ZEN 1: Theory and Practice of Zazen


These are Yasutani-Roshi’s introductory lectures on Zen training from THE THREE PILLARS OF ZEN by Philip Kapleau.

There is little to comment here. A comment may simply empasize a point. The comments are in color.


Lecture 1—Theory and Practice of Zazen

What I am about to tell you is based upon the teachings of my revered teacher, Daiun1 Harada-roshi. Although he himself was of the Soto sect, he was unable to find a truly accomplished master in that sect and so went to train first at Shogen-ji and then Nanzen-ji, two Rinzai monasteries. At Nanzen-ji he eventually grasped the inmost secret of Zen under the guidance of Dokutan-roshi, an outstanding master.

1 A Zen name meaning “Great Cloud.” See “clouds and water” in section X. His other name is Sogaku.

There should be no secrets. There should simply be a systematic way to understand. The more systematic is the course, the less secretive it would appear.

While it is undeniably true that one must undergo Zen training himself in order to comprehend the truth of Zen, Harada-roshi felt that the modem mind is so much more aware that for beginners lectures of this type could be meaningful as a preliminary to practice. He combined the best of each sect and established a unique method of teaching Zen. Nowhere in Japan will you find Zen teaching set forth so thoroughly and succinctly, so well suited to the temper of the modem mind, as at his monastery. Having been his disciple for some twenty years, I was enabled, thanks to his grace, to open my Mind’s eye in some measure.

Lectures of this type that explain well can be very useful in starting a grass-root movement for general spiritual advancement.

Before commencing his lectures Harada-roshi would preface them with advice on listening. His first point was that everyone should listen with his eyes open and upon him—in other words, with his whole being—because an impression received only through the hearing is rather shallow, akin to listening to the radio. His second point was that each person should listen to these lectures as though they were being given to him alone, as ideally they should be. Human nature is such that if two people listen, each feels only half-responsible for understanding, and if ten people are listening each feels his responsibility to be but one-tenth. However, since there are so many of you and what I have to say is exactly the same for everybody, I have asked you to come as a group. You must nonetheless listen as though you were entirely alone and hold yourselves accountable for everything that is said.

This is very good advice on listening. Better comprehension comes from having consistency among the different physical perceptions.

This discourse is divided into eleven parts, which will be covered in some eight lecture sessions. The first involves the rationale of zazen and direct methods of practice; the next, special precautions; and the following lectures, the particular problems arising from zazen, to­gether with their solution.

In point of fact, a knowledge of the theory or principles of zazen is not a prerequisite to practice. One who trains under an accomplished teacher will inevitably grasp this theory by degrees as his practice ripens. Modem students, however, being intellectually more sophisticated than their predecessors in Zen, will not follow instructions unreservedly; they must first know the reasons behind them. Hence I feel obliged to deal with theoretical matters. The difficulty with theory, however, is that it is endless. Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist doctrine, and Buddhist philosophy are no more than intellectual formulations of zazen, and zazen itself is their practical demonstration. From this vast field I will now abstract what is most essential for your practice.

A course in zazen must explain any special terminology carefully at the outset, however, it must not delay the practice. Start practicing while studying the theory.

ZEN is an abbreviation of the Japanese word zenna, which is a transliteration of the Sanskrit dhyana (ch’an or ch’anna in Chinese), i.e., the process of concentration and absorption by which the mind is tranquilized and brought to one-pointedness.

ZAZEN is the principle discipline of Zen: To enter fully into every action with total attention and clear awareness. In the broad sense zazen embraces more than just correct sitting as in meditation. 

We start with the Buddha Shakyamuni.2 As I think you all know, he began with the path of asceticism, undergoing tortures and austerities which others before him had never attempted, including prolonged fasting. But he failed to attain enlightenment by these means and, half-dead from hunger and exhaustion, came to realize the futility of pursuing a course which could only terminate in death. So he drank the milk which was offered him, gradually regained his health, and resolved to steer a middle course between self-torture and self-indulgence. Thereafter he devoted himself exclusively to zazen for six years3 and eventually, on the morning of the eighth of December, at the very instant when he glanced at the planet Venus gleaming in the eastern sky, he attained perfect enlightenment. All this we believe as historical truth.

