Zazen is a Balance Pose


Someone wrote me this:

So I have a question relating to proper posture. I graduated from massage therapy school about a year and a half ago. It’s taught me to be much more aware of my body, more cognizant of what’s going on.

Recently I’ve noticed some unhealthy things going on with my zazen and I was wondering if you could help me pick the lesser of two evils.

I generally sit Burmese style on a crescent shaped zafu. This has started to really make my knees and ankles hurt. Not the kind of hurt you get from sitting zazen for 30 minutes; the kind of hurt you get when you’re starting to damage a joint. It’s difficult for me to get up and walk after sitting like this.

So I’ve been trying a seiza bench so that I can keep my knees on the ground. This doesn’t hurt my knees or back too badly, but it makes my arms, wrists and hands very uncomfortable. In Burmese posture I rest my hands in the cosmic mudra on my lap. But on the bench I don’t really have a lap, just my thighs that angle away from me toward the floor. This causes my hands to be kinda pressed into my belly above my belt buckle. It makes my shoulders rotate forward, putting undue stress on my rhomboids. At the end of a sitting I’m quite sore from my upper back all the way down to my fingers. My wrists pop loudly and end up very stiff.

So I’m wondering what to do. I can sit on a higher bench, with my legs crossed but my knees off the ground. This will alleviate my upper back and arm pain since my hands can rest in my lap. Or I can sit on the bench, with my knees touching the ground, and put my hands on my thighs without making the mudra.

Is one more desirable than the other?

I answered thusly:

Hmmmmmmm….

I always have a hard time with questions like these because I’ve never had these kinds of difficulties.

The really crucial part of the zazen posture is keeping your spine straight — that is, upright. You’re not trying to make it unnaturally poker straight. It’s a balance pose in which the spine is balanced on the hips. If you’ve done Tree Pose in Yoga, that’s also a balance pose. But you’re standing rather than sitting so it is very clear when you lose balance. In a seated balance pose, you can lose balance and not fall over.

So, I would say focus on that as your criteria. The full lotus posture is recommended because for most people, that’s the best way to achieve a seated balance pose. But if this doesn’t work for you, try adjusting your posture with your main criteria being to keep the spine balanced and erect. What happens with your legs and arms is less crucial. Although, I do believe the standard pose allows for energy to move through the body is a balanced way. So I would try getting as close to that as possible.

OK?

***

This is an example of how I deal with specific questions about posture when they are asked in a specific way by specific people. Giving general posture advice is much trickier because you never know who is reading you and how they’re going to take it.

A lot of the general advice I see handed out these days about meditation and posture seems to be trying really, really, really hard to make it as user friendly and easy as possible. A lot of this advice makes it seem like you can sit any way you want to and everything will be just fine. It’s very soft and huggy and sweet.

I’m never really sure what people are going for when they present it this way. A lot of times it feels to me like they’re just trying to get butts in seats. The easier they make meditation seem, the more people will listen to them and this, in turn, makes their books sell better and gets more people in the door at their retreats.

But not everyone who presents it in this way is so mercenary. I’ve also seen teachers who are concerned that students not injure themselves. Like me, they have no way of knowing who might be reading what they write or watching their YouTube videos and suchlike. There’s always the chance that someone out there in Internet Land or Book Reader Land or wherever either has some serious issue with their knees and legs or is just so gung-ho they’re gonna force themselves into a posture they’re not ready for. Rather than risk encouraging such people to do themselves harm, they tell them that sitting in chairs is also fine.

I struggle with this. I know for a fact and through my own personal experience that the traditional posture is critcal to zazen practice. I’ve also seen a number of people who truly cannot get into that posture but want to do zazen anyway. In my experience, these people always — always — find a way to either do what’s necessary to prepare their bodies for the correct posture or, if that’s not possible, to find some reasonable compromise. Will they get enlightened this way? Beats me! But I think some of them will find what they’re looking for. They have as much chance of that as anyone else.

On the other hand, if they’re not so keen on zazen in the first place they just give it up.

Zazen practice requires a certain degree of commitment. It’s just like anything else worth doing. I try to deal with this the way I’d deal with someone who wanted instructions on how to play bass.

If they had all their fingers, I’d show them the standard method for playing bass and tell them to practice a lot. If they had just one finger on their left hand (and they were right handed) but they were very committed to playing bass in spite of this, I’d try to work with them to find a way to play. Django Reinhardt was a brilliant guitarist who could only use two of the fingers on his left hand. He was committed and found a way.

