Mind and Zazen


The following is a written record of a zazen instruction class given by Shohaku Okumura to a group of students. Okumura Roshi is the head priest and founder of Sanshin Zen Community located in Bloomington, Indiana.

There are many traditions of Buddhism, and each tradition has its own approach to meditation practice. My practice was developed within the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, so what I will tell you about meditation is only from the perspective of that tradition. If you think my style of practice is not for you, you do not have to think that all types of meditation are not for you; there exist many other methods of meditation and spiritual paths that you can explore besides the one I will present to you.

In our tradition we call this meditation zazen. In Japanese za means “sitting” and zen means “meditation”. There are three important points of practice in sitting meditation. The frst one is harmonizing the body, the second is harmonizing the breath, and the third is harmonizing the mind. Body, breath, and mind are the three most important points of practice in meditation.

First I will explain how to harmonize the body. In almost all Buddhist traditions one sits in a cross-legged posture during meditation. If you are able to sit in a cross-legged position during zazen that is fne, but if it that is too painful for you it is alright, too; sitting cross-legged is not strictly necessary for meditation. For the half-lotus position, put either foot on top of the opposite thigh, and place the other foot on the foor underneath the other thigh. Please make sure that both knees are on the foor because this makes the posture stable. If possible, put each foot on the opposite thigh with the line of the toes matching the outer line of the thighs. This is called the full lotus position and it is the most balanced and stable posture because the weight of the body, like a teapot’s, is supported at three points: the two knees and the buttocks. This is the most stable position for sitting, though “most stable” does not mean “most comfortable” for many people. Sit in full lotus if you are able, but if that is too painful you may also sit in half lotus, with just one foot on the opposite thigh.

Another sitting position you can use is called Burmese; in this position you put both feet on the foor. But still the important point is that both of the knees are on the foor. So whether in Burmese, half lotus, or full lotus, the important point is to make a solid stable foundation with the knees and buttocks that supports the upper part of the body. If these cross-legged positions are diffcult for you, you may wish to sit in the posture called seiza. In this posture you sit with both knees straight in front of your body and the buttocks rests on a cushion with the feet on either side of it. Seiza is the posture traditionally used in Japan for regular sitting in daily life. If that posture is too uncomfortable you can use a meditation bench or a chair.

After crossing your legs (if you are sitting in a cross-legged posture) and before adjusting your posture, sway your body several times from left to right, starting with a large movement that gradually decreases in size. We do this is to relax the muscles. Lean the upper body forward while keeping the legs in place, and return the torso to center without moving your lower back. This will create a natural curvature in the lower back. Then pull your chin in so your neck is straight. You should feel as if the top of your head and the center of your buttocks are within the same vertical line. The horizontal line connecting your ears and the horizontal line connecting your shoulders should be parallel, and the vertical line connecting your nose and belly should be straight. The important point of this posture is to keep the body upright and well balanced; try not to lean in any direction, neither right nor left, neither forward nor backward. If your body is not straight your back will be bent and sitting for a long time will create pain at the point where the spine is bent. It is important to fnd a natural position for yourself in sitting. The body should be thoroughly straight, yet the muscles should be relaxed, not tense. Finally, when your posture becomes really upright, be still, take in one deep breath through your nose, and then exhale completely through your mouth to help you really settle into the posture. Adopting this posture is how we harmonize the body.

When we sit we keep the eyes open. In some traditions the eyes are closed in meditation, but in our tradition we keep the eyes open. Direct your vision about three feet in front of your body, and your eyes will naturally come to rest in position that is half opened and half closed. When doing zazen in the meditation hall, we sit facing the wall. Try not to focus on anything; just keep your eyes open without directing your gaze on any particular object.

