Temple of Peace

Lotus in the fire
July and August 2012

What to do with your face?
(Adult practice - Part 58)

What happens inside the mouth?
Place your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Breathe through your nose. Your lips and jaw should be closed.
Another quote from Dogen Zenji's Zazengi. Although it is a very short text, Dogen Zenji pays a lot of attention to detail. That you close your mouth and breathe through the nose makes sense. Breathing is what the nose is made for. Also, when you are sitting in a group, breathing through your mouth might be disturbing for your neighbours, as you tend to make more noise that way. The position of the tongue in the mouth though is one of those details that many teachers, including myself, usually do not bother to mention when explaining about zazen. Why would Dogen Zenji bother?

One possible explanation is the flow of ki (chin. chi, 氣): According to some teachers, meditation will make your ki, some kind of vital energy, circulate in your body. Starting in the navel area, the ki is supposed to move upwards the spine, through the neck to the top of the skull, and from there eventually back down the forehead heading towards the breast, and back to the navel. Now, these teachers say, the energy flow needs some kind of "bridge" to get from the forehead down to the chin. To build that kind of bridge, you place the tongue at the roof of the mouth, so that your ki can travel downwards and does not get stuck in your forehead or whatever.

If this explanation makes you happy, good for you. I usually have my doubts about this kind of humbug, and I do not know of any textual evidence that Dogen Zenji himself believed in ki circulating in a special way during zazen. Although he is one of the Buddhist teachers who pays most attention to the physical aspects of practice, he never mentions any ki flow. Of course one could say that the fact that we are alive right now, in this moment, is a proof of vital energy flowing through us. But even if that were the case, I do not see how the positon of my tongue would influence that energy flow. I do not witness a ki traffic jam in my forehaed whenever I keep my mouth open or the tongue is not attached to the roof of the mouth.

From my own experience, it seems to be like this: For whatever reason, when I sit in zazen my body seems to produce more saliva than usual. Maybe it just feels that way, because I usually do not pay any attention, or maybe it is really the case. Whatever, when I place the tongue against the roof of the mouth, the saliva runs down my throat naturally. When I do not do this, I have to swallow a lot, sometimes several times a minute (and it does not seem that I swallow that much during the other times of the day). So the reason why Dogen Zenji recommends placing the tongue against the roof of the mouth might be a very simple, practical one: Not does it keep the ki running, but the saliva.

Also, here is a quote from a Japanese dentist which i found here: (in Japanese)
"The position of the tongue is very important. If the tongue is placed between the upper and lower teeth, or is touching the back of the lower teeth, we speek of a "bad tongue habit". The main cause of such a bad habit is breathing through the mouth, for example when someone has a nasal congestion because of an allergy or other reasons. Breathing through the mouth leads to a wrong "tongue habit", but it can also happen that when someone already has developed a wrong tongue habit, that this habit now becomes the cause of breathing through the mouth. So the relation between a wrong way of breathing and the wrong positon of the tongue is like hen and egg. It is hard to say which comes first. Now, what would be the right positon of the tongue? First, relax your shoulders. Next, relax your neck and jaws and close the mouth. Where is your tongue now? It should touch the roof of the mouth, with the tip of the tongue sitting behind the upper teeth."
So, we do not need to take recluse to some fancy Far Eastern thoery of ki to explain the importance of the position of the tongue. Even plain old Western school medicine claims that the tongue shoul touch the roof of the mouth, and breathing should be done though the nose.

One thing that might be important to mention is that while Dogen Zenji says that the jaw should be closed, you should not grind your teeth either. This can happen when you mistake "sitting with the determination to die" with "fighting to death". You should not fight when you do zazen. Just let go of everything, and when you feel like you have to die, you accept that as well. For that, you do not have to grind your teeth. Sometimes you do it unconsciously. More than a decade ago, I was wondering why after sesshin, when the pain in the legs and knees had already evaporated, my teeth always hurt? It took me some time until I realized that I was grinding my teeth during zazen, fighting the pain in the legs. It was only after I learned to accept the pain that I was also able to relax the jaw.

How does your mouth look like from the outside? The shape of the mouth during zazen is called shippei-guchi in Japanese, with guchi (kuchi) being the mouth and shippei (竹篦) being a bent staff that is sometimes held by Zen masters, or by the head monk during the dharma combat ceremony. The shape resembles the Japanese hiragana for the syllable "he" (へ). Others say that the shape of the mouth should be rather like the Chinese character meaning "one" (一).

