Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs.
~ Dogen Zenji in Fukanzazengi

        At first, taking the upright posture is a little like going through the airport TSA line. You’re asked to take off your familiar shoes, remove the devices of time and conversation, and put in the bin the bulky outer layers used to protect from the cold. Jewelry not needed sets off an alarm. Weapons and explosives, completely out of the question for any entry whatsoever. In our bare feet, we proceed, alongside strangers that have now become fellow travelers, to take our seat. Like boarding a flight, one might feel a mix of hesitancy and disorientation, yet hopeful there is a purpose to all this ritualized removal and all this slow barefoot walking. And yet, there is something unknown about this trip, something a little risky.

        This is the renunciation required of zazen. It is contained within the ritual of our first three bows – bowing to the zendo, one’s own cushion, and the beings nearby.  We put aside the usual ways we are identified in the world – mother, teacher, student, friend, artist – the well worn shoes we walk in. We put aside the control of time and buoyancy of the ongoing exchange with others. We put aside our social faces we’ve developed in order to fit in. Or not fit in. Cultural cues – clothing, gestures, and language that signal our group belonging. In bare feet, we sense into what is immediately here, the unassailable gates of touch, sound, and smell. Yes, a little vulnerable.         

        Of course, it’s easy to then assume zazen proceeds like those constricted airline seats where one is painfully trapped for eternity and annoyed by unruly passengers and unexpected turbulence. Sometimes. Any long time practitioner has experienced that desperate moment willing the bell that ends zazen to ring, or the surprising grief or rage that visits unannounced and will not let go. There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears on this zazen cushion. But here’s where the airport metaphor ends and another begins.

 The true vehicle is self sufficient. What need is there for special effort?

        While direct experience of our human suffering is essential, zazen asks that we investigate its root. For that, the airplane must disappear. Putting aside what isn’t necessary is where we begin, now it’s time to relax and let the self down into the waters of zazen. Not going anywhere, but instead becoming profoundly present to all experience and leaning into what is not known with the thinking mind. All artifice drops away.   

        This is the dance of effort and non-effort. Effort must be made to develop the upright posture and arrange time and space for practice. Effort is needed to put aside usual involvements and deliberately return the mind to the present moment, breath after breath. Effort is essential to gather the psychic energy into one pointed awareness. However, every inch of effort in zazen asks for an equal measure of non-effort, releasing the self into the waters of zazen. This means complete surrender. It’s found in the mind that allows itself to be guided, led moment to moment by the sound of the rain, the rhythm of the breath, taken by the hand by buddha. Not knowing what is around the bend. Not measuring one’s experience as good or bad. Forgetting about expectations of what you should be feeling. Deeper and deeper into presence moment awareness without commentary. This shift is essential, a profound letting go that is natural and yet must be chosen. The instruction is relax, relax, relax. Awake, awake, awake. Our whole being asks silently, What is this?   

 The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice realization of totally culminated enlightenment.    

       Perhaps we are always refining this edge of effort and non-effort. It’s why it’s helpful to have some guidance from experienced sangha mates or a teacher. Usually, people who over effort, like myself, assume they are not making enough effort and try harder, getting more and more tight and frustrated. Those inclined to give up too soon assume they’ve already put in enough energy and conclude this zazen just doesn’t work for them. Thus is our human delusion where we try to solve problems with familiar methods that continue to get the same negative result, i.e. more dukkha.

        The traditional way to describe finding the sweet spot between effort and non-effort is that it is like stringing a violin. If the strings are too tight or too loose, very unpleasant music. Just right, the melody sings out. Tuning zazen is like this, we come to understand how to show up with what’s ours to do, to bow, take the posture, gather the intention, and breath after breath, sharpen the samadhi. We equally allow zazen to transform us, to change us in ways we cannot yet know, to be enacted as a prayer, as an offering, as a wild work of art. We listen oh so quietly to its wordless teaching. So quiet.     

If there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth.

        For some reason, when I first came to practice, I assumed it needed a lot of muscle. There seemed to be lots of evidence from the stories of the ancestors. That’s the farmer in me, my body already trained for over a decade in a long steady discipline with no promise of a harvest. I would try to sit late into the night, rope down the mind from any wandering whatsoever, and ignore pain in the body. I remember one retreat, grueling hours pale and sweaty from clamping down on anxiety in an endurance campaign I imagined was “good practice.” Perhaps we need to make all the mistakes. I like to be curious with students if they have new ways of practicing – why not try it? Explore every enticing cul de sac. See what happens.  You always learn something. For ten years, I don’t think I could hear the underlying message from my teacher, relax, relax, relax. Underneath the muscle was the insecurity of not believing in my worth or life itself and therefore some extraordinary skill was required to wake up to what Zen pointed towards. I do appreciate that young practitioner I was now, and offer her some solace for the deep pain she secretly carried. It seems we must engage practice in our own authentic way, playing out our karmic leanings, being willing to fail over and over and learn. It’s in this process that we open up what comes to meet us, to crack open our cherished yet constricting ideas of who we are, and release our life into life.           

 Succeed to the Samadhi of all the ancestors.
The treasure store will open of itself and you may enjoy it freely. 

 Riding this edge of effort and non-effort only matters if we can get clear about why we are sitting. Our meditation can only be fueled by our deepest calling to end the cause of suffering.  Although zazen tends to ease our daily life, its purpose is not self improvement. Although it tends to heal old wounds, its power does not lie in this kind of therapy. Although zazen opens us up to creative possibility, it’s not about problem solving. Zazen’s purpose is to clarify birth and death as the original buddha Shakyamuni did and left us this map. Why are we here? What’s ours to do? Beyond the cushion of effort and non-effort is the intrinsic mind of zazen, that which is realized and expressed through us when we release all attachment. We just need to be willing to take off our shoes, bulky layers and ornaments, board the plane, and let the waters of wakeful surrender guide us from there.

 Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward is, after all, an everyday affair.

With Palms together,


Bold quotes above from Fukanzazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen) by Zen Master Dogen, official Sotoshu translation recited daily in many Zen centers