There are several techniques that we use in our meditation practice, including counting breaths or being with the breath, and koan practice. And a very important practice used in the Soto school is Shikantaza. Here, Keizan Sensei describes Shikantaza and it is is also worth listening to his talk given on 15 November 2017 in Liverpool which can be accessed here.
Shikantaza according to the literature means: ‘nothing but’ (Shikan) ‘just’ (ta) ‘sitting’ (za). Some translations use ‘precisely’ as the meaning of ta. More simply, it is a form of meditation in which there are no supportive techniques such as counting breaths or listening to sounds or visualisation etc. Dogen describes it as thus: “resting in a state of brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content.”
It is also free of the thought “I should not be thinking”! Shikantaza transcends thinking and non thinking.
The best way to understand Shikantaza is to practice it. First sit in zazen in the posture you normally use. Ideally it’s good to feel natural and without tension in the body. This first step is most important since good posture (e.g. feeling stable at the three points that your body meets the ground, the knees and bottom if you are on a zafu, or, if on a chair, your feet and bottom) is reflected in your state of mind in zazen. To sit focussed, neither too loose or too tight, and with dignity will set the tone for the mind to slow down and quieten. Once seated, we put our attention on the direct experience of each moment. We do not judge anything that arises – this is vital. We do not attach labels such as right or wrong, good or bad. We have no preferences, not even a preference for no preference. We sit with non judging, including not judging ourselves if judgement arises. We breathe naturally, without any interference or self consciousness.
Forget the breath, it will take care of itself. Gradually we allow the thinking mind to gently slow down. Here we may start to get an inkling or a deeper experience of the natural essence and function of the mind in which the separation between object and subject starts to dissolve. Ideas of accomplishment or self seeking stop arising. Now zazen has no object, it is purposeless and brings us back to ourselves.
Finally, if when practicing Shikantaza you find yourself losing attention just return to counting breaths until your focus returns.
On a personal note I like this quote by Ikkyu which for me sums up the nature of Shikantaza. It may not work for you and that is fine. Perhaps you have your own understanding.
No beginning, no end, this one mind of ours.
The Original Mind cannot become Buddha nature.
Original Buddhahood is Buddha’s mischievous talk.
The Original mind of sentient beings is nothing but delusion.
As well I know that for all of us any talk of Shikantaza including Dogen’s famous ‘’Think of non thinking“ comes with many paradoxes. I am at ease with this, given that life itself is a paradox.
Well at least to the rational mind!