by Koun Franz
Nearly every time I encounter newcomers to Zen, someone asks, “Why do you do zazen?” It’s a fair question. In fact, given that I don’t exactly lead with why, it would seem strange of them not to ask. Still, I flinch just a little bit when I hear the question, because after sitting in this way for so many years, I don’t know the answer anymore.
I used to know. When I was seventeen and starting out, if someone had asked me, “Why do you do zazen?” I would have said—actually, I might not have said this out loud, but maybe to myself—that I wanted to be a certain kind of person. I wanted to be my own best cliché of the sage. I wanted be someone who cut through this reality with diamond clarity. I wanted to be aware and swift, like a bad kung fu movie.
A few years later if someone had asked me, I might have said all sorts of pretentious stuff about personal transformation or maybe the nature of the mind. I went through a long period of thinking that I was saving all beings just by sitting. I was kind of punching the clock, the vow clock. At other times if people asked me, I might have said something very pragmatic, citing various studies about the wonderful things that meditation does for your health—not just physical health but mental health. Maybe it makes you a little smarter. It enhances the functioning of the brain. In those moments, I suspect I was starting to lose the thread but felt I need to say something, anything, to make sense of it to the other person.
But if you ask me today, the honest answer is that I don’t know anymore. It just seems natural, like a very honest thing to do. I still have a moment, every time I sit down and I arrange my robes and place my hands in front of me, when I feel very certain of something—only, I no longer know what that is.
We’ve made our way through most of Zenki, and now we arrive at the most famous part, the section that gets quoted most often. Dogen writes, “This being so”—and that just means everything we’ve talked about so far—“the undivided activity of birth and death is like a young man bending and stretching his arm, or it is like someone asleep searching with his hand behind his back for the pillow.” Those two images, bending the arm and searching for a pillow, in their own way, represent this particular school of Buddhism as well as almost anything could. But if you read this line to someone who has studied in another tradition, it can sound a bit shocking. The undivided activity of birth and death is kind of like yawning.
In that reach, in that unconscious search, there is movement with no object. There is no success. There’s not even a goal.
It’s perfectly natural—you just do it spontaneously. You don’t plan it. The young man doesn’t think, well, I think at four I’ll bend and stretch my arm. He does it, and maybe he doesn’t even notice that he did it. It’s his body responding to his body in the most direct way. (Just for the record, in the original, the first analogy is of a young man—for no good reason—but the second one could be a man or a woman. So let’s say, “It’s like someone asleep searching with her hand behind her back for the pillow.”)
You can picture this. You’re asleep and the pillow is gone. So you just bring it back.
In the context of a teaching, this can seem disconcerting to people, or at least reductive—it sounds like someone just fumbling around. But this is not fumbling. The hand that is searching for the pillow knows that the pillow is there. The pillow has always been there. The way you search for a pillow if you’re not sure if the pillow is there is very different. Your hand has a kind of confidence in this action. It’s unconscious. You don’t need to strategize. You don’t need to think about it. You know it’s there. There it is. In the same way, before you take a breath, you don’t wonder to yourself, Is there air in this room? When you breathe, you have no gain in mind—no gain, and no greed, because you’re not worried that there won’t be any air.
Undivided activity is like this. This action is not divided into subject and object. If there’s no pillow, eventually you wake up and you start thinking, Hey, who took my pillow? And then suddenly there are subjects and objects everywhere. There’s you and the pillow, and there’s you and all the list of suspects, the people who maybe took your pillow, and there’s this great division. But as long as it’s there, there’s no separation at all. This isn’t blind faith. It’s a kind of certainty.
Imagine someone suddenly throws you a ball. They say “Catch!” without warning and toss it. No one throws you a ball because they think you’re going to miss. There’s a trust, even in that small, playful gesture.
If that ball is coming at you, you can make a story, even just in that split second. (We always have enough time to make a story.) But the question of what it all means, or even simply why this person is throwing you a ball, at the moment that the ball is coming at your face, is not relevant. You can ask it later, it’s fun, but in that moment you can only do two things: you can catch the ball (or try) or you can try to get out of the way. In the time it takes you to figure out all the workings of the universe and whether the person is throwing the ball or the ball is throwing the ball or if this is actually the ball’s moment, you’ll miss it.
