Zazen: Introduction to Zen Meditation

Still the Body, Still the Mind

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Cosmic mudra, or hand position, for Zen meditation. © Religious Images/UIG / Getty Images

You may know there are two primary schools of Japanese Zen, called Soto and Rinzai. Rinzai Zen is associated with formal koan contemplation, whereas the Soto meditation practice is called shikantaza -- "just sitting." If you ever study formally in one of those schools, this distinction will be very important. However, the initial "introduction to Zen meditation" (or zazen) lesson is about the same no matter whether the teacher is Soto or Rinzai.

Think of this article as an annotation to that lesson.

The Basics: Sitting Still

If you attend an "introduction to Zen meditation" class you may notice that most of the class involves what to do with your body. You will be introduced to a square pillow called a zabutan, upon which sits a round pillow called a zafu. You will be shown a small contraption called a seiza bench. You can find instructions for using these things on many websites, such as these Zazen Instructions from Zen Mountain Monastery. Do look at the photographs carefully, noting suggested leg positions.

Having participated in a number of "intro to zazen" classes, I've noticed newbies tend to react to these instructions in one of two ways. Some seem puzzled why the instructor spends so much time on this peripheral stuff about one's legs instead of explaining what to do with one's head. I've also heard complaints that zazen instructions are hopelessly anal.

Why not sit any way we want?

Several points. In a formal zen setting one sits absolutely still, usually for "sitting periods" of about 35 minutes. Absolutely still is absolutely still. Ideally, a time-exposure photograph of a meditation period will have no blurs. 

Why? You are sitting to quiet the mind, but body and mind are one.

When the body moves, the mind moves. Also it's essential for the spine to be straight. This not only allows your internal organs to function correctly but it also makes a huge difference in the meditation experience overall. Your lower body needs to be positioned to support that.

The challenge here is that sitting absolutely still can be remarkably painful. The "approved" sitting positions are in part designed to allow you to sit with minimal strain, especially in your back. Try sitting absolutely still for 35 minutes in a "bad" position, and you will understand. You also probably will need an ice pack and some analgesics.

A point that doesn't always come across is that you want to turn yourself into a tripod. Your butt on the zafu (or seiza bench) is one leg of the tripod, and your knees are the other two legs. Yes, you will need the zafu, or something like it; the butt needs to be elevated off the floor. Push your hips back and find the sweet spot where your bottom meets the zafu that lets your spine be straight without your having to force it to be straight. 

Now, if your knees are not planted on the floor, supporting you, but are instead higher than your ankles, you are in trouble.

Standard cross-legged sitting for westerners such as in this photo (sorry, Aunt Yoga) pulls your spine into a slight curve that is unacceptable for zazen. 

Body Practice

So what about what goes on in your head? That's important, too, but zazen isn't something you do just in your head. It is whole body-and-mind practice. One of my teachers often reminded us that zazen is a body practice, like dancing or walking. If your experience of zazen remains locked up in your skull, you aren't doing it right. 

My first Zen teacher taught us to rest our awareness in the hara, which is a point an inch or two below the naval. My second teacher disagreed, and thought it better to sit in pure awareness of body and mind. I'm inclined to think the hara focus is better for beginners, though, because it helps you "get out of your head" and become more aware of your body.

The Official Zen Hand Mudra is shown in the photograph, sort of. I'm not entirely happy with the photograph, because the joints of both hands are supposed to be aligned, but that's the closest photo I could find. The mudra is held just below the naval, over the hara. I have found it useful at times to focus my awareness within that oval space in the hands.

Don't close your eyes! Seriously. Keep your eyes open, but don't necessarily look at anything. Rest the gaze on a blank wall or the floor. Nearsighted people may remove their glasses and enjoy the blur. 

These body instructions are important. Again, zazen isn't something you do in your head. The whole body sits zazen -- feet, shoulders, earlobes, the whole assembly. All zazen.

Be the Breath

So there you are, your lower body working as a tripod base for your nice, straight spine and upper body; your hands are in the universal mudra; your head is straight, with your chin down just a little so that the broadest part of your skull is pointed to the ceiling. (Do put your hands on your head now to feel what I'm talking about.) Your jaw is relaxed, and your tongue is resting on the roof of your mouth. Notice the rest of your body to be sure you aren't tensing up somewhere.

Breathe naturally from the diaphragm rather than the chest. Let your body breathe itself, but pay attention to the breath; how it feels in your throat, how it moves your belly. Focus on that. Be the breath. You may be instructed to count the breaths from one to ten, which is harder than it sounds.

When you realize you've lost track of the count, go back to one.

As thoughts come up, simply acknowledge them and let them go. You are not trying to stop your thoughts; just don't chase them or identify with them. Think of thoughts as the brain's natural secretions. They come and go, like your breath. 

If you're sitting at home, I suggest using a timer to sit for a fixed amount of time every day, such as five to ten minutes. If you're new to this and feel a need for more direction and support, do check out the online Treeleaf Zendo

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Zazen: Introduction to Zen Meditation." ThoughtCo, Jul. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/zazen-introduction-to-zen-meditation-449938. O'Brien, Barbara. (2017, July 12). Zazen: Introduction to Zen Meditation. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/zazen-introduction-to-zen-meditation-449938 O'Brien, Barbara. "Zazen: Introduction to Zen Meditation." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/zazen-introduction-to-zen-meditation-449938 (accessed November 18, 2017).