I recently picked up a book called Discovering the True Self: Kodo Sawaki’s Art of Zen Meditation, translated by Arthur Braverman, and I got hooked. Kodo Sawaki (1880–1965) was a Soto Zen priest and a strong advocate of zazen, or Zen meditation—his approach to Zen practice, perhaps more than anyone else’s in the last hundred years, determined the flavor of Zen we now have in the West. His was a bare-bones, uncompromising vision of “just sitting.” In Japan, older monks would speak with pride about even having met him; his shadow looms large, even today.
Thumbing through the book, I stumbled on a quotation of Sawaki’s that I love: “Zazen is colorless and transparent, so deluded thoughts and ideas become very clear to you.” It’s worth unpacking a little, both for what it offers and for how we might misread it.
An admonition I heard frequently in my training was “Don’t put yourself into zazen.” This is really hard. When we sit in meditation, we almost can’t help but bring something with us. It might be a hope for what the meditation will bring, or what kind of person I will become if I do this. In that case, we’re making meditation transactional—if I do this, I should get that. It might be a doubt about those same things, in which case we’re holding ourselves back. It might be a worldview, something we feel we can’t put down even for a second lest it be compromised or lost altogether. Many of us, if we’re inspired by the vision of the bodhisattva vow, will come to meditation with the idea “I’m doing this for all beings.” Or perhaps we hold so closely to a vision of social justice that we feel we need to cling to it, even in meditation, to make sure that everything we do is in accord with it, that it’s never out of our direct line of sight.
This is perfectly normal. Everyone sits for a reason; everyone has a doubt. Most hope it will address something bigger than just themselves. And those visions we have of a just world or our place in it—those are beautiful. None of this is bad.
But Sawaki says meditation is transparent and colorless. In other words, it isn’t a lens; we don’t see meditation through a lens of our own making, and we don’t use it as a lens on the world. It completely reveals the truth of the moment we’re in because it is in no way separate. It isn’t made of different stuff. It isn’t a layer. If anything, it’s like air—yes, there’s air between me and you, between me and everything, but that doesn’t mean there’s an obstacle. The purest meditation, in this conception, is one we can’t really see.
Elsewhere, Sawaki wrote, “You don’t need anything to practice zazen; you don’t need a pen or a notebook. You don’t need satori [enlightenment] and you don’t need delusion. You don’t need to bring anything with you. People can’t comprehend this, thinking it’s too broad and limitless.” He’s right—we can’t comprehend it. Is there any other activity for which there are no prerequisites, nothing you need to supply at all? Try to hold the idea of a space with no up, no down, no ground, no ceiling, just limitlessness. And then, if you can even begin to do that, imagine that there’s nothing you can bring to it that will enhance it; no furnishing that will make it a better place to be. Imagine something so perfectly nondescript and complete. I can enjoy this as a thought exercise, but I can’t really see it, because ultimately, I see it through the limitations of my own mind, my own eyes, my own sense of the borders of the world.
To engage in a practice that is so undefined, so vast, so beyond my own small vision—it feels dangerous, like waking up at the bottom of the ocean or in deep space (again, images I can use to make sense of it but that don’t really come close). It feels so…empty. But it’s important to remember: Sawaki isn’t saying you’re transparent and colorless, nor is he saying that’s the goal of practice. He also isn’t saying the world is transparent and colorless, though we could easily fall into that kind of thinking. The world in all its messy, chaotic color is fully present; zazen, in Sawaki’s framework, just doesn’t get in the way of it. You can see your own delusion, yes, but you can also see the dust on your dashboard, feel your toes wiggle in your shoes, smell that musty smell in the back of the closet. We don’t need to practice; that is, we don’t need to imbue everything with spiritual meaning, see it through a spiritual lens, see it in any particular way at all except for how it actually is, right in front of us.
“Zazen is transparent and colorless” means that this moment is transparent and colorless—everything is revealed because it was never obscured, not even a little. Look up from the screen. What you see is the full, unhindered reality of the present. Let that soak in, the magnitude and availability of this moment. No need to put yourself into it at all.
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.