Next I will explain how to hold your hands in zazen. First put the top of your right hand on the palm of your left hand, overlapping the fngers. Now make an oval by touching the tips of the thumbs together at about the height of your navel. This is called the cosmic mudra. In this position the right hand and the left hand, the two sides, come together and become one. This is the meaning of the mudra; it is beyond duality, just as the body becomes truly one thing in zazen. If you place your hands too low or too high in making the mudra, you may experience tension in your shoulders or neck. It is therefore important to fnd the best height to hold the mudra for your particular body. If you fnd it helpful, you can put a towel on your lap and place your hands on it. In the same fashion, some practitioners that wear robes with big sleeves arrange those sleeves on their laps as a foundation for the mudra. When we see the shape of our hands in zazen as we make the mudra, we can see the condition of our minds. If your mind is somewhere else when you sit, naturally the shape of this oval becomes distorted. As a way to stay mindful, attempt to keep the hands stable with the mudra in tact.

In review, the important point is to make a stable foundation for zazen with the lower half of your body. Also, keep the back straight, lower your eyesight three feet in front of your body, and hold your hands in the cosmic mudra. This is how we sit in zazen.

Next I will explain how to breathe in zazen; breathing is one of the most important points in any kind of meditation practice. When your posture is stable, frst exhale from the mouth completely, letting the air inside your body completely out. When you have completely exhaled, you close your mouth, place your tongue on the roof of you mouth, and inhale through your nose. When you do this, you will feel the fresh air come in through your nose. Also, when you sit in meditation, breathe abdominally. Keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth, breathe easily and naturally with the air coming into your body through your nose and down to your abdomen,. When we breathe in this way, the belly moves as the air comes in and as it goes out. Keep the breath deep, smooth, and peaceful. It is best if the exhalation is longer than the inhalation in zazen. Just slowly and completely exhale all of the air, and then air will naturally come back into your lungs. It is not necessary to make any special effort to regulate your breathing; just keep breathing naturally through the nose, so naturally that you forget about breathing. In some traditions, sometimes even in the Zen tradition, some teachers teach the meditation technique of counting the breath. In this method the practitioner counts the breaths from one to ten, repeating the count over again after each series of ten breaths. Some teachers also teach watching the breath – paying special attention to the air as it comes in and goes out of the body. In my tradition we don’t count or watch the breath, we just breathe naturally, deeply and quietly.

Of course even when we sit breathing quietly in this posture many things happen within the mind. In zazen we simply allow any thought, feeling or emotion to come up and then we simply let them go away; we actually do nothing. In sitting, any thought or condition of mind is like a cloud in the sky. Somehow clouds appear in the sky, changing form as they stay for a while, and then they disappear. Similar to clouds in the sky, any thought that appears in zazen simply stays for a while and then disappears. I have been practicing this style of meditation for more than 35 years, and in my experience, no thought stays in the mind forever. Everything is coming and going, and we just let things come up freely and let them go away freely. We don’t try to fght against our thoughts or any other mental condition, and we don’t try to interact with them, either. The intention is not to grasp what is coming up from your consciousness. We actually do nothing but let the things happening within the mind just fow. Yet when you become aware that you are interacting with what is happening in your mind, just stop interacting and return to the zazen posture while breathing with the eyes open. That means you let go of whatever thoughts come up, and you also don’t sleep. This is the point in our sitting practice.

Yet if you try to sit in this way for just ten minutes, you will fnd it is really diffcult. It is diffcult for even ten minutes to continually keep this upright posture, keep your eyes open without focusing on anything, and keep letting go of whatever arises in your mind. It is exceedingly diffcult to do nothing, and zazen is essentially doing nothing but sitting. The founder of our tradition, Zen master Eihei Dogen, called this practice shikantaza. Shikantaza means “just sitting” in Japanese, and to just sit means that we really only sit without doing anything else. This is a really simple practice; we do nothing but sit in the zazen posture breathing easily, keeping the eyes open, staying awake, and letting go. That’s all we do in zazen; we do nothing else. Yet even if you try to sit just fve minutes in this way you will fnd it really diffcult.

This practice is very simple but simple does not necessarily mean easy. So whenever we become aware that we have deviated from that point of upright posture, deep breathing, keeping the eyes open without focusing, and letting go of whatever comes up, we try to return to that point. In whatever condition we fnd ourselves in, we just return to posture, breathing, waking up, and letting go. That is what we do in meditation.

