The word Zazen may not be familiar to most of people in America, but meditation is. In fact, Zazen is also known as “seated meditation,” which is a crucial practice in Zen Buddhism. During the past summer, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to join a Zen camp for one week in the Beihai Monastery, located in Qinghai, China; and the experience of sitting Zazen completely changed my opinion on the subject. I used to think that sitting Zazen and Zen Buddhism were purely religious practices, and if you did not want to make it your religious belief, there was no need to practice sitting Zazen at all. It turns out that sitting Zazen can be beneficial to everyone as long as you do it right. That is the reason that meditation is so well-known in the West, because it is a practice for both your physicality and mental stability. So in this article I want to discuss how to correctly sit Zazen and the benefits of doing so.
Lets start with the posture.
The quarter lotus (loose cross-legs)
This posture is the easiest, and most commonly used one by beginners. Loosely cross your legs together, and make sure that after crossing, your body is still steadily perpendicular to the ground. If you feel like you are tilting to one side, adjust your legs to make your body balanced.
The half lotus (single leg crossed)
For people who have done meditation for a while, this posture is definitely doable and suitable. Rest one of your feet on the opposite thigh, and then cross your legs. The posture where your left foot is on your right thigh is called “Ruyi,” which represents luck. And the opposite is called “Jingang,” which represents power. There are people saying that “Ruyi” sit is for female, and “Jingang” sit is for male, which is not necessarily true. You can do it either way.
The full lotus (double leg crossed)
he full lotus is the hardest one, it usually fits people who have been practicing Zazen for a long period of time. It requires both feet on the opposite thighs. The half lotus is the furthest I can handle. Do not try the full lotus if you do not feel comfortable with it. Pushing it too hard may hurt your kneels, ankles and ligaments, although this posture is proven to be the most helpful one.
If you can do none of the postures above, just sit straight in a chair and have a peaceful thought. it may not be efficient enough, but at least it can help you relax.
No matter what postures you are using, there are several requirements that are common in every one of them. First, your back needs to be straightly perpendicular to the ground. If that makes you tired and painful, you can cut loose a little bit, but never bend it too much since the long time sitting may draw impact on your spine. Second, try to be relaxed. Master Mingxian, the abbot of Beihai Monastery, taught us to relax our body with respiration control. Do not pay attention when you are inhaling air, but when you exhale, try to make the exhalation slow and soft. After a while, your body would be relaxed. You can also think about relaxing thought (each person has a different peaceful thought or place, try to hold on to that) as long as it can clear your mind from all the stress. Third, have your eyes shut. This does not mean you can fall asleep, it just simply isolate you from the outside world. Visual is the most direct sense human have, so looking at something while sitting Zazen can distract you from the peaceful mindset you just achieved.
Now the question is: how are going to benefit from sitting Zazen?
First, it helps people physically. I do not have a background in either western or traditional Chinese medicine, so I am not able to explain the benefits in a more scientific way. But my experience changed my life completely. During the first couple of days of sitting, every part of my body rejects it. It hurt my spine, knees, ankles, waist, and I even developed a terrible headache due to a long time suffering from other pains. One of my roommates at the camp, who had been practicing Zazen for 6 years, told me that this is totally normal. He said that if you did not feel anything on your body, you were not doing it right. So I stopped complaining. Then in the next couple of days, the situation started to get a lot better. I would feel comfortable and satisfying after a 2-hour sitting without constantly moving to alleviate my pain. Before I went to the camp, I had a neck problem for almost two year. After the camp, I surprisingly discovered that the pain in my neck was gone. Also, I know this is going to interest a lot of people, sitting Zazen helps you lose weight rapidly. I was 5’9” and weighted 185 pounds. After a week in the Monastery, I lost 15 pounds. (and I ate a lot over there) It has been proven to be useful in weight control by many of my camp-mates.
Besides physicality, sitting Zazen also helps people mentally. During sitting, we were told to ask ourselves questions and tried our best not to find an answer. For example, I said a word silently in my head, and asked myself “who just said that?” It seems stupid, but the true purpose of it is to separate yourself from everything you know, everything that may trigger excitement, frustration, etc. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was a big fan of meditation and Zen. And the mentality in sitting Zazen matches his most famous statement: “stay hungry, stay foolish.” At the time when I went to the camp, I just had a very bad year where everything seemed to be going south. Because of this I became lazy, impetuous, irritable, and impatient. My GPA dropped rapidly, and people around me started to avoid me. I desperately need a window to change myself. And sitting Zazen is the window. It changed my mentality completely. It felt like my mind was sunk down instead of flying around like it used to be. I started to be patient, became more forgiving and much less easily irritated.
Sitting Zazen, or meditation, is only a practice to make you become a better self. A lot of friends do not want to do this because they feel like restricted, as if they need to be Buddhists by doing so, which is completely incorrect. Everyone, no matter what your religious belief is, should try to have meditation practice sometime. And trust me, you would want to share the experience with the world, too.