Meditation Corner: Zazen 101


This first zazen class installment will focus on the basics, but will be holistic from the start in containing all the fundamental elements of zazen. I leave to later installments, if there be any, to go into how to cultivate better zazen.

The Zazen Posture

First of all, it’s good to note at the start that zazen comes originally out of Yoga. Who knows where yoga originally came from, if anywhere else at all. That said, the Buddhist tradition has limited its concern primarily to certain types of yoga postures which directly relate to attaining enlightenment. The most typical zazen posture of traditional Japanese Soto Zen (my tradition) is classically speaking, full lotus posture with the hands employing the enlightenment mudra. Realistically and practically speaking, it is also any of the highest following postures that one can realistically adopt, with the intention of doing the most difficult before resorting to a less difficult posture one is medically advised to adopt. This includes the possibility of opting for a more completely relaxed position for the hands, as well, such as having them flat down on the thighs, for example–which is more common for seiza and seiza bench positions. There is a reason, however, for doing the most difficult posture one can do when pursuing the Great Way, which I will cover a little later in this post. Suffice it to say that doing something beyond your doctor’s orders or that stresses say a hand mudra from someone with advance shaking in the hands, would be advised against here, and by common sense. Moving on…

The Soto (and Rinzai) meditation of choice is zazen, because it is focused exclusively on enlightenment. This is not to say that the same people don’t also practice other forms of meditation not focused on enlightenment exclusively. They very often do. Just that Zazen is very particular in how it’s performed and the resulting state(s) achieved thereby.

The standard postures for Zazen:

  1. Full lotus
  2. Half lotus
  3. “Indian style” (and any comfortable variants)
  4. Seiza (sitting on the legs)
  5. Seiza bench (sitting on the legs with the help of a seiza bench)
  6. Chair
  7. Lying down flat on the back with hands to sides or just below the navel
  8. Lying on the side in the “Lion Posture”
  9. Standing
  10. Walking (often known in Japanese as kinhin) – slowly, deliberately, focused on the tan tien as with seated zazen–this application of zazen can apply to all kinds of work as well, such as washing the dishes

While any of these postures will work for doing zazen, the sitting postures are considered

Candid photo from a sesshin (all-day sitting)--from Flickr. (I am not affiliated with this Zen center, but I'm sure it's a fine one!)

the primary form of zazen because there is discomfort involved. The lying, standing and walking forms are thought of as secondary and the resort of those too fatigued to stay in a sitting posture any longer, not as a substitute for sitting zazen, per se. [Note in the photo to the left that there are several different postures being employed. Nobody is going to chastise you, generally, for asking for a chair or a bench or bringing your own. Just try not to get up during seated Zazen as this may in some cases create chaos and or a domino effect of sitters. The one acceptable exception: being tapped to go to meet with the teacher in dokusan, which we may cover in some future post.]

Anticipated Questions:

Why the primary emphasis on the most difficult posture one can achieve? Why not the least difficult?

I told you I’d get to this… The reason is two-fold:

  1. The more difficult the sitting posture of these one is able to achieve, the more likely the spine will be in ideal alignment for optimum results.
  2. The more difficult postures are difficult physically–ie., resulting in some discomfort gradually after prolonged use, and thus create the conditions for surpassing pain in a safe and non-debilitating manner. This is crucial for the inner mechanics of zazen to take effect.

Explanation of #2 above:

This “discomfort phase” of zazen is arguably where the focus passes a threshold barrier which will either result in

A) moving around and trying to “get more comfortable”

B) over-reacting and just quitting the posture prematurely and admitting defeat, or

C) some degree of sustained non-wriggling and non-adjusting of the posture which is much more likely, if executed with discipline of body and the proper focus of mind, to pass into whatever level of enlightenment that is just out of the practitioner’s reach, and which he or she is ready for / has prepared for via previous sittings up to this point.

