The Heart of Zen Practice
Anyone Can Do It
The practice of Zazen is such a simple practice that anybody can do it. It?s easy. It
doesn't matter if you?re smart or stupid. It doesn?t matter if you have a high IQ or
no IQ. Whether you?re literate or illiterate. Zazen is for all people. One of the
most revered Zen masters of all time is the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng. He lived
during the T?ang Dynasty, in the early seventh century. He transformed Indian
Buddhism into Chinese Buddhism. And then into Zen as we practice it today. The
Sixth Ancestor, Huineng, is so revered that a body of work ascribed to him is
called a sutra?The Platform Sutra. This is the only text, other than the texts of
the words of Shakyamuni Buddha, that is given the honor of being called a Sutra.
The Sixth Ancestor, Huineng was illiterate! And yet be became one of the greatest
of the Zen masters. He did not have a high IQ. If he could do it, you and I can.
Even a child can do it. Everyone can count at least from one to ten. Or one to five.
Or even one to three. In fact everyone who breathes can do it. And since everyone
breathes, everyone can do Zazen. It?s so easy that I?ll be able to give you the entire
practice in just a few minutes.
You begin with your body posture. You can do Zazen sitting cross-legged on a
pillow and mat. These are known in Zen language as a ?zafu? and ?zabuton.?
Or you can sit on a small, especially designed bench, known as a ?sezar? bench.
You place your legs underneath the seat of the bench. You?ll find this a very stable
and comfortable way to do Zazen.
Or you can sit in a chair.
You can even do Zazen lying down.
If you really want to be macho you can go into one of the lotus positions: full,
half, or quarter lotus.
In full lotus you fold your legs, placing your right foot on your left thigh, and your
left foot on your right thigh.
In half lotus you just either place your right foot on your left thigh, or left foot on
your right thigh.
In quarter lotus you place either foot just below the thigh.
There is another folded-leg sitting posture, called Burmese, in which you fold
your legs, placing them on the mat before you, with both feet just below the
But the actual position?lotus, sitting on a bench or a chair is not important. The
idea is to be still, and to slowly take control of your body. As your body is stilled
your mind is stilled.
Now you may object and say, ?There's no way I can keep my body still, even in a
chair, or a couch, or wherever. I soon find my body aching and hurting. I soon
feel strains and pulls in muscles I never knew were there. I would break out with
an itch, here behind my neck, or on my head, and worst of all, on the tip of my
nose. There?s no way I can sit still. I?ve tried it.? I say to you don?t worry about
that. The practice of ?going back to one? that I will soon describe will take care of
all your itches. All your strains and pains. Be patient with yourself. Remember,
even in your distracted state, even with all of your itches, muscle pain and
spasms, you still will be able to do Zazen. Don?t worry about it. ?Going back to
one? will slowly and very effectively calm your body. Calm the itches. Ease the
Pain. Bring your body to a state of peace. Your muscles will relax. Just be patient
with yourself and with your body, and do the practice.
Breathing is a very important part of Zazen. Breathing should be abdominal.
Bypassing your lungs, fill the tummy up so it expands like a balloon. Place your
hands on your legs, close to your body, fingers overlapping, thumbs slightly
touching?just below the navel?encircling the spot of the body known as the Ki
or Chi, or Joriki, which is known to be the most powerful ?chakra? or powersource
of the body. It is here that the strongest energy is generated. Maintain this
position and take a deep breath. After the belly is full with air, hold it for a
moment, and then slowly let it out. In-breath. Out-breath.
Then begin to count your breaths. I find the most powerful way of counting is on
the out-breath. Hold the count for the length of the breath. So with your outbreath
you would be saying ?Oooooooooooooooooone,?
?Twooooooooooooooooooo,? ?Threeeeeeeeeeee,? etc. Continue until you reach
the number ?ten,? then go back to ?one.?
The old Buddhists identified two types of thought: random thoughts and
reflective thoughts. Random thoughts are the ones that pop up in your head all
the time. They come and they go. Reflective thoughts are one of the random
thoughts you latch on to, entertain, develop, and get lost in. However, you will
eventually realize you are caught in a reflective thought, and as soon as you do, all
you have to do is stop the thought and go back to ?one.?
It?s as simple as that. Just go back to one. No matter where you are lost?you may
be counting ?thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three? and at the same time lost in a
thought, and then realize it, and say to yourself, ?What am I doing? How did I get
to thirty-three?? At that moment, just stop even that thought, and go back to
?one.? It is very important that you don?t fall into the trap of judging yourself for
getting lost. Just accept the fact that you?re lost and without any fuss go back to
one. No blame. Everybody gets lost. Now you know how to find your way. Just go
back to one.
This process of Breathing
- Counting of the breaths
- Getting caught-up in a reflective thought
- Realizing it
- Stopping the thought
- Returning to one
is purifying. By going through this process many times, you will lose count less
often and your mind will become serene, even, calm, and best of all, rested.
