ZAZEN – a guide

Zazen –  a Japanese term meaning, ‘seated meditation’; Chan in Chinese; Dhyana in Sanskrit.

In Buddhism, the main purpose of mindful meditation is to awaken to how the world is (dharma) and to learn to live in harmony with how the world is – a world of impermanence, interdependence and conditionality.

Here are some notes on my own practice of zazen – a method of meditation I began in 1965, following the advice of Dogen’s essay, Fukanzazengi. As I had no contact with local meditation, Zen or other Buddhist groups (there weren’t any in my area) for almost seven years, I worked alone, sitting for long hours and studying what texts I could find. In the early 1970s I did two or three retreats at Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland (a Soto Zen centre), and around 1975 I had some direct teaching from a Japanese Soto Zen monk who was travelling in the UK.

Since then, I have guided retreats, workshops and seminars (including at Sharpham College with Stephen & Martine Batchelor, and at the Institute of Oriental Philosophy in Berkshire), and I have undertaken other retreats myself, including with Thich Nhat Hanh (2012). For many years I considered my lack of formal Buddhist training during my early years, as a handicap, I now think those years spent sitting alone, may have been a very precious and beneficial period, during which concentration, discipline and patience became ingrained in my zazen practice.

I offer these notes in the light of my rather unusual experience – a homegrown, self-taught, somewhat sceptical Buddhist, with no affiliation to any formal school or teacher. Zazen itself has been my primary teacher – learning from experience.

How do we begin? Where should we sit? According to Dogen, a quiet space is most suitable – a room where noise and disturbance are minimised. For someone with lots of experience of zazen, sitting somewhere that is noisy, crowded, or full of movement, is part of the practice and may not disturb the sitter. But if you are new to zazen, or relatively inexperienced, it is helpful to sit somewhere that is relatively quiet, and where there are likely to be few distracting sounds and movements. Dogen also suggests that we should be ‘moderate in food and drink.’ This is also a useful suggestion. Concentration and staying awake can be much more difficult if we sit in zazen immediately after a large meal or after a few glasses of wine.

How do we sit? Keep your back straight and neck and head upright, in line with your spine. If the back is curved, you can encounter pain and damage your spine. If you are comfortable sitting in a full or half-lotus posture that is fine, if not, sitting on a meditation bench or chair is also fine. The main requirement is to be stable, upright and ready to sit still for however long you plan to sit. Swaying from side to side can help establish the most stable position for your body. The important thing is to be comfortable enough not to fidget or experience excessive pain, without being so comfortable you become sleepy or unable to concentrate.

Traditionally, the hands are held lightly in the lap with the tips of the thumbs just touching each other, and the palms facing up. For a right-handed person, the left hand is place over the right. For a left-handed person, the right hand is placed over the left. When held in this way, the palms and the thumbs form an oval. If you are too tense, you may find your thumbs are pushing against each other. If this is the case, just relax and bring them lightly together again. If you are too relaxed, or sleepy, the thumbs can come apart. Again, bring them lightly together again. Paying attention to posture is a very important part of zazen practice.

For much of the time, our body is in one place and our mind is somewhere else. In zazen it is important to re-unite them – to re-inhabit our body. As we settle into the posture – feeling where our limbs are, the straightness of the back, shoulders relaxed, head upright and thumbs just touching – we become our body again. We are once more an embodied mind. We come home.

What do we do with our eyes? Dogen recommends that we keep the eyes open. If you close your eyes you can drift into a dreamy, half-awake state. Buddhism is not called the path to awakening for nothing. Keep your vision relaxed. Let your sight settle naturally on the ground in front of you – so there is an angle of approximately 45 degrees between the ground and your eye-line. There is no need to stare or to go out of focus. Get used to the way the visual field constantly changes, even when we keep our head still. Colours and tones change, patterns endlessly form and re-form, things seem to move even though the carpet is just being itself. These perceptual changes are normal. Again, don’t dwell on these, sometimes surprising, experiences – just enjoy them and let them pass.

Don’t get wrapped up in the tricks and games your eyes, ears, mind and emotions play on you. Let them be. Don’t interfere. Remain tranquil and alert.

What about breathing? I usually sit for between ten to twenty minutes, focusing at first on the breath, particularly the outbreath. Breathe from the deepest part of your diaphragm, not from your chest. Regular, even, breathing will happen of its own accord – if you let it. When sitting in zazen if our ‘centre of gravity’ could be pointed to, we would point to our navel or belly – the centre of stability, point of balance, source of strength and stability. Be aware of the inbreath and the outbreath – in and out – moment by moment. Every time we breath out – gently letting go of the breath, allowing it to fade away – we are letting go of the clinging self, the ego, discriminating mind, attachment. If we try to hang on to a breath, we can no longer breath, and we will eventually die. Likewise, the present moment is ungraspable – let it go.

If the mind is restless or agitated, it can be helpful to count the outbreaths. Sometimes, one-two-three, one-two-three, over-and-over again, or counting one to ten repeatedly – until, eventually, there is no counter, only the counting, and then even the counting is let go of. This is good discipline, the art of concentration – a very useful aspect of zazen practice.

If the mind is settled, this process of attending to the breath simply continues – until there is no breather only the breathing. Then expand the field of awareness until attention is paid to everything going on within the body, and outside – until there is no inside and outside, just gentle breathing, alert and alive. In this way, at each breath, the world enters and leaves.

