“Even though Buddhism as a religion, a philosophy full of regulations and rituals, reached our countries in various forms, the position, in which Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, remains the same. The position has been transmitted for seven generations in India, for seven generations in China, and for seven generations in Japan.
Thanks to this pure, simple and original position, existing for over two and a half thousands of years, all the human beings who practiced it reached the Awakening, or the ending of all suffering.
It is true that this position of pure salvation has been used also as a means of improving one’s health, entering certain states of the mind or gaining special abilities or mystical experience. But the original zazen, I am talking about, remained pure and unchanged, thanks to the long, continuous lineage of the Patriarchs and Masters…”
Not – meditation
“Zazen, originally known as “dhjana”, does not have anything to do with meditation, because in fact, there is nothing to meditate about. There is nothing to find or to take. It is more like leaving all things and letting the spirit exist in its natural state, free, without disturbance. “Zen” means Fullness, All Beings, “Za” means Sitting. “Zazen” therefore means to sit down naturally in the heart of all things. It is necessary to be calm, relaxed, free, and to leave all the creations of our minds aside, no matter what they are.
Zazen means coming back to the ground zero of our minds. It is a pure mind, original, perfect, absolute truth, standing above being and non-being, which we call God, Buddha, Brahma! Since we cannot grasp it and it lies beyond our personal conscience, it remains without a name, unborn, without a beginning or an end.”
“Zen is nothing but practicing zazen. If some arts, such as budó, the art of arranging flowers – ikebana, the bonsai, painting or poetry were practiced in the spirit of zen, they would become a real path of the art. Zazen is not an art of how to do zazen. It is dharma of peace and happiness, the practice of actualizing perfect Awakening. Sitting without movement like a mountain.
To comprehend the essence of the Universe directly. This is the zazen we are talking about.
My Master, Taisen Deshimaru, said:
“Zazen is the adult, mature form of our lives.”
Zazen is not a method of how to attain something, nor is it a practice of transforming something.
Since the word “meditation” presumes the act of thinking, we can say that zazen is a meditation without an object. It is a practice, which is in the core of all the five big religions.
Let me explain zazen in three basic points:
– position of the body
– state of the mind
“…The best way is to put your right foot on your left thigh and then to place your left foot on your right thigh. This is the traditional lotus position: padmasana (in Sanskrit), kekka (in Japanese).
If it is not possible to adopt the position kekka, it will be easier to sit in the position hanka: your left foot remains on the floor, the sole of your foot facing up, your right foot is on the left thigh, its sole facing up.
During zazen, it is allowed to change the position of your legs. If somebody has serious problems, he or she should use a higher pillow or put more pillows one on top of the other.
Your knees must be in firm contact with the floor – this is very important. To be able to do this, sit with your legs crossed, lean forward, so that both your knees touch the floor. Then, hold the pillow with both hands and shift it under yourself as much as possible. Afterwards, straighten up your body, but do not move the position of your pelvis. If you do this, your spine will be erect, slightly and naturally curved forward in the lower part. If your lower back hurts, the position will be difficult and painful at the beginning, but with the regular exercise the pain will decrease and the correct position of the spine will become natural.
At the beginning, this position is difficult for everybody. I have also had many problems getting used to it. But no matter how difficult the position may be, if you continue practicing, the unpleasant feelings will dissolve.
If you can not sit in the kekka or hanka position at all, you can sit on the chair, without touching the back of the chair, your feet on the floor, women with their legs together, men slightly apart.
The position of the body and the spine
“The position of your torso is also very important, especially the position of the fifth lumbar vertebra; keeping it in the correct position will enable the spine to be curved correctly. The belly should be without tension, and you should remain stable. My master used to say that the curving should be such that it is like the ass is looking at the sun. The knees are firmly set on the floor, the top of our head pushes to the sky, as if there was a heavy stone sitting on the top of our head, and thus through our position, the heaven and earth are united. Then, we should gently swing left and right, seven or eight times, at first swing low and then less and less, so that we could find a position full of stability.
Master Dogen wrote in Fukanzazengi:
“First of all, we must sit with the spine erect, not leaning left nor right, forward nor backward. The nose must be in a vertical line with the belly button and our ears are to be in level with our shoulders.”
The chin should be pushed back to our neck. Our head is held straight.
This is also a very important instruction.
Our shoulders are naturally lowered. The belly is completely relaxed.
The position of the spine is demonstrated on the pictures.
Picture no. 1 shows a normal position of the spine during zazen seen from the side. The position can vary depending on the body constitution and the tension in muscles and ligaments. Generally speaking, the spine must form a harmonious and painless curve. This, however, is often reached after a long and difficult adaptation phase.
The first mistake, often made by beginners, is to be seen on the picture no. 2. Stiff knees that cause pain are not on the floor, the pelvis does not lean slightly forward, the spine is frozen in a vertical position and has a tendency to curve backwards. The whole position of the body has lost its stability, it is tilted backwards and the person sitting in the meditation is pushing to the pillow. He feels pain in all parts of his body and he is aimlessly trying to straighten up, which he can do after all by bending his head and shoulders to the front, in effort to keep the balance, which he has not felt very strongly up till now.Everything is caused by the sitting position, his knees are not placed correctly, the pillow is too thin or his buttocks are too much in the back.
The person on the picture no. 3 reached the stability but at the price of “breaking up” in the area of the fifth lumbar vertebra and the sacrum vertebrae – L5-S1. The whole lower part of the last intervertebral disc is pinched, there is a sharp dagger stabbing pain. It is dangerous to the sciatic nerve! This mistake is often done by women who are more flexible than men. The position looks correct at first sight, but the above part of the spine is not balanced, it does not stretch to the sky. This position is often taken up by people that are forcing it: “I have to get it right!” It is the heroic aspect of zazen, but it is better to wait patiently for the spine to get used to the position.”