Do not be afraid of thinking. Do not feel that by thinking you are doing it all
wrong. That you are a failure at Zazen. It?s impossible to stop thinking. As long as
you are alive and breathe you will think. Remember it?s not the random thoughts
that pop up all the time that cause the problems. It?s the reflective thoughts. The
ones you involve yourself in. You shouldn?t even try to stop reflective thinking.
The point is not to stop thinking. The point is to go through the process.
This is the process of purification. And so paradoxically, the more you think?the
more you find yourself caught up in a reflective thought?the greater the
opportunity for purification.
The Mind as the Sea
Zazen is the only practice I know of which rests, trains, steadies, and relaxes your
mind. Zazen develops your mind to the point where it becomes the greatest tool
you can have. Your mind is always working. Even when you sleep your mind is
working. When you go on vacation your body rests. You lie down on the beach,
take in the warm rays of the sun and relax. But your mind is still working,
working, working. When you are sleeping your mind doesn?t rest?it dreams! And
everyone knows how much work dreaming can be! When you do Zazen your
mind rests. You mind is ?let go? and is given the time to build its inner muscles.
In this way your mind is strengthened and takes a rest at the same time. And
most important, your mind is at peace.
How to purify your minds. When I use the word ?purify? I don?t mean it in the
?holy? sense of the word, but rather in the sense in which a blacksmith places a
steel blade into a red-hot forge in order to purify it of all extra dross and bits of
metal that don?t belong. The steel then comes out of the forge red-hot and in its
pure state. It can now be worked on. It can be fashioned, pounded into shape,
tempered, and ultimately, sharpened into the finest blade.
Mind Purification Practice
Think of your mind as that piece of steel before it is placed in the forge. It is
cluttered with a lot of junk and dross. The dross of the mind is the many thoughts
you have. I?ve often likened the mind to a sea, and the waves of the sea as the
thoughts of the mind. Sometimes, probably, most times, the sea of your mind is
raging with the force of a hurricane with waves tossing and turning every which
way. Zazen is one way to calm your mind. But I?m now going to give you another
way of calming the thoughtwaves in the sea of your minds. And it?s a very simple
technique that you can begin using right away.
More about thinking.
First, the random thoughts. These are the thoughts that pop into and out of your
heads all the time. They never stop. One thought tumbles in. Another thought
pushes the first thought out, and that in turn is pushed out by another thought
and so forth. This goes on all the time, because we are alive. That?s how the mind
works. It?s impossible to stop this free flow of thoughts. And we wouldn?t want to
stop it even if we could. That would mean we are dead. Then, second, the
reflective thoughts. When you stop one of the pop-up thoughts and play with it,
develop it and work with it, you have a reflective thought. These are the thoughts
that can give you a lot of trouble. These are the thoughts that are the waves of
your seamind. It seems almost impossible to control these thoughts. But I?ll show
you how to do it.
You simply return to ?one.? You all know how to do that. As you have already
experienced, once you get lost in a reflective thought you may go with it for quite
some time without realizing it. But eventually you will realize you are stuck with a
reflective thought, and then all you have to do is return to ?one,? or whatever your
meditation subject happens to be.
But what about when you?re not meditating? What about in the middle of the
night? Your thoughts are crashing about in your heads every which way and you
can?t sleep they?re so busy. How do you deal with them then? Well one way is to
get up and begin meditating. But there?s another way. And as I said, it?s easy.
All you have to do is label the thought with one of three labels: Positive, Negative,
or Neutral. Or, Wholesome, Unwholesome, or Neutral. Or Happy, Unhappy, or
Neutral. Every thought can be identified and labeled with one of these three
The Positive and Neutral thoughts usually don?t give you a problem. The big
waves are the Negative thoughts. These are the ones that are most difficult to deal
with. But you?ve also got to be careful of the Neutral thoughts, because they can
go either way.
As soon as you label a thought as Positive, Negative, or Neutral, you gain control
over it. Then, once the thought is appropriately labeled, you can deal with it.
Labeling your thoughts is the way you control them. For instance, if you?re an
inmate at an institution, say you?re lying down trying to sleep, but you?re thinking
of your wife who didn?t visit you last Saturday as you expected. What was wrong?
You can?t get to a phone until next Friday. Why didn?t she come? And you can?t
stop thinking about it and begin to imagine all sorts of crazy possibilities. Your
thoughts develop into a nightmare that you can?t control. At this point stop! Label
that thought as Negative. Then you figure it out. ?I can?t deal with this thought
about why my wife didn?t visit me last Saturday, because I don?t have all the facts.
