Below is Koan 129 from Dogen’s collection of 300 Koans that goes into “non-thinking” in relation to thinking/not-thinking. First you find “The Main Case” which has, at the end of each line a footnote number. After “The Commentary” and “The Capping Verse” there are “The Footnotes” by John Daido Loori, to which the numbers refer. Below the footnotes I have included John Daido Loori’s Contemporary Commentary on Dogen’s text. Enjoy!
From Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo – 300 Koans:
Case 129: “Yoashan’s Non-Thinking”
The Main Case
When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation, 1
a monk asked, 2
“What do you think about as you sit in steadfast composure?” 3
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.” 4
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?” 5
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.” 6
Abide in neither thinking nor not thinking. Thinking is linear and sequential, a separation from the reality that is the subject of thought, and thus is an abstraction rather than the reality itself. Not thinking is suppressive. It cuts away thoughts the moment they arise, making the mind into a great impenetrable mountain – dead, unresponsive. Non-thinking has no such edges. It is the boundless mind of samadhi that neither holds on to, nor lets go of, thoughts. It is the manifestation of the buddha mind, in which the dualism of self and other, thinking and not thinking, dissolves. This is the dharma of thusness that is the “right thought” of all the buddhas in the ten directions.
The Capping Verse
When the dharma wheel turns
it always goes in both directions.
The still point is its hub, and from here,
all of our myriad activities emerge.
Rather than give solace to the body,
give solace to the mind.
When both body and mind are at peace,
all things appear as they are:
perfect, complete, lacking nothing.
1 What is he doing? Even Kasho Buddha didn’t attain it with hundreds of kalpas of zazen.
2 Why doesn’t he leave the old man alone?
3 Huh? What are you thinking, venerable monk, in asking such a question?
4 He’s much too kind. It really can’t be explained; he’s just setting the monk to thinking.
5 Now they’re both in the same hole. Just shut up and sit.
6 How kind. But say, what does it mean?
John Daido Loori’s Contemporary Commentary
One of Dogen’s fascicles concerned with shikan-taza (“just sitting”) is titled Zazenshin. It is usually translated as “Admonishments for Zazen” but Carl Bielefeldt translated it as “Lancet of Seated Meditation,” which is a beautiful image for shikantaza. A lancet is a scalpel, a precise, very sharp surgical instrument that is used to cut away all the extra. That is what happens in shikantaza. We cut away all the stuff that we hold on to. Thoughts continuously arise but our attention dissolves them.
In his fascicle called Learning Through the Body and Mind, Dogen says, “The stage of non-thinking is beyond egocentric cognition. If you reach the state of non-thinking you will realize the true luminous nature of mind. Non-thinking must become the eye through which you view phenomena. The activity of every buddha is based on non-thinking.”
So what is this non-thinking? In The Thirty-Seven Conditions Favorable to Enlightenment, Dogen quotes: “An ancient buddha (Yaoshan) said, ‘Think non-thinking. How? By using non-thinking.’ This is right thought; sitting until the cushion is worn away is also right thought.” He very clearly distinguishes non-thinking from not thinking.
So what is Dogen referring to when he talks about right thought? In this koan it says, “When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation…” Yaoshan was a successor of Shitou and the teacher of Yunyan, who in turn was the teacher of Dongshan, one of the founders of the Soto school. Yaoshan’s practice of sitting in steadfast composure is the tradition of Buddhism correctly transmitted to him down through thirty-six generations beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha.
But what does it mean to sit in steadfast composure? I added some footnotes to clarify the koan. The first footnote says, “What is he doing? Even Kasho Buddha didn’t attain it with hundreds of kalpas (aeons) of zazen.” And the next line says, “A monk asked…” and the footnote says, “Why doesn’t he leave the old man alone?”
And the case continues, “What do you think about sitting in steadfast composure?” The footnote says, “Huh? What are you thinking, venerable monk, in asking such a question?”
The next sentence in the case says, “Yaoshan said, ‘I think not thinking.'” The footnote says, “He’s much too kind. It really can’t be explained, he’s just setting the monk to thinking.”
That’s what happens with koans. Students read the question and when they don’t immediately understand it, they begin to think about it because that’s the way we’ve all been taught to solve problems. That’s the way we’ve earned our little gold stars in elementary school and our A’s in college-through good old linear, sequential thought.
But thinking doesn’t help in seeing a koan. A whole other aspect of consciousness needs to open up. We need to exhaust that process of linear thinking, and when the mind finally stops functioning, out of the blue the realization of the koan appears. It is like a quantum leap. It’s a very different way of using the mind. It is non-thinking that is neither intellectual nor based on the subconscious.
In the next line the monk asks, “How do you think not thinking?” The footnote says, “Now they’re both in the same hole. Just shut up and sit.”
That’s ultimately what you’re going to be left with – just sitting. There is no handbook that tells you how to go beyond thinking and not thinking. You just have to sit, and it’s through the process of sitting that you will realize Yaoshan’s non-thinking.
The final line is, “Yaoshan said, ‘Non-thinking.'” The footnote says, “How kind. But say, what does it mean?” Indeed, what does it mean?
In the commentary it says, “Abide in neither thinking nor not thinking.” Thinking is one side. It’s linear, sequential. On the other side you have not thinking, which is blank consciousness. We call this state “eyes staring out of the coffin” or “making a living in a ghost cave” or “being stuck on top of the mountain.”
Dogen’s Zen and Yaoshan’s Zen and the Zen of the great masters wasn’t about leaving the world, it was about manifesting the dharma in our everyday activities. Thinking falls on one side, not thinking falls on the other side. How do we leap clear of these two extremes?
Yaoshan says: by non-thinking.
Non-thinking has no such edges. It’s the boundless mind of samadhi that neither holds on to, nor lets go of, thoughts. But this doesn’t mean suppressing thoughts either. In my years of practice I’ve seen a lot of Western students trying to forcibly quiet the mind by making it a big barrier that keeps things out. I’ve run into students who have been working on mu (link to mu) for ten or more years who are like boilers ready to explode because they’ve been suppressing stuff that needs to come up and be let go of.
There’s no way that you’re going to see mu if you’re suppressing or holding on to anything. The mind must be truly emptied out before you can be mu. When the mind is finally empty, all the dualistic ways of looking at things disappear: thinking, not thinking; holding on, letting go; being, non-being; existence, non-existence. All gone. This is the dharma of the Middle Way; it is the practice of just sitting.
(source: shikantazanreadergen.pdf p. 38 – 40)