BuddhaTanden-cropSoto Zen was traditionally called the practice of "silent illumination." This tasted like a pejorative in the mouths of Rinzai proponents, and perhaps followers of other sects, who must have seen themselves as competitive with Soto advocates. Soto folks would return the favor by criticizing Rinzai as kanna, or word Zen. Meaning that it was caught up, or bogged down, in mind games. Seeking to force enlightenment by sheer effort of will.

During a series of interfaith meditation sessions we hosted in Atlanta over the last few years, the main progenitor and visionary of the project, a retired seminarian from the Columbia Theological Seminary, spoke of meditation as "entering into silence," and asked us to help himself and his followers to understand how it is done. The various representatives from Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others who attended, would sit in silent meditation for a half hour or so, with minimal instruction from us as to posture, breath, and attention. Then one designee would tell her or his story of faith. Very interesting.

But this idea of silence in Zen is a misconception. Or may be misconstrued as a goal, or presumed requirement, of meditation. As one of our senior guys said recently, even in an anechoic chamber it is not completely silent. You still hear your heartbeat, breath, static on the neuronal network, and any number of other gurgles, grunts and squeaks that are usually below the radar. In zazen, in more normal but relatively quiet situations, such as the typical zendo, the same is true. Wearing earplugs, especially the wax ones made for swimming, reveals a new world of internal sound, when anyone might reasonably anticipate silence.

I have related a true story of how, at one evening session of a long and intensive sesshin, leaning slightly to one side, I suddenly heard the whirring sound of muscle motors! Leaning the other way, same thing! Forward, the same; backward, same. Just like little servo-motors cranking up and then shutting down as I swung back to the center. And this all within a pendulum of maybe an inch or two of arc, at the crown of the head.

If you lean your head close to the large gong (J. kane) at the Zen center, you can hear it emitting a soft tone, at any time. It is never completely silent, or still, even for a moment. Voice of the Buddha, intoning the Sermon of No Words.

Sound abounds. Not to mention the song of the spheres, of course. Or a whole host of other trans-audial tones and harmonics reverberating through space at all times.

Thus, as we have discussed elsewhere, the silence in Zen is not the absence of sound. The sound is in the silence, the silence in the sound. This is one meaning of mokurai, our namesake for the Silent Thunder Order. Master Dogen's phrase brings it out in stark relief in Shobogenzo Bendowa; Jijuyu Zanmai: "...like a hammer striking emptiness..."

So I think it may be more helpful, and more immediately applicable, to focus attention on stillness, instead of an imagined silence. Silence and stillness suggest distinctly different actions. While both may be regarded as relative (and only relatively under any degree of control on our part), still, silence seems a bit more subjective. It seems impossible to work toward it, let alone achieve it, in any meaningful measure. I believe it was the great teacher Krishnamurti who said something like, "If you speak, It is silent. If you are silent, It speaks." Leaving aside the ontological question of exactly what is "It" — so as not to slip down that slope — one could, paraphrasing, make the same case for stillness. As opposed to motion. To wit: If you move, It is still. If you are still, It moves.

So here, we might take it, in its simplest iteration (no pun, nor redundancy, intended), as simply indicating other. As opposed to self. We can begin to see some parallels with the teachings of Zen. Particularly, perhaps, those of Master Dogen in Genjokoan (no need to repeat Shobogenzo every time, one would hope). There we find his broad-based declarations, paraphrasing broadly, about going forth to the "ten thousand things" being delusion, whereas their coming forth being enlightenment. Something like that. My main point being that positing, or using, the apparent duality of self-other, subject-object, and so on, is a hoary and honorable expedient means to sneak around dualistic limitations.

So this is the point of stillness, or at least the point I want to make about it. We can definitely tell when we are fidgeting, wiggling our toes or fingers. Not being still. Or davening. Reciting Jewish prayers is often (always?) accompanied by a kind of graceful bouncing of the upper body, from the waist up, and in an arc of about 10-15 degrees, if observation and memory serves. A bit like the Buddhist bow, only with repetition. In zazen, we sometimes fend off stress with similar rhythmic motion.

