For those of you up North on the West coast, this Friday I will be at:
An Lac Mission (Ventura Buddhist Temple)
901 S. Saticoy Ave. Ventura, CA 93004
Phone numbers: 805-659-9751 or 805-758-2028
Talk, Zazen, Book Signing:
Date & Time of event: Friday, February 20, 7:00pm-9:00pm
Plus I put 2 new pages up on my Old Dinosaur Books webpage. The link is to your left. The new ones are "Animal Ghosts" and "More Japanese Dinosaur Oddities."
Now some more of the Q & A:
The problem I'm having is this- I can't seem to find the 3 points of balance: I can get into half lotus position, but my spine feels like it's bowing way out to one side when I have both knees down. I can sit in the "Burmese" style, but it still takes me a good 10 minutes to find a position where I feel balanced and my spine is straight. If I'm correct, you also tend to discourage this posture. (?) I can't reach a full lotus position for more than a few seconds without ripping some tendons in my feet.... though I keep stretching! The closest I've come seems is quarter lotus, with one foot sort of tucked in the fold of the opposite leg below the thigh.
My question is this- What is most important until I can get to full lotus.... both knees down with spine curved? spine straight with one knee down and the other hovering slightly off the ground? Burmese? Quarter lotus? Any ideas?
Every so often I find someone on the internet telling the world that Brad Warner says, “Anyone who can’t get into the full lotus posture the very first time they do zazen ought to just give up the practice entirely and furthermore we should send all such people to forced labor camps in Siberia!”
I know my writing style is often difficult to comprehend and I have been working on this for a while. But honest to God I know I was never anywhere close to as much of a posture Nazi as some people seem to believe.
However, I have said, and I still say today that proper posture is crucial to zazen practice. This is because so many folks in the meditation game like to depict posture as a purely arbitrary matter. I’ve been to meditation centers where people are lying on the ground or slouching back on weird “meditation chairs” or just plain sitting around in a sloppy manner. That’s not zazen.
I’m also not a big fan of zazen in chairs. OK. If you absolutely have no other choice but to do your zazen in a chair, then fine. It’s better than not doing it at all. But I see a lot of people doing zazen in chairs who I know could be doing it on a cushion on the floor if they tried. Chairs force their own kind of balance upon the body and rob you of the chance to find that balance for yourself. The difference might be like the difference between riding a tricycle and riding a bicycle.
When I went to Japan I discovered that we Americans love to invent handicaps for ourselves. I had no idea that we did this -- that I did this. It’s part of establishing an identity to be handicapped in some way. We’re allergic to Spam or we’re cellulose intolerant or we can’t do zazen without a chair. Of course there are people who can legitimately make those kinds of claims. But it wasn’t till I got to Japan that I was told this thing of even the healthiest among us having some hidden handicap that makes us special is a cultural characteristic of my country. “Oh you Americans are all allergic or sensitive to something!” my friends would say when I’d tell them my various intolerances.
Sorry for the tangent. To answer your question, the key thing is to keep the spine straight. What you do with your legs is secondary, but it does help establish the straight spine. Full, half, quarter lotus or Burmese posture are all perfectly fine. Some people put extra cushions under their knees to help establish balance. There’s a link over to your left about some Yoga exercises to help get into the various lotus postures.
Don’t hurt yourself! Take it slow! Do the best approximation of the posture you can until you’re able to get it right. Zazen is not supposed to be painless and comfortable. But it shouldn’t be excruciating.
I feel the sincere desire to train under the guidance of teacher, like yourself, with whom I feel a strong resonance, though, given my limited finances, I am not sure if/when I will ever be able to make it out to Santa Monica. They do have a small Zen group that meets sits together here, but their Sensei only visits occasionally, and it is located across town from me, and lack of transportation currently makes it near impossible for me to access them.
