HOW TO DO ZAZEN
Posture is key to practising zazen. It is important to find a posture in which you maintain your upper body in an upright position while being softly relaxed. Several postures can be used: full or half lotus, Burmese, Seiza – kneeling astride a zafu (cushion) or sitting on a meditation stool or a chair.
The following diagrams and instructions are intended as a guide to the postures utilised when practicing zazen. If you have any medical problems that might cause you concern about sitting for long periods you should consult with the appropriate medical professional.
On a stool
On a chair
Your knees should be lower than your hips when sitting on a zafu.
We take as our model the posture of a one-year-old child sitting upright, except that the spine curves forward slightly at the waist, the belly is relaxed, while the bottom is thrust back.
No belts or constricting clothing should be worn during zazen.
The upper body is erect, but relaxed; ears are in line with the shoulders, and shoulders line with the hips.
Eyes are cast down and slightly open to allow in a little light, but they are not focused.
Your legs can be folded in various ways. It is a matter of finding a position which suits you. Great care needs to be exercised in the early stages not to injure your legs. If you are stiff, spend some time doing stretching exercises. This is especially necessary if you are doing the full lotus position (see Taking the Path of Zen, p.17)
When you sit down, place your feet in position, thrust your bottom back and sit up. Rock in ever decreasing arcs and rock back and forward until the body feels balanced. Check your head position.
Your eyes should be cast down, about 2/3 closed, and focused on a point about a metre in front of you (“hooded gaze”). After a while your eyes may go out of focus - this is normal. If your eyes are closed you become dreamy. If your eyes are wide open you can become distracted.
Place your left hand on your right with the thumbs just touching, forming an oval (the zazen mudra). Your hands should rest in your lap and your elbows should project a little. The zazen mudra is very important because it reflects the condition of your mind during meditation. When your attention strays your mudra tends to collapse.
Take three deep breaths to begin a round of zazen. Then begin your practice, allowing the breath to breathe itself.
At the end of a round of zazen (25 minutes) come out of your meditation very gently and carefully stand up. If your foot is asleep wait until you can stand safely.
Methods of Zen meditation
Counting the breath
After taking three deep breaths at the beginning of the sitting round, place your attention in the hara, which is located about 2‑3cm below your navel, inside your body. In Japanese traditions, this spot is called the hara. When you cultivate bringing your attention back to your hara, over time you transform your practice, and your life.
Count "one" for the inhalation, "two" for the exhalation, "three" for the next inhalation, "four" for the next exhalation, and so on up to "ten." Then return to "one," and repeat for the duration of the round. Each breath is allowed to be just as it is. Some are long, some are short, some are deep, and some are shallow. Don’t try to make the breath regular or rhythmic. Although breath counting seems simple, you cannot dream at it, or just let it happen. To truly meet the challenge of your rampaging mind, you must devote all your attention just to "one," just to "two.” When you are breathing "one," that is all there is; when you are breathing "two," everything gathers as “two!” When (not if!) you lose the count, and you finally realise that you have lost it, you are home. Return gently to "one," and continue as before.
When thoughts and feelings arise, return to the breath count; zazen involves neither the annihilation, nor the indulgence of thoughts and feelings. Sounds pass right through. Zazen is an open practice; it goes on in the midst of daily life, and is sustained by it. When you feel confident with counting "one" for the inhalation and "two" for the exhalation, try counting only the exhalations, and then only the inhalations.
After even a month of breath counting practice we can focus more clearly on work, study and recreation. The blue of the sky is bluer, the taste of orange is more so. With breath counting we begin the task of keeping ourselves undivided, for it is thinking of something other than the matter at hand that separates us from reality and dissipates our energies. Breath counting is the first, and fundamental, practice of Zen. At the same time, it can be the practice of a lifetime.
Experiencing the breath
Now we cultivate awareness of the breath without counting. This is the practice of following, or experiencing, the breath. Maintain your awareness at the focal point of your breath practice, the hara. Now you simply experience the in-breath as in-breath, the out-breath as out-breath, without allowing your attention to become diverted. You bring your full attention to your breathing in, then your full attention to breathing out.
Working on a koan
One of the most alluring and striking aspects of the Zen Way is the practice of koans. It is fair to say that koans characterize the Zen Way, and distinguish it from other Buddhist paths. A koan can be a word, verse or story from the Zen tradition that is used as a means of awakening to our deepest nature. Koans sometimes develop out of a dialogue between Zen teachers, or between a Zen teacher and a student. Sometimes they assume the form of a question, such as “Who is hearing that sound?” The use of a question encourages us to develop the necessary inquiring spirit to continue, deepen, and finally to resolve the koan. Koans cannot be resolved by logical reasoning, but only by awakening to a deeper level of mind. The koan path continues after awakening so that we can embody, express and finally transcend our initial awakening experience.