I first noticed this pulsating bounce in one of our senior women teachers, in whom it was quite pronounced, especially later in the sitting session. Then I noticed it in my own sitting. I don't believe I picked it up from her, but that it was there on a subtle level all along. Whatever. The point is that when sitting for long sessions, you may notice that you are not sitting still at all, that there is still this sort of subtle pulsation in the posture, a kind of bouncing forward and back seeming to originate in the pelvic region and, it seems, roughly in time with the heartbeat. This assumes that you are quiet enough to hear, or still enough to feel, your heartbeat pulsing through chest, extremities, or sometimes through the body joint where you feel resistance (euphemism for "pain").

When you become aware of this compulsive movement, or others on more subtle planes, then you can allow it to come to a stop. And thereby settle into a deeper stillness.

As we become more and more still, It begins to move, more and more. That is, we can then become aware of levels of movement on much finer scales, and in much subtler realms. This, I think, is the physical corollary to Master Dogen's description of the "fine" or "subtle mind of nirvana." In the realm of sensation, that is. So far we are addressing only the tactile level, the organs and nerves of the body and skin. This "sense organ" belongs to the realm (Skt. dhatu) that has as its object the various impressions of stress, pressure, temperature and friction, et cetera, to which the body is subjected. This is the main rationale for sitting upright in zazen — coming into balance (Samadhi) with gravity.

The sensations we can register on the gross level of the body, in other words, are just that — pretty gross. However, this does not mean that sensation is not active on a more subtle scale, on more sensitive planes. It is just that we have to enter into stillness to register it. Eventually, through a process of sensory adaptation, we go beyond ordinary sensation, and enter into what John Daido Loori referred to as "off-sensation." That kind of extreme absence of feeling that is often experienced while falling asleep, or when half-awake.

The Zen approach to breath is also conducive to entering into stillness. Breathing is directly connected to subtle apprehension of the non-duality of motion and stillness. The breath cycle goes from moving, during inhalation, to stopping. Then exhalation moves the breath out of the lungs, and stops again. At the top and bottom of the breath, there is a moment of profound stillness. At that time, it seems everything has come to a full stop.

This is another meaning, or connotation, of Matsuoka Roshi's universal equalizer, mokurai. The stillness is in the motion, motion in stillness. Simple point, but bears repetition. All such dual pairs (hot-cold; large-small; pain-pleasure, etc.) may be regarded as mutually defining. Complementary to each other, rather than opposite. And as always and only coexisting, if we may borrow Buckminster Fuller's pointed phraseology.

As we become more still, dualities merge. Untold dimensions of motion open up — within and without — to which we have heretofore been completely oblivious. This is especially true in the dhatu of vision. Entering stillness in the realm of light and darkness.

When we look at the fixed gaze that is practiced in zazen, we can see another example, or kind, of stillness. The eyes are said to be in constant motion, something like seven subtle movements — or saccades, rapid and irregular motions — per second. Ordinarily we are not aware of this movement, having long since adapted to it. But when we have practiced fixed gaze for some time, we become aware of motion within the field of vision itself, some of which probably forms a corollary to the saccades. But there is so much motion going on that it becomes difficult to associate it with any particular phenomenon of physiology. Unless you happen to be an optometrist or opthalmologist. In which case you would probably know too much to benefit from the wonder of living experience in zazen.

Practitioners frequently report impressions (not quite perceptions) of light and color, moving patterns. As well as recognizable images such as faces — of people and animals, even fantastic beings such as dragons. All in a day's work in Zen circles. Settling into a deeper level of stillness in the realm of vision constitutes a more subtle effort than that engaged in the tactile realm. After all, the medium or field within which vision works is the high frequency realm of light itself. The retina is capturing radiant light, and translating it into image. Whereas the stimuli directly affecting the body is, again, on a gross level, speaking relatively, not judgmentally.

