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The Practice of Zazen

Kodo Sawaki




Attitude of Mind

The Practice of Zazen is the Secret of Zen

Zazen is a daily practice. Not easy, not difficult. But very effective in expanding consciousness and developing intuition. And not only does zazen release great energy, it is the posture of awakening.

While practicing, do not seek to gain anything. Without object, only concentrate on the posture, the breathing and the attitude of mind.

The Posture

Seated on the zafu (traditional, round, kapok-stuffed cushion), the legs are crossed in a lotus or half-lotus position, or behind you in seiza (kneeling posture). The knees must press the floor, forming a stable, three-point posture with the buttocks on the zafu.

The pelvis is tilted forward so the abdomen falls down naturally. There should be no obstruction or constriction of the abdomen, such as a belt or tight trousers. The spinal column is arched in the lower lumbar region, and the head presses the sky, stretching out the backbone.

The upper breast bone is raised, naturally throwing back the shoulders and neck. The face is perpendicular to the floor, and the nape of the neck stretched up. The nose is on the same plane as the navel. The ears are on the same plane as the shoulders. The shoulders are relaxed, the abdomen is relaxed.

The mouth is closed - the breathing is through the nose - but the jaw is relaxed. The tip of the tongue rests on the palette, just at the top of the upper front teeth. The eyes are open, looking down at a forty-five degree angle. The gaze is steady, at rest, but not focused on anything.

The lower forearms rest on the upper thighs against the lower abdomen, the palms of the hands facing up. The fingers of the left hand rest on the fingers of the right hand. The tips of the thumbs lightly touch over the middle of the hands, neither "falling like a valley" nor "rising like a mountain."

Once you are in this stable, vertical position, inhale and exhale slowly and deeply. Your posture is now vertical and balanced. Remain in this posture during zazen without moving.

Zazen means "to touch the cosmos through one single body, our body. All existences and myself are one single body." Master Dogen wrote in the Fukanzazengi: "The zazen I speak of is not learning how to meditate. It is nothing other than the way to peace and happiness, the practice-realization of perfect awakening. Once you have seized its heart, you are like a dragon when he enters the water, like a tiger when he enters the mountain."

At the end of zazen, signaled by one strike of the bell, raise the hands and do gassho (without bending over), then place the closed fists, thumbs inside, on the lower thighs. Stretch your torso and head down over the right thigh, then straighten up, and bend over the left thigh a bit then straighten up. Repeat this two or three times, each time bending over a bit more, until you head touches your knees. Get up carefully and push your zafu back into shape.

The Breathing

Zen breathing plays a primary role. The point of the breathing is above all to establish a slow, strong and natural rhythm.

Concentrate primarily on the exhalation, which should be calm, long and deep. During the exhalation exert a free, relaxed, expanding downward pressure on the lower internal organs, without pulling the abdomen in.

The inhalation should be natural, automatic, spontaneous. Since the lungs are mostly empty, they quickly fill with air again.

The concentration on the exhalation creates great energy in the lower abdominal region. The body's energy center is not in the head or upper body but in the major nerve groups located from the solar plexus to the lower abdomen. All martial arts are traditionally based on this breathing. Strong action of the body-mind takes place during the exhalation. During inhalation, a person is weakest and most vulnerable.

Air contains the energy of the universal life force and is received by our lungs and each cell in our body. It is very important to develop our breathing. Usually we breathe maybe fifteen times a minute in a shallow way, using only a small part of the lung's capacity. Deep complete Zen breathing is not just localized at the level of the thoracic cage or the diaphragm, but affects the lower abdominal organs, exerting a strong massage on the internal organs and stimulating the circulation of blood and other fluids in the body.

By the regular practice of zazen this breathing, little by little, becomes habitual in our daily life and during sleep. The more you are receptive to the universal life force through Zen breathing in zazen, the more your energy increases.

Attitude of Mind

The correct attitude of mind comes naturally from a deep concentration during zazen on the posture and the breathing.

During zazen the conscious flow of thought from the cerebral cortex is greatly diminished and the thinking brain becomes calm and cool. Blood flows toward the deeper layers of the brain, the thalamus and the hypo-thalamus, and this body-brain becomes more active and developed. The nervous system becomes relaxed while our deeper brain becomes more active. Receptive and attentive in every cell of the body, you learn to think with the body, unconsciously.

During zazen, thoughts, conscious and subconscious, naturally and continuously rise to the surface of our mind. Don't try to stop these thoughts from arising. But at the same time, don't get involved with the thoughts or let them take you away from concentration on posture and breathing. Just let the thoughts pass, like clouds in the sky, neither opposing them nor attaching to them. Shadows pass and vanish. Images arise from the subconscious, then disappear. The brain becomes deeply calm. One arrives at the deep unconscious, beyond thought, to hishiryo consciousness, true purity.

Hishiryo is the unconscious of Zen - universal mind. In Japanese, shiryo is thinking, fushiryo non-thinking. But hishiryo is absolute thinking, beyond thinking and non-thinking. Beyond categories, opposites, contradictions. Beyond all problems of personal consciousness. Our original nature, Buddha nature, the Cosmic unconscious.

When the mind empties and the intellect is calm, peaceful, at rest, nothing obstructs the deep intuitive and unlimited life force that springs up from the depths of our being, that which precedes all thought, the eternal flow of the activity of the Cosmos. Practicing zazen, sitting concentration, without object or goal, you can experience hishiryo and understand mushotoku, the secret and essence of Zen. But this understanding must be beyond that of common sense or intellectual logic. It is direct perception, here and now.

Mushotoku is the attitude of non-profit, of not wanting to gain anything for yourself. It is essential to true Zen practice. Giving without expecting to receive, abandoning everything without fear of losing, observing oneself.

Zen students develop wisdom if they are vigilant in their Zen practice, in their effort to know themselves, to go beyond themselves, to give of themselves without expecting any personal gain. If you abandon all, you will obtain all.

Hishiryo is cosmic consciousness and not personal consciousness. We can directly experience this during zazen. We usually thinking of our family, friends, anxieties, jobs, holidays, all the phenomena that arise from our memories and daily life. But during zazen, we concentrate on posture and breathing, our thinking calms and cools, we harmonize with the cosmic current and abandon our ego selves, permitting the subconscious to rise to the surface. Our thoughts expand and deepen, attaining universal consciousness. Through zazen we can go to the bottom of this ultimate consciousness. This is the essential art of zazen.

"Thinking non-thinking," wrote Master Dogen, "How do we think without thinking? Think from the depths of non-thinking." This is cosmic consciousness. Hishiryo consciousness. Our conscious senses cannot define it, words cannot explain it. It comes only through our living zazen experience.

Hishiryo is the harmonizing of objective and subjective views, ultimate consciousness beyond time and space, the highest consciousness, universal, beyond all existences, beyond thinking and non-thinking. To experience hishiryo consciousness, that is Zen.

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