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Sitting Joyfully

Sitting Joyfully

In his Fukanzuzengi, his Universal Recommendation for the Practice of Zazen, Master Dogen has this to say about Zazen: it is not learning meditation, it’s simply the Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy. 

The Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy

Dogen is a famously difficult writer and this seems a surprisingly straightforward passage. But although it’s straightforward, it’s hard for us to get. At a pinch, I think, we can understand how Zazen connects with Ease, in the sense that we’re putting aside our ideas, our conditioning. 

If we think of Zazen in terms of the Virtues, we’re probably thinking of Equanimity. Compassion too, at a push. But Joy? That seems much more problematic. 

It’s difficult. It’s physically challenging. It’s psychologically very challenging. Surely the point of it is to enduringly go towards some state that we might term Enlightenment. Which might, of course, entail Joy. And I think that would be most people’s understanding of what Zazen is, and indeed what meditation is.

But Dogen doesn’t say that “at some point in the future, Zazen will be joyful”. He says that Joy is one of its principle characteristics, together with Ease. And I think to have any chance of understanding what he’s talking about, we have to go back to basics, and the basics for us mean the basics of the Posture.

It’s one of the peculiarities of Buddhism that the central feature of it is this very physical practice of meditation. But yet we’re not given huge amounts of instruction about how we’re supposed to sit. 

So for example, when I was first introduced to Zazen I was told only two things.

The first is that if you’re sitting in some variant of the cross-legged position, then your knees need to be on the ground. And that’s eminently practical, because if your knees are off the ground, propped up by a cushion, your back’s going to bow out and you’re going to be uncomfortable. And the second instruction, which is more ubiquitous I think, was that we should push up with the top of the head and tuck the chin in. 

And that was it. 

The instruction about the knees obviously makes sense. The instruction about pushing up with the top of the head is a terrible instruction, and it’s terrible because it’s introducing tension – more tension–into the head and neck. And it’s directing our attention to the wrong place. It’s like trying to improve the decor of the attic whilst the basement is collapsing from dry rot. 

So the foundation of our practice requires us to start lower down. What I say to my students, repetitively – but never enough – is that the absolute foundation of sitting is the correct position of your pelvis. That’s absolutely essential. And specifically you require to tilt your pelvis forward in such a way that your bum is sticking out a bit, so there’s a curve in your lower spine. And your weight is going down directly through your sit bones, and specifically the middle and front sections of your set bones.

And if you have that as your foundation, then everything above that stands a chance of being right. If your pelvis is in the right position, you’re not having to make an effort to keep your trunk straight. Your trunk is naturally straight. And you could sit upright for an indefinite period of time.

And likewise, because your pelvis is in the right position, your head can be in the right position as well. It can be nice and balanced, and not heavy on the trunk. And that produces tremendous benefits. Conversely, if we’re following some idiotic instruction like pushing up our head, whilst our pelvis is out of position, then we’re going to be uncomfortable and our attention is going to be disproportionately fixed on our head. 

Which means even more disproportionately on our thoughts, and we’ll state that the purpose of Zazen is to empty the mind. Then fruitlessly try to get rid of those ridiculous repetitive thoughts, and replace them with something wise, or empty. Or both.

However, if the body is in the right position, then our attention isn’t so much on our head and trying to do something with the head and neck. Our attention is much more on our torso. If we’re sitting in the right position, the musculature of our body is right, so those nice postural muscles are doing their proper job. And our breathing is naturally in our lower belly and our pelvis, primarily. It’s obviously not fixed there – because that creates more tension–but it’s primarily located there, naturally.

And here’s the point: if our body is balanced we’re released from the tyranny of the mind. If our body is balanced then our awareness can be embodied. And if awareness is embodied, then we have a lot more attention that we can give to our pelvis, to our belly, to our torso, to our throat. And the effect of all of that is that the stretching that we’re trying to do through our will if we’re trying to consciously push up with the top of our head seems to effortlessly occur, lower down. 

There is a sense of expansion and elongation in the torso but it’s not willed. It’s not something that we’re intentionally doing with our muscles. It’s something that happens naturally. 

Then we’re experiencing the body, the whole body, when we’re sitting. Not as some vehicle of the mind, but as something pleasurable and dynamically alive.

