The following is a written record of a zazen instruction class given by Shohaku
Okumura to a group of students...
- There are many traditions of Buddhism, and each tradition has its
own approach to meditation practice. My practice was developed
within that the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, so what I will tell you
about meditation is only from the perspective of that tradition. If
you think my style of practice is not for you, you do not have to think
that all types of meditation are not for you; there exist many other
methods of meditation and spiritual paths that you can explore
besides the one I will present to you.
In our tradition we call this meditation zazen. In Japanese za means
“sitting” and zen means “meditation”. There are three important
points of practice in sitting meditation. The first one is harmonizing
the body, the second is harmonizing the breath, and the third is
harmonizing the mind. Body, breath, and mind are the three most
important points of practice in meditation.
First I will explain how to harmonize the body. In almost
all Buddhist traditions one sits in a cross-legged posture during
meditation. If you are able to sit in a cross-legged position during
zazen that is fine, but if it that is too painful for you it is alright, too;
sitting cross-legged is not strictly necessary for meditation. For the
half-lotus position, put either foot on top of the opposite thigh, and
place the other foot on the floor underneath the other thigh. Please
make sure that both knees are on the floor because this makes the
posture stable. If possible, put each foot on the opposite thigh with the
line of the toes matching the outer line of the thighs. This is called
the full lotus position and it is the most balanced and stable posture
because the weight of the body, like a teapot’s, is supported at three
points: the two knees and the buttocks. This is the most stable position
for sitting, though “most stable” does not mean “most comfortable” for
many people. Sit in full lotus if you are able, but if that is too painful
you may also sit in half lotus, with just one foot on the opposite thigh.
Another sitting position you can use is called Burmese; in this position
you put both feet on the floor. But still the important point is that
both of the knees are on the floor. So whether in Burmese, half lotus,
or full lotus, the important point is to make a solid stable foundation
with the knees and buttocks that supports the upper part of the body.
If these cross-legged positions are difficult for you, you may wish to
sit in the posture called seiza. In this posture you sit with both knees
straight in front of your body and the buttocks rests on a cushion
with the feet on either side of it. Seiza is the posture traditionally
used in Japan for regular sitting in daily life. If that posture is too
uncomfortable you can use a meditation bench or a chair.
After crossing your legs (if you are sitting in a cross-legged posture)
and before adjusting your posture, sway your body several times from
left to right, starting with a large movement that gradually decreases
in size. We do this is to relax the muscles. Lean the upper body
forward while keeping the legs in place, and return the torso to center
without moving your lower back. This will create a natural curvature
in the lower back. Then pull your chin in so your neck is straight. You
should feel as if the top of your head and the center of your buttocks
are within the same vertical line. The horizontal line connecting your
ears and the horizontal line connecting your shoulders should be
parallel, and the vertical line connecting your nose and belly should
be straight. The important point of this posture is to keep the body
upright and well balanced; try not to lean in any direction, neither
right nor left, neither forward nor backward. If your body is not
straight your back will be bent and sitting for a long time will create
pain at the point where the spine is bent. It is important to find a
natural position for yourself in sitting. The body should be thoroughly
straight, yet the muscles should be relaxed, not tense. Finally, when
your posture becomes really upright, be still, take in one deep breath
through your nose, and then exhale completely through your mouth to
help you really settle into the posture. Adopting this posture is how we
harmonize the body.
When we sit we keep the eyes open. In some traditions the eyes
are closed in meditation, but in our tradition we keep the eyes open.
Direct your vision about three feet in front of your body, and your eyes
will naturally come to rest in position that is half opened and half
closed. When doing zazen in the meditation hall, we sit facing the
wall. Try not to focus on anything; just keep your eyes open without
directing your gaze on any particular object.
Next I will explain how to hold your hands in zazen. First put the
top of your right hand on the palm of your left hand, overlapping
the fingers. Now make an oval by touching the tips of the thumbs
together at about the height of your navel. This is called the cosmic
mudra. In this position the right hand and the left hand, the two
sides, come together and become one. This is the meaning of the
mudra; it is beyond duality, just as the body becomes truly one thing
in zazen. If you place your hands too low or too high in making the
mudra, you may experience tension in your shoulders or neck. It is
therefore important to find the best height to hold the mudra for your
particular body. If you find it helpful, you can put a towel on your lap
and place your hands on it. In the same fashion, some practitioners
that wear robes with big sleeves arrange those sleeves on their laps
as a foundation for the mudra. When we see the shape of our hands in
zazen as we make the mudra, we can see the condition of our minds. If
your mind is somewhere else when you sit, naturally the shape of this
oval becomes distorted. As a way to stay mindful, attempt to keep the
hands stable with the mudra intact.
In review, the important point is to make a stable foundation for
zazen with the lower half of your body. Also, keep the back straight,
lower your eyesight three feet in front of your body, and hold your
hands in the cosmic mudra. This is how we sit in zazen.
