Thoughts-without-Thoughts: Incense Smoke in the Room

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  • Jundo
    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
    • Apr 2006
    • 39272

    Thoughts-without-Thoughts: Incense Smoke in the Room


    Part of the 'job description' of a Zen Teacher, I guess, is to come up with all kinds of nifty analogies and nice parables for what's hard to express in words, or even wordless. Let me try here.

    "Thinking-non-thinking" is at the heart of Master Dogen's Zazen, found in his Fukanzazengi and other places. People get very confused about what this "thinking-non-thinking" means. Some folks assume that we have to stop all thoughts completely during Zazen. In fact, such states happen sometimes, but that is not really the point of Shikantaza, "Just Sitting" Zazen. In "Just Sitting," thoughts and emotions do not need to cease their passing through our mind, yet we do not hassle with them, do not get caught in them. We do not pile thoughts on our thoughts, adding fuel to fire. We just let the thoughts and emotions be, let them pass undisturbed. We have thoughts and emotions (sometimes even heartbreaking or so scary), but do not compound them by wallowing in, or thinking about the thoughts and emotions. In sitting this way, the thoughts and emotions simplify, and a certain light and clarity comes to shine though. The hard emotions, even grief and fear, may perhaps still be present, but lose their former stranglehold, and become smaller as fires settle. Our sense of separate "self" also simplifies ... and more.

    So, how do we "have thoughts (and emotions too) but not think about them?" Here is my analogy to express all this ...

    When we sit Zazen, we can sit anywhere, but traditionally we sit in a room on a cushion. Our rooms have various things in them, maybe some furniture, a bookshelf, some flowers or a plant, an altar, our sitting cushion, us sitting. The mind between our ears is likewise a kind of room, filled with various things that clutter it. But the funny thing about those things is that, until I mention them, or until your personal attention latches on and you get caught thinking about any one item, it's as if that thing is there, yet not really. For example, perhaps your sitting room has a picture on the wall, hung up years ago, but until I remind you, you likely pay no attention to it for long stretches of time. It is just there, hanging whether we notice or not. Or perhaps there is a green plant in the corner, and maybe later you have to water it and give it care, but not right now. Right now, we can pay it no thought and let it be. Sorry I mentioned it!

    There are likely hundreds of other little things in the room where you sit, filling up every inch. There might even be life, like the cat who walks through the room. If you do not notice her, do not start an exchange, she is sure to just pass through or curl up in the corner. It is so even in a very cluttered room, filled with books and papers, each overflowing with stories and ideas. But when you do not pick them up and begin reading, do not dive into their information, all rest silently, nothing more than abstract patterns of ink on paper gathering dust. If you want, you can read them later, after Zazen (and find at that time, I'll bet, that some of the simplicity and clarity gathered in Zazen will now be shining through their pages even as you read). But do not crack them open now. Just Sit. In sitting so, somehow what was complex, trying, demanding or scary, becomes simpler and less demanding, even somehow not scary at all. Truly, there is not a "mess" in the room if we momentarily put aside our judgements and repulsion at the clutter. "Clutter," after all, is our own human judgement, for the room does not judge itself "cluttered." We can straighten it up later, after Zazen.

    Life also does not judge itself, and that part is on you. So it is for all the busy-ness and bothers, problems and responsibilities we have in life: They are there as part of your life, and maybe you have to deal with them later. But right now, in Zazen, in this room, just let them be.

    Not everyone burns incense but I think that, if you are like most Zen folks, there may be a stick burning in your room during Zazen. The little smoke wafts through the air. If you really try, you can see the thin wisps drifting through, here and there. If you think about it while sitting, you can notice that you are smelling the scent, lovely, maybe cypress or the like. But truly, there is no need to notice, for the wafting and subtle hint is present without your doing anything more. One could even fall into a trap thinking thought after thought about the incense, your mind now also burning. Suddenly, you are lost in mental smoke and acrid clouds of your own making! However, most times we are not thinking about the incense, even as it burns. The lovely scent is still present, drifting through, but one just lets it ... no need to put one's attention there.

