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

  1. Bodhidharma's Beard
    Bodhidharma's Beard April 7, 2012 at 3:14 pm | |

    I bow to Weasel Tracks.
    I would only like to change one word of what he wrote. I would prefer "sensations" in place of "perceptions" in the phrase "perceptions of something flowing like a liquid or wind." The difference to me is that the original phrase implies that something is actually flowing and it is perceived. Describing it as a sensation implies that it feels as if something is flowing whether it actually is or not. Even without that one change I still would not disagree with anything that he wrote and I don't need any further explanations, definitions or clarification.
    I bow a second time to Weasel Tracks.

    Brad's explanation that "It feels like energy is flowing more evenly through my body…" is slightly better than his original statement but is still very vague and Deepak Chopra sounding.
    No bows for Brad. Better luck next time.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 3:38 pm | |

    Moshe Feldenkrais: "All negative emotion is expressed in flexion." Spinal flexion = poor posture. Go figure.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 4:16 pm | |

    All Dogen wisdom was summed up by himself:
    "Eyes are vertical, nose is horizontal".
    Zazen is useless, but all deluded people like me and Brad need waste time with zen
    Because we are porsuing special things, we are
    deluded, thinking that we need special balance or special energy flow.
    Doing zen we think that it is a special practice, but after 30 years or more doing it we will discover that it is only the ordinary life, nothing more or less.
    We can't use zen to avoid ourselves.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 4:37 pm | |

    Qigong Master Chunyi Lin says that 20 minutes of full lotus is equal to 4 hours of any other kind of meditation. He also says Full Lotus is good for your vitality.

  5. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 7, 2012 at 4:37 pm | |

    Anonymous said…
    "Zazen is useless"

    to you, perhaps…

    your point being…

    In this book Zen Buddhism becomes the opening wedge for an extraordinarily wide-ranging exploration of consciousness.

    It was our 'book of the month' reading in December 2000, as I recall. An interesting read for those in any field (e.g. left field, right field, in field, out field).

    On a lighter read, try Book of Five Rings. It's about managing yourself.

  6. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles April 7, 2012 at 4:55 pm | |

    As per James Austen's work (see Mysterion's link), and/or more likely Dr. Albert Hoffman's, I altered the hell out of my brain chemistry in the 1970's and 1980's, then took Iggy Pop's advice when he sang "no more beatin' my brains, with liquor and drugs." 'Cause, like him, and Van Gogh, I have a Lust For Life.

    There's no telling how much it has been altered by meditation. And love, and other stuff, like the joys and ravages of time.

    What is life if not a grand experiment?

    And then, as has been noted, you're dead.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 5:11 pm | |

    Mysterion Apr 7, 2012 04:37 PM Anonymous said.."Zazen is useless" to you, perhaps…

    delusions and books are countless.

    all of us are more or less deluded

    if Brad could call himself a "deluded teacher" it would be very hardcore…

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm | |
  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm | |
  10. Korey
    Korey April 7, 2012 at 6:12 pm | |

    Mysterion, I will ask you once more to PLEASE supply me with your e-mail address, please and thank you. This time it's incredibly urgent.

    What's so urgent you ask? I need you to confirm my awakening, which I am certain I obtained last night. I had a mystical, psychedelic experience last night after meditating for a VERY long time (about 45 min) and it left me in a profound state of bliss. It felt as if a light bulb went off in my mind and a sudden realization swept over me that I had indeed reached the same level of cosmic understanding that Bradley achieved while he was walking to work through the forest that one day and became one with science and mathematics and the rising of the sun. I feel as if all the pieces of the cosmic puzzle have finally been put into place.

    But I can't be completely certain, and that's why I need a second opinion. Provide me with your e-mail so that I may go into further detail about how I attained The Sacred Truth last night and see if we're both on the same page.

    Thanks friend.

    Sincerely yours,
    Enlightened Korey (I really like the sound of that)

  11. Thomas
    Thomas April 7, 2012 at 6:23 pm | |

    The time you spent arguing "what is best" you should better spend with doing "it".
    Really… who cares what anyone of you (or me) think?

    Some guy once said "shut up and sit". Oh my was he right with this :-)

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 7, 2012 at 6:26 pm | |

    Wow, fantastic, people! I am humbled, thoughts leading to "eyebrows horizontal, nose vertical" in my head, too!

