I’m going to devote a couple of weeks to introducing Dogen’s short text Zazengi, an explication on the practice of zazen. In it, he gives a pithy overview of the pure mechanics and physical postures of it, and then wraps with a sort of definitive declaration that zazen paradoxically has nothing whatsoever to do with mechanics or posture.
I will start by going over Dogen’s postural suggestions, and expand on them a bit. This is one of the most emphasized aspects of our practice, but it can be easily misunderstood.
Following is the whole of Zazengi, maybe the shortest chapter in Shobogenzo. In his compassion and wisdom, to avoid our tendency for complications and confusion, his instructions are direct and simple:
Practicing Zen means zazen (sitting zen). A quiet place is most suitable for doing zazen. Place a thick mat on the floor. Do not allow drafts or mist to enter the room. Do not allow rain or dew to leak in. Protect the place where you sit; keep it in good condition. Ancient sages sat on the diamond seat or on a large rock. They laid grass thickly and sat on it. Keep the place where you sit softly lit. It should not be totally dark either during the day or at night. It is essential that it be warm in winter and cool in summer. Let go of all relations, and set all affairs at rest. Do not think of good, do not think of evil. Zazen has nothing to do with the function of intellect, volition, or consciousness, nor with memory, imagination, or contemplation. Do not seek to become a buddha. Be free from the discrimination of sitting and lying down. Be moderate in drinking and eating. Do not squander your time. Be as eager to do zazen as you would be to extinguish a fire upon your head. The fifth patriarch on Mt. Obai (Huang-mei) practiced nothing but zazen.
When you do zazen, wear a kesa (kashāya), and use a round cushion (za-fu) place on a padded mat (za-buton). The zafu should not extend completely under your legs, but should be placed just under your buttocks, so that your knees are on the zabuton, and your spine is on the zafu. This is the way that the buddhas and patriarchs sit when they do zazen. You may sit in either the half-lotus or the full-lotus position. When you sit in the full-lotus position, put your right foot on your left thigh, and put your left foot on your right thigh. The line of your toes should be even with the outer line of your thighs. When you sit in the half-lotus position, just put your left foot on your right thigh. Keep your clothing and kesa (kashāya) loose, but neat. Place your right hand on your left foot. And your left hand on your right hand palm. The tips of your thumbs should be lightly touching. Position both your hands as above, and put them close to your body. The tips of your thumbs should be aligned with your navel.
Sit upright in the proper position. Lean neither to the left nor to the right, neither forward nor backward. Your ears should be in line with your shoulders; your nose in line with your navel. Touch your tongue gently against the roof of your mouth. Breathe softly through your nose. Your lips and teeth should be gently closed. Keep your eyes open, but neither too widely nor too narrowly. Adjust your body and mind in this way; then exhale fully and take a breath. Sit stably in samadhi. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Beyond-thinking. This is the way of doing zazen in accord with the dharma. Zazen is not learning meditation. Rather zazen itself is the dharma-gate of great peace and joy. It is undefiled practice-realization.
This is our entire way. It is very ordinary. But as we each discover every time we sit, it’s quite subtle. I am very impressed at how still our sangha is able to sit. Having entered our second year of practice together, I notice that is not such a big deal for virtually anyone walking through the door to sit upright and still for a full 35 minutes. Nyogen Senzaki, maybe the first Japanese priest to teach zazen to Americans, in the 1920s and ’30s taught people to sit for just 10 minutes – in church pews and chairs, no less.
He perceived that most Americans simply were incapable of doing more; he was resigned to just introducing what we could think of as the “morphogenetic field” of zazen in this culture, so that people later could truly participate in it more deeply. He had an incredibly long view. Speaking of which, I once heard a Tibetan teacher say that because Zen had established a foundation of sitting and stillness in America in the 1950s and ‘60s, Tibetan Buddhism had a much easier time being introduced here in the 1970s. And he wasn’t just talking about individuals doing one practice then the other, but rather something more energetic in the whole psycho-cultural body.
So, we are sitting still; but considering our physical habits as modern people, spending hours at desks and resting on soft furniture, we can understandably look a little slumpy, sometimes. A little occasional slumping can actually be a correction for some people who maybe chronically over-do. What we are looking for is our own living, harmonious, settled still-point between effort and non-effort.
