An Attempt at Instructions for Zazen

fukanzazengiLast summer, as I was re-reading Carl Bielefeldt’s Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, I received a very kind email from a reader asking me to offer my take on how to do zazen. I have no idea how many times I’ve offered zazen instruction in person, but in reading that request, I realized that I had never tried to write it all down. Furthermore, it had never really occurred to me that I have a particular take on it — when I explain it to someone else, I’m very aware of both Dogen’s instructions and things I’ve heard from my teachers. But the timing — that book, with this request — inspired me to look more closely at how I approach zazen, how I hear the explanation in my head.

Much of Bielefeldt’s book (which I cannot recommend highly enough) chronicles the evolution of Dogen’s “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen [Fukanzazengi]” from an earlier draft to a later one, showing that Dogen’s understanding of zazen — both how to practice it, and how to express that practice to others — was evolving. Dogen passed away when he was 53; if he’d lived to 80, I have no doubt that the zazen instructions we read in temples every evening would be different, somehow, from what they are.

I am fond of complaining that we rely too heavily on Dogen in this tradition. That doesn’t come from any complaint about him or his writings — not at all. But it seems to me that in the 800 years since his death, we should have a few more people to reference. More teachers should have stepped forward with their own understanding of the tradition. Or perhaps the institutions around this practice should have given greater voice to those who were trying, in vain, to be heard. In any case, 800 years later, it’s still pretty much all Dogen.

So on planes and in line at the bank, I have found myself picking away at my own instructions for zazen. Of this, I’m sure: if I had tried to write these instructions 10 years ago, they would have been very, very different. And I sincerely hope that 10 years from now, these instructions will be equally different, that they will have evolved with my understanding of the practice. If all goes well, I’ll read these instructions when I’m an old man and wince a little, seeing more clearly then what I don’t see clearly now.

But today, at age 40, I think this is my best effort. I put out these instructions (some are pretty standard, but a few are not) not to rewrite anything, but to put myself on the spot, to make myself open to whatever discussion or comments might follow. This is a work in progress. More than that, I do it in the hopes that it might start a dialogue, and that others might feel a push to publish their own instructions. I would very much like to read them.



Choose this place.

Whenever you can, sit with others. When you can’t, sit with others. Let others sit with you.

Wear the kashaya. Just as Buddhas sit in zazen while zazen is the activity of Buddhas, Buddhas wear the kashaya —  the kashaya manifests the shape of a Buddha. Even if there is no robe, just wear it.

Do not put yourself into sitting — come empty handed. Do not make zazen — let sitting reveal itself. Do not use zazen for this or that — sitting is neither means nor end.

Spread a blanket or mat and place a zafu on top. Sit down, marking the center of the zafu with the base of the spine.

To sit in the full lotus, place the right foot over the left thigh, then the left foot over the right thigh. Rest your left hand on your right hand, palm up — the middle joint of the middle finger below aligns with the middle joint of the middle finger above, and thumbtips touch as if trying not to, just near enough to feel the electricity between them. This is called Sitting in Practice.

Reverse the legs; reverse the hands. This is called Sitting in Verification.

Sit in practice today and in two days. Sit in verification tomorrow and yesterday.

If not full lotus, half lotus. If not half lotus, rest the foot of the raised leg across the calf of the lower leg. Or kneel. Or sit on a chair. Remember that this body is the buddha’s body. Do not harm it. Also, do not underestimate it.

Always place the knees below the hips, the pelvis tilted forward, the lower back slightly curved. Establish a posture that need not fight gravity.

Be the tree beneath which other buddhas sit.

Press the hands below the navel; let them move with the breath. In full lotus, rest them on top of the heels. In any other posture, support the hands with a blanket or cushion.

Once seated, rotate the torso at the hips in wide circles, then in small ones until the spine is holding the earth in place; pull in the chin and stretch the back of the neck upwards, lifting the sky.

Take seven long breaths. As you inhale, fill the body with a wind that loops through your feet and across your thumbs. As you exhale, do so slowly, continuing until your breath has touched the far corners of the world. Exhale until nothing remains.

On the eighth breath, just breathe.

How long must one sit? How many breaths? Ancient buddhas did not measure zazen in minutes or hours.

