How to Sit in Zen Meditation
-- Ecumenical Buddhist Society in Little Rock, Arkansas
You need two sitting cushions.
• A small cushion is placed under the hips for support.
• A larger flat cushion, which should be approximately 3 feet by 3 feet is placed under yourself and the smaller cushion.
If you are sitting on a soft carpet, this larger cushion is optional. A pillow and a blanket can be used to replace the traditional meditation cushions if you do not have them.
Arrange the smaller sitting cushion so the body is firmly supported, and so, if possible, both knees are resting on the larger cushion when sitting. Experiment to find the best height; it should be comfortable, but firm. Also, if the cushion under the hips is too high, the knees will hurt, but if too low, the back will curve, and the upper thighs will tire. Trial and error is the only way to find the best height (so you may need more than one smaller cushion depending on the height you need.
Step II - Sitting
Full Lotus (kekka fuza) First pull the right foot onto the left thigh, and then pull the left foot over onto the right thigh. Both knees should be aligned with the edge of the larger cushion. This style should only be attempted by those whose legs are limber enough to withstand the strain with no problem. Forcing the full lotus is very painful, and can be harmful.
Half Lotus (hanka fuza) For many, the full lotus is too hard, so the half lotus is an option. Tuck either the right or the left foot into the body, and pull the foot of the opposite leg up onto the thigh of the lower foot. If possible, both knees should be resting firmly on the larger cushion, aligned with the end. If the raised foot tends to "float", i.e., it is too stiff to reach the cushion, you can support it with the tucked-in foot. Try not to leave it hanging there, for it will wobble and shake, which can hurt.
A.3If the legs are too stiff for the half lotus, you can sit "Indian" style, with the legs crossed. However, the unsupported knees will tire and grow very painful which can be avoided if you can sit in the half lotus position.
Formal Sitting (seiza)Another optional position is seiza. First sit with the legs folded under the body. Rest the hips and torso on the ankles. A cushion may be placed under the buttocks for support. The knees should be separated by the breadth of one fist.
Keeping the back straight is a vital point in zazen. A curved back means a distracted mind, and vice-a-versa. One good way to straighten the back is to bend forward with the whole upper body, then raise it by pulling the head back. Thus, you feel a certain strength in the hips, but there should be no strained feeling. Do not put too much stress on the spine; it should be straight, but comfortable.
Next, square and balance the shoulders, straighten the neck, and rest the head easily on the neck. Also, you should pull in the jaw a little bit so the teeth touch. Again, nothing should be forced.
First, place the right hand on top of the raised foot, just under the belly button. Then place the left hand fingers on top of the right fingers, and put the thumb tips together lightly. As a result, they should form a "half moon" shape. Also, the hands should be resting against the lower stomach, as well as on the legs.
This is the basic posture of zazen. Notice how the body is relaxed yet is firmly supported, with one part resting on the other parts naturally. Also notice if the hands are too far forward, or if the back begins to bend, the whole body will fall forward or backward. In sitting, every part of the body is important for the total effect. Indeed, it is like a pyramid: balanced, firm, and strong, but when one part falls away, other parts crumble. (This is why it is good to get both knees on the cushion of you can).
In zazen, slow, quiet and long breaths are desired. One enters this practice slowly and quietly, and over a period of time, the breathing lengthens and deepens. Do not try from the start to force this breathing; that will only cause constriction and discomfort. Take time, and it will arise.
Furthermore, the breaths must be counted, with every inhalation and exhalation counted as "one". This counting should be done silently. Next, count "two" and "three", and so on until "ten" is reached. Then start over from one again with the next breath. One must try to maintain absolute concentration on the breathing. It sounds easy, but at first everyone gets lost, or is distracted by other thoughts. When this happens, go back to "one" and start again.
Zazen is a silent practice. First the body is centered by the sitting posture, then the mind is centered by concentration. Movement will only destroy this balance, upset your own efforts, and you will hurt more in the end.
Do this every morning for 20 minutes or every night before you go to bed. The regularity is important. Don't worry if you skip a day or two each week, but try your best to keep it up at least five days a week. Over time you will find yourself more relaxed, more patient, a better listener, more centered, and more discerning. It is fine to do it alone, but see if you can get a group of people -- two or three is enough -- who meet once a week to sit together for longer periods. Try sitting for two 20 minutes sessions. Have a leader ring a bell to get you started and be the timer. Bow each time a session is over. You will be glad you did it.
