At this time we are pleased to offer beginning instruction in zazen twice a month over Zoom. This is also included in the online version of our Introduction to Zen Training Weekend retreat, which occurs semi-monthly. You can find dates for these and other events on our Online Programs web page.
Zazen, a form of seated meditation, is at the very heart of Zen practice. In fact, Zen is known as the “meditation school” of Buddhism. Zazen is the study of the self. Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to recognize the unity of the self and all things. The Buddha sat in meditation to realize his enlightenment, and for 2,500 years this meditation tradition has continued, passed down to us from generation to generation. The Buddha’s meditation practice spread from India to China, to Japan, to other parts of Asia, and then finally to the West. The essential aspects of zazen are fairly easy to communicate and are important for both beginning and mature practitioners. At the same time, a person’s experience of meditation can change profoundly if they practice consistently. With consistent practice, zazen transforms our mind, heart and life.
We tend to see body, breath, and mind as separate, but in zazen we begin to see how they are one inseparable reality. We first give our attention to the position of our body in zazen, establishing an awake and relaxed posture. Because the body and mind are one, our posture directly effects our breathing and state of mind. A stable, relaxed, wakeful posture helps us cultivate a mind that is stable, relaxed and wakeful. The most effective zazen posture is the position of the seated Buddha. Sitting on the floor is recommended because it is grounded and offers a more stable base. We use a zafu, a small pillow that raises the pelvis and hips just a little, so that the knees can touch the ground. This will form a tripod base that is natural, grounded and stable.
There are several different leg positions that are possible while seated cross-legged. The first and simplest is the Burmese position, in which the legs are crossed and both feet rest flat on the floor. The knees should also rest on the floor, though sometimes it takes a bit of stretching for the legs to drop that far. After awhile the muscles will loosen up and the knees will begin to drop. To help that happen, sit on the front third of the zafu, shifting your body forward a little bit. By imagining the top of your head pushing upward to the ceiling and by stretching your body that way, get your spine straight—then just let the muscles go soft and relax. With the buttocks up on the zafu and your stomach pushing out a little, there may be a slight curve in the lower region of the back. In this position, it takes very little effort to keep the body upright.
Half Lotus Position
Another position is the half lotus, where the left foot is placed up onto the right thigh and the right leg is tucked under. This position is slightly asymmetrical and sometimes the upper body needs to compensate in order to keep itself absolutely straight. People who use this position should make a habit of alternating which leg they bring up.
Full Lotus Position
By far the most stable of all the positions is the full lotus, where each foot is placed up on the opposite thigh. This is perfectly symmetrical and very solid, however it requires a great deal of flexibility in the hips, so it may take some time and stretching to accomplish and it is not for every body type. Stability and efficiency are some of the important reasons sitting cross-legged on the floor works so well, yet remember that what is most important in zazen is the practice of your mind.
There is also the seiza position. You can sit seiza without a pillow, kneeling, with the buttocks resting on the upturned feet which form an anatomical cushion. Or you can use a pillow to keep the weight off your ankles. A third way of sitting seiza is to use the seiza bench. It keeps all the weight off your feet and helps to keep your spine straight.
Finally, it’s fine to sit in a chair. To help ground the body in this posture, keep your feet flat on the floor. If it helps, you can use a cushion, or zafu, the same way you would use it on the floor—placing it beneath you on the chair and sitting on the forward third of it. It’s best to sit forward on the chair so you’re supporting your spine; if, due to back issues, you need to lean into the back of the chair, you might try placing a zafu between the small of your back and the back of the chair, to keep your spine straight and vertical. All of the aspects of the posture that are important when seated on the floor or in seiza are just as important when sitting in a chair.
Keeping the back straight and centered, rather than slouching or leaning to the side, allows the diaphragm to move freely and the mind to find stability. An upright spine allows our breathing to be deep, easy, and natural. Breathe in a relaxed manner, not controlling or manipulating the breath, that is, breathe in the way that feels most effortless.