If, on the other hand, I had a student who had all his fingers but just didn’t want to use them or to practice regularly, I’d tell him to get another teacher. I might even tell him he’s not going to get very far with that attitude. Maybe that’s not what he wants to hear. Maybe he won’t like me for saying that. But hearing it might do him a bit of good.

If I were writing a standard book on bass playing I would tend to pitch it for people with all their fingers who were willing to practice. I’d tell them their fingers might hurt or even bleed a little at first, but that this would go away with continued practice. I’d encourage them not to give up just because it hurts at first. I’d tell them the pain was worthwhile. Because it was for me.

I wouldn’t use up a lot of space in that book dealing with the problems of playing bass with one finger. I would figure that people with special needs like that would find their own way to either make what I wrote work for them, or find someone who could help them individually.

This is how I feel about zazen practice. I think that the vast majority of people can do the standard pose. Some may need to work at it. Others can do it right away. But there’s a reason that pose has been standard for 2,500 years. It is not arbitrary. It is worth working at, if that’s what it takes. I don’t tell the general public it’s fine to use chairs because I don’t think that helps anyone very much. It only encourages people who don’t want to bother with the traditional posture not to work at it. I figure those who actually need to use chairs will find their own way just like a guy who really wants to play bass but only has one finger.

I worked at the posture. It hurt. But it was worthwhile. I’m glad I put in the effort and I’m glad I had a teacher who pushed me to do so, who saw that I could do the posture if I tried.

AND AGAIN, FOR ANYONE WHO PLANS TO YELL AT ME ABOUT FULL LOTUS — THERE ARE TRADITIONAL POSTURES OTHER THAN THE FULL LOTUS, SUCH AS HALF LOTUS AND BURMESE STYLE. SO WHEN I TALK ABOUT THE TRADITIONAL POSTURE I AM NOT TALKING EXCLUSIVELY ABOUT FULL LOTUS.

(Sorry for yelling, but whenever I say anything about the traditional posture I get a dozen commenters screaming bloody murder about full lotus.)

199 Responses

Page 4 of 4
  1. Jesus The Litch
    Jesus The Litch April 9, 2012 at 9:37 am | |

    The words of a talebearer [are] as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.
    Proverbs 26:22

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 9:52 am | |

    can't tell if you are agreeing or disagreeing with 8:17am Mysterion… very Mysterious…

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 11:51 am | |

    mysterion is in his own world kid.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm | |

    Jesus, isn't anybody going to tell me how Dogen said I should clean my ass? Give me chapter and verse, please.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm | |

    The proper way to clean your ass is to have a Tibetan magician give you a Lam Rim job.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm | |

    On Washing Yourself Clean (Senjo)
    Page 79 of PDF, marked page 53 in the original.

    http://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/Shobogenzo.pdf

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 1:35 pm | |

    Thanks for the Shobogenzo link. Here is the pertinent passage: (so this is where the phrase "go pound sand up your ass" comes from!)

    When doing your training under a tree in the forest or out in the open, you
    will not find a privy already built. So, using water from some convenient valley
    stream or river, clean yourself off with sand. Since you do not have any ashes at
    this time to cleanse yourself with, simply use two sets of seven balls of sandy soil.
    The way to use these fourteen balls is as follows: after having removed your robe,
    folded it, and put it aside, you take soil that is sandy [rather than dark earth], shape
    it into balls about the size of a large soybean, and place these atop a stone or some
    other convenient place, with two rows of seven balls each. Then, provide yourself
    with some pebbles that can be used for scouring your hands. After that, you relieve
    yourself. After you have finished relieving yourself, use a wooden or bamboo toilet
    spatula, or some paper, to clean yourself off. You then go to the edge of the water
    to wash. Make sure to take three of the balls with you to clean yourself. Put one of
    the balls in the palm of your hand, add just a little water, mix the ingredients
    together until their consistency is thinner than mud and quite soupy, and begin by
    cleaning off your genitals. Then take another sand ball and, preparing it as before,
    clean off your buttocks. Again, prepare a sand ball as before and, in the same
    manner, clean off your hands.

  8. unjustified condescending attitude
    unjustified condescending attitude April 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm | |

    Are you guys still talking about
    enlightenment?

  9. Less words; more stillness
    Less words; more stillness April 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm | |

    "Note that in the explanatory notes, the translator offers "sitting still"- seated meditation is not sitting still or reclining. But we are talking about seated meditation. Not sitting still. "

    Stilling the mind we sit on the
    other side of Nothingness.

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm | |

    shitting is enlightement.
    to clean your own ass is enlightement.

