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:


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.



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.


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

200 Responses

  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 6:21 am |

    I agree that zazen is a Balance Pose. Thus you won't gain anything with some pose. You are deluded thinking that you are gaining something of a pose. Zazen is useless, I love it.

  2. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles April 6, 2012 at 6:45 am |

    "What verifiable evidence can you present to support your belief?"

    Mrs. Romney was asked about her husband's unyielding game face, "Do you have to fight back some criticism, like 'my husband isn't stiff, ok'?"

    Caught on the defensive, she laughed and responded, "Well, you know, I guess we better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out because he is not!"

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 7:13 am |

    Ok… so the impression I am starting to get again is that Shikantaza – as far as Dogen Sangha International is concerned – is basically a seated position with no mind instructions…? As Harry said:

    "Master Nishijima's ANS theory, whether it was the intention or not, can be and has been seen as a sort of rational excuse for the magic thought that sitting cross legged for an hour a day will make us all better and balanced eventually."

    So I guess (if any Dogen Sangha International folks wish to answer this) my question is then, is that why posture stressed so much?

    I read a collection of talks on Shikantaza (the Art of Just Sitting) and did you know that there is a picture of Shikantaza that's presented there that seems different from the Shikantaza that you teach? It's not just physical position, but a very specific mental awareness of thought.

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 6, 2012 at 7:18 am |

    Practice and verification, to me: realize the activity necessary to the movement of breath in the movement of breath, and realize activity precipitated by the place of occurrence of consciousness in the occurrence of consciousness.

    This morning my practice consisted of activity in the sartorius and gluteus muscles that rotates the pelvis on the hips, and activity in the piriformis muscles that rotates the sacrum opposite to the pelvis. Sartorius from below the knee to the wings of the pelvis on each side, longest muscle in the body; gluteus from the ilio-tibial tract on the outside of the legs to the sacrum; piriformis from the upper leg bones under the notch of the pelvis to the front of the sacrum. This rotation/counter-rotation keeps the pressure out of my knees in the lotus.

    Verification, helps to accept the stretches that approach painful and the stretches that approach pleasant in the place of occurrence of consciousness.

    Good morning!

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 6, 2012 at 7:30 am |

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

    Simply by being where we are, we can come to forget the self. The sense of place engenders an ability to feel, and each thing we feel enters into the sense of place- even before we know it.

    This being where we are with each thing, even before we know it, is shikantaza." -yers truly

    Thinking, too; that would be the basis of Dogen's "non-thinking", being with the sense of thinking even before we know it as thought. Balanced energy, an aphorism for relaxed from the shoulders to the wrists, from the hips to the heels, and from the sacrum to the top of the head; helps waking up or falling asleep, to relax while I'm at it.

    Hey, sleepy!

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 7:38 am |

    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.

  7. anon #108
    anon #108 April 6, 2012 at 7:44 am |


    Here's one presentation of the Dogen Sangha understanding of zazen:

    And –

    More scattered throughout here:

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 8:23 am |

    Thanks Anon 108, those were helpful.

    (if you feel so inclined, if you could point me in the way of a beginning instruction, that would also be awesome.)

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 8:34 am |

    For me, the Half-lotus & Burmese positions are much less painful than trying to get rid of the monkey mind.
    You're exactly right when you emphasize the straightness of the spine. When you start to slouch, the mind does, too.

  10. anon #108
    anon #108 April 6, 2012 at 8:43 am |

    Well, as a printed word introduction to the DS presentation of Zen/Buddhism, this is nice, I think:

    It's a very brief summary of Gudo's teaching and so includes his ANS theory – which you have my permission to take or leave (FWIW, I'm not bothered one way or other about it).

  11. Alan_A
    Alan_A April 6, 2012 at 9:50 am |

    A few observations:

    — I practice Iyengar yoga at a pretty strict studio. Teachers are demanding but also flexible. There's no rigid "right way" to do a posture – there's an ideal form but also lots of variations to account for different body types and capabilities.

    — Many of the people in my class (intermediate level) are very good practitioners. None of them does lotus, half-lotus or burmese. Easy Pose is as far as they get. No one has the flexibility for the others.

    — It's one thing to force yourself into a posture. It's another to sit in it for hours at a time. That's where the injury comes in. For more, read this:;=UTF8&qid;=1333730576&sr;=1-1

    — Just because a yoga teacher tells you to do something doesn't mean it's a good idea. There are yoga teachers and yoga teachers. See the link above.

