A few years ago, for my birthday, I received a fitness tracker. It wasn’t a fancy one like everyone seems to have today—it didn’t even tell the time. It just told me how many steps I had, and the instructions were clear: any number less than 10,000 was unacceptable.
I had two basic reactions to this new toy. The first was to realize that I don’t walk all that much—I was embarrassed, that first week, to see that my ordinary life barely kept me above the 5000 mark. My second reaction, the one that arises from the part of me that thrives on clear boundaries and direction, was to immediately get hooked. I would take extra walks around the block at lunch. I’d park my car at the end of the parking lot. And if the day was coming to close and I hadn’t hit 10,000 yet, I’d just run in place in the living room until my wrist buzzed (so satisfying!) and I could finally check that box and go to bed. There was a magic number, and I was there.
People throw around magic numbers for meditation, too. How much should you meditate in a day? I hear people say 20, 30, 40 minutes, two hours…I’ve even heard, “Well, look at the Dalai Lama—he meditates six hours a day, so that’s really the goal.” People say you absolutely have to meditate every day, or twice a day, or at least three times a week. Some say you only get the real “juice” of meditation if you go to an intensive retreat, sitting from morning till night—this other stuff is just maintenance. There are even books (quite a few, in fact) in which the authors, all of them Buddhist teachers, establish their credentials by doing the math and saying how many tens of thousands of hours they’ve sat in their lifetime.
If you sat as long as they had, would your wrist buzz? Would you know?
About three hundred years ago, a Zen teacher named Manzan Dohaku said, “One inch of sitting, one inch of buddha.” I’ve seen various translations, but all of them have the same problem: they all sound, when you first hear it, like the opposite of what is meant. It sounds like an admonition, that if you only meditate for ten minutes twice a week, then, well, that’s as much buddha as you get. Pretty measly. But if you meditate six hours a day for sixty years? That’s a lot of buddha. A ton.
What Manzan was saying, though, is that however much you sit, that’s buddha, right there. It isn’t about measuring it. It isn’t about duration or frequency. It’s about this pure act of sitting, this immeasurable encounter, this choice to be here, in this present moment that cannot be captured or quantified. Right now, it’s enough.
We can still get caught up. We can say, “Sure, it’s enough in this moment, but it’s not enough for a week, for a month, for a lifetime.” That’s a trap. I’m not saying meditation doesn’t change; it does. The basic act, that choice, is the same for someone meditating for the first time and for someone who has practiced for decades. That’s one truth. And it’s equally true to say that meditation practice matures, that each time I sit it includes all the other times I’ve sat, that there’s something building up over time (or maybe breaking down).
But that’s about me.
I don’t want to make meditation into something magical or suggest it’s somehow apart from you. But if we’re measuring it, judging it, timing it, counting it, that’s just a way of measuring ourselves, and I suspect most of us do enough of that already. When you sit, just sit. Don’t see it as a starting point or as part of a continuum. Don’t give it a grade. Just show up for it. That’s a lot.
Manzan continued, “Like lightning, all thoughts come and pass. Just once, look into your mind-depths: nothing else has ever been.” Just once. There’s no such thing as 10,000 steps—there’s just this one step, the one you’re taking now. There’s no such thing as a lifetime of meditation, either. There’s just this breath, this decision to be still, this silence.
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.
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