Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Here we are, back to “All about Zazen.”

In Part I we talked about the best time and place for meditation. Now, in Part II, we will start with posture and position.

First, some traditional issues of floor-sitting, and then some practical matters.


Traditionally, zazen is done sitting on the floor, facing the wall.

If you choose to be traditional, lay down a mat or a folded blanket, and on top of it put a cushion, a pad, or a dense pillow. Feathers or down-stuffed pads are like store-bought white bread in that they’re way too fluffy. Any sort of firm cushion or combination of cushions will do as long as your bottom can settle comfortably without sinking.

Some people favor a wooden sitting bench, while others prefer a chair. Use what feels best for you. Sit barefoot or else in stocking feet. Shoes are clunky for doing zazen and they insulate you from the floor or earth.

In the traditional full-lotus position your right foot is placed on your left thigh, and your left foot is placed on your right thigh. Both of your knees are close to the floor. If you can’t manage the full-lotus, try the half-lotus by placing your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot under your right thigh. Keep your knees down. In the Burmese style your legs are not crossed but folded flat in front of you. The Japanese position is a semi-kneeling posture in which both legs are doubled under your buttocks, straddling your cushion.

Along with these nit-picking instructions remember that what you do with your mind in zazen is more important than what you do with your feet or legs.

Make sure your body is comfortable.

What do you do with your hands? Place one of them palm up, in your lap. Position the other hand, palm up, on top. Position your hands just below your navel, pressing their back edges against your abdomen. In Japanese this site is called the tanden, and it is considered to be the body’s center of spiritual energy.

Once you’re in place, rock back and forth, then from side to side. Let your shoulders drop back naturally without forcing them, and imagine a string is attached to the top of your head, pulling you upward. A catch phrase for zazen sitting is “chin in, shoulders back.”


Breathe normally. Inhale and exhale regularly, neither overfilling your lungs nor forcing the air out.

If your mind refuses to calm down and wants to stew about something, or if it hops all over the place, breath-counting can often have a calming effect. You can count inhalations as “one” and exhalations as “two,” and so on up to ten. You can count inhalations only, or you can count exhalations only. Whatever method you choose, when you reach “ten,” start over with “one.” Usually after a few cycles of breath-counting your mind will have quieted down.

A monk once asked his master what one should think about while sitting, and the master answered, “One thinks of not-thinking.”

“How does one think of not-thinking?” the monk persisted.

The master replied, “Without thinking.”

When you finish a session of zazen get up gradually. Straighten your legs and wiggle your ankles. Your muscles have been in repose and they’ll appreciate being roused gently.

Zazen can be tiring for a novice, so beginners should sit for five to ten minutes during their first half-dozen sessions. As one’s comfort and assurance grow, sitting times can be increased by five minutes. The maximum time per session for most people is forty-five minutes. During sesshin—a Zen retreat—several such sittings a day are common.

Kinhin is walking meditation.

Keeping your body erect and your gaze directed downward at a forty-five degree angle, slide one foot forward in a half-step. Don’t take a large stride, and don’t lift your foot high. Inhale and exhale with each step. Keep your chin in and your shoulders back.

Doing zazen with others provides a sense of companionship, which can be a benefit to your practice. However, meditating alone is neither harder nor easier than meditating with others, and solitary sitting can help develop a feeling of self-confidence. When you do zazen alone try to sit in a place that’s free of household responsibilities such as children, overactive pets, and telephones.

Remember that zazen and awakening are the same. That means zazen should not be scheduled like a golf game. Zazen is awakening, and awakening is daily life to be lived.

To paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki: “When you are able to sit, the meaning of your everyday life will be completely different.


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