Sitting: Part II

Sitting is the most natural, simple process you can think of. Yet it can get complicated—by methods, pain, circumstances. We may need to realize something about it—that it doesn’t take place just on the cushion, that others can be helpful, that there’s no one formula for everyone. We may even need to walk away from the cushion and the meditation hall. In this second issue on sitting, Just This takes a look at a variety of issues that can arise when we sit, including that old question, what is sitting anyway?

Buddha's Meditation and its Variants
(Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore)

The daunting plethora of modern Buddhist meditation techniques has proved itself a source of bewilderment, doubt and contention. As a result meditators bandy about many terms, like “mindfulness,” “insight,” and “jhana” with little agreement on what these mean, and with much uncertainty about the relative merits of alternative techniques or doubts about the viability of their own chosen practices. In spite of this, the Buddha actually gave some us some very clear instructions about meditation, available to us today in the Pali Suttas and in the Chinese Agamas. This series of posts considers, first, the Buddha’s meditation and its unique characteristics, and, second, its later variants and how these came to differ from their origins.

Peaceful Forest Tim Schorre

About Bikkhu Cintita Dinsmore

An Awkward Silence
(Lynne Flocke)

I used to think the best part of sitting was the bell indicating it was over.

Only a few minutes into my first zazen in a zen center, my body was screaming: Move! Get up! Walk out! When I ventured to take a peek at the others, I was amazed that the motionless mountains showed no indication that they heard my cacophony.

And even through my pain and numbness and longing for the bell, I realized the mountains were there for me and my inflexibly stiff middle-aged body trying to do something it likely was never meant to do. My sitting mates were holding still for me so that I might continue with my silent screams.

I have tried:

—sitting on a zafu or two, with extra support under each knee. Right hip cries in pain. Foot goes numb. Where’s the bell?

—kneeling with a seiza bench. I have two and they are beautiful in their wooden splendor. They are too short, even the taller ones. Can’t get the right angle for my knees.

—kneeling with three stacked zafus. This was it, I thought. Sitting through zazen after zazen during sesshin and no pain. Then one day I heard a muted crack as I sat on my tri-stack, later learning I had fractured my tibia bone near the knee.

—The humility of the chair. Wait…there is no humility in zen. Even though you are the oddball in the room. But the chair presents a new problem: ankles that swell into tree trunks after multiple zazen periods of a sesshin. One roshi ordered me to raise my feet on a stack of cushions. (Is that kosher in a zen center—ottomans supplied? Oh how I wish.)

There will be no nirvanic ending here. My struggle continues and I long for the day when I’ll be able to enter the zendo, take the nearest zafu and sit. Simply sit.

If that day never comes, is sitting worth the effort?

Well, people say that I’ve changed. A new friend who didn’t know me before zen actually thinks I’m centered. Shunryu Suzuki said the purpose of practice is to be yourself. That, I think, I am more and more. Don’t know where it’s coming from.

To be sure, I’m still short of samadhi. But there are times—whole groups of minutes now—when I become one with an emptiness I cannot describe. And when the bell rings now I’m often startled.

I still peek out at least once during every sit to feel the presence of the motionless mountains. To draw from their stillness as they help me keep mine. Do I, in my awkward silence, help them keep theirs?

About Lynne Flocke

Sitting Long
(Sarah Webb)

I've been at the dentist such a long time
with this tooth getting reamed out,
decay and decay ground away
in foul smelling powder.

And now it seems we're down to solid tooth.

I sit in a cave on sand.
I sit in a quarry of white stone, a quarry of bone.
The wind blows lightly over nerve.

This pain is beautiful like the grass.

It is itself,
as the grass bending brown in late afternoon sun
is itself.

This pain is hard to turn into,
like the swift current under the waterfall
I pull hard to enter.

This pain is vinegar sour,
its own taste,
as the grass has its own taste,

bitter at the center where it opens,
this pain.

About Sarah Webb

The Sound of Silence
(Kim Mosley)

About Kim Mosley

Zazen and Shikantaza
(Mark Bykoski)

Chinese characters

Japanese / Mandarin Chinese pronunciation

za / zuò

zen / chán

English meanings for each character


short for 禪那, phonetic transliteration of Sanskrit Dhyāna; meditation, absorption in awareness

Set phrases / compound words

sitting meditation, sit in meditative absorption


Zazen is a Japanese word borrowed from the Chinese language. As with most words of Chinese origin, each syllable has a distinct meaning and is written with a character that has meaning as well as pronunciation associated with it. Za simply means “to sit.” The origin of the word zen is a little more complicated. It originally comes from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which is translated into English variously as “meditation” or “absorption.” Sanskrit was the ancient literary language of India, and the language of the written texts used by the Mahayana Buddhists in northern India. When Buddhism spread in ancient times from India, through central Asia and into China, there arose a demand for Chinese translations of Sanskrit Buddhist texts. Teams of Chinese, Indian and central Asian scholars began producing translations. The translators mostly used Chinese words with meanings more or less equivalent to the Sanskrit words. But some words (that were considered special technical terms or perhaps difficult to translate) were not translated, but rather Chinese characters were chosen to represent approximations of the Sanskrit sounds. This is similar to the way modern American Zen practitioners use a mix of English, Japanese and Sanskrit words to talk about Zen Buddhism. The Chinese character chosen to represent the Sanskrit word dhyāna was . Its pronunciation was probably closer to dhyān in ancient Chinese, but in modern Mandarin Chinese it is pronounced “chán.” The Chinese word originally meant “altar area” or “to prepare an area for an altar.” It may have been chosen to transcribe dhyāna not only for its pronunciation, but also because the left-hand part of the character, (which means “to show” or “reveal”) is often used in characters having to do with ritual or religion. The right-hand part of the character, ,is there to roughly signify the pronunciation, and is used in several characters pronounced something like “tan” or “dan.” At some point the Chinese word was imported into Japanese, and now in modern Japanese it is pronounced “zen.” This same word, , is also the name of the Chan tradition of Buddhism in China, and the Zen tradition in Japan.

also has a long form, 禪那, where “ is the “na” at the end of “dhyāna.

