How should I breathe during meditation?

There are techniques which consciously control the breath. We won’t talk about those here. Instead we’ll talk about general principles.

Principle 1: Your stomach muscles control your breathing. Relax your stomach and air comes in; contract your stomach and air goes out. Sometimes this is called belly breathing.

Principle 2: The inbreath is shorter than the outbreath. The outbreath should be about twice as long as the inbreath. A common suggested ratio is three counts for the inbreath and 7 counts for the outbreath, but you don’t have to be too strict about this.

Principle 3: Mouth closed.

Principle 4: Slow down. Actually, this will happen naturally. Keep your energy in your belly (technically your tiantien) and your breath will naturally find its appropriate pace.

Principle 5. Don’t hold your breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. Repeat again…

What is a good posture to use during sitting meditation?

Any posture is okay as long as it is good posture. This means that the spine is balanced on the sit bones (look them up if you don’t know where they are) and retains its natural curve in the lower back. The shoulders are relaxed. The head is well balanced on the spine, with the roof of the mouth parallel to the floor (that’s why you’re told to tuck in your chin).

Leg position can vary — different people have different levels of flexibility — as long as the knees are supported in a stable fashion. Even sitting in a chair is okay.

The eyes are open but cast down, at about a 45 degree angle to the floor.

The hands form an oval, left hand over right, thumbs touching and rounded. They should surround your tanjen (Chinese: tiantien; Japanese: hara), the strong center emphasized in Asian martial arts, located two finger widths below the belly button.

The following link from the Kwan Um School of Zen’s Dharma Mirror illustrates several sitting postures. DharmaMirrorSitting

Why do we walk so formally between sitting periods? Why don’t we just stretch our legs?

Between sitting periods we walk pretty much in unison at a medium or slightly fast pace, keeping the same distance from the person in front of us, with our backs straight and our hands clasped in front of us. Getting up and moving around is very practical. It keeps our legs and backs from getting stiff from sitting still. But we’re not just walking, we’re doing walking meditation. Some styles of walking meditation encourage people to walk slowly and become conscious of every sensation. That is not our style. We walk together, putting aside our personal preferences. Doing this over and over we become skilled at not letting our personal preferences distract us in the rest of our life. We don’t slow down in front of a beautiful piece of art (and there’s a lot of beautiful art in our dharma room) or to read a sign that’s posted. We don’t change our direction because there’s a bird outside we want to look at. We just keep going until we’re signaled to stop. And then we sit down again. In this way we practice not following our desires (to speed up, to slow down, to look at art or birds…). We become attentive to the people around us. Our vision can enlarge beyond our own life.

What is the point of kong-an practice?

Kong-ans (the Japanese call them koans) are those extremely brief stories (often just a few lines) and associated questions that are unique to the Zen tradition. No other school of Buddhism uses them. And Zen practice depends on them — these stories deliver Zen teaching far more than sutras do.

 

You can make kong-an practice sound very mystical but in fact it is very practical. We are always hit with situations whose basic assumptions are just plain wrong. But we’re socialized to go along with whatever misconception is at the root of the situation and not to cut through it. It’s like trying to untie the Gordian knot — you can’t. But Alexander the Great took his sword and cut through it. That wasn’t mystical. It was very practical. It worked.

 

Here’s an example. A long time ago in China a famous sutra master heard about monks in south China who only meditated and didn’t read sutras. He was outraged. So he travelled on foot for thousands of miles to show these monks their mistake. At one point he found himself in a small teashop. He was hungry and wanted to buy lunch. The owner (herself a Zen student) said to him, “You are a great Diamond Sutra master. Answer my question and you will have lunch for free. Otherwise, no lunch for you.” “Ask me anything,” the monk replied. “Okay,” the woman said. “The Diamond Sutra says that past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped. With what kind of mind will you eat your lunch?” The sutra master was stunned. He could not answer. All of his studying and lecturing couldn’t help him. He got no lunch. But the woman sent him to her teacher, and the sutra master eventually became the great Zen master Dok Sahn.

 

That is how kong-ans work. Just like Alexander and the Gordian knot, we are faced with something that our standard intellectual techniques cannot begin to deal with. We have to cut through with our mind sword. Over and over we have to find the appropriate mind sword to cut through the particular knot that is facing us. After a while we learn to do this not just in kong-an interviews, but in our lives. We learn to cut through the knots that bind not only us but everyone around us.

Why all the prostrations?