Anyway, I would not recommend that you forcibly try to look grim. On the other hand, there is no need to always have a beatific yoga smile on your lips. I never heard any zen teacher recommend that you smile during zazen. If you are serious about what you are doing, and you are natural at the same time, it will show in the expression of your face.


Focus? Or rather not?
Keep your eyes open, but neither too widely nor too narrowly.
This is all Dogen Zenji has to say about the eyes. Usually it is recommend that you keep them cast downwards by 45 degrees, so you are looking at an area on the floor which is about a meter or so in front of you. If you are sitting right in front of a wall, you will be looking at a spot of that same wall.

One of the few changes I made after I became the abbot here at Antaiji was that I moved the sitting cushions further away from the wall. They used to be about 50 centimeters from the wall, now they are 140 centimeters away. The reason is again simple and practical: If you keep staring at the wall for hours, your eyes start to hurt especially when the wall is close. If you have enough space in front of you that allows you to look down at the floor, when your eyes are cast down at an angle of 45 degrees or even less, you will usually not have that problem. From my experience, the extra space in front of me seems to give me also some extra mental space. I do not enjoy sitting with the wall right in front of my nose. But maybe that is just a personal preference? Maybe not, because in most of the big training monasteries you have a whole tatami (180 centimeters long) between you and the wall. It is only the crowded city dojos where you have to sit right in front of the wall.

How far should you open the eyes? It is sometimes said that they should be kept "half open", although Dogen Zenji never uses that expression (nor do the Chinese Zen masters). In his work "Bendoho", Dogen Zenji puts it like this:

Never close the eyes. When you close them, you will become sleepy. If you always keep them open, a light wind will enter the eyes and wake you up from your drowsiness. Therefore, always keep the eyes open properly. Not too wide, not too narrow, the eyelids should not cover the pupil.
Again, the reason for keeping the eyes open is very simple and practical. When you close them, you tend to day-dream, or think, or just fall asleep. What many people call "meditating" also falls into this category, which is why we usually say that zazen is not meditating, but just sitting. Anyway, you do not have to tear them wide open, nor do you have to somehow consciously aim at having them exaclty "half open". One old commentary (the Shobogenzo-Monge) says:
The eyes do not stare at anything special, just like the eyes of a new born baby

How did Shakyamuni sit under the Bodhi tree? In a sutra it says that
The Buddha sat for seven days in samadhi under the Bodhi tree, viewing with clear eyes, without blinking.
I am not sure if the Buddha actually did not blink for a whole week, or if it is even important if he did or not, but it makes sense that he was sitting with his eyes open. How could Shakyamuni ever reached liberation by seeing the morning star, if had mediated with closed eyes?

Keeping the eyes open helps us to stay awake. On the other hand, in the realm of our five or six senses, the vision seems to take up most space. Especially in the modern world, where many of us connect with the "real world" through the Internet, or the display of our smart phone, visual perception comes first. Only after that we need our accoustic perception, while taste and smell come into play mostly when we eat, and the physical perception is all but forgotten during most of the day. Therefore, even though I agree with Dogen Zenji that we should keep the eyes open to keep us from dreaming, we should not have them too wide open, and we also do not need to make an effort at looking at something during zazen. During zazen, the eyes should see rather than look. When you try to look, you do not see. Only when you stop looking, you start to see. It is just as with happiness, or satori. The moment you stop to run after it, you realize that you never missed anything.

So anyway, you do not have to stare at anything during zazen. Keep the eyes open to keep awake, but do not look at anything. You will see what you need to see, the floor, the wall, people lined up to your left and right, and that is all. No need to "concentrate" on the visual perception either.

Should you focus? Some say yes, because focusing the eyes will focus your mind. For the same reason, I say: Unless you are sleepy, don't! Because focusing on only one point, will keep your mind also restricted to only one thing. If you focus on one point for hours, your eyes will start to hurt as well. By opening up the field of vision, you open up your mind. What is important is that the field of vision should not blur. Therfore, if you wear glasses, it might be a good idea to keep them on. As we saw in the March article, Sawaki Roshi always had his glasses on during zazen, except for only one picture which happens to be the most famous one, seen at the top of the page.

