Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 21
How to sit

We are having a warm winter here this year, and the first snow fell only a couple of days ago. When it gets cold during the winter, the temperature can fall well below the freezing point even inside the temple building, and during these months it is one of the extra tasks of the jikido (the monk who is responsible for ringing the wake up bell at four o'clock during sesshin and at five on the regular days) to light a fire in the wood stove to heat up the meditation hall before everyone else gets in. That means that the jikido has to get up at least 30 minutes to an hour before everyone else to make sure the meditation hall is warm. Still, on certain days when the weather conditions aren't favourable, for example when there is a strong wind blowing, or when the chimney hasn't been cleaned for some time and got stuck with sud, it isn't so easy to get the stove burning. I remember that it happened to me several times that I was the jikido and the time for the wake-up bell was approaching, but the wood in the stove wouldn't burn and the thermometer in the hall showed not much more than zero degrees Celsius. I was at a loss of what to do, until suddenly a genius idea struck me: I held the lighter against the lower part of the thermometer, and within a second the temperature went up to 20 degrees! I can still recall the surprised looks on the faces of the freezing monks when they entered the hall and checked the thermometer...

For several months now I have been writing about how to adjust the body, breath and mind in order to do zazen. Actually, I haven't started to write about what I consider the most important aspect - which is adjusting the physical posture. I invested more time until now to make the point that we should not attach to much importance to observing our mind, nor should we try to manipulate our breath. It is true that zazen has to do with mindfulness, and it is also true that our breath plays an essential role for zazen. Breathing in German is "Atmen", and I hear that this is related to the Sanskrit word "Atman" - the self. A part of us functions perfecly unconciously, while another part of us is conscious most of the time. It is interesting that the breath, which is maybe that part of ourselves which comes closest to what we could call "ourselves" in the first place, can function both consiously as well as unconsciously. And when we watch the breath consciously, we have the choice of just being conscious of the breath as it is, or to control it and change it according to our will. During my first years of zazen, I worked quite a lot with my breath, and did things like counting the breath or watching the breath. At times I also tried to make my breath as long and deep as possible, having heard that that was the way the breath was supposed to be. Someone had told me that some Aikido master would breath only once a minute and that that was the secret to his strength...
Now I do not advice people to manipulate their breath and also not to pay any more attention to it than to any other aspect of reality. On the other hand, it is an undeniable fact that zazen has a very intimate relation to our breath, and that our breath changes during zazen. I realize this especially during the "takkesage", a short chant that we do when we put on the monks robe after morning zazen. It consists of four verses, that are repeated three times: "Dai sai ge dap-puku, mu so fuku den e, hi bu nyo rai kyo, ko do sho shu-jo (this is the great robe of liberation, the formless shape of the field of fortune, to put it on means to put on the teaching of the Tathagata, with which I vow to save all suffering beings)". At Antaiji, we chant each verse with one breath, that means that we breath out 12 times during the chant. And although I never measured how long each individual breath is, as we need about 10 minutes for the whole chant, that makes an average of 50 seconds per breath (and 95% of that is breathing out!), which comes pretty close to that ideal of one minute that I tried to reach when I was young. Of course everyone's breath has a different length, and my personal breath is longer or shorter depending on my personal condition of that day, and anyway it doesn't play a role at all how long or short your breath is in the first place - you need not regulate it, you don't even have to pay attention to it - just breathe. The only time when I might pay special attention to my breath is during kinhin (walking meditation), because we take one step with each beath, but even that usually works naturally, and I think that I am neither conscious of my breath nor of my steps during kinhin most of the time. During kinhin, I also realize that the speed of my breath changes: It usually gets slower towards the end of kinhin, and it is faster at the beginning of a sesshin than at the end.

But once more: All of this doesn't really matter at all. The breath is just like a thermometer of your practice, and trying to reach a deeper state of mind by regulating your breath is just like my "genius idea" of manipulating the thermometer to raise the temperature of a room: Psychologically it might have some effect, but to really get the room warm, you have to get the fire in the stove burning. The same is true for the mind: You won't achieve true mindfulness by making an effort to concentrate on your mind - you have to sit with your body as if you yourself were on fire. This leads me to some questions that I received after the last Shitpapers:

One reader asked me:
You write: "When we make an effort to be conscious, we only create a gap between "us" and the "object" of our consciousness. To practice "unconsciously" means to be one with whatever we do."
I think it's so true. At the begining of my zazen practice I thought that I should talk in my mind: "I'm aware of breath in, I'm aware of breath out.." and so on. But after some time I could realize that I was not aware of breathing in and breathing out, but only saying these words in my mind. So, even though it sounds surprising, we should stop being mindful in that way. But my question is: were these words in my mind "I'm aware of breathing in, I'm aware of breathing out.." real mindfulness? I mean: can this separation that I create between "myself" and an "object of mindfulness" really be called "mindfulness"? Isn't real mindfulness being one with whatever we do - something that you call unconscious practice?

