Shikantaza (只管打坐) is Dogen's Japanese translation of the Chinese phrase zhǐguǎn dǎzuò (只管打坐 / 祇管 打坐),[1][web 1] "just sitting."[2][3] The phrase was used by his teacher Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Zen Buddhism, to refer to the meditation-practice called "Silent Illumination" (Chinese: 默照禅), or "Serene Reflection," taught by the Caodong master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157).[2] In Japan, it is associated with the Soto school. In shikantaza one does not focus attention on a specific object (such as the breath); instead, practitioners "just sit" in a state of conscious awareness.


The term shikantaza is the Sino-Japanese reading[1] of Zhǐguǎn dǎzuò (只管打坐 / 祇管 打坐)[1][web 1] "just sitting,"[2][3] "nothing but sitting,"[4] "meditation of just sitting,"[web 1] “just mind [yourself] sitting.”[5] Zhǐguǎn dǎzuò (只管打坐 / 祇管打坐) translates as follows:

According to Buswell and Lopez, shikantaza may simply be used by Dogen as a synonym for “sitting in meditation” (zazen),[6] sitting in dhyana, which may also be practiced while walking, standing or lying down.[7]

James Ishmael Ford states that "some trace the root of this word [shikantaza] to the Japanese pronunciation of Sanskrit vipassana, though this is far from certain."[3] This etymological error about 只管 (shikan, "only," "just") is rooted in the fact that Japanese has many homophones pronounced shikan. It stems from a more commonly used Japanese word, namely 止観 (shikan, "concentration and observation"[note 1] (as practiced by the Tendai sect) that translates the Sanskrit "śamatha and vipaśyanā," the two basic forms of Buddhist meditation.[note 2]

The phrase zhǐguǎn dǎzuò ("just sitting") was used by Dōgen's teacher Tiantong Rujing (1162-1228) for silent illumination[2] (Chinese mòzhào 默照; Japanese mokushō).[8] According to Koten Benson, in mochao

The first character, mo, has an element in it that means black or darkness, making the whole character signify “dark, secret, silent, serene, profound” and also “to close the lips, to become silent”. The second character, chao, has as element meaning “the brightness of the sun”. The whole character translates as “to reflect light, to shine on, to illume or enlighten”, as well as “to reflect upon, to look upon, to have insight into”. The whole term thus becomes “serene reflection”, “silent illumination” or “luminescent darkness”.[9]


"Silent illumination" or "silent reflection" was the hallmark of the Chinese Caodong school of Chan.[web 2] The first Chan teacher to articulate silent illumination was the Caodong master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091—1157), who wrote an inscription entitled "silent illumination meditation" (Mokushō zen 默照禅 or Mòzhào chán 默照禪).[10]

With the phrase shikantaza Dōgen means "doing only zazen whole-heartedly"[11] or "single-minded sitting."[12] According to Merv Fowler, shikantaza is described best as "quiet sitting in open awareness, reflecting directly the reality of life."[13] According to Austin, shikantaza is "an alert condition, performed erect, with no trace of sluggishness or drowsiness."[14] Fred Reinhard Dallmayr writes,

Regarding practice, Dogen counseled a distinctly nonattached or nonclinging kind of action, that is, an activity completely unconcerned with benefits or the accomplishment of ulterior goals: the activity of 'just sitting' or 'nothing-but-sitting' (shikantaza) whereby self-seeking is set aside in a manner resembling a resolute 'dropping off of body and mind.'[15]

See also


  1. ^ Watanabe Toshirō (渡邊敏郎), Edmund R. Skrzypczak, and Paul Snowden, eds. (2003), Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary (新和英大辞典), 5th edition, Kenkyusha, 1125. This bilingual dictionary lists 止観 and 21 other words pronounced shikan (e.g., 仕官 "government service" and 弛緩 "relaxation") but not shikan 只管.
  2. ^ The term shikan (止観) is derived from Chinese zhǐguān (止觀, "[Buddhism] keep mental calm while observing the universe" (cf. the Mohe Zhiguan)DeFrancis (2003, p. 1267)), which compounds shi or zhǐ (止 ("stop," "stabilize," "śamatha") and kan or guān (觀, "observe," "contemplate," "vipaśyanā"). An instance of the confusion of 止観 for 只管 is Steve Hagen's claim that "shi [Hagen is referring to Dōgen's '只'] means tranquility [= '止'], kan [Hagen is referring to Dōgen's '管'] means awareness [= '観'], ta means hitting exactly the right spot (not one atom off), and za means to sit."Hagen (2007, p. 189)


  1. ^ a b c d e DeFrancis (2003), p. 1267, 182.
  2. ^ a b c d Leighton (2000), p. 17.
  3. ^ a b c Ford (2006), p. 29-30.
  4. ^ Fischer-Schreiber, Schuhmacher & Woerner (1989), p. 321.
  5. ^ Shengyen (2008), p. 94.
  6. ^ Buswell Jr. & Lopez Jr. (2014), p. Entry: shikan taza.
  7. ^ Buswell Jr. & Lopez Jr. (2014), p. Entry: zuochan.
  8. ^ Benson & 1989).
  9. ^ Benson (1989).
  10. ^ Leighton (2000), p. xii.
  11. ^ Akishige (1977), p. 18.
  12. ^ Shaner (1985), p. 158.
  13. ^ Fowler (2005), p. 96.
  14. ^ Austin (1998), p. 76.
  15. ^ Dallmayr (1998), p. 178-179.


Printed sources
  • Austin, James H. (1998). Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-51109-6.
  • Akishige, Yoshiharu (1977). Psychological Studies on Zen. Komazawa University Zen Institute. OCLC 5052397.
  • Benson, Koten Benson (1989), "Serene Reflection", The Journal of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, 4 (1): 33–35
  • Buswell Jr., Robert E.; Lopez Jr., Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press
  • Dallmyr, Fred Reinhard (1996). Beyond Orientalism: Essays on Cross-Cultural Encounter. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-3069-3. OCLC 42330289.
  • Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid; Schuhmacher, Stephan; Woerner, Gert (1989). The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen. ISBN 0-87773-980-3.
  • Ford, James Ishmael (2006). Zen Master Who?: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-509-8.
  • Fowler, Merv (2005). Zen Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices. Sussex Academic Press. ISBN 1-902210-42-5.
  • Hagen, Steve (2007). Meditation Now Or Never. HarperOne. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-06-114329-8.
  • Leighton, Taigen Dan (2000), Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, Tuttle
  • Shaner, David Edward (1985). The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism: A Phenomenological Perspective of Kūkai and Dōgen. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-88706-061-7. OCLC 59254799.
  • Shengyen (2008). The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination. Shambhala. ISBN 978-1-59030-575-1.
  1. ^ a b c d e f Charles Muller, Dictionary of Buddhism, 2010.
  2. ^ Muller, A. Charles, ed.: The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, ed. of 04/03/2008, Chinese Readings Index (Pinyin System) [1]

Further reading