Now, In Entering Into Zen

I’m borrowing the title of this post from a passage of Dogen Zenji’s Fukanzazengi – A Universal Recommendation for True Zazen (as translated in Yoshida, 2008). Fukanzazengi (pronounced foo-kahn-zah-zen-ghee) is a work that ranges from the seemingly mundane physical aspects of seated meditation, to the paradoxical nature of thinking of not thinking, to the ineffable quality of the ultimate reality that seated meditation allows us to experience – all within the confines of two very dense but quite accessible pages. Please check the related links section of this blog for Rosan Yoshida roshi’s translation of Fukanzazengi if you would like to have it available as you read on. I’ll be spending the rest of this post elaborating on some of those seemingly mundane physical aspects of seated meditation – zazen. Before I do, though, let me introduce you to a quote from Dogen’s Bendowa, which – like Fukanzazengi – affirms Dogen’s conviction in the absolute primacy of the practice of zazen: “When one displays the buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment” (as translated in Okumura, 1997).

It has become part of our practice at the Missouri Zen Center to read Fukanzazengi at the close of each full day of sitting. Clearly, a full day of sitting zazen is not something that most people do right from the start – although I have heard of it happening. My reason for mentioning that in this context, however, is to communicate the fact that zazen is something that is routinely done with great intensity – perhaps for a dozen or more sittings per day over the course of many days even. Thus, care should be given to the mechanics of sitting so as to make it as pain-free and strain-free as possible. This is just as true for a single period of zazen as it is for a whole day; for just as the tiniest of stones in one’s shoe can become excruciating over the course of a long walk, so postural difficulties can grow to be unbearable over the course of even a single period of mediation.

I’m going to assume that you are an absolute beginner without any specialized meditation gear and without any prior experience sitting zazen. I’ll concentrate on the half lotus posture because I think that most people, with a little stretching and preparation, will be able to sit in this way. If you find that you are way more flexible than I’m giving you credit for, then try the full lotus posture on for size. If you give the half lotus posture your concerted effort and find that you are in pain – perhaps due to an injury or something – then realize that there are other postures such as the Burmese posture, which I will discuss, and the seiza postures, for which some diagrams are included at the bottom of this post. Either way, once you grasp the big picture you’ll be able to determine precisely what you need in the way of sitting cushions (zafus) and sitting mats (zabutons) and seiza benches. You’ll be able to find these things for sale online. Okay, here goes.

Now, in entering into Zen, a carpeted floor will do fine. If you only have hardwood or tile floors on which to meditate then use a folded blanket or a doubled over yoga mat or a bath mat or something in order to cushion your knees. I don’t necessarily recommend meditating on your bed. The springiness of the mattress can magnify any of the inadvertent movements you might make. Rustle up a couple or three sofa pillows (they compress so easily). A doubled over sleeping pillow (or two) could also be used. Okay, before we continue, please do me a favor. Touch the fingertips of your right hand to the inside of your left elbow. (Believe me, my madness has a method.) Now – with your right fingertips still touching the inside of your left elbow – fold your left arm over and touch the upper part of your right arm . This is what you’ll be doing in a moment with your legs, so please take a moment to assimilate what I’ve asked you to do. Okay, carry on.

Getting Your Foundation In Order

Situate your pillow or pillows on whatever floor covering you’ve selected. Start with enough that you have about six inches of sitting height even after they’ve compressed. As you will see, the height of the cushion will be something that you will need to adjust as you learn more about sitting and your body. In general, taller people will need a taller cushion. Also, the same person may need a taller cushion for sitting half lotus than they would for sitting full lotus. Sit toward the front half of your cushion or cushions with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Now, draw in your right foot toward the left side of your body and let your right knee touch the floor. Okay, remember touching your right fingertips to the inside of your elbow? Well, draw your left foot into position in front of your right shin and knee, and let your left knee drop to the floor such that the toes of your right foot nestle into the space behind your left knee – just like the fingers of your right hand nestled into the space at the inside of your elbow. (I told you my madness had method!)