If you live in Korea and ask your local Zen teacher what you should do when your life is falling apart, you will probably be told: do prostrations! 500 a day! 1,000 a day! Which may seem surprising — isn’t Zen about sitting still? And how can something that looks like a cross between squats and child pose be relevant to your spiritual life?

But you know how when you sit in meditation your mind goes all over the place? It seldom does that doing prostrations. Doing prostrations is a method of practice that bypasses the frontal lobes and goes straight for the central nervous system. At the bottom you’re in a posture of total submission, a posture of complete humility — that’s why we talk about bowing in repentance. But then at the top you’re upright and ready for anything. Down. Up. Down. Up. Over and over again. Over time it’s as if you’re rewiring yourself, changing your synapses. Your center becomes stronger. Your heart becomes more open. You don’t have to think about it. It just happens.

 

Why Do We Practice With Our Eyes Open Instead Of Closed?

There are several schools of meditation in which the eyes are closed, the idea being to turn the awareness inward and shield it from sensory distractions. Sometimes this is called pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. There is even a yogic mudra in which the fingers block the eyes, ears, and nostrils.

But in Zen our direction is to wake up to this world and perceive directly that there is no inside and no outside, that we are not separate from all beings. Zen Master Seung Sahn taught that when we sit everything that we see becomes clear, everything that we hear and smell and taste and touch, every bodily sensation, pleasurable or painful or neutral — all becomes clear. A Buddha is literally someone who is fully awake. Being awake to this world as it actually is naturally gives rise to compassion. So if we sit with our eyes open, our ears open, all our senses open, our minds and our hearts will also open.

Why do we say the four great vows? They seem so impossible.

Here are the four great vows:

 

  1. Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.
  2. Delusions are endless, we vow to cut through them all.
  3. The teaching are infinite, we vow to learn them all.
  4. The Buddha way is inconceivable, we vow to attain it.

 

Every morning practice at the Zen center begins with the four great vows. My morning home practice always begins with them. I strongly recommend that people start their practice by saying them. They remind us of our direction, that our practice is not about ourselves, that it’s not about our likes and dislikes, that it’s not about feeling better. They remind us that our practice is a lot bigger than our usual idea of our lives.

 

And yes, taken literally they are impossible. That’s the point. There’s no time and place where we can say: okay, got it, done, finished. When the Buddha saw the star and awakened, he didn’t go back to the palace and hang around with his buddies drinking the ancient North Indian equivalent of Bud Light. When the Buddha awakened he realized how much work there was to do and he started doing it. That’s our job too. The four great vows remind us of this.

Why should I practice at a Zen Center when I can meditate at home on my own?

Sit on your own and you can achieve all kinds of mental states, some of which feel really good. Sitting with other people also can feel really good. But hang out long enough with anyone and your karma will appear, boom. There you are, really annoyed at someone. There someone is, really annoyed at you. You know where this usually leads, and it isn’t any place you want to be.

But in a Zen center, when this happens the context is a practice of liberation, not just of ourselves but of all beings. Instead of getting solidified, our karma can start to dissolve. Most of the time we live in a hall of mirrors. Escape isn’t easy. It’s by practicing in community that we can break free.

To practice Zen do I have to believe in rebirth?

The short answer is: no. There are no doctrinal requirements in Zen practice.

 

The longer answer is: what is there to be reborn? I.e., what is your fundamental nature? what is my fundamental nature? what is every human being’s fundamental nature? That is the basic question, independent of any belief or disbelief in rebirth. Zen practice is a way of perceiving our fundamental nature, fully realizing it, and acting accordingly. This nature is independent of any doctrine, independent even of speech and thinking. There are a lot of words and explanations out there about it. But you have to find it yourself.

Does Zen give you any special powers?

Stories about magical powers are certainly not unheard of in Zen — tales about great bodhisattvas and Zen masters who were able to do such things as make waterfalls flow back upstream or transport a woman to the Tushita heaven. These powers are sometimes classified as “freedom from cause and effect.” They are said to appear after long practice and the attainment of deep samadhi, a trance-like state in which everything is experienced as oneness or zero. But they are not the point of practice. Wanting them or attaching to them is a problem. Magical powers are in themselves delusional or lead to delusion. We practice to attain our true nature and help all beings. And if our minds are clear we see that the natural world and our ordinary activities are wondrous just as they are. All of this is beautifully summed up in the Kuo-an’s last poem accompanying his ten Oxherding Pictures. It is called “Entering the Marketplace”:

Barefoot and shirtless, enter the market

Smiling through all the dirt and grime.

No immortal powers, no secret spells,

Just teach the withered trees to bloom.