And I won?t be able to get all the facts until I can get to a phone. And I won?t be
able to get to a phone until Friday. So, I stop this negative thought now, and take
it up again on Friday, after I make that phone call. ?Basta!? And that?s all there is
to it. In other words, by labeling your thoughts you?re able, in a sense, to make an
appointment with that troublesome thought and you are able to deal with it in
your own time. You take control. Before you labeled the thought it had control.
But by putting a label on the thought you rob it of its power and take the power
back for yourself. And that?s all there is to it!
So to repeat this wonderful centuries old Buddhist teaching: label your thoughts
as Positive, Negative, or Neutral. And then deal with the thoughts as you wish in
your own time.
Labeling your thoughts is another way to purify your mind. By doing this
practice, slowly, the storm raging in your mind calms down. The waves of your
seamind get weaker and weaker. Soon there are no waves. And your seamind
becomes silent and still. Like a plate of glass. Now the moon up above, can be
perfectly reflected upon the surface of your seamind. This image?the moon
reflecting on the sea?is a classic metaphor of enlightenment. Listen to how
Dogen Zenji puts it in the ?Genjo Koan?:
A person's becoming enlightened is like the reflection of the moon in water.
The moon does not get wet nor is the water ruffled. Though the moonlight
is vast and far-reaching, it is reflected in a few drops of water. The entire
moon and heavens are reflected in even a drop of dew on the grass, or in a
drop of water. Our not being obstructed by enlightenment is like the
water's not being obstructed by the moon. Our not obstructing
enlightenment is like the nonobstruction of the moonlight by a dewdrop.
The depth of the water is equal to the height of the moon. As for the length
or brevity [of the reflection,] you should investigate the water's vastness or
smallness and the brightness or dimness of the moon.
Mind purification practice is something you can do at all times, and especially
during meditation. If you find, while meditating, that you?re being nagged by a
troublesome thought, label it, deal with it, then go back to your meditation. You
may find you want to deal with that thought right then and there. OK. Do it. But
notice now you?re in control and not the thought.
1. Rate the thoughts of each category. Begin with low rated neutral thoughts; rate
them numerically. Then go to negative thoughts and similarly rate them. Then
turn to your positive thoughts and rate them.
2.Then look at the whole salad of your thoughts and what do you have? What
does it?the salad?tell you about yourself? Is it where you want to be? Where do
you want to be? What changes need to be made? What needs to be added? What
needs to be taken away?
3. Apply this method to your words, your speech.
4. Apply this method to your acts.
Try to find a place in your home, or if you are an inmate in prison, in a corner of
your cell, that you can use for the place where you do Zazen. Set up a candle, an
image or photo of the Buddha, or of Christ, a flower, ( or a piece of fruit, or
vegetable, like a jalapeño, if you are in a prison and not allowed flowers), a stick
of incense, and presto, you have an altar. Try to sit at least once a day. Go through
as many counts of ten as you like. Begin with only a few minutes daily. It doesn?t
matter if you sit for only a few minutes. What matters is the consistency of daily
sitting. Slowly you will want to increase the time you spend sitting, until
eventually you will be sitting for around a half-hour, or about the time it takes for
a six-inch stick of incense to burn. A half-hour is a comfortable time to sit. After a
half-hour your legs may get tired and sore. It?s good to take a break and stretch
your legs. Walk around a bit. There is a formal way of doing this. It is called
Kinhin or Walking Meditation.
After sitting for a period, you rise, and?still keeping your mind focused on your
counting?begin slow walking. Place your hands across your chest, with the left
hand closed around your thumb, and place your right hand over the left hand.
This is known as the shashu mudra or hand posture. Keep your elbows slightly
away from your body. Begin your slow walk with your left foot, take a half step;
follow with the right foot with another half step. Calibrate your steps with your
breathing and counting. One half step, one breath, and the count of one. The next
half step; another breath, and the count of two. Continue to ten then go back to
one. Do kinhin for a few minutes then bow in place, keeping your hands in
shashu; then begin fast walking, and counting. Do this for a few more minutes.
Let kinhin last for a total of about five minutes. Then you may go back to your
And that?s it! That is Zazen! All you need to know. Everything else is
commentary. Everything else is extra. As you do this practice bit by bit your life
will be purified. Your life will change and take on new meaning. You?ll find you
are no longer slave to your passions, to your thoughts, to your instincts. You are
no longer slave to your cravings. Bit by bit you take control. You now can do
anything you wish to do. If you are addicted to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, you can
now begin to quit and take control these afflictive habits. You will be able to deal
with whatever problems come up because, as your life and your mind are
purified, you?ll be able to see things as they are. Such is the power of Zazen. You
can deal with anything that comes before you. Life is new, different, vibrant,
exciting and, simply wonderful. This is true even if you?re locked up in prison. No
prison bars can contain the inner freedom you realize. And the greatest thing of
all is that your actions, and even your thoughts, are no longer controlled, or
influenced, by other people, or anything else outside of you. You will be in
control. And you will be at peace.