I would like to expand a bit on Dogen’s instructions with some perceptions derived from my own practice. Namely this relates to the sheer physicality of it. We sit in a yoga studio, which underscores the point. I highly recommend that zazen practitioners engage in other physical therapies, like yoga, chiropractic, or somatic awareness training of various sorts. And then integrate this awareness into your posture, and practice of sitting.
I sat a retreat with a teacher last year who just gently touched the crown of my head and indicated that I extend up toward his hand. I am pretty diligent about extending my spine, but something about this physical instruction allowed me to find what felt like another couple of inches. It probably wasn’t that much, but it felt like it. When I talked with him about this later, he said he is sometimes amazed at how much length people will find when he just silently suggests it’s there; inches and inches!
Now, we need to make sure that our chin stays tucked a little bit, which should happen naturally when you gently press or lift from the crown of the head; this is slightly to the rear of the skull. Also, you might try simultaneously pressing from the back of the skull, as if there is a wall behind your head you are pushing against. Just for a breath or two; then relax. It does help align the spine. We should see that the curvature in the lower back is still there. The pelvis should naturally be tipped ever so slightly forward. There is a good yoga instruction about gently aiming the coccyx forward while tipping the pelvic bone back – this is another way to generate that feeling of lifted uprightness. It also gently “engages the core,” that phrase I am happy to hear used all over the place now. It applies in zazen, for sure. We shouldn’t just be “spilling our guts” forward; nor should we be sucking them in. Rather, again, we are finding something in between.
This all seems to happen quite naturally in full lotus, especially when our hips are open enough to do it properly. Dogen posits it as the ideal posture, and it really is quite wonderful when we can accomplish it. In full lotus, the correct spinal posture seems easier to find, and the stability is obvious. Of course, few modern people are able to accomplish this readily, or comfortably for the duration of our zazen. You will notice that the less folded our legs are, the more lift under your butt you need. In full lotus, an inch or two of padding works; in half lotus, 3-4 inches of lift is needed. One leg resting on the opposite calf – a sort of quarter-lotus (or what I call “half-ass lotus”) works for me sometimes, but I need a bit more lift again.
Then there is Burmese-style, which implies an entire culture favors it. This is both legs in front, parallel calf to shin, flat on the ground. You will notice the less lift you have, the more the spine bows back and the chin projects. It might be said that Tibetan monks often have this posture, presumably from living a life sitting on the ground, and it works for them. I’ve even heard Tibetan practitioners say they don’t have great posture! People can be great bodhisattvas, and maybe not have such great posture. You can have the best posture, and be a real creep. But our way to is to aim toward a naturally good posture, and I think this is a good, reasonable instruction.
I have tended to sit a lot in half lotus, as Dogen says with my left leg on top. Predictably, yoga asana practice has shown me that I am imbalanced, and the right hip has had to compensate for all the flexibility on the left. I am working now on correcting this, and sit half lotus with the right foot on top more. It’s a very alive thing, our zazen.
Our tongue should lightly touch the roof of our mouth, just behind the teeth. I notice that when I am stressed or pushing, my tongue can press up too hard; when I am drifting, it may fall away altogether. So this becomes a very wonderful point of mindful attention, a place to check yourself. It also allegedly completes a big energy circuit in the body, connecting the back and front channels of the body. Make sure that you do not clench your jaw; nor should your fly-trap (mouth) hang open.
The hands in their mudra also do this; they connect a circuit, and they act as a wonderful gauge of our presence. Pressed too hard together, they reveal tension. Falling apart, they indicate sleepiness or drift. They should just be lightly touching, with the thumb nails facing more or less upwards, not forward, for most of us forming a sort of goose egg-sized oval. The middle left fingers should just overlap the right palm slightly, the first and fourth fingers meeting the base of their opposite fingers. A few years ago I learned a wonderful traditional Soto instruction about resting the mind gently in the left palm. I think that’s about my favorite answer about what to do with the mind in zazen. Just gently place it there – which is of course an open question. What on earth does that actually mean? Check it out for yourself.