    — A thought – maybe Dogen's detailed advice about how to sit means something different in a culture where people routinely sit cross-legged and therefore have the flexibility to do so. In other words, he offers very detailed instructions about something completely ordinary. That's different from teaching people how to do something exotic. In the West, he might have instructed people how to sit on a chair at a table. The point is to do an everyday thing with strict attention to form, not to do something unusual.

    — In the example above, if "Western Dogen" had taught about chair-sitting, people in Asia might be buying themselves chairs and tables in order to do the practice right.

    — In other words, obsession with sitting cross-legged could be a Western addiction to Eastern exocticism – and perhaps also another case of tying up the cat (

    — My own experience – sitting in half-lotus produced a better meditation experience and almost destroyed my knees. Seiza for me.

    — Remember, this is just text.

    — It isn't aimed at anyone, it's just escaping on the run.

    — Me too.

  12. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 9:58 am |

    That hot chick's mudra looks the opposite of relaxed.

    It's fairly terrible to think of "zen badboy" Brad Warner sitting in lotus and masturbating. The anonymous above who brought this up (me) really needs to rethink what he's doing. (I won't)

  13. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 6, 2012 at 11:14 am |

    Anonymous said…
    "That hot chick's mudra looks the opposite of relaxed."

    1. She's not a hot chick. That's your projection.

    2. She is relaxed – anain, your projection.

    2. She is a yoga instructor and has the more flexibility than you need to sit on a zafu.

    Worry about you zafu and your ass, not hers.

    Or, you can sita with your sitar.

    These "filmmakers" need a bit of fetchin' up regarding recording AUDIO – you know, the squeaky stuff that goes with pictures?

    PS remember cover your barn door with lamb's blood to protect your first born goldfish, koi, finches, kitties, puppies, sheep, goats, cows, &ct;.

  14. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 6, 2012 at 11:17 am |

    every moment is zazen, once you wake up.

    now go back to sleep.

  15. buddy
    buddy April 6, 2012 at 11:19 am |

    she's doing the mudra 'rinzai style'- held unsupported against the navel- as opposed to 'soto style'- resting on the heels. i know this from sitting at a rinzai place. (they will either yell at you or whack you with the stick if your mudra gets droopy.) plus it looks like her thumbs are too squished together instead of lightly touching.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 11:20 am |

    mysterion, you might enjoy this episode. funny.

  17. Uku
    Uku April 6, 2012 at 11:26 am |

    And here's more pictures of that chick above plus really nice zazen instructions:

    And here's little more detailed instructions:

    So? Exactly. It's your zazen. There's nothing left than to practice it.

  18. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 11:34 am |

    Sorry mysterion, Liza Rose is a hottie.. Only an old man or a mental case would not think so.

  19. Not Zazen
    Not Zazen April 6, 2012 at 11:34 am |

    Zazen is Zazen.

  20. Not Mysterion
    Not Mysterion April 6, 2012 at 11:36 am |

    That's an old pic, probably 5 years old. She's not that hot anymore.

  21. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 11:36 am |

    And a few virile old think so men too.

  22. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 11:38 am |

    anon@11:36, You must be the mental case?

  23. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm |

    Yeah, she had a kid back when that set of photos was taken, she probably has a couple more by now. And the ankle tat's saggin' -among other things.

  24. Khru
    Khru April 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |

    Full lotus, half-and-half lotus, great big YAWN.

  25. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |

    This is a sentence.
    This is a second sentence.
    This is a third and final sentence.

  26. Dude
    Dude April 6, 2012 at 2:27 pm |

    That is, with out a doubt, the worst Khru comment yet.

  27. Cidercat
    Cidercat April 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm |

    Look, you will never separate your posture from your outlook, your personality, or your life, because it encapsulates and expresses all those things. You can see all you need to know about a person from the way they stand, walk, talk and sit if you look clearly. It's all just right there, and you can't hide it. Forget the words and see.

    By defending a compromised posture, you defend your ego from the breakthrough which will open your damn eyes! The work leading to good posture is not a thought process, it is purely real life stuff, becoming who you are. Whoever heard of a (healthy) animal that slumped, sagged or refused to use its body well? We don't make the laws, they are just that way – good posture is ri, poor posture is muri, in Japanese.

