The Basics!

Zazen – How to Sit Zazen…

Zazen – Basics on how to sit zazen

How-to-Practice-Zazen-illustrated  is a very good basic introduction to Zen sitting practice which you can download.

Zen Intro to Buddhism & Practice of Zazen –  by Gudo Nishijima Roshi,  is a very good basic introduction to Zen practice in general.

Zazen – one persons logic of who we really are, why to practice zazen, and what the benefits of zazen can be.

My personal notes on how Zazen can “tie everything back together” are below…. reading it may be a bit laborious…. but for me, have been well worth understanding.

A Brief Introduction

For this person “me”, there is a continuity of logic, of who and what human beings are, and our relationship to the universe, to nature, and to everything… This continuity i have come to see as “One Essence”, or “The interconnectedness of all things”.

In a lifetime of openly seeking to discover my own “connection”, this continuity has gradually become as “factual” as the world i see around me.

Note: To those who see this universe we live in as chaotic and unconnected, as well as those who have books or scriptures which act as eternal truth allowing them to stop searching, this will be utter nonsense…  the product of mega-subjectivism.

i am ok with that. It is what it is.

i am simply going to repeat the words of Jesus of Nazareth, Shakyamuni Buddha, and the other great teachers of humankind:

“Those who have ears, let them hear.”

What can practicing Zazen do for you?

Zazen, as one of many practices in being silent and listening, can be seen as a method of maintaining balance, keeping mentally and physically more healthy, dropping tension, etc.
For those who sense that there is something more beyond and behind the physical world we experience, there are also deeper processes acting.
For these folks, zazen can also be the act of opening up our awareness and experience, to a part of ourselves which gets covered over by a thick layer of assumptions and opinions made by us in this brief physical life.
So, zazen can be the act of re-discovery or re-connecting to our true nature, and learning our place in this world.

What does the practice of Zazen actually do?

The reason zazen is instrumental for me in the process of this discovery, is that in zazen, our true nature can become clear, as our tensions begin to fall off. And they tend to fall off in layers……

What the brain does in the body to hold onto tension and how zazen affects this.

In zazen, with the proper sitting posture and breathing process, we find that our tensions begin to fall off naturally, and we begin to get insights into how this tangled web is composed. This is because we do not tense in zazen, we relax.
(Koan folks, please let me continue…)

For myself, this unfolding insight, began to uncover the many layers of tension/assumptions which had made me confused in my life, and had caused me to misinterpret what I was experiencing.
The Body/Mind duo, create these types of dualities, so i say “tension/assumptions”, for as we will see, these two can come and go together.

As the tension let go, and the web became less tangled, the forthcoming answers to the problems which were plaguing me have been extremely simple…..  here it is in as simple form as i can state it….
We ourselves are the instigators of our tension and suffering.

“Suffering doesn’t hold on to us, we hold on to our suffering!”

Our brain uses its intricate nerve/neuron connections to the body, to “cast in place” or to hold on to, and fixate on, the things it does not want to let go of. As situations in our lives are constantly changing and passing from present to past, the mind learns to hold onto its fixations “past their expiry date” by placing a tension or “muscle knot” somewhere in the body to act as its soldier or guard. The brain uses this knot or as I like to refer to it as a “Body-Lock”, to act as an energy spiderweb catching and imprisoning a fly. 

The Chinese and Japanese concept of “qi” or “ki” is quite well known in the West these days, and the Chinese practice of “qi gong” (chee gowng) is a practice to release the flow of “qi” or energy, which gets caught and tangled. The scientific world dislikes the borrowed use of the scientific word energy, as they say there is no actual energy getting caught, but in the case of “qi”, it is more about the “felt sense” of it. (Felt Sense is a concept put forward by Eugene Gendlin in his book “Focusing”.)

Lets consider worry as an example. As my brother quotes “Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles; it only takes away today’s peace.”…. and i would like to add, “it steals our energy, and imprisons it”.