The Withness of the Body
Whitehead speaks of the “withness of the body” and observes that in daily life our bodies are the immediate environment of our lives. As children we learn about this withness in joyful ways; and as adults, in disease at death, we may suffer from this withness. But the withness is with us.
The withness of our body is experience in the mode of causal efficacy: that is, experience in the mode of being causally influenced, in a very direct way, by the beauty, glory, and sometimes pain of our bodies. This is why it is so important to have healthy relations with our bodies. Of course, we want healthy bodies, too. But even if our bodies are not healthy, we can be related to them in healthy ways. Spiritualty includes this healthy relation. We dwell with the Spirit of creation by listening, not only to the world around us, but to the worlds within us: our breathing, our tensions, our pleasures, and movement itself. Dancing is one of the most important forms of withness. It is the joy of the mudra, the piano playing, the gesture, the finger picking on a guitar, the tapping of a foot, the waving to a friend, the folding of the hands in prayer, the bowing to another. These are healthy forms of withness. In the house of withness there are many mansions.
The wisdom of Asian traditions is that they have taken the withness of the body as a companion in spiritual pilgrimage. The New Testament of Christianity lends support to this perspective when it speaks of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. How can we enjoy and benefit from this temple?
Zen Buddhism offers one way. It invites us to find our way into the sacrament of the present moment, by taking a Sabbath from compulsive busyness, and resting in our breathing. As this occurs we enter into a certain kind of silence which is not empty of life, but is instead a deep listening: a relaxed yet attentive awareness of what is happening in the here-and-now. And as this occurs, in a gradual way, the chatterings of our chatterbox minds, while not ceasing, become less enslaving. Our minds may roam far away, but with our bodies we stay “here” where our breathing is.
In a technical way, Whitehead’s philosophy illuminates what is happening. The mental pole of our immediate experience – the “conceptual prehensions,” to use Whitehead’s language – begins to subside. The chatterings within our mind begin to subside just a little, or at least to have less sway in our imaginations. They are “there,” but we are for the moment centered in our breathing, not the chatterings. We begin to listen more.
Is there anything "religious" in the listening? It depends on who is sitting. Some people meditate for stress reduction alone; some to become more centered in their daily lives; some, if they are Buddhists, as a companion to a pilgrimage toward enlightenment; and some, if they are theistic, as an adjunct to prayer.
What is the connection between meditation and God? Of course "God" is not really a Zen word. Zen is non-theistic in most of its expressions. Still, trust in God and meditation can go together. God is a Deep Listening within and beyond the universe.
In undertaking a practice of meditation, Christians and Jews and Muslims, Bhakti Hindus and Pure Land Buddhists can trust that, with this gradual entrance into a listening mode, there emerges a capacity to listen to something just as deep if not deeper than our breathing: the quiet promptings of a divine love within the heart of creation. In Whiteheadian philosophy this love takes the form of initial aims relative to the moment: quiet callings to love others, to seek wisdom, to be open to fresh possibilities. In the language of Buddhism we hear the call of a divine impulse within us, the call to become bodhisattvas.
This indwelling spirit -- this silent calling -- is not static. The New Testament compares it to wind. It is flowing and freeing. Some process theologians speak of it as Bod's Breathing. This Breathing is a comfort and a calling. As a calling it beckons us into the future even as it enables us to relax into the present. The more open we are to the Breathing, the better we can laugh and cry, listen and love, responding to the situations around us, within us, past and present and future.
Please understand: the Breathing is not a call to be obsessed about the future. In the hurriedness of our time, it is often a call to be here and now, in the present, in a relaxed and attentive way, so that we can hear the whisper of the Deep Listener. The Christian tradition speaks of our capacity to hear this calling as discernment, and it speaks of our capacity to hear it in a natural and unpretentious way as the habit of discernment.
Zen meditation can help some people grow in their capacities for discernment, even as it also helps them grow in their capacities for being kind and patient, empathic and open, to their own hearts and the hearts of others. In combination with faith and community, service to others and normal engagements with life, it can be a “daily practice” which enriches a life.