    I write to develop a vocabulary I can understand when the need arises. Chi didn't get it for me, the tan-t'ien was not my experience. Now I see that the sense of location I have connected with awareness shifts, palpably, tangibly when I am falling asleep. I discover a similar sensation waking up. Sometimes the shift occurs around the area classically described as the tan-t'ien. I am working to understand the descriptions the Gautamid gave of the feeling he had associated with the material meditative states, closest thing there I guess is third state, equanimity, like lotuses that bloom under water, never break the surface of the water.

    So far only one person has reported finding the same experience I describe as "waking up and falling asleep", but I am hopeful we (meaning the amazing community including all the folks on this thread) will find the words to convey something. Practice is something I do because I can't help it based on my physical reality, beliefs, and experience; verification to me means the hypnic myoclonic twitch effects the very same experience. The "where" shifts, the balance shifts, the mind and body fall. On belay, on belay; falling, fall.

    On the piriformis, that one didn't get it for me, this is closer to what I experience in the lotus. I seem to be sitting on these muscles in part, in the lotus?

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 6:28 pm | |

    Korey, want to go out for a coffee & chat?

  14. Jinzang
    Jinzang April 7, 2012 at 6:32 pm | |

    So far you haven't presented any evidence that was either verifiable or falsifiable

    The point of my post was to show the subjective nature of what's considered evidence. People disguise their prejudices, even to themselves, behind such requests. There's never enough "evidence" for evolution or global warming or whatever else you want to disbelieve. I've played this game often enough, reporting evidence with citations, only to be told my evidence was not good enough. By their (subjective) standards, I'm sure my critics were right.

    But I'll assume your good faith and say a few words about inner energy, qi, prana, rlung, or whatever. We're dealing with a theoretical construct, not an actual observable. Just as you can never see a quark, you can't see qi. So the notion of direct verification is a bit simple minded. There's an entire "inner technology" founded on these practices that has to be judged a success or failure.

    And it has two notable successes: tantra and Chinese Internal Martial Arts (nei gong.) Both are successful in their own ways. Tibetan Tantric practitioners have been observed in the lab to be able to raise their body temperature through the practice of tummo and internal martial arts proved its worth in China.

  15. Korey
    Korey April 7, 2012 at 6:34 pm | |

    [make my font in italics]Anonymous said…
    Korey, want to go out for a coffee & chat?[/make my font in italics]

    Hmm, I dunno. I'm sort of shy at first. Where bouts are you?

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 6:46 pm | |

    I'm in Belgium.

  17. April 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm | |

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 7, 2012 at 9:31 pm | |

    Stillness-Movement and Gift of Tao Neigong

    Korey, how is your practice? I'm asking because you are sure something happened, so I wonder where your practice is coming from now.

    Maybe you can't put it into words for us all, but I thought I'd ask.

  19. ?
    ? April 7, 2012 at 9:36 pm | |

  20. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 9:45 pm | |

    "Life is stronger than death. Good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Truth is stronger than lies,"

  21. element
    element April 8, 2012 at 2:57 am | |

    Mysterion
    Did you read his latest book?
    Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen

    I have not read it, but it seems that I'm interested in it.

    On amazon you can look inside
    http://www.amazon.com/Meditating-Selflessly-Practical-Neural-Zen/dp/0262015870/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid;=1333878406&sr;=8-2

    If you look in the contents, in Part 5 he talks about Daily life practice.
    Thats what I'm interessted in, in the moment.

  22. Korey
    Korey April 8, 2012 at 6:48 am | |

    Mark Foote,

    Actually, I think i got a little ahead of myself yesterday and got overly excited. It turns out – judging by how I feel this morning – I had not attained The Divine Realization afterall. I think I just got too much sun from my new job working outside on Friday.

    Anyways, I';m still going to need your e-mail address Mysterion.

  23. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 8, 2012 at 8:38 am | |

    Mysterion
    Did you read Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen

    Not yet. I'll buy it when we get back from Carmel.

