I have a favorite verb in Japanese: ikasu. It doesn’t translate well to English, but it has to do with letting things be as they are, letting them continue on their course. It’s not to leave something alone—it’s not that if you see something there, just don’t touch it. It’s that if, for example, a child has a certain inclination, you let that child follow that inclination. That is to ikasu. So my teachers would say, “Zazen wo ikasu”—let zazen be zazen. When you meditate, don’t try to control it. Let this moment be this moment.
Buddhist teachings begin with dukkha, our fundamental and chronic dissatisfaction. We have lots of moments of happiness, but even then we overlay our experience with another reality, one in which everything is even better—we see how great it would be if the weather were a little nicer, or if our back weren’t quite so stiff, or if there were just a little more cake (or maybe if we hadn’t eaten so much cake). If we have a superpower, this is it: that we can, in every waking moment, see not only the reality in front of us but also multiple alternate realities. We can carry infinite shoulds. And our kryptonite is that we favor those alternate worlds to the one we’re actually in.
One of the questions I’m asked the most goes something like this: “Isn’t Buddhism saying we just need to accept everything, no matter how bad it is? Isn’t that defeatist? If we follow that, how can we make the world better?” The answer, I think, isn’t so complicated, but it’s hard to put into practice. Can we work to make the world better? Of course. We can plant seeds today that will grow into something tomorrow. We can change direction. We can establish behavior in this moment that will affect how we behave in the next moment—and why wouldn’t we? That part, though it’s a lifetime project, isn’t so hard.
The difficult part—the other side of this—is about “accepting” what’s happening right now. Accepting this moment as it is doesn’t mean we necessarily like this moment, or that we think everything has turned out just right. It doesn’t mean this is how it should be, in some cosmic sense. It means this is how it is. Accepting this moment means accepting that this moment actually is this moment, that the present cannot be anything other than this. It’s cutting through dukkha, that clinging to an alternate reality, and allowing this moment to be—not because it’s perfect but because it’s already arrived. We can’t plant a seed if we don’t see the ground in front of us.
We can explore this in every moment. We can get just a little softer; we can notice that impulse to control things and make them something else, and we can release our grip a little. That work never really goes away. But for many of us, the real laboratory is meditation. I suspect everyone has the natural inclination to try to make meditation into something, to shape it so it feels like how we think it should feel. We all have some idea about it, don’t we?
My teachers would say, “Don’t put yourself into zazen!” In other words, let meditation be what it is. Ikasu. Let go, and it will reveal itself.
Whether it’s meditation or a relationship or your whole life, if you’re the one making it, then you’re making it in your image. It can never be bigger than you are. It can never grow beyond the parameters of your idea.
The next time you feel something slipping away from you—you’re running late, or a meal you’re preparing is descending into chaos—just pause for a moment and ask yourself, what will happen if I just let this be? You don’t know the answer. That’s the wonder of 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 Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.