Next I will explain how to breathe in zazen; breathing is one of the
most important points in any kind of meditation practice. When your
posture is stable, first exhale from the mouth completely, letting the air
inside your body completely out. When you have completely exhaled,
you close your mouth, place your tongue on the roof of you mouth, and
inhale through your nose. When you do this, you will feel the fresh air
come in through your nose. Also, when you sit in meditation, breathe
abdominally. Keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth, breathe
easily and naturally with the air coming into your body through your
nose and down to your abdomen,. When we breathe in this way, the
belly moves as the air comes in and as it goes out. Keep the breath deep,
smooth, and peaceful. It is best if the exhalation is longer than the
inhalation in zazen. Just slowly and completely exhale all of the air, and
then air will naturally come back into your lungs. It is not necessary
to make any special effort to regulate your breathing; just keep
breathing naturally through the nose, so naturally that you forget about
breathing. In some traditions, sometimes even in the Zen tradition,
some teachers teach the meditation technique of counting the breath.
In this method the practitioner counts the breaths from one to ten,
repeating the count over again after each series of ten breaths. Some
teachers also teach watching the breath – paying special attention to
the air as it comes in and goes out of the body. In my tradition we don’t
count or watch the breath, we just breathe naturally, deeply and quietly.
Of course even when we sit breathing quietly in this posture many
things happen within the mind. In zazen we simply allow any thought,
feeling or emotion to come up and then we simply let them go away;
we actually do nothing. In sitting, any thought or condition of mind
is like a cloud in the sky. Somehow clouds appear in the sky, changing
form as they stay for a while, and then they disappear....We actually do nothing but let the things happening
within the mind just flow. Yet when you become aware that you are
interacting with what is happening in your mind, just stop interacting
and return to the zazen posture while breathing with the eyes open.
That means you let go of whatever thoughts come up, and you also don’t
sleep. This is the point in our sitting practice.
.....It is exceedingly difficult to do nothing, and zazen is essentially doing nothing but
sitting. The founder of our tradition, Zen master Eihei Dogen, called
this practice shikantaza. Shikantaza means “just sitting” in Japanese,
and to just sit means that we really only sit without doing anything
else. This is a really simple practice; we do nothing but sit in the zazen
posture breathing easily, keeping the eyes open, staying awake, and
letting go. That’s all we do in zazen; we do nothing else. Yet even if you
try to sit just five minutes in this way you will find it really difficult.
This practice is very simple but simple does not necessarily mean easy.
So whenever we become aware that we have deviated from that point
of upright posture, deep breathing, keeping the eyes open without
focusing, and letting go of whatever comes up, we try to return to that
point. In whatever condition we find ourselves in, we just return to
posture, breathing, waking up, and letting go. That is what we do in
When we begin and when we finish zazen we do gassho. To do gassho
is to put both hands together, at chest height, and bow. This expresses
respect, friendship and gratitude.
At the end of a period of meditation, unfold your legs and notice
how they feel before you get up. If your legs have fallen asleep, take
your time standing up until you feel comfortable doing so.
When we sit more than one period of zazen, between periods we do
a walking meditation for ten minutes that is called kinhin in Japanese.
....in our practice the point of sitting is being right
here, right now. Often, though we are sitting in the zazen posture, in
that moment of sitting the mind is somewhere else. Being mindful
means that both the body and the mind are present right here, right
now. Our practice is returning to this moment, right now, right here,
with both the body and the mind. Depth or progress of awareness is
not important in our practice. Depending upon the age of the person
and how long he or she has been sitting, of course, mental conditions
are different, but that is not important in our practice. In our practice
the most important point is being fully present, right now, right here.
That’s all. So our goal is coming back to this moment, to this place.
In the process of doing meditation do you notice special things in your mind? Like
what you can see because you meditate, something beyond just thoughts?
When we sit for long periods of time, of course we experience all
different kinds of mental conditions. Sometimes we experience some
really weird things, or sometimes it seems as if we are in a daydream.
Sometimes, especially when first beginning this sitting practice, we
struggle with pain. Sometimes we may be extremely sleepy, and sleeping
in this posture is something very different from sleeping in a bed. This
is because when we are sitting zazen we try to stay awake when we
are sleepy, though the body wants to sleep. This is a struggle between
body and mind. The depths of sleepiness and awakening vary a lot.
Sometimes we are one hundred percent sleeping, sitting in this posture.
Sometimes we are half-awake and half-asleep; other times we are very
awake. Within this sleepiness we experience many different kinds of
mental conditions. So it may be dangerous if we interpret any particular
mental condition as enlightenment. Sometimes this world becomes
very bright, and sometimes a person may feel he or she understands
everything. It may seem at this time that there is no doubt or question
remaining about anything; everything is okay as it is. But that is just
a condition arising from the states of the body, mind, temperature,
humidity and all other conditions of our lives. These conditions are not
the important point of our practice. Our practice is to keep an upright
posture in any condition; we just go through all conditions. ...Sometimes we have no clouds at all with a completely blue sky,
and this is very beautiful. More often we have different kinds of clouds
coming and going. Sometimes more than half of the sky is covered with
clouds, and sometimes the entire sky is completely covered with clouds,
or even storms arise. There are many different kinds of conditions we
must sit through in zazen, but the purpose of our practice does not include
controlling the weather. The important point is to maintain this upright
posture in whatever conditions we encounter. ...When we sit zazen, many different kinds of thoughts come up.
We may think some thoughts are really good ideas, yet in zazen we have to
let go of them; we open the hand of thought. Whether we like our ideas or
whether we experience negative feelings about something, we try to let go
because that is zazen. I think this letting go is the way we are free from our
clinging, our preferences, our systems of value, and our ways of thinking.
This zazen itself is freedom from attachment.