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Zazen is Useless

When we begin to practice, we start by learning a few basic techniques. We learn to sit either cross-legged or kneeling, and to sit still without moving for half an hour. We learn to count our breaths and label our thoughts. We may memorize a few chants and learn a few exotic zendo procedures like how to do oryoki practice. There really isn't all that much to learn in order to get started, and really, just these few basics will carry us along for quite a while. But the danger with even a few simple practices like these is that we stay on the level of thinking of them as techniques. What's wrong with that? What else could they be?
Well, the problem with techniques is that you can do them well or badly; they are things you can master or be lackluster about; you can always judge how well you're doing and whether you're making progress or not. And really, zazen isn't like that at all. Once we learned the most basic rules and can manage to sit still in the zendo, well, beyond that, you really can't do zazen wrong! Zazen isn't something that can be done well or badly. Zazen is just sitting. And that means simply sitting and having whatever experience you're having, moment after moment. All we need is the willingness to keep sitting there. Nothing very complicated about that, is there? But part of our mind wants endlessly to be occupied with judgments, and opinions and notions like mistakes and progress. And then we fall into the habit of thinking, "Oh yesterday, wasn't a very good sitting™ I was sleepy all the time and my mind kept wandering all over the place. Today, I'll do better." But of course, yesterday was just the way it was, and today will be just the way it will be. The content of our experience on the cushion is actually irrelevant! Even if our head is filled with all the thoughts I've just described, that doesn't matter, there will be lots of times when we have thoughts and make judgments  minds do that. The only thing that counts is a willingness to just be aware of all that as the experience of this moment. Ah, that's me!
It's really a very subtle point, because in one way, we don't have to do anything and nothing changes as a result of our sitting. While in another, we take this radical step of really leaving ourselves and the moment alone to be whatever it is and whatever we happen to be in that moment. And when we really leave everything alone, there's no place for sitting well or badly or making progress or anything else as a result of our sitting. We're really just sitting. It's hard for us to believe that that's all there is to it, in exactly the same way it's hard for us to believe we're all OK just the way we are. We can't let each moment be itself, just as we can't let ourselves just be ourselves.
Uchiyama Roshi tells a funny story about his beginning to practice with his teacher Kodo Sawaki. Uchiyama says that as a young man he was a rather weak and anxious person, whereas his teacher was a powerful charismatic fellow. And so, one day, Uchiyama approached the Roshi and asked if he practiced with him for ten or twenty years, whether someday, he too, could become a strong and powerful person. But his teacher shouted at him, "Absolutely not! I was always like this! Zazen had nothing to do with it! Zazen is useless!"
You see, if we think zazen is going to change us into somebody else, then zazen is truly useless. Zazen doesn't exist at the level of use or useless; zazen is simply sitting and being who we already are. This is what it means to say that practice and enlightenment are identical.
Sometimes, in daisan, I'll tell someone, don't try so hard, or do less. And that's because I see they don't know how to leave themselves alone and just sit- they're trying too hard to do it right or to get someplace. And so all their effort is going in the wrong direction. Instead of paying attention to the moment as it is, they're trying to shape or control the moment, to get somewhere. In other words, they're trying to use their practice as a technique in order to get into some special mental state or another. But really, there's no place to get to, and nothing to accomplish. Please, let's all just continue this practice of wasting our time together.