Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 22 look like a ball of cotton wool!

Let me start to explain about the actual way how to sit. Some people have been asking me if there was a "manual for zazen", and my answer has always been "no!" (see for example the "Shitpaper" September 2004), but to tell the truth, there are quite a number of "manuals" for Zen practice in general, and also specifically for zazen. The oldest of these "manuals" are the rules for monastic living by Pai-chang, but they are lost now and the oldest existing manual for life in the Sangha is the Zen-en Shingi, from which the "120 Questions" on this web site are taken from. In Japan, there are Dogen Zenji's "Eihei Shingi" ("The Pure Standards of Eihei"), which are still studied and held in deep respect in our school. All these rules and standards are a kind of "manual" for living the 24 hours of the day in a Zen community. Concerning zazen, I have been quoting from a number of manuals for zazen already: old ones like the Fukanzazengi or the Shobogenzo Zazengi for example, but there are also modern versions like our "About Zazen".

The problem with all of these manuals is that you have to know how to read them. The manual is like the map of a certain area. When you want to reach a destination, it is not enough to just think about going to the place of your dreams in your head. What is most important is that you walk on your own feet in the direction you want to go, sometimes crossing an ocean, sometimes entering deep mountains. For this, you need a map. Still, even a map won't help you as long as you don't know where you are on the map, where north, east, south and west are, or where this river or that mountain corresponds to on the map. You also have to be able to recognize inaccuracies on the map. So, in short: To learn about Zen or practice from a manual, you also have to learn how to read the manual.

At the end of the "Gakudoyojinshu", Dogen Zenji emphasizes the importance of both exerting oneself in zazen (zazen-kufu) and meeting the teacher and hearing/asking for the Dharma (or: being questioned by the Dharma, sanshi-monpo). Actually, zazen-kufu and sanshi-monpo (practicing zazen and meeting the teacher) are like the two sides of the same coin. Practicing zazen is meeting the teacher. On the other hand, though, you can also say that without meeting your teacher you can not practice zazen. That means, that if you want to start with the practice of zazen, you should first look for a good, living teacher and a place of practice. You can not learn zazen from books or on the Internet. For the time being however, I'd like to concentrate on the aspect of practicing zazen, until I get back to the problem of what it means to meet the teacher and question/be questioned by the Dharma.

The following "Instructions for Zazen" by Sawaki Kodo Roshi are a good example for a map that won't help you anything if you don't know how to read it, or - as Dogen Zenji says in the "Gakudoyojinshu" - a medicine that will be poison if you don't know how to deal with the side effects.

Instructions for Zazen

When you enter a zazen hall, it is not just to practice zazen - you also have to keep to the rules of the hall.
First, go to your seat (on the
tan platform) and put your sitting cushion (zafu) down. Then bow toward your seat, turn around and bow the opposite direction. Place your hips on the cushion and get up the platform.
On the platform, place your behind on the
zafu, taking care not to use more than half of it. Don't sit on the full cushion. Your zafu is just as important for your zazen as is the sword for a samurai. It is important that it has the right size and height for your body.
Now place your right foot high up on your left thigh, then place the left foot high up on the right thigh. Your knees should rest firmly on the tatami mat, just like shells that attach themselves to a rock in the ocean.
Next, place your right hand on your left foot, palm facing upwards. Then put the palm of the left hand on top of the right hand, with thumb tips touching each other.
After that, sway your body left and right, making first big movements that gradually become smaller, until after seven or eight movements you settle firmly in the zazen posture. Take one deep breath and relax your shoulders completely. Now, push your lower back forward and the behind so far back that your anus points straight backwards. Resting on your hip bone, your spine should be straight and unmoving.
Stretch your neck as if you tried to pierce with your skull through the ceiling. Draw back the chin until the skin behind your ears starts to hurt. Sitting like this, your nose should be straight above your navel, and your ears straight above the shoulders. Put the tongue against the roof of the mouth, while the back teeth sit on each other. Keep the eyes slightly open and cast them down on the tatami 3 to 4 feet in front of you.
Take care not to pull the inner organs upward. That doesn't mean though that you should exert any force down in your lower belly. The inner organs should rest naturally in the body. If you are too hard on your organs, you'll become sick. Breathe naturally. If you have difficulties to breathe, this caused by an unreasonable strain.
Make sure that your hips are always bend forward and your consciousness is in a state of tension. Don't forget that the vital point of zazen lies in the hip/waist (
koshi) area.
You should always be alert. Don't make such a sleepy face - you look like a ball of cotton wool! Pull back the chin and make a lively face. If you feel sleepy, have someone hit you with the wake-up stick (
kyosaku) on the right shoulder.

So this is one map of zazen. What do we have to keep in mind when we look at this map? Although it should be clear that Zen is nothing for "flower children", first of all we might still be surprised by Sawaki's militant tone:
"Your zafu is just as important for your zazen as is the sword for a samurai."
"Make sure that your hips are always bend forward and your consciousness is in a state of tension."
And finally: "Don't make such a sleepy face - you look like a ball of cotton wool! Pull back the chin and make a lively face. If you feel sleepy, have someone hit you with the wake-up stick (kyosaku) on the right shoulder."

