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Shikantaza (只管打坐) is Dogen's Japanese translation of the Chinese phrase zhǐguǎn dǎzuò (只管打坐 / 祇管 打坐),[web 1] "just sitting." The phrase was used by his teacher Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Chan 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). In Japan, it is associated with the Zen 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 of Zhǐguǎn dǎzuò (只管打坐 / 祇管 打坐)[web 1] "just sitting," "nothing but sitting," "meditation of just sitting,"[web 1] “just mind [yourself] sitting.” 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), sitting in dhyana, which may also be practiced while walking, standing or lying down.
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." 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 (Chinese mòzhào 默照; Japanese mokushō). 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”.
"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).
With the phrase shikantaza Dōgen means "doing only zazen whole-heartedly" or "single-minded sitting." According to Merv Fowler, shikantaza is described best as "quiet sitting in open awareness, reflecting directly the reality of life." According to Austin, shikantaza is "an alert condition, performed erect, with no trace of sluggishness or drowsiness." 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.'
Zen master John Daido Loori describes shikantaza as a challenging practice in spite of its name's simplicity. Mental strength (joriki) is not achieved through sustained concentration as in breath meditation, but through awareness of the flow of mind, without actively attempting to let go of a thought. The user must watch its thoughts, "without analyzing them, judging them, attempting to understand or categorize them," being only aware of them. According to him, this helps mental activity move on and produce samadhi.
When you're doing shikantaza you don't try to focus on anything specifically, or to make thoughts go away. You simply allow everything to be just the way it is. Thoughts come, thoughts go, and you simply watch them, you keep your awareness on them. It takes a lot of energy and persistence to sit shikantaza, to not get caught up in daydreaming. But little by little, thoughts begin to slow down, and finally they cease to arise. When the thought disappears, the thinker disappears.
Commenting on Loori's words, meditation expert Eric Harrison likens shikantaza to a psychological process of extinction, in which repeated reduction of a behavioral response eventually leads to no response.
Loori describes awareness as the one thing necessary to the practice of shikantaza. This requires a heightened state of mental alertness, which he warns cannot be maintained for too long periods of time. He recommends to practice shikantaza half an hour to an hour, then stand up and practice kinhin in order to relax the mind before sitting down and continuing.
Shunryū Suzuki states about shikantaza, "do not try to stop your mind, but leave everything as it is. Then things will not stay in your mind for so long. Things will come as they come and go as they go. Eventually your clear, empty mind will last fairly long." For his part, describing the practice's goal as being simply aware of thoughts without getting caught by them, Sean Murphy cites Taizan Maezumi as advising to "regard our thoughts as if they were clouds, watching them as they drift from one end to the mind to the other, but making no attempt to hold onto them - and when they pass over the horizon, as they inevitably will, making no attempt to grasp after them.
Jundo Cohen warns that its meaning of "just sitting" must not be taken too literally, and underlines the importance of awareness. When faced against strong emotions or anxious thoughts, Cohen instructs to simply observe them with equanimity, "treating them like passing weather clouds". At the same time, he stresses not to play with and being pulled in by thoughts. He compares shikantaza to "the children's puzzle of Chinese finger cuffs, which are escaped not by forceful effort, but by non-resistance". Only by dropping the hunt for enlightenment, accepting everything without grasping or avoiding, can enlightenment be found in it.
A modern technique described as similar to shikantaza is called "Do Nothing Meditation" by Shinzen Young. The user is instructed to let go of all mental intentions, without trying to meditate or concentrate in any way. Any distraction or thought is allowed, unless the user feels they are intentionally thinking or doing something, in whose case they must stop this intention and let it go, including any possible struggle at it. As a result, "eventually the mind feels very spacious, open, and relaxed, but also bright, clear, and vivid".