Zazen is the heart of zen buddhism’s meditative practices
It is an effective method that we also practice in Abheda Yoga Academy with joy.
Zazen is more than just a meditation, it is an attitude towards ourselves and the whole world in which we are being.
The literal translation of the term signifies “sitting meditation“, but the semantic context implies that the Zen practitioner adopts a certain posture, gradually obtains a state of deep calm of mind and body, and thus “invites” into his being the manifestation of illuminating states (satori).
At a “sitting” by Zazen
which usually takes place in a zendo (meditation room), the periods of Zazen are alternated with those of Kinhin (meditation in motion). The moment of the beginning of the Zazen meditation is traditionally announced by three bell sounds (shijosho), while the end of a meditation stage is announced by a single bell sound (hozensho). Before sitting down or getting up, Zen practitioners perform gassho, a traditional greeting that consists of clasping the palms in the chest area, with the forearms kept horizontally, and tilting the torso as a sign of respect. Gassho is done to his own place of meditation, then to all the participants and to godo (the one who leads the zazen session).
In Japan, Zazen meditation is practiced sitting on a pillow called zafu.
Master Dogen recommends that seated positions only:
kekkafuza (lotus) and
but today several postures have been developed that satisfy the Zazen principles of body attitude.
Of these, famous is the Japanese posture seiza (a knee position, sitting on a bench or a zafu).
It is not uncommon to meditate on a chair in the Zazen position, the pillow being placed on it.
Generally speaking, the practice of Zazen has three aspects:
- introspection (via koan) and
- body posture (shikantaza).
The latter is usually associated with the Soto school, where the emphasis was on how to place the body during meditation, while the koan is especially the prerogative of the Rinzai school. Today, most Zen schools use all three of these aspects, which complement each other in the practice of meditation.
In the early stages of the practice Zazen it is always insisted on concentration.
The attention of the practitioner is constantly focused on the breath, without intervening to modify it in any way, and on him hara (the lower abdominal area); sometimes the disciple is counseled to count in order to maintain his state of concentration. This form of meditation accompanied by counting is called susokukan, and can present different variations. Through this practice, the disciple gradually develops his power of concentration, joriki.
In some Zen practice centers it is insisted on repeating a mantra that accompanies the respiratory process, instead of counting. In certain spiritual communities (sangha) the practice is continued in this way until the appearance of incipient states of samadhi, or illuminatory flashes. Only after that the disciple can move on to a higher stage of Zazen practice.
Introspection by Koan
Once he has developed the power of concentration, the disciple will now focus his attention on a koan as an object of meditation. Koanas are short phrases, which refer to a rational insolvent aspect, for example, “what is the noise produced by the beating of a single palm?”. Thus, the introspection generated by koan is meant to short-circuit intellectual processes, leading to a direct realization of reality beyond appearances.
Sitting posture – Shikantaza
This refers to the meditation without object, in which the disciple does not focus his attention on an external or inner object, but uses his ability to concentrate to remain completely aware of all the phenomena that occur in the present moment.
Zazen constitutes a special form of meditation, found only within the practices of Zen Buddhism, and refers essentially to the study of the Self.
Grand Master Dogen said:
“ To study the Way of Buddha you must study yourself; in order to study yourself, you must forget about yourself; and to forget about yourself is to be enlightened by the ten thousand aspects.”
This metaphor related to the ten thousand aspects refers to the recognition of the unity of the Self with all beings and things around.
The Zen practice of sitting meditation was transmitted from the first Master, Buddha himself, who obtained enlightenment in this posture. It then passed down, from generation to generation, over more than 2,500 years, spreading from India to China, then reaching Japan, other parts of Asia, to finally conquer the West.
Zazen practice is very simple, easy to assimilate and follow.
But like all authentic spiritual practices, it requires perseverance, dedication, and faith to show their fruits.
We tend to consider our body, mind and breath as separate entities, but they acquire a special unity in Zazen, constituting facets of the same reality. The first aspect on which we turn our attention is the way we sit down to practice Zazen. The body constitutes a real interface between the outer and the inner world. The way we position our body conveys something about our mental processes that are unfolding at that moment, and about our breathing. Over the years, the most effective Zazen posture has been considered the one in which the body embodies a pyramidal structure.