Although zazen literally means “to sit in dhyāna,” broadly construed it can mean bringing dhyāna to any of life’s activities, standing or walking, sitting or lying down.


Chinese characters

Japanese / Mandarin Chinese pronunciation

shi / zhĭ

kan / guăn

ta / dă

za / zuò

English meanings for each character


manage, take care of, control

do, make, hit, strike


Set phrases / compound words

just, merely, nothing more than, do not hesitate to

sit in meditation

the practice of just sitting

Shikantaza is another Japanese word borrowed from Chinese. It is composed of two distinct words, shikan and taza, which themselves are compounds, each made up of two distinct words. The shi in shikan means “only.” Kan basically means “manage” or “take care of.” As a compound word, shikan means “merely” or “nothing more than.” In modern Chinese (where it is pronounced zhĭguăn), it is often used as an invitation (“By all means, don’t hesitate to go ahead and do it.”), or even an exhortation (“Just do it!”). The ta in taza originally means “to hit,” but probably means “to do” in this context. Za means “to sit,” the same za in zazen. As a compound word, taza (pronounced dăzuò in Chinese) means sitting meditation practice.

Just sit!

About Mark Bykoski

Why Not Sit Alone?
(Kim Mosley)

Kim Mosley

She wrote, “I sat for an hour yesterday in a chair. I don't understand why a person should sit in a group when they can sit at home longer. Then there is no driving. Drive to the center, take shoes off, go in, sit, put shoes back on, leave. To me going to the center is just for people who lack the discipline to meditate at home.”

Yesterday I wrote about Marina’s exhibit at MOMA. The figures, in meditative postures (maybe trances would be a better word), were nude. No, naked. No, nude. Oh, I don’t know. Models are nude, strippers are naked.

As I sat today, I was doan. It is the person who faces everyone who is facing the walls and rings the bells for the sitting and the service (I’m really a beginner at this role). I thought about the question above as I sat and looked at the sitters.

Earlier I was talking about the issue with a priest and the director of the zen center. I said that I thought sitting was much more intimate than talking. Sometimes it seems we talk in order to hide what we are feeling. Like clothes. When we sit, we are naked. Intimacy in zen is enlightenment. And I suspect part of enlightenment is seeing one's connection with all. Therefore ... therefore ... therefore ...

It appeared to me that some of us, though literally sitting with others, might be just sitting by and for themselves. But part of sitting is that we are sitting for others as well as for ourselves. The pain in my leg is the pain of suffering throughout Earth. The joy of a deep breath that makes a pleasant journey in and out of me is the joy of someone seeing a newborn emerge from their mother's womb. Sitting is not a solitary activity, no matter where it is done.

In one day, according to a fellow sangha member's blog, 40000 thoughts pass through our head. We are naked when we are sitting because those thoughts are now revealed to us. Nothing is between who we are and who we pretend to be.

We feel the presence of others in the room. Sometimes we hear them wiggle a little, or cough, or hear their stomachs’ growling.

But still, why would we want to be in a room naked with others? Or are we really with others (who are actually other parts of ourselves), linked together by a web? I read a description once of a number of monks going into a three month practice period (wrote about this recently as well) and they were told to think of themselves as oarsmen on a ship. If they didn't all keep rowing, the ship wouldn't make it to their destination.

Is sitting a social activity? It certainly isn’t a cocktail party, where we have the tendency to wear a lot of clothes, hoping to hide our secrets.

Some of us feel like we need our daily sit. It is our chance to share very private moments with our selves, and with each other.

I don’t think I really answered the question. But maybe that's ok. This article, Why We Chant, mentions some of the benefits in sitting together.

Kate Freeman's comment—

The bus is crowded
A passenger in each seat
We sit in silence
We all share this still moment
Travelers sharing the road

About Kate Freeman
About Kim Mosley 

Sitting for Two
(Keigetsu Heather Martin)

Pregnant zazen is pretty strange experience. It was different than what things were like before, and it changed as things went along. I once thought that Zen would help me stay aloft above unpleasant things and aloof from worries, but in practice it often dumps you right in it, to experience its every nuance in detail.

It's not as bad as it sounds.

Pregnancy threw some aspects of this phenomenon into sharp relief. This is my best effort at expressing what it was like.

It turns out that repeated vomiting can be a useful Zen practice. Lying on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, miserable but trying not to wake anyone up, I would tell myself little Zen jokes … “In zazen there is no barf, and this no-barf continues endlessly.” I thought about how feeling sick is a universal human experience. I thought about how nausea is a sign of a healthy pregnancy and found a way to be grateful for it, even as I was wishing for it to stop. I depended heavily on others to help me get food into myself and my first child. People at work had to make allowances for me. We were all in it together whether we wanted to be or not.

