It would be easy to get the idea that Zen is 'all in the mind'. Actually, it’s really much more in my body. All our practices are body practices…we keep our bodies still, or we ask them to move together in a prescribed way. We use our voices, our breath, to recite or chant together. And bowing is interesting to do precisely because it’s something physical I do with my body, not something in my head. Keep that in mind…
Sitting Zen (zazen)
Zen ‘meditation’ is easier than you could possibly imagine and…that simplicity creates a problem in itself. All of us will always try to make things more complicated than we need to, and end up by putting obstacles in our path, that’s just what we do. So when I say the basic thing we do is ‘just sitting’, I do actually mean exactly that. We sit as still as we possibly can, with our hands resting in our lap. And then we simply see what happens, whatever we become aware of. Does this sound too simple?
Actually, it is that simple, there is nothing to get ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. As my own teacher says ‘It’s like looking in a mirror, you don’t have to do anything at all, your face automatically appears’. But think about this for a moment… what always happens when I look in the mirror? I think how good, or how dreadful I look. That blackhead that needs fixing, how old or tired I seem, or maybe see that I’ve finally got my eyeshadow just right? Or that I think I look a fool or a fraud, or even that I’m a big success? We immediately start using it as a touch-up mirror, making an endless series of judgements about ourself, or other people, or the world.
So in our sitting practice we stay still while we become aware of each thought, each feeling as they come up. The things I like, the things I hate. And how my body reacts, or not, as I feel tension, pain, elation, or whatever else. The more still I sit, the more I begin to feel what’s happening in my body, and begin to notice too how this relates to the emotions and thoughts I become aware of. But I don’t ‘do’ anything, I don’t have to ‘try’.
This practice is called ‘shikantaza’ in Zen, and is a form of zazen…as we call any kind of ‘sitting meditation’.
Normally we sit on a cushion to do zazen, and while some teachers do make a big deal of posture, you can sit in a chair if you need to, or add extra cushions or support. We just need to be stable, balanced and comfortable (at least to begin with). Details on posture are given below.
If all that sounds a little confusing, here are two simple instructions for zazen meditation:
SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP! (Zen teacher Brad Warner)
YOU CAN’T DO IT WRONG! (My own teacher, Barry Magid)
If you just practiced this zazen every day, and let the awareness you find there become a part of your everyday life, that would be…wonderful…
Nevertheless, we come together to practice, and when we do we have simple forms to follow, so that we all know what to do and what not to do at any point. We come together in a shared experience of doing the same thing at the same time, which is one way in which we remind ourselves that we are ‘not-separate’ from each other. Our group practice centres around periods of zazen, normally each 25 or 30 minutes. Discussion has an important role, either talking one to one with the teacher, or discussing as a group. We each bring the experience of our daily lives, and contribute as it feels appropriate to each of us at that moment. Along with our Zazen we have three other kinds of formal practice…walking, chanting and bowing.
In between sitting periods we normally do five or ten minutes of kinhin, co-ordinating our steps with each other as we walk. We form a line and walk slowly and with awareness: awareness of the rhythm of body and breath, of the physical sensations of moving my limbs, the pressure of my feet on the ground, and awareness of each other’s presence in the room, and of ourselves as a group. But it doesn’t have to be slow, and we may alternate periods of fast and slow walking, trying to keep the same focus and awareness throughout.
At the end of each sitting we say the Practice Principles together. In some sittings we also chant together a few traditional Zen poems and sutras, normally in English translation.
