Letting Go of Thoughts

In our study group discussion on Saturday, reviewing the next passage from Kosho Uchiyama’s Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice, we were focusing on the idea of letting go of thoughts while practicing zazen.

Uchiyama differentiates between ideas or thoughts merely occurring and chasing after thoughts and thinking. He says that of course, since we are not rocks, we will have thoughts while we are sitting meditation. But the thoughts should just arise and then be let go. What is to be avoided is having a thought, grabbing on, and then running with it.

Everyone in the study group had had clear experiences of that grasping behavior, when, for instance, you figure out your budget while sitting zazen, or plan your entire day’s schedule while on the cushion, supposedly meditating. Uchiyama says, If a thought occurs during zazen and we proceed to chase after it, then we are thinking and not doing zazen.

Now, that feels a little harsh. You mean that 35 minutes on the zafu doesn’t even count, if your mind is racing around? Quite a few of us in the group felt pretty discouraged upon first hearing that proclamation.

Uchiyama says that the posture of zazen, the way we sit, quiets the excitability of the mind, and helps us let go of the grasping when thoughts do arise. But each of us knows that the posture alone does not accomplish that pure shikantaza (just sitting) state. Sometimes when I sit, I find myself writing an entire short story, regardless of the fact that my body is still. So that’s not zazen?

Thankfully, Uchiyama continues with this helpful note: So the essential point when doing zazen is to aim, full of life, at the posture of zazen with our flesh and bones while at the same time leaving everything up to the posture and letting go of thoughts. By aiming at the zazen posture and simultaneously opening the hand of thought, both body and mind do zazen in the proper spirit.

Ah, there’s the saving grace. It’s about aiming at the correct posture and aiming at releasing thoughts. It reminds me of the Buddhist precepts. They are not commandments, not Thou shalt nots. They are vows, directives, intentions. We understand that we will repeatedly violate all of them, some on a daily basis: harboring ill will, speaking badly of others, putting ourselves before others. The vow is about continuing to make that right effort, aiming towards upholding the precepts, even though we know we will break them.

And so it is with zazen. It is humanly impossible to not chase after a single thought during a full zazen period. The thoughts come up, and it is our mind’s nature to chase. The goal is to gently catch ourselves in the act, again and again, and once more turn our attention back to the body, back to the breath, back to the coming and going of thoughts with no attachment. I guess that’s why this is a life practice. There are no graduates.

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