The first trimester coma was like boredom in a long retreat. So tired. So, so tired. Parenthood is one long sesshin with no exit, my friend Peter says. You stay awake long enough to do what is asked, and then you sleep when it is time to sleep. Or, you lie awake thinking about how you will never be able to cope with tomorrow unless you fall asleep right now.

One such night when I was sitting awake, there was a vague sensation of a tiny, wriggling fish having swum the stream of my breath down into the hara. I was elated to fully realize I was not alone.

As the baby grew, sitting was unmistakably interrupted by someone else's movements. Following the breath, hands just so, head balanced … and then my entire belly would shift off to one side on its own. There was the intrusion of big kicks and tiny hiccups. Thump. Thump-thump. Pause. THUMP. Worse was the intrusion of my own mind—I would notice it had been a little longer than usual since I had felt his presence, and then would sit inhaling and exhaling the worry that he was in trouble. Still other times it seemed we were in sync, and it was like sitting together. I had very little influence over or ability to predict what I was presented with.

I became so aware of what I was eating, breathing, and touching—trying to make fine, careful discrimination between skillful acts and unskillful. The baby was literally sharing my breath, my food. It could have been crippling, but it quickly became apparent that it is impossible to know what effects our actions will ultimately lead to. I made an effort to be reasonable. Sometimes I had salad, sometimes I had cake. It seemed like a good idea to try to err on the side of salad.

Late in pregnancy, there was no way to make zazen comfortable. My back ached. My head ached. My legs both ached and fell asleep. I could not sit for as long as I felt I should.

When he was born, my first thought was how warm he was. My second thought was that his birth will someday naturally include his death, and mine. I had the same thought with my first son‘s birth. Though it is less of a shock this time, it is still an excruciating kind of joy.

Betty Gross
Now that I am sitting with the baby on the outside, for a very few minutes on a completely irregular schedule, it doesn't seem like pregnant zazen is special. If you remove all references to pregnancy and read this again, everything it says about zazen is still true:
Discomfort is a useful and universal practice.
The support of others is critical.
There is always something poking unpredictably and unbidden at our zazen—the intrusions and joys offered by others and by our own minds. These are gifts.
The middle path requires effort, but also gentleness. But also effort.
Joy naturally includes sorrow—only with each other are they the entirety of things.
Our own practice nourishes us, and those who are connected to us. This is not a metaphor.
Life is only created by everyone, all the time.

So all zazen is pregnant, with growth and opportunity and unease, with self and other.

There is no sitting for one.

About Keigetsu Heather Martin 

Two Poems
(Irene McDonald)

Daytrip to Tassajara

By the doorway on my way in,
half forgotten, a breath of incense
and the sudden deep sense of home
after a long time abroad.
But nothing looks smaller,
and no one has grown old.

At the Retreat

Stone fountain talking to itself
in the bamboo by the kitchen path,
a blue-eyed cat, formed of emptiness,
tends to itself in silence.
And I in the morning wind
sip green tea. With honey

About Irene McDonald

Two Poems
(Brandon Lamson)

Fire Monks

Burn the gong, hammered bronze
singing its OM, burn cedar planks
and fragrant shavings, burn boards
with knots that swirl and dissipate
like ghost melanomas. Altars vanish.
Teakwood platforms burn,
casting rays into an ocean of black
cushions, rafts nailed from the broken
sides of boxes that once held
our original faces. The forest blazes
as crews of fire fighters dig trenches.
and their crimes burn from their hearts.
If they removed their masks
and inhaled, they would breathe
a mercy that consumes everything.

A. J. Bunyard
Black Panther Bodhisattva

Huey Newton's shotgun is Manjushri’s sword of non-dual wisdom.
Silkscreened on my shirt, Black Panthers 2000,

another millennium of the dharma wheel's turning,
spokes revolving in a sky of flames that consumes all impurities.

And the hub, a pivot at the center of suffering, a still point
pierced by compass needles tracing parabolas

between centers of gravity, is me, Black Panther
Bodhisattva, sitting in silence as the rainforest drinks power.

About Brandon Lamson

From Jamie Howell

… there are two lines in Genjokoan that, after 25 years, have changed the point of my awareness during Zazen and I often wish I had read and understood them (as I do) much earlier …
They are: “To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.“

… someday I will have to write you about sitting a sesshin with Sasaki Roshi in 1980 and having everything disappear and getting sooooo scared … I went to Sasaki and asked him, “Where did everybody go … Yeow, I was scared …

About Jamie Howell

My Meditation
(Kim Mosley)

Kim Mosley

My cousin writes, "Although I've thought at times about studying meditation, I'm not sure it's the right path for me. I tried transcendental meditation in my twenties, but didn't find it fit me at that time. But I have wondered how and why it's become such an integral and important aspect of your life—what it means to you, how you feel it's changed you."

Though the expression Zen meditation is used, meditation in Zen is often referred to as sitting or even just sitting. It is what we do when we aren't doing something else, but in a sense, we try to be present no matter what … so sitting is really all one can do.