What about thoughts? When you have settled yourself, and are fully present to your body, and your breathing is calm and relaxed, then be aware, alert and clear-headed. In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen spends a lot of time writing about posture and breathing, but very little time telling us what we should be doing mentally. All we have is the following enigmatic statement – a statement that many readers, and most translator’s struggle with – ‘neither think, nor not think.’ Some translate this as ‘non-thinking.’ So, what does Dogen mean? I will try to shed some light on this puzzling, yet vital, part of zazen.

Let any thoughts that arise come and go as they will. Don’t hang on to them or dwell on them. Treat emotions, itches and aches in a similar fashion. Just sit – neither shutting out thoughts nor encouraging them. We are not trying to eliminate, or repress, thoughts and feelings. If a thought arises, take note of it, acknowledge it. It is just a thought. Do not interfere with it, or cling to it. No need to react or add comments or judgments – let it be. Do likewise with feelings and sensations and any other bodily or mental activity.

Many teachers refer to this aspect of zazen, as developing ‘non-dwelling mind.’ The influential Chan teacher, Sheng Yen, urged his students ‘to sit and let go of everything without allowing the mind to ‘abide’ anywhere, whether it be in sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or thought.’ Letting go, not interfering or reacting in habitual ways, is a vital part of effective meditation practice.

This aspect of zazen is also referred to as, ‘just sitting,’ or shikantaza in Japanese. Shikan means ‘nothing but,’ ta means ‘just’ and za means ‘sitting.’ This is the heart of zazen practice – the distinctive feature of zen meditation. When ‘just sitting’ we are no longer counting breaths or focusing on any object in particular. We are open to all that occurs – paying equal attention to the whole field of consciousness. Dogen describes it in this way: ‘resting in a state of brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts [meaning non-attached to thoughts], directed to no object, and attached to no particular content.’

The purpose of zazen is to see our existence for what it is (dharma) – a ceaseless process of change and transformation, an endless flow of experiences dependent upon the infinite ever-changing universe that appears and disappears at each moment of consciousness. To realise clearly how the world is, we let go of our tendency to comment on our experiences or make judgments about them. We set aside our opinions, beliefs and chattering commentary, so that we can see what IS.

In zazen, it is important just to sit, to be present, embodied in the moment – not to sit in the hope of becoming someone else, or to become enlightened, or to become calm or happy or free. Sitting in zazen is to be all of those things in the act of sitting, breathing, being present and alive – there is no purpose outside of the act of sitting and being here. We sit just to sit.

As we sit there is no need to chase thoughts or feelings or hopes or regrets or memories or plans. A Zen teacher, Sekkei Harada, talks about shikantaza as ‘sitting in a single-minded way’ – that is, of one mind, whole, complete unto yourself. Harada describes shikantaza as: “to sit in a dignified manner, without being moved by what is seen, heard, or thought.” The mind isn’t jostled or disturbed by our experiences. Don’t dwell on what arises. Don’t prolong or cling to thoughts, feelings, moods and perceptions – practice ‘non-dwelling mind’. In this way events and perceptions don’t stick to us. Kodo Sawaki says, “in zazen we become transparent.”

A Zen poem goes: Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

As we sit we’re neither doing this, nor that; neither thinking this, nor that. Clinging to nothing that comes along. Thoughts, feelings and perceptions become like clouds moving across the sky – brief, ever-changing, without fixed substance or identity, always merging and becoming something new. In zazen we experience the ungraspable, indefinable, empty nature of being here, being present – things-as-they-are (tathata – suchness, the thingness of things). No picking or choosing, but accepting everything just as it is.

In this way, the ‘self’, what we consider to be me or mine, becomes transparent, or actually expands to encompass the whole of existence. By letting go of the observer, the author and the controlling voice, our mind and self, drop away and we are who we are – and all that we are not – there is no distinction between us and the world, between me and you, between everyday mind and Buddha mind. In letting go of the clinging self or acquisitive mind, we let go of habits and conditioning – little mind returns to big mind, everyday mind returns to Buddha mind.

To practice zazen is to be mindful, and being mindful is also to mind, to care for, to look after. When we say, ‘mind your head’, or ‘would you mind the children for me’, or ‘I do mind’ – we are saying we are attentive and will take care. Caring for, and kindness towards, oneself, other beings and one’s environment, seem to grow out of the practice of zazen. Compassion is not a separate quality, to be cultivated in its’ own right, but is rather an integral part of mindful meditation. When we practice zazen suffering is eased.

Our embodied mind is always in process. In zazen I experience, as clearly and unhindered as possible, the endlessly changing states of mind and body that are who, and what, I am. At times agitated, at times calm; sometimes focused, sometimes unfocused; one moment at ease, the next uneasy; looking back, looking forward. Ultimately, these varied states have the same value. They are not stages of development, or steps on a ladder of achievement, with the apex of the ladder being ‘enlightenment’. They all have the same value and can come and go within one session of meditation. It is important to attend to, and care for, all states within this process, without dwelling on any of them. Equanimity, as well as patience, concentration and presence, are qualities that zazen demands and engenders.

Zazen can be considered as dispassionate attention to the whole fluid field of consciousness – being PRESENT, rather than being ABSENT; being OPEN rather than CLOSED; being HERE, rather than SOMEWHERE ELSE; being AWAKE rather than ASLEEP.

Through sitting, breathing, and paying attention to the flow of everyday experience without being moved or disturbed, we wake up to this life in all its transient variety and uniqueness. Zazen practice has helped me to live more in harmony with the way the world is – with all its ups and downs, births and deaths, meetings and partings. This is the humdrum zazen I’ve practiced for over fifty-five years.