A student doing koan study normally works with a teacher. The chapter "The Koan Mu" in Robert Aitken Roshi's book Taking the Path of Zen is an excellent introduction to koan study.
The term shikantaza can be translated: as “Nothing but precisely sitting.” We can break this translation down as follows. Nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za). The sense of “ta” translated here as “precisely,” means “strong,” “active,” “to hit,” “to hit on,” “to be on the knocker.” It is helpful to think of the word shikantaza as a verb rather than a noun, for it is the dynamic activity of being fully present to what arises in your meditation, and in your life. The practice of shikantaza continues off your cushion.
We focus selectively when we count the breath or work with a koan. However, in shikantaza the aperture of consciousness is wide open. All that arises: breath, sounds, the body and its sensations, feelings, and thoughts are the content and territory of shikantaza. As practitioners, our job is to be fully attentive to breath, sound, body, feelings and thoughts as they arise in the moment. In this, we should be clear about the details of what is happening, yet not pulled about by them, especially by our thinking about them.
In shikantaza we do not strive for enlightenment, but rather manifest our inherent enlightenment, even as we take the posture and are fully present to whatever arises.
The practice of Silent Illumination can be traced back to the Buddha, but was most clearly articulated by the Chan master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157). In recent times this important and much misunderstood practice, where the practitioner does not strive to gain enlightenment or to get rid of delusion–– rather, naturally opening to the essential and eternal within this moment–– has been brought to the West by the contemporary Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930-2009) in his book The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination. Here is his account of Silent Illumination. “The genuine state of Silent Illumination is none other than the function of enlightened mind. Silence means being free from words and language, which is to say not being led about by the activities of the discursive mind, while illumination refers to clarity and expansiveness of mind. When Silent Illumination is fully realized one can respond to the myriad things free from ideation. This is wisdom.”
The prerequisite for Silent Illumination is to relax one’s body and one’s mind. This does not mean that one is lackadaisical. On the contrary, the effort should be seamless, fusing into one continuous flow. The body and the attitude should be relaxed, but the practice is taut and without gaps.
Beginning Silent Illumination
Once relaxed, you begin Silent Illumination by being aware of your body just sitting. Just feel the presence of your body sitting there, always returning to it, no matter what happens. Simplify and reduce all complications to this single act of just sitting. However, if you're too absorbed or too scattered and are no longer aware that you're sitting, then bring your awareness back to your body sitting again.
If at some point you no longer feel bodily sensations, even then, you must continue being aware that the body is sitting there. Not having bodily sensations means that your body is no longer a burden. You feel at ease, but your awareness must continue without any gaps. This takes diligence. Even though your approach is relaxed, your effort must be very spirited, and you should continue in this way.
See Sheng Yen’s The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination, for a detailed account of how to do Silent Illumination practice. There is a useful overview of the “stages” of Silent Illumination practice on pp. 120-123 of Sheng Yen’s book, from which these notes are primarily taken.
With devoted practice we lose our isolation from stars and earth. Each thing is, and all things are, obliviously and helplessly us, as they have always been. Although this experience is personal, we also sense that it isn’t just our matter: a cat, an earthworm, even a clump of wild oats, are thus.
When we realize that the source of our being is no source at all, grief and pain are carried differently, if indeed it is proper to speak of “being carried” at all. Awakening thus, we are released a little, or a lot, from the confining stories that close us down. Everything breathes a little deeper, and we find a measure of spaciousness and ease.
When and where to practice Zazen
Daily zazen in a set place at a set time is essential for Zen practice. This is the root from which other aspects of Zen life grow and develop.
Sit at least once a day. In the beginning, sit for short periods to allow your body to become accustomed to the posture. Practice zazen in a clean, tidy room or space, not too hot or too cold, nor too dark or too light. Zen is not asceticism. Zazen does not aim at rendering the mind inactive but at calming and focusing it in the midst of activity.
There are opportunities to practice away from your sitting space. Giving attention to walking, standing, sitting or to any task at hand is practice. When you are at one with the breath, at one with your steps, at one with the person to whom you are speaking, or at one with a task, your true nature is always revealing itself. When you unite with the object or task at hand you lose your separation, and confirm your intimacy with the whole of reality.
All beings by nature are Buddha,
As ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
Apart from beings, no Buddha.
- Hakuin Zenji (1686 - 1768)