The Two Absorptions

I was in the airport today, looking around at people’s faces. What I saw were faces of minds filled with stories. Each person’s mind filled up with their activity and spinning with their happiness and difficulties. I looked at my own mind. I thought to myself, could I wait for the plane and have a still mind? Could I just be exactly what I’m doing now? Could I drop all my worries, just for this moment and be? When I’m intentionally thinking about this, I can usually do it. Just be still and just be “this.”

Then I began to knit and I thought, “Can I just be knitting with a quiet mind? I remembered rakusu sewing and decided to say “Namu kie butsu” with each stitch. Could I just be doing what I’m doing?

There is so much “delusion of control” that must be dropped if you are just doing what you’re doing. If you are not worrying about the future, or trying to “fix” your life, there is so little to do really. Just surrendering to each moment and deeply knowing that “zenki” “total dynamic working” is functioning and will support your life. Cause and effect is happening simultaneously. That is not to say that we are passive, but sitting in the airport, waiting, there is really not much “to do” and when you are knitting, you are just knitting. When you are doing the business emails, you are just doing one email response at a time. Perhaps all the emails together can be constructed into a story, but what you are actually doing is one email at a time. The instruction to not get attached to the results of our actions is a very powerful admonition.

The Platform sutra of Huineng has illuminated for me the practice that happens in so-called formal situations like zazen and the practice that happens in activity. What in our ordinary view we keep separate, are actually two different expressions of the same concentration.

Huineng points out that there are two absorptions or concentrations:

  1. Absorption in oneness
  2. Absorption in unified activity

Absorption in oneness is the non-thinking concentration of zazen. We let everything go, all our perceptions, all our responses and just sit in oneness, not even noticing twoness. But Zen doesn’t stop there. Even a little harder than zazen samadhi is absorption in unified activity. This is the instruction for being out in the world, in our ordinary activity. Subject (the “I”) and “doing” become one unified activity. Kaz Tanahashi translates that as “undivided mind”. We are totally absorbed in what we are doing with a quiet mind. The mind is active when it needs to be but when it doesn’t, it just rests, and the whole body and mind does the activity at hand. Katagiri Roshi emphasized, “subject and object merged.” Sometimes, the mind is very active like being in a conversation with someone and then we are simply totally involved in listening, responding and speaking.

Both of these absorptions are the site of enlightenment.


Good friends, absorption in one practice means always acting with a unified, direct mind in all situation, no matter what you are doing. The direct mind is the site of enlightenment.