In the 13th Century the Japanese Monk Eihei Dogen Zenji, brought Soto Zen to the shores of Japan after training in China. Dogen Zenji, from who we trace much of what we know to be Soto Zen Practice in the modern world gave us these instructions for Zazen, the foundational practice of Zen in general and fundamental practice of the Soto School, written in 1227, excerpted below:
Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen
The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent on practice and realization? The true vehicle is self-sufficient. What need is there special effort? Indeed, the whole body is free from dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from this very place; what is the use of traveling around to practice? And yet, if there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth… you are still short of the vital path of emancipation.
Consider the Buddha: although he was wise at birth, the traces of his six years of upright sitting can yet be seen. As for Bodhidharma, although he had received the mind-seal, his nine years of facing a wall is celebrated still. If even the ancient sages were like this, how can we today dispense with wholehearted practice?
Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such(ness), get to work on such(ness) right now.
For practicing Zen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs. Do not think “good” or “bad.” Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. How could that be limited to sitting or lying down?
At your sitting place, spread out a thick mat and put a cushion on it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position*. In the full-lotus position, first place your right foot on your left thigh, then your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, simply place your left foot on your right thigh. Tie your robes loosely and arrange them neatly. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left hand on your right palm, thumb-tips lightly touching. Straighten your body and sit upright, leaning neither left nor right, neither forward nor backward. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel. Rest the tip of your tongue against the front of the roof of your mouth, with teeth together and lips shut. Always keep your eyes open, and breathe softly through your nose.
Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking. Not thinking-what kind of thinking is that? Nonthinking. This is the essential art of zazen. ….
When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both mundane and sacred……..sitting or standing have all depended entirely on the power of zazen…..
,…… ….intelligence or lack of it is not an issue; make no distinction between the dull and the sharp-witted. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is wholeheartedly engaging the way. Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward is, after all, an everyday affair……..
You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not pass your days and nights in vain. You are taking care of the essential activity of the Buddha way.
Please, honored followers of Zen Devote your energies to the way of direct pointing at the real. Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort. Accord with the enlightenment of all the Buddhas; succeed to the Samadhi of all the ancestors. Continue to live in such a way, and you will be such a person. The treasure store will open of itself, and you may enjoy it freely.
*We understand now and teach the value of a variety of postures that are all equally effective and “authentic”. In addition to full and half lotus there is Quarter lotus, Burmese posture, Seiza or straddling a cushion or utilizing meditation bench and of course, sitting in a chair.
Traditional Cushions used for Zazen- Zafu (round cushion) and Zabuton (square mat)
When and how much time to dedicate to Zazen
While each period of Zazen is its own goal and reward, a consistent practice can help both in raising our sense of well-being, and in engaging our life from a place of mindfulness and mental acuity.
Outside of scheduled Temple meditation periods or practice regimens associated with formal Zen Training, “Practice periods’ or Sesshin, finding a time and place for Zazen is a personal decision; generally, a period of Zazen 30 – 40 minutes in length at the start and end of each day is considered ideal, however even one period of Zazen a week is better than none. Do your best and aim for consistency
Wear comfortable loose fitting clothing that will not bind or hug the body too tightly. (see What to wear at ZCP for more information)
Identify a place that you can use on a consistent basis that is, or can be made to be, uncluttered, clean and quiet.
Regardless of the position you find suitable the upper body is held in the same fashion.
- Sit straight leaning neither to the left or right
- Tuck your lower back in slightly
- Align your ears with your shoulders, imagine a string is attached to the top of your head, pulling you up and straitening you spine but not stiffening your body the nose in line with your navel.
- Place your tongue against the roof of your mouth breathing naturally through your nose.
- Your eyes are open gazing softly down at a 45 degree angle not looking at anything in particular. Be careful not to lower your head but keep it straight.
- Relax your shoulders and form your hands in the “cosmic mudra” by placing your left hand palm up on your right hand, middle finger of right hand touching the middle knuckle of left, thumb tips lightly touching forming and oval. The edge of your hands should be touching your lower abdomen; the thumb tips at or slightly below your navel
Take a few deep breadths, then commence Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing (belly breathing). Air enters the lungs and the belly expands during this type of breathing.
This is deep breathing by expanding the abdomen rather than the chest. Breathe naturally.
This type of breathing helps to lower our center of gravity and calm the mind.
Swaying the body.
Once you are settled into a posture sway the body right and left a few times settling comfortably in your center
Do not concentrate on any object or thought.
Thoughts will naturally cone and go. Let them. It is best not to get caught up in thoughts or try to suppress or push them away. In Zazen we our awareness in front of us, focusing on posture and breathing moment by moment.
With legs crossed, knees resting on the mat and the spine supported by the cushion a stable triangle posture is achieved.
In full-lotus position the order of crossing the legs may be reversed, and in half-lotus position, raising the opposite leg is acceptable.
Place your right foot on your left thigh, and then your left foot on your right thigh. Cross your legs so that the tips of your toes and the outer edge of your thighs form a single line.
Place your left foot on your right thigh. The reverse is also acceptable.
The “Burmese” position
This is a very stable cross-legged posture for zazen. Cross your legs with the left leg and foot on the floor, tucked against your right inner thigh. The left leg or right leg can be folded on the outside. It is important that your knees always touch the mat. An alternative is to place additional cushion under the knee for support.
Sitting in a chair
Sit upright in a chair as you would on a cushion. Do not lean backwards or forwards
Use a square support cushion on the seat and/or under your feet if need to achieve a comfortable upright posture. Hold your hands in your lap in the Cosmic Mudra.
Seiza or kneel sitting
This posture takes its form from the traditional Asian style sitting. You can use a “seiza bench” or cushion for this posture. For sitting on the bench the legs are folded under the bench. In using a cushion, the legs will straddle either side.
Getting up from zazen
When you finish zazen, place your hands palms-up on your thighs, sway your body a few times, take a deep breath and carefully unfold your legs. Move slowly, especially when your legs are asleep. Do not stand up abruptly.