Let’s take stock of where we are so far. We’ve got our buttocks on the cushion and both knees on the floor. Our legs are resting parallel to each other right on the floor in front of us – left leg in front of the right. If it happens to be the case that your left knee is not touching the floor, check to see whether the toes of your right foot are in the way. If they are, then adjust them so that they fit into the hollow behind your left knee. You might also check to make sure that you are sitting on the front half of your sitting cushion, that your cushion is high enough, and that your back is arched slightly. If your knees still don’t touch the floor after adjusting for all of these things then it could be that your hips are tight. Check the related links section for the link to Erich Schiffmann’s website. You’ll find some hip opening stretches there that will be helpful. And remember, stretching should never hurt!

Okay, you’re doing great! Now “dish” your pelvis forward as if it were a bowl (it is rather bowl-like) that you are tipping forward. Arch your back slightly (not severely) and sit upright. You are in what’s called the Burmese position – at least from the waist down. This is a good position in which to meditate, so consider yourself successful even if this is all the flexibility you can muster for right now. Now, pull your left foot up onto your right thigh. You may need to bring your knees just a little closer together to do this. Pull your right foot back a little if your toes end up in the way after you do this. If you’re able to keep your left foot up on your right thigh without pain or strain – congratulations – you’re a shoe-in for the half-lotus position! If you feel as though you’re straining to hold that position or if you feel like your left foot wants to slide down off of your thigh, then let it. Did it land on your right calf? Fantastic! Consider yourself to have achieved a quarter-lotus. If that is still not comfortable, recall that you already know how to sit in the Burmese posture – at least from the waist down. So, you still can’t get both knees on the floor? Keep up the stretching, but for now try putting a small pillow or a wadded up sock under the uplifted knee. This will keep tension from building up in your body because of having to actively hold your position. (You’ll be doing this on some level even if you think you’re not.)

I cannot stress enough the importance of getting into a position where your buttocks and your knees form a tripod. This tripod forms a stable foundation for the rest of your body. If you’re feeling asymmetrical at all at this time – straining to keep your left leg up on your thigh or your calf, or straining because one of your knees is hanging up in the air – this strain will only become more pronounced over time. Take some time now to adjust. Maybe you need to be sitting on a higher or lower cushion. Maybe you need to sit a little bit more forward on your cushion (you should be sitting on the front half). Maybe if one of your legs or knees or ankles is less flexible than the other you will need to start over – switching legs. Maybe you need to spend some time working on stretching out. At any rate, you should not need to hold yourself into position, and you should not be in pain!

Above the Waist

Find a good place for your hands to settle into a mudra – left fingers overlapping your right fingers (convention) and thumb tips lightly touching. Where you end up positioning your mudra will depend upon your sitting style and the proportions of your body. Full-lotus meditators may find that their hands are resting on their ankles. Others may find that their wrists are supported by their thighs. It’s important to find a place for your hands that does not require you to hold them into place. Having to hold your hands in place will almost certainly cause strain to travel up your forearms to your shoulders and into your neck.

By the way, there is nothing magical about this mudra. Those of you who may be struggling with overcoming a fundamentalist religious upbringing can rest assured that this is not – I repeat, not – a secret hand signal to the devil! (Please believe me, I say that with great compassion and understanding.) We simply need something to do with our hands while we sit and this mudra works great. Additionally, you will find that you can make use of your mudra to gauge what’s going on with your mind. Is the oval of your mudra collapsing over time? Perhaps you’re battling fatigue. Are your thumb tips about to drill into each other? Perhaps you’re stressed or anxious or angry. Are your thumb tips drifting apart? Perhaps you’re losing focus.

Notice the angle between your torso and your thighs. It’s greater than a right angle, right? If it’s not then you’re either not sitting on a cushion or you’re sitting in the same old cross-legged position that you sat in as a kid! Please study the pictures and reread the description of what to do with your legs. This is extremely important. You want to have enough room for your diaphragm to move freely – expanding and contracting with ease. This will allow you to breathe without any movement other than your abdomen going in and going out, i.e. your chest will not be heaving, your shoulders will not be moving, your entire skeleton will be able to remain stationary.

