Introduction

There are as many reasons to set aside a part of the day to just stop as there are people who do it. The reason a person chooses to simply "stop" strongly influences how one does it. This is in part why Omori Sogen, leading Rinzai Zen master of the Twentieth Century, wrote: "it is logical to say that there are as many kinds of Zen as there are human beings." Meditation's benefits to health are well documented and tangential to this essay. Meditation as a spiritual act implies a theological statement. While to pray implies an object or recipient of the prayer, to meditate is a strictly singular act. In meditation, there is nothing to pray to.

In Japanese Zen, the complete term, as Sogen writes, is zazen, a term with characteristically multiple meanings. Za most basically, means "to sit". In the Japanese tradition, sitting is one of the four dignified postures: walking, standing, sitting and lying down. As such, it is a physical discipline: the practice of regulating one's body to sit. Since in Zen, mind and body are one, za is also a practice of regulating one's mind. Zen, Sogen continues, derives from zen-na the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyana. Dhyana means "quietly contemplating" or "to quiet one's contemplating". The Kanji character for zen is composed of the radical shi, meaning "to show" or "master" or "god" along with a phonetic element tan, meaning "single".

Taken altogether, I interpret zazen to mean: sitting in quiet contemplation with a physical discipline regulating mind and body, displaying the singleness of mind (concentration) in itself and in the unity of mind and body.

If one is to interpret meditation in this light, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in the Thirteenth Century, provides simple, pragmatic advice to practitioners:

1. Find a suitable place. While zazen is a discipline, it is not self-mortification as there is nothing to atone for in Zen. A comfortable, quiet, protected space is appropriate.

2. Set aside the thoughts and cares of life. Zazen is not consciously thinking about anything, nor is it an endeavor to be or think a certain way.

3. Prepare for zazen by moderate eating and drinking. Hunger and thirst distract the mind and cause it to think about the discomfort. Excess dulls the mind and makes it difficult to concentrate on singleness and unity.

4. Insofar as zazen is a discipline of the body and mind, one should be at rest and comfortable, but not relaxed to the point of drowsiness. Sitting upright, with legs crossed, ears in line with shoulders and spinal column, nose in line with navel, is appropriate. Likewise, since zazen is not mortification, ambition to acquire painfully a lotus position is not appropriate. Body discipline should be conducive to mental discipline.

5. Place the hands in the "Gesture of Meditation" or "Dhyana" position (mudra). Descriptions for this can be found at the links to the right

6. Breathe through the nose. Close the mouth, lips and teeth. Eyes should be open, but relaxed.

7. Finally, inhale and exhale fully.

Personal Observations

Place: I believe that it is good to develop sufficient strength of concentration to enable sitting in meditation anywhere, at any time. That said, I have three preferred locations to mediate. Weather permitting, I sit at dawn in my back yard on the ground. This leads to a strong feeling of "connection" with my natural surroundings. As I have watched little animals come and go oblivious to my presence, I have often thought that the emotional foundation of the Buddhist tradition of kindness to animals comes from those long hours of sitting in an expansive state of mind in the forests of the East. One can only imagine what slithered, crawled, walked and flapped by unaware of the Buddhist sitter, immobile in their mists. I am most aware of the advantage of sitting with one's eyes open while sitting in natural areas. With eyes closed, one becomes self-contained, self-absorbed and isolated. While sitting with eyes open requires greater strength of concentration, it also increases one's awareness of the interconnections of all things. Sights, sounds and smells seem to pervade me and not-me so completely that I wonder if the dichotomy is real.

The second location is with a small group of acquaintances at a Unitarian Universalist Church. The session begins with a reading from a Buddhist text; then the leader does a brief exposition on the passage. After this, the little group sits for 20 minutes. After the meditation, there is a conversation on the reading and comments. Sitting with others also gives that feeling of connection, yet I do not feel it as strongly as when I sit in nature. The room used by this group is on the second floor of what used to be a country farmhouse. In the spring and summer, sounds of life in the trees flow through the room on the air in the open windows. This is a strong counterpoint to the earthy smells and sounds of my backyard, different, yet the same.

Finally, I dedicate a room in my home to transcendental subjects. I keep all books on philosophy, religion, and even some art, here. A statue of the Buddha in meditation decorates the room from his small altar. This scholastic, spiritual environment yields the most intense meditative experience, interrupted only by the occasional sound from the cul-de-sac outside. That feeling of connection is not as strong, but my awareness of the passing nuances of mind and body are most acute. Even so, distractions can filter in, as my pleasant recollection of hearing an owl late one night as I sat alone, in the quiet, with my Buddha.