  11. Korey
    Korey April 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm | |

    I just had s sudden "Aha! moment": Mysterion seems dangerously similar to that dude Brad describes in Hardcore Zen who farts nonchalantly all the time.

  12. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 9, 2012 at 4:03 pm | |

    What IS it?

    1) you sit down

    2) you shut up

    after 20-30 minutes, go about your life.

    repeat the practice for a few weeks and if you feel unrewarded, drop it for a while – or forever.

    nobody is forcing you to sit Zazen.

    either sit zazen or don't. If you want to do it the preferred way – lotus od 1/2 lotus on a zafu – then go for it.

    choose your own means to your salvation – that is the ultimate message of the Buddha.

    "Be unto yourself a Lamp and a Light. Applying diligence, work out your own salvation."

    Sri Sathya Sai Baba 11.05.1998, SS, Vol.41 No.6

  13. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm | |

    Korey – that IS me.

    Dr. Oz says: "When you have to ffart, ler 'er rip!"

    I'm just following the Dr.'s advice!

  14. Harry
    Harry April 9, 2012 at 5:29 pm | |

    Hi Mark,

    I didn't say that Dogen talked about enlightenment without negation. It's not a matter of negation, or the absence of negation, although negating our ideas about things has its uses, but it's not the emphasis of Buddhist practice as indicated by Dogen.

    He clarified that the inherent recurring weakness in Buddhist philosophy of just negating things is not the nature of Buddhist practice. His overall approach is affirmative, immanent and practical, not a philosophical dead end… he doesn't leave us hanging in some notion of, or 'not notion', of 'emptiness' in other words.

    This is most clearly and succinctly expressed in the opening lines of Genjo Koan:

    "When all things and phenomena exist as Buddhist teachings, then there are delusion and realization, practice and experience, life and death, buddhas and ordinary people. When millions of things and phenomena are all separate from ourselves, there are no delusion and no enlightenment, no buddhas and no ordinary people, no life and no death. Buddhism is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity, and so [in reality] there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are people and buddhas…" (Nishijima trans.)

    There are many passages of Shobogenzo where Dogen finds the words of past masters as lacking because they don't make it over the pimple of philosophical negation… the 'scarcity' of seeing things as one big empty, negated blob for example.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  15. Harry
    Harry April 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm | |

    p.s.

    Also, check out Dogen's interpretation of the Heart Sutra, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, in Shobogenzo (vol. 1 of the Nishijima/Cross trans.)

    In it he takes the unusual (and refreshing!) step of *affirming* all the various things as instances of prajna as opposed to the traditional negation of things as 'empty', 'void' or whatever. That's a good insight into his take on shunyata. It can also be seen to be very unorthodox to treat such a core value/philosophical assumption of Buddhism like that… now, I'm inclined to think THAT was Hardcore!

    Regards,

    Harry.

  16. Jinzang
    Jinzang April 9, 2012 at 7:07 pm | |

    I think the opening lines of the Genjo Koan are about the interplay between affirmation and denial, the relative and the absolute. To take only one or the other is to have a one sided view.

  17. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 7:33 pm | |

    Shobogenzo On Washing Yourself Clean, page 57:

    Do not dig at or
    draw on the ground with your toilet spatula; it should be used for cleaning yourself
    after you have evacuated your bowels.

    TOILET SPATULA????

    I am lost in the interplay between affirmation and denial.

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 9, 2012 at 9:06 pm | |

    "Do not soil either side of your garments; do not let them
    get stained front or back. During this time, you should remain silent. Do not talk or
    joke with the person in the next stall, chant, sing, or recite anything aloud. Do not
    spit or blow mucus from your nose onto the area around you. Do not strain or make
    grunting sounds excessively. You should not write on the walls. … Also, if you use paper, you should not use old paper or paper with characters written on it."

    Love it, thanks! A little negation there in the toilet instructions, but I take your point, Harry. Guess it depends on the particular piece.

    Tempted to declare those the "Hardcore Zen" blog comment instructions. Some folks seem to think silence would be best here too, at least that we should all refrain from grunting. Or blowing snot.

    "Stilling the mind", a practice; sitting on the other side of Nothingness, verification. When is "stilling the mind" necessary, and where do ordinary people verify this, I wonder?

  19. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 11:56 pm | |

    I think HARRY is the most fundamental Buddhist I know. And probably the most blind. Notice how he always praise Dogen and diss old Gudo, Brad and Dogen Sangha. So pathetic. Harry, you're like one of those Christian blind biatches who ain't seeing nothing but their own truth. But you're even worse – you're just imitating Dogen, you're like a parrot. It's obvious you haven't practice zazen a bit and it's clear you haven't understood Dogen's teachings. So bloody pathetic.

