Friday, September 08, 2006


Wow. I just found out there will be Hebrew, Greek and Finnish editions of Hardcore Zen. So any of you Fins, Greeks or Israelis out there reading this can rest easy knowing that soon you will be able to read my descriptions of Gene Simmons' hotel room in your own language! Hoo-zah!

OK. Now the Zen. Here's an e-mail exchange I was recently cc'ed on between Nishijima Sensei & a Seeker of the Truth out there in Blogland.


Dear Nishijima Sensei,

On a Buddhist blog there is a discussion about the correct method of using the eyes when sitting zazen. Below is what the person wrote about the eyes:

" At some point while sitting with my eyes open, my vision begins to swim, blur, or cloud over. What should my attitude be when this happens? Should I re-focus, or allow the blur to occur? If I let the blur continue, it usually obliterates my vision at some point, to the extent that I'm not sure if my eyes are even open anymore. It seems that at that point, I might as well close my eyes. Is maintaining focus with the eyes the right thing to do, according to the Zen concept of maintaining the mind's focus? "

in reply somebody said the following quote:

" Some people prefer to meditate with eyes open and some with them closed. Bottom line is what works best for you. As far as the 'official' zen position though... You are supposed to let them stay open or half-open. Your gaze should be 'un-focused'. If your eyes blur and you can't tell what's in front of you, this is what is supposed to happen. It isn't the same as having them closed because the darkness of closed eyes (as opposed to the diffuse light of blurred vision) tends to make most people fall asleep or become drowsy. "

" In seated zazen, the main focus of attention is inward, so the lack of focused vision is irrelevant. In active forms of zazen, obviously the focus is both inward and outward... which is what makes it so difficult."

You will notice that they mention the ' official' zen position about the eyes. do you agree with this person that what they have written is the official zen position or do you think that they are wrong? if you think they are wrong, what is the best method of using the eyes when sitting zazen?



Thank you very much for your important questions of eyes in Zazen, and I would like to answer following the three opinions, which you sent me in your email.

1) When our vision begins to swim, blur, or cloud over, we should stretch the spine straight vertically to have our sight refocused, and we should not allow the blur to occur. We should maintain focus with the eyes, according to the Zen concept of maintaining mind and body focused.

2) The eyes should be open during Zazen. The back of the neck should be kept straight as far as possible, and so the chin should be replaced a little downward and backward. It is wrong for us to keep the eyes half-open. Your gaze should be focused to avoid becoming sleepy or sleeping.

3) In Zazen the focused situations do not have any difference between inward and outward, therefore the lack of the focus can be seen clearly. In Zazen it is necessary for us to look at something concretely, and it is impossible for human beings to distinguish inward and outward at all.

I do not understand the meaning of "official," and I always manifest my opinion following Master Dogen's teachings.

With best wishes

Gudo Wafu Nishijima


What struck me about this when I read it was not so much the specifics of the question & answer -- which are very important to anyone who practices Zazen -- but the difference in tone between the guy who advised people on the blog and Nishijima Sensei. There are lots of guys out there in the Blogosphere giving advise on Zen practice and, unfortunately, most of them are like the guy who told the Truth Seeker that "bottom line is what works for you." I should apologize to Mr. Bottom Line in case it's someone I've corresponded with. Nothing personal, but that advise sucks ass.

Zen is not a "bottom line is what works for you" philosophy. "What works for you" is crap teaching. Don't ever accept crap teaching. I take so much flak from people who've learned from God only knows where that Zen is "what works for you" and are driven to madness by my insistance that it is not. But it isn't. Nope. Never.

"What works for you" means you accept what massages your ego and reject what doesn't. That is not Buddhism. That is not Reality. Reality does not bend in order to please you and neither does the philosophy and practice of Zen. Shunryu Suzuki said, "If the teaching doesn't feel like it's forcing something upon you, it's not good teaching." That is the real spirit of Buddhism. If you're not ready for that, you're not ready for Buddhism.


Jodo said...

Brad -
Long time reader, first time poster. Your comments and Gudo Roshi's are completely spot on!
Gassho, Jodo

Bob J. said...