Let in all sounds — hear the shifting of the continents, a bird turning in flight. Facing the wall, see beyond the horizon. Feel your heart beating, your lungs moving, your skin expanding and shrinking, the magnetic draw of your thumbs. Breathe in the stench and the perfume of the world. Let your tongue rest flat in your mouth, and taste.

Mara visits during zazen, but not as visions — visions, if only glanced at, will pass by like shadows. Nor will Mara come disguised as desire — desires, confronted directly, lose their power to haunt. Mara will visit as a weight on the eyelids, bearing the soft seduction of sleep. Open your eyes; if they grow heavy or the world blurs, open them wider. Keep the room cool. Let light in. Explore the waking world, not dreams.

Be the force of gravity, pulling you deep into the ground; be the weight of a flame. Do not move from this posture. With every cell in your body, every drop of blood, every inch of skin, constantly do not move.

Zazen is not non-doing; it is not non-thinking. Zazen is a deep, dreamless sleep on fire. It is clutching a boulder to your belly at the bottom of the cool ocean. Roots penetrate and plunge downward into the rough textures of the earth. A cloud dissolves into open sky.


Sitting in Practice: gōmaza (降魔坐)
Sitting in Verification: kichijōza (吉祥坐)
The phrase “weight of a flame” is taken from a verse provided by Dai-en Bennage, abbess of Mt. Equity Zendo: “Abandoning myself to breathing out, and letting breathing in naturally fill me.  All that is left is this empty zafu under the vast sky, the weight of a flame.” (original source unknown)


Update January 20, 2019: My gratitude to Saiho Sandra Laureano, of Centro Budista Soto Zen in Puerto Rico,  who very generously translated these instructions into Spanish.


Here I Am

You Are Here“Life is one continuous mistake” — for years, this has been one of my favorite Dogen sayings. I’ve always appreciated the humor of it — it feels honest, or at least like an honest description of my life. Only, it turns out that Dogen never said it. On the Internet, it seems, quotation marks are a shorthand for “This is fake.”

Dogen did, however, say something similar: “There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another” (Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 132). Pretty close. But what are these mistakes we keep making? And why?

There’s a word, mayoi (迷い), that shows up a lot in Buddhist writings — the dictionary will tell you that it means “delusion” or “confusion” or “the state of being lost.” For years, I read it without much thought. It’s sometimes used as the opposite of enlightenment, so I read it that way, and since enlightenment seemed a lot more interesting than being lost, I figured that was where I should place my attention. But there are different ways of being lost. There is more than one kind of mayoi.

The first way to be lost is to be wrong. The classic example is a coiled rope on the ground — if you see it out of the corner of your eye and take it for a snake, you might run, or scream, or try to beat it with a shovel, but in each case, you’ll just be wrong. It’s a rope. In the same way, if you ever drive in circles because you are just sure you know the way to the interstate, you understand — the more deeply you believe that you know the right road, the less chance of ever finding the right one. To be clear, in the case of the rope, the problem is not that your eyes misinterpret something you see — the problem is that you believe your own idea about it, so you don’t question it anymore. It’s natural to think you know the streets in your town; the mistake is in not noticing that this time, you got it wrong. This is how we usually understand mayoi: not just being lost, but compounding it by insisting we are not.

The second way to be lost is to know, deeply, that you do not know where you are. Or that you do not know how to get where you are going. Or that you do not know the answer. If you think you know the way to the interstate, you only look for the one landmark that you’re sure is supposed to be there. But if you know you don’t know the way, you look for everything. You drive with your hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel. You ask people for directions, and since you know that you don’t know how to get where you’re going, you recognize that anyone you see might have the answer. Teachers are everywhere. Clues are everywhere. It can be frustrating, even scary. But it’s also very thorough. This is the other mayoi: being lost completely, and knowing it.

Thinking you’re not lost is much more dangerous than knowing that you are. Being sure you are not lost guarantees mistake after mistake, by definition, so if we want to, we can understand Dogen’s statement in this simple way. We don’t know what we don’t know, so in every moment, we work from assumptions and patterns that are unconsidered, unquestioned. I have a friend who didn’t know he was allergic to cats and dogs until he moved out of his pet-filled childhood home and suddenly felt like a new person. For years, he just thought he wasn’t an athletic type, and that was why he never had much energy. In college, I subsisted on what I call the “yellow diet”: Mountain Dew and anything with cheese on it. I didn’t know how unhealthy I was until I moved to Japan, where Mountain Dew and cheese were both luxury items. Even if we’re confident in our ignorance, that doesn’t necessarily make it willful. There’s just so much to examine — where do we start?