    Let one's thoughts in Zazen be like that smoke: just drifting through, undisturbed and undisturbing. Thoughts without thoughts. Maybe you have a thought come into mind, something that happened in your life, some problem during your day, a job you have to do tomorrow ... all just smoke, drifting through the room, drifting through your mind. Your troubles, your worries ... even your pleasures and happy thoughts ... let them all move through unbothered for this moment of sitting. Maybe a worry or grief is burning hot within you, like that incense tip. Just allow it to burn away. No need to grab it mentally right now, as if with your finger-tips, bringing pain to what brings light when let to be.

    At that point, the incense smoke become truly invisible, not only moving with the air, but now become the air itself. It fills the room, but cannot be found, need not be found. A funny thing happens as we let things be: All becomes the room (in fact, it was all along until our dividing mind got into the act), no longer just separate things in the room, and all is seen to be in its own, proper place ... even what we previously thought of as problems and clutter. The room is not merely walls, but is the bookshelf, furnishings, greenery and cat, the hundred other things, incense, light and air, ... you, the sitting. Life is the pleasant and the problems, the happy but even the sad times and scary things, birth and death, sickness, health, up and down. They are not just objects at a point in space, but fill space itself. The room's light, clarity and spaciousness shines through all, as all, not a mote of dust left out. What is more, they are each other, both big and small the space manifested in its particular corner, all subtly flowing too, one great room that is not a fixed world, but changing, flowing here and there, filled with life.

    And what are walls? The walls may begin to grow thin, become translucent, then clear, and finally, all walls, floors and ceilings ... drop away. One now experiences that the inside was but the outside flowing in, and the outside is always within ... while, truly, there was never an inside or outside at all except for walls we erect in our mind.

    The sweet vapor is now all places, and all places this sitting place.

    Gassho, J

    Last edited by Bion; 05-14-2024, 08:46 AM.
  • Kaitan
    • Mar 2023
    • 447

    Lovely teaching, Jundo. Thank you

    stlah, Kaitan
    Kaitan - 界探 - Realm searcher
    Formerly known as "Bernal"


    • Tairin
      • Feb 2016
      • 2733


      Sat today and lah
      泰林 - Tai Rin - Peaceful Woods


      • Chikyou
        • May 2022
        • 569

        I sat with this Zazenkai on Sunday and I've been thinking about this ever since. A lovely and effective metaphor.

        Chikyō 知鏡


        • Shade
          • Aug 2020
          • 162






          • Naiko
            • Aug 2019
            • 838

            This is a such a helpful teaching, and beautifully expressed. Thank you, Jundo.


            • Myosho
              • May 2020
              • 80

              Thank You, Jundo
              Wonderful teaching



              • Onkai
                Treeleaf Unsui
                • Aug 2015
                • 2842


                Gassho Onkai
                Sat lah
                美道 Bidou Beautiful Way
                恩海 Onkai Merciful/Kind Ocean

                I have a lot to learn; take anything I say that sounds like teaching with a grain of salt.


                • Hōzan
                  • Dec 2022
                  • 417


                  Gassho, Hozan


                  • Henny
                    • Feb 2024
                    • 12

                    Thank you! 🙏 It makes me aware that I still have a lot to learn about Zazen.
                    Gassho, Henny


                    • Shigeru
                      • Feb 2024
                      • 32

                      Thank you for this analogy! Maybe a lot of things are like incense, sweet or intolerable for a while, but ultimately ephemeral. Let things pass like you would incense, experience them while they last, but do not cling. Clinging to smoke will disappoint, and clinging to incense will burn.

                      Last edited by Shigeru; 02-28-2024, 06:58 PM.
                      - Will

                      Respecting others is my only duty - Ryokan


                      • Ramine
                        • Jul 2023
                        • 79

                        Thank you, Jundo.



                        • Stephen E. Kauffman
                          • Jun 2023
                          • 16

                          Thank you Jundo,