    I bookmarked the link, thanks…

    Chas, Hisa-chan, & Shiro

  24. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 8, 2012 at 8:41 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Kevin
    Kevin April 8, 2012 at 9:20 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. Kevin
    Kevin April 8, 2012 at 9:22 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  27. Kevin
    Kevin April 8, 2012 at 9:24 am | |

    Why eyes open during zazen – good reasons please Brad !

  28. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 8, 2012 at 9:51 am | |

    Yes Brad! And why not earplugs during zazen. Good reasons only please Brad.

  29. Daniel
    Daniel April 8, 2012 at 1:08 pm | |

    @Brad:

    Yeah. But he also wrote Fukan Zazengi in which he gets very specific about the physical practice.

    Yea sure but Dogen also wrote very specific about how to physical clean your ass or how to go to the toilet.

    So you follow that too? ;)

  30. Whiney the Pooh
    Whiney the Pooh April 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm | |

    Yeah nobody talks about that. Now that you brought it up, how are you supposed to clean your ass according to Dogen? With a certain kind of stick? If so, are you supposed to change the stick every day or use the same stick all the time?

  31. Bodhidharma's Beard
    Bodhidharma's Beard April 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm | |

    Whenever I hear the word verifiable, I think here is another person that has not heard positivism has been dead for the past 50 years.

    When people realized positivism was biting its own tail, it swallowed itself and vanished into a puff of smoke. But skeptics, who make it a point of honor not to read philosophy, still haven't heard the news.

    We're dealing with a theoretical construct, not an actual observable. So the notion of direct verification is a bit simple minded.

    Jinzang,
    I've had just about enough of your unjustified condescending attitude so this conversation is over for now.

  32. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | |

    "how are you supposed to clean your ass"
    this seems that you are a hater, but this idea is useful (and literally HARDcore).

    Dogen teach a detailed zazen pose just in order people not fight or think about how to do it.

    About zazen, they asked a zen master what is more important, sitting or shitting.

    He answered: Shitting of course!

  33. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm | |

    yeah but you do need to sit to shit well whereas you don't necessarily need to shit to sit at all. so i say sit,

  34. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | |
  35. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm | |

    you can live without sitting, but not without shitting

  36. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | |

    Brad's second worst post of all-time?

    http://hardcorezen.blogspot.com/2006/08/looks-at-books.html

  37. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm | |

    ….aaaand anon @ 5pm takes it!

  38. Korey
    Korey April 8, 2012 at 5:45 pm | |

    How is that his worst post?

    Were you the Bottom Line Is What Works Best Guy he';s referring to? lol

  39. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 8, 2012 at 10:37 pm | |

    From the all-time worst post, above:

    "Shunryu Suzuki said, "If the teaching doesn't feel like it's forcing something upon you, it's not good teaching." That is the real spirit of Buddhism. If you're not ready for that, you're not ready for Buddhism."

    Sounds a little like tops and bottoms, as Brad wrote.

    Thing is, if the teaching feels like it's forcing something on someone, then I don't believe that teaching will change the world. As a friend of mine said, it's got to be fun to change the world. As Gautama who was later known as the Buddha said, there is a happiness associated with the cessation of sensation and perception, even if followers of other faiths (Buddhism, perhaps?) question that it could be so.

  40. Jinzang
    Jinzang April 9, 2012 at 4:55 am | |

    I've had just about enough of your unjustified condescending attitude so this conversation is over for now.

    You make a good point. I have tried to avoid criticizing people and stick to criticizing their ideas. But, as you say, if I say your ideas are stupid, I am really saying you are stupid. And almost no one takes well to being criticized in that way. When I criticized Brad/Nishijima's translation of the MMK, Brad got pretty upset. If someone with the imperturbable calm of a Zen Master gets upset at criticism, what hope is there for the rest of us?

    So I won't post criticism any more. Which means I'll be posting less, but I probably should be working more on my software projects. Next year when the Republicans take over Congress and slash the NASA budget, I will need a software portfolio to find a new job.

  41. Otto G.
    Otto G. April 9, 2012 at 6:34 am | |

    It's a short jump from "if I weren't so stupid, I'd get it" to "if people weren't so stupid, they'd get it."

    We project our own fears all over the place. It's a human thing to do.

    And I might say a bit more interesting than developing software, but then I would just be projecting.