The same analysis may be applied to hearing, which is somewhere in-between, on the sensory spectrum. Eardrums are impacted by compression waves in the air (water if you happen to be swimming). They respond by transmitting vibrations through the inner ear, discriminated and interpreted by the brain as various sounds. A more subtle dimension of hearing is entered into when one hears sounds emanating from "inside" the body and its organs, including the brain and central nervous system, as mentioned in the first section above. But again, stillness pervades. It is not silent, but is against a ground of stillness.

Note, in passing, that smelling and tasting are subject to a similar dynamic. In zazen, they adapt so quickly and thoroughly, however, as to be scarcely worth dwelling upon. The four dominant areas of observation under study in zazen consist of feeling, hearing, and seeing; and that old bugaboo, thinking. Smelling and tasting are subsumed under feeling.

It may be worth mentioning that aroma and flavor also have a heavily chemical component, which is present but less apparent, in all: in vision ("after image") and the body (digestive processes). The mind as well — the brain secretes thoughts chemically.

Stillness, on the physical level, as manifested through the senses, is only the beginning. Again, engaging our conceptual metaphor, compartmentalizing holistic reality into manageable bits, we can regard stillness as operative on physical, mental and emotional levels, and, in a transcendental sense, on a spiritual level.

Being mentally calm appears to be possible while simultaneously being physically active. This is apparent in athletics, martial arts and extreme sports. And in that "slo-mo" mind that manifests when the car we are driving careens out of control at high speed. Sitting in zazen, however, it often flips the other way. Once we overcome the natural physical resistance to sitting very still, for what we feel are very long periods of time, the mind sometimes goes berserkers on us. Like a monkey trapped in a cage, or a sleeping dog awakened by a car wash, crashing round and round inside the skull, trying to get away.

But if we remember stillness as our guiding principle, we can register the frenzy against the background, which is the only way it rises to the level of perception to begin with. For there to be motion perceived, whether physical or mental, there has to be a ground of stillness. And vice-versa. Thus, the very manic quality of the monkey-mind (citta), is the proof positive of the wisdom-mind (bodhi). Always-and-only-coexistent (bodhicitta).

Emotionally, of course, we can react in ways that make things worse, like feedback looping out of control. Or we can remember the stillness of the ocean depths underlying the violence of the hurricane, raging on the surface.

We cannot make the motion go away, leaving us alone in the bliss of absolute stillness. Stillness is co-dependent on motion. But the preponderance of existence is manifesting stillness. It can be seen in the repose of a pond that finds its own level. Or a stone in the garden that shimmers with the warmth of sunlight embracing its surface. Or the gossamer floating stillness of the heavenly bodies that are actually plummeting through space at breathtaking velocities.

Spiritually, we can return to Master Dogen, in his description of what actually transpires in zazen, from the same text. He says that (emphasis mine) "...all this, however, does not appear within perception, because it is unconstructedness in stillness; it is immediate realization. If practice and realization were two things, as it appears to the ordinary person, each could be recognized separately. But what can be met with recognition is not realization itself, because realization is not reached by a deluded mind. In stillness, mind and object merge in realization and go beyond enlightenment."

This stillness is represented in Zen as finding its center in the tanden, a central point in the pelvis, about two inches in and down from the navel. It is said that when we touch, or "sit on" this point, it is as if we are immersed in a field of energy, or ki. This vital energy is our life-source. The point of the tanden grows larger over time, until we are inside its sphere, with the center point still there, in our gut. When we move, it moves with us, so that we never move relative to it. It is our center, our primordial still point, from birth.

To enter into this primordial stillness, first we must become physically still. Buddha moved, surely. But when Buddha was still, he was very, very still. It is said that he stopped the sun in the sky. Everything in Universe is floating in this stillness. When we wake up to it, we are finally, irrevocably, at home with all beings. In stillness. Stillness.