There’s an important Zen story in The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, in Case 129:

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

The first two lines are straightforward: Yaoshan’s meditating and a monk asks what he’s thinking about. The third line gets tricky: What does Yaoshan mean by “I think not thinking?” And that’s just what the monk asks in the fourth line. But it’s the fifth line where a deeper challenge emerges: What does it mean to “think non-thinking?” What is “non-thinking?” Is it deliberately mystifying wordplay? Is it a bad translation?

This case has been a touchstone for Zen students partly because Dogen Zenji, the founder in Japan of the Soto Zen school, used it in his teaching on the nature and importance of zazen. In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen says this: “Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.”

He goes on to say: “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when she enters the mountain. For you must know that just there (in zazen) the right Dharma is manifesting itself and that, from the first, dullness and distraction are struck aside.”

There it is, according to Dogen: Non-thinking is the essential art of zazen which is the manifestation of ultimate reality. So what is this non-thinking and how’s it done? I think playing with the word “agency” helps answer these questions.

When I hear the word “agency” I usually think of something like an advertising agency or an insurance agency. But the root meaning of the word is broader. “Agency” is defined as a thing or person acting to produce a result. Under this definition the word “agency” describes how we relate to life most of the time.

We’re agents in our lives. Our relationship to life rests on a basically dualistic view of existence: there’s me and the world and I act upon the world (and the world acts upon me). I have things to do, problems to be solved. In other words, I have agendas. Clearly “agenda” is a word deriving from the same root as “agency.” I have lots of agendas, some conscious and some not. I have agendas about big life goals, I have agendas related to my relationships, I have to-do lists which are small tactical agendas, and when I examine closely how my mind operates, I notice that thoughts arise in relation to various agendas, large and small: to solve a problem, to figure something out, to arouse or resolve questions or feelings, and so forth. There’s mental “noise” in the background – fragments of songs, random words, etc. – but there’s almost always at least one current of purpose running through the thinking that’s going on.

This kind of thinking is ordinary everyday mental activity. But there’s another kind of awareness not centered in this type of thinking. It’s awareness – you could even say it’s a kind of thinking – that is without an agenda. Awareness that is present with whatever arises. Zazen is a practice that nourishes this kind of awareness. This is what Dogen and Yaoshan are calling non-thinking.

In Japanese Soto Zen, another name for non-thinking is shikantaza. It is wide awake awareness that is simply present with what arises, an awareness in which awareness itself and the contents of awareness are unseparated. We don’t apply tools like evaluation, analysis, or logic to what arises. These are habits of mind mobilized to serve our agendas. And if these habits do mobilize in zazen, they’re simply accepted as more scenery within our spacious awareness, no different from the sound of a bird outside or a twinge of stiffness in the neck. In other words, breath by breath, we drop any agenda. We abide, wide awake, in non-agency. This is thinking non-thinking.

Why did Yaoshan say “thinking non-thinking” rather than just saying “I’m not thinking?” I think it’s because there is effort involved in zazen; the mind is fully engaged and absorbed. It’s a kind of stillness, but it’s a dynamic stillness. The thinking equipment is actively engaged in non-thinking. In other words, it’s not a “not-doing;” it’s a “different doing.”

Maybe it’s helpful to consider other instances of how “not” and “non” have different meanings. For example, if you say Joe is not confrontive, that has one meaning. But if you say Joe is non-confrontive, that’s different. “Not confrontive” tells us Joe doesn’t engage in confrontive behavior. But “non-confrontive” tells us that not only does he not confront; it affirmatively suggests a range of different behavior that might be harmonizing, inclusive, etc.

Returning to the case of Yaoshan, there’s a 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.

“When the dharma wheel turns/it always goes in both directions.” It’s good to remember not to get stuck on some idea that non-thinking is a superior state or that it can exist separately from thinking. Activity and stillness are inseparable, like noise and silence. These are examples of the “both directions.” The “still point” is what is actualized in non-thinking shikantaza, but it’s not the end of activity and thinking, it’s the beginning.

I take the reference to “the body” and “the mind” as though they are two separate things as a reminder not to get lost in outward activity at the expense of turning inward. If we neglect to shine the light inward, we won’t see or fully enjoy or actualize the potential of what’s there, both inside and out: “all things as they are: perfect, complete, lacking nothing.”