Hence, Joy.

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Master Hongzhi’s Practice Instructions; Number 28

‘All Beings Are Your Ancestors’

‘Fully appreciate the emptiness of all dharmas. Then all minds are free and all dusts vanish, and the original brilliance shining everywhere. Transforming according to circumstances, meet all beings as your ancestors. Subtly illuminate all conditions, magnanimous beyond all duality, clear and desireless the wind in the pines and the moon in the water are content in their elements. Essentially you exist inside emptiness and have the capacity to respond outwardly without being captured, like spring blossoming, like a mirror reflecting forms, So Hongzhi (or Wanshi in Japanese) was an exceptional Soto zen master, active round about 1130 -1150 in Song dynasty China. He expresses himself in these wonderful, rich poetic terms, but they contain a trap for us, that trap is essentially that we imagine he is using symbolic language. So when he refers to moon we might say- he’s meaning enlightenment. When he refers to wind – he might mean delusion, or possibly interdependence. When he is referring to the pines – who knows maybe a practitioner, but it will be something. And the problem with us reading the Chinese masters that way is

that we don’t see what they are trying to do, which is essentially an act of description. Description through evoking a kind of feeling in us.

In his recent book on Hongzhi ‘Cultivating the Empty Field – The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi’

Taigen Dan Leighton does us a wonderful service, both in bringing this teacher to greater attention but also in setting the context and in setting the background of his teaching.

Please investigate this great master.

Finally Dan Leighton’s wonderful website – Ancient Dragon.org- also has a really helpful article which is called ‘Hongzhi, Dogen and the background to Shikantaza’ which really helps to establish the connection between Hongzhi and Dogen and hence illuminates a whole aspect of Dogen who I think all to often is seen as an ahistorical character.

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Issho Fujita on posture

Please read a brilliant essay by Issho Fujita on posture from Dharma Eye.

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Posture Instructions: The Breath

When we hear an instruction to keep returning our attention to the breath, we need to unpack that instruction.

It is an instruction primarily given to people who keep having random thoughts. For these people, the instruction is quite simple. But many people have different problems. They may experience thoughts with a persistent, distressing theme – thoughts of torture, for example – or they may consistently experience a particular difficult emotion or cluster of emotions, the common ones being fear, anxiety, boredom, dissatisfaction and such like. For these people, the instruction, without further explanation, is likely to feel at best unhelpful, and at worst an attempt to ignore or minimise their experience in favour of a vacuous serenity.

So, to unpack:

It is not regarding the breath as the object of concentration. It is not as if the breath and the distracting/distressing thoughts or emotions are like two irate fat men, ceaselessly competing to sit on the one chair of attention.

It is the breath, not your breath.

It is our actual experience of the breath as a dynamic, non conceptual moving space within us. There is no barrier between that space and the greater ‘external’ space. Thus, the entire body is hanging in space, and both are fluid. In this way, we directly experience both ‘form’ and ’emptiness’, and can thus access a vast compassionate space within which our distressing thoughts – along with everything else – can emerge, express and change.

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Practice Instructions – What part does concentration play?

Q: what part does concentration play in sitting?

A: Often an instruction is given that we should bring our attention back to our breath and body. But that instruction is given in a context, and that context is what to do if we notice the mind wandering off in thought.

It doesn’t mean that the breath or the body is the object of our concentration. Once we have brought our attention back, we don’t keep it on the breath and the body, we open out into a broad expansive awareness, which has no object. If we say “concentration”, that assumes both something that we concentrate on, and something that we can succeed or fail at, and both these assumptions are not helpful.

Obviously, we don’t wish our awareness to be dispersed, and so we sometimes say ‘concentrated’ or ‘focused’, but we should use these words with caution.

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Zazen Instructions

When we talk about zazen, we need to be careful that our instructions do not casually reinforce the habitual dualities of body/mind and self/world. Yet, the most common instruction that newcomers are given does exactly this, the injunction to allow thoughts to come and go freely.

Perhaps we give this instruction because newcomers are always surprised and distressed at the unrelenting cascade of drivel that appears to be surging through them the moment they start sitting. But zazen is the practice of all of us, not just the mind.

