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Learning to Sit Down and Shut Up

posted by Evelyn Cash

The truth is, I’m an accidental Soto Zen Buddhist.  When I initially
learned to meditate, I had little interest in sticking to any particular tradition.  I liked to call myself a “non-denominational” Buddhist and didn’t really see a need to identify with one school of Buddhism or another.  When I moved to Kansas, I joined a Soto Zen group, not
because I was interested in Zen at all but because this group seemed to
focus primarily on sitting, which happened to be exactly what I wanted to
do.  Also, there really aren’t tons of Buddhist groups to choose from
here so I took what I could get.  The funny thing is, looking back on
it, I think I also found the group that I didn’t even know I needed.


There was a Buddhist Geeks podcast episode a few months back called,
“You Will Get the Dharma You Need,” with Tami Simon.  It took me a little while to
realize it, but I think Zen and the Soto school in particular is the
dharma I need.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an engineer.  Engineering
tends to attract a certain type of person.  Specifically, the curious,
analytical types who love to solve problems and get real results.  For
a while, I took the “hard-core” approach to the dharma.  I wanted to
know all about jhanas and how to reach some higher states of
consciousness and I wanted it all laid out plain as day in a map or
algorithm that I could simply follow and study my way to
enlightenment.  Then, I’d go in to talk to my Zen teacher with
questions on how to become a better person and his ever-predictable
response was: “just keep sitting.”  What?  Just keep sitting? And then
what do I do??  The truth was, I really didn’t like this response.  It felt like
someone telling me to just sit down and shut-up and my natural response
was to want to rebel against it.  It took me a while to see that this
was exactly the dharma I needed.

I spend my days thinking and
solving problems for hours on end.  Even when I get off work, I’m
constantly trying to schedule my days and get everything I want to
accomplish squeezed in.  So, when I sit down to meditate, my “left-brain”
is still running on all cylinders, cranking out answers to questions I
don’t even have yet.  The down side of this, of course, is that it’s
very easy for me to get off balance and go too far down the left-brain,
logical road.  This sort of thinking leads me to become very critical
of the actions of people around me and has been known to make me quite
an irritable and testy person.  When I think I’m was just being helpful or
curious, my loved ones sometimes see me as overly questioning and correcting
their actions.  In my hyper-logical way of thinking, I’m just trying to
help the person out, even if they don’t want to be helped.

This
is where Zen has come into my life and helped bring it into balance. 
Once I quit rebelling against the teachings I was hearing and began
learning more about them and really trying to practice in the Soto
style, I began to slowly but surely notice that my logical mind was
starting to quiet, giving my “right-brain” an opportunity to operate. 
You see, in my practice lineage, to practice zazen (or sitting meditation) is
basically to practice enlightenment itself.  As Matsuoka Roshi (my teacher’s
teacher) said: “This is because the practice of meditation and its
wisdom – enlightenment – are not separate.  Even the sitting of a
beginner will be a brilliant one which has the “lining” of right
enlightenment of the Shakyamuni Buddha.” (“The Kyosaku” p. 115)  As a result, in sitting zazen,
there really is nothing for my logical mind to analyze and figure out,
no problem to be solved.  Once I just sit long enough to let my logical
brain settle down, I’m able to come into a greater sense of balance, which I can
then take off the cushion and into daily life.  I guess it turns out my teacher
was right, I did just need to keep sitting afterall.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not
saying that other schools of Buddhism don’t have a lot to offer myself
or others.  I’ve read books by teachers from many different traditions
including Tibetan and Theravadin and I’ve received a lot of very
beneficial teachings from these sources.  But, I think the Soto school
presented a very direct challenge to my normal way of thinking; a challenge that I needed. 
Instead of allowing me to use my usual analytical thinking style to
practice meditation algorithms or even make an attempt at Koan study
(where it eventually would have fallen short, I’m sure), Soto Zen put
up a road block for me right away.  It challenged me right up front to
let go of all of my hard won problem solving skills and “just sit.” 
I’m the type of person who really needs to be challenged in order for
me to grow on a deep level.  Once I finally agreed to listen, I began
to slowly, dimly understand the wisdom behind the teaching.  I think
I’m finally starting to learn how to really sit down and shut-up.

So,
I send it out to you.  Have you found “the dharma you need?”  If so,
did it find you or did you find it?  If not, don’t dispair!  There are
so many spiritual traditions out there, I truly believe there’s
something for everyone.  Just keep practicing



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Mu

posted October 11, 2009 at 12:58 pm


Thanks for the excellent post, E. You raise the issue of brain hemispheric dominance as it relates to meditation practice generally and, more specifically, what school one feels most challenged by. Zen Master Taisen Deshimaru talks quite a bit about the regulation and coordination of the brain’s regions during zazen–pretty forward-looking for the mid-seventies! Interestingly, it is the shorter kusen during zazen, as opposed to the longer teisho lecture, which Deshimaru favored as a complementary way to break up analytic, linear thought.



