Friday, June 30, 2006

To sit or not to sit?

During the Song Dynasty (around the 12th century in China), Chan or Zen Buddhism separated into 2 distinct schools; the 'Koan-contemplating' school of Ven Da Hui and the 'Silent-illumination" school of Ven Hong Zhi. They developed into the Lin Ji (Rinzai) & Cao Dong (Soto) sects, which carried on until today. Da Hui's method focused on contemplating Koans at any time or place, whereas Hong Zhi's method focused on formal sitting meditation. This was no different from the Sudden & Gradual doctrine divide during the 6th Patriach Hui Neng's time; the question of sudden or gradual enlightenment resurfaced once more, 4 centuries after being resolved. Up till now the question has still not been fully resolved for Zen practitioners: to sit or not to sit?
To answer this question I believe it is best to go back to the 6th Patriach, who had this to say:

"To be born I sit & do not lie,
To die I lie down & do not sit;
A bunch of stinking bones,
Why give chores to it?"

What is Zuo Chan or Zazen? Za means to sit, but it is not the body that sits, but your mind.
Zen means to contemplate, but there is no fixed form or pattern to contemplate with.
Not to be moved inside the mind is Za.
Not to be attached to forms outside is Zen.
Not to separate your mind from the Buddha-nature is Za,
To be able to discriminate all phenomena is Zen.

Such being the nature of Zazen, what is the point of sitting around all day meditating when all you're doing is really thinking delusional thoughts? If you truly understood Zazen, then there is not a single moment you are not sat. If you do not understand Zazen, then you can sit until you become a corpse, yet still fail to get even a glimpse of your own true mind!

So should we sit or not? It all depends whether you grasp this crucial teaching.

Take heed, do not follow the wrong path!


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...


A few thoughts on the sudden/gradual, koan, etc debate:

As I see it, the sudden/subutist pov is distinguished by not being oriented by circumstance, inner and outer, to a smaller and lesser degree. Among the early and more radical subutists, such as Nitou, we see this manifested in behaviour as well, to the extent that precepts and conduct are considered highly secondary concerns for those concerned about awakening and that one shouldn't think lazy and careless people are neccesarily not striving for awakening by their outward appearance.

On the internal level, it means not be oriented even by any technique, thus placing koan-practise squarely in the realm of gradual practise(!). My favourite translation of 'sudden' I have seen used is the 'immediate' path, or looking deeper at the word: Without mediation.

It is worth noting that Dahui didn't just teach koan-practise but also the practise of thoroughgoing non-abiding awareness as we see from the earlier ancestors and indeed from Hongzhi as well. He was famously highly critical of silent illumination, but never of Hongzhi's brand of it, and even took charge of Hongzhi's monastery as requested in his will, after Hongzhi passed away.

As for the question of sitting or not sitting, the reason there is no uniform opinion of this I reckon is that there is no uniform answer. Bodhidharma sat nine years in front of a wall, Huineng skipped the whole 'practise' thing altogether and went straight to the root.

When I look at someone like Huineng and admire his brilliance it is exactly because he manages to strike that balance between not being swayed by outside or inside circumstance and falling into carelessness and nihilism.

And likewise, when looking at Huineng's teachings on sitting, I don't read him as advocating against it, but rather of returning to what is the crucial theme (which I reckon, many a philosopher who has argued about sitting/not-sitting may have
missed), which is being aware, regardless of what you do.

My own preference is to sit a bit every day, as I find the focused nature of the lotus position a constant reminder for meditation and it helps 'charge up' the batteries of awareness for the day. Even so, too much, and I find the meditation grows stale.

just a few reflections from this side of the pond :)


Anders Honoré said...

that was Anders Honoré from e-sanga commenting btw, :)


Anonymous said...

After sit and need to get out and actions, else sit for what good purpose - one may ask ?


hoangkybactien said...

"To sit" and "not to sit" are like apple and orange. Two totally different things. How can one compare to two different thing!?

"To sit" means to have the mind in the state of samadhi; whereas "not to sit" means our physical bodies are often in constant motion.

People need to make a living. They have to farm, fish, hunt, plant to get foods. Therefore, their bodies cannot be kept in the state of constant motionless.

Bodhidharma is like a school teacher who comes to a class before the opening hour. So he has to wait till the time come. In the mean time, a good thing for a teacher is to prepare more for his class. Bodhidharma was in the same way. While awaiting for the time to spread the dharma, he himself set into motion the way he was going to teach people in China, by sitting in samadhi for nine years, another wordless sermon 1000 years after Buddha's parinirvana. That was the circumstance of Bodhidharma at that time.

The circumstance under which the Sixth Patriarch underwent was different. He was more under hostile environment than that of Bodhiharma. He had to live under disguise and in constant movement to void harm. And yet, he did make an effort "to sit" (his mind)in samadhi most of the time.

Therefore, outwardly, it appears that Bodhidharm "sat" and the Sixth Patriarch dit "not sit"; But inwardly, the two Patriarches were in the state of Samadhi all the time, consistent with the teaching of the Tathagata.

It is a hindrance to hold views such as "hinayana", "mahayana",
"gradual", "sudden", for they are more superficial and arbitrary. The Sixth patriarch emphasized on this cleary.

In short, in whatever you do if the mind is not in samadhi, wisdom will not arise.