Zen and the Steps to Easy Zazen
By Scott Shaw
At the heart of Zen Buddhism is the practice of meditation. Meditation is a formalized technique where the mind is calmed and the practitioner is allowed to come into contact with the Buddha-mind. It is understood that only through a perfectly centered mind is an individual ever able to merge individual self with the universal self and reach the ultimate state of human existence, enlightenment.
Zen Buddhism is not full of a plethora of meditative techniques as is the case with some of the other Schools of Eastern Mysticism. Though there are a few variations to the primary Zen Buddhist meditative practice of Zazen, they are all based in a single focal point — focusing the mind to the degree where it may encounter Nirvana. Nirvana is the state where the individual mind meets the universal mind and one finds enlightenment.
Zazen is the practice of formal meditation used in Zen Buddhism. In Japanese, “Za” means to be seated. “Zazen,” therefore, means, “To be seated in Zen.”
The practice of Meditation has been handed down for centuries as a method for one to come into contact with divine understanding. Zazen is the Zen Buddhist application of this ancient practice.
In Zen Buddhism, meditation is referred to as, “Shikantaza.” Literally translated, this Japanese word means, “Just Sitting.” With this as a basis, in English, Zazen is commonly referred to as, “Sitting.”
It is understood that your seat, meaning the way you are seated, is one of the most essential elements in proper meditation. For this reason, the Zen Buddhism practitioner very consciously sits down and steadies themselves in their seated posture before they ever begin to meditate.
The Sanskrit word, “Asana,” is often used to describe the seated posture for meditation. Translated from the Sanskrit, “Asana,” means, “Seat or Throne.”
The classic posture for seated meditation is, “Padma Asana,” or, ”The Lotus Pose.” This is where the practitioner sits cross-legged on the ground.
There are three variations of this posture. The first and most basic is, “Sukh Asana.” This is where the legs are naturally crossed and the feet touch the ground underneath the thighs. The second is, “Arddha Padma Asana,” or “Half Lotus.” In Japanese, this posture is referred to as, “Hankafuza.” Hankafuza is where the top of one foot is brought up and placed on the thigh of the opposite leg.
The third meditative posture is, “Padma Asana,” or, “Full Lotus.” In Japanese this posture is known as, “Kekkafuza.” Kekkafuza is where the right foot is placed on the left thigh and the left foot is placed upon the right thigh.
For centuries it has been taught that Kekkafuza is the most beneficial posture to assume while meditating. It is stated throughout ancient texts that this pose is the most foundationally firm as it locks the body tightly into place and, thereby, allows the mind to focus solely upon meditation.
Though Kekkafuza is understood to be the ideal posture for meditation, it is uncomfortable for many individuals to sit in this position for extend periods of time. Ultimately, Zazen is about the practice of meditation. So, if you cannot comfortably sit in this pose for long periods of time, then you should sit in whatever position you can comfortably maintain, including sitting in a firm chair, as you perform Zazen.
Many times, the Zen Buddhist practitioner, when they are seated in any of the meditative lotus postures, will sit upon a small mat, known in Japanese as, “Zabuton.” Upon the mat sits a small pillow, “Zafu.” The practitioner then sits upon these two objects as they meditate.
Some schools of Buddhism believe that this creates too soft of a seat for a practitioner to truly meditate. Others believe that by adding a bit of comfort it will actually aid in the meditative process. Ultimately, it is you who must decide what works best for your body and your mind as you practice Zazen.
The Zen Buddhist also uses another position for seated meditation, the kneeling pose. This posture is known in Japanese as, “Seiza.” The kneeling posture is achieved by placing both of your knees on the floor, separated at the distance of your shoulders. The tops of your feet are encountering the ground and your right big toe is placed atop the left big toe. Your spine should be kept erect, as with the lotus posture. Once you are seated in this position, you place your hands face down, naturally atop each of your legs.
To correctly perform Zazen your body must be kept in a firm positioning. Your spine must be kept erect so your internal energy will continue to flow in a constantly ascending pattern.
The Japanese Buddhist term, “Fudo no Shisei,” means “Immovable Posture.” This is essential to Zazen. So, whatever meditative posture you decide to take, you must be able to firmly formalize your body into that posture and remain unmovable throughout your meditation. With a firm seat your mind can concentrate upon your meditation and not be distracted by physical movement or discomfort.
The Hands in Zazen
Once you have settled into your seated postures, it is important that you consciously straighten your spine. From this, your back muscles do not become strained and energy is allowed to flow unimpeded up and down your spine.
With your body in a firm posture, you will then place your hands in what is known in Japanese as, “Hokkaijo in,” This means, “Hands in perfect balance with the universe.”
The Japanese word, “In” is a translation of the Sanskrit word, “Mudra,” which means to seal. To form an In, you place your hands in a very precise formation.
The ideal Hokkaijo In for Zazen occurs when you lay your right hand in your lap with your palm open and facing upward. You place your left hand loosely on top of it. You then allow the tips of your thumb to lightly touch.
