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Zazen Instructions and Etiquette

Zazen Instructions and Etiquette


In Zen Buddhism, zazen (means literally “seated meditation”) and is a meditative discipline that is at the very heart of Zen practice, and everything about zazen from the practices, procedures, and etiquette of sitting meditation, (zazen) and walking meditation, (Kinhin or kyōgyō) is highly choreographed.

The meditation area is called a zen-dō or senbutsu-jō (translating roughly as “meditation hall), and when entering the meditation hall you take off your shoes before stepping on the tatami (a type of mat used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms) and place them on a shoe rack. Your shoes must be placed side-by-side in an orderly manner.

At the entrance to the zen-dō, you must step over the threshold with your left foot at the left side of the entrance, take two steps into the zen-dō, and then bow to the room. (When leaving the zendō, step out with your right foot at the same side of the entrance. Only the abbot of the monastery may enter the hall from the middle of the entrance.) After entering the hall, bow in gasshō (palms together. A mudra expressing nonduality) toward the altar and proceed to an open space that is not reserved for one of the higher positioned monks.

Once you have found an open space, you first fluff the zafu, (which is a round cushion used in zazen), this alerts the people on your left and right that you are about to sit down. Then you bow to the cushion, turn clockwise and bow to the room, and then sit down. This is done without touching a strip of wood in front of your space, with your feet or butt.

You then adjust into your preferred sitting posture, put your hands in the position of the Cosmic Mudra, and begin to meditate.

Body, Breath, and Mind Come Together

In zazen the body, breath, and mind come together as one reality. The first thing to pay attention to is the position of the body in zazen. The body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to oneself. How you position your body has a lot to do with what happens with your mind and your breath. The most effective positioning of the body for the practice of zazen is the stable, symmetrical position of the seated Buddha.

Sitting on the floor is recommended because it is grounded. And the zafu is used to raise the behind just a little, so that the knees can touch the ground. With your bottom on the pillow and two knees touching the ground, to form a tripod base that is natural, grounded and stable.

Sit with your head straight up, and the chin is slightly tucked in but your eyes are directed down so that they are sort of half-lidded, which eliminates the necessity to blink repeatedly. Keep the back straight and centered, rather than slouching or leaning to the side, allowing the diaphragm to move freely. This will allow the breath to deepen during zazen.

Although zazen looks rigid and disciplined, the muscles should be soft. There should be no tension in the body. It doesn’t take strength to keep the body straight. The nose is centered in line with the navel, the upper torso leaning neither forward nor back and the hands are folded in the cosmic mudra.

In zazen, you focus on the breath. Breath is the vital force; it’s the central activity of the body. Mind and breath are one reality: when your mind is agitated your breath is agitated; when you’re nervous you breathe quickly and shallowly; when your mind is at rest the breath is deep, easy, and effortless. Follow the link for more on Zazen Posture an Act of Impeccability.

The attention is centered in the hara. The hara is a place within the body, located two inches below the navel, inside the body. Considered to be the physical and spiritual center of the body. In zazen, you will begin to develop a relationship with the hara. You will practice putting your attention there; putting your mind there. As you develop your zazen, you’ll become more aware of the hara as the center of your attentiveness.

Zazen practice is taught in one of three ways.

1. Concentration

The initial stages of training in zazen usually emphasize the development of the power of concentration, or joriki, by focusing on the breath at the hara with mindfulness of breath (ānāpānasmṛti) exercises such as counting breath (sūsokukan) or just watching it (zuisokukan). Mantras are also sometimes used in place of counting. Practice is typically to be continued in one of these ways until there is adequate “one-pointedness” of mind to constitute an initial experience of Samadhi. At this point, the practitioner moves to one of the other two methods of zazen.

2. kōan introspection

Kōan introspection is a fundamental practice in Zen training, challenging the pupil through a question, or a phrase or answer to a question, which presents a paradox or puzzle. The practitioner focuses their consciousness on a kōan as an object of meditation.

A kōan cannot be understood or answered in conventional terms: it requires a pupil to abandon reliance on ordinary ways of understanding in order to move into or towards enlightenment. Since kōans are, ostensibly, not solvable by intellectual reasoning, kōan introspection is designed to shortcut the intellectual process leading to direct realization of a reality beyond thought.

The aim of the kōan is to see the “nonduality of subject and object”: The monk himself in his seeking is the kōan. Realization of this is the insight; the response to the kōan.

Subject and object – this is two hands clapping. When the monk realizes that the kōan is not merely an object of consciousness but is also he himself as the activity of seeking an answer to the kōan, then subject and object are no longer separate and distinct. This is one clapping hand-kōan, or the mu-kōan “does a dog have buddha nature?” See link to clapping hand-kōan.

Sassho (Checking questions), teachers may probe students about their kōan practice using sassho, (checking questions) to validate their satori (understanding) or kensho (seeing the nature). For the mu-koan and the clapping hand-koan there are twenty to a hundred checking questions, depending on the teaching lineage. The checking questions serve to deepen the insight of the student, but also to test his or her understanding.

Both Rinzai and Soto sects, took over the use of kōan -study and -commenting. In Soto-Zen, kōan commentary is not linked to seated meditation. The origins of kōan are uncertain, but predate Nan-yüan Hui-yung (d. 930 CE) to whom the first use is attributed.

