Zen … Awakening to the dynamic reality of the present moment. It is the Japanese name of a branch of Mahayana Buddhism which emphasizes the role of meditation (zazen) as a spiritual practice.
Zazen is the form of meditation at the very heart of Zen practice. In fact, Zen is known as the “meditation school” of Buddhism. Basically, zazen is the study of the self. The great 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 the ten thousand things. Upon his own enlightenment, Buddha was in seated meditation; Zen practice returns to the same seated meditation again and again. For 2,500 years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on. It spread from India to China, to Japan, to other parts of Asia, and then finally to the West. It’s a very simple practice. It’s very easy to describe and very easy to follow. But like all other practices, we have to engage it on a consistent basis if we want to discover its power and depth.
We tend to see body, breath, and mind separately, but in zazen they come together as one reality. The first thing to pay attention to is the position of the body in zazen. The body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to oneself. How you position your body has a lot to do with what happens with your mind and your breath. The most effective positioning of the body for the practice of zazen is the stable, symmetrical position of the seated Buddha. Sitting on the floor is recommended because it is grounded. We use a zafu—a small pillow—to raise the behind just a little, so that the knees can touch the ground. With your bottom on the pillow and two knees touching the ground, you form a tripod base that is natural, grounded and stable.
Beginning zen meditation:
Find a quiet, comfortable spot. Not too hot or too cold; not too bright nor too dark.
Place a cushion on the floor, preferably resting on a thin pad (or blanket or carpeting). Meditation cushions and pads (zafus and zabutons) can be purchased commercially, but other materials, such as pillows, sofa cushions or rolled-up blankets will suffice for beginning meditation at home. Meditating in a chair or on a low bench will also work.
The sitting postures are illustrated in several books on Zen meditation, including, The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau and Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken.
.The suggested sitting postures are:
1. Full-lotus posture.
2. Half-lotus posture.
3. Quarter-lotus posture.
4. Burmese posture.
5. Kneeling or seiza posture (using cushions or a low bench).
6. Sitting in a chair.
In all of these postures, it is suggested that you keep your spine straight, the buttocks are thrust out and the chin is tucked in. The hands are held close to the body in the “cosmic mudra,” where the left hand rests on top of the right, with palms open and up. The joints of the two middle fingers are resting on top of the other. The tips of the thumbs are lightly touching.
The ears are in line with the shoulders, and the tip of the nose is in line with the navel. The belly should be relaxed and allowed to “hang out” slightly. The eyes should normally be half-closed, and the gaze should be at about a 45-degree angle to the body. If you become sleepy during meditation, you might open your eyes wide to help yourself wake up. The crown of the head should point at the ceiling.
The knees should rest on the mat or floor. There should be no space between the knees and the sitting surface.
If sitting in a chair, you should sit on the front edge of the chair with your back erect, as described above. The feet should rest flat on the floor and the legs should be held apart slightly.
Once the sitting posture is achieved, rock back and forth a few times to establish your point of balance and a feeling of relaxed stability.
Take a few deep breaths, allowing the lungs to expand fully, and then exhale fully.
As your breath settles back to normal, breathe through the nose, with the tongue lightly touching the palate behind your teeth.
If you have never meditated before, it is suggested that you follow your breaths or count your breaths. Let all thoughts pass. If thoughts arise, treat them as “clouds passing by.” Acknowledge them, and let them pass. Focus your attention on your breath or on the counting.
If you count breaths, you can count from one to ten, on each exhalation or inhalation. The more common method is to count as you exhale. But find the method that suits you. Count from one to ten, then start the sequence over, and continue this cycle.
If you follow your breaths, simply put your attention on your breath as you inhale and exhale. When (not if) your mind wanders, return your attention to the breath (or to the counting). Do not chastise yourself if your attention wanders. The purpose of the mind is to produce thoughts; they are with us always. The idea is to keep returning our attention to our breath or our counting, and our thoughts will settle down naturally.
Zen teachers suggest that we sit for short periods in the beginning. Ten minutes is a good goal to start with. Later, as you gain experience and confidence, you can extend the periods up to 20 or 30 minutes. It’s a good idea to take a break after 25 or 30 minutes of sitting.
If you want to continue meditation during a break, you can do kinhin, or walking meditation. In kinhin, we fold our hands in front at about the level of the heart. The right hand is made into a fist, with the thumb tucked in, and held to the chest, palm down. The left hand is placed, palm down, on top of the right. The arms are held level, with elbows projecting at the side.
Walk slowly and deliberately, placing one foot in front of the other. Your attention is placed on the feeling of walking: Notice how your feet touch the floor, how your muscles contract and relax as you take each step. If you make a misstep, simply experience that and let it pass. If your mind wanders, return your attention to the slow, deliberate movement of “just walking.”
After a few minutes of kinhin, you may return to sitting meditation.
What’s the Point?
The point of Zen meditation is to open our eyes to our “true nature,” to enable us to live a truly awakened life. Simply put, it gets us in touch with our pure “beingness.” In Buddhist terms, it opens us to the realization of “emptiness.” (Cf. The Heart Sutra)
We are not trying to achieve some lofty state, nor are we trying to get in a “trance” or experience psychic phenomena. We are just sitting for the sake of sitting, and letting go of everything else, experiencing our life, in the present moment, in each breath, to the fullest.
We try to sit every day. Some consider 10 minutes to be a minimum length of time. Others prefer 20, 30, or even 40 minutes or more as their own minimum. You should seek to find a time that works for you. As your confidence and experience grow, you may lengthen the time you sit.
You may sit at a time of day that suits you, when distractions will be at a minimum. For some, early morning works best. For others, evenings are preferable.
Often, you may find that while sitting, your feet go to sleep, or you experience aches or cramps in the back and legs. Do not force yourself to endure serious pain. Learn your limits and don’t try to force yourself past them. Your endurance will build, the longer you meditate.
It is best to wear loose clothing when you meditate. It is usually not advisable to sit after a big meal. A full stomach can create discomfort that is distracting to meditation.
If you find Zen meditation is something you’d like to continue with a group, check to see if there is a teacher or sitting group near you. There are many Zen groups with listings on the World Wide Web, as well as directories for Zen centers around the world. Another good Zen center directory is in Tricycle magazine, the Buddhist Journal.
If you continue meditation, you may want to purchase items such as incense, a bell, or a “ringing” bowl to signal the beginning and the end of a meditation period. Incense is used by many Zen practitioners to time meditation periods. Short incense sticks burn about 25 minutes, while long sticks burn for 45-50 minutes. A kitchen timer is also good for timing meditation.
The following books offer a useful introduction to Zen:
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken
The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau
Healing Breath by Ruben Habito