We sit on the ground, above a zafu (Zen pillow), which allows us to raise the seat so that the outer part of the knees touches the ground. Thus, the three support points (the seat on the pillow and the knees on the ground) form the base of a triangular pyramid, which gives maximum stability in all directions in which we would bend our torso.
The top of the pyramid is given by the crown of the head
There are several leg positions that allow the knees to be placed on the ground (essentially this is the Zen requirement to be met). The first and simplest position is the one with the legs crossed, the calves being on the ground. Even if some people are faced with certain muscle stiffnesses that prevent them from placing their knees on the ground, a persevering practice will allow them in a short time to remove this inconvenience. It is enough to sit on the front third of the zafu, to allow the coccygeal area to rise from the ground long enough for the knees to touch the ground. Also, in this position the lumbar region will be naturally pushed forward, which will maintain the physiological curvature of the spine, ensuring its normal verticality.
It is important to imagine how the crown of the head pierces the sky – and for this, we will retract the chin, gently elongating the cervical region of the spine. The body thus regains its normal position, both at the level of the spine as a whole, as well as through the muscular relaxation given by a correct posture. Thus, the body can maintain this form for a relatively long time.
Another position is the semi-lotus one, in which the left leg is placed above the right thigh, while the right leg is folded underneath. It is a slightly asymmetrical position, and sometimes the upper part of the body has to compensate somehow, to keep the structure perfectly straight.
The most stable and symmetrical posture is, by far, the lotus. The paw of each leg is placed on the thigh of the other leg. No special esoteric significance shall be attributed to the adoption of one or the other of the positions. The most important aspect here is the correlation between the body and the mind, which allows the calming of the mind with the adoption of a correct and relaxed body posture.
There is also the sesis posture, which does not necessarily require a pillow under the seat. It can be adopted by sitting on the knees, with the buttocks positioned above the soles, which form a sui-generis anatomical pillow. Or you can resort to a regular pillow so as not to leave all the weight of the body on the calves. Finally, a seiza-type bench can also be used, which completely removes the weight from the legs, and also maintains the vertical column.
Finally, it is also very good if we sit on a chair, with the soles of the feet firmly placed on the ground and with the spine straight, respecting the physiological curves. We can use the pillow – zafu, in the same way as if we were sitting on the ground – we place it in our chair, then we post ourselves on top, pushing the lumbar area forward. The most important element of the practice is to respect the correct position of the spine, but in order to have good results in the practice of Zazen meditation, it is very important to meet the other requirements: the position of the chin, hands, head, etc.
When the back is straight, the diaphragm moves freely. Thus, breathing can become very deep, and predominantly abdominal. In fact, as the body matures, breathing becomes more restricted and more superficial. We tend to breathe with the upper third of the lungs, which is evidenced by the slight lifting of the shoulders when we inhale. In addition, too tight vestments on the body, or even belts and belts, prevent us from maintaining our deep, abdominal breathing, as it was during childhood.
In Zazen it is important to give up any grip in the waist area
and in general, to avoid wearing clothing items that could embarrass blood circulation or breathing. This, once the diaphragm area is released, will naturally become deeper and deeper. We’re not going to control the breath, we’re just going to notice it. Simply adopting a correct body posture and attitudes will lead to the reinstallation of a beneficial, healthy breath.
Once seated, we will also check certain elements:
the mouth will be closed, but we will leave a small space between the teeth, the tongue leaning slightly with the tip at the base of the upper teeth – this position of the tongue will reduce both salivation and the need to swallow. Unless we are faced with a nasal blockage, we will only breathe through the nose. The eyes are kept semi-open, with the gaze facing down front, at about 1 to 1.5 m. The almost total closure of the eyelids will remove the need to blink too often. The chin will be slightly retracted, so that the fine muscles of the face are still as relaxed as possible. There should be no tensions in the body. Normally, the tip of the nose should be on the same vertical as the navel, and the upper part of the trunk should not be bent either in front or in the back.
The hands are placed in a mudra – a gesture specific to Zazen. It is about the so-called cosmic mudra. Both hands are palms up, with the left palm being above the right palm. The big fingers of the two hands touch each other at the ends, which end up in the extension of each other. The fingers will not make “neither valley nor hill”, that is, we will not orient them either to the top or to the bottom, but we will ensure that they configure a horizontal line. Thus, the big fingers and palms will form a “cosmic egg”, a perfect ovoid shape.
