This koan contains the most profound truth of the buddhadharma—the personal experience of awakening that has been transmitted mind-to-mind since the time of the Buddha. This direct realization is what all of Zen practice and training are for. This is why we sit; indeed this is what zazen, liturgy, working with a teacher—what all of the upaya, or skillful means of Zen—is ultimately for. This koan also takes us back to the beginning of the Zen school in the person of Prajnatara, Bodhidharma’s teacher. Bodhidharma, whom Zen credits with having founded this school, was whole-heartedly dedicated to seated meditation as a path to awakening.

In this koan, the Raja asks Prajnatara, “Why don’t you read scriptures?” Studying the direct teachings of the Buddha and other enlightened masters has always been an essential practice within Buddhism. It would be unimaginable that a sincere practitioner, including an awakened master, wouldn’t study the sutras. Prajnatara responds, “This poor wayfarer doesn’t dwell in the realms of body and mind when breathing in, doesn’t get involved in myriad circumstances when breathing out. I always reiterate just such a scripture, hundreds, thousands, millions of scrolls.” Breathing in and breathing out—what sort of scripture is this?

Throughout his teachings, Dogen presents zazen as the one true dharma gate. During his lifetime, just as in our time, people often misunderstood zazen. When we don’t understand zazen clearly, we’re unlikely to practice it clearly. Zazen, like every other aspect of our lives, can become a practice of extremes; indulging in our desires or being lost in passiveness. In Bendowa, or The Wholehearted Way, Dogen speaks to this, saying, “If you think that the samadhi of all buddhas, their unsurpassable great method of zazen, is just sitting uselessly, doing nothing, then you do not understand in the most serious of ways.”

What is zazen? When genuine trust in practice is present, then genuine practice becomes possible. We tend to naturally trust what we experience with our senses; they determine what we accept as the “real” world. We rely on the apparent solidity of things to assure us that things are just as they appear. But when we leave that behind and enter into a realm beyond the reach of our senses, we have entered into a kind of wilderness. It’s a realm that we have not traveled before, where every step is truly unknown and we have no idea of what’s ahead. To go there takes profound trust. You can’t rely on what is familiar, on what you know. And so that trust, in and of itself, becomes our guide. To arrive at the state before the beginning of time—this is not an ordinary journey.