In most cases, a total beginner can expect at most a very minor enlightenment experience (loosely termed “satori” in Japanese, or “kensho”) once this threshold has been sustained for 20-30 minutes and the practitioner’s mind is steadily focused by the end of session bell. It is precisely the difficulty in maintaining the posture traditionally in the Buddha’s time, as well as in our time, that is thought to allow for the true breaking forth of enlightenment into our consciousness. If it were too easy, we easily feel like falling asleep or daydreaming, or indulging ourselves in the pleasant feeling of sitting. First we are setting up a discipline for ourselves with correct spinal alignment, then we maintain it well beyond the initial comfort of the position, till the ego can feel it is losing its grip on control in the face of the will to continue for a specific purpose (psst: he means enlightenment!). At this point, the will to do this practice, coupled with a proper understanding of what the practice is for and how it works, will produce some degree of progress in terms of attaining some degree of enlightenment, of staking some claim, if you will, in unknown territory (well, unknown to the beginner). Prolonged meditation in this way will most likely yield a more sustained degree of temporary bliss, which is loosely called samadhi. For some,. constant meditation can prolong this bliss into hours, days, and even months and years. When one never leaves, this could be either good or bad. Good if he’s gone on to higher states. Bad if he’s clung to the bliss for its own sake and thus has stayed behind. Usually, it’s pretty tough to stay put. The nature of our body and mind tend to lead us on to higher states if we keep with meditation.

So the first jhana (and sometimes the only one for a great many zennists) is also quite naturally the first one encountered through Zazen. This just means a heightened level of concentration, which is producing a pleasant overall feeling. In reality, this is usually the first of many jhanas of classical Buddhist tradition (numbering eight according to the Buddha’s original recorded teachings).

Why do Zennists stop short at this first jhana? Well, this is a tangled area. One answer would be that many actually do not. Another answer would be that many do.

There is a tradition in Zen that holds that prolonged work in the first jhana naturally gives way to the others through the help of a personal teacher and through concentrating on higher attitudes that already correspond to what Theravada teachers might otherwise address in a more psycho-physical, even clinical fashion, and these other levels of practice are often alluded to and explicitly expounded upon by Hakuin and others within the Zen tradition’s written records–so they do exist for Zen, they just aren’t the point. The de-emphasis on the levels of the jhanas in Zen may be most safely attributed to this over-arching desire not to cling to desires–even for enlightenment itself. This is like keeping the training spikes attached to a tree until it is well into early adulthood for the tree’s own good. One the training spikes are taken away, the tree is left to its own karmic tendencies, which are rarely far from perfect. We human beings have karma or else we wouldn’t be here. The result is a very straight tree that can’t help but grow straight. In reality, trees naturally grow toward the rising sun whenever they can, spreading their leaves toward the rays, leading the tree itself over time to even compete with other trees for sunlight. Some trees however are blown over by strong winds while still young, especially wild trees which have no such guards placed upon them. Thus, if we don’t train a tree and correct its posture over time, it may fall over at some point and never grow up at all. We need discipline to progress, and not setting goals for ourselves to trip up on is part of Zen’s (especially Soto Zen).

This is somewhat similar to early Taoism’s simple prolonged meditation on natural surroundings. The idea is to not hold on greedily to a goal, but to resign oneself to daily meditation and practice for its own sake. However, unlike Taoism’s emphasis on nature and the natural, Zen keeps it’s garden well-pruned and clear of the desire towards selfish living. Monks traditionally shaved their heads more for the effect of shaving away the selfish views, than on preventing head lice outbreaks (which it probably also did nicely).

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi repeats Dogen’s admonition that “Zazen itself is enlightenment.” The goal is not to get hung up on goals, and yet pursue enlightenment diligently and tirelessly in practice nonetheless. I say that because the letting go of clinging to the personal goal of enlightenment could be taken too far via a tendency toward laziness if it loses sight of the fundamental burning need to attain enlightenment. In fact this is the argument behind Zen’s de-emphasis on “attaining” enlightenment. Some Zen centers for this reason have changed the Bodhisattva vow chanted in service from “attain” to “become”, to help keep at bay anything of the selfish seeking mode.

For more on this, see the “Focus” section of this post…

Back to postures…

For purposes of this installment, I will focus not on the placement of the legs (anyone can look up lotus posture on the internet), but rather on the spinal alignment that is common to most of these:

Spinal posture:

The point of showing this photo is in noting the erectness of the spine, neck and head--all in perfect spinal alignment, crucial to optimum effect in zazen. Another purpose is  that some of the grandeur of zazen can be seen just from the silhouette of this Bodhisattva's likeness. In perfect zazen, there is great selfless grandeur of spirit, the Bodhisattva's Vow in action.