In the example of worrying, the brain has some situation which is worrisome.
This situation may not have happened yet, or may have already happened, and we are just ruminating on it, not willing to put it down.
The brain utilizes its nerve connections to some part of the body, like the diaphragm, or somewhere in the chest, or muscles in our neck, tensing up those muscles and causing a knot.
It uses this body knot to first CREATE the intense feeling of its worry in an emotional attitude, and then to hold onto it, when the situation is not present anymore.

This process of the brain using the body as its “soldier” is its basic tool, which results in our sense of “stuckness” to problems. The sense was the stuckness had a hold on me.

So lets look at the first “layers” of “locked up qi” i discovered, when the natural peeling process of relaxation began in zazen.

  • Hurriedness – the first layer i encountered was hurriedness, which i carried into my zazen, and it showed itself in a tight spot either in my diaphragm or in my chest.  Until I was able to release this tension of hurriedness which was an ongoing tension in my diaphragm area, my mind could not settle into my meditation…. it jumped around and just got more anxious.
  • Anxiety – the next layer, almost simultaneous with the hurriedness, was anxiety, which had no particular reason for being there….. and it acted like it was the cause of my hyper-tension. It was a coupling of hurriedness and ongoing anxiety which formed major body-locks which needed to “fall off”.

** I must note here, that my time learning Gary Webers concepts of self-inquiry, and how to apply them in the meditation process, was instrumental in learning how to “look deeply” into what this hurriedness and anxiety was, see it for what it was, and taught me how to de-construct it.

But it was in releasing the associated body-lock which the mind had put in place, which truly releases me from this anxiety and hurriedness.

So, one of the main locked doors in this prison of suffering, which is of my own making, is the warden coupling of The Mind, and its Guards – BodyLocks.

The Mind – with its urge to grab and hold onto “objectified things”, when it emotionally reacts to things it likes and dislikes, and doesn’t want to let go of.


The Body – and the Body-Locks which the mind places and uses as soldiers to hold onto those “objects” of its likes and dislikes.

Paying Attention to Our Level of Tension while Practicing Zazen as a Benchmark

It has become increasingly important to me to pay attention to the lack of body/mind tension while in zazen, and note it and use it as a benchmark or reference point, so I can compare this while in life’s “tug of war”, when i am being pulled into a body/mind tension. When i pay attention to the location of that tension, it is possible to bring my body back into the harmonious state which is its native or original state.

And this knowledge that the original state of our Body/Mind is a quiet and harmonious one, is fundamental to seeing this process clearly.

Our Original and Natural State of Being

Here is the “logic” behind our original state of being, as the quiet and harmonious state of the One Essence.
(Please bear with me for a few moments)

  • The One Essence “is” and “encompasses” everything we know as reality.
  • The One Essence is also “beyond” and “forms the background” behind everything we know as reality.
  • Humans are part of a manifestation of the One Essence, which is in a “physical” or “solid” form.
  • When “we” emerge as human beings , for a brief lifetime, from this One Essence. “Each of us” manifest in this physical world,  as a small portion of the One Essence, encoded in DNA. Each one of us “is” and “carry” this One Essence.
    (= our “birthright”)
  • Whereas the One Essence simply “is” (perfect potentiality) , the physical world, (being a manifestation of the One Essence) has the added attribute of “is and is not”. In this physical world, things have the illusion of being “is”, or not being ” is not”.
  • The physical world is a world of comparisons.
  • This physical world (everything in the universe) has this basic attribute of dualism. This means that the One Essence is “pulled into a positive part and a negative part corresponding to each other”. i.e. good/evil, tall/short, dark/light…. without this duality, there is no physical world.
  • But this perceived duality is not the true nature of the One Essence.
  • This physical world is not a permanent thing. It is not “solid” as our senses “see” it. (in fact, the impermanence of this physical world causes human suffering, as we look for and do not find something solid to cling to….. and our clinging mind finds this unsatisfying)
  • The human senses exist as our individual sense package, to gather data in this physical world of dualness, and survive our time in this dual world. Therefore, our basis of this “individuated being” understanding (our “personal knowledge”),  is differences and comparisons between things. We also come to live in a sense of separateness.
  • What we understand to be the “sense world” comprises: 1) the physical world, 2) the sense data apprehended by our senses, and,  3) our sorted and measured comparisons between things.
  • Humans and as Buddhism states, all sentient beings, live in this sense world, yet are aware of the One Essence, and due to the fact that we are “of the One Essence”, we are ACTIVE participants.

