Sit Like Cold Ash: Tassajara Dispatch #1

(by Jiryu Mark, via hand-written letter from the mountains . . .)

I neglected to note here yet my mid-September departure for Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, where I am spending the fall practice period with my wife Sara and son Frank.  I’m here to practice the Ancestral Way in this ancient valley, of course, among boulders and creeks, beetles and pines, under a sky so deeply blue in the day and so devastatingly bright at night that there is simply no turning from the vastness of being.  My main role here this time, though, is to support Sara to serve as shuso, her chance to share the teacher’s seat with Abbot Steve Stucky and, along with Sojun Mel Weitsman, to join him in leading the assembly.  So most of my time here is dedicated to childcare, letting little Frank undermine the somber monastic forms just enough to lighten and open the thing, and not so much that it becomes “The Frank Show”—to keep him just the right amount of subversive.

But I am doing some zazen, too, and have been thinking and non-thinking about what one might do in zazen, what kind of effort to make or to let go of.  An old and inexhaustible question.  Should we sit like an “incense pot in an old shrine,” a bowl of cold ash on a forgotten mountain, or should we sit with a ball of fire in our bellies, facing off against the wall like a warrior in mortal combat?  Or, dare we think it, might there be some place in the middle?

I’ve been inspired recently by a book called How Zen Became Zen by Morten Schlütter, which explores the 12th-century Chinese Caodong Chan (Soto Zen) emphasis on “silent illumination,” especially as taught by Hongzhi, and the strong critique of it from the Linji (Rinzai) lineage, especially Dahui.

Schlütter argues that the controversy was largely rhetorical:  in a politically unstable Sung Dynasty landscape, rhetoric was the main tool Buddhists had to gain the vital support of the ruling class.  He looks at meditation manuals widely used across Chan lineages to suggest compellingly that the actual practice of “Caodong” versus “Linji” line monks was essentially the same.  If anything, he argues, it was Dahui’s gongan (koan) approach of fixating on the central phrase that was novel and outside of the mainstream of Chan, not the Caodong teachings.  In any case, though, he does admit that there is a very different feel to the style of the two, even if at the end of the day the difference is not particularly substantive.

My own practice, too, may well be a generically “Zen” meditation—let’s call it “letting go?”—rather than Soto or anything in particular.  My travels have also confirmed Schlütter’s argument that as alarmingly different as the practice rhetoric and climate or “energy” may be in different places, in the inner room basically the same practice is revealed.  Still, I have a different feeling when I “sit Zen” striving to be an incense pot or when I sit wielding the fiery sword that cuts through delusion.  In fact I’ve very much appreciated doing both, but again and again, when it comes down to it, I seem to be an incorrigible “silent illuminator.”

These 12th-century Caodong masters express “silent illumination” as sitting like “a burnt-out stump on a mountainside,” “a strip of white silk,” an incense pot in an old shrine.”  They say things like “be like a person who doesn’t take even a single breath,” and that “one thought lasts 10,000 years.”  Hongzhi is no doubt the greatest preacher of this approach, and in Taigen Leighton’s translation Cultivating the Empty Field (still perhaps my favorite Zen teaching book ever) there are many similar statements.  But a number of Linji lineage teachers, then and even now, also make such statements, as Schlütter is quick to point out.  This is not Soto or Rinzai, it’s just Zen.

What Dahui and his Japanese Rinzai Zen descendants rail against, rightly, isn’t really the substance of statements like that so much as an extreme, one-sided view that they see in them (or sometimes unfairly project on them.)  The view they strongly resist is a passive or quietistic extreme that relies on the doctrine of original enlightenment—the radiant basic nature that the Caodong masters insist can shine forth if one “just sits” like an incense pot—without appreciating the vital importance of realizing enlightenment, of, for lack of a better word, experiencing it.  But Dahui and others, as Schlütter demonstrates, aren’t really attacking the silent illumination practice so much as they are attacking this simplification or caricature of it.  The teachings of silent illumination do raise one side, and do strictly insist on that one side, but they include effort, involve effort, indeed are effort.  (If you’ve ever tried to sit like an incense pot, you know what I mean!)  Hongzhi is also clear that silent illumination needs both sides: silence and illumination.  It’s not a dull silence, and it’s not an aggressive illumination.  It’s each perfecting the other.

All Zen people acknowledge both that awareness is our original nature and that we need to make a real effort to see that.  How do we hold that central tension in practice?  Where do we get stuck in it?  How do we move in it?  It’s not about what side we take, but about how we work and play in the tension.

Whatever the “right way” may be, or Hongzhi’s way, or Dahui’s, as the autumn winds gather force in this secluded valley, I’m enjoying when conditions allow the practice of just sitting like an incense pot on a mountain even more remote than this one.  This practice is completely invulnerable to doubt or to second guessing—from the midst of it, there’s no seeing or analyzing at all.  Returning to the world of analysis and confusion, I can wonder about the merit of this practice, or its value, or the “right way” to do it, but in the cold of the meditation hall, it’s more than enough to just sit there, still and silent, awake but as already dead.  As already dead, but somehow—and yet again—as though alive for the very first time.




2 thoughts on “Sit Like Cold Ash: Tassajara Dispatch #1

  1. The repeated futility of trying to apply our pervasive Western proclivity to have to have a goal to everything we do has provided me with much learning. Of course I want there to be a goal to my sitting. And I want to do it like this or like that. It’s how my mind has been trained by my culture. Roshi’s admonition is that zen isn’t there to DO anything, but it does help us learn to SEE. That will happen by sitting as a lump, a stump, or a blazing fire, depending on what state we bring with us in the moment on any given day. Intending these states seems to be another case of needing to have a goal. It is almost irresistible.

  2. To sit like cold ash, like a fat incence pot… This has provided me with fresh energy for sitting and seems an apt metaphor for shikantaza. How would a pot of cold ash breathe if it were a being thatt breathed? How would it perceive the world, the room, the breath?

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