I agree with jodo; thanks for that, Brad. Ever since I returned to sitting (after a mere 23-year hiatus), I have been surrounded by the proponents of "Softcore Zen." So you can imagine how relieved I am to have finally found an authentic Soto group to sit with (although four hours away). Thanks for the inspiration and the help!

JustKeith said...


For whatever it's worth, I agree with the last two replies. Thanks for this clear and unambiguous post!

yudo said...

Like I replied to that post, it's like on a motorbike (in a car too): you go where your eyes are set.
If you set your eyes on an obstacle, there you will go.
Nishijima sensei's explanations are remarkable, because they are deadly simple and efficient, and miles away form any sort of idealization.

Wolf said...

Dear Brad!
I just want to point out that I completley understand the advice of mister bottom line this time around. In an open forum etc. I think I would have given advice along similar lines, i just would have mentioned the fact that once he has chosen a comfotable eye-alignment he should stick to it (ego will complain soon enough no matter what you do). Why? Because there are many schools of zen out there and about as many opinions about the correct eye-attitude. And if you advise in a tone that says "focus young man, that's the way Buddahs go!", you'll soon find yourself in a full fleged trench war with a lot of other people with differnt opinions about the right alignment of your eyes. Not very informative for an aspiring truth seeker, is it?


Lone Wolf said...

Hi Brad - I'm still interested in what you mean by bringing INTENSITY to Zazen or a 3 day Zen retreat?(especially if this intensity or effort needed is not a "whaterever works for you philosophy.")

Genryu said...

"In an open forum etc. I think I would have given advice along similar lines, i just would have mentioned the fact that once he has chosen a comfotable eye-alignment he should stick to it (ego will complain soon enough no matter what you do). Why? Because there are many schools of zen out there and about as many opinions about the correct eye-attitude. And if you advise in a tone that says "focus young man, that's the way Buddahs go!", you'll soon find yourself in a full fleged trench war with a lot of other people with differnt opinions about the right alignment of your eyes."

Fortunately, Zen is neither about comfort, nor opinions.

Jordan & The Tortoise said...

Thanks for posting this, I had replied to that same question like this.

"I have heard different takes on this, and would love a more definitive answer. I find that when my eyes go compleatly out of focus that my monky mind starts working overtime so I would say that dosent work. When my eyes are focused it is usualy on a paint chip or anomoly in the wood and then I am realy concentrating on the anomoly and not on the moment. Therefore I tend to leave my eyes slightly out of focus.
best bet would most likely be to do what works best for you.
Anyone else?"

This is what I was tought at some Introduction to Zen meditation class and I passed on what I learned there. I would definetly defer to Master Gudo's responce in the future.

Jordan & The Tortoise said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jinzang said...

Well, yes and no. I agree that the eyes should be kept open, 'cause that's the way I was taught too. But if someone has been told differently by their teacher, or has been practicing for a long time with eyes closed and has had good success, I'm not going to jump up and down and scream, "Your'e doing it wrong!"

Back when I was doing kung fu, I did the usual standing meditation (minor orbit) with eyes open, 'cause that's what I was used to doing, even though my instructor said the eyes should be half open. Maybe that's why I can't shoot orange fireballs out of my fingertips.

Jinzang said...

Master Gudo was formerly the head of the Soto Zen sect of Buddhism.

I don't think that's true or that he ever claimed to be.

Drunken Monkey said...

"Why? Because there are many schools of zen out there and about as many opinions about the correct eye-attitude."

If your vision is getting blurred then thats wrong practice. Zazen is about full awareness, not about achieving the same effect on your vision as getting pissed.
There is a right way and a wrong way. Being fully and trully aware of yourself in zazen is the right way. Internal absorption or blurry eyed vision is wrong way.

JustKeith said...

I realize we're talking Zen here, and what Brad and Master Nishijima are advocating here I consider my practice; however I know that the Insight Meditation teachers in the Theravada tradition teach sitting with eyes closed. I also know that certain schools of Christian meditation (Centering Prayer and the work of John Main) also teach sitting with the eyes closed). I am not so closed-minded to say that these methods don't serve the needs of their practitioners.

