Will Collum, 3
Interview with Will Collum
Can you describe how you meditate today, including details?
I sit in the mornings, prior to breaking fast, anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes depending on how the morning schedule is going, 40 minutes on the weekends. Normally I'm in Burmese position on a kapok zafu but will sometimes sit in seiza if Burmese position won't work, as when I had an injured knee. I often light a single candle. A reading from a Toaist or Buddhist devotional book is usually next. I set a timer to end the period and then I ring a small brass bell, one of the little thick-walled bowl-on-a-cushion kind. I make gassho and begin.
The practice is straight shikantaza: As things- thoughts, emotions, images, physical sensations, whatever- arise, I attempt to let them go, neither engaging nor suppressing them. To observe and be aware only is the idea. When I realize I've engaged with something, I let it go and return to center. Also, for me, there's always a certain bit of dealing with the muscles of the middle back to get them to relax and so that is inevitably part of it.
The gist and theme of all aspects of it is one of release, of letting go. It is much like being still enough to let the silt settle and disappear so that the waters clear. If there is a goal, and one could argue that there isn't exactly. It's to simply and only be present and aware of whatever is there. When the timer goes off, I dismiss it, make gassho and ring the bell. Then, the rest of the day begins.
Is there anything more you can tell me about shikantaza? How is it different from sitting Zazen?
Shikantaza is a form of zazen. This Wikipedia article gives a better description than I can, I think. The second section of the article on "Methods" gives a nice summary that is consistent with my experience. In particular the distinction between koans and shikantaza, the latter being described as "objectless". I did do some breath counting in the beginning but switched to shikantaza soon afterward. For about a year and a half, I sat at the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priori on Wednesday evenings, and the practice there is shikantaza.
The monk there related a story from Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett in which one of her students finally grasped the simplicity of it and said something on the order of "Ohhhhhh, you really do mean 'just sit'!" which is a literal translation of shikantaza. People often want to ask- do you do this or that? And the answer is always, "Nope. You just sit." It's sort of comical, actually. Like Buddhism itself, it's very, very simple in concept, difficult to execute.
Have you had any issues yourself with just sitting without doing anything else?
I think my mind has a tendency to wander off with a thought and play a while but I'm able to come back without judging it for the most part. I'm told that's normal. Nothing I've read or heard from the more experienced people I've been around makes me think that I'm unusual. I don't think of myself as having issues with meditation. (The question makes me smile a little bit. Words are hard to use to describe scenarios within one's mind. It would seem almost impossible to really know if I have issues or not because it's so hard to communicate objectively about these things.)