how to zazen

03. How to sit

[From meditation November 24th, 2020]

This text is mainly from our Zen teacher Michael Pockley’s book How to Become a Zen Priest: without shaving your head. Find it on Amazon here, not only a good guide to your practice but also filled with great dry British humour.

First, we often use the word zazen, it’s the name for sitting meditation as practiced in Zen Buddhism.

Ok, let’s zazen.

How to sit
Full lotus is favoured by the Buddha but murder on the knees. It’s the position when you fold your feet in so that the outside of the ankles rest on top of the other leg.

I prefer the Burmese position which is when both ankles rest on the floor.

Here’s an illustration of the positions.

Get a cushion, it is called a zafu. You will need one if you want to look Zen. Any colour is fine, so long as it’s black. The cushion is not for comfort: it is to lift the hips higher than the knees, causing the lower back to dish forward a little and thus ease the spine into its natural shape. Sit on the front, so that you start to fall off – it is this rolling motion which straightens the spine.

I used a rolled-up beach towel for a long time and then got this zafu from Amazon.

Hands
Place the hands in the cosmic mudra. The thumbs touch gently, as if holding a feather you want to neither drop nor crush. The thumbs are really useful: if the nails go white, you are trying too hard; if they sag, you are falling asleep.

Here’s a photo of the cosmic mudra.

Eyes
Your eyes can be closed, or gazing down about 45°, unfocused.

Breathing
Breathe through your nose if you can, with your tongue touching the gums of your front top teeth. If you have a blocked nose, breathe through your mouth, or you will die. Smile. You breathe with your stomach, not your chest. When you breathe in, your stomach gently goes out to about 70% capacity. When you breathe out, your stomach comes in, again, expelling only

Focus your mind
Allow your mind to focus on your breathing. You can “watch” the air coming in and out of your nose, or up and down your windpipe, or your mind can “watch” the movement of your belly. Experiment. See which suits you best.

Soon you start thinking of something else. “Forgot to buy bananas!”One temptation will be to slap the thought down. “No shopping lists – I’m meditating!” That slap just sends the thought rattling around your subconscious. It is counter-productive. You will go bananas.

The other temptation is to get involved in the thought. “There’s a shop just outside the Zendo, so I can buy some on the way home, then get the bus at the corner…” Just relax. Smile politely at the thought, waiting for it to go away. Then return, unhurried, to your breathing, until the next stray thought appears. Repeat.

Once you are fully comfortable with focusing on the breathing – and this may take many months – you drop even your focus on the breathing. One-pointed mind reduces to no-pointed mind. And then expands. “You” sit there, part of a universe in which breathing occurs. No sense of self. No ego. Nirvana. It’s very nice.

Simple, not easy.

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