On the picture no. 4, we can see the most common mistake, hyperlordosis. It is caused by our effort to straighten up the spine by forceful stretching the lumbar muscles.
Pushing up the spine to the sky is very difficult or impossible, and even if it does not look like it, the position is not stable. The division of forces in the base triangle formed by the knees and the lower part of our buttocks is not equal. The knees carry the most of the weight. Fortunately, lumbar muscles help, but they get quickly tired and filled up with lactic acid. That is where our tiredness comes from, not from zazen. This scheme depicts a posture, known as “a phenomenon of a stretched bow”.
There is a conclusion to be drawn from all of these descriptions (short ones, because we can get to understand only through practice). In summary, a zazen position is primarily a position of joints in balance. There is no sense in trying to straighten up the spine by forcefully stretching our muscles, if we are not stable.
That is why it is important to start with curving gently forward, feeling and noticing the three points of the base: both knees on the floor and the perineum on the pillow. Do not curve your loin by force, let it get used to the position and wait for the time when the balance between the spinal discs straightens up the whole spine. Thus the position will become – using Master Deshimaru´s metaphore – as motionless as a fir.
The position of hands
“The left hand, with its palm facing up, rests inside the palm of the right hand. The tips of the thumbs are touching gently in the horizontal position. They cannot rise like a mountain (which means that we feel tense), nor should they lower like a valley (which is a signal of a sleepy spirit).
In the Soto Zen tradition, Bodhidharma and Master Dogen both practiced this way. The shape made of the thumbs and the palms of the hands resembles two joint eggs. The sides of our hands must touch our belly.
The position of the body influences the state of our spirit and vice versa. Rising a clenched fist causes an aggressive spirit, joint hands lead the spirit to adoration, praise. The zazen position leads the mind to meditation. Elbows must not be pushed to the body, shoulders are naturally lowered.
The position of the mouth and the tongue
“The mouth is always closed, lips together, not tense, the corners of our lips lifted to a gentle smile. The tongue touches the palate, cheeks are relaxed.”
The position of eyes
“The eyes are open, so as not to make us fall asleep. We should naturally look on the floor in front of us about one metre in distance. Our eyes should not wander left or right. Our sight must be motionless. We should not think about what we can see. Our look must be without an object.”
“We sit down on the pillow, cross our legs, knees touching the floor, the spine straight up, slightly curved in the loins, the chin pushes back to the neck, our hands in the correct position, we look about one metre in front of us, our shoulders are naturally lowered. All these activities are done with much energy. Our spirit is like a lion ready to jump.”
“I usually do not explain the breathing technique until I make sure that the position of the body is stable and the person practicing is able to keep it so for some time. A premature explanation could lead to two disadvantages:
– firstly: if the position is not correct, we cannot breathe correctly
– secondly: the practitioner could focus on breathing and not bear in mind the five basic points of the right body posture
Zen breathing is not comparable with a yoga breathing, which focuses more on reaching certain unusual physiological and psychological effects. Zen breathing aims predominantly at attaining a slow, strong and natural rhythm of the breath, because breathing is the most important function of the human body.
It is possible to stay without food for a long time, but we cannot live without breathing for more than a few minutes. Thanks to normal breathing, it is possible to live long in good health with your mind at peace. In contrast – wrong breathing leads to weakness, illness, instability of the mind and even to death.
Body and mind are so much in unity that the influence of one on the other is remarkable. A deep, slow and peaceful breathing frees the mind of complications. The mind becomes pure, transparent like a cloudless sky, as radiant and clear as a moon. Thus we can approach “mushin”- not-thinking, “ku” – emptiness. “Mushin” is non-seeking mind, without action, without perception or non-perception, perfect attention.
I will now describe the method of breathing in true zen. I stress that breathing must be natural, both in zazen and daily activities.
“It is lively, deep, natural and attentive. Do not count your breaths.”
“It is slow, deep and powerful. The air is slowly released, while the force of the exhalation is firmly set in the belly. It is comparable to a cow mooing or crying of a new-born. A lively and short inhalation as well as a slow and powerful exhalation is a sign of a strength and vitality, so characteristic for cows and children. On the other hand, an incomplete inhalation and a superficial, short exhalation are signals of a weakness and depression. Notice how a dying person is trying to catch breath making short, weak inhalations without breathing out. Notice also a terrified or an injured person, and how their exhalation is blocked.
This method of zen breathing is called “uni shu”, meaning one. In Sanskrit, it is “om” (aum), deep and strong monosyllabic vibration, called “bija” – a seed. It accompanies the praise of a great number of gods. Esoterically said, it is called the essence of truth, out of which all the energies originate. “Shu” means also the practice of zazen and “un” means a cow´s mooing.
People usually fill only a half of their lung capacity during the inhalation, the air remains in the top of their lungs. During zazen, the breathing is deep, and oxygen is well driven into all corners of the lungs. We usually take a breath fifteen times a minute, an ill person twenty to thirty times a minute. Thanks to zazen, the practitioner breaths five to nine times a minute, but it can be even less. At the end of one sesshin, Master Deshimaru took breath only once a minute and there is a record of one of his friends who drew breath only once in three minutes.
Reciting the Maka Hannya Haramita Shingyo Sutra is beneficial not because of the sounds, but thanks to the long and deep breathing.
When the breathing is correct, all things in life become easy.”
Cited from the book Zazen Satori:
KAISEN, Mistr. Zazen Satori. Olomouc : Fontána, 2005. 89 s. ISBN 80-7336-221-X
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