Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote in the “Eight Awakenings of Great Beings” that the sixth awakening is to practice meditation. He describes practicing meditation as “practicing dharma without being confused.” But he then goes on to quote the Buddha, who said that stability in meditation is like a “well-roofed house or a well-built embankment,” something that protects you and keeps you from being drowned.
As with mindfulness, this traditional language makes it sound like the goal is to fortify ourselves, to keep ourselves safe. It’s the Buddha saying this stuff, that we’re building something and want it to be strong. But Zen has a slightly different flavor, in part because Zen is not just Buddhism—it is also a child of Daoism. Where the Buddha uses the image of being drowned and says meditation will save you, Daoism uses the image of riding the current: if there’s water there’s water, then float. So Zen draws from both approaches.
Zen means “meditation” so knowing how meditation fits into the practice matters. Dogen wrote, “To abide in dharma without being confused is called stability in meditation,” but what does it look like to be confused? I know. So do you. It doesn’t look like abiding in stability. When I’m confused, my mind and my eyes dart around; things don’t feel solid. When I’m confused, I try, sometimes frantically, to arrange things in an order I can understand. Often that’s the shape meditation takes—we might notice it in real time, which matters, but in our stillness, we’re really just trying to make sense of something, to make something complex a little simpler.
As I’ve mentioned before, the word for “great being” in this text can also be read as “adult.” If this is about being an adult, then the message about stability is something like “Adults know how to be where they are. They know how to stay.” What does that look like? Again, if you’ve ever meditated, then you already know the answer, because at its heart, meditation is the act of coming back—we drift, and we come back. We grasp and come back. We step to push away, then we come back. Always back to here, to where we are.
It sounds beautiful to abide in stability, to never push or pull, but that isn’t how we experience stability. Rather, we taste stability in that act of return. The question raised here isn’t how to build that house or embankment, it’s how not to drown, how not to be consumed by whatever it is in front of you, internal or external? It’s how to step out, even for a breath, from confusion.
One approach is to try to protect yourself—you can try that, and many have, but I don’t think that’s the way. The real way not to drown is to let go of the idea that there’s an outside and an inside. It’s to not panic. We know this; we learn it in swimming lessons from the time we’re kids. The way to stay afloat is not to swim harder against the current that’s pulling you, the regrets that haunt you, the fantasies that consume you. It’s to simply be here, in this, whatever this is. Not because this is the best, or we want it, or we believe it’s as it should be, not because it can’t be better, but because it is as it is now. To push or pull that, to try to reshape it or reposition yourself from it, is to be in confusion, to insist that this moment is not as it is, that things are not like this.
When we sit on the cushion, we know, at least in moments, what it is to choose this, to let the world do what it’s doing without us trying to act on it, without fighting or trying to shape it.
If you’ve ever run in the rain to get out of it and had that moment of, I should just stop, I’m not changing anything by running—that’s a big part of what we do in meditation. We stay, and we get soaked to the bone, because when it’s raining, it’s raining.
Just sit and breathe, where you are. You understand there’s a kind of anger or fear or hope you can drop, and it’s OK, even if just for a few seconds.
Stability in meditation is just this, to let things be, to let yourself be, to let others be, without chasing or protecting, building or tearing down. It’s coming back to this—this breath, posture, place, body, air. And when we talk about taking meditation off the cushion, it’s exactly the same: choosing for your feet to be where your feet are, choosing for the air you breathe to be the air that you’re breathing.
So counter to what our minds want to do, and also so simple. So important. So worth it.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.