I did try for awhile dynamic meditation, which was done at a Thai Buddhist temple near our house. In it, your arms are moving in a complex pattern during the entire time, so unless you are Einstein, all you can focus on is having your arms do the right thing. I felt like I was building pathways in my brain that would live on to haunt me like when I spent a few very long days in college saying the same phrase over and over again trying to sell newspapers to cover my tuition ($350, not the current $52,000).

Sitting is not something one studies. What is studied when sitting is oneself. It is looking in the mirror, but rather than doing it with one sense, you are doing it with six senses (the mind is included as a sense). Though you focus on your breath, often other thoughts come and go. I feel when I sit down that I'm a stream and someone threw in a pebble. As I sit, I calm down. It seems to take less and less time to settle down as I sit more and more. I'm fortunate to have another meter to see how my sitting is going. My ears ring. When I am sitting (really sitting), they quiet down … sometimes so I can't hear any ringing even if I try.

Initially I was anxious for the time to be over...esp. since my legs would hurt, or my face would itch, or my back would hurt. Now I realize that when the hurts appear they will go away. And I thank them (the pains and itchings) for visiting and then say goodbye to them.  Tonight my nose itched. My first thought was that I should scratch it because it could be an alien trying to take over my consciousness. But I waited. And either it went away, or the alien did his thing and I am him/her. I used to get tired and fall asleep. Now I'm not so tired. Maybe I'm breathing more deeply.

I'm not sure that sitting is a path, but rather a tool like clothes that one wears when taking a journey. Rather than keeping you warm, sitting keeps you quiet so you can feel the ground.

Comment by Kate Freeman (a friend in St. Louis):

Have you noticed that after a meditation session, often the meditation teacher or monk will go around the room and ask people what they feel the meditation did for him/her?

I always found this question odd simply because I didn’t know how to answer it truthfully. I couldn’t say that I ever experienced a peace or a calmness beyond what I was feeling when I first walked in the room. Usually my mind just argued with itself over shit that I had already been thinking about that day. Sometimes I remembered stuff I hadn’t thought of in a while and I would wonder why I had all the sudden thought of that. Sometimes I would sit there and wonder if it would bother anyone if I moved my leg because it had fallen asleep and it didn’t like its current condition. Sometimes my mind got bored and I would sing show tunes or commercial jingles in my head to pass the time. Was it doing me any good? Well … I wasn’t smoking or using precious electricity during the time I sat.

I actually liked the dynamic meditation. I wouldn’t say that I focused on the arm movement as it just became very second nature. I also wouldn’t say that the thoughts stopped or that I wasn’t singing the Oscar Meyer Baloney commercial in my head, but I did feel a difference in my body. A gradual relaxing of muscles and perhaps a change in blood pressure. It was something I could feel bodily. I’ll give it to you there is this sense of repetitiveness about it. But I actually think that’s why I preferred it over just sitting. But from the beginning, I recognized this was the same feeling I got when I crocheted, which I also enjoy.

For a while, I was on this huge Robert. J. Lifton kick. He talks some about how Korean captures used isolation as a brainwashing technique. Basically the longer a person sits without stimuli, the more open to suggestion they become. During this time, I watched some video about people who had volunteered for an isolation study. One of the participants was this guy who felt that his meditation practice would help him through this isolation period. He was just going to meditate through it. Well, he did a little better than the other participants, meaning that it took him a bit longer to fall asleep or start hallucinating. I remember watching this video thinking that monks go into caves and isolate themselves for months as part of their practice to better their understanding of … Nirvana. The people in this study get locked up in isolation and go a bit crazy and have difficulty distinguishing between reality and mere suggestion afterward. It’s weird because on some level these are the same practice. What makes the difference?

One night after the dynamic meditation, the monk asked the ‘What did it do for you’ question and went around the room to get answers. I gave my usual answer that I didn’t know how to answer the question yet and that maybe I would be able to answer it later. But as he went around the room, the answers were all sort of similar. The meditation reduced my anger. It brings me a sense of peace. It helps me feel calm. Then the monk got to this little girl who was probably about 9 or so and she says, “I feel so peaceful. It just makes me so calm and I am happy. I really like this.” And everybody smiled at the girl and congratulated her and told her to keep up the effort. I remember thinking, “Only took that kid two sessions to figure out the script.”

But even this event isn’t the one that most bothers me about that school of dynamic meditation. The thing that bothered me the most was this video the monks showed us one night. It was about the individual who had created this meditation form and his retreat area in Thailand. There were loads of people in the video talking about how this practice had enhanced their lives sooooo much. It was obnoxious. Can you blow your horn any more promotional video? But then I noticed that the rooms these people meditated in had locks on the outside of the door. These meditators were not locking themselves in to meditate. They were locked up to meditate. WTF? I honestly feel very uncomfortable practicing in a tradition that puts locks on the outside of the doors. I don’t think that is necessary. I think it is weird.

So anyway when one talks about meditation as a path or a tool, it’s really the same thing isn’t it? It can be the wrong path or it can be the wrong tool. Really all one is saying is that this particular way doesn’t seem to suit him/her at this time.

So is meditation good or not? I think it depends on many factors what kind of outcome the meditation practice will have. If you feel that it helps you relax by quieting the left hemisphere of your brain for a short period of time and allowing the right side to take some dominance, I’m not going to take issue with this. It might be true and there might be benefits to doing this. But that same practice can do some serious damage. The members of Aum Shinrikyo (who practiced a form of meditation) still believe the teachings of their head monk are good despite the fact that they came from a man who organized the release of deadly gas in a busy subway systems.

What has meditation done for me? … It got me to think about all this nonsense … My boloney has a first name. It’s O S C A R …

About Kate Freeman
About Kim Mosley

Wax On—Wax Off
(Joseph W. Hall)

One of the disappointing things about Zen is that I always thought there was going to be more wax on – wax off. Like most people, my idea of Zen was formed at the movies and in dormitory conversations and in the occasional buzzed hot tub speculations. The twin pillars of eastern philosophy were Shogun and the Karate Kid, where Arnold from Happy Days turns out to be a totally cool old Samurai dude living in LA who teaches young Daniel-san karate by making him wax his car over and over again. Just when Daniel-san is about to quit, Mr Miyagi gives him his first karate lesson and Daniel-San discovers that he already knows how to block the attacks—it’s the same motion as putting the wax on and wiping it off.

So of course the first time I headed into the dokusan room I was all ready for some wax on – wax off. Instead I met a teacher who was friendly, interested in my goals and didn’t grunt at all. The teacher seemed particularly concerned that I wasn’t experiencing unnecessary pain and had no special chores for me to do that would sharpen the skills I would need for enlightenment. She suggested I go back to the Zendo and continue to stare at the wall.

I always forget that it’s not wax on – wax off if you are expecting it. Along the way there are moments of this, but by and large, my progress has been steady.

Then there is Ed Brown.

Edward Espe Brown was ordained by Suzuki Roshi in 1971 and is very much a hands-on practitioner of the way. He’s well known as a chef, leads sitting groups and retreats all over northern California, and his bread making classes are sold out and his cookbooks move steadily off the shelves. Me, I like him because he is a renegade, working with vipassana, yoga, chi gung, tomatoes, radishes, pretty much whatever he can get his hands on. He’s one of those teachers that gets that “not really zen” look from the other kids, and he knows it. And he happened to be at Tassajara one Sangha Week, and that is how I found myself listening to him give a talk that I delighted in, listening to him laugh at himself, watching his eyes sparkle as he talked about the various objects in the world, and generally advocate following a path of loving revolution that went all the way back to 1971. It was only in the last five minutes of the talk that a structure seemed to arise as he talked about this imagination exercise and then out of the blue he said “Please, do not rest your hands in your lap during Zazen.” And that was the end of the talk.

A few weeks later I was back in Austin, but the oddness of that comment continued to haunt me. At Tassajara, Ed seemed very clear in advocating that we follow our own hearts. The last thing you expected him to say was “I think you should do it my way.” There was a mystery here and it was drawing me in. A few weeks later, I began doing what he said …

If you look around a Zendo (despite the fact that you are not supposed to) it becomes apparent that, over time, most people become fairly rigorous about the form—with the exception of the mudra. Generally we rest our hands in our laps. This is not where Dogen says they go, but it feels natural and our hands get heavy after the bell rings, and everyone else is facing a wall. The correct position of the hands is with the little fingers against the hara, a spot on the abdomen about two inches below the navel. The hara is the geographical center of the body/mind, and we are instructed to focus awareness on the sensation of contact between the hands and hara. The second way we get lazy with the mudra is by letting the thumbs drift apart or press against each other. The nexus at the tips of the thumbs should be treated like a spark plug with just the slightest gap built in to allow the current to jump without being dissipated by areas of extraneous contact.

Ed Brown says you should lift your hands up and imagine your heart beating, realize the heart/mind is located in your body, not the head. In his exercise you examine your breathing and feel the air wash in and out and the interplay of oxygen and C02 as your breath crosses though your lungs and into the blood stream. The hemoglobin that carries your breath enters your heart and is pumped through a vortex into your left shoulder. You can feel this, and sense it, as it moves through your arm and into your hand. Trace this energy downward and feel the connection between your left hand and your heart and allow the strength of your heart to lift and support your left hand. Let your attention find the thumbs and tune their position until you can feel the electrical charge to jump the gap to the right hand. Simply observe as the circles of energy complete themselves and return to the breath where the lungs exchange the breath with the world.

And as I tried this I discovered that he was right and there seemed to be lightness to my hands when I did the self-guided meditation thing. This of course is not Zen, but I discovered that I if I did this for a minute, the effect on my hands would last longer. I started holding my hands at my hara even when I didn’t think anyone was looking. I noticed that this was improving the curve of my back just a little and this helped keep me motivated to keep me going. It started with five minutes, then ten, and after a few months It seemed almost natural to hold my hands at my hara for the entire period. My posture was finally, if not perfect, at least finally conforming to Dogen’s Fukan-zazengi.

My feeling at this point was probably pretty similar to yours right now, Uh, we’ve come all this way but perfect posture just doesn’t seem like the payoff I was expecting from a story that starts with a radical from the summer of love. This is good but what about wax on-wax off?

So try this … First, let’s make sure you’ve got the basics covered. I will assume that you have comfortably mastered the art of stabilizing your lower body, your knees are loose and solid on the mat and, together with your sit bones, anchor your spine on a solid tripod. Your back is curved with the weight of your head centered over your pelvis, and the weight of your body hangs easily on a structure of bone. Pain is minimal, and when the bell rings, you can stand up immediately. Check?

OK, we are going to try to create dynamic tension and try to sit right in the very center of this energy. There are four basic kinds of tension at work:

Vulnerability vs. Stability Stillness vs. Movement Effort vs. Relaxation Solitude vs Connection

Lets bring your hands up to your hara so that the pinkie fingers are now lightly touching your stomach at a point two fingers below the navel. Hold them there. When the slightest pain arises, sway left to right about an inch either way to loosen up the muscles. Do this for a few seconds whenever you notice tightness coming on in your back. It is important to stay ahead on this as it is much more difficult to deal with muscle pain after the constriction has taken root. Hold your mudra at your hara until it hurts and then continue with the pain, examining it, being very curious about it. Fascinating, isn’t it? OK, sorry, when you start to feel seriously frustrated, drop your hands. Rest a few minutes, and when you notice you have forgotten how frustrated you were—lift your hands up off your lap.

While you are doing this, practice Ed Brown’s visualization exercise. It is probably vipassana, but nobody knows so let’s just go with it. Really focus on your mudra; ignore the temptation to shift to an interpretive version of the cosmic mudra. Just like suspending your hands—this is an exercise—hold as long as you can, relax, repeat.

Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate on the point of contact between your hands and body. Feel your breath rise and fall, the oxygen enter your body and wash into your bloodstream, flow into your hands, the arcing of electrical energy across your fingertips and back to your lungs as it returns to the world before your eyes. Concentrate. You are trying to know these rhythms intimately.

This will seem extraneous but do it anyway; when the bell rings, watch the priests and senior practitioners carefully. Stare particularly at their hands. You are looking for a certain looseness which not everyone has, an arcing grace that somehow seems to almost cut the corners that mark the various points of the bow. Watch them, stare at them, forget what your name is and just watch them until their movements produce actual emotional reactions in your body.

Do all of this for several months at least. At some point you will notice the bell rings one day and your hands are still at your hara and your meditation was like a series of waves. This in itself is beautiful, but it’s still not why we are on this page.

Now if you are the type who hates being told how the movie ends, stop reading here. If on the the other hand you’re like me and honestly wouldn’t last two days on Mr Miyagi’s truck, then you should probably read on.


So you keep going and zazen is good and it is nice to know that if Dogen saw you right now he wouldn’t hit you with the kyosaku stick, but you still haven’t seen the real change. Then one day the bell rings and your hands seem to float gracefully upwards to connect before your eyes. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you are not at all sure that these are your hands. They just seem to be acting a little different. Soon after, you are talking and you notice your hands moving, expressing the words as they arise, delineating your ideas as you speak.

Now, pause and look at what you’ve done. By holding your hands up, you have strengthened the muscles that support your arms, allowing your hands to rise up effortlessly, almost floating in front of you. The muscles in your hands that you developed started making stronger movements and the surrounding muscles have compensated, allowing for a wider range of expressive movement. You are making subtle gestures now without even knowing what they mean. After spending hundreds of hours moving with your breath, your attention intertwining the motion of your hands to your heart, you have begun to synchronize the vagus nerve impulses to your core systems with the motor nerves in your hands. This is a deep, deep, form of honesty. You naturally circumscribe the world as you see it arise. Also, there is an eagerness and an ambidexterity that emerges, and it is simply fun to follow your hands as you enter a room and watch them turn on a light switch, lift up a glass of water and dance in arcs through the tasks of arranging and moving objects in time and space.

Also, you begin to notice something as you feel the current of energy move across your hands: When your mudra is composed, you’re not so sleepy. You’ve created a handheld dynamo, a little fission reactor that has the power to wake you up.

And most importantly, your mind begins to notice something: these hands that move so well in sync with the body require very little guidance. The whirring machinery of sending orders to the limbs seems oddly silent, and naturally a person notices smoothness and a quietness.

Betty Gross
About Joseph W. Hall

About Writing and Meditation
(Philip Whalen)

From: Beneath a Single Moon, ed. Kent Johnson and Craig Poulenich. Shombholo. 1991.

I thought that I’d write books and make money enough from them to travel abroad and to have a private life of reading and study and music. I developed a habit of writing and I’ve written a great deal, but I’ve got very little money for it.

With meditation I supposed that one could acquire magical powers. Then I learned that it would produce enlightenment. Much later, I found out that Dogen is somewhere on the right track when he tells us that the practice of zazen is the practice of enlightenment. Certainly there’s no money in it. Now I have a meditation habit.

Jack Kerouac said that writing is a habit like taking dope. It’s a pleasure to write. I usually write everything in longhand. I like the feel of the pen working on the paper.

In my experience these two habits are at once mutually destructive and yet similar in kind. I write for the excitement of doing it. I don’t think of an audience; I think of the words that I’m using, trying to select the right ones. In zazen I sit to satisfy my sitting habit. It does no more than that. But while sitting, I don’t grab onto ideas or memories or verbal phrases. I simply watch them all go by. They don’t get written; they don’t (or anyway, very seldom) trip the relay on my writing machinery. Considering that I’ve spent more days in the past fifteen years sitting zazen than I have spent in writing, it’s little wonder that I’ve produced few books during that time.

I became a poet by accident. I never intended to be a poet. I still don’t know what it’s all about. If I wrote poetry at all, it’s because I could finish it at the end of the page. Maybe it would run halfway down the next page, but it would come to a stop. What I wanted to do with writing was to write novels and make money like anybody else. And now I find myself in this ridiculous industry of writing these incomprehensible doodles, and why anybody’s reading them I can’t understand.

As far as meditation is concerned I’m a professional. I’ve been a professional since 1973. And that’s my job. I find it very difficult to sell. And that’s interesting; that’s another job I have, to sell you on this idea that it’s good to sit. Maybe that’s where the poetry comes into all this, that it has to be an articulation of my practice and an encouragement to you to enter into Buddhist practice. To get yourselves trapped into it I hope. And then try to figure out how to get out of it. It’s harder to get out of Buddhist practice than it is to get out of writing poetry.

I write very little nowadays. There is a journal in which I write things like “the sun is shining” or “Michael McClure was in town and we had a nice time” or “the flowers are blooming” … And so I don’t have much to say because I talk all the time. I have to give lectures, I participate in seminars, and I have not much chance to wander up and down a hillside picking flowers and picking my nose and scratching my balls and whatnot. And thinking of hearing, having a chance to hear what’s going on around me, or hearing people in restaurants or on a bus. There are no restaurants in Santa Fe worth sitting in, there are no buses at all. So I don’t hear anymore, hardly at all, unless I travel. I was recently in New York and around, and now I’m here at Green Gulch Farm, and it’s interesting to hear what’s going on outside. While somebody was talking there was a robin outside raising hell. But that doesn’t mean anything. I mean I’m not about to write a poem on the subject of so-and-so talking, while a robin outside was raising hell.

And so I’m here under false pretenses. You must deal with that however you can. I’m quite willing to talk to people and explain things to them if they have questions. Or I might be sitting doltishly looking out the window. So it will be necessary for you, if you want something from me, to try to get it by asking questions. I’m not about to offer anything. I don’t have anything to offer. I’m sorry—that’s the “emptiness” part.

I think there’s a great deal of misunderstanding about what emptiness is, the idea that emptiness is something that happens under a bell jar when you exhaust all the air from it. That’s not quite where it’s at as far as I understand it. The emptiness is the thing we’re full of, and everything that you’re seeing here is empty. Literally the word is shunya, something that’s swollen up; it’s not, as often translated, “void.” It’s packed, it’s full of everything. Just as in Shingon Buddhism, the theory that everything we see and experience is Mahavairochana Buddha, the great unmanifest is what we’re actually living and seeing in. Wallace Stevens said, “We live in an old chaos of the sun.” Well we’re living in a live chaos of Mahavairochana Buddha. What are you gonna do with it? How are you gonna handle that?

My Buddhist name is Zenshin Ryufu, which is very impressive. The reason that you have a name like that is that you keep forgetting it and it makes you wonder about why you got it and why it’s for you, because it’s a very exalted idea. Zenshin means ”meditation mind” and it’s also a Japanese pun. It means something like “complete mind.” There’s also a zenshin essay by Dogen. Ryufo is two Chinese characters that literally mean “dragon wind,” but in Chinese literature I found out it means “imperial influence” (the dragon stands for the Chinese emperor). It’s pretty complicated, and you wonder, well what does that have to do with me? Four words—Zen·Mind·Dragon·Wind. What in the world, what connection does that have with this individual who has received this name and is ordained as a monk? So that is a problem that becomes more or less clear as you continue being a monk—what your name is. And of course names and poetry all come together. Gertrude Stein says poetry is calling the name of something. That’s what we do all the time, actually—call ourselves. There’s the story of the Zen master who every day would call his own name. He’d say, “Zuigan!” And he’d say, “Yes!” “Zuigan! Don’t be misled by other people!” Of course, the other people were Zuigan too.

I like the idea somebody mentioned of erratic practice. It immediately reminded me of rocks that were left around when the glaciers receded. A lot of times setting out in a field there are no other rocks. It’s a very strange appearance. You can’t account for the rock’s position unless you remember the glacier that carried the rock there and then went away. Zazen is slow but leaves erratic boulders.

I have a number of fancy titles at the Dharmasangha in Santa Fe. But when push comes to shove it means that I’m the person who goes down and does the opening ceremony in the zendo every morning and sits two periods. And then I go down again at 5:30 in the evening and sit again with whoever shows up. And the rest of the time I study. We have two seminars a week with Baker Roshi on the koans in the Shoyoruko as translated by Thomas Cleary. I’ve also been studying with Baker Roshi closely for the last three years with the intention at last of trying to become a Buddhist teacher, to help get this show on the road, which is still very precarious in this country. The chances as I see it of Buddhism simply becoming something that people do on Sunday just like Methodism or Catholicism are very strong. But I hope that there will continue to be centers in the country like Tassajara, or Shasta Abbey, or Mt. Baldy. There will be these hidden spots around the country where people can hide out and do more serious, concentrated practice, to keep the door open for everybody to get the chance to try it out, find out what it’s like to not do anything except follow a particular schedule and do a lot of sitting and a lot of physical work. This is something that I think is necessary in order for human beings to go on being human beings. So far all we’ve been able to invent in the United States is the business of building small cabins in the woods and going there to hide out, then come back and write a book about it.

That practice, that sort of individual, hermit, erratic practice, is something that’s really important. The danger of Zen Centers or monasteries is that people will take them seriously as being real. We should find our own practice; we might start out in an official place, but we should discover somehow that we don’t need official institutions. It’s exactly like Lew Welch says in his poem about the rock out there, the Wobbly Rock, “Somebody showed it to me and I found it myself.” The quote isn’t exact. Lew was an erratic Zen practitioner who was a great poet.

