“Ah, she was a terror for the flowers,” an Irish widower once remarked of his late wife. “She had no gift for leaving things alone.”
Few of us Westerners do, including those of us who practice Zen meditation. “Zazen,” writes the Soto master Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, “enables life to be life by letting it be” (1). And Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, advises us to “let things go as they go.” But how, exactly, are we to do that when practicing seated meditation? How much, if any, control should we relinquish, and when?
Nearly all the manuals agree that the Zen practitioner should sit in a stable posture, knees down and spine erect, and pay attention to the breath. But should we regulate our breathing? Should we count our breaths or simply observe the flow of air as it comes and goes? Is it really necessary to hold our hands in the “cosmic mudra,” left palm resting in the right? Should we strive to silence our inner chatter—or allow it to continue? Answers to these questions may be found, but they vary according to the school and the teacher.
Among those who advocate stern control, Japanese Rinzai masters occupy a pre-eminent position. Rinzai Zen has been likened to a “brave general who moves a regiment without delay,” and with few exceptions Rinzai teachers live up to that description. The renowned Rinzai master Omori Sogen Roshi advises the student to push the breath into the lower abdomen and “squeeze it lightly there with a scooping feeling” (2). Katsuki Sekida, another Rinzai teacher, directs the practitioner to narrow the exhalation by “holding the diaphragm down and steadily checking the upward pushing movement of the abdominal muscles” (3). Similar admonitions regarding breath, posture, and concentration resound throughout the Rinzai literature, lending a tone of rigorous authority.
By contrast, Soto Zen takes a less severe approach, urging continuous awareness more than strict control. Soto teachers do emphasize form in general and correct posture in particular, but the intent is less to marshal the body into submission than to facilitate the open flow of breath and the cultivation of awareness. In his Opening the Hand of Thought, Uchiyama Roshi admonishes us just to “drop everything and entrust everything to the correct zazen posture” (4). In similar fashion, he instructs us not to suppress discursive thoughts but merely to let go of “all the accidental things that rise in our minds.” Firm but gentle, Uchiyama’s instructions typify Soto teachings, which have been likened to a “farmer taking care of a rice field, one stalk after another, patiently.”
At the least directive end of the spectrum, the non-traditional teacher Toni Packer advocates “fresh seeing” but no particular control of breath or posture. In her essay “A Few Tips for Sitting,” she offers this advice:
No need to be rigid about proper posture. The back lifts itself up spontaneously as the mind inquires, opens up, and empties out. It is intimately related to our varying states of mind. In experiencing pain, sorrow, anger, fear, or greed, the body manifests each mood in its own ways. In openness and clarity the body feels like no-body (5).
Like those poets who view literary form as an “extension” (or revelation) of content, Packer views proper posture not as a form to be externally imposed but as an expression of an open, inquiring state of mind.
To the newcomer, the rich variety of methods that marks Western Zen can be more bewildering than encouraging. Whom should you trust, and what method should you follow? As a general rule, the unaffiliated novice would do well to choose a method and stay with it long enough to determine whether the prescribed forms of control promote or detract from the development of awareness. For my own part, I often begin a sitting with the Rinzai practice of susokkan, or counting of out-breaths. Later on in the sitting, I practice zuisokukan, or following the breath, focusing on the lower abdomen. Toward the end, I settle into shikantaza, or “just sitting,” which is sometimes called the “method of no method.” Although this sequence will not suit everyone, I have found it a skillful means for gradually relinquishing control. At the outset of the sitting I am, as it were, making something happen. By the end, I am learning, in the manner of the Taoist master Chuang Tzu, to “gaze at the world but leave the world alone.”
(1) Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought (Wisdom, 2004), 102
(2) Omori Sogen, An Introduction to Zen Training (Tuttle, 2001), 42
(3) Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training (Weatherhill, 1985), 56.
(4) Opening the Hand of Thought, 48.
(5) Toni Packer, The Wonder of Presence (Shambhala, 2002), 17.
“Gaze at the world but leave the world alone” is the Irish poet Derek Mahon’s paraphrase of Chuang Tzu’s admonition:
We have lost our equilibrium, he said;
gaze at the world but leave the world alone.
Do nothing; do nothing and everything will be done.
–Derek Mahon, The Yellow Book (Wake Forest University Press, 1998), 50
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