I do think it is important that, whatever your practice is, one should practice it as deeply and as faithfully as possible. Hence my gratitude to Brad above for this post.

Jordan & The Tortoise said...

Edit of "@ Wolf on trench wars."

If Master Gudo says eyes are open and focused, I will first do a reality check, (the Shobogenzo is a good source for me to do this but there are other Soto texts out there I am sure) then if it checks out I will go with it. If you are not trying to follow the Soto Zen tradition than check out what that tradition is doing. I am no longer of the mind to say that any one way of doing things is better. But I do consider Master Gudo to be a good councilor.

Previously I had sited Master Gudo With being head of the Soto Sect and was corrected. I double checked and found that I had mis-read "he was ordaind by the late Master Rempo Newa, formerly the head of the soto sect"

Sorry for the bad gouge
1:35 PM

nai wakara said...

arg. i thought it was you who said eyes half-closed.

3468 said...

I think this is the most important posting Brad has made. You can't pick an choose.


This is how I was instructed:

Lower your open eyes (about 45 degrees downward). If other people look at you, your eyes seem to be half closed, just like in any Buddha statue. If you catch yoursef daytdreaming, check your eye position! It's almost impossible to daytream if you maintain correct zazen posture.

Anonymous said...

I'm not certain I entirely agree with you Brad when you say "'Whatever works for you' means you accept what massages your ego and reject what doesn't.

Zen is such an experiential philosophy that it almost DEMANDS that we constantly ask ourselves, "Is this practice good? Does this work?"

Much of religion in effect says, "Read this and believe" whereas Zen says, "Try this practice and see if it works."

I agree that the particulars of the practice, especially the rigors of sitting in zazen, are not very open to debate or change. The Soto group I sit with emphasizes correct posture and asks participants to sit with the discomfort that arises, to adhere to a certain set of guidelines if you want to put it that way.

However, there is always the knowledge that these certain particular practices are valuable and testable. I'd hate to think that you're asking us to take anything on faith. In that sense, if it works, then the practice is authentic and valuable, and asking myself "does this work" is part of the practice..... isn't it?

Genryu said...

In that sense, if it works, then the practice is authentic and valuable, and asking myself "does this work" is part of the practice..... isn't it?

I think it might be initially but after a time, we realize that the self, the ego really has no idea what works or doesn't. Zazen is ultimately useless. It is not a means to an end, and Zen practice at some point brings us to the place at which we start to move a little beyond the attitude of doing things 'in order to' achieve some particular result. We don't wash the dishes in order to have them clean but to just wash the dishes, if you follow me.

The utilitarian approach to life is one of the things that actually stands in the way of our appreciating things as they are in themselves and letting go of that, getting past, "Does this work for me?" is, I would say, an important part of practice.

Wolf said...

Yes, zen, or in this particular case zazen aren't about opinion (or lack thereof) or comfort (or discomfort). I totally agree with you there. But I don't believe that there is one right way of practice for everyone and everyone else is simply wrong. I think there are some things which work better for some people and worse wor others. That's why there is more than one school of zen out there.

Yet I think the eye thing is a little bit like all the hassles around the posture. Whether you sit full lotos or only half lotos postion isn't going to influence the quality of your practice very much. As long as you fulfill the basic guidelines for a correct posture (the usual erect spine, chin slightly taken back etc.) and stick to them it doesn't really matter whether you sit burmese style, half- full- quater- or whatever lotos, seiza or wahtever positions there are in this world. They'll all become uncomfortable enough to annoy you out of your mind relativley soon. Same for the eyes. Just stick to it.

Last a little basic message: AFAIK there are just some little things in Zen where you may chose "whatever works for you" in the beginning, either by the choice of an appropriate school or your personal style of zazen. Just stick to it and you'll be fine. And that's what it is about, being fine in the end, isn't it? ;)

MikeDoe said...

Does not Buddhism exist because Gautama Buddha did what worked for him and then told people about it?

