of these words and the differences of sect or division are not so significant as to alter or obscure the larger point.
Cultivating awareness of and connecting with that Ultimate is the intention of the meditator. Cultivating awareness of and connecting with God, the Ultimate is the intention of the prayerful.
One of my Buddhist teachers was an English woman, sometimes used the words “The Lord of the House” to represent the Ultimate.
However termed, meditation is commonly understood as intending to quiet our busy human mind—that long mental train of car after car filled with thought, memory, feeling, emotion, intention—bits of this that and the other—the detritus—the rubble and debris—of our human ego and our spiritually false sense of separate self.
Once we quiet our mind noise a bit and detach from it bit, awareness and connection with the Ultimate–that which some call the Divine, or God, or Wisdom, or . . . You call it—becomes possible.
Sokeian provides my favorite description of experiencing ultimate awareness and ultimate connection:
“One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer–as if I were being carried into something, or as if I were touching some power unknown to me … and Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.”
Most of us meditate to experience our own personal version of Sokeian's experience. We INTEND to. We do this now to attain THAT later. But, NOW and LATER are human constructs—in the West, time is linear. In Buddhism, time is sometimes described as cyclical, or circular. Both are human constructs.
I know Sokeian found language—Japanese or English—inadequate to describe his experience. I suspect if he were alive today, he might use different words—person or being instead of man. However expressed, the experience is as it is; essentially inexpressible, but ultimately experienceable.
To return to our theme: We say we meditate TO awaken—that linear timeline again—but Sokeian and other practitioners, including the Soto Zen patriarch Dogen understand:
To meditate IS to awaken.
Let's dig a little more deeply.
Dogen's Soto Zen practice is known sometimes as Serene Reflection or Silent Illumination. Most associate Soto with simply sitting.
But, there's way more going on here. The verb “to meditate” is not just one practice—say, sitting silently. It is much more expansive: It is an act with distinct qualities that are almost impossible to describe in mere language. How about awake, centered, focused in stillness, and while active?
Sokeian loved cats. He described the qualities of a cat, utterly still, languid even, yet the cat is able in a nano-second to spring into perfectly executed action. While the cat's behaviors—still and active—are diametrically different acts, the underlying essence of “cat” is the same—consistent, no ripple, or disturbance in the river of “catness.”
For Dogen, “to meditate” is that quality in humans. Hence, we meditate sitting or standing, working or playing, chanting, or remaining quietly mindful. Very different acts, but underneath one consistent spiritual river of “human-ness.” I expect you all get it.
In Realizing Genjokoan, Okamura translates Dogen:
“Sitting IS the Buddha-Dharma”
Buddha-Dharma means Buddha's teaching, Buddha's proper religious practice, Buddha's way to awaken.
Dharma by itself can mean cosmic order and operation, the ultimate Way.
“Sitting IS the Buddha-Dharma”
“To Meditate IS To Awaken”
"To meditate is to awaken" is an equation; an equality! IS is the equal sign, the verb “to be.” To be or not to be. It is, or it isn't.
To meditate and to awaken are both verbs in the infinitive, the most basic expression of the activity described by the verb. One might say “meditating is awakening” and call it the same thing. But, it isn't. The “-ing” suggests a sense of process—that linear timeline again—not quite the same thing as the infinitive formulation, which suggests simultaneity and interchangeability.
That kind of paradoxical expression experience of separateness and oneness simultaneously crops up any number of mystical perceptions from St. Theresa to The Cloud of Unknowing to the early Vedic and later Chinese Buddhist descriptions of the “Net of Indra.” I hear it in Sokeian's experience I quoted. He observes different people coming towards him, yet they are all the same person. He is aware of individua-ness, yet he's the cosmos, wherein no individual exists.
Finally, because it is an equation, each side of the equal sign is an equal value, hence the statement can be stated oppositely: “To awaken is to meditate.”
Think back to what motivated you to spiritual practice. For some, it might have been something small and deep inside that suggested that this might be a good thing to pursue. Others may have had—how shall I put it—a larger or more recognizably significant motivation that prompted the pursuit. I might suggest that either was an indication of awakening. So. . .
“To awaken IS to meditate.”
“To meditate IS to awaken.”
Whatever meditative method one practices—whether still, or active; silent, or intoned—IS to awaken!
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