2 The traditional Japanese term is O-Shaka-sama. It is both respectful and intimate. The O and sama are honorifics, and rather than attempt an arbitrary translation of them, I have followed the usual English rendering of this title. (See “Buddha” in section X.)
3 Other accounts say six years elapsed from the time he left his home until his supreme enlightenment.

The middle-way of Buddha has to do with giving up the extremes of self-torture and self-indulgence, and following what comes naturally.

The words the Buddha uttered involuntarily at this time are recorded variously in the Buddhist scriptures. According to the Kegon sutra, at the moment of enlightenment he spontaneously cried out: “Wonder of wonders! Intrinsically all living beings are Buddhas, endowed with wisdom and virtue, but because men’s minds have become inverted through delusive thinking they fail to perceive this.” The first pronouncement of the Buddha upon his enlightenment seems to have been one of awe and astonishment. Yes, how truly marvelous that all human beings, whether clever or stupid, male or female, ugly or beautiful, are whole and complete just as they are. That is to say, the nature of every being is inherently without a flaw, perfect, no different from that of Amida or any other Buddha. This first declaration of Shakyamuni Buddha is also the ultimate conclusion of Buddhism. Yet man, restless and anxious, lives a half-crazed existence because his mind, heavily encrusted with delusion, is turned topsy-turvy. We need therefore to return to our original perfection, to see through the false image of ourselves as incomplete and sinful, and to wake up to our inherent purity and wholeness.

The word enlightened means bodhi or “awakened.” Enlightenment is the understanding of natural laws of our spiritual existence. These laws determine wisdom and virtue. They explain how our minds become inverted and deluded.

A human being, whether clever or stupid, male or female, ugly or beautiful, is capable of being awakened to the natural laws of spiritual existence. There is no other original perfection than this state of being awakened.

The most effective means by which to accomplish this is through zazen. Not only Shakyamuni Buddha himself but many of his disciples attained enlightenment through zazen. Moreover, during the 2,500 years since the Buddha’s death innumerable devotees in India, China, and Japan have, by grasping this selfsame key, resolved for themselves the most fundamental question, What are life and death? Even in this day there are many who have been able to cast off worry and anxiety and emancipate themselves through zazen.

Zazen is to enter fully into every action with total attention and clear awareness. This helps one resolve the questions about life and death and become free of anxiety on this subject.

Between a Nyorai (i.e., a supremely perfected Buddha) and us, who are ordinary, there is no difference as to substance. This “substance” can be likened to water. One of the salient characteristics of water is its conformability: when put into a round vessel it becomes round, when put into a square vessel it becomes square. We have this same adaptability, but as we live bound and fettered through ignorance of our true nature, we have forfeited this freedom. To pursue the metaphor, we can say that the mind of a Buddha is like water that is calm, deep, and crystal clear, and upon which the “moon of truth” reflects fully and perfectly. The mind of the ordinary man, on the other hand, is like murky water, constantly being churned by the gales of delusive thought and no longer able to reflect the moon of truth. The moon nonetheless shines steadily upon the waves, but as the waters are roiled we are unable to see its reflection. Thus we lead lives that are frustrating and meaningless.

The appropriate analogy is that of water in a pool. When the water is clear one can see the bottom in perfect detail, but when water is muddy one cannot even see the bottom. To clear the water one must stop stirring the water, and let the mud settle down of its own accord. Similarly, when mind is stirred up one cannot see through it clearly. One needs to stop stirring the mind, and let it settle down on its own accord. Any attemp to settle the mind will only stir it up.

The difference between Nyorai and us is that Nyorai has not only let the mind settle down but also cleared up the anomalies.

A turbulent mind is unable to perceive things as they are. 

How can we bring the moon of truth to illumine fully our life and personality? We need first to purify this water, to calm the surging waves by halting the winds of discursive thought. In other words, we must empty our minds of what the Kegon sutra calls the “conceptual thought of man.” Most people place a high value on abstract thought, but Buddhism has clearly demonstrated that discriminative thinking lies at the root of delusion. I once heard someone say: “Thought is the sickness of the human mind.” From the Buddhist point of view this is quite true. To be sure, abstract thinking is useful when wisely employed—which is to say, when its nature and limitations are properly understood—but so long as human beings remain slaves to their intellect, fettered and controlled by it, they can well be called sick.

