By Emily J. Weitz
“Zazen is useless,” says Sensei Michel Dobbs of the Zen meditation practice. And that is exactly why it is so important. Dobbs is a Zen priest and a co-teacher at the Ocean Zendo in Sagaponack, and after his more than 20 years with the practice, he calls Zazen “goal-less.”
“Zazen is very simple,” he says. “It’s about being awake and aware with where you are. We all tend to have goals, but they wear off.”
Dobbs guides several Zazen sessions weekly at the Ocean Zendo. Practitioners find a comfortable seat where they can be for an extended period of time, and then they sit. Practitioners are encouraged to breathe into the belly, which is called the Hara – the center of the body. Once the focus is on the breath, the thoughts seem to have a different quality.
“The mind is like the stomach,” says Dobbs. “The stomach excretes juices and gases and you can’t shut it off. The mind excretes reactions to a stimulus and you can’t shut it off. But when we are sitting, it’s about realizing a Self that is beyond only the mind.”
This is the practice. Not to stop the thoughts from coming, not to analyze them to understand them in their complexity. But to separate from them.
This Saturday at Canio’s in Sag Harbor, Dobbs will speak about Zazen, and riddles without answers.
“Generally people identify very strongly with thoughts and opinions,” says Dobbs. “Our practice is to not believe everything we think. We aren’t trying to stop the thoughts, but to understand that we are not them.”
In the Zen practice, there are various techniques to help put space between the individual and his or her thoughts. One such technique, which is somewhat advanced, is the Zen Koan.
“The Koans seem like riddles,” explains Dobbs. “But riddles have answers, and Koans don’t have answers.”
Usually a Koan practice is developed with a teacher.
“Just meeting with a teacher and sitting face to face and expressing yourself honestly and openly is a big challenge for most of us,” says Dobbs.
Once a student begins the Koan practice, they’ll be presented with one of these stories.
“Koans are stories about old teachers’ expressions of a certain understanding, or a certain awakening. They’re different types of stories, and some will point directly to something. For example, one Koan says that a student came to see the Buddha and said ‘I want to argue with you about the truth.’ And the Buddha said, ‘Well, if we argued, then it wouldn’t be the truth.’ So the teaching there is about what is truth.”
The idea is that when a practitioner is sitting in their Zazen practice, they can bring this Koan in to go deeper into their meditation. But Dobbs warns that he can explain it all he wants; it’s not something you can really understand until you do it.
“I could tell you what it means,” says Dobbs, “but if I told you I had a good dinner last night, it wouldn’t help your hunger. Koan is like that. It’s a practice and you have to experience it. But it’s an interesting and playful way of becoming free of our thoughts and ideas.”
There are many thousands of Koans, compiled in volumes. At the Ocean Zendo they usually start with a compilation of 40 koans called “The Gateless Gate.”
At Canio’s Books this Saturday evening, Dobbs will guide a conversation inspired by the book “Bring Me The Rhinoceros” by John Tarrant, a book that contains some playful Zen Koans. When Dobbs met Tarrant, he asked him how he makes Koan accessible to people who are interested.
“The practice is so intimate,” Dobbs says. “I wondered how to open it up to a group. But [Tarrant] said he was just interested in waking people up. He said ‘This is about waking ourselves up and waking everybody up’. I was invigorated by that answer.”
That’s why he selected “Bring Me The Rhinoceros” to guide this conversation.
“It’s an interesting way to work with these questions, which are of concern to most of us,” says Dobbs. “We don’t realize we are concerned with them until we get bad news from the doctor. They are important questions we can work with in our lives to be better prepared when we face them. And we all face them. Even though these questions are deep, and maybe not for a Saturday night, they are, if you happen to find yourself at Canio’s that particular night.”
“Freeing Your Mind: An Introduction to Zazen and Zen Koans will take place at Canio’s on Saturday, February 16 at 5pm.