How to Practice Zazen
The following is a basic outline of the fundamentals of zazen practice as taught at the Lotus in the Flame Temple. While it is not intended to be a substitute for personal instruction at the temple and practicing together with like-minded people, there is enough information here to begin. Additionally, it is recommended that one read Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken Roshi and/or The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau for more detailed instruction and inspirational material.
The place you choose to do zazen should be tidy and quiet, not too bright or dark, hot or cold.
Ideally, this is a room or part of a room used only for zazen. Set out a large, flat mat, (zabuton), and place round cushion (zafu), on it. These are available from a number of places online, and can sometimes be found in natural food stores, places that sell yoga supplies, metaphysical shops, Tibetan merchandise shops, and bookstores with large Buddhist sections. You can also substitute a rolled-up blanket or pillow for the zafu, and a folded blanket or thick carpet strip for the zabuton. The purpose of the zafu is give your body the proper lift needed to hold the back straight with knees touching the zabuton. The zabuton is there to provide a base for your sitting and to cushion the knees. Additional cushions to add height to the zafu, or to place under a knee or hands can be helpful.
It is preferable to sit facing a bare wall or curtain to reduce visual distractions. You might wish to use a timer to set a specific period of time to sit. The early morning is an ideal time to do zazen, as is the late afternoon after work, or in the evening before bed.
Clothing should be loose and appropriate to the season. People practicing at the temple should wear modest clothing with subdued colors.
When you practice zazen, it is best to sit as still as possible. The stillness of the body facilitates stillness of the mind. Choose a posture you can hold comfortably for however long of a period of zazen you wish to sit. At the temple, our rounds of zazen are typically 25-30 minutes in length. People practicing at the temple are expected to sit completely still, without shifting posture, scratching, or anything other than very slight movements to correct one’s posture.
Zazen can be described in three main parts: the physical posture, the breath, and the mind.
Unlike some forms of meditation in which the posture of the body is secondary or unimportant, correct posture in zazen is essential. A stable sitting posture is the basis for a stable and settled mind. The physical form of zazen has been refined over thousands of years and is not arbitrary. There are several postures that can be used for zazen, and you can experiment to find the one best for you. It is good to be able to use more than one posture, as sitting only in one way can cause strain. Take care in trying the postures and do not force yourself into any position. Damage can be done to the knees through wrenching the legs into position. Be gentle with yourself and know your limits. While some discomfort is normal, you should stop immediately if there is extreme pain, or if there is a tearing or painful popping sensation. Many people experience their legs or feet falling asleep during practice. While this can be uncomfortable, it is nothing to worry about. Take extra time in getting up and massage the affected limb until normal sensation returns.
It is helpful to do yoga or stretching to loosen the leg muscles and tendons and open the hips. There is a traditional series of stretches called makkoho that are very helpful in preparing the body for zazen. Instructions for doing makkoho can be found here
The Upper Body
No matter which posture you use in zazen, the upper body is the same. The most important thing in zazen posture is a straight back with a natural curve in the lower back, such that the buttocks are pushed back and the lower abdomen is dropped forward. Both knees should be touching the zabuton or floor, the buttocks rest on the first one-third of the zafu,to form a stable tripod. It is helpful to have someone check your alignment, as it can be difficult to tell if you are sitting straight or not. When taking your seat, sit down firmly, arrange your legs, and bend forward, extending the back and head as much as you can. Maintaining this extension, pull yourself back upright, then sway back and forth a few times, until you find your point of natural balance. The ears line up with the shoulders and the nose with the navel. Relax the belly, loosening your pants if need be.
The chin should be tucked in slightly, not so you are looking down but rather so the head and neck are able to stretch upward. It should feel as if your head is suspended from the ceiling from a thread, and your bones, muscles, and organs all settle into their natural place. Your eyes are open, but lowered slightly. Take care not to close them completely, as this can lead to drowsiness or daydreams. The mouth is closed and the tongue rests against the roof of the mouth. The shoulders are relaxed and open, not rounded or hunched. The chest is open, and the arms rest slightly out from your sides.
The hands rest in the lap, forming the zazen mudra (ritualgesture). The right hand rests on the lap, against the belly, palm up. The left hand rests on top of the right, with the thumb tips touching lightly, forming an oval. The thumbs should not be allowed to separate, collapse, or press upward like a triangle.
The Burmese posture is formed by opening the hips and placing the legs parallel to one another, knees touching the ground. The legs are not crossed in any way. You may need more height on the zafu to get the knees to touch the floor.
The quarter-lotus posture is formed by opening the hips, knees touching the floor, and placing one foot in the groove formed by the calf and thigh.
The half-lotus posture is formed by opening the hips, knees touching the floor, and placing one foot on top of the thigh, with the heel of the foot as close as possible to the hip. Take care in getting into this posture, as it can strain the knees when done improperly.
Full lotus is considered to be the ideal zazen posture. However, few in the West are able to do it or can sit in it for long. If you are able to sit half lotus comfortably, you can take the next step and try full lotus. In full lotus, both feet are placed on top of the thighs as close as possible to the hip.
