351. “Show them every aspect of your Zazen”

Kodo Sawaki famously said, “If anyone asks you anything about Buddhism, just show them all aspects of your posture”. 

At first glance, this seems to be exactly the kind of superficial, ‘know nothing’ zen that’s quite prevalent in the west. It seems insulting to the effort which Buddhist practitioners have made for the last two and a half thousand years. But when you think about it, you have to say, “Why is that all buddhist practitioners, whatever their beliefs, seem to have adopted the same broad position physically towards meditation?” Nobody is meditating lying down or slouching, they’re all meditating from essentially the same physical position; with a solid grounding of the lower part of the body and the spine straight. How so? 

Taigen Dan Leighton describes zazen as being an ‘enactment ritual’. He wasn’t primarily talking about the physical aspects of zazen but if he were, then zazen is an enactment of buddhism. In our ordinary lives, our spine is rather compressed, as if it has the weight of our mind pressing down on it. 

When we do zazen in the correct posture, our spine is not like that at all; it’s uncompressing itself and there’s a clear and dynamic life to it – an upward movement to it; the spine then changes from being like a kind of inadequate pillar into something like a young tree; its roots penetrating into the ground and its branches extending upward and outward. In that physical posture we can have an actual somatic experience of spaciousness, of emptiness and of non- separation and also wholeness, because our dynamic spine integrates our whole body: we’re no longer a mind and a series of body parts, we’re entirely whole. We can obviously have an intellectual understanding of interdependence, emptiness and so on, but unless we physically experience it, then purely intellectual understanding gets us nowhere. I think it’s all this that Kodo Sawaki is addressing, in his characteristically pithy way.