The most simplistic metaphor for spinal erectness in sitting meditation is the best as a rule. And that is to imagine top of the crown of the head as having a string that connects painlessly to the skull itself and reaches to an undefined point far above. Like a marionette, the head and the spine must theoretically remain perfectly erect and straight and this would put the chin not raised and not lowered, but tucked in ever so slightly.

With relaxed shoulders, the hands ideally make the mudra of enlightenment, right fingers beneath those of the left hand, with both thumb tips lightly touching in an arch that may be said to look like an eye, or as if one is wielding a light saber that emanates from the navel. The elbows should stick out slightly to the sides in a relaxed way, just enough that one might be able to fit an egg in the bend of each elbow without breaking it.

The Body’s Activity in Zazen

Zazen breathing is rather simple to do, but difficult to maintain only due to the ability of the practitioner to stay focused. When breathing loses its relaxed and steady quality, it’s gentle and somewhat slow rhythm, you can be sure that the mind is lost, wandering in thoughts.

With the mind on the tan tien area of the navel, focus on your breathing as coming from the diaphragm itself. Beginners are often told to practice counting inhalations or exhalations to begin getting the hand of focusing the mind. Others may only need to become the breath, which is slightly more advanced. In all cases, zazen is to be done with eyes open in a relaxed gaze and with the eyes slightly out of focus, angled at a downward 45-degree angle (roughly–don’t stress too much on getting too exact on the angle of your slightly unfocused gaze!).

The Mental Focus of Zazen

The mind’s focus in zazen should really not be on any verbal or imagistic thought, and yet it shouldn’t just be merely blank with no background intention, either. The intention should always be present–to attain enlightenment, to break through the current barrier not for self, but for the sake of becoming a full, completely enlightened buddha for the sake of enlightening all lost sentient beings everywhere. This is actually pushing the envelope ever so slightly in Soto Zen, which is prone to gentleness rather than a sense of urgency. However, most of the Zen ancestors of note, including Soto ancestors, emphasized that practice and Zazen are extremely urgent matters that contribute to realization and progress in this lifetime. The Buddha Sakyamuni is my support on this as well, as he emphasizes this many times in many pre-Mahayana sutras , as well as throughout the Mahayana sutras.

This sense of urgency is actually the ultimate form of compassion as we take it up only for the sake of all beings, onl;y for the sake of others, and zazen undertaken with this intention is the ultimate expression of that ultimate form of compassion. This is no light matter, and it should not be a breezy afterthought to zazen. It is, rather, the cornerstone of quality zazen, to be fully realized at not only the beginning of each sitting, but throughout to and through the final bell, even through getting up and going about the next task. In reality, a master would never lose this joyful earnestness of all-encompassing compassionate intention of saving all beings, though they might become very  expert at being subtle with it in how they laugh, play, work and so on. Does that make sense?

Yasutani Roshi, early modern Japanese Zen monk.

Yasutani Roshi, a rather controversial iconoclast figure in Japan’s history for many reasons, explains, in the tradition of the Rinzai tradition of Zen (as opposed to the Soto), that an attitude of life or death seriousness absolutely must accompany zazen if substantial, genuine progress toward enlightenment (and thus contact with Big Mind) is to be made–in fact must, if the Bodhisattva’s vow is to be taken seriously at all. This is true for him when one sits down to do zazen, and when one is doing other activites like studying the Dharma. This is supported by the Buddha Sakyamuni in many sutras in pre-Mahayana literature, and therefore is to some degree indisputable.

The only thing left in the lurch is the question of “Am I getting hung up on my goal of enlightenment?” Over time, the ancestors of the Mahayana school thought it too often did. The fact that Soto Zen emphasizes instead longevity of approach should not be taken to mean a lack of seriousness. This is, however, how many have taken Soto’s “just sitting” approach to be. In my experience as a Soto practitioner in the US, I have noted how there is little if any laxness in the shikantaza (just sitting) philosophy in practice. While beginners are encouraged to become comfortable with zazen, most of the more acclaimed teachers do not teach laziness or lack of effort or lack of zeal in achieving progress, but rather a subtle avoidance of over-clinging to some impossible effort that is beyond one’s own abilities in reality.