This is a long explanation for a very short practice, it takes less than a minute. At the end of a sitting it’s traditional to bow three times to each other as a group. These are full bows, ‘prostrations’ as they are sometimes called, a bit like the ‘child pose’ you may know from yoga. They are optional, and it’s fine not to do them, but…
This kind of bowing was a normal part of traditional Asian life, one that expressed respect and hierarchy, and everyone’s having a ‘place’ in society; for exactly these reasons it’s certainly not a ‘natural’ part of modern Western life. So why do we bow? Remember I said that Zen is a body practice rather than purely mental one? When we bow we express and directly experience through our bodies our own vulnerability, not easy for Westerners to do, and especially not to do as a group. We bow as a group, we bow to each other and to ourselves, and to the fact of our practicing here together. We bow to acknowledge we are all already Buddhas, already perfect exactly as we are in this moment, as is every other being in the universe. We bow to share this recognition with each other, and in this way to show that we are ‘not-separate’.
If our zazen practice is simply to be aware of the flow of thoughts and bodily feelings as they happen, then there is nothing to learn, nothing to master, (other than simply being able to sit still for half an hour!) Nevertheless… many people have never really explored awareness of their own body, or even become aware that they have a constant flow of thoughts passing through their minds. So we do sometimes do practice exercises to become more aware of these aspects of our experience…which can be as simple as listening to the background sounds in the room, following our breathing, giving a simple label to the thoughts that come into my head as each one arises….
Much is sometimes made of ‘correct’ posture, but within Ordinary Mind the main idea has always just been ‘sit as still as you possibly can!’ But I’d add…sit in a way that doesn’t involve back strain…that’s why the classic postures are good… So, here are a few thoughts to help with getting a balanced stable posture. The aim is relaxed but alert…
I’ll start with the hands, because the often get forgotten. Place your right hand in your lap, and the left hand on top, so that just the fingers overlap. Bring the tips of your thumbs together to just touch. This is the ‘cosmic mudra’…a circle that’s the sun, the universe, the ocean…the Zen circle painting… Your mudra tells you a lot…are your thumbs pressing together hard or collapsing? Are you holding your arms and hands tight or letting them flop? No right, no wrong, but it always shows you how you are feeling, how you are sitting, right now, in this moment..
The classic Zazen posture is to sit on a meditation cushion, which gives you proper support (pillows and scatter cushions just don’t do this!). Ideally you sit on the front third, which lets your pelvis tilt slightly forward, which aligns your spine more comfortably. Legs are folded, and ideally knees come down to meet the floor. If you can fold your left foot up onto your right thigh, so much the better (that’s a held-lotus posture…) You can support them with pads if this helps, or use a higher cushion. So you have a stable triangle of support.
However…many people find this doesn’t work for them. So a kneeling posture is good to try, again, sit on the front of your cushion, and make sure you have some padding under the knees to stop them getting sore…you can experiment with how high the cushion is.
Either way, expect you lower back to complain a bit a first, but not as crippling pain…that means something’s wrong. Like any exercise, your muscles will get stronger over time provided you don’t strain them. This applies to knees as well…never force your posture, it’s storing up trouble for later…
Your spine needs to be straight-ish, skull aligned over your pelvis. Not ramrod straight, and not curved in a hunch, or straining upwards. Check you are not leaning too left or right, front or back. A traditional way to check this is just to let yourself sway a little in all direction, you are feeling your way into a balanced position, a balanced posture.
There are many reasons you might find yourself wanting to sit an a chair, either temporarily or permanently. Zen is a lifetime practice, so we never force things or damage ourselves if we can help it, and there are times when a chair is best, and a lot of people for whom a chair is always best. Sitting in a chair doesn’t look as cool as sitting on a cushion, especially if you are in a group where most are sat on the floor. And that ought be a good enough reason for definitely sitting in a chair! One of the keys to practice is being aware of my own desire to be cool, competent, the best at this. It’s self honesty…
So exactly the same guidelines apply. Find a firm seat, sit on the front third of the cushion, place your feet flat on the floor. Sit away from the seat back if you can, spine upright but not ramrod straight, skull aligned over the pelvis. Check you are not leaning to one side, or forward or back… Take these guidelines seriously, but try things out, and change them if you need to. Stability and minimum discomfort are the watchwords, and then sit…still…
Find what works for you, but be prepared to change as you go along…