  28. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 4:26 pm |

    That's just contrived, judgmental bullshit, cidercat.

  29. Trey Ling Wanabe
    Trey Ling Wanabe April 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm |

    swami sed >it
    i believe it
    it's enough for me

    Trey Ling Wanabe

  30. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm |

    That's fear talking boyo – show your face!

  31. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm |

    "every moment is zazen, once you wake up.

    now go back to sleep."

    Being-time? It's true that the Gautamid only slept in the middle watch of the night, and sometimes on a hot day in the afternoon (a lot of hot days in India). Do we want to value waking up over falling asleep?

  32. Jinzang
    Jinzang April 6, 2012 at 7:03 pm |

    Evidence that is not verifiable is not really evidence.

    Okay, say you have a definition of verification, A. And I have a different definition, B. How would you go about proving your definition, A, is correct and my definition, B, is incorrect? Would you use your definition, A? That would be circular reasoning. Or a different definition, C? That would lead to an endless regress.

    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.

  33. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 6, 2012 at 7:12 pm |

    so happy that all six types of form can be known

  34. Trey Ling Mysterion
    Trey Ling Mysterion April 6, 2012 at 10:39 pm |

    I'm so happy that the countless forms of the super parasite blogger mysterion can be so easily recognized. He should bow down and kiss Brad's feet for allowing him to spam his craziness here every single day.

  35. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 12:19 am |

    I have a very hard time getting into full lotus, if I do I can't hold it anymore then 10mins. My body is beat up and way out of wack. However I only started trying to get into the full lotus about a year ago and today I can do the half lotus.

    A friend showed me a sciatica stretch that really helps a lot;_source=message

    I do notice the meditation is much 'deeper' as I get closure to full lotus.

    One interesting experience of mine is at a Sesshin last summer, the teacher who taught me how to meditate straightened my back with the kyosaku, and then then tilted me backwards a notch…much more intenese!!!

    However, I find chanting and meditating are like two hands of a greater body. People always neglect and poo poo chanting. I can't help but think that they haven't taken a serious attempt at it(and I don't mean chanting "Namo Tofu Veggie Burger" all day long. I tried it, nothin'). Chanting is like an OCD copeing mechanism to negate delusion and bring the BodhiMind into focus. Just try it sometime and then argue~~~

    I figured out how the back should be from looking at a poster of a statue of a Buddha. Recently I've been holding my hands like this Amitahba Buddha statue

    It's far more comfortable for the hands, arms, and shoulders(also I would highly suggest that a person who has soreness in these areas to place their hands within the folded hem of the bottom of the shirt to steady/rest them.) It's a more natural hand posture, and I don't get drowsy or day dream too much. Plus(I know this sounds like bunk) I find I am more in-tune with myself and those around me. That being said, the Shakyamuni Buddha Comsmic Mudra with the focus of the thumbs touching just so to aliviate the monkey mind is just as good, just a little different.

    Also, I find sometimes that I really breath heavily as I focus in…it's not natural and it distracts a person in my opinon.

    We our once a month Ch'an Meditation Sesshin tomorrow!!!

    Namo Fundamental Teacher Shakyamuni Pusa…
    Namo Amitabha Pusa 😉


  36. Bodhidharma's Beard
    Bodhidharma's Beard April 7, 2012 at 3:54 am |

    "How would you go about proving your definition, A, is correct and my definition, B, is incorrect?" – Jinzang

    So far you haven't presented any evidence that was either verifiable or falsifiable by anyone's definition. You've only introduced the red herring of philosophical disagreements over philosophical arguments. Your original claims are metaphors or analogies at best and pseudoscientific metaphysical nonsense at worst until you can present evidence that supports them and define your terms more clearly.

  37. Bernard's Backhair
    Bernard's Backhair April 7, 2012 at 5:16 am |

    Ah! You've got me right where I want you!!

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 6:38 am |

    Jinzang said:

    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

    Uh, it's not un-normal to require evidence for one's claims… you cannot simply pull a explanation out of your butt and claim it is as equally valid as all other claims.

  39. Weasel Tracks
    Weasel Tracks April 7, 2012 at 7:59 am |

    Bodhidharma's Beard said…
    "How would you go about proving your definition, A, is correct and my definition, B, is incorrect?" – Jinzang

    So far you haven't presented any evidence that was either verifiable or falsifiable by anyone's definition. You've only introduced the red herring of philosophical disagreements over philosophical arguments. Your original claims are metaphors or analogies at best and pseudoscientific metaphysical nonsense at worst until you can present evidence that supports them and define your terms more clearly.