The real tension, I think, is between official poetry, the kind that we’re taught in school and is kept in libraries, and the kind we really believe in- what we are writing and what our friends write. The same thing holds for meditation; what we discover for ourselves and learn. At some point you can forget it and go off and make a pot of spaghetti. We used to go down to Muir Beach years ago to gather mussels off the rocks. We’d build a bonfire, put seaweed on the fire to steam the mussels. We’d eat them, then jump up and down in the waves and have fun. That was … enough. Probably enough. Or too much: Oh, I guess Blake said it, “Enough, or too much.” That’s all.

About Philip Whalen

Is there more to zen than sitting?
(Kim Mosley)

Kim Mosley

The word zen means sitting. But what is sitting? Paying attention. As you pay attention you see suffering, among yourself and others … and you feel compassion for those suffering, so you have to deal with that. If you sat once a day and thought that was all there was to it, then you'd be missing the big part … the part of sitting while you are doing the rest of their life. Being present when you are with others. Being present when you are with oneself.

Zen people like to answer questions “yes and no.” Since ”the past no longer is” and ”the future has not yet come” all you have is the present. And when you sit you are there, in the present. And you learn from that laboratory to be present in more stimulated environments (though actually nothing is more stimulating than quiet because you can hear a pin drop and feel a fleeting thought touch your heart).

I'm sure I could write the rest of my life about this, without lifting my fingers from the keyboard … and I really don't know anything about it. I guess my best answer for now, since I have to still make a drawing and pack bags for a trip tomorrow is this: yes, there is more … and the more is everything else … and no, sitting is really, in the broadest sense, everything that we do and are. When you are awake, you are sitting … in the sense that sitting means awake, noticing, feeling, touching, accepting.

XO A Beginner.

About Kim Mosley 

Contributors to this issue

Ann Jene Bunyard is a Gemini whose favorite color is Red, favorite band is Led Zeppelin, and favorite words are … “thanks Mom, I love you too.”

Mark Bykoski is a member of the Austin Zen Center. He studied Chinese at the University of Maryland and has traveled to China.

Bikkhu Cintita Dinsmore writes, "A lot of construction is disrupting the accustomed stillness at the Sitagu Buddhist Vihara where I live, which will produce a pagoda, a Dhamma hall, many more cottages, and, my particular interest, a dedicated brick library building! Cintita blogs at .

Lynne Flocke lives in Wimberley, where she enjoys meditating on a rock ledge above the Blanco River. A journalist in Austin decades ago, she’s a recently retired professor of communications law at Syracuse University in New York. She has been a member of Zen centers in Syracuse and Austin. 

Kate Freeman lives as a freethinker, poet, writer, and artist in St. Louis, Missouri. Kate blogs at and at .

Betty Gross studied Yoga in India, France, and Greece and has taught yoga for fourteen years in Austin. Her Buddhist study started with Chogam Trunpa Rimpoche, and she has studied Buddhism in Nepal and Tibet. She has been a member of AZC for many years.

Rev. Joseph W. Hall is a resident priest at the Austin Zen Center. He attends Shogaku Zen Seminary as part of the Shogaku Priest Ongoing Training program. His energy is enthusiastically focused on the nexus between Lay Practice and the Monastic world, and he is fascinated by the ways in which we interpret the world and the means by which physical motion trains the mind. He blogs at .

Jamie Howell, Kogen Seido / Wild, Untamed Source - Sincere Way, began his Zen Practice with Joshu Sasaki Roshi in 1979 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. In 1983, when he was living in San Francisco and his eldest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, Jamie began to study with Michael Wenger at the San Francisco Zen Center. He spent the next 28 years raising four children with his wife (now of 41 years) Heidi, working in the music business and later the real estate business while dedicating himself to Zen practice.

Brandon Lamson of the Houston Zen Center recently received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. Before moving to Houston he taught at various schools in New York City, including at an alternative school for inmates on Rikers Island.

Keigetsu Heather Martin is good at some things, and not so good at some other things. She enjoys floating in the warm seas of happiness, but when she finds herself wrestling the walrus of discontent, it doesn't surprise her any more.

Irene McDonald is a long-time student of Buddhism and Zen. She practices in Houston and tries to follow the advice of her teacher Reb Anderson not to meddle too much with her life. She has just become a doting grandmother.

Kim Mosley, a co-editor of Just This, was born in Chicago in 1946. He taught at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Bradley University, Southern Methodist University, Lindenwood University and St. Louis Community College (where he was also Dean of Liberal Arts). His work is in collections including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. His blog, Diaristic Notations, has over 1300 posts of writing and art.

Peaceful Forest Tim Schorre is a student of Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin and serves as Tanto at Houston Zen Center. He also practices architecture as a partner in Morningside Architects in Houston and practices drawing a lot, as well as photography and video. His visual work may be seen at .

Sarah Webb, a co-editor for Just This, is an English professor retired from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, where she is the editor of poetry and fiction for the interdisciplinary magazine Crosstimbers. Her teacher is Albert Low of the Montreal Zen Centre. She spends her winters tutoring ESL and writing and her summers traveling the West in her van.

Philip Whalen was a poet and teacher at the Hartford Zen Center. His essay is reprinted with permission from Beneath a Single Moon, Shambhala, 1991