Should I continue to practice on my own here, in isolation and without the guidance of a teacher, and just wait for things to unfold naturally, or do you think - given what I've told you - that its time for me to make some kind of bold move to shake myself out of the circles I seem to find myself going in? In either case, could you offer me some general thoughts on approaching the koan of my current situation?
You’d only be disappointed in me if you made it out here. Many people have been. For the record, I refuse to train anyone. That's not what I do. Couldn't do it if I wanted to!
The image people create of teachers they read about never matches up to the teachers themselves. When someone goes a long, long way to find some very special teacher they’ve heard about they usually end up being bitterly disillusioned and often drop out of the practice entirely. No one can possibly live up to the idealized image we create of them.
So I don’t encourage bold moves like the one you’re talking about. I mean, what would you do in California? Would you expect me to provide you a place to live, to feed you and get you a job? I’m not trying to be mean here. In fact I'm not even asking this of you in particular, but of all the many people who send me e-mails like this. What if you got here and I moved away? God knows I’d love to get out of Southern California! The stuff I’m saying here doesn’t just apply to me, but to any teacher you might be considering uprooting yourself to follow.
Still, I know it’s sometimes useful to make a big break and go somewhere else. I did that when I moved to Japan in 1994. And I don’ regret it. But I didn’t go there looking for some teacher.
There are places you could go, like San Francisco Zen Center or Antaiji in Japan where they’ll take in people who want to practice. But even these places make you earn your own keep. Plus they’re big institutions with all that goes along with being big institutions.
Whether you stay put or go somewhere else isn’t really the key thing. It’s the effort you put into practice that matters. If you are truly driven to find a teacher, you will find one no matter whether you stay or go.
My question is this. Why do all of the articles I read say something to the effect of all of "us," us being humanity, being miserable all the time? I am not a Buddhist of any sort, not that I have a problem with it or anything. I am interested in it in an academic context, which is why I am asking the question. It seems to be a central tenet of Buddhism, or maybe just Zen Buddhism, that because life is pretty much miserable, the adoption of a Zen Buddhist lifestyle is necessary for inner peace. So what about people who consider themselves content with their daily lives without being Zen Buddhists?
If you’re perfectly content then you don’t need zazen!
I can’t really answer this in an academic context. To me, zazen is purely practical. Might as well write an essay on masturbation as write one on zazen. And yet I seem to be in the profession of writing essays on masturbation -- I mean essays on zazen!
Still, essays on zazen are about as applicable to zazen practice as essays on masturbation would be to real masturbation.
Anyway, it’s not that we’re all miserable all the time. Nobody’s miserable all the time. Except maybe Morrisey from The Smiths*. But when we’re in our idealistic mode we envision a life for ourselves that’s utterly impossible to achieve. Our thoughts are always idealistic and, therefore, always different from real life. So what I think Buddha meant when he said “All life is suffering” or "unsatisfactory experience" (dukha in Sanskrit) is that, when looked at from the idealistic viewpoint even our most enjoyable moments have a quality of suffering and dissatisfaction. We know someday our happiness will end, and that knowledge always underlies even our most blissful experiences. In fact, suffering is more of a component of bliss than it is of a non-blissful experience. The more bliss you feel the more suffering is pasted to its underside.
From the materialistic point of view we can’t speak of suffering or bliss. Things are what they are. From that point of view the most fantastic blow job you ever got is the product of neurons being stimulated and chemicals being released into the brain. A simple, mechanical process and nothing more.
In real action both the idealistic, mental side and the materialistic physical side are always present. We may attend to one or the other more fully. But they’re always together. In zazen we practice action in the present moment in order to find a balance between the two.
I’ve never met anyone who was perfectly content with their life. I wonder if they exist. In zazen practice we don’t strive to rid ourselves of discontent. We strive to see and experience discontent for what it really is. And ultimately, like all emotions, it’s just a passing state of mind.
As for achieving inner peace, that’s mostly just P.R. I wouldn’t put much stock in anyone who advertises inner peace.
*He's miserable because he has a tree branch stuck up his butt (watch the video carefully).