Some people have a hard time “finding their breath.” You may be someone who carries a lot of tension in your back and chest from day after day of stressful living. This stored tension might keep your breath up in your chest where it will be shallow and more rapid. You want to let your breath drop down into your belly, so to speak, and here’s a trick to help you do just that: Take a deep chest breath, letting yourself heave away as much as you want. When you exhale, exhale completely, even going as far as pushing the last of the air out of your lungs. Now, take another chest breath and exhale completely. Stay there for a second or two longer than you would otherwise. Notice that feeling of wanting to take a breath. When that feeling of wanting to take a breath becomes a feeling of needing to take a breath then let your belly expand. Feel how the movement of your abdomen draws in that next beautiful breath. Keep doing that until you settle into doing it naturally.

Now, tuck your chin in slightly and direct your gaze downward at the floor a few feet in front of you. Keep your eyes open. The light will help keep you alert, and having your gaze directed downward will help to minimize thinking. How’s that, you say? Well, do you remember from reading cartoons how whenever a character is thinking the cartoonist draws the eyes gazing upward? Oh, you don’t believe in research gleaned from the funny pages? Then think about what happens when someone loses consciousness – their eyes roll back in their head. And if you’re not buying that either, then just notice where your eyes are the next time you catch yourself lost in thought during meditation. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that your eyes have rolled back in your head.

Keep your mouth closed and your tongue against your upper palate. Try to keep your jaw and throat relaxed. In combination, this will minimize the buildup of saliva and allow any saliva that does form to just slip down your throat without you ever feeling the need to swallow. Oh, and try not to have your chin tucked in too tight. Doing so can constrict your throat and bring about an annoying tickle in the back of your throat that will not subside until you’ve swallowed umpteen times.

Putting it all Together

So there you have it. That is the physical form of zazen. Make use of it to settle deeper and deeper into physical stillness. Your mind will follow. Breathe naturally, at an unforced rate and depth. In the beginning, if you feel like your mind is simply racing from one thought to another, you may want to count your breaths. Count your complete breath cycles from one to ten, one to ten… You may lose count after six, or you may realize that you’ve blown right past ten and gotten all the way up seventeen; don’t worry about it. Just start counting all over again. This is not a failure on your part; it is a success. Whenever you realize that you’ve lost count or counted too far, you have brought your awareness back to the present moment. That is what meditation is all about – bringing your awareness back to the present moment. Some people might feel that breath-counting is cumbersome, and yet still they need something to help focus their mind. In this case you might want to try “watching” or “following” your breath, as it is called. This is simply a matter of following the ebb and flow of your breath. Perhaps you pay attention as your abdomen goes in and out. Perhaps you notice the sensation of your breath as it flows into and out of your nostrils. Let thoughts come and go, neither pushing them away nor grabbing them and holding onto them. Let them be like clouds flowing across the bright sky of your mind. Let them be like waves overhead as you sit on the bottom of the ocean. We are not trying to be enlightened. We are not trying to be buddhas. We are just sitting. When we are just sitting – with no goal in mind, without trying to do anything, without utilizing any tricks or techniques – we are practicing shikantaza. Let me close now with the final sentences of Fukanzazengi: “Practice in such a way constantly and you will never fail to realize suchness. The treasure house will open by itself, and you will appreciate and use it at will” (as translated in Yoshida, 2008).

A special thank you to Rosan Yoshida roshi and the Missouri Zen Center for permission to use the images appearing here from the Missouri Zen Center’s website and the Manual of Zazen.

Okumura, S., Leighton, T. D. (1997). The wholehearted way: A translation of Eihei Dogen’s Bendowa with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Tuttle Publishing. p.22. (Original work published 1231)
Yoshida, R. (2008). Fukanzazengi: A universal recommendation for true zazen. Missouri Zen Center website. (Original work published 1227)
Yoshida, R., Eilers, R. W., Ganio, M. (1979). Manual of zazen. Missouri Zen Center.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Maku,

    Good introduction and refresher on sitting the correct way. Thanks!