Seiza is the traditional Japanese way of sitting, and is an alternative to the cross-legged postures. It can be done with or without a cushion. The legs are folded back and one sits on a zafu or a bench. There should be two or more fist widths between your knees for optimum balance. The zafu is set on its side and you kneel and sit down on it. Additional cushions can be added for more height.
Sitting with a Stool
Those who, due to injury or disability, are unable to sit on the floor can do zazen on a stool. The feet should be flat on the floor, and there should be enough cushions on the stool to raise the hips slightly above the knees. The knees are at least two fist widths apart. Just like the other postures, it is important to maintain a straight back with a natural curve in the lower back so that the buttocks are pushed back and the lower abdomen dropped forward.
There is one posture that we never use for zazen. Robert Aitken Roshi writes, “The one most desperately uncomfortable position is the conventional cross-legged, or tailor fashion of sitting. Both feet are under the thighs. The back is rounded; the belly is drawn in. The shin of one leg rests on the ankle of the other, and severe pain is inevitable. The lungs must labor to draw in their air and other organs seem cramped as well. Sitting in this way is not conducive to good health or to good practice.” It is impossible to do zazen properly in this posture; the back cannot be straightened and, as the knees are not touching the ground, there is no real stability.
Having established a stable posture, the next step is to settle the breath. It is helpful to take several deep breaths from the belly. Westerners tend to breathe shallowly, with the chest, but the breath in zazen should be allowed to drop down into the abdomen, and in particular to the space between the navel and groin. This is called the hara in Japanese, and is the center of balance and vital energy in the body. Keeping the belly relaxed helps with this, and it will happen of itself naturally. The lungs expand downward, pushing on the diaphragm, rather than outward in the chest. Both inhalation and exhalation are through the nose, as the mouth is kept closed during zazen. Breathe deeply, letting all concerns and thoughts go.
After taking a few deep breaths, let the breath assume its own rhythm and depth, without trying to control it or consciously manipulate it in any way. Let long breaths be long and short breaths be short.
Having established a settled posture and breath, allow the mind to focus on the in and out breath. Just notice the sensation of breathing for a few breaths, letting it take its own course. Now, begin to count each inhalation and exhalation, from one to ten. Breathe in one, breathe outtwo, and so forth up to ten. When you reach ten, return to one. As you do this, you will find that your mind will begin to wander, or you will lose count. The moment you notice you have drifted, simply return to one and begin again. It is natural to become distracted, to be carried away by thought, but the practice is just to return again and again. Every time you do so, it is like drawing a blade across a whetstone - your concentration becomes sharper. The point of this is not to get to ten, but to experience each number, each breath totally and completely. This is reality, the truth of things as they are.
There are other ways of counting or following the breath, and these are explained in more detail in the books Taking the Path of Zen and The Three Pillars of Zen. Members can take these up dokusan (individual instruction with a teacher).
Kinhin: Walking Meditation
Kinhin, or walking meditation, is the first way we learn to take the practice of zazen off the mat and into daily life. It is a continuation of seated meditation into movement. We cannot spend all of our time sitting, and it is necessary to get up and move around. Kinhin is a simple practice, but very profound. Once the basic spirit of kinhin is mastered, it is easy to apply creatively to any kind of walking or hiking. The Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, said in an interview, “Even if I only take three steps, I try to take them as walking meditation.”
To practice kinhin, first take the fingers of your right hand and wrap them around the thumb, making a fist. Place this against your abdomen, around the area of the navel or solar plexus. The left hand is then wrapped around the right. Your forearms are parallel to the floor, and the elbows and upper arms come out from the sides. This kinhin mudra is called shashu, and helps to maintain a settled and dignified demeanor while doing kinhin. The back is straight, the head is held upright, and the eyes are lowered.
Be careful when getting up from zazen to practice kinhin, as your legs might be stiff or have fallen asleep. Do not rise quickly or abruptly. Massage the affected limbs gently to restore normal movement and feeling.
Kinhin can be done at any speed, but a medium or slow pace is typical. Fast kinhin is helpful to counteract drowsiness. You can of course use your own pace when practicing alone, but if you are with a group you have to maintain the same pace as everyone else. At the Lotus in the Flame Temple, we start kinhin at a slow pace, and when the clappers are struck, conclude at a fast pace. The basic form of practice is to synchronize each step with the breath, taking small steps with each inhalation and exhalation. You can continue counting with each step, or just focus your attention on breathing and the sensation of lifting and placing the foot. When kinhin is given proper attention, you can make a seamless transition from stillness into movement, and back into stillness without interrupting the essential quality of zazen.
When you know how to walk as zazen, you have the basic understanding of how to undertake any action as zazen. Washing the dishes, raking leaves, jogging, riding a bicycle and more can be experienced as an expression of zazen in activity. While meditation in action is not a substitute for the deep practice of quiet sitting, it is essential for a fully functioning and transformative Zen practice.