Shikantaza meditation is the main practice of the Soto Zen tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Shikantaza translates from Japanese to “just sitting.” Essentially, it is a practice of deep mindfulness. What this means is that the practitioner does not focus on an “object” of any sort, not the breath, not the thoughts or emotions of mind, but just on the posture, and the “emptiness” of the mind. It is the meditation of the mind watching the mind. Instead of focusing on the breath as in Shamata meditation, the practitioner puts the awareness on awareness itself; the rising and falling, the coming and going of thought, the sensations of pain in posture of the body in the lotus positions, the rigidness of the mind, and to Dogen, “not- thinking versus non-thinking.” The goal isn’t to have a completely blacked out mind, but instead to go beyond thinking all together.
To Dogen Zenji, (the founder of Soto Zen in Japan), Shikantaza is the literal practice of Buddhahood, the sitting in enlightenment, the practice of enlightenment. When someone is practising Shikantaza, one lets go of desires, stress, objects, goals, and method, to be fully present in the moment and in the mind and in the body. This meditation practice is in Dogens words; “casting off of the mind and body.” Remaining simpleminded in the present of what ever comes up in the mind, to return back to the present. Not focusing on thoughts, feelings of sensations as separate bracketed information, but as a greater whole, without judgement or fixating, just simply observing.
The history of Shikantaza comes from the Soto School of the Zen Tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Dogen Zenji, this traditions founder, wrote about Shikantaza in his book called the Shobogenzo. In Mahayana Buddhism, meditation is a key component in actualizing the “right concentration” and “right mindfulness” of the Eight-fold Path.
This form of meditation is extremely useful in overcoming stress and emotional discord in our every day lives. It’s practice is to maintain mindfulness and awareness of all distracting and afflicting emotions and events that enter our lives. Shikantaza and Zazen (Sitting Meditation) is not to remain on the cushion when meditation is finished, but to be a literal practice that we carry over throughout the day. When events take place that bring stress, anxiety, worry, the practitioner returns to the present, being aware without judgement, recognising the event and letting go. Relaxing, and observing, rather than fixating on what comes. Thoughts and emotions are in this tradition are sides of the same coin, when they pop into the mind and the heart, our natural reaction is to grasp onto them. Shikantaza teaches to instead simply observe and let them go. Shunryu Suzuki states that; “Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”
Meditation in Zen has been shown to help a great deal in many aspects of emotional, and mental health. Meditation works with the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, while reducing activity in the right prefrontal cortex. The left side is connected with positivism, happiness, and feeling calm. This assists with depression, and anxiety. Zen Meditation also works with improving sleep, and connecting more mentally with the body, improving the immune system and sleep cycles. Since the conventional means of purpose for this meditation practice is that of improving happiness, (while the ultimate means is that of enlightenment from the Buddhist perspective) and positivity, the practice of letting go of stress and emotions creates an atmosphere in the mind that is better suited for creating more feelings of calmness and less anxiety and stress in the everyday life of the practitioner.