In general, the Bodhisattva’s vow is structured in such a way as to strip away all the ambition from the effort toward enlightenment. This is not just a strategy to get what we want, however. If we don’t earnestly want to save all beings, no final enlightenment is ever possible. Part of the Zen package is that, unlike the hearers of Buddhas teachings in his day, we are focusing on the fuller, most complete higher intention of a Buddha now: saving all beings.

One final note before my concluding farewell: The Buddha Sakyamuni, as recounted in the sutras, was never not in a posture that lent itself to enlightenment. This is significant. When he sat, he sat in an upright posture. When he lay down, he did so in one of the enlightenment-friendly postures. I dare say he stretched and did yoga exercise in his spare personal moments between teaching, but you get the idea. He made his life an ongoing sesshin, you might say. And I implore you to consider attempting the same. Little by little, the way your life is now can be shaped like a bonsai tree until it conforms to the life you want to live, the goal you want to achieve (or better yet become). It takes commitment to become what one sees one must become to have done what needed to be done, as the sutras say. More importantly, it takes balance that leans on the side of solitude rather than over-socializing, especially at the outset and usually for a good while thereafter. A Buddha strides down from the mountaintop to give the teaching to the masses. Most of us lowly followers of the Way should keep our noses to the grindstone. This doesn’t mean shunning others on the path, or our loved ones, or even our responsibilities, if that they truly are. It just means not getting our heads mixed up with thinking and attitudes that do not tend toward the edification of and humble, steadfast, effort-based illumination of Big Mind.

So now we’ve covered the basics of posture, breath and mental focus (including something of the spirit and intention of attaining supreme enlightenment for the sake of saving all lost sentient beings). There is so much ground to be covered left that it could easily take eons to exhaust it. I will settle for about 4-5 more posts, however, assuming a good bit of comments along the way before I post additional posts. At this time, based on the interest expressed thus far, I’m not at all sure that there will be a post #2 in this series. It’s fine if people don’t have questions on this first post, I suppose, but I imagine that there should at least be comments of some sort, letting me know that the reading subscribers are reading and/or at least following along till they reach the “sweet spot” for themselves. That said, I invite you to engage with a very solemn and grand practice of Zen even while reading this humble and flawed little series of mine: let’s do whatever we do here for the sake of attaining supreme enlightenment for the sake of in turn enlightening all beings. I think if you attack this series in this vein, you will at least get something far greater out of it than you might have otherwise imagined.


Top post image credit


About TheBuddhaWay

An American Soto Zen practitioner.
This entry was posted in Meditation, Meditation Corner, Zen and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Meditation Corner: Zazen 101

  1. tobiasosir says:

    Ah, this clears up one question right off the bat. I’ve been using the seiza position, and–I admit–have more often than not stopped once I feel the discomfort. With your explanation, i can see the purpose of having that discomfort, so I’ll try to use that. My question now, though, is about medical implications; often when I stand after meditating, my feet are either asleep or very numb, and I have trouble walking for a few steps. Will sitting in this way lead to any sort of damage?

    • TheBuddhaWay says:

      Of course, you need to be able to get a doctor’s okay. And you should not allow the legs to sit numb for an entire sitting. You should be able to go for at least 10 minutes with no numbness each sitting. If you can’t, you may need to change positions, but yes 10-25 minutes of leg numbness is not a problem, especially if it is gradual. But, as far as the walking meditation, that’s the most dangerous part of zazen. Trick is to gradually at first, and then more rapidly flex first the knees, and once that is restored a bit, to gradually flex each foot forward and backward from the ankle and try to get the blood pumping there to gain control of the toes as soon as possible, without putting too much emphasis on either foot alone until the feeling has returned to both. So, I’d be very careful about the walking too soon. Normally, nobody is going to push you to hurry in a zendo, but if you find you can’t keep up without going too fast, it would be better to step to the side till you are ready to get back in line. If doing it alone, by no means should you ever rush to get up. Being last to get up is not a problem, getting up too fast, however, could easily cause a fall. If you push yourself to get up too fast or walk too soon, you could easily sprain or break toes, ankles, knees by stumbling/falling…easy does it on the getting up afterward.