Mudra placement is important. If in full-lotus, the hands naturally rest on the feet in the correct placement. In other positions, make sure that one, the “cutting side” of the hands are touching the abdomen, not hanging out in space, and that the thumbs are about the level of the navel, not floating above or below. If tension forms in the shoulders, it can be quite restful for the hands to sit palm down on the knees. The mudra is a very focusing element, but sometimes, backing off is called for.
We keep our eyes a little open. I hear from a lot of people about all kinds of strange things happening with people’s eyes, especially when they start regular zazen practice. Tears, spontaneous uncontrolled eye movement, burning sensations, all kinds of things. Yogically it is said the eyes are the first place to hold tension, and the last place to release it. Their connection to cognition and our neurology is profound. I recommend taking glasses off and allowing the eyes to rest from that external constraint – some vision-training experts agree with me. Just keep the gaze soft; I mostly just allow myself to be aware of the light trickling in, try to keep my eyes still, blink occasionally, and let go.
My last comment about these bare-bones instruction is how marvelous I find his description even of our cushions, and how we attend to the space of zazen, our zen-do. Here he is 800 years ago in Japan precisely describing the nature of the cushions he saw in ancient temples in China, that we are sitting on here in Albuquerque in 2015. Extraordinary. This is not a “New Age” deal. Notice also that he is not indicating any form of ascetic austerities here – let the room be comfortable and consistent. Consistency is among the most important aspects of Zen training.
That about covers the physical aspects. There are endless nuances to discover, but we shouldn’t get too caught up in them.
As if to insure we don’t get hung up in some Cult of Perfect Posture, Dogen pulls the rug (or goza mat) out from under his own zafu and zabuton. He says, “Be free from the discrimination of sitting and lying down.” In Buddhism it is said there are four postures of practice: walking, sitting, standing, and lying down. That feels liberating in itself. In other words, nothing is excluded. Every position is a potential zazen moment.
And we have directions for all of these postures. You see them in our practice. The way we do kinhin, or walking zazen; the way we stand; the way we bow; there are even clear instructions for monks while sleeping (on your right side, which physiologically allows the heart to rest more naturally during sleep, etc.)
In a way all these postures act as training wheels to allow us to start to get our feet under us; however, it’s not like we graduate at some point. In time, we begin to experience zazen as a sort of celebration, of zazen itself; zazen which is just our own intention to awaken, manifested in the time-being.
The last few lines of Zazengi are a pure liberation, and perhaps the most succinct overview of Dogen’s total Dharma:
Sit stably in samadhi. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Beyond-thinking. This is the way of doing zazen in accord with the dharma. Zazen is not learning meditation. Rather zazen itself is the dharma-gate of great peace and joy. It is undefiled practice-realization.
I suggest just sitting in the presence of this expression, and not trying too hard to parse out exactly what this means. Like great poetry or revelation, there is some quality about these words that doesn’t bear much analysis; or at least, reveal much more that way, beyond our first intuitive hit.
I appreciate this as one of the places where he clearly says zazen is “not meditation.” It forces us to really confront this question: what is meditation, anyway? Obviously it can mean many things, and zazen can encompass so-called meditation practices too. We need those, in so far as they can be tools for healing and growth. But Dogen is pointing to something much more expansive, and totally inclusive. Redemptive, even. He says zazen is nothing less than “the Dharma-gate of great peace and joy.” How is this so? Because “it is undefiled practice-realization.”
“Practice-realization” is a phrase indicating the core of Dogen’s message, which is that there can be no separation between practice and awakening. There is no awakening without practice, and there is no zazen practice that is not in itself already awakened. Turning toward zazen, you turn toward Buddha; turning toward Buddha, you are already Buddha. All ideas of a separation from our natural awakened nature have to be relinquished; zazen is this relinquishing. This infinite Buddha being, forever beyond total cognition, is therefor already manifest in even the urge to seek zazen. “Already being such a one, what is there to seek?”
Again, this is something that we have to develop a feel for. We should feel an affection for zazen, and a connection to it as a manifestation of Buddha herself directing our awareness to Buddha herself. Entering that gate, we know an undefiled peace and joy, that transcends even our limited ideas of peace and joy. I feel a great sense of liberation in this teaching. I hope some of you do, too.