Zazen Posture an act of impeccability
The practice of Zen meditation or zazen is at the heart of the Zen Buddhist experience. Originally called Dhyana in India, zazen has evolved and changed to suite the Japanese mind set, making Zen meditation a very simple yet precise method of meditation where the correct breathing and posture are a fundamental part of the zazen practice, and while the mind may wander off into thoughts of the past and speculations concerning the future, the body is always right here and right now. Thus, zazen begins with the body practicing an upright and attentive posture.
“Zazen is like water in a glass. Leave the water to sit quietly and soon the dirt will sink down.” — Taisen Deshimaru
Understanding Zazen Posture and Breathing
Where to Practice your Zazen
Before starting your zazen, you need to find a quiet and peaceful place where you will not be disturbed. The room where you will practice in should not be too dark or too bright, too warm or too cold.
Zazen sitting Posture
There are different ways that you can practice Zen meditation. Traditionally, only the full lotus position or the half lotus position is used. However you can also practice zazen in the traditional kneeling posture (Seiza) or if you lack flexibility you can practice zazen in a chair, with a wedge or cushion on top of it so that one is sitting on an incline, or by placing a wedge behind the lower back to help maintain the natural curve of the spine.
Zazen is practiced sitting on a zafu, a thick and round cushion, in the full lotus (Kekka-fuza in Japanese) or half-lotus position (Hanka-fuza in Japanese). The purpose of this cushion is to elevate the hips, thus forcing the knees to be firmly rooted to the floor. This way, your zazen will be a lot more stable and also comfortable. Additionally, you need to have a zabuton, which is a rectangular mat that is placed under the zafu to cushion the knees and legs.
Ideally, its is recommended that you buy a zafu but, as a beginner, you can fold up a thick blanket to work as a zafu. Zafus are usually around 13-14 inches in diameter but can be found in a variety of sizes. You can also utilize a thick blanket as a homemade zabuton.
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. For the full lotus position, put each foot on the opposite thigh with the line of the toes matching the outer line of the thighs. It is important to “push” the sky with the top of your head and to push the floor with your knees.
These postures might seem uncomfortable and unnatural for most beginners, but with practice, your legs and hips will become more flexible, your mind will relax, and you will find the posture to be quite comfortable.
Head And Neck
Whatever the position you choose to adopt, make sure that your back and neck stay as straight as possible. Pull your chin in a little to erect the neck and try to “push the sky” with the top of your head. Do not be too tensed or too relaxed while you do this; try to find balance in your posture. Keep your mouth closed during zazen; your teeth should be together, and your tongue should be against the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth.
Traditionally in Zen, the eyes are kept open during meditation. This prevents the meditator from daydreaming or becoming drowsy. Without focusing on nothing in particular, direct your vision about one meter in front of you on the floor. Your eyes will naturally come to rest in a position that is half opened and half closed. When doing zazen in a soto dojo (meditation hall), the meditator sit facing a wall in order to avoid distracted by external movement. It is suggested to do the same at home.
Hands & Arms Position
The position of the hands during zazen is the same for the full lotus, half lotus, seiza and chair positions. This hand position is called the Cosmic Mudra or Gesture of Reality Called (Hokkai-join in Japanese). First, put your left hand on the right one, and palms turned towards the sky. Now, make an oval by touching the tips of the thumbs together so that your thumbs touch each other and form a somewhat straight line. The tips of your thumbs should lightly touch each other. Both of your wrists should rest on your thighs; the edge of your hands should rest against your belly. Keep your shoulders relaxed.
Cosmic Mudra Posture (Hokkai-join or Dhyāni-Mudrā or dharmadhatu-mudra)
There are two reasons for this hand position. First, shape of the hands harmonizes the condition of our minds. The meaning of the mudra is (Beyond Duality). Secondly, if your mind is somewhere else when you sit, naturally the shape of this oval becomes distorted. This can be a signal for yourself that something is wrong with your meditation and for your teacher so that he can correct you.