Tracy and I recently started a “Zen and Parenting” blog, and for the obvious reason (if you have kids), we’re calling it One Continuous Mistake. So this question of making mistakes, and how mistakes relate to practice, has been on my mind. It seems that we have two modes: one is to be totally ignorant of our actions;  the other is to be aware of our actions, but still lost. How can we be skillful and lost at the same time? I see four ways to explore this:

  1. Fumble around, actively. I used to train at Shogoji, a monastery that had no electricity. We all wore little headlamps at night, but when the batteries died on us, we would find ourselves navigating the maze of hallways in perfect darkness. I became more competent with time, but to be competent, I could never get cocky — one wrong assumption and I would fall down a flight of stairs or crash into a glass kerosene lamp. I explored those buildings as if I was a blind man and Shogoji was a face I needed to memorize forever. I’ve lived in my current house for two years now, but if I had to find something in the dark here, I’m not sure that I could; even now, years later, I probably know Shogoji better. It’s about choosing to pay attention.
  2.  Embrace not knowing. Notice when you’re lost, and choose to stay there. When our son was born, I knew nothing about parenting. I still don’t. As with the dark halls of Shogoji, I’d like to think I am becoming more competent as a father — I hope so. But when I think I have it figured out, I screw it up (and when I remember how much I thought I knew before we had kids, I just laugh). When I read a parenting book with some sort of “system” and decide that this is the one-size-fits-all solution to, say, tantrums, it goes wrong. Very, very wrong. A book is useful if it gives me an idea about how to fumble around. It might offer new mistakes for me to make. But if I take it as a map of the territory, then I’m more lost than before. …All of this is to say that we can seek out this realm of not knowing. Having kids works, but so does a dance class, or traveling in a place you’ve never been, or entering into a friendship with someone very different from yourself. Learning what you don’t know about playing music is a window into how little you know about anything.
  3. When you make a mistake, make it big. Knowing you are lost is not an excuse to be meek. Don’t hold back. If your job in the orchestra is to hit the gong at the critical time, and you get lost and you’re not sure of your cue, you have two choices: hit the gong, or don’t. If you decide it’s better to hit it, HIT it. In Zen practice, the question is whether or not, not how much. The degree is always the same — 100%. Mistakes are not optional — as Dogen says, we “must make one mistake after another.” On some level, you’re probably making a mistake right now. So am I. But knowing that cannot be a justification for a life lived halfway, for a moment half expressed, for a child half hugged. Never withhold.
  4. Make wherever you are into where you are. This is one of the simplest arguments for zazen, for taking up a practice of sitting still. If you wake up in perfect darkness, you may be afraid or even cry out, but eventually, you will start the slow, deliberate process of mapping your world, figuring out where you are. You must do that. Even then, there is a degree to which, in that blackness, you cannot know where you are. You cannot know all the details of the room of your life. You cannot make all the good choices before making some bad ones. But even though you may not know the way to the door, in another way, you know exactly where you are: you are here. I am here, where my feet touch the ground. I am here, and though I may spend my all my remaining years trying to be more competent at navigating the maze of my life, I will never be anywhere but here. Sitting down in zazen is a way of coming to see that, but even more, it is a way of expressing it. “The room is perfectly dark and I have no idea where I am or how to get out? No problem.”

At the start of a hiking trail, we stand and pore over the map showing us how to get to our destination. But there on the same map is a big red arrow pointing to where we are standing, reminding us, “You are here.” We can make wrong turn after wrong turn; we can get hopelessly lost. We can give up and go home. But that red arrow doesn’t go away. It’s one of the hardest things, but next time you don’t know where you are or what to do, try starting with “I am here.” Plant yourself under that arrow. Then go make some mistakes.


Please visit One Continuous Mistake if you have time. Tracy writes really beautifully about the complications of our children and our lives, and I, true to form, write long essays about things I really don’t understand. There’s also a Facebook page. Also, if you’re interested, note that you can now follow this blog through Twitter as well.