    Like Brad said "sit down and shut up."

  20. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 10, 2012 at 5:27 am | |

    A monk asked Ummon, "What transcends Buddha and the Patriarchs?"
    Ummon replied, "Rice cake!"

    A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?"
    Ummon said, "A dry shit-stick!"

  21. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 10, 2012 at 7:12 am | |

    A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?" Ummon said, "A dry shit-stick!"

    Great!!

  22. Tamy
    Tamy April 10, 2012 at 7:34 am | |

    So do you guys shit like Dogen did? To me this all sounds like SOME weird believe-system you're in guys…I thought Zen is something quite different but I guess I was wrong. It's just another belief-system just "pray to god" replaced with "sit in a weird posture"…I'll have a shit now…my way ;)

  23. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 10, 2012 at 9:22 am | |

    TOILET SPATULA????

    It was a sponge on a stick.

    In ancient times, many cultures used such a tool.

    - shedding light upon ignorance since 1971

  24. Harry
    Harry April 10, 2012 at 12:42 pm | |

    Well, I'm just a mildly affected Dogen nerd I suppose. I ain't going grabbing my rifle or casting out anyone who's impure if they don't get nerdy about it like me.

    I particularly like Gudo's stuff, and I like Brad's stuff, but it's a bit thin and black and white at times when compared to Dogen's take on things, and I think that's worth pointing out… and I like winding up the Brad/Gudo fanboy fundies… call it a twisted pleasure if you like. If you're big girls and boys of 'adult practice' I'm sure you're superior Real Buddhist Balanced Nervous System won't let you sting for too long.

    It seems that the beginning lines of Genjo-koan are about more than just some sort of dry philosophical stand-off between 'the relative' and 'the absolute'… both human created fictions if ever I heard of things worth negating! As expressed in the third line clincher:

    "Buddhism is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity, and so [in reality] there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are people and buddhas…"

    Regards,

    Harry.

  25. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm | |

    Dogen understood Buddha.

    dogen wisdom was summed up by him: "eyes are horizontal, nose vertical".

    You already have your ordinary life: eating, shitting, cleaning the ass

    our ordinary life is the practice, not what they did many time ago.

  26. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 10, 2012 at 1:37 pm | |

    Harry said, "I like winding up the Brad/Gudo fanboy fundies… call it a twisted pleasure if you like. If you're big girls and boys of 'adult practice' I'm sure you're superior Real Buddhist Balanced Nervous System won't let you sting for too long."

    I think that is the thinking behind every unkind comment made on this blog. Make the poor deluded bastards hurt. Show them what's real. You'll be doing them a favor actually.

  27. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm | |

    this ordinary life is what it shoud be, or you were thinking that something should be different?

  28. Sleepy
    Sleepy April 10, 2012 at 3:21 pm | |

    Harry, Jinzang, Mysterion, are all a bunch of shade tree intellectuals. They lead with the head, not the heart. No wonder they're grumpy old men.

  29. Harry
    Harry April 10, 2012 at 5:58 pm | |

    "Make the poor deluded bastards hurt."

    Well, they would be your words. I wouldn't call anyone here a bastard, or try to hurt anyone.

    But, sure, I stir the shit and think I'm 'right' in doing so, just like the next bozo. Might be a small bit more interesting than floating around being afraid to say 'boo' to each others' gooses… that or the standard issue online passive-aggressive Buddhist fare.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  30. Fred
    Fred April 10, 2012 at 6:00 pm | |

    Making someone hurt doesn't wake
    them up. Pain makes the fictional
    self more solid. Lost in the
    corridors of the fictional self,
    awareness loses contact with the
    Ineffable.

  31. Harry
    Harry April 10, 2012 at 6:18 pm | |

    Hi Fred,

    They say the Buddha had interesting things to say about pain (or 'dukkha' which, pun intended, may be an unsatisfactory estimation of 'pain').

    Not least of his reported achievements was that he noticed very directly that dukkha is inevitable, that trying to avoid it is inevitably also a source of further dukkha, that people will inevitably further piss themselves off in trying to control the world so as to avoid pain, in trying to control each other. Sensible chap was he, if there's any truth in it at all.

    Where pain is concerned I don't see that there is a 'fictional self'. When we're feeling pain, it's real, or nothing is real. The fact that we are effectively making ourselves suffer doesn't make it any less real. It's sort of tragic, but anyone who claims to have overcome it, or to have 'transcended' it, is more likey than not some sort of psychopath (as contrastable to a 'spiritual master') IMO.