When we begin and when we finish zazen we do gassho. To do gassho is to put both hands together, at chest height, and bow. This expresses respect, friendship and gratitude.

At the end of a period of meditation, unfold your legs and notice how they feel before you get up. If your legs have fallen asleep, take your time standing up until you feel comfortable doing so.

When we sit more than one period of zazen, between periods we do a walking meditation for ten minutes that is called kinhin in Japanese.

Talk given by Shohaku Okumura at the Stillpoint Zen Center in Pittsburgh:

Posture, breathing and mind are the three most important points in our practice. This morning I’d like to talk about mind in our zazen or meditation. Actually, we do nothing with our mind. Why we do nothing is a very important point in understanding the meaning of our practice. I think Uchiyama Roshi is one of the few people who could explain why in an understandable way for modern people. So I’d like to share his teaching with you this morning about the quality or nature of our sitting meditation practice.

In “Opening the Hand of Thought,” as a conclusion or explanation of how to sit and how to breathe, he said doing correct zazen “means taking the correct posture and entrusting everything to it.” It seems very simple, and yet it’s not easy.

So it is with our mind. We are usually doing something with our mind. We are always like a hunter. We want to hunt something, and we have tools to catch it. When we have some object or gain, we think, “What is the best way to get it?” When we don’t have an object, how we can catch it? That’s a problem. And we are confused about it.

Not only in the practice of zazen but in Buddhist teachings, the basic philosophy or understanding about reality is: no separation between self and others, subject and object. And since we are a hunter, there’s an object and subject. As far as we are in that kind of relationship with the object or things we want, we are against the basic philosophy of Buddhism. Even when the gain is enlightenment or reality or peace of mind, if it’s a gain or object, our attitude is going against the philosophy of emptiness. Emptiness means no subject and no object, everything working together. So actually this is one life, and there’s no one who is hunting and who is hunted.

In our meditation, the whole is our life. When we want to attain peacefulness of mind or some kind of insight or wisdom, that is ourselves. The one who wants to do it is ourselves, so both subject and object are ourselves. And also in the case of meditation, we meditate and the object of meditation is reality or truth or nirvana or our true self. If we watch our true self, like we’re watching the mirror, what we can see is only the reflection. We cannot see this person. So actually, subject cannot be seen. It’s simple reality. We cannot see our eyes. This is a difficult point to understand and to practice. The problem is ourselves, and our intention to see it. We have to be very careful about this, and how we can deal with it. That is a main point to understand our practice.

Our practice is a really unusual, unique practice. We have no object to watch or meditate. So actually, our sitting practice is not meditation or contemplation, because there is no object.

It’s really important to first have a kind of intellectual understanding about what our practice is. When we sit on the cushion, we should forget about it, and just sit. It’s the same as when we drive a car, or when we learn how to drive a car. First we have to study about the parts of the car, and how to deal with it. But when we really drive a car, we should forget about that knowledge, and just drive.

The same is true for our meditation practice. First we have to understand it. When we really practice, we should forget it and just sit. Intellectual understanding is also important in our practice. While we are in the zazen position, if we continue our thoughts, we are thinking and no longer doing zazen. So we have to think before we sit and practice zazen, or after we stand up. Uchiyama Roshi says: “Zazen is not thinking; nor is it sleeping. Doing zazen is to be full of life aiming at holding a correct zazen posture.” Thinking and sleeping, or in Dogen Zenji’s expression, dullness and destruction, are two problems in our zazen.

Uchiyama Roshi says that if we become sleepy while doing zazen, our energy becomes dissipated and the body limp. If we pursue our thoughts, our posture will become stiff. He writes: “Zazen is neither being limp and lifeless nor being stiff. Our posture must be full of life and energy.” So in our zazen, we should be really awake and full of energy. Zazen is not thinking and not sleeping, just being there.

And he says, this posture of not chasing after thinking and not being sleepy is important, not only in our zazen but in our day-to-day lives, too. He says it’s like driving a car. If the driver is drunk, sleepy, or nervous, this too is dangerous. Being too caught up in our thinking while we are driving is also dangerous, because we don’t see things around ourselves.