After a while, what becomes more apparent is the persistent colouring of experience in a way that is often very disagreeable: agitation, fear, torpor, boredom, despair. How do we advise the student then? If we call these emotions, we somehow allocate them to the mind. If we call them disturbances of the nervous system, we somehow allocate them to the body. Either way, the duality is enforced.

We need to find a way to talk about practice which doesn’t take these familiar dualities for granted, only to try to dissolve them later.

One way is through the actual experience of breathing. If we pay careful attention, it is not that our breath is the movement of air in and out of our lungs, in and out of our mouth and nose. Our actual experience is that our breath goes everywhere. It goes up, into our head, it goes down, into our pelvis. It extends everywhere.

And, experiencing the breath in this way, it is possible to see a different duality: the dynamic movement of this spacious breath, like an expanding and contracting pillar of emptiness at our core. And around this pillar, likewise alive, likewise moving, the fabric of form; a fabric which is sometimes the body, sometimes the mind, sometimes the heart, sometimes the world.

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Posture Instructions: How to breathe in zazen

My first teacher said that we should have a long, deep, complete exhalation, pushing our belly out as we press down, and a short natural inhalation. I am sorry to say that I believe these instructions to be completely mistaken.

Dogen said hardly anything about the breath. He just said to let a short breath be short and a long breath be long. At first glance, these instructions aren’t exactly comprehensive, but I think the import is clear: we shouldn’t try to control our breath.

Sometimes this is rendered as an instruction to just breathe naturally. Note the word. Not breathe normally, as you would when slumped over your computer, or slouching in a chair, but naturally.

Naturally for the zazen posture. When we are balanced, it is as if there is a vast cavern of breath inside us. There is nowhere it doesn’t reach. Sometimes it is breathing the bones of our pelvis. Sometimes our belly. Sometimes our intercostal muscles. Sometimes our clavicle. Sometimes our head. This natural breath breathes us, and as long as it does so, the body is no longer ‘the body’. It is no longer an object in our consciousness. It – everything – is free.

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Practice Instructions: Bringing attention to the body and breath

If our intention is sincere, it doesn’t matter if our mind is busy or quiet. Nonetheless, if we are very distracted, it is often helpful to bring our attention back to our body and breath. But what does this mean?

For myself, I often find it’s helpful to focus initially on the head: the lips, the tongue, the musculature of the eyes, the pressure of the forehead, the muscles of the jaw, and so on. The attention then seems to flow quite naturally to the rest of the body. We use the unspoken equivalence of head/brain/mind/self to re-embody.

Likewise with the breath. We can start by feeling it in the nostrils, then the throat, then flowing down into the chest, the stomach, the pelvis, so that the whole body is breathing.

This feeling-being-body is the ground of practice.

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Practice Instruction: what are ‘thoughts’?

There is a general instruction in many meditation schools that we should allow our thoughts to come and go freely, but what is meant by “thoughts”?

We are aware – all too aware – of what we might feel as the noise of our mind, but what we are less aware of is what lies behind this noise. If we reflect carefully, it appears that there is a ‘something’ which – as it were – endeavours to keep us in a familiar state, and usually a negative one : fear, dissatisfaction, boredom, dissociation, dullness.. the list is endless, and different for each of us, but it’s there. There, but difficult to see.

Rather than focus on purifying consciousness, what is essential for us is to be thoroughly grounded in the dynamic, living body, which means to be grounded in the breath, and to experience the breath as permeating the whole body. Everything moves with the breath: the bones of the pelvis, the bones of the head, the face, the legs. That movement from ‘mind’ to body loosens and liberates us, and is “beyond thinking”.

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Practice Instructions

The different aspects of practice are different facets of non duality.

When we sit, we are just sitting. The mind, body and universe are this single piece of just sitting.

We completely exert ourselves, moment to moment, to cease this mental fabrication. Exertion is illuminated. The ground is equanimity.

When we do kinhin, we completely experience ourselves. We feel our feet on the ground, the push of the earth travelling through us, our intimacy with all beings, our complex aliveness. Experience is illuminated. The ground is joy.

When we chant, together, we are completely focused on wholehearted expression. Everything is illuminated. The ground is redemption.