It’s natural that we want to know the big picture, how things work. We ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Or, if we’re feeling bitter, maybe we ask, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” We imagine there’s always a reason. It’s always been this way. People would go to the Buddha and ask big questions about cosmology, about the nature of the universe, about how everything works, and the Buddha would say, don’t bother me with those questions.
When we talk about those exchanges, the easiest explanation for the Buddha’s response is that those questions are just beside the point. It’s a distraction to focus on the why and the how. But there’s more to it than that. Behind these stories is the suggestion, at least, that the Buddha did know the answers to these questions—he just wasn’t going to say because he didn’t want to distract anybody. Did he know, though? I doubt it; I also don’t think that knowing matters. What matters is this: the Buddha understood that the questions themselves were based on a false premise. If I go to you and I ask why bad things happen to good people, what I want is something very simple: I’m asking you to give a simple description of the universe that will ease my mind. The Buddha understood that the simple, ease-giving explanation wasn’t available.
I read an article once about meteorology, about how we predict weather. The author explained that even if we had little tiny weather balloons one foot apart, covering the entire atmosphere of the earth, we still would not be able to predict the weather accurately. Slightly more accurately than we do now, which is not so great, but we still wouldn’t really know. There are too many relationships, too many variables. We would like, I think, to imagine that the world is like a chess board—there’s a board and there are pieces and the pieces move. But meteorologists understand that it’s all board. It’s all pieces. And the board is moving constantly—you don’t know what’s what, so you never get to anchor yourself. You never get to say, This is the point that is fixed, or From here I can understand these other things that are moving. That’s what we want. We want to be able to stand in a stable place and from there recognize the workings of things. Even the question of why bad things happen to good people comes from this kind of false anchor point: these things are bad and these people are good and I’m certain that those things are true, so please explain the relationship.
The Buddha taught—and in its own way, this tradition and certain Zen teachers have addressed this very well—that this complexity, this infinite complexity, this ungraspable complicatedness of reality is one face of something very simple. This complexity exists—but when we try to step outside of it and watch it, it’s beyond our imagining. It’s like trying to track one drop of water in a river. You lose immediately. But if we step inside it—any of it—the complexity actually disappears, because now we’re part of it. We are the board, we are the pieces, and so there can be a deep, intimate knowledge of the universe that is uncomplicated—so uncomplicated, in fact, that it can’t be expressed with words.
The other view, of course, is that it’s all so complicated that it can’t be expressed in words—that we can try, but we find ourselves caught in a lie every time we try to lay out what happened or why.
Over time, we come to understand that we’re misrepresenting something, so we arrive at these stories, these seemingly impenetrable Zen stories in which one monk asks, “What is the nature of dharma?” And before he can even finish the sentence, the teacher grabs the monk. Or hits him. Or walks away. It’s never anything amazing. When we hear these stories, we imagine that whatever it is triggers some new train of thought, some new way of seeing, and that the monk, in that moment, kind of plummets into a deep place and sees things we can’t see. But all of it is just a teacher saying “Come back—you’re stepping outside, you’re getting caught up in a question that you can’t answer from where you are, but there’s a place where it will be very clear to you, and that’s when you step inside it.” It’s amazing that this tradition has survived, really, that at each step there have been people who grasped that fundamental point and then have been able to convey it—again and again and again. Because it’s the opposite of what we think we want. Zen offers no answers to anything, and that’s why the experience of it can be so complete—because it doesn’t risk a lie.
After Dogen describes these two simple actions, stretching the arm and reaching for the pillow—these are very mundane things, actions that someone else wouldn’t notice, and that you don’t notice—he adds, “This is realization in vast wondrous light.” (Another translation reads, “This is the realm of limitlessly abundant mystical power and brightness.”) That’s really big. It sounds kind of overdone, but he’s making a point. He reserves his fanciest phrase for the most mundane knowledge; that way, we know he isn’t withholding some higher realization. This is it.
All the things that you think you’re looking for—they’re right here, and you know how to reach them. It’s like yawning and stretching. It’s like scratching your nose. You know right where it is.
Koun Franz was born in Helena, Montana, but has spent more than half of his adult life in Japan. He was ordained in 2001, then trained at Zuioji and Shogoji monasteries. From 2006 to 2010, he served as resident priest of the Anchorage Zen Community in Alaska. Koun and his family now live in Canada (Halifax, Nova Scotia), where he leads practice at Zen Nova Scotia.