SO………….back to Zazen

  • When we sit quietly (and yes, there are many ways to do this apart from zazen …. some ways are just more efficient than others) one of the things that happens, is our body’s muscle and nervous system quiets down.
  • When the “hum” of activity of our physical world quiets down, we become more aware of the quietness of our inner being, more aware of our being existing as a “non-separated part” of the One Essence, which the activity in the physical world tends to cover up.(and this quiet awareness can sometimes give us a bit of a shock)
  • When the busyness of our senses in this physical world quiets down, and the One Essence becomes obvious, its awesomeness can have a sense of “peace” or “incredible depth” or “loomingness” or “sacredness”, or “holyness” (it is important to note that our place in this world can majorly impact our “interpretation” of what or “who” this is!!).  For those who don’t want to feel this, they will cover it up with all sorts of “medications” ( manic activity, thinking, TV, Video games, sexual activity, smoking, alcohol, drugs etc) There are also those of us who have come to know how to welcome this, and sit in quietness.
  • This is like the story of the Prodigal Son. It is only with this benchmark story of “home” and a “comparison” that we can come to appreciate what “home” is.

SO… back to the Importance of Sensing Tension

  • Our body/mind forms a unified system made up of the body and the mind, (which is made up of our brain, 5 sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue nerves&skin) and their senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching/feeling)  , the nervous system connecting the brain to all the parts of the body, the structural system of the bones, the internal organs, all the various tendons, muscles…      et al) .
  • This Body/Mind is a system which gathers sense information, makes comparisons, categorizes it, and makes inferences and deductions from this information. We use our physical experience as “beings limited by our use of the 5 senses”, to form comparisons, personal opinions, attitudes, likes and dislikes, and essentially our view of ourselves as an entity, and our relationship to everything around us.
  • The brain, being made of a grey soft matter, uses its connections through the nervous system, to the muscles, to manifest our attitude about things, and our reactions to things.
  • The brain uses these connections, creating tensions in some part of our body, to HOLD ON TO our attitudes and reactions, and keep them in place AFTER the actual physical situation has passed and is no longer present.
  • Once the brain realizes it has this ability of “holding on” or “stickiness” to a physical situation which has passed, or a physical situation which the brain sees as imminent or potential, the brain begins to utilize this information to create “virtual” situations…. namely, situations which only exist in the mind.
  • This creates a virtual world, or a “mind world” (as opposed to the physical world) of past events, future events, and potential events, which we can form opinions and attitudes about, ruminate on, plan our reactions to, and create emotional reactions and attachments to.
  • This “mind world” is a reflection of the “physical world” we actually live in. most of the mind world is based on our experience of this physical world.
  • Step by step, we become more and more wrapped up in this “mind world”, ruminating, planning, forming attitudes and opinions, and for many folks, spend less and less time actually experiencing the reality of the physical world.
  • This “mind world” also has many of the qualities of the One Essence, in its existence in “potentiality”, so it makes us very confused about which world is saying what…..


