A famous depiction of Master Bodhidharma.
Master Dogen began this text about sitting Zen by presenting the Buddhist philosophical view that everything is already perfect as it is. This idea, in and of itself, is not really much use to us though as we generally recognise that this is effectively not always the case and that life can be more than a bit of a pain-in-the-ass of times... there are plenty of great ideas out there, but they often seem to offer limited comfort when it comes to the deep, sometimes troubling, fundamental questions of human existence such as 'why do we suffer?' and 'why are we here?'
A reason for a fractured and dissonant experience of life is outlined in the second paragraph. Master Dogen suggests that our habitual ways of thinking (our splitting of everything into 'this' and 'that', 'me' and 'other' and our mistaking this for some substantial reality in itself) is a cause of confusion. He points out that addressing this problem is not just a case of adopting nice ideas or fancy philosophical/ religious thinking but of a 'vigorous bodily method'.
The way to address the situation, as Buddhism sees it, is not confined to, or by, philosophy then: It requires a way of real conduct more substantial than thinking alone.
Master Dogen goes on to build on this theme of the importance of actual direct practice by reminding us that even the great Masters themselves were required to practice directly in this way:
"Moreover, we can [still] see the traces of the six years spent sitting up straight by the natural sage of Jetavana park. We can still hear rumours of the nine years spent facing the wall by the transmitter of the mind-seal of Shaolin [temple]. The ancient saints were like that already: how could people today fail to make effort?"
'The natural sage of Jetavana park' is the historical Buddha himself while 'the transmitter of the mind-seal of Shaolin' is Master Bodhidharma who is considered the first Zen patriarch as it is believed that he brought Buddhism from India to China.
Master Bodhidharma was said to have practiced Zazen facing a wall for nine years. This custom is retained in Japanese Soto Zen and so practitioners generally sit a short distance from a blank wall with their eyes cast downwards.