The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama was born in the kingdom of Magadha as Prince Siddhartha of the Shakya tribe in 565 B.C. He gave up a nobleman’s life at the age of twenty-nine with the aim to relieve the world’s suffering. For six years he practiced the spiritual paths of his time. He hoped to discover the cause of suffering. At one point he sensed that he was reaching a crisis point. He knew that he was ripe to break through the veil that separated him from true understanding. In this frame of mind, he decided to sit, to just sit, just breathe, and just be. To achieve this he had to learn to be unmoved by all of his internal demons and attachments. This practice of “sitting” is called today zazen. It is said that on the morning of December 8th while doing seated meditation, Gautama glimpsed the morning star Venus and became fully awake. From this point on Gautama was called Buddha or “The One Who Woke Up.” In this moment of awakening or enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha realized intimately that he was not separate from the planet Venus, or the entire universe. From his now fully awakened wisdom and compassion arising from a non-separate, yet present and unique perception, he exclaimed that all beings are naturally in harmony and union with the universe, but because of distorted or limited views and attachments this can not be seen.
Shakyamuni proclaimed that anyone who followed his path could resolve or dissolve any difficulty. If our view is wide enough, any problem or difficulty is naturally penetrated and dwarfed by the fullness of our perception. To achieve this condition of openness, understanding and compassion we only need to follow Shakyamuni’s example, and just sit. Zazen requires a proper posture and a proper attitude.
The proper posture is best attained by sitting on a cushion (Zafu) on the floor. It is important that a stable tripod is formed with the legs. This can be accomplished by sitting either in the full-lotus, half-lotus, Burmese or Seiza (kneeling) position. Nearly every human physical form can easily manage at least one of these positions. The tripod is formed between the points of the knees and the tailbone placed about a third of the way back on the zafu. The zafu can be used as a kind of wedge to support as much of the lower body as possible. If the knees are not down, the posture will be no good. To help bring the knees down use as much cushion height as necessary. When the knees are down on the ground or zabuton, try and cross the legs, by drawing the outer leg up over the inner one. If this is easily accomplished, try a full-lotus (both legs crossed). If the half-lotus (one leg crossed position) is painful, forget it, and just leave the legs folded, but not crossed (Burmese). Next and most important is an arched back. Bend forward and do a big stretch. When you stretch your back it takes a very natural arch. Without allowing your spine to become flat, relax your back and sit perpendicular to the floor. In this way you can rest the upper half of your body on your arched back, which is in turn resting on the tripod formed with your bent knees and posterior. Next, place your hands together at the top of your lap with your palms facing up, left hand on top of the right and thumbs gently touching at the top making an oval. The hands should be held at your waist with the thumbs rising to about your navel. When you are sitting your thumbs will inform you how you are doing. Thumbs held tightly means that you are too rigid and tense. Thumbs held too lightly will separate or collapse signifying that your mind has fallen asleep. Keep them gently touching in an oval. Keep your shoulders relaxed, but remember to leave your back comfortably arched. Keep your chin parallel with the floor, and your ears perpendicular to your shoulders. Keep your eyes and ears open, mouth shut, and breathe through your nose. The eyes should be about a third open looking down and forward, but do not select a spot on the floor, and do not let your eyes wander. It is better to have your eyes glued open than to have them all the way shut in zazen. If the eyes are closed the mind easily wanders. To help hold your position comfortably lean back in your seat about one degree. When the bell rings signaling the start of a sit, don’t move. Sit like a great stone or mountain.
The breath is a very important instrument of zazen. Gently prod your breath into a natural rhythmic pattern. Breathe from the bottom of the abdomen so that you can feel your diaphragm rise and fall. To help find your body’s natural rhythm for rest, use a little concentration and extend your out-breath until all of your breath is gone, but not forced. The body will naturally respond with a gentle inhalation when it is ready. It is most important that the breath be slow, gentle and steady. Large volumes of air are not needed. To sustain the body during a sit requires very little air, but it is crucial that the breath be deep; that is to say, it must start at the abdomen.
The proper attitude in zazen starts with the proper body position, and the proper breath. To broaden and deepen the level of our perception, we must let go of everything, but the present moment. When our mind wanders to the troubles or joys of yesterday, today or tomorrow, we must be careful not to scold ourselves, but gently return to the present moment, and the present breath. To help us achieve harmony with the present, we count our exhalations up to ten and then begin the count again. If we lose track of the count we very simply and gently return to the count of one. Continue this counting until the end of the sit, or until the counting naturally drops away of its own accord when we have achieved harmony with our physical form and surroundings. Sensations (thoughts, feelings, imaginings, sounds…) will naturally arise internally or externally. Do not discourage or encourage sensations, simply see them for what they are and let them go. Cut, cut, cut, do not follow thoughts or sounds, but do not exclude them. Let them pass, and like the clouds of the sky, they will periodically drift away leaving a clear blue-sky-mind. The mind is like a pond, it is often disturbed, unreflective and full of silt. If we just let the pond be, the silt will eventually settle, and the pond will become calm and clearly reflect reality. Imagine what it would be like to try and force the water to quiet; it would only make things worse. Don’t try and stop thoughts, it’s impossible, but don’t follow them (i.e. don’t judge, analyze, fix, solve or discriminate in any way). Leave yourself alone, and your mind will eventually become naturally clear and illuminating.
The painting at the top of this page is by Daishin Zenji (d. 1730) of Bodhidharma, the verse that goes with it is as follows:
Daruma departed from South India
And came to China;
The Kingdoms of Liang and Wei could not comprehend him,
So here he sits in solitary splendor contemplating the wall.
Zazen Instruction is offered at the temple most Tuesdays at 7:30pm, see: Schedule.
The Chobo-ji Sangha Ethics and Reconciliation policy can be viewed here.