The Hara is the body’s natural center of gravity. This bodily location exists approximately four inches below the navel. In addition, Hara is the bodily location where Ki, “Universal Energy,” congregates and is dispersed. For this reason Hara is one of the most sacred locations on the human form.
Hara is located approximately four inches below the navel. From this central location it expands approximately two inches in each direction. In Buddhist scriptures Hara is referred to as, “Tanden.” Tanden means, “The burning place of energy.”
The Zen Buddhist practitioner of meditation understands that it is essential to become highly focused upon this revered location in order to not only readily tap into and utilize Ki energy but to additionally remain consciously balanced in all of life’s activities, particularly meditation. For this reason, as one prepares for Zazen they focus upon this location and consciously find a balance in their seat before they begin the practice of meditation.
Open Your Eyes
Most people understand the various techniques of meditation to be performed with eyes closed. For obvious reasons, with your eyes closed you are less prone to be distracted by external images. Zazen, however, is performed with your eyes slightly open — loosely gazing at a visually stagnant location approximately three feet in front of you upon the floor. Some schools of Zazen place an actual dot on the floor in front of the practitioner in order to give them a physical placement of focus.
The reason the eyes are left partially open in Zazen is threefold. First of all, by leaving your eyes partially open you keep yourself associated with the fact that you possess a physical body. In Zen you never negate this fact, as do various schools of Yoga. Instead, you embrace the fact that your soul is located in a physical being and that this body is your pathway to the Buddha-mind. Secondarily, by holding your eyes slightly open you do not allow yourself to enter into a dream-like state of sleep, where your mind can drift to fantasies. Finally, it is understood that the process of Zen meditation leads one down the path to an acutely focused mind. By locking your vision onto a single spot on the floor, you train your thinking mind to become acutely controlled. From this, you possess much more authority over the experiences of your physical body and emotional mentality then does the average person. You can, in fact, as the depth of your meditation increases, control such things as your physical and mental reaction to injury, pain, and emotionally debilitating life situations.
In certain schools of Zen Buddhism the technique of, “Tai Ch’ng Pi Kwan” or “Wall Staring” is used to achieve the objective of leaving your eyes partially opened while limiting the amount of possible external visual stimuli. In this case, the practitioner locates a spot on the wall slightly below eye level and locks their vision onto it and uses it as his point of focus.
To begin Zazen, sit upon the floor and allow yourself to become integrated with your seated posture for a few moments. Once you feel stationary, firm, and comfortable, begin to observe your breath. Do not attempt to control it, simply allow it enter and exit your body, via your nose, naturally. Once your mind has grown accustomed to this process begin to attach the number One to each in-breath and the number Two to each out-breath. Mentally repeat, “One,” “Two,” — “One,” “Two.”
It is understood that your mind will tend to wander when you first begin to practice Zazen. Mentally counting will help to bring back your concentration to the life giving process of breathing.
The purpose of Zazen is to still your mind. Therefore, you do not want to think, visualize, or fantasize when you are practicing Zazen.
When you first begin the practice, thoughts will naturally form in your mind. For most of your entire life you have allowed your thoughts to rapidly move form one thought onto the next. Thus, your mind is trained to interact with life in this fashion.
If you find yourself thinking during Zazen, do not be upset with yourself, simply refocus your consciousness on your One, Two counting and again embrace the thoughtless Buddha-mind.
Most schools of Zen have their students perform Zazen in a group sessions for forty-five to fifty minutes. This is understood to be the ideal amount as it provides the practitioner with enough time to truly focus their mind.
For the student who is in the early stages of Zazen practice, however, sitting for this amount of time is not required. This is especially the case, if the new practitioner is performing this technique alone.
The physical state of being alone and solitary is good for Zazen. This is due to the fact that alone, there is less chance of distractions. While “Sitting” alone, however, it is understood that the mind of the novice meditator will tend to race from thought to thought more readily than if they are in a group. From this, the student may become disillusioned with their inability to meditate.
For this reason, when practicing Zazen alone in the early stages, it can be practiced for approximately twenty minutes twice a day — generally in the morning and in the evening. By performing Zazen for this amount of time, one can learn how to calm the mind and embrace the conscious emptiness of Zen without feeling forced to sit for an uncomfortable amount of time.
The practice of Zazen allows the mind to become silent. Thinking is defined in Japanese as, “Shiryo.” Not thinking is “Fushiro.” Zazen, however, leads the practitioner to the more advance state of consciousness known as, “Hishiryo,” “Without thinking.”
Hishiryo is thought without thought. From this state, pure consciousness is encountered. When the individual embraces pure consciousness, the mind is not held captive by desire. Without desire the individual mind realize its own Buddha nature. From this, oneness with all elements of the universe is embraced.
When the mind is allowed to be silent, perfect action is accomplished. This is because of the fact that no action is attempted. Action within no action is the paradoxical essence of Zen.
The action of no action is the basis of enlightenment. Thus, Zazen is paramount to the development of the individual in Zen Buddhism.
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