During zazen, breathe through your nose and allow your mouth to be gently closed. (If you have a cold, or some kind of a nasal blockage, you many need to breathe through your mouth.) Your tongue is pressed lightly against the upper palate, behind your front teeth, while your eyes are lowered, with your gaze resting on the ground about two to four feet in front of you. Rather than focusing on your field of vision, bring your awareness to your breath. If you find your awareness going to your field of vision during meditation, just bring it back to your breath and, in time, sitting with your eyes open will become easy and natural. The chin is slightly tucked in so that your neck is an extension of your spine and your nose is centered in line with the navel and you’re not leaning forward or backward. Work towards letting your muscles be soft so there’s little or no tension in the body.
The hands are folded in the cosmic mudra. The dominant hand is held palm up holding your other hand, also palm up, so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. If you’re right-handed, your right hand is holding the left hand; if you’re left-handed, your left hand is holding the right hand. The thumbs are lightly touching, thus the hands form an oval, which can rest on the upturned soles of your feet if you’re sitting full lotus. If you’re sitting Burmese, the mudra can rest on your thighs. The cosmic mudra is powerful and helps to bring your attention inward. This mudra can take some time to feel natural, but in time it will. In zazen, we direct our attention to the breath. Breath is a vital force and is intimately related to your awareness. When you’re nervous you may find yourself breathing quickly and shallowly; when your mind is relaxed the breath is more easily deep, easy, and effortless. The hara is an energy center about two inches below your navel. If you can easily center your attention within the breath in the hara, do that. If not, just place your attention within the physical sensation of your breath as it flows in and out, as your belly gently rises and falls.
Practicing the Breath
Once you’ve settled into your meditation posture, begin breathing through your nose and give your attention to completely experiencing the breath, the simple sensation of breathing. You can help to steady and stabilize your awareness by counting the breath. We practice this by counting each inhalation and each exhalation, beginning with one and counting up to ten. Inhale—at the end of the inhalation, count one. Exhale—at the end of the exhalation, count two. Continue until you get to ten, then come back to one and start again. All the while, let your attention be deep within your breath, with the counting helping you to stay aware. When your mind begins to wander—a thought arises and you lose your awareness in it—then clearly see or notice the thought, and then let it go and begin the count again at one. In other words, when your attention wanders away from the breath into a thought, memory, etc, notice this and redirect your attention back to the breath. This helps you notice that your mind has drifted away. Each time you return to the breath you are developing an important aspect of mindfulness. This is extremely important and forms the basis for all Buddhist meditation and practice. We call this power of concentration joriki, or spiritual power.
In the process of concentrating on the breath, the thoughts, sensations and emotions that arise, for the most part, will be just simple, ordinary things. At the same time, it’s normal to have things arise that, when you let them go, return to your awareness. You let something go again and again but it still comes back. This is showing you that your letting go may take a bit longer. Here we emphasize that it’s important to neither suppress thoughts and emotions, nor get entangled in them. So with something that is persistent, just shift your attention from the breath to that object and allow it to be in your awareness without engaging a narrative. Because you’re not clinging to it, it should dissipate in time, at which point you can resume your breath awareness.
Scattered mental activity and energy keeps us separated from each other, from our environment, and from ourselves. In the process of sitting, the surface activity of our minds begins to slow down. The mind is like the surface of a pond—when the wind is blowing, the surface is disturbed, there are ripples, and sediment from the bottom is stirred. It’s difficult to see beneath the surface even though the water is, by its very nature, clear and pure. Yet within that inherent stillness, the unbounded vitality of our life arises. If we don’t see it clearly, we may never get the opportunity to come to a point of rest. The more completely your mind is at rest, the more deeply your body is at rest. The whole body comes to a point of stillness that it doesn’t reach even in deep sleep. This is a very important and natural aspect of being human. It is not something particularly unusual. It’s an essential aspect of being alive: the ability to be awake!
It is also important to be patient and steady. Try to let go of expectations and goals you may create for yourself. While we’re conditioned to function this way in ordinary life, Buddhist meditation practice is opening up a new way to experience ourselves and our lives. Just wholeheartedly give yourself to zazen and let go of the thoughts, opinions and stories. The human mind is fundamentally free, spacious, vibrant and relaxed. In zazen we learn to uncover that mind, to see who we really are, to experience this world as it really is.