Initially, any grounding is provided by our physical senses. The grounding becomes firm when the physical senses are consistent with each other.  From this come the laws that apply to all physical senses.

Such laws are abstract in nature. When there are many laws, they must be consistent with each other to be properly grounded. From this consistency come increasingly abstract laws.

Abstract thinking then must be consistent with its corresponding laws to be real and useful. If they are not then they only generate anomalies that must be resolved.

All thoughts, whether ennobling or debasing, are mutable and impermanent; they have a beginning and an end even as they are fleetingly with us, and this is as true of the thought of an era as of an individual. In Buddhism thought is referred to as “the stream of life-and-death.” It is important in this connection to distinguish the role of transitory thoughts from that of fixed concepts. Random ideas are relatively innocuous, but ideologies, beliefs, opinions, and points of view, not to mention the factual knowledge accumulated since birth (to which we attach ourselves), are the shadows which obscure the light of truth.

The nature of thought is to be mutable and impermanent and not fixed. By becoming fixed, thought obscures the light of truth.

So long as the winds of thought continue to disturb the water of our Self-nature, we cannot distinguish truth from untruth. It is imperative, therefore, that these winds be stilled. Once they abate, the waves subside, the muddiness clears, and we perceive directly that the moon of truth has never ceased shining. The moment of such realization is kensho, i.e., enlightenment, the apprehension of the true substance of our Self-nature. Unlike moral and philosophical concepts, which are variable, true Insight is imperishable. Now for the first time we can live with inner peace and dignity, free from perplexity and disquiet, and in harmony with our environment.

The laws underlying the spiritual nature are imperishable unlike the moral and philosophical concepts that are variable.

I have spoken to you briefly about these matters, but I hope I have succeeded in conveying to you the importance of zazen. Let us now talk about practice.

The practice of zazen now follows. 

The first step is to select a quiet room in which to sit. Lay out a fairly soft mat or pad some three feet square, and on top of this place a small circular cushion measuring about one foot in diameter to sit on, or use a square cushion folded in two. Preferably one should not wear trousers or socks, since these interfere with the crossing of the legs and the placing of the feet. For a number of reasons it is best to sit in the full-lotus posture. To sit full-lotus you place the foot of the right leg over the thigh of the left and the foot of the left leg over the thigh of the right. The main point of this particular method of sitting is that by establishing a wide, solid base, with the crossed legs and with both knees touching the mat, you achieve absolute stability. With the body thus immobile, thoughts are not stirred into activity by physical movements and the mind more easily becomes tranquil.

With the body immobile thoughts are not stirred into activity by physical movements and the mind more easily becomes tranquil.

If you have difficulty sitting in the full-lotus posture because of the pain, sit half-lotus, which is done by putting the foot of the left leg over the thigh of the right. For those of you who are not accustomed to sitting cross-legged, even this position may not be easy to maintain. You will probably find it difficult to keep the two knees resting on the mat and will have to push one or both of them down again and again until they remain there. In both the half- and the full-lotus posture the uppermost foot can be reversed when the legs become tired.

The posture should be comfortable and not painful.

For those who find both of these traditional zazen positions acutely uncomfortable, an alternative position is the traditional Japanese one of sitting on the heels and calves. This can be maintained for a longer time if a cushion is placed between the heels and the buttocks. One advantage of this posture is that the back can be kept erect easily. However, should all of these positions prove too painful, you may use a chair.4

4 See section IX for sketches of all these postures, including one widely used in the Southeast Asian Buddhist countries.

The important aspect of posture is keeping the back erect.

The next step is to rest the right hand in the lap, palm upward, and place the left hand, palm upward, on top of the right palm. Lightly touch the tips of the thumbs to each other so that a flattened circle is formed by the palms and thumbs. Now, the right side of the body is the active pole, the left the passive. Hence during practice we repress the active side by placing the left foot and left hand over the right members, as an aid in achieving the highest degree of tranquility. If you look at a figure of the Buddha, however, you will notice that the position of these members is just the reverse. The significance of this is that a Buddha, unlike the rest of us, is actively engaged in the task of saving.

