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Instructions for Zazen

DH Zazen - Kisei

For instructions on the physical aspects of Zazen, click here (scroll to the bottom of the page to find instructions on sitting in a chair or on a meditation bench).

Zazen, literally “seated meditation,” is our central practice. It is simultaneously:

•    an extremely simple practice and an incredibly difficult practice;
•    a practice of doing absolutely nothing, and a practice of re-orienting our lives;
•    a practice we work hard to get better at, and a practice that is complete and perfect from the very first time we sit.

Another word for our meditation practice in Soto Zen is shikantaza, which means “only precisely sitting.” On the one hand we try to let go of all physical and mental activity, all striving, and all struggling against and analysis of what we are experiencing just-this-moment. On the other hand we bring everything we have to this “task” which is no-task; we maintain alertness, interest, and dedication to our effort to just be. Zazen is the living space created by the tension between doing and not-doing.

Just be. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But how often do we actually do this? Most of us can think of only a few moments over the past year when we have spontaneously settled into the moment and let go entirely of worrying or dreaming about the past or future. Such moments usually happen when we have a moment of leisure and we are in calming, pleasant surroundings – on vacation, gazing at a sunset, or drifting off to sleep after a nice day.

In our zazen practice we cultivate the ability and willingness to settle into the present moment regularly, whenever we remember to do so – and no matter what is going on. What’s the good of settling into the present moment, without judgment or any effort to change things or analyze them? What is the good of doing absolutely nothing? Surely there are too many things to be pondered, planned, worked on, appreciated, understood, etc. to spend time doing nothing! OK, maybe we can spare a few doing-nothing moments during our leisure time, but what about when we are faced with responsibilities, challenges, or crises?

The “good” of zazen cannot be measured or described using any ordinary means. We usually look at an action as a cause and then judge its goodness or badness by the quality of its effects, but zazen in its essence is non-causation. It is simply stillness. If something happens because we are just sitting still instead of reacting the way we normally would, in a sense we are simply watching a chain of causation play itself out without adding anything new to it. Kodo Sawaki Roshi was fond of saying emphatically, “Zazen is useless!” And really, in and of itself, it is. Really. Most of us do not fully believe this; we think that we will sit still for a while and then – if we do it right – experience something other than just sitting there. However, if we do it right, we won’t.

At the same time, just sitting there is far from the boring, unsatisfying experience we may think it is. The whole universe sits with us, and all of the truths of our human life are available to us as we sit there. As we sit there trying to do absolutely nothing, we are practicing being a Buddha, or awakened being. (This is not to say that if you are enlightened you don’t do anything! Far from it. It’s just that a Buddha does whatever she is doing completely, so when she is sitting, she is just sitting. If she is working, she is just working, and if she is eating, she is just eating.)

The practice of zazen is about learning to take our best possible posture of body and mind: upright, alert and still. (Zazen is actually better described as a posture of body-mind, rather than body and mind. Body and mind are not two separate things. We can’t do zazen just with our body, and we can’t do it just with our mind.) Taking our best posture, we are optimally poised for seeing clearly, letting go of delusion, and engaging with life. Amazingly this posture is a natural one, not an artificial one we put ourselves in to have an advantage. We find ourselves in this posture when our body-mind is firmly planted in right-here, right-now, which is the only place we can actually be. So, ironically, by just sitting there we re-orient our entire lives.

When our body-mind is upright, we are simultaneously laying claim to our natural dignity and taking responsibility. We are not leaning back in avoidance or complacency, nor leaning forward with anticipation, ambition or greed. When our body-mind is alert, we are engaged with and interested in our life as is unfolding before our very eyes. We are not tuning out because we mistakenly think we’ve seen this all before. We are not saving our energy and interest for something better, or for something in the future. We are not mulling over the past or daydreaming about the future; past and future are merely useful concepts for making decisions. Only the present is actually real. When our body-mind is still, we are allowing the turbidity we have created with our activities to settle. This allows us to more clearly perceive what is going on, both within and without.

We need to be very clear about the “stillness” of our zazen posture. This is not about holding ourselves rigid, refraining from response in order to appear to be full of equanimity or to avoid making mistakes, or pitting ourselves against what is going on in our environment or in our own minds. What is still in zazen is not necessarily our mind or our heart or even our body, but the self-interested part of ourselves that spends most of our waking hours – and many of our dreaming hours – thinking about the past and the future and judging everything in terms of its potential benefit or threat to numero uno. This is our “small self.” It’s just one part of us, and it’s an adaptive part that has its usefulness. The problem is that our small self has staged a coup and taken over our whole life. When we take our best posture, the small self is relegated to its rightful place: part of the team, not the dictator.

When people think they need to feel peaceful and free from thought in zazen and they find they are not, they often end up setting themselves in opposition to their experience and trying to change it – which is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do in zazen! At times this can seem like a strange irony; we are trying to take a posture that is upright, alert and still, but when we are drowsy, distracted, depressed or upset we can’t directly fight those states. This will only make things worse. Instead, we have to return to not-doing. We have to accept what is going on and turn our awareness toward our current reality without trying to change it. The amazing and fortunate thing is that when we do this, some or all of the extra distress caused by the drowsiness, distraction, depression or upset falls away. These less-than-pleasant states may remain, but our rejection of them does not. Instantly we can regain our posture of dignity. We can instantly become still – again, not necessarily in mind, heart, or body, but with respect to our small self, which always wants things to be different.

We practice this ideal posture in zazen, seated meditation, because that is the simplest and most conducive setting for learning how to take the posture, but the spirit of the posture is not something limited to our seated meditation. It is not that we “do zazen” while we go about our daily activities, because that would mean trying to drag our experience of seated meditation around with us; it means that we do whatever it is we’re doing – driving, talking to others, washing dishes – using our best posture: upright, alert, and still.

Do you have trouble staying focused in zazen?

Do you find yourself lost in thought, and unable to keep your attention on the breath – or any other meditative object – for long?

Click here to read Domyo’s Instructions for Zazen in Eight Verses, and recommendations for how to use them to anchor your zazen.

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