He also taught many different meditation practices in addition to Zazen. They also 'worked for him'.

It would be a mistake to assume that Soto Zen is the ONLY style of Buddhism that 'works'. That would be idealism not realism.

Some schools teach eyes open, some eyes closed. In general I think that eyes open is 'best' but that is just my personal preference. Eyes open also works for me. It is not the eyes that are 'meditating'.

Justin said...

I think that some great points have been made here all round. And the subject of conformity to Buddhist authority is one I've had to do some recent thinking about myself.

To an extent it is OK to take pragmatic/empirical 'whatever works' approach to practice. And I don't think either Brad or Nishijima or Dogen have access to absolute knowledge of The Ultimate Zazen Method or anything like that. And indeed there are many religious people who make similar claims of absolute knowledge and we sometimes need to be wary of them.

I'm one of those annoying people who sees us in the modern west as being at an important juncture in the history of Buddhism - having access to the histories and methods of schools of Buddhism which have been isolated from one another for centuries as well as access to western thought and scientific method. Buddhism seems to offer a solution to our existential woes, and at the same time, we realise that it is not immune to the accumulation of cultural baggage and mythology. We want to get to the essence without being hoodwinked into following a bunch of loony religious ideas without understanding why. We want to separate the wheat from the chaff.

To continue the martial arts them, we want to be like Bruce Lee who successfully who liberated eastern arts from dogmatism and fused them with arts from around the world with great effect. He achieved this with his 'retain what works, discard what doesn't' philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, which, given the unique position he was in, allowed him to 'pick and choose' from arts around the world.

We want a JKD of meditation, we don't want to just conform to tradition and authority - we want our practice to make a difference in our lives. We wouldn't begin to practice if we didn't realistically believe that it would make a difference.

On the other hand, I see what Brad and others are saying too. This model doesn't quite work here. To practice Zazen is to abandon all thought of gain, success or progress, of better or worse practice. This is the very problem that Zazen is addressing. So this 'whatever works' approach quickly becomes an obstacle in its own right, because it means we are picking and choosing, we are engaging our less than impartial egos and we are practicing goal-oriented behaviour instead of Zazen. In the case of Zazen, 'whatever works' is in serious danger of becoming 'doesn't work'.

I don't for a moment assume that if we scientifically compared what from one perspective might been seen as the 'effectiveness' of various meditation techniques that the Soto approach would necessarily be 'the best'. However, if we each become our own little pragmatic empiricist to test it for effectiveness, in this case we are actually obstructing it.

Nor, I imagine, do many of us have the insight and dedication of Buddha to commit to our practice.

The solution? My suggestion is to assess early on whether Zazen 'works' or not and then, abandon the entire process of thinking about whether it works or doesn't and just do it. Maybe occassional reassessments would be helpful, but it seems likely that an ongoing process of assessment would be a problem. On the other hand, I'm very much in favour of impartial even scientific research into its effects so that we can make informed decisions about embarking on it.

MikeDoe said...

The issue is that it is not sensible in terms of zazen to talk in terms of what works and what doesn't. It is missing the point.

The purpose of Zazen is to sit in Zazen.

The scientific evidence suggests (Zen and the Brain) that eyes open is more 'effective' in the performance of Zazen compared with eyes closed. However, initially some people will find it less 'distracting' to sit with eyes closed.

You still cannot however move away from the fact that Zazen is nothing more than sitting quietly and being with yourself, your mind and your body,your thoughts (or no thoughts) and repeating this until the artificalness of the separateness falls away.

Whilst there is a goal or a purpose or a sense of 'this is working' or 'this is not working' or 'this is right for me' or 'this is wrong for me' or 'Dogen teaches this..' or 'X teaches this...' then the focus is other than on the just sitting.

You could have the same debate about half-lotus, full-lotus, standing, sitting (on a chair), seiza (sp?) or whatever.

You might just as well talk about whether it is right to chew clockwise or counterclockwise or whatever.

Whatever group you are with, do it that way.

If the minutae of sitting was of any importance whatsoever then it would be the case that only a few groups would show fruits of attainment and the other groups do not.