Here are some of my personal notes on how to practice zazen:

1.)   Find a quiet place where there are no distractions. Beginning this practice, it is important to learn to unwind the hurriedness we carry with us (usually in the chest), so find a time when you are not pushed for time.
2.)   Create a “quiet, serene, fresh air” environment. (Personally, i don’t use incense as it really isn’t healthy to breathe smoke, no matter what kind of smoke it is) Place any objects which make you feel serene.
3.)   Set up your zabuton (flat pillow), zafu(round sitting cushion), or chair usually facing a blank wall, face approx. 3 feet away from the wall.
4.)   Wear loose clothing (darker colors if others are present). Cover your knees. (i cover my neck as well)
5.)   Use your cell phone alarm, or something to set your time, so you don’t need to look at the clock….. to begin sitting starting with 15 minutes is quite normal. (I sit 30 minutes, and generally not longer. If i am going to sit multiple sittings, i usually do 10 minutes of kinhin, then do another sitting)
5.)   Sit in the posture you have chosen. (Full Lotus, Half Lotus, Burmese, Seiza (with a bench) It will take a while to become accustomed to sitting correctly…. don’t rush it!
6.)   Push your buttocks out to the rear while leaning forward, then straighten up.
7.)    – Pull your chin in slightly
– Nose in line with navel
– Ears in line with the shoulders
– Tongue lightly touching the inside of the upper teeth.
– Mouth closed, breathing in and out through the nose.
– Hands held in a mudra position (noted in the above notes)
8.)   When you feel you are settled, rock, first widely, then gradually smaller movements, until you feel “centered and balanced”.
9.)  i begin my sessions holding a set of “Mala beads” in my hands, rocking side to side, onto one buttock, then the other, breathing in (right) and breathing out (left), for the 108 Mala beads, fingering the beads one at a time: focusing on a) the counting, b) the bead in my fingers, c) the buttock i am sitting on…. i find starting doing this practice really calms the body/mind, and helps me to sit straight, not sit crooked or leaning to one side or the other.

9.)   i then do a relaxing technique which i “borrowed” from yoga, relaxing that place in my body as i am visualizing a looping thread beginning at my two big toes, looping around each joint in my foot, up to my heels, then my ankles, the 2 or 3 times looping on my calf, then looping the knee, then 2 or 3 times looping my upper leg, then looping the hip joint, then flipping the loop to a horizontal loop, looping up to my vertebrae,  looping each vertebra, pausing at any vertebra which seem to have “tension” or a “knot”, moving up to the bottom of the head. i have found that as i do this exercise, the body shifts and bobs, while it is settling itself.

10.) The actual “content” of your sitting, or the focus of your sitting has many different types, and will change as your practice matures. Note that sometimes, the changes you experience are due to the monkey mind not wanting to settle down, and the best plan is to continue on with one focus for a month or so at a time. Don’t worry that you will “miss something important”, because this is your “Great Mind” communing with your “individual mind”, and this process is not into trickery.

11.) Know that our “monkey mind” is like a mischievous child sometimes, and so again, the best plan is to stay in focus with a plan… either “breathing and attentively watching the mind” or “paying attention to the breath”, or moving into self-inquiry if some uncomfortable storyline arises.
Many stories of students running to tell their teacher wonderful things that happened while they were doing zazen are met with: interesting… what were you doing? I was counting my breath… ok … go back and continue…..

12.) Zazen is a maturing and growing process. If your zazen becomes a video game, when you realize this is what is happening… calmly bring yourself back to the focus of your sitting. The monkey mind might tell you it is boring, and you need to be accepting of the monkey mind…. after all it is your mistreatment of your monkey mind, and your rejecting of it which causes this disturbance in the first place…… I firmly believe this. The monkey mind becomes our enemy when you suppress it and its contents…….

13.) Shikantaza is a practice of the Soto Zen Buddhist group. It focuses on “Just Sitting”, and is in many folks view, the perfect match of practice to “our actual human situation”.
Shikantaza has no goals, because in reality, human beings (and all sentient beings) already have buddha-nature as our true nature. Those who find zazen is the road they wish to travel, often move to Shikantaza as their zazen practice.


Several Websites discussing Sitting Chan or Zen – zazen

Chinese Buddhism

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