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Evelyn

posted October 12, 2009 at 11:14 am


Mu,
Thanks for the tip, I’m not familiar with Deshimaru’s teachings on the subject but I may have to look them up. I’ve just noticed — especially as I study western psychology and compare that with Buddhist teachings — that my mind will eventually switch from a sort of logical, language centered mode to a more visual/spatial mode if I sit “still enough, long enough.” For me, learning to “just sit” and allow this switch to happen has been very beneficial, even if I was resistant to the idea initially.
I always find it very interesting to see first-hand how Western science and Buddhist teachings relate to one and other.
Gassho



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Mu

posted October 12, 2009 at 11:35 am


IMHO, zazen (and koan study) are the preeminent techniques for effecting a switch from left to right brain. Here’s a fun test:
http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/wacky/the-right-brain-vs-left-brain/story-e6frev20-1111114577583
I recommend a look at Deshimaru’s Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru (Hohm Press, 1996), which collects his kusen from sesshin in the mid-70s in Europe.
Given your interests, if you haven’t read it already, you would likely enjoy B. Alan Wallace’s Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge (Columbia UP, 2007).



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Anan E. Maus

posted October 12, 2009 at 3:05 pm


good post.
I agree. Silence is a great teacher.
gassho



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freestone

posted October 14, 2009 at 11:48 am


That “hyper-logical way of thinking” is the illusionary sense of self that was generated. It is like adding an extra head to your head. Or it is like taking a thief as your father. Thus meditation helps you put that extra thing down, and then your true self can be functioning smoothly.



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Abhaya

posted October 14, 2009 at 8:26 pm


I entered the path 20 years ago through contact with several of the Dalai Lama’s monks. Being aware of my need for a teacher, I prayed, meditated, studied and waited believing that if I was “ripe” the teacher would appear. She did. In the form of an indian Guru whom I stayed with for 15 years. Although I learned much, my dependency on her revealed itself along with a few unhappy discoveries and so I parted with that group. I’ve been out here, a bit gun-shy of organizations, on my own for almost 3 years. I’ve meditated from time to time with a local ZMM sitting group. My readings all go naturally to buddhist teachers as it was in the beginning, Jack KornField, Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chodron, Trungpa Rinpoche and variety of other Tibetans. Yet, I was attracted to Daido Loori enough that I avoided going to ZMM many times until it was too late to meet him. I also have great reapect for “The Course in Miracles” which is clearly Christian although highly anti-establishment. I was intrigued by the essay and posts regarding the “right for your type” Buddhism. I am very right brained – tested and confirmed. My main feeling that is not positive regarding Zen is that it feels very “dry” to my emotional
“wetness”. I ask myself, “do I need another teacher?” Must I meet that teacher in the flesh or is the respect +their teachings in book/cd form sufficient? Confusion is apparent here. Is there anyone out there who would be able to address these issues with me? Any ideas or advice to consider? Dokusan?
Namaste.



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freestone

posted October 15, 2009 at 1:05 am


So the key of Buddhism practice is how you can keep yourself together even when you are moving very fast. When you are moving fast, it is easy for an illusionary self to be generated and all the confusions follow. So sitting meditation slows you down, let you take a good look of yourself when you are not doing anything. Breaking that illusionary self, you then stand up again and see if you can do better when moving fast. You repeat this over and over again, and you get to understand more why Buddhism teaches of no-self and nothing permanent.



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Eamon

posted October 15, 2009 at 12:05 pm


My practice is new (as in a year or so). Western philosophy was my path for a time, until I realized it was more of an escape (“thinking” deep/critical thoughts would somehow take me somewhere, accomplish something). Buddhism seems to be the only thing I have encountered (which is quite personal) that has a practice that assists me in being happy, compassionate, understanding, present, that helps me direct my energies more in freedom and less from habit, to deeply listen, etc.
Thich Nhat Hanh reached me with the loudest voice and a group following his teachings are where I practice communally. His teachings seem as accepting of the traditionally religious as the atheist and as pertinent to both. He does have a profound awareness of others perspectives.
I guess a little hero worship is a good thing, we all need someone to admire and emulate, because we all find the benefits of deepening and improving ourselves and being a good for others.
Even with my profound appreciation of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Buddha, I believe our greatest teacher to be ourselves and our own experience. I tend to appreciate many teachers from many traditions. But without these wonderful teachers giving us the opportunity to discover our path and their assisting us in heading in a good direction, constructing our raft, I might even be going in the wrong direction. It is the age old mystery of transmission. The great light inside one helps deepen the light inside another and, so, we light our own way as much as we are grateful for having another assist us in gaining a brighter light. The wonder of resonance, the mystery of independence and interdependence being co-arising.



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JOYNER31Mara

posted April 4, 2010 at 9:06 am


That is good that people can receive the loan and it opens up new chances.



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