  2. Very instructive, thank you for sharing. I just need to keep up the stretching!


  3. Maku,

    Thank you for this teaching. It's quite easy to follow. Although, I swear, I have had a downwards gaze, and correct posture, and still have had lots of mental activity during sittings. Perhaps I only think my posture is correct.


  4. Stacey,

    Here's a link to Brad Warner's thoughts on zazen. I heard him speak this past weekend, and let me tell you, the guy knows his stuff. He says the same things, just with a different approach.

    Not sure if it will be a live link, but you can cut and paste. For what it's worth, I also have trouble with the mental aspect of sitting. All we can do is keep practicing, and have faith.


  5. Kristen,
    Thank you for taking the time to find and post the link. I, too, am a Brad Warner fan. I saw him speak on Tuesday. He does know his stuff. I like what he says about envisioning you have a special, expensive plate on your head while sitting. I think I let my head and neck fall forward a bit too much.

    Yes, I am sure practice makes perfect :)


  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone! Yes, it was great to have a chance to hear Brad's teachings. He certainly has an inimitable style. I like his authenticity. Authenticity will almost certainly be the topic of an upcoming post. Thanks for the link, Kristen!

    Regarding mental activity: Gosh, how to come up with a succinct comment about that thorny issue! On one hand, there really isn't anything wrong with having thoughts in meditation as long as we're aware that we are having them. It's when we're LOST in thinking that we have lost awareness. It's a little like (or a lot like) the difference between 1) being angry and knowing that we are angry and 2) being swept up in or consumed by our anger without awareness. The former might actually lead us to insight about ourselves whereas the latter will likely end up being destructive. On the other hand, the level of mental activity I experience in sitting seems to vary greatly for me - often following recognizable patterns. For instance, my mind will generally settle down as long as I sit for long enough. Thus, trying to work a longer sitting period into your day can make a difference. Also, the degree of centeredness or groundedness in my life kind of ebbs and flows. When my routine changes or I get overly busy, then my sittings, also, tend to be less settled. Fatigue is also an issue. When I'm overly tired the amount of mental effort it takes to maintain awareness can simply be more than I can muster at the time. So, I guess it's good to examine sitting in the context of the entirety of our lives... diet, exercise, sleep, prioritization, time management, etc. Now, a whole different issue is whether we're facing some major stressor in our life. At times such as those, sitting can be a matter of simply holding on for dear life, so to speak! Hopefully we have a chance to get a meditation practice started to the point where we begin to realize its benefits prior to all hell breaking loose in our lives. However, some people come to meditation precisely because all hell is breaking loose in their lives. In this instance, as Kristen mentions, a little faith is required. Buddhists don't often talk about faith, but that is one aspect of it that is important until we've actually been able to verify the teachings on our own (cultivation and verification). Another aspect of thinking, I think (pun intended), is to recognize that we are all different, with different innate levels of mental activity or reactivity. So, we shouldn't think that we're necessarily doing something wrong just because a friend happens to gush about how calm and peaceful their sittings are even as we're riding a roller-coaster! That said, we should always be taking stock of our practice. In closing, compassion is something that we usually think we're supposed to have for other people. But we need to have compassion for ourselves as well. Are we trying? Yes. Are we always as diligent as we could be? Probably not. But we're human and every moment is a new one.

    Well, I hope I've said something of benefit here!

  7. Wow Maku, thank you! Yes, all you have said is beneficial for me. Personally, my biggest hurdle to awareness in my daily practice is selective narcalepsy (since I sit very early in the morning) and losing myself in thoughts. I do notice that I have more trouble with awareness of my thoughts when my life is stressful and busy. Your words are very wise and helpful.
    Thanks again.

  8. Thanks Stacey! I'm glad I was able to strike a meaningful chord. Peaceful sittings to you!


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