How to sit for Zazen

Zazen is a particular kind of meditation, unique to Zen.

There are many different ways to study the Buddha Way. Some study primarily the moral precepts and some emphasize academic study.  In Zen the emphasis is on zazen. It is the core of the whole practice.  Zazen has the appearance of being meditation, and we often call it meditation. However, it is not contemplation or introspection. Zazen is sitting Zen.  It is said that 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.”  Upon his enlightenment, Buddha was seated in meditation; Zen practice returns to that same seated meditation over and over again. For over 2500 years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation. It is a very simple practice.  However a description about what zazen  is just won’t cut it, it takes doing in order for you to realize it.

(I apologize for the poor quality of the video and audio – traffic noise. You may find the information presented useful if you persevere.)

How to sit for zazen (meditation):

Most of us are constantly carrying on an internal dialogue.  By talking to ourselves, we tend to miss the moment to moment awareness of life. Zazen brings us back into the moment, where our lives take place. The breath is central to this moment. In zazen body, breath and mind are brought together in one reality.

The first thing we do is bring the body into a stable position.

The most effective body position for zazen has been the pyramid structure of the seated  Buddha. Sitting on the floor is recommended because it is very stable. We use a zafu (a pillow) to raise the behind so the knees can touch the ground. With your bottom on the zafu and your knees on the ground you form a tripod base that is very stable. There are several different leg positions that are possible. You should choose the one best suited to you depending on legs and body structure. The postures are: full lotus, half lotus, cross legged, small wooden bench or a chair.

No matter which posture you use, the important points to practice are:

  • The spine is kept straight a a 90 degree angle to the floor.
  • The head is held so that the nose in in a straight line with the navel and hara. The hara is a place within the body, the physical and spiritual center of the body, which is two inches straight down from the navel.
  • The chin is tucked in slightly.
  • The ears are in line with the shoulders.
  • The arms are held slightly loose at the side, as if one were holding an egg underneath each armpit – not loose enough to drop them, but not close enough to break them, either.
  • The hands are held below the navel, in front of the hara.
  • The hands are held with the left hand on the right palm and the thumbs joined together in a circle. This is a mudra which symbolize the universe and the perfection of emptiness.
  • The rear hara is always pressed towards the front hara to prevent bending of the spine.
  • The eyes are half open, neither staring intently, which causes headache, nor completely shut, which can lead to daydreaming and drowsiness. The angle of vision is approximately 15 degrees in front of you, towards the floor.
  • The teeth are held together, keeping the mouth closed so that all breathing takes place through the nose. The teeth join naturally as a result of the chin being held in.
  • The tongue is held against the roof of the mouth to prevent saliva from filling up the mouth.
  • Put your attention on the hara, put your mind there.
  • Breath through the nose and taste the breath. Your attention is on the breath and the hara.

A posture which is too straight, with shoulders held back in military style of being “at attention” reflects a proud mind, which is an obstacle to meditation.  A posture which is too relaxed, with shoulders slouched over and with the back bent is also a hindrance. It is difficult to maintain concentration for good meditation with an overly relaxed posture. Posture which is too straight or too relaxed also produces physical problems such as pain in the back of the legs or shoulders. The ideal posture is neither too straight nor too relaxed; it is soft and gentle and outwardly reflects a compassionate mind.

As much as possible, it is best to have an experienced person check your posture frequently in the beginning until you establish a good solid physical foundation for sitting. As long as you have correct posture some pain in the legs is not a problem and you shouldn’t worry about it. Only if you are sitting incorrectly can it become troublesome. If you are in pain, then breaking posture is certainly appropriate.

After posture is assumed we begin working on ourselves by counting the breath, counting each inhalation and each exhalation, begin counting your breath up to the number ten and then begin again. The only agreement you make with yourself in this process is that if your mind begins to wander, if you become aware that you are chasing thoughts, you will look at the thought, acknowledge it and consciously let go and start again counting at one. The counting is feedback, letting you know when your mind has drifted. You are developing the power of concentration (joriki). Joriki is the center of martial and visual arts in Zen. There are other ways to work with the breath in zazen, counting is just one.

Feeling the suns warmth, the air is moving.
The crow soars, each molecule effortlessly lifting it
high above the chatter below.
–Will Rauschenberger

Join us in Sarasota Florida each Sunday evening for Ordinary Zazen. Click here for more information.