The hands will be supported either on the groin region of the thighs or on the heels of the legs placed in the lotus (as the case may be).
The cosmic mudra is meant to draw the attention of the practitioner to the inside of his being.
There are many different ways of concentrating attention
One can resort to complex images called mandala-e, which are sometimes used as external elements that favor concentration. Or, one can appeal to mantras or syllables spoken vowelically or mentally. One can also resort to mudra-e, or gestures. Zazen prefers concentration on the breath.
Our breath is synchronous with life
It is no mere coincidence that the term “spirit” means “breath” or breath, nor that the terms “ki” in Japanese, or Chinese “chi” refer to energy, both derived from “breath.” The breath is the vital force of the being. Its dynamics are synchronized with the dynamics of the mind: if the breath is jerky, rapid, the mind will also be agitated. A nervous person will always breathe short and with interruptions. On the contrary, when the breath becomes calmer, deeper and deeper, the mind calms down effortlessly, allowing the experience of deeper and deeper states of meditation.
The attention of the meditator will be directed to the hara, an area about two fingers below the navel
It is considered to be, according to Zen tradition, the center of our being. As the mind calms down, we will become more and more aware of the mysterious energetic dynamics of hara.
Once fully placed in the posture, we will alternately sway our torso according to the directions of the thighs, in arcs with descending amplitude, until we establish ourselves in our center of gravity. The mind is lowered to the level of hara, the hands sketch the cosmic mudra, the mouth is closed, with the tongue slightly pressed against the base of the upper teeth. Breathing is carried out on the nose. We focus on observing the breath, without interfering with it. We perceive how the air, charged with ki, energy, descends into the hara, vitalizes all the viscera, then returns to the outside, closing the respiratory cycle.
If the mind begins to “bum”
we gently bring it back to the object of our concentration – breathing. Periodically, we will be careful to observe the observance of the elements of body posture, because over time, it is possible to appear some deviations – the spine no longer retains its shape, the knees can easily rise from the ground, the big fingers of the hands can descend, making “a valley”, etc. We contemplate our thoughts without accompanying them in their wandering, as if we were following, with detachment and reconciliation, the clouds that wander through the blue sky. We do not attach ourselves to thoughts, we do not retain them, nor do we prevent them.
As practice progresses, attention will become sharper, finer, and more comprehensive
The practitioner will begin to notice subtle aspects, which were previously evaded his attention. Once the internal dialogue generated by the agitation of the mind calms down, the opening of the being to the mysterious and profound reality of its essence gradually occurs.
Sometimes certain residual thoughts or obsessive ideas will tend to come back, recurrently. This happens especially during periods when we are very busy, intensely involved in aspects of outer life, or when we are going through a period of emotional crisis. We banish thoughts, and they return obstinately.
Sometimes this process is even necessary! All we can do is to become as aware as possible of the dynamics of thoughts, without following them, without attaching ourselves to them. Simply observing them, detached from the object of observation, will exhaust their energy.
Our attention will naturally come back to our breath. Zazen is not a weapon of struggle against thoughts, but especially a wonderful way to appease the agitated surface of the mind, full of waves of thoughts, bringing it to the size of the perfect mirror of the surface of a fully quiet lake.
In a deep Zazen state, tangent with the illuminatory states (samadhi, in Hindu terminology, or satori, in the Japanese one), we open to true life. The breath of the meditator reaches the rhythm of 2-3 breaths per minute up to a breath at three minutes or more than three minutes.
All organic rhythms are slowed down – heartbeat, blood circulation, metabolism. The body itself reaches a point of tranquility, of deep balance, in which the dominant cerebral rhythms are those of theta and delta type, corresponding to the states of deep sleep, with or without dreams. Only this time, in the case of meditation, consciousness is perfectly lucid, able to penetrate into the vast mysterious reality of the Divine World.
Patience and perseverance are essential keys in obtaining illuminatory states, including through the practice of Zazen. We have nothing to gain, nothing to lose. We just sink inside our being, and we are free.
An article by psych. Aida Surubaru