My answer was:
Yes, right: You could say that unconscious practice is real mindfulness, or vice versa, that true mindfulness means to practice unconsciously. But I think that too many people misunderstand "mindfulness", therefore I chose to be a little provoking by saying "stop being mindful" - maybe it would be easier to understand if I said: "Stop thinking that you want to be 'mindful' - just BE mindful"

Another reader asked me (1):
Is there a technique for mindfulness outside of zazen and kinhin? Obviously, we can't keep following the breath or the posture. What to do then?

My answer:
Just do everything completely, and don't do anything else - don't even pay attention to your breath, posture or mind. Don't be mindful, don't be artistic, don't develop a technique for mindfulness.

Question (2):
The only problem or rather paradox is how do we become mindful without trying to become mindful. And also if we consciously try not to try to become mindful, that is not gonna work either because there will still be effort involved in the opposite direction...
So the question is, since there is some effort in zazen at the beginning, as a result of which we get used to sit in a very specific posture for long periods of time and therefore develop our practice, should there be any similar effort outside of zazen as well which will similarly help us develop our practice when we are not sitting?

The paradox that you are mentioning can be a real problem for serious stuents: How can we be mindful without trying to be mindful? How can we really let go and leave everything to zazen itself without fighting against the pain in our legs or the illusions in our mind? How can we forget the thought "I want to get enlightened!" - when that is really the only thing we want? When it comes to zazen, I tried to give an answer with Uchiyama Roshi's example of driving a car: Of course we can not just leave everything to the "natural, unconscious and automatic" functioning of life's activity when we don't know how to drive a car safely yet. We have to make a conscious effort to drive safely. But eventually our body and mind will become able to function automatically - and then this automatic functioning will be the safest form of driving: Whenever we "check" ourselves, we will only interfere with the driving. I think that when Dogen Zenji says in the Genjokoan that "To penetrate the buddha way is to penetrate yourself. To penetrate yourself is to forget yourself. To forget yourself is to be actualized by myriad things. To be actualized by myriad things is the droppimg away of your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others..." he means this structure of practice. Now you are asking about the effort we have to make when we are not sitting on the cushion. Just as with zazen, the point is to do whatever you do completely, to disappear inside the action, to be one with what you do - but how do you do that!? Whenever you TRY to do it, you are creating a separation... What I tell people here at Antaiji at times is to do things "quietly, speedily, efficiently". Most people agree that things should be done quietly in a meditative environment, but to be quiet and mindful they suppose it is best to also do things slowly. Sometimes people sweep the floor or work in the garden as if they were moving in slow motion. This is not what I would call "mindfulness" - they are just tardy. If you do things fast and quiet at the same time, and also make sure that what you do is exactly the thing that has to be done at that precise moment (i.e. you are efficient), than you necessarily have to be mindful - without trying to be mindful. Actually, when you are really absorbed in "quiet, speedy and efficient" practice, you will have no time to even think about wanting to be "mindful" - you have to BE mindful in order to function. So my answer to your question is: If you feel that you have to make an effort, direct that effort towards the task at hand, not towards your consciousness that tries to monitor yourself constantly. Just do whatever you are doing - do it the best way you can, do it quietly, speedily and efficiently. If you concentrate your effort in this way, you might realize that really no effort is necessary on your side - the action takes care of itself.

Question (3):
What you explain makes sense to me and I agree with you. The actions we take outside of zazen are usually actions we are used to perform since childhood or adolescence so we already know how to do them safely. Therefore we don't really need spend an initial period like in zazen where we have to make a conscious effort. And I guess the faster you do the task the less time you'll have to think and become self-conscious.
Now I want to ask you something about the posture during zazen. Since the posture seems so important and it's so strictly defined by master Dogen and other teachers, I want to make sure I am not making any mistake. According to your experience what is the most crucial thing about the posture? I believe it should be the straigthness of your back but are there any 'must be' conditions about the eyes or the neck, the belly, arms, hands and so on? For example is it absolutely necessary that your eyes cast down at 45 degree angle or you push your belly forward or your ears and shoulders should be aligned, or there should be some tension in your cosmic mudra, etc. Or should you just sit comfortably as long as your back is straight?

Well, I think also outside of zazen we often have to make a conscious effort, it is just that we should concentrate that effort on the action itself, rather than trying to be "conscious", "concentrated" or "mindful". When we really do the action completely, we will necessarily (as a side effect) be mindful. As far as the posture is concerned, I hope to answer all of your questions during the following months in detail.

Although I said before that there is no manual for zazen, there are quite a number of instructions on "how to sit" - the "Fukanzazengi" and the "Shobogenzo Zazengi" are only two of them. During the next month, I want to investigate three such instructions by Sawaki Roshi. One is included at the end of "Zendan (Zen talks)", one from a booklet called "Zenshu yoten (basic Zen scriptures)" and one just a copied paper that I found in our library. I had been reluctant to translate these texts for a long time, because we have to be careful to make sure that we know HOW to read such instructions. Please join me next month in the investigation of Sawaki's instructions on "how to sit".

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