We practice Zazen with our eyes open. Why is that?
When I asked my first teachers about that they would tend to give a humorous answer. Something to do with the propensity of Japanese people to fall asleep if they closed their eyes! But sometimes, humor is a motivation for us to probe further.
And it is a curious issue because, as far as we can tell, at least from the evidence of today, Buddhists in India would tend to meditate with their eyes closed. When you come across Indians today, most just assume that meditation is always done with the eyes closed. So it seems at least a possibility that, in the gradual process of Buddhism travelling from India to China, the practice changed from having the eyes closed to having the eyes open.
So, why is that?
The most obvious answer is that the Chinese had a different idea of the subject of meditation. With our eyes closed, arguably the subject of meditation is this person. The world is excluded, so by implication meditation is about this person; this person’s consciousness, level of awareness, capacity for focus, and so on.
With the eyes open, the subject is different. The subject is not just this person, but this person in the world; this person in the midst of all beings.
When we do Zazen, although our eyes are open, it’s difficult for us to maintain a sense of our body as an object in the world. Indeed, it’s arguable that that is one of the main changes that happen when we take up practice. A ceasing of the sense of my body as being an object in the world; an object in contact with other objects.
If we lose a sense of the body – this body – as an object, then that percolates outwards. We gradually lose a sense of everything else as being objects – objects to pick up, objects to throw away, objects to use, objects to discard – and instead we see objects as being more like people. So trees, birds, sutras, feelings, aren’t these – as it were – passive things waiting to be scrutinised and appropriated by us, but have the beauty and dignity and indeterminacy which we associate with people.
That being so, even if the storm of the self is such that for now we cannot hear the voices of these people, if we make this fundamental shift then we know that a lull in that noise is possible. And hence, us hearing the voices of all beings is possible.