The reality is that I have met plenty of people from differnt traditions who have sat in different ways and used an assortment of techniques and they can all show similar levels of 'realisation' or 'attainment' or whatever words you want to use.

So, you can only conclude that the mechanics cannot be important.

If we want to make them so then it must be because a desire exists to demonstrate to ourselves or others that we are on the 'right' path and doing the 'right' thing and perhaps they are 'wrong' etc. This is all classic egoistic stuff.

kshingo said...

"Reality does not bend in order to please you and neither does the philosophy and practice of Zen. Shunryu Suzuki said, "If the teaching doesn't feel like it's forcing something upon you, it's not good teaching." That is the real spirit of Buddhism. If you're not ready for that, you're not ready for Buddhism."

I've been wondering about that thing called reality. I can't seem to pin it down. IT just keeps changing, changing, changing. So now I'm wondering if reality bends, or is it rigid as in the reality called Zen that you refer to? My guess is that even the most rigid of realities is composed of so many parts that in the end it is soft and fluid. Ungraspable.

As for the Suzuki quote... did he really say that? It rings of macho zen, teachings that feel forced upon you. For me, the teachings show how to open and receive, to soften, to receive reality whatever it is. In Tai Chi we receive force by softening, by taking it into the flow of our own energy and in the process the force dissipates. What I remember of my Suzuki readings is a suggestion to receive each moment with the openess of "Yes?"

Anyway, ditto for me--- sit up straight, keep our eyes open and most importantly, enjoy ourselves. Life is but a bubble in a stream.


Mark said...

I was glancing through a Zen book and saw this quote which applies here, I think.

"It is a big mistake to think that the best way to express yourself is to do whatever you want, acting however you please. This is not expressing yourself. When you have many possible ways of expressing yourself, you are not sure what to do, so you will behave superficially. If you know what to do exactly, and you do it, you can express yourself fully."

From Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen by Shunryu Suzuki. p. 10

Gesus said...

Zazen is a discipline.
Every discipline has a proper form.

Anything else said would be mere tautology on the subject.


Gus said...

So what is the difference between doing zen in a particular way, i.e. eyes open/closed (a view), and attachment (to views)? Isn't attachment a blinky no-no? How does one justify particular practice and not fall into attachment?

Justin said...


I think the accepted approach is not to be attached to views, maybe not even to have views, instead just do it.

Anatman said...

I am the "truth seeker" that originally posted the question and response over at flapping mouths.

Brad, read the quote more carefully. The respondent to my question never said that “Zen is whatever works best for you.” He specifically separated the “whatever works best for you” statement from his commentary on ‘official’ Zen tradition. Whether or not his understanding of proper Zazen technique agrees with your own is a different discussion.

My question to him was based on the fact that I come from a tradition that teaches closed-eye meditation, and I am now having difficulty with the open-eye practice of Zazen. Knowing that I am a student of Theravada Buddhism that is learning more about Zen, my friend’s advice regarding “whatever works for you” was not commenting on the proper attitude in Zazen. It was advice on whether to follow the Zazen tradition in the first place.

I have posted more discussion on the topic at flapping mouths.

ConElPico said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
zenmite said...

Hi. I'm the 'Bottom line" guy that Brad was referring to. In his essay "Proper Posture Required" Brad W. wrote the following:

"But I'm not going to try and bamboozle you with quotes from renowned authorities. It's what you discover for yourself that's important. And what I've discovered for myself is that proper posture in zazen is absolutely vital to the practice."

"Buddhism is about discovering the things that "go," that really work and make our lives and the lives of others better and happier, and the things that do not "go," that make ourselves and others miserable. The fact that Zen Buddhism doesn't have any set lists of hard-and-fast rules which are supposed to work anywhere at anytime for anyone at all does not mean that everything is OK. Right and wrong still exist."

For the life of me, I can't see the difference between what Brad W. is saying here and "Bottom line, whatever works for you." He says it's about 'discovering' what works, not simply accepting what master X says without question. He says he's not going to bamboozle us with quotes from renowned authorities...but now points to Nishijima roshi's opinion about focusing the eyes during zazen as if that settles the question.