    Now, there's some more intellectualising that I'm sure will annoy an anonymous person or persons regardless of how I intended it!

    Regards,

    Harry.

  32. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 10, 2012 at 6:46 pm | |

    The heart pumps blood.

    The time of Feng Shui VooDoo Ouija MoJo has past.

    The sun does not revolve around the earth.

    Brain chemistry determines mood.

    What is left is consciousness or awareness or cognitive processing – for those who have the ability.

    A reasonable person works out reasonable solutions. An emotional person works out emotional solutions – Feng Shui VooDoo Ouija MoJo Pentecostal Snake Dancing, and the like.

    Oh, there are emotional experiences in the universe – the loss of a pet, spouse, parent, and so forth. But those emotional experiences (suffering) are directly proportional to the attachment to the pet, spouse, parent, and so forth. Even that has nothing to do with the heart – which pumps blood until it doesn't.

    Dick Cheney got a different heart. Does that – in and of itself – change his feelings? I doubt it. Does it make him any less a member if the simians?

    Nope. He's just another ape.

    Was SV-40 in polio vaccine responsible for a cafeteria of diseases? Wait, and see.

  33. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 10, 2012 at 6:51 pm | |

    I am my spiritual master:

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeoning of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.
    ——— William Ernest Henley

  34. mysterion's mom
    mysterion's mom April 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm | |

    FUCK YOU MYSTERION YOU SELF-IMPORTANT DOUCHE!

  35. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 11, 2012 at 4:11 am | |

    Dogen understood Buddha. dogen wisdom was summed up by him: "eyes are horizontal, nose vertical".

    this ordinary life is what it shoud be, or you were thinking that something should be different?

    when Dogen said to sit lotus, he was saying to sit ordinary.
    Our ordinary sitting is in chairs.
    To stop porsuing something different of ordinary life is very hardcore.

  36. Fred
    Fred April 11, 2012 at 4:47 am | |

    Hardcore Zen doesn't cling to
    anything, especially the dogma of
    a brass Buddha.

  37. Fred
    Fred April 11, 2012 at 4:49 am | |

    Yes Harry, but what does the inner
    Buddha say?

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 11, 2012 at 4:51 am | |

    dogen anal raped buddha

    buddha anal raped dogen

    actually

    i

    think

    ch'an was kinda homosexual!

  39. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 11, 2012 at 5:07 am | |

    buddha had dogen's dick in his mouth

    dogen had buddha's dick in his mouth

    h e y !

    T r a n s g r e s s i v e

    brad warner and hardcore zen take it up the arse

    yeah fred facefucks mysterion and harry !

  40. Harry
    Harry April 11, 2012 at 6:03 am | |

    Hi fred,

    I'm afraid, and glad, that we have to work it out for ourselves and can't depend on buddhas either inner or outer.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  41. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 11, 2012 at 7:15 am | |

    "I'm afraid, and glad, that we have to work it out for ourselves and can't depend on buddhas either inner or outer. or outer"

    No inner or outer Buddha.
    YOU ARE BUDDHA.

  42. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 11, 2012 at 7:47 am | |

    You are allways Buddha, even when sitting in chairs.

  43. Jinzang
    Jinzang April 11, 2012 at 7:53 am | |

    Harry, Jinzang, Mysterion, are all … grumpy old men

    Hey you kids! Get off of my Zen garden!

  44. Pattie
    Pattie April 11, 2012 at 9:11 am | |

    Buddha died for somebody's sins, but not mine.

  45. an3drew
    an3drew April 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  46. an3drew
    an3drew April 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  47. an3drew
    an3drew April 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  48. AccordingtoAndrew
    AccordingtoAndrew April 12, 2012 at 7:26 am | |

    Dear Brad,
    I am one of those people who came into the world tightly wrapped. In more ways than one! I have found that as much as I have beat up my body sitting in Siddhasana is about all my knees and back can take. But I still sit. Yogasana has helped to open and discipline the body-mind over the years, but I find the dedication of my mind to "just sitting" is the most important. Occasionally I flirt with Ardhapadmasana but that one gets my ankles. Bummer, huh? The point being (really?) I have encouraged myself and others to zazen as best they can or in other words, just sit. Hard to say more than that although I just did. Ha! It's a Friday morning ramble and the Dragon already roars from the withered tree.
    Peace and maybe a wee bit o' tranquility.

  49. sudhasap
    sudhasap April 15, 2012 at 10:56 pm | |

    Thanks for you Information, I learn much information with this post. Online Training.

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