A very familiar story about how we should practice Zazen involves Master Yakusan. It appears at the start of the Zazenshin chapter of the Shobogenzo.
In Tanahashi’s translation, the exchange reads as follows:
Yakusan was sitting in Zazen.
A monk asked him, “In steadfast sitting, what do you think?”
Yakusan said, “Think not thinking.”
The monk asked, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yakusan replied. “Beyond thinking.”
The three material words in this exchange are ’thought’ or ‘thinking’ which is ‘shiryo’; ‘not thinking’, the direct negative, which is ‘fushiryo’; and ‘other than thinking’ or ‘different from thinking’ which is ‘hishiryo.’
Tanahashi translates ‘hishiryo’ as ‘beyond thinking’. That isn’t universal. Nishijima, for example, translates hishiryo as ‘non-thinking’, which doesn’t exactly make it clearer what is meant.
This exchange, and how it appears to describe Zazen, has frequently been quite problematic for practitioners. Often there’s a tendency to think that ‘hishiryo’ – particularly when it’s translated as ‘beyond thinking’- is some special state that we need to attain. It also seems to make Zazen peculiarly intentional.
For me, what’s most puzzling is the initial question, because it seems an idiotic question for a monk to ask. The monk presumably has been Yakusan’s student for some time. He would plainly have received instruction about zazen. He’s not a layman, or a simpleton. Why does he ask a question which seems to show complete ignorance of Zazen?
The problem we have as western zen practitioners is twofold. First, what’s being said in texts like these (and in other Asian language texts) is often quite elusive to grasp. That’s made worse by being distantly separated in time and culture.
The second is that we’re having to rely on translations from languages very different from english. We assume that there is one meaning only, but that’s not so. Classical Chinese is notoriously capable of multiple interpretations, which is exacerbated by a fondness for terseness.
You get very short statements which are capable of a number of different meanings. That creates problems for us.
The contemporary Estonian scholar Rein Raud has written, very interestingly I think, about Dogen. In his 2021 essay ‘Dogen and the Linguistics of Reality’, he retranslates this exchange, and answers my query about the monk’s apparently gormless initial question.
He re-renders the exchange thus:
As Yakusan was sitting a monk asks “What is motionless thought?” ( That is, the ideogram for stillness isn’t a synonym for Zazen, it relates to the “thought,” making the question intelligent)
Yakusan replies, “It is the thought that occurs during ‘not thinking’.
The monk asks, “What kind of thoughts do you have during ‘not thinking.’
Yakusan says,”Non thoughts.”
I think that this is a really much more helpful translation, much more understandable. Professor Raud points out that there’s a problem with the habitual translation of ‘hishiryo’ as a verb i.e non-thinking/beyond thinking. He points out that the prefix ‘hi’ is appended to nouns, not verbs. It’s non-thought not non-thinking in the original Chinese text, which is then repeated in the Japanese. It’s only in English that it mysteriously becomes a verb. Similarly, ‘shiryo’ can either be a noun (‘thought(s)’) or a verb (‘thinking’), but in English it is much more frequently rendered as ‘thinking’, which heavily contributes to the overall impression in Tanahashi’s translation of Zazen being primarily intentional.
‘Non thinking’ seems to be something we have to do. ‘Non thoughts’, on the other hand, seems much more understandable. There is mental activity, but it’s different from mental activity in the normal sense, because:
- it’s not intentional
- it’s not part of my internal conversation
- it isn’t mine, it’s just something else going on within experience
- it’s not closed off within an imaginary mental space; it has correlates in the felt sense, in the body, it changes within a matrix of change which encompasses everything. The thought, as it were, remembers its embodiment
Why does this matter? It matters because it’s important for us not to explain away the teachings as ‘mystical’, capable of being understood only by those who are ‘enlightened’. Because that’s no explanation at all. And it contributes to a distorted master-driven version of Zen, where we imagine we have to open our mind. But we don’t need to open our mind, any more than we need to write the biography of a ghost.
We only need to open our heart.