  42. Careless Reach Around
    Careless Reach Around April 9, 2012 at 8:06 am | |

    Jinzang said…
    I have tried to avoid criticizing people and stick to criticizing their ideas.

    Bold words from someone who believes in Tibetan magic and homeopathy.

  43. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 8:17 am | |

    When I sed:
    Dogen said: "To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self."

    And doing that is more than just sitting in a specific position.

    Brad sed:
    Yeah. But he also wrote Fukan Zazengi in which he gets very specific about the physical practice.

    Very true!
    But in the Fukan Zazenji Dogen only talks about full and half lotus… and you say that one can sit in Burmese as well as seiza (you even gave an example of a zen teacher who did) – this belies referencing Fukan Zazenji at all if Dogen is the final word on what is or is not zazen.

    If one's position can give almost the same benefit (stability, an open diaphragm for deep breathing, straight spine, enough balance to sit without fear of falling over) then game on!
    The only difference between us is that I include one more position – sitting in a chair.

    http://www.tricycle.com/-cushion/leaving-lotus-position

  44. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 8:31 am | |

    Jinzang said…
    I have tried to avoid criticizing people and stick to criticizing their ideas.

    Then Careless Reach Around said…
    Bold words from someone who believes in Tibetan magic and homeopathy.

    HA! Totally thought the same thing!
    "Mwahaha Positivism is dead – didn't you hear the news…? Now 'scuze me whilst I take this sugar pill…"

  45. Harry
    Harry April 9, 2012 at 8:44 am | |

    The problem with the E word is that, like so many other things, as long as you expect it, it never comes ("A watched pot never boils").

    Therefore, the recourse to some negation of it doesn't seem so foolish…

    Hi Michel,

    The problem with negation is that, if it's just a philosophical negation, it don't count for nuts in real terms.

    Philosophical/intellectual negation is just one perspective of course. Dogen was remarkable for his talking about it in positive terms, in his expressing realisation as a real, concrete act/process, and trying to contextualise it in suitable terms. Besides, it's really very easy to negate this notion of Enlightenment… negate this, negate that, negate everything (and all that generally expresses is philosophical laziness and some piss poor assumptions about Buddhist philosophy!)… but it ain't so easy to put one's head above the pulpit and try to express realisation as what it really is, as Dogen did.

    Eating something is not neccesarily enlightenment of course. It is always a real act, but, subjectively speaking, it can just as easily be a simple act of greed, or ignorance, or unconsciousness/ ignorance… So what makes it a substantial enlightened act?

    Regards,

    Harry.

  46. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 9, 2012 at 8:57 am | |

    LOL

    Dogen doesn't talk about Zazen on a 747 or 767 either but that exclusion doesn't mean it's forbidden.

    "and they speak of things that matter…
    with wouds that must be said…"

  47. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 9, 2012 at 8:59 am | |

    wouds is part of the liturgy of the Purple Question Mary cult…

  48. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 9, 2012 at 9:32 am | |

    Harry, where did Dogen talk about enlightenment without negation?

    After reading Bielefeldt's "Dogen's Meditation Manuals", I concluded not only did Dogen primarily instruct by saying what things are not, but he stole most of his material, at least as far as Fukanzazengi and "The Lancet of Meditation" (I know, great artists steal mercilessly, ok).

    You want someone who spoke positively and substantively about practice and enlightenment, that would be Gautama, at least as recorded in the Pali Canon. The man's last words were essentially, "take this with a grain of salt" (everything changes; work out your own salvation); doesn't get more empowering than that, my opinion.

    Returning to our main topic for shouting at Brad, Kobun said: "you know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around". I don't find this so different from Gudo Nishijima's "zazen is action". Now how do we explain that positively and substantively? How do we then explain zazen in the lotus?

    "If you're studying seated meditation, meditation is not sitting or reclining."<22>

    '22. "Sitting still" zaga: The translation follows the interpretation of most commentaries, which treat this term in reference to the "four postures": walking, standing, sitting and reclining (gy j za ga); hence, "sitting and reclining". The element ga here could also be interpreted as an intensive; hence, "sitting still" or "repose".'

    (from Zazen Shin, Stanford Project)

    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.

    Meditation in the lotus is not sitting still. It's a regular hypnic myoclonic twitch fest.

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