It is important to collect ourselves and bring to mind the purpose of our practice:
There are three aspects to zazen: body breath and mind.
We focus our attention wholeheartedly and concentrate ever more fully and deeply on each aspect in turn, until our single-pointed awareness opens us to the direct experience of sitting with all Buddhas across all space and time.
(Instruction is given as appropriate to those sitting in the group. For example, if no one is using a chair, skip the chair instruction, etc.)
If sitting on a zafu, choose lotus, half-lotus or Burmese position and place the legs accordingly: both legs upon thighs, one leg upon the opposing thigh, or one leg folded in front of the other. All positions sit on the forward third of the cushion so that the hips are angled downward and knees are touching the floor. If this cannot be accomplished, small pillows may be used to support the position or try seiza position or a chair. Seiza or kneeling position may be achieved using a tipped zafu or a wooden bench.
If sitting on a chair, sit on the forward third of the chair and place feet flat on the floor. A pillow may be needed under the feet if they do not reach the floor.
On a seiza bench, be sure the bench is tall enough to allow the legs to tuck underneath comfortably and assure good circulation. If feet or legs are falling asleep the bench needs to be taller.
These positions all allow the lower back to arch very slightly and the lower abdomen to protrude very slightly which enhances abdominal breathing and releases overall muscle tension.
The leg position provides the foundation for the spine. Now we can focus on the spine itself. Breathe in deeply from the hara point in the lower abdomen (about 2 inches below the navel), straighten and lengthen the spine.
Before breathing out, imagine the apex (top point) of the skull is being held gently by a string attached to the sky.
The shoulders are pulled back and down. The ears are horizontal; the nose is vertical. Everything is perfectly aligned.
Upon breathing out, there is little eﬀort involved in maintaining the posture-but, if necessary, taking another deep breath from the hara and straightening the spine allows us to return to it whenever necessary. This is referred to as “returning to the breath.”
Place the hands in the lap against the abdomen in the Cosmic Mudra, left hand cradled in right, thumbs lightly touching—a thin piece of paper could easily be drawn through through them (but not held tightly).
The oval hand position is maintained throughout zazen. All mudras embody non-duality. So, if the posture, breath or mind are disturbed during our practice, the shape of our mudra will become distorted as well. If this happens, just readjust the hand position.
The eyes remain half-open in zazen to avoid sleepiness and the dream-like state that closing them encourages.
Tuck the chin in slightly as the back of the neck is allowed to stretch and lengthen. Allow the gaze to find a spot on the wall or floor about 45 degrees downward.
Maintain a softened focus on that point throughout the meditation period.
Place the tip of the tongue against the palate directly behind the front teeth, close the mouth gently, and breathe through the nose.
This tongue position is said to reduce salivation and the need for excessive swallowing.
Turning to the breath-breathe softly through the nose from the hara point in the lower abdomen--allowing the entire body to breathe as naturally, deeply, and quietly as possible.
Practicing to exhale slightly longer than we inhale is thought to be beneficial. Some people count breaths to focus the mind when it becomes unruly. This may be helpful, but is not necessary.
It is not necessary to control to or guide the breath, only to notice that it comes and goes and to return to it as a refuge when we have diﬃculty allowing thoughts and feelings to float away.
(Master Dogen tells us that) we come to our practice leaving concerns of the mind, intellect and consciousness elsewhere. In particular, this means we let go of judging good or bad, right or wrong, true or false.
We sit without any intellectual investigation of thoughts, words, or their meanings —instead, taking the backward step of shining the light inward. With our wholehearted awareness hitting the mark exquisitely in this way, body and mind will drop away and our true nature will manifest. This is the silent illumination of shikantaza.
The mind creates thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations and repeats these continually to distract us from the point of our zazen which is: nothing. Just sitting doing nothing in complete, focused awareness manifesting our true nature.
Sitting in the correct posture, breathing just so, and practicing not interacting with the mind for even five minutes is incredibly rigorous! We rarely do anything like this in our daily lives. So please do not be discouraged if the mind distracts you time and time again.
Your practice is just this: to come back to the posture, the stillness, the breath--to let go of the thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations as though they were dry leaves passing by on the surface of a stream you were observing from a bridge on a lovely autumn day...over and over again...nothing more, nothing less.
Begin your practice.
When the first bell rings to end the practice period, we gassho bow from a seated position and stretch the legs to be sure the circulation is back to normal and legs are not asleep before standing for kinhin.
At the second bell we gassho bow from seated position, then stand (usually either for kinhin or to continue the service).