Why Zen Does Not Teach Mental Techniques

Matsuoka Roshi would often entwine his middle and fore-fingers, raising them aloft and declaring, “Mind and body are just one; they cannot be separated.” This is not an example of belaboring the obvious, or debating the Cartesian separation of spirit and body, one of the primary memes of Western culture. It is a concise way of explaining why Zen emphasizes the physical, rather than the mental, in its meditation, zazen.

The question often arises, Why do we not emphasize mental practices, such as meditating upon compassion, for example? Thich Nhat Hahn has done so, in his writings for Western students; and the Buddha himself is said to have conveyed such messages, notably in the “Metta Sutta,” or “Loving Kindness Sutra,” with its refrain, “May all beings be happy.”

Virtues are Innate
The first principle, I suggest, is that human beings are already innately compassionate, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that we witness in the public sphere; as well as in our own behavior, or inner feelings, toward others. The reasons this innate compassion does not always come to the fore, are all the usual suspects—the underpinning traits of self-centered striving and personal clinging—that Buddha analyzed as the main source of Dukkha, suffering, in this life.

Secondly, while it may be necessary to teach others such values as generosity, the first of the Buddhist perfections (S. paramita); or the practice of compassion; any such teaching is limited to what can be expressed in language, and therefore necessarily conceptual, not actual. The pedagogical theory amounts to hoping that—by going through the motions, and focusing conscious attention on the concept—true compassion, or generosity, or patience, et cetera, will one day arise.

Personal versus Social Practice
There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it is limited, or one-sided. We should take care to divide Buddhist teachings and practices into two parallel tracks—the personal versus the social—for the sake of clarity, and not to confuse the one with the other. Particularly when it comes to the attitude we adopt in zazen.

On one level, our Zen practice is intensely personal. On another, it is social in its application and import. It is not for naught that Soto Zen stresses the personal practice of zazen over all other methods, including such techniques as koan practice, meditating upon an illogical riddle, of the Rinzai sect; and the various mental preoccupations taught in more traditional forms of meditation, such as Vipassana. I am not trained in either of these methods, so my comments should not be taken as a critique. I am only pointing out the difference in Zen meditation, as I understand it.

Physical versus Mental Technique
Carl Bielefeldt, in his estimable “Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation,” remarks this point, that Master Dogen does not give us any mental techniques. All of the basic instructions that he chose to transmit, and translate, from the original Chinese “Zazengi” teachings are of a physical nature. I suspect for the same reasons that Sensei emphasized the physiological, in his direct teachings. In his writings, for public talks, you will find a spirited emphasis on the social implications of Zen.

On a personal level, we approach zazen with an open mind. We do not direct our attention toward something like compassion, because we do not know for sure what true compassion is. Whatever ideas we may have about it are second-hand, derived from someone else’s teaching about it, or from social memes, peer pressure and other sources, such as the opinions of friends and family. On the downside of the social end of the spectrum, we witness all manner of atrocities committed in the name of compassion, including the unintended outcomes of well-intentioned “do-gooderism.”

Not that this should dissuade us from trying. But we should keep an open mind as to the true intent of our actions toward others, particularly whether we are unconsciously looking for a desired outcome. If we are practicing “pretend compassion,” meaning taking actions that look kind and caring on the surface, but are attached to feelings of self-worth; or expectations of improved behavior, on the part of the targets of our compassionate activities; this is not really compassion. We may be “practicing” compassion, in the same sense that a pianist practices in rehearsal. The real music comes out only later, in performance on stage, before an audience, or in the recording studio. The word literally means “suffer with,” so any exercise of compassionate activity should begin with the recognition that the doer of the good deed, and the receiver of any ostensible benefits, are both in the same boat, at the end of the day, as we say.

Discovering True Compassion
Setting aside the social dimension, and returning to the cushion, I suggest that we can “thoroughly examine in practice”—to borrow a recurring Dogen trope—the meaning of compassion, without any particular instructions about it. How are we suffering with others, in zazen? What are we suffering, exactly? What is the most compassionate thing we can do for others? For ourselves?

My answer, and I trust that of all the Ancestors, beginning with Buddha, is wholehearted meditation, zazen. Matsuoka Roshi insisted that zazen is “the most you can do.” This does not mean, of course, that we do zazen instead of taking action on the social level. Zen is not an escape from reality. But the most we can do is to practice zazen ourselves, in order to clarify what compassion, generosity, or patience means; not only in a transactional sense, but to us, personally. And the most compassionate thing we can do for others is to teach them how to do likewise.

Note that I use the word “how,” not “why.” And I do not say teach them to do zazen, period, as if I know what is best for others. Zen is for everyone, but not everyone is ready for Zen. This is not a crusade, where we presume to suggest, that what is wrong with another person is that they are not sufficiently like us, in either their behavior or worldview. Even Buddha recognized this fact. When told that some local pundits had come only to criticize his teaching, he is said to have said, “They are free to go.” Zen takes the long view. Some may come to apprehend Dharma in this lifetime; others may take a little longer. It is not our responsibility.

Criticizing Self and Others
The teachings of Buddhism are not meant to be held up to criticize others. Any doubt that arises is to be reflected back upon oneself. We see everything in the “mirror of Zen,” most particularly our own faults. One of the problems with having a pat understanding of compassion—or any other virtue—is that, contrary to its true meaning, we begin to compare the actions of others to that standard. The slippery slope into “the burdensome practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness” (Hsinhsinming) becomes irresistible, if we presume we know what compassion is. The curious expression “Judge not lest ye be judged,” by contrast, betrays the selfish motive—avoiding having others judge oneself—while, in the same breath, touting the wisdom of suspending judgment. As if we can have it both ways. True compassion often looks like cruelty to the recipient, as in the exercise of “tough love.” In Zen, we expect to be judged by others, if often unfairly.

Absolute versus Relative
That body and mind are not-two in Zen is one example of its non-dual outlook. Not only body-mind, but all other dyads in the realm of conceptual thinking, are also not-two. But this generalized statement of the absolute aspect, of relative reality, is not merely an objective description of a universal truth, applied to sentient being. In zazen, it becomes an operative principle. If we want to improve our mind—in some way that we imagine to be an improvement, such as being more compassionate, kind and considerate, or patient—our most direct route is through the body. As Dogen says, make the body sit, rather than trying to make the mind behave. The ox-mind is tethered to the body-cart just as strongly as the cart is tethered to the ox. It is much easier, and more accessible, to approach mentality through the body. Just as it is in exercises from which we expect physical results, such as enhanced muscular strength and endurance.

The Paramitas, Precepts and all other ancillary teachings of Zen do not supplant zazen. As Master Dogen asks, “What Precept is not fulfilled in zazen?” Just by sitting still enough, for long enough, we will resolve this dilemma. The personal level of practice necessarily precedes the social level. TNH, Sensei, Buddha, and others bother to try to teach the positive outcomes of practice, as an inducement to taking up Zen practice; not as simple nostrums they expect people to adopt.

It is true that practicing patience—or music—is necessary to come to the turning point of being patient with others—or performing music that transports others. As Van Clyburn noted, when he misses practicing for a day, he notices the difference. When he misses for a few days, his audience notices. But we cannot be truly patient with others, unless we become patient with ourselves, first. We can try, but our efforts will probably have unintended, and disappointing, outcomes.

Hearing the True Dharma
In all cases, personal practice comes first. But if we give ourselves an assignment for mental meditation, it is akin to having another piece of music in mind, while practicing the composition before our eyes. To extend the analogy, zazen is more like jazz, than classical music. We improvise with the instrument, but without notation, other than a chart of the chord progression. Practicing Zen is like free jazz. We throw away the chart. Finally, the Zen life is listening to the music, rather than playing it. Or, perhaps more completely, humming along with it.

Whatever the metaphor, and whatever virtue you value, trusting your Mind to reveal the reality of it, sitting with the aspiration rather than an expectation, still enough for long enough, you can not go wrong. But do not take my word for it.