The posture is an aid in achieving the highest degree of tranquility.

After you have crossed your legs, bend forward so as to thrust the buttocks out, then slowly bring the trunk to an erect posture. The head should be straight; if looked at from the side, your ears should be in line with your shoulders and the tip of your nose in line with your navel. The body from the waist up should be weightless, free from pressure or strain. Keep the eyes open and the mouth closed. The tip of the tongue should lightly touch the back of the upper teeth. If you close your eyes you will fall into a dull and dreamy state. The gaze should be lowered without focusing on anything in particular. Experience has shown that the mind is quietest, with the least fatigue or strain, when the eyes are in this lowered position.

In zazen, eyes are open without focusing on anything in particular, and in lowered position.

The spinal column must be erect at all times. This admonition is important. When the body slumps, not only is undue pressure placed on the internal organs, interfering with their free functioning, but the vertebrae by impinging upon nerves may cause strains of one kind or another. Since the body and mind are one, any impairment of the physiological functions inevitably involves the mind and thus diminishes its clarity and one-pointedness, which are essential for effective concentration. From a purely psychological point of view, a ramrod erectness is as undesirable as a slouching position, for the one springs from unconscious pride and the other from abjectness, and since both are grounded in ego they are equally a hindrance to enlightenment.

Be careful to hold the head erect; if it inclines forward or backward or sideward, remaining there for an appreciable length of time, a crick in the neck may result.

The posture should be well balanced so as not to cause strain on any body part.

When you have established a correct posture, take a deep breath, hold it momentarily, then exhale slowly and quietly. Repeat this two or three times, always breathing through the nose. After that breathe naturally. When you have accustomed yourself to this routine, one deep breath at the beginning will suffice. Now bend the body first to the right as far as it will go, then to the left, about seven or eight times, in large arcs to begin with, then smaller ones until the trunk naturally comes to rest at center.

Start the zazen session with a couple of deep breaths and settling down in the correct posture.

You are now ready to concentrate your mind.5 There are many good methods of concentration bequeathed to us by our predecessors in Zen. The easiest for beginners is counting incoming and outgoing breaths. The value of this particular exercise lies in the fact that all reasoning is excluded and the discriminative mind put at rest. Thus the waves of thought are stilled and a gradual one-pointedness of mind achieved. To start with, count both inhalations and exhalations. When you inhale, concentrate on “one”; when you exhale, on “two”; and so on, up to ten. Then you return to “one” and once more count up to ten, continuing as before. It is as simple as that.

5 For additional information on concentrating the mind, see pp. 128-29.

Start to concentrate your mind by counting incoming and outgoing breaths.

As I have previously pointed out, fleeting ideas which naturally fluctuate in the mind are not in themselves an impediment. This unfortunately is not commonly recognized. Even among Japanese who have been studying and practicing Zen for five years or more there are many who misunderstand Zen practice to be a stopping of consciousness. There is indeed a kind of zazen that aims at doing just this,6 but it is not the traditional zazen of Zen Buddhism. You must realize that no matter how intently you count your breaths you will still perceive what is in your line of vision, since your eyes are open, and you will hear the normal sounds about you, as your ears are not plugged. And since your brain likewise is not asleep, various thought-forms will dart about in your mind. Now, they will not hamper or diminish the effectiveness of zazen unless, evaluating them as “good,” you cling to them or, deciding they are “bad,” you try to check or eliminate them. You must not regard any perceptions or sensations as an obstruction to zazen, nor should you pursue any of them. I emphasize this. “Pursuit” simply means that in the act of seeing, your gaze lingers on objects; in the course of hearing, your attention dwells on sounds; and in the process of thinking, your mind adheres to ideas. If you allow yourself to be distracted in such ways, your concentration on the counting of your breaths will be impeded. To recapitulate: let random thoughts arise and vanish as they will, do not dally with them and do not try to expel them, but merely concentrate all your energy on counting the inhalations and exhalations of your breath.

