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Zazen Posture

by Josho Pat Phelan

Buddhism began in northern India about 2,500 years ago with the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddha considered himself and was considered by others to be a human being who realized his  enlightened nature. Not only did he realize his own enlightened nature, he also realized the enlightened nature inherent in all beings. Since that time Buddhism has traveled throughout the countries of Asia. As it traveled from country to country and culture to culture, it began to incorporate the local customs and cultural celebrations, and Buddhist texts were translated into the local languages. Over time variations occurred, and different traditions emphasizing different practices developed. This is why a Tibetan Buddhist monk, for example the Dalai Lama, will be wearing different robes and doing different practices than monks from Viet Nam, Korea, Sri Lanka, or Japan.

The Zen School of Buddhism developed in China about 500 CE, or about 1,000 years after Shakyamuni Buddha lived. As Zen was forming, it was influenced by Confucianism and Taoism, and it is characterized today by its simplicity and appreciation of nature, as well as by having its basis in non-duality. The fundamental practice in Zen is meditation called zazen, which is a Japanese word that literally means "sitting Zen" or "sitting concentration." But meditation is just one of many different Buddhist practices, and Zen meditation is one type of Buddhist meditation. Zazen is the practice of awareness, of bringing your attention, or concentration, to the present moment­-this whole and complete moment--by bringing your awareness to your physical presence, including your posture, your breathing, and bodily sensations as well as to your state of mind.

The Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says, "We practice so that each moment of our life becomes real life." Actually, there is no other goal in Zen practice but to engage with the actuality of your being as it arises, moment by moment. You may find that as you practice zazen other things also happen, such as feeling more peaceful or relaxed or having lower blood pressure. The real practice of Zen is to engage directly with reality, not to use it as a method to improve your health or make your life better, or provide some special experience, although I think many of us approach meditation practice something like this in mind.

Many of the instructions for Zen meditation are directed to the physical details of our posture. The culture that Zen grew out of made much less distinction between the body and mind than our culture does. So, the idea is that by sitting with a straight back, and aligning our spine, and being still physically, this will support our mind in settling and becoming focused. To a great extent in Zen, we practice with our mind indirectly through our body. This meditation posture developed in India as a yogic position. Zen meditation isn't something we do only with the mind. What we practice with is much wider and more subtle than our conceptual thinking. In Zen it is said that realization must penetrate every cell of our bodies, out to each tip of our hair and down to the marrow of our bones. So, in Zen, we engage our body as an ally to enable us to practice with the totality of our being.

There are several ways to sit cross-legged. In addition, zazen can be done sitting in a chair or lying down while paying attention to most of the same points of posture.

If you are sitting cross-legged on a cushion, please experiment with where you place yourself on the cushion. I've found that sitting close to the edge of the cushion works better for me. Only your spine and sitting bones need to be supported by the cushion, not your legs. It is common for one's legs to fall asleep during zazen, but they should wake up in five or six seconds after they are uncrossed. If they remain numb for more than a few seconds, you are probably putting too much pressure on a nerve in your leg, and sitting closer to the edge of the cushion may relieve the pressure. I also recommend trying out different heights of cushions--sit on a thin cushion, sit on a thick cushion, try sitting on two cushions. Experiment and see how different heights affect the relationship of your lower back to your upper back. After sitting for years, one thing that I have found is that my body continues to change, so that the cushions that worked for me last year don't necessarily work for me now.

Crossed-legged sitting is considered a stable way to sit because there are three points of support, your two knees and your sitting bones. If you are sitting on a cushion, your knees should be supported. If they are dangling in the air, it will be hard to have the strength you need in your lower back to support your upper back. So place a cushion under your knee, or knees, if they are not touching the floor, so they will be supported by something solid. You may find that if you sit on a higher cushion that allows your knees to come down to the floor. If you are sitting cross-legged, if you can try to alternate which leg is on top with each period of zazen. Most of us have a more flexible side and a less flexible side and we tend to use our flexible side, but don't overuse it.

Many people who find that sitting cross-legged doesn't work for them, sit Japanese style, or seiza, by kneeling with their knees together, while sitting on their feet with the assistance of a cushion or a small wooden bench which takes the weight off the feet.

