Thinking is not what it’s about. Usually when we think of awareness, we think of thinking: that’s a birch tree, that’s a deer, that’s the river, that’s a storm coming. But Yunmen is saying it’s not about thinking. What does it mean to be aware? How do we do it?

The commentary says, “This monk came to Yunmen seeking crumbs and was instead served a six-course meal.” He got a lot more than he asked for. “Lowering your head and lingering in thought, trying to figure it out with your intellect, simply moves you further and further from the truth. Yet if you don’t pay attention, you will surely miss it. Now tell me, without falling into the intellect, without being caught up in affirmation and negation, how do you understand paying attention without thinking?” And then the commentary itself gives an answer: “Haven’t you heard Master Yaoshan’s teaching, ‘Think not-thinking’? How do you think not-thinking? Nonthinking.”

Thinking is linear and sequential. It is an abstraction of reality rather than reality itself. Notthinking is suppressive: it cuts away thoughts the moment they arise, making the mind into a great, impenetrable mountain, dead and unresponsive. Nonthinking has no such edges: it is the boundless mind of samadhi that neither holds on nor lets go of thoughts. It is the manifestation of the buddha mind in which dualism of self and other, thinking and not-thinking, dissolve.

In Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendations for Zazen) Dogen says: “Let go of all associations; put all affairs aside; do not think of good or evil; do not be concerned with right and wrong. Put aside the operation of your intellect, volition, consciousness; stop considering things with your memory, imagination, and contemplation. Do not seek to become a buddha. To be buddha has nothing to do with the forms of sitting or lying down.” And then he adds, “Sway your body from left to right a few times. Sit stably in samadhi. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of notthinking? Nonthinking. This is the essential way of zazen… The zazen of which I am talking about is not learning meditation. It’s simply the dharma gate of peace and joy. It is the practice/enlightenment of the ultimate Way. In doing zazen, the koan manifests itself. It cannot be ensnared. When you grasp this, you’re like a dragon entering the water or a tiger roaming the mountains.”

He’s essentially talking about awareness, which means unprocessed attention. When I touch a cup I immediately know if it’s soft or hard, cold or warm. I have some sense of whether it’s made of iron, steel, glass, or plastic. My mind quickly processes all this information until it identifies the object as a cup. And although identification is very important for our survival, it is just one way of using our mind. There’s also a place for just being aware without processing so that we don’t spend our lives in a stupor, or just sleep-walking.

Some years ago a group from the Monastery went up to the Adirondacks for one of our wilderness retreats and at one point I was alone on a trail near the campsite. I was just enjoying the woods sitting right next to the trail when I began to hear sounds in the distance. After a while, five Boy Scouts walked by. Not one of them saw me even though they passed about two feet away from me. Finally, just as the last one walked by I called out, “Hi,” and he almost jumped out of his skin. So you tell me, what were they doing? Why were they doing it? They might as well have stayed home and played a video game.

“Haven’t you heard Master Yaoshan’s teaching, ‘Think not-thinking’? How do you think notthinking? Nonthinking.” The commentary goes on to say, “We should understand clearly that nonthinking is not just to transcend thinking and not-thinking but to realize both as this very life itself.” It is neither form nor emptiness, neither self nor other, neither heaven nor earth, neither being nor non-being. It’s the nondual dharma. So it’s not thinking, and it’s not not-thinking; it’s not both; it’s not neither. Then what is it? What is that state of mind that Yaoshan is calling nonthinking? This is the state of mind that we cultivate in shikantaza. And when we reach this place, we’ve entered the realm of the buddhas.