Why We Do Zazen
In our daily lives we rarely experience peace. One moment we are worried by some or other trivial matter; the next we are beside ourselves with anger over something else.
Thus it is that our minds are forever swinging this way and that. At the same time, we never know what is going to happen to us. Losing a job, going bankrupt, witnessing the death of a loved one - there are moments when we feel crushed by pain and grief.

On such occasions, so as to be able to make clear judgements, it is essential we have control over our mental faculties.

Through zazen, body and breath are regulated; thoughts become ordered; and we ridourselves of the confusion caused by the ego. In a word, we attain to what is called in Japanese, mu no kokoro - the Mind of Emptiness.

The Buddhist truth of Emptiness doesn't mean vacuity. If we were to use an analogy, it's like water - able to adapt itself to any shape. It is in the nature of life that good days are followed by bad ones. However, with the discovery that our original self is Emptiness, we are able to respond freely and appropriately to each new situation.

To put it another way. Established in Emptiness, and freed from notions of gain and loss, like and dislike etc, our minds no longer swing this way and that and we live at one with whatever we encounter.

 
Clothing and Posture
In doing zazen, the main thing is not to feel constricted. Outer garments should be removed and belts loosened. Accessories, watches and other such items of jewellery should be taken off; socks and stockings too. For women, trousers are desirable, but if skirts are worn, loose-fitting ones are better.
 
There are two ways to cross the legs for zazen. In the full-lotus position, each leg is folded over the other. In the half-lotus, only one leg is folded over - the other is folded underneath. The full-lotus position is difficult for beginners for whom the half-lotus is recommended.
 
The way to sit for zazen is as follows.
Before sitting down on your cushions perform gassho. For gassho, the hands are held in front of the chest with palms and fingers lightly pressed together. In gassho, facing away from the cushions, make a bow and sit down in the ordinary cross-legged position.

Next, with both hands take hold of one foot and bring it towards your middle, laying it on the opposite thigh. The sole of the foot will then be facing upwards. Compose the body in such a way that both knees are in contact with the cushion. This is now the half-lotus position.

 
With your right hand, lightly take hold of your left thumb so that the two thumbs are crossed. Next, enclose the fingers of your right hand with the fingers of your left, and rest both hands in a natural position against your middle. Your elbows should be away from your body and your shoulders relaxed.
 
Having attended to your legs and hands, gently move your body back and forth and from side to side until you find the most natural stable position. Stretching the small of your back, push your belly forwards. Your nose and navel, ears and shoulders should be aligned as in the diagram.
 
After looking to the front for a moment, allow your glance to fall to the floor a metre and half or so in front of you and half close your eyes. Do not close your eyes completely or permit them to wander. Make sure your jaw muscles are not clenched and keep your lips together. Your tongue should be in contact with the hard palate behind your upper front teeth.
 
Breathing for Zazen
The practice of slowly breathing in and out to regulate the flow of air and calm the mind is called chosoku in Japanese. To do this you need to breathe using your abdomen. As you inhale and exhale through your nose, try to make your breathing as deep and calm as possible.

Next, become aware of the area about three centimetres below your navel. This spot is known as the tanden in Japanese. Concentrate your attention here and exhale using your abdominal muscles. When you have exhaled completely, relax the tension in your tanden and breathe in. Repeating this over and over again, you will find when you are well practised that you need perform only a few breathing cycles each minute.

When we are impatient or agitated our breathing becomes quicker and shallower as only the upper part of the chest is used. But breathing slowly and deeply into the abdominal region we sense the new air reach into every corner of the body and the mind becomes relaxed.
 
When familiar with breathing deeply with the tanden, practise counting the breath. This is called susokkan in Japanese. Starting from "one", silently count the word in two parts as you perform the two halves of the breathing cycle. So with "one", exhaling, count "wall\", and inhaling, continue "---ner". Next, "too\" exhaling, and "\ooo" inhaling.
And so on up to "ten" ("te\ner\"). When you have reached "ten", start at "one" again.
Continue in this fashion with your mind intently focussed on your counting all the while you are sitting.

Inevitably, as you practise you will find that all kinds of stray thoughts enter your mind and you forget to carry on with the counting. This is quite normal. When you realise what has happened, simply stop following the thoughts and go back to "one" again.

Over time as you continue with this practice, putting all your concentration into consciously counting the breaths, you find your zazen arrives at a more mature condition. Now, as you focus on the counting, your consciousness of doing so disappears. Breathing, counting and you yourself have become one. With mind and body, as it is said, empty, you attain to a deepened acceptance of reality and see the world as it truly is.

 

Normally we count the length of time it takes for a stick of incense to burn through as one period of zazen. (This takes 50 minutes to an hour). However, it is unreasonable to expect beginners to be able to sit right away for long periods, so they should aim first of all to manage about 10 or 20 minutes, or at least as long as it is possible to maintain correct posture, breathing and concentration.

At the end of the period of zazen, calmly press your hands together again in gassho for a moment, and without haste uncross your legs and stand up.

 
 

 

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