This really applies to any kind of work, any activity. The life force should be neither stagnant, or dull, nor rigid. It should be relaxed, awake and relaxed. The most essential thing is that our life force live to its fullest potential. Zazen is the most condensed form of life functioning as wide awake life.

The practice that directly and purely manifests that life is the most crucial thing in our life, and at the same time, a tremendous task. It’s not an easy thing. You need to be really mindful, not too caught up in thinking or not sleepy. Then we can be aware of things happening inside and outside of ourselves. This is really difficult because we want to know the effect or result or benefit we get from that. When we are thinking benefit, then our zazen becomes object again-self and others, subject and object, separated. We cannot observe it. We can just keep doing.

Often when we try to understand, we have to use language. The basic function of language-thinking, using words and concepts-is separation. So there’s a basic contradiction between our outer life, which is one with all beings, and thinking. Even when we think that we are one with all beings, still we separate from the idea that we are separate from all beings. There is no way to become one by using words. The only possible way is by using negative expressions-something like “not two.” That’s why Buddhist or Zen phrases or expressions are paradoxical or negative. Only by negating our thinking or intellection can we express the reality before separation of subject and object.

When our discriminating mind tries to understand what zazen is or is “good” for, then zazen becomes the object and we become the subject. If we look at it that way, then we are already thinking. That is really a problem. In zazen, there is no self-observation and no self-evaluation. We need to go beyond this subject-and-object dichotomy.

In “Opening the Hand of Thought,” Kosho Uchiyama Roshi writes: “When we actually do zazen, we should be neither sleeping nor caught up in our own thought. We should be wide-awake -aiming at the correct posture with our flesh and bones. Can we ever attain this? Is there such a thing as succeeding or hitting the mark? This is where zazen becomes unfathomable.” We cannot measure or observe it. We cannot say: “My zazen is getting better.” If we say it that way, we are already thinking, it’s not zazen. It’s the same as when we are sleeping. We sleep almost one third of our life, and yet we cannot say, “I am asleep.” We can say, “I want to sleep” or “I’m sleepy.” If I say I’m sleeping, I’m not sleeping. Zazen is the same thing.

Uchiyama Roshi writes: “In zazen, we have to vividly aim at the correct posture, yet there is never a mark to hit. Or at any rate, the person who is doing zazen should never perceive whether he has hit the mark or not.” If we perceive it, we’re already thinking and we’re already off the mark. When we are hitting the mark, there is no perception. We are just sitting.

Uchiyama Roshi says, “If the person doing zazen thinks he is really getting good or that he has hit the mark, he’s merely thinking his zazen is good, while actually, he has become separated from the reality of his zazen.” Yet that is what we all want to do. We want to make sure we are in the correct zazen. We want to make sure this is good for me, that this practice is meaningful for my life. Unless we believe it or think this way, it’s really difficult to practice zazen. So before we sit, we have to really try to understand this point.

Uchiyama Roshi says that when we have a target we can aim. But if we know that there isn’t a target, who is going to attempt to aim? I think all of us know why we have to sit, just aiming without hitting the target. It is because the person hitting and the target are the same thing.

This is not only true in zazen. Say we are running. The action of running and the person running is one thing. What can zazen be unless it is this person? This person is zazen itself. And what is zazen unless it is this person sitting? Zazen and the person sitting really is one thing. There is no separation. But when we explain it, we have to say I am “doing” zazen. In that case, there’s a concept of we and a concept of action-zazen or sitting. But in actuality, there’s no action without this person and no person without this action.

Our zazen is based on the essential philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism-that is, emptiness. Emptiness means no self and no other. Everything is connected as one thing. All beings are connected to each other. All beings interpenetrate each other. There’s no separation between subject and object, particularly in our zazen. The subject is this person, and the object is also this person.

We practice zazen with this body and mind, but we can’t practice zazen if we don’t think about sitting. We are here because we want to sit, and we think sitting is good. I came from Minnesota to sit together with you, and the reason why I’m here is I think zazen is good for me to practice. Without thinking we can’t take any action, but once we make up our mind we should do our action with moment by moment awareness.