      Also, remember that any piercing/sharp/shooting pains are NOT mere discomfort and should signal a need to shift or change positions immediately. RA shakes would be another special case where more precautions are needed.

      Another great tip is to not to scratch any itch or move the face except to blink (I find I have gone without blinking for entire sittings if the eyes are appropriately relaxed–but don’t hesitate to blink if you need to. An unscratched itch can be one of the most rewarding irritants of all and you’ll find the benefit in terms of redoubled, refortified concentration is incredibly high and much less prone to numb the legs.

      About the only excuse to move, in fact, at all is in the medical cases cited above, and also in order to correct the spinal erectness when it flags or shifts, or to blink if the eyes ever become too dry. I’ve found that to straighten the spine imperceptibly, slowly, until you are back to straight does not disturb others, and does not disturb oneself in terms of concentration. either. It’s important to keep in mind you are stretching your ability to concentrate each time you sit, stretching your ability to go beyond your everyday mind into the fearlessly focused compassion of a Tathagata.

      EDIT: To sum up on the shooting pains, if you have ’em, you need to do something about it, including slowly move and get up and sit it out or go to the ER. If they are just dull discomforts or a bout of numbness and not nerve endings being stabbed by sharp knives, it’s probably best to–not ignore them–but to experience your vow THROUGH that medium, being fully open to the discomfort, but not indulging in thoughts about the discomfort, not turning away from it, but experiencing what it means to earnestly seek to fulfill that vow to see clearly, to see it through for all beings.

      • tobiasosir says:

        Thank you, i will try that. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced shooting pains or serious ones like you describe; just discomfort. I’ll work that to my advantage. Funny you should mention itches, too; I find that if I have an itch and refuse to scratch it, I can “feel” it fading away, and you’re right, it’s very rewarding.
        As for the walking, I should clarify; I didn’t mean a walking mediation, I haven’t started with that yet. I only meant that if I stand too soon after meditating like this and my legs are feeling numb, I can’t always put my whole weight on my feet until the numbness passes. I imagine this is just the blood coursing back into my feet, and will watch out for it and not push myself too far.

  2. coemergent says:

    First try, victim of reaction B in the discomfort phase.

    • TheBuddhaWay says:

      This may or not apply to your own current situation, based upon what I read of your respone, but I offer it for those for whom it will resonate:

      I think the Bodhisattva Vow–the desire to alleviate not just my own suffering, but to alleviate all suffering–is the same will that allows us not to quit or to come back after quitting. The 6 Perfections (paramitas) are the perfect subject of study to deal with this in my view. It is possible to see one’s own “quitting” not only kindly and compassionately toward oneself, but with a mind that can see that experiencing such quitting is an act of the enlightened mind showing one how such lethargy exists in any person, how it arises, how it is resolved and cured, and how to cultivate, instead, the earnest desire to sit for all beings. Our own ignorance, which includes the quitting of noble and wise endeavors, as in this case, is itself our best and ultimate teacher–the one that other teachers are there to point out to us.

  3. TheBuddhaWay says:

    Okay, 2 people thought it worth asking a question or commenting in some form. Anyone else have a question? Confirmation? Anything? I’m wondering if it’s worth posting a second installment at this point, if there’s this little interest even among those who signed up…

  4. TheBuddhaWay says:

    To all subscribers:

    What direction should we go for next post? Fine-tuning the mind of zazen? Dealing with distractions? Dealing with Discomfort? A particular position? Or should we turn to the sutras for support of the aforementioned vision of the intention of zazen? Or how to sneak zazen into your daily schedule? Finding the right place to do zazen? Creating a sanctuary for zazen? You call it, via comments, and the most votes wins. This class can follow any twisted path we choose. It’s yours more than mine. Lead.


  5. I don’t think it needs another post. You said it perfectly. Just sit.


  6. Pingback: Be still (for 12 hrs straight) my all day Zazenkai meditation | travelgem

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