    Testimony is evidence. Almost the only evidence when speaking of subjective experience. There are ways of evaluating the truth of testimony, but it's not the same as verifying empirical data.

    A way of speaking need not be literally true to convey useful information. Religion in general is like this, if you shift your attention away from considerations of literal truth or falsity. Acupuncture explains its workings with prana/chi theory. Science has found no evidence of subtle energies at acupuncture points, yet the traditional theory is used to teach where to place the needles.

    With regard to subtle energy movements during meditation, I can add my own testimony that, after some amount of zazen, perceptions of something flowing like a liquid or wind develop. I am not the only one saying so.

    So, evaluating our testimony involves questions of clarity and honesty.

    I am not offering an interpretation, simply reporting what I perceive. If what I report is delusional, I am still reporting my delusion accurately. Since others report the same delusion, perhaps there actually is a subjective experience that is shared by a number of people in their practice. What lies behind the delusion is still of interest, and their testimony is evidence to consider.

    So, are people who report subtle energies lying? Are they engaged in a conspiracy to pitch woo at the general public for purposes, perhaps, of personal enrichment and egoic enhancement? I had a close friend who once told me that he didn't think anything happened in Zen meditation — people who spent years investing countless hours in sitting still and quiet just did not want to admit that their efforts were a waste of time. A pretty decent theory — you can see why I had to kill him.

    There's your evidence, in our testimony. You need to evaluate if we're lying. But the best verification is continuing the practice, so you yourself can say "The Buddhas and patriarchs haven't lied to me!" Or not.

  40. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles April 7, 2012 at 8:06 am |

    Trey Ling Mysterion said…"I'm so happy that the countless forms…"

    Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?

  41. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 7, 2012 at 8:35 am |

    So, are people who report subtle energies lying?

    No, they could be delusional, misled, suffering from a small form of mass hysteria, goofy, inebriated, psychotic, or under the influence of Feng Shui VooDoo Ouija MoJo®.

    Some energies are much less subtle and people consistently fail to report effects.

  42. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 9:01 am |

    I want the angel that will not shatter
    Every time I whisper "Girl, it doesn't matter."

    -Jim Carroll


  43. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 9:56 am |

    Guardians of the World
    hiri = moral shame
    otapa = moral dread
    ~ Buddha

  44. gniz
    gniz April 7, 2012 at 10:18 am |

    I don't think testimony of people who are all inoculated with similar propaganda is necessarily that useful in determining truth.

    If you ask 300 evangelical Christians what they experience during prayer, they might tell you a lot of similar stuff. But they are all listening to the same preachers, reading the same books–and so they are in a sense brainwashed or at least predisposed to believe in certain occurrences.

    Which is why I've always said that it would be interesting to take a complete novice and just make them sit in lotus (or burmese) position and give no instruction other than to keep the posture. Would they get anything out of it, would they report any of the stuff that people who constantly read Dogen and study old texts and listen to dharma talks report?

    We can't easily separate what we're experiencing from what our minds are expecting to have occur. Our predispositions greatly contribute to what we find as outcomes in our practice.

    Although I won't say individual testimonies are useless, I think they're much less useful than people like to think, when it comes to determining the accuracy of any tangible claim of subtle experience.

  45. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 7, 2012 at 11:26 am |

    Weasle Tracks said:

    Testimony is evidence.

    Yep… anecdotal evidence is the worst and least reliable form of evidence that exists.

  46. Read Em and Weep
    Read Em and Weep April 7, 2012 at 12:09 pm |

    Her boobs look perky.

  47. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner April 7, 2012 at 12:40 pm |

    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.

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

  48. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner April 7, 2012 at 12:43 pm |

    As for the movement of energy through the body…

    I'm sorry if that sounds spooky to some people. It's an effort to try to put into words what I have noticed in three decades of working with this posture.

    It feels like energy is flowing more evenly through my body when I keep the cosmic mudra than it does when I don't.

    Try it for yourself.

  49. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner April 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm |

    Wow you can become a fan of LizaRose (the model who posed for those zazen pictures) on Facebook now!

  50. Mysterion
    Mysterion April 7, 2012 at 1:40 pm |

Comments are closed.