6 See p. 45.

Fleeting ideas which naturally fluctuate in the mind are not in themselves an impediment. The impediment comes from clinging to thought-forms or trying to eliminate them.

In terminating a period of sitting do not arise abruptly, but begin by rocking from side to side, first in small swings, then in large ones, for about half a dozen times. You will observe that your movements in this exercise are the reverse of those you engage in when you begin zazen. Rise slowly and quietly walk around with the others in what is called kinhin, a walking form of zazen.

End the zazen session with movements that are the reverse of those you engage in when you begin zazen. 

Kinhin is performed by placing the right fist, with thumb inside, on the chest and covering it with the left palm while holding both elbows at right angles. Keep the arms in a straight line and the body erect, with the eyes resting upon a point about two yards in front of the feet. At the same time continue to count inhalations and exhalations as you walk slowly around the room. Begin walking with the left foot and walk in such a way that the foot sinks into the floor, first the heel and then the toes. Walk calmly and steadily, with poise and dignity. The walking must not be done absent-mindedly, and the mind must be taut as you concentrate on the counting. It is advisable to practice walking this way for at least five minutes after each sitting period of twenty to thirty minutes.

Walk for at least five minutes after each sitting period of twenty to thirty minutes.

You are to think of this walking as zazen in motion. Rinzai and Soto differ considerably in their way of doing kinhin. In the Rinzai method the walking is brisk and energetic, while in the traditional Soto it is slow and leisurely; in fact, upon each breath you step forward only six inches or so. My own teacher, Harada-roshi, advocated a gait somewhere between these two and that is the method we have been practicing here. Further, the Rinzai sect cups the left hand on top of the right, whereas in the orthodox Soto the right hand is placed on top. Harada-roshi felt that the Rinzai method of putting the left hand uppermost was more desirable and so he adopted it into his own teaching. Now, even though this walking relieves the stiffness in your legs, such exercise is to be regarded as a mere by-product and not the main object of kinhin. Hence those of you who are counting your breaths should continue during kinhin, and those of you who are working on a koan should carry on with it.

Walk naturally and comfortably. Walking is zazen in motion.

This ends the first lecture. Continue to count your breaths as I have instructed until you come before me again.

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  • vinaire  On October 20, 2018 at 6:35 AM

    This first lecture is the key.

  • vinaire  On October 20, 2018 at 2:40 PM

    It took Buddha six years using zazen to attain enlightenment. With the technical advances of today it should be possible to get enlightenment much faster.

    Enlightement is the state in which a person is effortlessly “being there” with total attention. The clarity of his (or her) perception is perfect in the sense that he is able to observe the universe as it is. The clarity of his thinking is perfect in the sense that he is able to resolve perlplexities rapidly and completely.

    The primary purpose of Zazen then is to “be there” with total attention, so that one may perceive what is there with total clarity. Here thinking becomes part of the perception because one can perceive solutions clearly. Zazen is akin to meditation but not quite. There is sitting zazen, walking zazen, etc. In zazen the eyes are half open. The effort in zazen is to attain fully aware one-pointed attention.

    At the moment of enlightenment Buddha spontaneously cried out: “Wonder of wonders! Intrinsically all living beings are Buddhas, endowed with wisdom and virtue, but because men’s minds have become inverted through delusive thinking they fail to perceive this.” That was a major realization.

    The spiritual improvement is, therefore, measured by how many delusive thoughts (prejudice, jealousy, fixed ideas, etc.) a person has been able to let go through zazen. This is a gradient process, that may sometimes occur in huge steps. It is one of these huge steps that are looked upon as enlightenment.

    But there is no end to this process. An enlightened person effortlessly continues in the mode of zazen, continually getting realizations.

  • vinaire  On October 21, 2018 at 8:45 AM

    Scott Gordon:

    “…each person should listen to these lectures as though they were being given to him alone, as ideally they should be. Human nature is such that if two people listen, each feels only half-responsible for understanding, and if ten people are listening each feels his responsibility to be but one-tenth. However, since there are so many of you and what I have to say is exactly the same for everybody, I have asked you to come as a group. You must nonetheless listen as though you were entirely alone and hold yourselves accountable for everything that is said.”

    A very helpful concept!

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