July 16, 2010
Wisdom Quarterly has a nice how-to on zazen, or Zen-style mediation. It begins with this:
Zazen, the formal practice of seated meditation, is the cornerstone of Zen training. Za means "sitting." Zen —which derives from the Sanskrit dhyana, or jhana in the ancient Buddhist language Pali—means meditation. In its beginning stages, zazen is a practice of concentration, with a focus on following or counting the breath. But more than just concentrating, zazen is a powerful tool of self-inquiry, boundless in its scope and ability to reveal the true basis of reality. Through zazen we realize the unity of the self with all things, which has the potential to transform our lives and those of others.
Practical guidance complete with diagrams will take you through the basics. One of my favorite guides for all things Zen is Robert Aitken's Taking the Path of Zen. It's one of those everything-you-wanted-to-know books. I remember looking through it years ago, before I ever visited a zendo, to be prepared for what to expect. Of course, there's no way to prepare and showing up and sitting is the only way that works. But understanding Zen form and practice from a seasoned teacher's point of view gives plenty of context. There are also very down-to-earth and practical instructions. Here's Aitken Roshi on zazen and your legs (I'm sure I don't have to explain), with diagrammed stretching exercises to prepare for the lotus position: "Legs are a problem. Few people, even children, even in Japan, are flexible enough to sit easily in the lotus position without painful practice..."
Our tendons and muscles need stretching over many months before we can be comfortable. Yet, in the long run, sitting with one or both feet in the lap is far superior to sitting in any other position. In that way you are locked into your practice and your organs are completely at ease. Sitting in a chair, however, may be the only option for one suffering from injury or arthritis. Certain exercises are helpful in stretching for the lotus positions. Begin by sitting on a rug or pad: 1. Bring heels of both feet to the crotch, and bend forward with your back straight and touch your face to the floor, placing your hands on the floor just above your head. Knees also should touch the floor in this exercise and if they do not, rock them gently up and down, stretching the ligaments. 2. Bring your feet together with your legs outstretched,bend forward and touch your hands to the floor by your feet, keeping your back and legs straight; if possible, touch your face to your knees. 3. Extend your legs as far apart as possible. Bend forward with your back and legs straight and touch your face to the floor, placing your hands on the floor, either outstretched or just above your head. 4. Double back one leg so that your foot is beside your seat, with your instep, shin, and knee resting on the rug or pad. Bend the other leg back in the same way. Now lie back on one elbow, then on both elbows, and finally like back flat. At first you may have to lie back against a sofa cushion so that you are not completely flat, and perhaps have someone to help you. If you can manage to lie flat, raise your arms over your head until your hands touch the floor and then bring them to your side again. Yasutani Roshi did these exercises every morning before breakfast, well into his eighties. It may take you some time to become flexible enough to do them even partially. Maintain the effort and your zazen will be less demanding physically. These four exercises are the core of Makkoho, a Japanese system of physical conditioning. Don't push yourself too hard or you may strain a muscle or pull a ligament. At the limit of each stretch, breath in and out three or four times and try to relax. © 1982 by Diamond Sangha