Cosmic Mudra meditation position (Hokkai-join in Japanese)
Posture of the Breath
During Zazen, try to establish a calm, long and deep natural rhythm. You should focus on exhalation while inhalation is done naturally. Zen breathing and martial arts breathing are similar, and they can be compared to the mooing of a cow or the roaring of a tiger.
When practicing zazen breathing we focus on the abdomen rising and falling in much the same way an infant’s belly rises and falls. So in zazen it is important to loosen up anything that is tight around the waist and to wear clothing that is non-binding. Allow the diaphragm to move freely so that the breathing can be deep, easy, and natural. In zazen breathing it is not necessary to control or manipulate the breath, and you don’t have to make the breath happen in any particular way. Natural breathing will happen by itself if you take a correct posture that is reasonably comfortable and positions your body properly, which is why it’s important to wear clothing that is loose around the waist and also behind the knees when you cross the legs, so as not to inhibit the abdomen and circulation around the knees.
During zazen, breathe through your nose and keep your mouth closed. (If you have a cold, or some kind of a nasal blockage, it’s okay to breathe through your mouth). The tongue is pressed lightly against the upper palate—swallow once, to create a seal and reduce the need to salivate and swallow. The eyes are kept lowered, with your gaze resting on the ground about two or three feet in front of you.
Begin rocking the body back and forth, slowly, in decreasing arcs, until you settle at your center of gravity. The mind is in the hara, hands are folded in the cosmic mudra, mouth is closed, and tongue pressed on the upper palate. As you’re breathing through the nose try and completely experience the breath while keeping your attention on the hara and the breath.
Posture of the Mind
As you sit, the mind takes on various postures or stances. It crosses its psychological arms and tries to just wait things out. when this fails it twiddles its thumbs. It fidgets and scratches and wriggles the body. It crouches and slumps among its memories, its favorite old movies and songs, as random chattering. It bloats with pride at having been “watching the breath” so clearly. On and on and on.
The mind defines itself as “being alive” as opposed to “being a process”. It tells itself stories about itself over and over to try to prove to itself that it is real. It makes a statement and then confuses that idea with reality and so blinds itself the true relationship between mind and awareness.
Breathing in, breathing out, just sit, and rest the attention on 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 unawakened mind. 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.
We begin to steady and stabilize the mind by counting the breath. We practice by counting each inhalation and each exhalation, beginning with one and counting up to ten. Inhale—at the end of the inhalation, count one. Exhale—at the end of the exhalation, count two. When you get to ten, come back to one and start all over. The only agreement that you make with yourself in this process is that if your mind begins to wander—if you become aware that what you’re doing is chasing thoughts – you will look at the thought, acknowledge it, and then deliberately and consciously let it go and begin the count again at one.
The counting is a feedback to help you know when your mind has drifted off. Each time you return to the breath you are empowering yourself with the ability to put your mind where you want it, when you want it there, for as long as you want it there. That simple fact is extremely important. We this build up of concentrated momentum (joriki), or spiritual power.
When you’ve been practicing counting the breath for a while, your awareness will sharpen. You’ll begin to notice things that were always there but escaped your attention. Because of the preoccupation with the internal dialogue, you were too full to be able to see what was happening around you. The process of zazen begins to open that up.
When you’re able to stay with the counting and repeatedly get to ten without any effort and without thoughts interfering, it’s time to begin counting every cycle of the breath. Inhalation and exhalation will count as one, the next inhalation and exhalation as two. This provides less feedback, but with time you will need less feedback.
Eventually, you’ll want to just follow the breath and abandon the counting altogether. Just be with the breath. Just be the breath. Let the breath breathe itself. That’s the beginning of the falling away of body and mind. It takes some time and you shouldn’t rush it; you shouldn’t move too fast from counting every breath to counting every other breath and on to following the breath. If you move ahead prematurely, you’ll end up not developing strong joriki. And it’s the build up of concentrated momentum that ultimately leads to what is called Samadhi, or single-pointedness of mind.