There is a Zen expression: “Break through the bottom of the bucket.” In zazen, the bottom of our thinking drops out. It’s like a ladle of water running through a strainer. We have to break through the bottom of the bucket, and yet, according to Uchiyama Roshi, zazen is not a method to break through to anything. Usually we think it is. We practice in order to attain a certain stage of mind that is free from thinking. If our zazen is a means to break through the bottom of the bucket, then there’s a target. That’s the problem. That is a common idea in Zen-we have to break through our thinking, and our zazen is a method to do it. If we practice in that way, already there is a target and the basis of our practice is hitting that target-that is to break through our thinking. That is a contradiction. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction, in the correct posture, not thinking and not sleeping.

There’s no target, no way we can judge whether we are doing good zazen, there is no way we can make sure if this practice is good for us or not. This is a basic contradiction in our zazen. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction. That is our practice. Although we aim, we can never perceive hitting the mark. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction that is absolutely ridiculous when we think about it with our small minds.

Sawaki Roshi is my teacher’s teacher. One of his most famous sayings is “Zazen is good for nothing.” It’s difficult to sell something that is good for nothing. It’s like selling you the air. When we practice this kind of zazen and just sit, how unsatisfied or completely lost we may feel. Our zazen is not an easy thing.

There are many different traditions in Buddhism. The Theravada tradition in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. The Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and the Vajrayana Tradition in Tibet. Each school has its own approach to meditation, and what it means to practice meditation. In Buddhism, skillful means are important. Those different paths are considered to be skillful means to encourage people not to stop practice. Teachers and teachings show a kind of a goal that encourages practice, and when a student reaches that stage, the teacher shows the next goal. That’s the way a student practices with encouragement. That’s the meaning of stages in Buddhist practice, but Dogen Zenji says our practice is very unique. He doesn’t use this kind of skillful means.

If a person is just thrown in the ocean without knowing how to swim, there is no step-by-step instruction. In the midst of the ocean of the Dharma, we have to learn how to swim by ourselves. We have serious problems in each moment when we practice in this way. We always have to be questioning. We always have to inquire about what we are doing, and whether our practice is heading in the right direction or not.

In our practice, the function of the teacher is different from the Rinzai school. In Rinzai, teacher and student sit facing each other and the teacher gives a question, and the student answers. In our practice, the teacher doesn’t face the student. Uchiyama Roshi says, “I never face my students and watch them, but I am facing Buddha.” And we face Buddha as well. As a practitioner, we have to walk with our own two feet in the same direction our teacher is walking.

In our practice there’s no goal, no target to hit. We don’t feel safe. But Uchiyama Roshi says this is the most important and wonderful part of our practice. When we are confused, and insecure, that is the best thing: “This small foolish self easily becomes satisfied or complacent. We need to see complacency for what it is-just a continuation of the thoughts of our foolish self.” If we feel satisfied, we should question whether we are doing the right thing or not. When we are doing things based on my thinking, my desire, and even if our desire is desire to be enlightened, to be free from our egocentricity, from ourselves, there’s a basic contradiction. This desire or aspiration which makes us practice is in a sense an obstruction in our practice. The goal of Buddhist practice is to be free from ego. Our desire to be free from ego comes out of ego. That is a problem. How we can go beyond this desire even to become Buddha?

This is really an essential point in our practice. Dogen Zenji said we should give up even the aspiration to become Buddha in our zazen. And this is the meaning of just sitting. When we practice in this way, just aiming at and letting go even of the aspiration to be enlightened, then Buddhahood is there. When we are actually doing that letting go, then Buddha nature is truly revealed. When we give up our gaining mind, then our true life force arises and is actualized.

He concludes by saying: “It is precisely at the point where our small foolish self remains unsatisfied, or completely bewildered, that the immeasurable natural life beyond the thought of that self functions. It is precisely at the point where we become completely lost that life operates and the power of Buddha is actualized.”

This is a really important point. Keep this in your mind, when you practice or whenever you read Buddhist texts. Then you will find out what this means. And please don’t think about this when you sit.

Some questions asked by those who received zazen instruction:

How long do you usually sit?

In our zendo we sit two 50-minute periods in the early morning, with ten minutes of walking meditation between periods. We usually sit from 5AM to 7AM six days a week. But fve times a year we have a kind of a intensive retreat called sesshin. During sesshin we sit fourteen of these 50-minute periods a day, from 4 in the morning until 9 in the evening, for fve days. There is a short break after each of the three meals, but other than that we just keep repeating the periods of sitting and walking meditation fourteen times a day. It is very quiet, and for some people it is very boring.

What do you notice changes in your life after practicing?

When I started practicing I was nineteen years old, so I don’t really know what difference the practice has made. Everything was changing in my life as I was growing as teenager and becoming an adult. I changed a lot, but I don’t know whether this change was a result of my meditation practice or a result of something else, so I cannot really tell you. I will tell you a very famous saying of my teacher’s teacher, Kodo Sawaki-roshi. He said that zazen is good for nothing. I hope you like that statement.

As one progresses in their practice how does their awareness change?

Awareness? Well in our practice the point of sitting is being right here, right now. Often, though we are sitting in the zazen posture, in that moment of sitting the mind is somewhere else. Being mindful means that both the body and the mind are present right here, right now. Our practice is returning to this moment, right now, right here, with both the body and the mind. Depth or progress of awareness is not important in our practice. Depending upon the age of the person and how long he or she has been sitting, of course, mental conditions are different, but that is not important in our practice. In our practice the most important point is being fully present, right now, right here. That’s all. So our goal is coming back to this moment, to this place.

In the process of doing meditation do you notice special things in your mind? Like what you can see because you meditate, something beyond just thoughts?

When we sit for long periods of time, of course we experience all different kinds of mental conditions. Sometimes we experience some really weird things, or sometimes it seems as if we are in a daydream. Sometimes, especially when frst beginning this sitting practice, we struggle with pain. Sometimes we may be extremely sleepy, and sleeping in this posture is something very different from sleeping in a bed. This is because when we are sitting zazen we try to stay awake when we are sleepy, though the body wants to sleep. This is a struggle between body and mind. The depths of sleepiness and awakening vary a lot. Sometimes we are one hundred percent sleeping, sitting in this posture. Sometimes we are half-awake and half-asleep; other times we are very awake. Within this sleepiness we experience many different kinds of mental conditions. So it may be dangerous if we interpret any particular mental condition as enlightenment. Sometimes this world becomes very bright, and sometimes a person may feel he or she understands everything. It may seem at this time that there is no doubt or question remaining about anything; everything is okay as it is. But that is just a condition arising from the states of the body, mind, temperature, humidity and all other conditions of our lives. These conditions are not the important point of our practice. Our practice is to keep an upright posture in any condition; we just go through all conditions. As I said earlier, the conditions of our minds while sitting are like clouds in the sky. Sometimes we have no clouds at all with a completely blue sky, and this is very beautiful. More often we have different kinds of clouds coming and going. Sometimes more than half of the sky is covered with clouds, and sometimes the entire sky is completely covered with clouds, or even storms arise. There are many different kinds of conditions we must sit through in zazen, but the purpose of our practice does not include controlling the weather. The important point is to maintain this upright posture in whatever conditions we encounter. To do so we need a kind of faith. We must live beneath the clouds, but above the clouds the sun is always shining and the sky is always blue. We cannot live up in the sky; we must to go through all the different conditions of weather we encounter. The important point is to maintain this upright posture and go through all conditions.

How does getting rid of attachment effect your lifestyle? Do you try to live very frugally or how does it effect your day to day life?

Being free from attachment is a very important point in all Buddhist teachings. When we sit zazen, many different kinds of thoughts come up. We may think some thoughts are really good ideas, yet in zazen we have to let go of them; we open the hand of thought. Whether we like our ideas or whether we experience negative feelings about something, we try to let go because that is zazen. I think this letting go is the way we are free from our clinging, our preferences, our systems of value, and our ways of thinking. This zazen itself is freedom from attachment.