Do not focus, do not look at any one thing, but also keep your eyes open, have a clear vision so that you can see everything. Only when you feel very nervous or agitated, you might keep the eyelids more narrow to calm down. When you feel drowsy on the other hand, from my experience it helps to open the eyes a wider, maybe even trying to focus on one point for a while. While stopping to look consciously helps you to see intuitively, when your problem during zazen is sleepiness, you might rather want to take a good, focused look before you open up and relax. If you are tired and realx right from the start, you will fall asleep in no while.

Rather than always having the eyes "half open", you can adjust your inner attitude by adjusting the eyes. Also, if you are sitting on your own, adjusting the lighting of the room you sit in will help. The darker it is, the easier it will be to calm down, but you always tend to become sleepy or dreamy. The brighter it is, the easier it becomes to wake up, but you will also become more agitated and unfocused. It is the same with the method of concentrating on the thumbs during zazen that I discussed in the March article: You do not have to place them in a special way or make an extra effort to concentrate on them, but sometimes it can be a help to stay awake and in the present moment to place them consciously at the navel and try to keep them there for a whole period of zazen.

The expression on your face
About 15 years ago I was living in a Rinzai monastery where the monks were quite freewheeling with the kyosaku wake-up stick. As a newcomer, I got beaten at least once or twice during each of the zazen periods. After a couple of days, I asked the monk who sat next to me:
"As far as I can tell, I am neither sleeping during zazen nor am I moving. Still I get beaten during each single period. Is there anything I do wrong?"
The answer of my neighbour, who was six months my senior, was very simple:
"It's your face. You have the wrong face!"
At first I was shocked of course. What can I possibly do about my face? At Antaiji, I got critized for a lot of things, but never did anyone tell me that I had the wrong face. What did these Rinzai monks expect me to do? And first of all, wasn't it the inner attitude of zazen that is important? Who cares about the face you make during zazen?

I still do not know what kind of face I made during zazen at that time, but I learned that it made a difference when I tried to look more "samurai-like", with eyes wide open, staring at the kyosaku guy like Toshiro Mifune:

It actually worked! Had I made a face like Sawaki in the picture at the top of the page, where you can hardly tell if the eyes are open or not, the resposible monk would have decided that I am day-dreaming and given me a beating.

But even for Sawaki, the face someone makes is something he comments on regularly. About zazen for example, he says:

"Don't make such a sleepy face - you look like a ball of cotton wool! Pull back the chin and make a lively face."

But it is not only about zazen. Here are more quotes from Sawaki about facial expression:

Humans make an intelligent face while groping around in the dark.

Man makes a clever face and talks about being lord on Earth. And at the same time he doesn’t even know where to begin with his own body: he watches sports on television and defends himself saying that everyone else does it too.

When it isn’t about winning or losing, love or hate, wealth or poverty, people put on a sleepy face.

Take a look sometime at the face of a dog who’s just had sex. He just stares into space with strangely empty eyes. It’s exactly the same with people – in the beginning they work themselves up into a frenzy, and in the end there’s nothing at all.

There’s nothing more unpleasant than staining zazen. “Staining” means making a face like a department head, corporate boss or chairperson. Washing away the stains is what’s meant by “simplicity” [shikan].

The whole world makes a big deal over nothing. What’s it all for? Is there really anything in the world that merits making such a weepy face?

Your explanations and your anecdotes are foolish like everything that comes out of your mouth. The expression on your face has already said how it really is.

In the middle of pure formlessness, there is an ultimate direction. In the same way there is an ultimate facial expression among a person’s facial expressions.

What’s called “having magical powers” doesn’t mean anything more than having a facial expression that isn’t muddled.

The expression that has been translated as "facial expression" in these quotes is kao no kobai (顔の勾配) in Japanese. Kao is face, while kobai literally means "slope". You could say that the face that Sawaki Roshi makes during zazen is a "steep face". Of course zazen is not about imitating Sawaki's face. There are hundreds of practioners out there trying to mimick one or the other famous zazen master, just as I was trying to mimick Mifune. With that, you might fool the kyosaku guy, but you are not doing zazen. On the other hand though, I think it is true that zazen shows on the face. It is probably easier to determine iof you are doing zazen or not by a simple look on your face, than it is for yourself to determine but judging your "inner state of mind". Because our mind is so used to fool itself about itself, while the "expression on your face has already said how it really is."


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