If you sit zazen in a chair, your feet should be flat on the floor. If you cannot find a chair the right height, adjust the height by placing a cushion on the seat if the chair is too low, or by placing a cushion on the floor if the chair is too high. If the seat of the chair is higher in back than in front, it will be easier to support the back. As much as possible, support your back rather than leaning against the chair.

I have never done zazen lying down, but people with back problems or arthritis often do lie down in the zendo. If you practice zazen lying down, lie on your back and bend your knees, placing your feet flat on the surface you are lying on. This allows the lower back to relax and come into line with the upper back. All this is preliminary to actually taking the zazen posture. Basically, you want to find a position that you can be in relatively still for a while.

Before I go on, I would like to give a caution. The instructions I will be giving can be followed to two extremes. One extreme is to not follow the instruction enough, to be too lax which leads to sloppiness, dullness, drowsiness, or sleepiness. The other extreme is placing too much effort into your posture which will produce tension or a rigid body and mind.

Two characteristics of zazen are being alert yet relaxed. This is an intentional activity and there should be some effort or energy in zazen, but not too much effort. If there is too much effort, again, you will become tense, and your zazen practice can become a strain. While sitting, you should be relaxed but awake. If you become too relaxed, your mind will wander in its usual way or you may fall asleep. Each of us needs to find for ourselves a balance between our effort and a sense of ease.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind Suzuki Roshi said, "the most important thing in taking the zazen posture is to keep your spine straight." For most of us, the back should be upright with a sense of lengthening and extending the spine through the back and neck up through the top of your head, and the top of the head should be parallel to the ceiling, or, if you like, parallel to the sky. Sometimes people find it helpful to imagine or visualize a string coming down from the ceiling that attaches to the top of the back of their head like a puppet, which allows their shoulders and back muscles to relax and hang down from their spine. The point isn't to get the back into a well-aligned position and then go on to forget about it. In zazen we stay present with or connected with our back and spine throughout the period of meditation.

When we say to keep your back straight, we don't mean to "force" your back into a straight position as much as we mean to let your back find its own uprightness. Our thirteenth century ancestor, Dogen Zenji, said, "if one's body is straight, one's mind is easily straightened too. If one sits keeping one's body upright, one's mind does not become dull....One must be aware when one's mind runs around in distraction, or when one's body leans or sways, and allow body and mind to return to sitting upright." We can practice mindfulness of our posture, or back, both in zazen and in daily activity.

There are two ways we can work with our back or our posture. One way is to bring attention to our posture, or our spine, throughout a period of zazen, or throughout the day, and to readjust it if it is crooked or sagging, so that over and over again we notice our back and continually readjust it if it is not straight. Another way to practice with posture is to bring our attention to our posture and to note our position. Is your back crooked or curved, straight or leaning? Notice how you are breathing and what your state of mind is like. Be aware of the relationship between your posture, breath, and mind. Whatever position you find your back in, notice it without changing or adjusting it and see how it affects this moment.

Suzuki Roshi said, "the most important point is to own your physical body. If you slump, you will lose yourself. Your mind will be wandering somewhere else. You will not be in your body. We must exist right here, right now! This is the key point. You must have your own body and mind."

In Zen meditation, we sit with our eyes open. This means that your eyes should not be wide open and they should not be closed, but somewhere in between. You shouldn't be staring at anything your eyes should be relaxed. The eyes can be softly focused or out of focus or somewhere in between. Basically, your eyes should be opened enough to allow some light in. The gaze of the eyes should looking downward at about a 45 degree angle so your gaze comes to the floor about 2-3 feet in front of you. When gazing downward, keep your face straight ahead so that if your eyes were wide open you would be looking straight ahead. Only your gaze is cast downward, not your head. When we sit together in the zendo, we bow to our cushions and away from our cushions before we sit down. If we are already sitting and someone comes to sit in one of the places next to us, we bow with them when they bow to their cushion. So one way I check to see if my eyes are open wide enough, and if I am present, is if I can see the movement of the person getting ready to bow next to me so I can join them in their bow. Having the eyes open, whether we actually "see" anything or not, helps keep us grounded in the present and helps us keep from falling asleep.

Breathe naturally through your nose. In Zen meditation, there is no emphasis on breathing in a particular way, such as taking deep breaths or breathing slowly. Don't interfere with the breath nor control it. Just breathe naturally, allowing long breaths to be long and short breaths to be short, but try to be aware that you are breathing.

Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and hold your teeth together. You might notice both in zazen and in daily activity the connection between having your teeth apart and your inner dialogue or your chattering mind. When the teeth are held together, the mind tends to stop talking. Even when the lips are together, if the lower jaw is dropped, our mouth, that place of talking, can easily start to move and generate mind chatter. So try to notice throughout the day: are your teeth together or not and what is your mind doing? But be careful, your teeth need only be touching, they shouldn't be gripped or be grinding, but just come together. If you clench your teeth or hold your jaw tightly, it can damage your teeth and gums.

Pull your chin in slightly. Sometimes when people hear this, they tilt their head downward and tuck their chin under. If your chin is tilted downward, your mind can easily become dreamy or drowsy. If your chin is drifting upward, your mind tends to start thinking and getting kind of "out there". So pull your chin straight in, so that you are facing straight ahead, keeping the top of your head parallel to the ceiling. What I mean by "pulling the chin in" is almost more an attitude rather than a physical action. It shouldn't be pulled in so much that your neck becomes tense or sore. Pulling the chin in brings your ears back, over your shoulders., and it brings an alertness to the posture.

Usually at this point, if we are sitting cross legged, we rock back and forth from side to side to find the center of our posture. This is to help us keep from leaning to the left or right, or forward or backward. We start by rocking from side to side in wide arcs which gradually become smaller until we come to rest at our center. At the end of meditation we do the opposite; we leave the stillness of zazen by beginning with small movements from side to side that gradually become larger.

The next point is the position of our hands, called the mudra. We place our hands one on top of the other with palms facing upward. Fingers should overlap and thumb tips come together, just barely touching, to form a circular shape. The edge of the hands should be held against the abdomen so that the thumbs are at the height of the navel. The thumb tips should remain in contact, touching with enough pressure to support a single sheet of paper. If you become sleepy or dreamy, the thumbs tend to drift away from each other. If you are agitated or putting too much effort or tension into your zazen, your thumbs tend to push against each other making a "peak". I have found it helpful to bring my attention to my mudra over and over throughout the period of zazen--especially to my thumbs. What I have found is that thumbs do not stay up by themselves, unconsciously or out of habit. You have to be awake or present with your mudra, or the thumbs will change. One of the reasons the mudra is so important is because it reflects the rest of your posture. You may try to hold it with roundness and openness, but if your posture is irregular, your mudra will be irregular. For example, if one shoulder is higher than the other, your mudra will be tilted; if one shoulder is leaning forward or if you are leaning to the side, your mudra will reflect that. The shape of your mudra will reveal the shape of your zazen. Suzuki Roshi said you should keep "this universal mudra with great care, as if you were holding something very precious in your hand." In a sense, what we are holding is our consciousness.

For most of us, in order to hold our thumbs at our navel, we need to hold our mudra up rather than resting it on our feet or thighs. And again, in order to hold up the mudra, we need continuing mindful attention. If you let your mudra rest on your lap, sometimes it pulls your shoulders forward and causes your back to become round. However if you are sitting on a very thin cushion, it may not be possible to hold your mudra up. Your arms and elbows should be comfortable. They should not hug your rib cage, or be out at a sharp angle from your body, but somewhere in between.

I've tried to describe the ideal zazen posture, but we have to start with the body we have, the body we are. Actually, we have no choice. So, instead of trying to force your body into some statue-like ideal, in Zen practice we emphasize being present with our actual experience. By placing our attention with the minute details of our physical posture, we get to know our selves, where we have tension, where we are crooked, where we are holding, where we are at ease, where we let go. Our body reveals who we are. Through this awareness, we enter the path of practice.

I would like to end with another quote by Suzuki Roshi:

"So try always to keep the right posture, not only when you practice zazen, but in all your activities. Take the right posture when you are driving your car, and when you are reading. If you read in a slumped position, you cannot stay awake long. Try. You will discover how important it is to keep the right posture....Buddha studied many religions, but he was not satisfied with their practices. He was not interested in some metaphysical existence, but in his own body and mind, here and now. And when he found himself, he found that everything that exists has Buddha nature. That was his enlightenment....The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is itself enlightenment."

© 1997, Josho Pat Phelan

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