just be it It’s about the work involved in establishing a dedicated practice to feelings of a bigger belonging through practices aimed at increasing feelings of compassion, gratitude and forgiveness
September, 2010

Beginning Zazen Practice

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Sept. 26, from 7:30-9 am, I’ll be leading a group in beginning zazen practices at the Woodbury Bikram Yoga studio (755 Bielenberg Dr.).

I was first trained in this form of meditation by Katagiri Roshi in 1972 and have been obedient to this form since with a daily meditation schedule.  It comes from the Soto Zen tradition and was first presented by it’s founder, Dogen, as follows:

For sanzen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Discard all involvements and take respite from concerns. Do not think good or bad. Do not adjudicate right and wrong. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. How could it be limited to sitting or lying down?

At the site of your regular sitting, spread out a thick mat and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half- lotus position. In the full-lotus position, first place your right foot on your left thigh, then your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, simply place your left foot against your right thigh. Wear your clothes and belt loose and arranged neatly. Then place your right hand on you left leg and your left palm (facing upward) on your right palm, thump-tips touching. Thus sit upright with posture straight, neither inclining to left or to the right, neither leaning forward or backward. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth,with teeth and lips both shut. Always keep your eyes gently open and breathe softly though your nose.

Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think of what does not think. How do you think of what does not think? Nonthinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen. The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of peace and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger settling into the mountains. For you must know that just there (in zazen) the true Dharma is manifesting itself and that from the first dullness and distraction are struck aside.

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both mundane and sacred, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the power of zazen.

From Approach to Zen, Uchiyama Roshi further describes our posture:

The zafu (cushion) should be in back of the place where your legs cross and your knees should be firmly down on the zaniku (floor mat).  The weight of the upper part of the body should be distributed on three points–your knees on the floor and your buttocks on the cushion.

Sit up and straighten your back as if you were pushing your buttocks firmly in the zafu.  Keep your neck straight and pull in your chin.  Without leaving an air-pocket inside, close your mouth and put your tongue firmly against the upper pallet.  Project your head as if it were going to pierce the ceiling.  Relax your shoulders.  Put your right hand on top of your left hand in the palm of the right.  Your thumbs should meet above your hands.

Your ears should be in line with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel.  Keep your eyes open as usual, look at the wall, and drop your line of vision slightly.

Once you’ve taken the zazen position, open your mouth and exhale deeply.  By doing this, you change your whole mood.  In order to work out the stiffness in the joints and muscles, slowly swing two or three times to the left and right.  Now you take the immovable posture.  Once you’ve taken the immovable posture, breathe quietly through the nose.  The important thing is to let the long breaths be long and the short breaths be short.  Your should breathe as naturally as possible from the tanden (about an inch below the navel).  If you are maintaining the correct zazen posture, the center of gravity of your body and mind will naturally fall here. Don’t make noise by breathing heavily.

In our zazen, the most important thing is to sit in the correct posture.  Next, it is important to regulate the breath and calm the mind.

It’s easy to tell someone to aim at the correct posture with his flesh and bones and leave everything up to this, but it’s actually not so simple to do.  If, even while you are in zazen position, you continue your thoughts, you are thinking and no longer doing zazen.  Or, if you fall asleep while in the zazen position, you’re simply sleeping and no longer doing zazen.  Zazen is not thinking, nor is it sleeping; rather, it must aim at holding a living and vital zazen posture.  If you become sleepy while doing zazen, your energy becomes limp.  If you pursue your thoughts, your posture will become stiff.  Zazen is neither being limp and lifeless nor is it being stiff; rather, it ought to be full of life and energy.

In his revolutionary book published in 1957, Alan Watts describes zazen very similar to Uchiyama and adds the following:

The breathing is regulated so as to be slow without strain, with the stress upon the out-breath, and its impulse from the belly rather than the chest.  This has the effect of shifting the body’s center of gravity to the abdomen so that the whole posture has a sense of firmness, of being part of the ground upon which one is sitting.  The slow, easy breathing from the belly works upon the consciousness like bellows, and gives it a still, bright clarity.  The beginner is advised to accustom himself to the stillness by doing nothing more than counting his breaths from one to ten, over and over again, until the sensation of sitting without comment becomes effortless and natural.

Clouds in the Water Zen Center in St. Paul suggests the following:

The aim of meditation is to be intimate with whatever experience arises.
Breathe gently through your nose. Follow the breath as it moves in and out from a point two finger widths beneath your navel.
Allow the breath to sponsor awareness of the body, feelings, and the mind.
When your attention wanders, gently and directly return to the vivid present moment with earnestness.

For sitting meditation, sit comfortably with your back naturally straight, either on a cushion or in a chair.

For walking meditation, walk with awareness of your breath as you step. As you inhale, raise the heel of your foot. When you reach the height of inhalation, slowly swing the foot forward, taking half a step. As you touch the ball of your foot to the floor, gently exhale. Then gently lower the rest of the foot.
A bell will signal the beginning (3 rings) and end (2 rings) of meditation.