Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tricycle - An Introduction to Zen

This "Introduction to Zen" is a part of Tricycle's Big Sit 90-day challenge. It's a good article worthy of our attention, especially if we are not part of the Zen tradition.

An Introduction to Zen

By Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

What is Zen?

The word “Zen” is tossed around so carelessly in the commercial world, the human potential world, the world of design, and in popular culture in general, that for someone new to it as an authentic spiritual tradition, it has become too vague to have much meaning. Real Zen is the practice of coming back to the actual right-now-in-this-moment self, coming back to the naturalness, the intimacy and simplicity of our true nature. Zen practice is not about getting away from our life as it is; it is about getting into our life as it is, with all of its vividness, beauty, hardship, joy and sorrow. Zen is a path of awakening: awakening to who we really are, and awakening the aspiration to serve others and take responsibility for all of life.

This sounds good, but how is it to be accomplished? How is it possible to enter such a new way of experiencing one’s life?

The Practice

There is a term in the Celtic tradition that I find resonates with something fundamental about Zen practice. The Celts spoke of “thin places,” places like caves or wells or other special sites where the boundary between the mundane and magical was permeable. To me, Zen practice offers a kind of thin place, a “place” where we can discover that there is fundamentally no separation between ourselves and others, that what we seek is always so close, always right here. In the Lotus Sutra’s parable of the burning house, the only escape from our greed, anger, and ignorance is said to be through a “narrow door.” The narrow door, the thin place, and any of a number of metaphors point us in the direction of our own realization. A door or a gate or a threshold also implies that there is effort, movement, investment in transformation.

© Rararanamoori

At the heart of Zen practice is zazen, seated meditation. One master said that listening and thinking are like being outside the gate, and zazen is returning home and sitting in peace. Zazen is really a very simple practice and does not involve complicated instructions. When one studies the ancient Zen meditation manuals, it is always surprising how brief and plain they are. While they speak of the possibility of attaining the freedom and naturalness of a tiger in the mountains or a dragon in the water, the actual instructions are so concrete. Sit in the proper posture and attend to the body, breath, and mind.

Make a Place to Sit

It is best to have a place set aside for regular zazen. Whether it is a room or just a corner, the space should be clean and uncluttered. Place a mat on the floor (a folded blanket will do) and on it a zafu, another type of comfortable sitting cushion, or a bench. If floor sitting is too difficult, simply use a chair.

Preparing to Sit

When you do zazen, wear loose, clean clothes. At the beginning of a sitting period, it is traditional to bow to an altar, offer a stick of incense, and bow once more. Then, as you stand before your seat, bow toward and away from your cushion, bench, or chair. These acts help us to realize intention and respect. The incense is offered with the intention that this session is for all beings, for all creation, not just for oneself. The standing bow to and away from our cushion actualizes our respect for our practice and for those, whether present or not, who practice with us. The physical act of bowing, of folding our body down, placing our head in a traditionally respectful position of vulnerability, gives the ego a big break, an opportunity to let go. When you are seated—whether cross-legged, kneeling, or in a chair—settle into the zazen posture: Place your hands on your lap or thighs, in the cosmic mudra, your right hand holding your left one, palms up, with your thumbs barely touching, forming a circle.


Your posture in sitting is vitally important. Sit on the forward third of your cushion or chair, so that your hips are higher than your knees and your belly is free to move in and out without stress on your lower back. Your ears are in line with your shoulders, your head balanced gently on your neck, your eyes are slightly open, gazing down about three feet in front of you. Your chin is pointing neither up nor down, but is slightly tucked in. Place your tongue just behind your teeth on the roof of your mouth. Sway from side to side until you find your center point.

The Breath

Now attend to the breath. Breathe naturally. Breathing in, allow the breath to fully enter your body until your lower belly expands; then, breathing out, softly allow the breath to ease out through your nostrils. Notice how the breath seems to travel through the main avenues of your torso. Your belly should rise and fall naturally with each breath. Let the breath fill your lower abdomen as if it were a balloon. Later, you may notice that even the bottoms of your feet are breathing in and out. As you relax into the breath, you can begin silently counting each full cycle of breath, noting “one” on the out-breath, “two” on the next out-breath, and so on up to “ten.” When you reach “ten,” begin again with “one.” When you realize that you have stopped counting, and are caught up in thinking, simply take another breath and go back to “one.”

Do this—counting your breath, maintaining your posture, sitting still—for the 20-minute period of zazen. Notice that urges to move—to scratch your nose, to tug on your ear—are usually ways to move away from the energies in your body. Instead of moving, stay with them, observe them, and bring your focus back to the breathing. Learn to notice how these urges fall away, only to be replaced by others, demonstrating the second noble truth: the cause of suffering is craving. All the disparate ideas, thoughts, impulses—everything comes and goes, and yet you sit. And little by little, the chatter drops away and your body, breath, and mind are one. Zazen is so simple. We focus on our posture and on counting our breath, and this develops samadhi, a unified mind. But the practice is not about reaching “ten.” It is about training the body and mind. Let the body settle, let the breath settle, let the mind settle. Don’t worry about whether your practice is working, don’t judge your performance, don’t tell yourself stories or find other ways to avoid this very moment. These are just ways of separating from our deepest intention and our zazen. When you do zazen, just do zazen. That’s enough.

The Original Self

In the Genjokoan (Actualizing the Fundamental Point), Zen Master Dogen writes:

When one first seeks the dharma, one is far away
from its environs.

When one has already correctly transmitted
the dharma to oneself, one is one’s original
self at that moment.

Dogen Zenji’s teaching reminds us of our initial separation from what is ours. When we begin to seek the dharma, there is an “I” that looks for it over “there.” But the dharma is already alive in us, and requires only that we realize it, which is what he means in the second sentence: having “correctly transmitted the dharma to oneself,” one is one’s real self in that moment.

I think all of us yearn to experience ourselves as whole and complete, to live our lives fully and freshly in each moment. But something blocks us, and Zen training is one way to see that, all along, we have what we need. This is called the realization of the original self.

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