3. Shikantaza

Shikantaza is a form of advanced meditation, in which the practitioner does not use any specific object of meditation; rather, practitioners remain as much as possible in the present moment, aware of and observing what passes through their minds and around them.

Taigen Dan Leighton says, that one way to categorize the meditation practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting,” is as an objectless meditation. This is a definition in terms of what it is not. One just sits, not concentrating on any particular object of awareness, unlike most traditional meditation practices, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, involve intent focus on a particular object.

But objectless meditation focuses on clear, nonjudgmental, panoramic attention to all of the myriad arising phenomena in the present experience. Such objectless meditation is potentially universally available to conscious beings.

This just sitting is not a meditation technique or practice, or anything at all. “Just sitting” is a verb rather than a noun, the dynamic activity of being fully present.

… it is objectless not only in terms of letting go of concentration objects, but also in the sense of avoiding any specific, limited goals or objectives.

… just sitting is not a technique or a means to some resulting higher state of consciousness, or any particular state of being.

… [for Dogen] simply just sitting is expressed as concentration on the self in its most delightful wholeness, in total inclusive interconnection with all of phenomena.

Dogen says, in his Shobogenzo, “Sitting fixedly, think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Non-thinking. This is the art of zazen.”

Zazen Positions

Cosmic Mudra: The hands are folded in the cosmic mudra. The dominant hand is held palm up holding the other hand, also palm up, so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. If you’re right-handed, your right hand is holding the left hand; if you’re left-handed, your left hand is holding the right hand. The thumbs are lightly touching, thus the hands form an oval, which can rest on the upturned soles of your feet if you’re sitting full lotus. If you’re sitting Burmese, the mudra can rest on your thighs. The cosmic mudra tends to turn your attention inward.

Full Lotus Position: By far the most stable of all the positions is the full lotus, where each foot is placed up on the opposite thigh. This is perfectly symmetrical and very solid. Stability and efficiency are the important reasons sitting cross-legged on the floor works so well. There is absolutely no esoteric significance to the different positions. What is most important in zazen is what you do with your mind, not what you do with your feet or legs.

Half Lotus Position: Another position is the half lotus, where the left foot is placed up onto the right thigh and the right leg is tucked under. This position is slightly asymmetrical and sometimes the upper body needs to compensate in order to keep itself absolutely straight. People who use this position should make a habit of alternating which leg they bring up.

Quarter Lotus Position: Another position is the half lotus, where the left foot is placed up onto the right thigh and the right leg is tucked under. This position is slightly asymmetrical and sometimes the upper body needs to compensate in order to keep itself absolutely straight. People who use this position should make a habit of alternating which leg they bring up.

Burmese Position: There are several different leg positions that are possible while seated cross-legged. The first and simplest is the Burmese position, in which the legs are crossed and both feet rest flat on the floor. The knees should also rest on the floor, though sometimes it takes a bit of stretching for the legs to drop that far. After a while the muscles will loosen up and the knees will begin to drop. To help that happen, sit on the front third of the zafu, shifting your body forward a little bit. By imagining the top of your head pushing upward to the ceiling and by stretching your body that way, get your spine straight—then just let the muscles go soft and relax. With the buttocks up on the zafu and your stomach pushing out a little, there may be a slight curve in the lower region of the back. In this position, it takes very little effort to keep the body upright.

Seiza Position: There is also the seiza position. You can sit seiza without a pillow, kneeling, with the buttocks resting on the upturned feet which form an anatomical cushion. Or you can use a pillow to keep the weight off your ankles. A third way of sitting seiza is to use the seiza bench. It keeps all the weight off your feet and helps to keep your spine straight.

Chair Position: Finally, it’s fine to sit in a chair. To help ground the body in this posture, keep your feet flat on the floor. You can use a cushion, or zafu, the same way you would use it on the floor—placing it beneath you on the chair and sitting on the forward third of it. Some people like to place a zafu between their back and the back of the chair, to keep the spine straight and vertical. All of the aspects of the posture that are important when seated on the floor or in seiza are just as important when sitting in a chair.

Schedule of Zen Temple Life

In Japan some Zen Temples have opened their doors to the public in order to allow foreigners to experience authentic Zen and if you are thinking of take this opportunity to experience Zen living then below I have included a normal schedule of Zen temple life (not it is just a sample and each Temple will be different).

5:00 Wake-up bell;

5:25 Zazen (seated meditation);

5:55 Kinhin (walking meditation);

6:05 Another period of zazen;

6:40 Service (this includes chanting and prostrations in the Buddha hall);

7:05 Soji (temple cleaning)

7:20 Breakfast (up until this point everyone is silent).

8:00 “Samu” or service to the temple. Traditionally “Samu” is slow, quiet, meditative “help around the temple” and typically is part of monastic life in Japan. “Samu” can also in some temples be more social and learning oriented;

11:00 Lunch preparation. Get cleaned up for lunch and/or help prepare lunch;

11:30 Lunchtime and helping out with the dishes at the end of the meal!;

12:30 Afternoons are flexible and unscheduled but may include independent activities, activities with your host, or activities organized between yourself and other guests;

17:00 Dinner preparation;

17.30 Dinner time. Once again, your participation is encouraged and appreciated;

18:30 Another session of zazen, but for guest evenings are flexible, relaxed and social. Many guests may also take this time to read, bathe, or any other activity of choice;

21:00 Quiet time. Turn off bright lights.

And the whole cycle repeats.

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