In the process of working with the breath, the thoughts that come up, for the most part, will be just noise, just random thoughts. Sometimes, however, when you’re in a crisis or involved in something important in your life, you’ll find that the thought, when you let it go, will recur. You let it go again but it comes back, you let it go and it still comes back. Sometimes that needs to happen. Don’t treat that as a failure; treat it as another way of practicing. This is the time to let the thought happen, engage it, let it run its full course. But watch it, be aware of it. Allow it to do what it’s got to do, let it exhaust itself. Then release it, let it go. Come back again to the breath. Start at one and continue the process. Don’t use zazen to suppress thoughts or issues that need to come up.
Scattered mental activity and energy keeps us separated from each other, from our environment, and from ourselves. In the process of sitting, the surface activity of our minds begins to slow down. The mind is like the surface of a pond—when the wind is blowing, the surface is disturbed and there are ripples. Nothing can be seen clearly because of the ripples; the reflected image of the sun or the moon is broken up into many fragments.
Out of that stillness, our whole life arises. If we don’t get in touch with it at some time in our life, we will never get the opportunity to come to a point of rest. In deep zazen, deep Samadhi, a person breathes at a rate of only two or three breaths a minute. Normally, at rest, a person will breathe about fifteen breaths a minute—even when we’re relaxing, we don’t quite relax. The more completely your mind is at rest, the more deeply your body is at rest. Respiration, heart rate, circulation, and metabolism slowdown in deep zazen. The whole body comes to a point of stillness that it doesn’t reach even in deep sleep. This deep stillness is a very important part of Zen practice, single-pointedness of mind that creates a unity of body, mind and spirit and is state of being truly alive or the ability to be completely awake.
It is also important to be patient and persistent, to not be constantly thinking your goals, or of how the sitting practice may help you. The idea is to just put yourself into zazen and let go of our thoughts, opinions, positions—everything our minds hold onto. The human mind is basically free, not clinging. In zazen we learn to uncover that mind, to see who we really are.
If you want to understand more on mindfulness and the practice of Zen then follow the mindfulness, Zazen Instructions , Understanding Zen through the tale of the Samurai and the Tea Master and Samadhi a 3 Step Process links.
Guide To Japanese Pronunciation
- Cosmic Mudra (Hokkai-join), Pronounced/ˈkɑːz.mɪk/ /muˈdrɑ/
- hanka-fuza, Pronounced (HHAE-NKaa ) /HHAE-NKaa/ /?????/
- hara, Pronounced /??????/
- Hokkai-join or Dhyāni-Mudrā or dharmadhatu-mudra, Pronounced (????) /??????/
- joriki, Pronounced /??????/
- Kekka-fuza, Pronounced (Kekkafuza) /??????/
- Samadhi, Pronounced (SamAdhi) /s-uh-m-aa-dh-ee/
- Seiza, Pronounced /see-zin/
- soto dojo, Pronounced /??????/
- zabuton, Pronounced /za-boo-ton/
- zafu, Pronounced /za-foo/
- Zazen, Pronounced /zah-zen/
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- Posture Image Source, Yokoji-zen mountain center
- Image Source, Royalty-Free with Some rights reserved, ID 15718987707 © David Gabriel Fischer – THE ZEN DIARY | flickr.com
- Cosmic Mudra meditation position (Hokkaijoin) Image Source, Royalty-Free with Some rights reserved, ID 15098452632 © David Gabriel Fischer – THE ZEN DIARY | flickr.com
- Zen Sources, www.terebess.hu/zen/ Glossary, Masters and Disciples, Temples and Centers, Zen Literature
- Some resources were respectfully taken from the book Lin-chi – PDF download The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi | Zen Literature
- Resources were respectfully taken from the highly recommended book How to Practice ZAZEN By: Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Joe Langdon | Zen Literature, Published August, 1977.