When Sawaki Roshi puts zazen into a nutshell, he often express it with a military command: "Cease fire!" But I think this isn't much more than a question of style. To understand Sawaki's style, we have to consider the time when he lived and the audience he was talking to. From the characters that the Japanese original of the instructions above are written with, it is quite obvious that they date back from during or even before WW2. And it is also quite clear that he is not talking to Zen monks here, but to lay people, maybe college students, that have never before done zazen and quite possibly were not motivated to do zazen in the first place: It used to be (and still is) common for schools or companies to send their students or employees to zen sittings to have the monks discipline them. Of course all of the listeners are Japanese.

So this is what we have to take into consideration when we take a first look at the map. Japanese will make a different use of these "Instructions for Zazen" than westerners will. As a westerner, I have most difficulties with phrases like
"Push your lower back forward and the behind so far back that your anus points straight backwards."
"Draw back the chin until the skin behind your ears starts to hurt."
"Your consciousness has to be in a state of tension."

I think it is impossible to bend your hips so far forward that your anus is actually pointing straight backwards. If you keep on trying this, you will only ruin your lower back and eventually suffer from spinal hernia. Also, you won't be able to sit in zazen for long if you pull back your chin so far that "the skin behind your ears starts to hurt". And although it is said that you should "take one deep breath and relax your shoulders completely", why do you have to "make sure that your hips are always bend forward and your consciousness is in a state of tension"? This seems to be exactly what Sawaki calls "an unreasonable strain" that will cause difficulties to breathe and will make you sick sooner or later.
I think one reason why I feel this way is because I am a westerner. Westerners are usually quite tense. When I instruct people to do zazen, I do teach them the importance of bending the hips forward and drawing the chin backwards (two points that aren't mentioned in the Fukanzazengi or the Shobogenzo Zazengi), and I will also mention the fact that they have to be prepared for a lot of pain and inner turmoil, but then I will rather say that you must not be tense - neither in body nor in your mind, that you have to let go, that you should not fight against the pain, but rather accept the feeling of pain as it is, that means that you relax in the pain. The problems for us westerners who have stiff bodies and are inflexible in our heads as well, is how we can let go off those tensions and strains, how we can relax in this posture, how we can accept the pain in our legs and our backs.

Japanese, on the other hand, are more flexible - both physically as well as mentally. Because they are more flexible, they are less likely to strain themselves. At the same time, they often appear to be less serious too. Therefore the biggest problem for Japanese during zazen is not too much tension, but rather sleepiness. Westerners might ask themselves how it is possible for the Japanese to sleep in such a painful posture in the first place - they might even become jealous of them. But for the Japanese, the problem is real - especially if the decision to praticipate in zazen was not their own, but made by their parents or theit boss at work. Anyone who has seen the phenomenon of a commuter train filled with sleeping Japanese (that all seem to wake up miraculously at the point of their destination) will know that for a Japanese it is quite natural to fall asleep as soon as he is in a situation where his outside environment doesn't call for his attention - regardless if he is sitting, standing or lying down. Maybe it is because we were hunters in the old times and even now are always in a "fighting mode" that in the West we will say things like "relax!" or "take it easy", while Japanese are more peaceful and balanced but on the other hand seem to quickly become dull and easily slack down. Therefore they will be send to work by their wifes, saying: "Fight with all your might!" Quite often Japanese will say to each other during the day "fight!", "persevere!" or even "let's put our lifes at stake and do it!" (but no-one seems to take it serious), and in this light it is also understandable that Sawaki Roshi urges: "Don't make such a sleepy face - you look like a ball of cotton wool! Pull back the chin and make a lively face. If you feel sleepy, have someone hit you with the wake-up stick (kyosaku) on the right shoulder."

I think there are few westerners who are conscious of the faces they make during zazen, but for many Japanese - especially beginners in zazen that are not used to just being alert without any object to concentrate on - it might be necessary to turn their attention to their outward appearance in order to not lose their consciousness completely and fall asleep. So I think it is less Sawaki Roshi's military background than his "grandmotherly heart" that makes him give the instructions above.
Still, just as he says that "that you should not exert any force down in your lower belly - the inner organs have to rest naturally in the body", this should be true for all parts of the body-and-mind. Nowhere should there be a strain, and whatever tension there is, it must be natural and just right, like the bow that you use to shoot an arrow. To find this state of right balance is what I call "adult practice" - if you need someone to tell you that "you look like a ball of cotton wool! ... have someone hit you with the wake-up stick!" all the time, you are just a kid that is disciplined by a parent.

The "Instructions for Zazen" that I quoted this month come from a copied paper that I found in the Antaiji library. There are two other such manuals by Sawaki Roshi, one from the appendix of "Zendan", the other from a Soto-Zen-booklet that is a slightely altered version of the "Zendan" instructions. I want to study those instructions from next month on.

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