Whatever happened to "doubtboy"? Has he morphed into 'true believer kid? Doesn't NOT having set lists of hard and fast rules mean that we should question and determine what actually works for us?

"What works for you" means you accept what massages your ego and reject what doesn't."

Again, this seems to directly contradict what he says about Buddhism being about 'discovering' what works and what doesn't. His advice here seems to come perilously close to 'just do what I tell you without questioning.' I'm reminded of all those quotes in Brian Victoria's book (Zen at War) where various zen masters equate simply following orders or obeying the emperor to being without ego. Decades ago I was told similar things about questioning the value of certain rituals or belief in literal rebirth...that such questioning is the result of ego. 'Just go along, follow the program.' I completely rejected this way of thinking back then and I still do today. Nor do I think it has anything to do with ego. Directly seeing the nature of the self is not about becoming a doormat or a blind, unquestioning follower.

I'm certainly no advocate of some type of 'anything goes' zen. Sitting in your lazyboy and spacing out isn't zen meditation, as Brad rightly points out. But to me there seems to be a middle way between dogmatic, authoritarian, my way or the highway zen and a mushy, new-agey 'everthing is zen' attitude. If I had said; "Bottom what works for you." then all of Brad's points would have been spot-on. As far as my reference to the 'official' zen position on eyes, I was referring to what I had been taught at a zen center and what I've read in various books on zen practice.(* see links below) Eyes open but 'un'focused. Nishijima roshi is the first I recall that suggested the eyes should remain focused. I have never noticed that simply straightening the spine has any effect upon the blurred vision of unfocused gaze.

What about the 84,00 dharma gates? The Buddha made extensive use of upaya or skillful means in his teachings. All of this seems to be a recognition that what 'works' for one type of person may not for another. I sit zazen in full-lotus with my eyes open but unfocused. (It was this 'unfocused' that I refer to when I said 'blurring'.) Even though I find this seems to work well for me, I have no argument with those that recommend sitting in some other posture or closing the eyes.

I've been a big fan of Brad's writings for years. I've given countless links to his blog and recommended Hardcore Zen as one of the best zen books ever written in modern times. I have great respect for his approach to zazen. I just don't think it is the only authentic or valid approach or that all other teachings that disagree with his are crap. There's a wide range of opinions on whether the eyes should be open, half-open, or focused.

"Your eyes should be unfocused and directed toward the floor 3 to 4 feet ahead, neither fully open nor fully closed. (If you are facing a near-by wall, then 'look through it', toward where the floor would be). Thus, blinking is minimized."
"n zen meditation, we sit with our eyes open. This means that your eyes should not be wide open and they should not be closed, but somewhere in between. You shouldn't be staring at anything or even have your eyes focused."
"Eyes are kept half open, not drooping, not strained.
Eyes are lowered 45-degrees from level.
Hold a broad, unfocused gaze1 meter (3+ feet) out in front of you (through the wall, if facing a wall, or to the floor) to minimize blinking. "
(7) ALLOW EYES TO COMFORTABLY REST: You may either keep your eyes two-thirds open or close them. If eyes are partially left open, gaze 3 to 4 feet ahead on the floor or at a bare wall. Allow eyes to rest. No focusing required. Experienced practitioners, not subject to drowsiness during zen/mindfulness sitting, may close eyes. For more details read chapter 2: Zen/Mindfulness Posture.

Anonymous said...

You people talk wwwwaaaayyyyyy too much.

Anonymous said...

I agree "What works for you" doesn't seem right if it translates to "what is most comfortable to you."

But "what works" can also mean "skillful means" of applying intensity to sitting. I have been taught the 'angle gaze 45 deg. down' method, but have heard (quite hardcore Soto) teachers add, 'if you find you need to let more light in to keep your concentration, try keeping your gaze more level.' I think Zen has no problem observing "what works" -- the question is, is it what works for the path of awakening, or is it what works to make zazen a more pleasant diversion.

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