Recently, a fellow practitioner at Berkeley Zen Center sent me an email with this direct question: “I’m wondering what you do when you do zazen?” Much as I have thought about it, and irrespective of the countless times I’ve given zazen instruction, I’ve never written out my way of zazen, step-by-step. So I will try to do that here, leaving out some of the detail and fine points of posture, although these details are all-important. The fine points have been beautifully articulated by Dogen Zenji in Fukanzazengi, in Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and by so many of our teachers. What I share of “my way” stands on the shoulders (or sits in the shadows) of giants.
From the moment I sit down in zazen—whether I sit cross-legged in half-lotus position or in a chair—from that moment everything is zazen. No preliminaries, no getting ready to sit. Zazen includes each activity. The first thing I do is to establish a stable upright posture, particularly making an effort to build my posture up from the small of my back, the base of the spine, lifting my sternum so that my upper body is open and relaxed. I like the expression “strong back, soft front.” Integral to zazen posture is the “cosmic mudra”—left hand on top of the right palm, thumb tips just barely touching. The mudra rests against my body or in my lap. It forms a half-circle that is capable of holding the universe.
With this upright posture set, I take four or five breaths through my mouth, inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly and steadily, making the exhalation last as long as it can, pushing out the remaining air at the end of the breath. A deep inhalation, which naturally follows, refreshes me. After four or five breaths like this, I settle into a more “ordinary” breath, breathing through my nose, allowing the breath to reach down to my hara or belly in a relaxed manner.
Establishing posture and natural breathing, I take a few moments to set my intention, invoking bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment for and with all beings. This is is embodying Dogen Zenji’s admonition in Gakudo Jojin-shu: “You should arouse the thought of enlightenment.” I have created a simple phrase for myself that I place silently on my breath, repeating it three times: “May I be awake that others may awaken.” It feels as if I am lightly dropping these words into the quieting pool of zazen, letting the ripples spread as they will.
Honestly, I cannot say what happens for the remainder of the zazen period. I make no effort to remember, and I don’t remember. That’s fine, because there is nothing I am trying to accomplish. The effort is to be awake and receptive to the flow of sensations, perceptions, and thoughts that arise and fall away as they will. But this is not drifting and dreaming. Rather, a kind of fluid alertness, capable of including each thing without being caught on it.
This alertness calls for an element of concentration, samadhi, which, of course, is a step on the Eightfold Path. Concentration arises from our posture, which is never slack. From time-to-time I give myself zazen instruction, checking my mudra and each point of posture, making an effort to re-align my body. Concentration also arises with breathing. Often, I do breath-counting, susokan in Japanese, lightly counting ten breaths, one at a time, giving each breath a silent count on the exhalation and contraction of my belly. I find that a whole world can arise in the space of a single breath—a world of sense receptivity, or a world of distracted thinking. If I lose count, I start over again at one, leaving behind all judgments and distractions.
Sometimes I do an alternative breath practice—”Just This.” Breathing in on the word “Just,” breathing out on “This.” In time, counting or words fall away and there is just the rhythmic rise and fall or breath, the unencumbered flow of mind. The bell rings, drawing me up from the depths and back into the world of so-called ordinary thoughts.
This approach to susokan, sliding into shikantaza—just sitting—is what I understand Dogen Zenji to means as “think not-thinking.” Mind fades but does not disappear. This is not sleep or trance, but a mind that is fresh as an autumn breeze. My senses are functioning, but not actively. That is, I am seeing, but not looking. Hearing, but not listening. Thoughts may arise, but I am not stringing them into stories.
My experience over the years is that the mind of zazen reaches far beyond the zendo and permeates my everyday activity. Sometimes no more than a single mindful breath is sufficient to enter the dharma gate of zazen. But, don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself.