In his masterwork SHOBOGENZO the great Japanese Zen master Dogen advises us to “Just sit and get the state which is free of body and mind” [SHOBOGENZO (Woods Hole, MA: Windbell, 1994), I, 4.] In fact, he repeatedly mentions getting free of body and mind or dropping body and mind off. Since he claims that the “person who sits in Zazen steadfastly gets free of body and mind” (I, 5), he obviously thinks that it’s valuable to attain body and mind freedom.
What is he talking about?
This much is clear: he’s talking about spiritual enlightenment, becoming a buddha. Beyond that vague description, it’s impossible to say: “In general, the state of the buddhas is unthinkable. . .” (I, 7).
Being spiritually retarded myself, I certainly can’t say what he’s talking about. It appears, though, that this way of talking wasn’t original with Dogen. According to Shohahu Okumura’s “To Study the Self” (reprinted in THE ART OF JUST SITTING, John Daido Loori, ed.), it was Dogen’s teacher who talked about “dropping off body and mind.” What was he talking about?
Part of the problem comes with talking itself. Life is vivid, immediate experience that gets lost as soon as we start talking or conceptualizing about it. Zen masters are trying to use words and concepts to point beyond themselves to direct experience.
Practicing zazen is not thinking. Thoughts continually come up moment by moment, but the training is simply to let them go. Don’t affirm or deny or engage with them in any way: just don’t do anything with them and let them go. The same holds for any feelings or sensations that arise; just release them and return to your practice (such as counting breaths or working on a koan).
Zazen is very simple: let everything come up freely and let it go away freely. It’s difficult to do. It’s especially difficult to let go of trying to accomplish something. There’s nothing to accomplish, nothing to gain.
Here’s something concrete that may help us understand body and mind freedom. According to Okumura, Dogen’s teacher “said that dropping off body and mind is being free from the five desires and getting rid of the five coverings.” Aha!
As we live, our minds contact objects that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. What are the five desires? When the feelings caused by this contact are pleasant, we naturally like them and begin to attach ourselves to them, begin to want them more and more. This craving (desire, trishna) leads to grasping (attaching, upadana). When the feelings caused by this contact are unpleasant, we naturally dislike them and begin to try to avoid those objects; if the contact continues anyway, we begin to get angry. This pulling and pushing creates an unbalanced, unhealthy state of the body/mind.
What are the five coverings? These are the classic hindrances to practice-enlightenment, namely, greed, anger or hatred, sleepiness or dullness, distraction, and doubt. Ignorance is sometimes considered the sixth hindrance.
Sloughing off body and mind just means letting go of the five desires and hindrances. It’s becoming spiritually naked. It’s regaining balance. Instead of finding that liked objects make you want to pull them towards you and disliked objects want to make you push them away, if you will simply release all liking and disliking you’ll become centered.
What remains is just the reality of interdependent origination [which I intend to discuss sometime in another post].
This is the unity of practice and enlightenment. It’s ultimately incorrect to think of them as separate, in other words, to think of practicing as leading to enlightenment. There is just practice-enlightenment.