ZEN 2: Precautions to Observe in Zazen


Reference: Lectures on Zen

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. Any comment is to empasize a point. The comments are in color.


Lecture 2—Precautions to Observe in Zazen

This is the second lecture. Now I want you to change your breathing exercise slightly. This morning I told you to count “one” as you inhaled and “two” as you exhaled. Hereafter I want you to count “one” only on the exhalation, so that one full breath [inhalation and exhalation] will be “one.” Don’t bother counting the inhalations; just count “one,” ” two,” “three,” and so forth , on the exhalation.

Note that the counting regimen is slightly modified in later sessions.

It is advisable to do zazen facing a wall, a curtain, or the like. Don’t sit too far from the wall nor with your nose up against it; the ideal distance is from two to three feet. Likewise, don’t sit where you have a sweeping view, for it is distracting, or where you look out on a pleasant landscape, which will tempt you to leave off zazen in order to admire it. In this connection it is important to remember that although your eyes are open you are not actually trying to see. For all these reasons it is wisest to sit facing a wall. However, if you happen to be doing zazen formally in a Rinzai temple, you will have no choice but to sit facing others, as this is the established custom in that sect.

Keep visual distractions to a minimum in the beginning.

In the beginning, if possible, select a room that is quiet as well as clean and tidy, one which you can regard as sacred. It may be asked whether it is satisfactory to do zazen on a bed so long as the room is clean and free from noise. For the ordinary healthy person the answer is no; there are any number of reasons why it is difficult to keep the mind in proper tension on a bed. A bedridden person, of course, has no choice.

A quiet, clean and tidy room provides less distractions.

You will probably find that natural sounds, like those of insects or birds or running water, will not disturb you, neither will the rhythmic ticking of a clock nor the purring of a motor. Sudden noises, however, like the roar of a jet, are jarring. But rhythmic sounds you can make use of. One student of mine actually attained enlightenment by utilizing the sound of the steady threshing of rice while he was doing zazen. The most objectionable sounds are those of human voices, either heard directly or over the radio or television. When you start zazen, therefore, find a room which is distant from such sounds. When your sitting has ripened, however, no noises will disturb you.

Keep sudden noises and sound of human voices to a minimum in the beginning.

Besides keeping your room clean and orderly you should decorate it with flowers and burn incense, since these, by conveying a sense of the pure and the holy, make it easier for you to relate yourself to zazen and thus to calm and unify your mind more quickly. Wear simple, comfortable clothing that will give you a feeling of dignity and purity. In the evening it is better not to wear night clothes, but if it is hot and a question of either doing zazen in pajamas or not doing it at all, by all means wear the pajamas. But make yourself clean and tidy.

Keep the room orderly, Decorate it with flowers. Burn incense. Wear simple, comfortable and dignified clothing.

The room ought not to be too light or too dark. You can put up a dark curtain if it is too light, or you can use a small electric bulb if it is night. The effect of a dark room is the same as closing your eyes: it dulls everything. The best condition is a sort of twilight. Remember, Buddhist zazen does not aim at rendering the mind inactive but at quieting and unifying it in the midst of activity.

Have comfortable lighting in the room. Aim at quieting and unifying the mind but not rendering it inactive.

A room that is neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter is ideal. Punishing the body is not the purpose of zazen, so it is unnecessary to struggle with extremes of heat or cold. Experience has shown, however, that one can do better zazen when he feels slightly cool; too hot a room tends to make one sleepy. As your ardor for zazen deepens you will naturally become unconcerned about cold or heat. Nevertheless, it is wise to take care of your health.

Keep the room comfortably cool.

Next let us discuss the best time for zazen. For the eager and determined any time of day and all seasons of the year are equally good. But for those who have jobs or professions the best time is either morning or evening, or better still, both. Try to sit every morning, preferably before breakfast, and just before going to bed at night. But if you can sit only once-and you should sit at least once a day-you will have to consider the relative merits of morning and evening. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. If you find that either morning or evening is equally good and you ask which I recommend (because you can sit only once a day), I would say the morning, for the following reasons. No visitors come early in the morning, whereas in the evening you are likely to be interrupted. Also, morning—at any rate, in the city—is much quieter than evening since fewer cars are on the streets. Furthermore, because in the morning you are rested and somewhat hungry, you are in good condition for zazen, whereas in the evening, when you are tired and have had your meal, you are likely to be duller. Since it is difficult to do zazen on a full stomach, it is better not to sit immediately after a meal when you are a beginner. Before a meal, however, zazen can be practiced to good advantage. As your zeal grows it won’t matter when you sit, before, after, or during a meal.

If you are working, try to sit every morning, preferably before breakfast, and just before going to bed at night. 

How long should you do zazen at one sitting? There is no general rule, for it varies according to the degree of one’s eagerness as well as the maturity of one’s practice. For novices a shorter time is better. If you sit devotedly five minutes a day for a month or two, you will want to increase your sitting to ten or more minutes as your ardor grows. When you are able to sit with your mind taut for, say, thirty minutes without pain or discomfort, you will come to appreciate the feeling of tranquility and well-being induced by zazen and will want to practice regularly. For these reasons I recommend that beginners sit for shorter periods of time. On the other hand, should you force yourself from the beginning to sit for longer periods, the pain in your legs may well become unbearable before you acquire a calm mind. Thus you will quickly tire of zazen, feeling it to be a waste of time, or you will always be watching the clock. In the end you will come to dislike zazen and stop sitting altogether. This is what frequently happens. Now, even though you sit for only ten minutes or so each day, you can compensate for this briefness by concentrating intensely on the counting of each breath, thus increasing its effectiveness. You must not count absent-mindedly or mechanically, as though it were a duty.

You may do zazen anywhere from five to thirty minutes at one sitting. For novices a shorter time is better. Count your breaths with full awareness.

In spite of your being able to sit for an hour or more with a feeling of exquisite serenity, it is wise to limit your sitting to periods of about thirty or forty minutes each. Ordinarily it is not advisable to do zazen longer than this at one sitting, since the mind cannot sustain its vigor and tautness and the value of the sitting decreases. Whether one realizes it or not, a gradual diminution of the mind’s concentrative intensity takes place. For this reason it is better to alternate a thirty or forty-minute period of sitting with a round of walking zazen. Following this pattern, one can do zazen for a full day or even a week with good results. The longer zazen continues, however, the more time should be spent in walking zazen. In fact, one might advantageously add periods of manual labor to this routine, as has been done in the Zen temple since olden times. Needless to say, you must keep your mind in a state of clear awareness during such manual labor and not allow it to become lax or dull.

Alternate a thirty or forty-minute period of sitting with a round of walking zazen.

A word about food. It is better to eat no more than eighty percent of your capacity. A Japanese proverb has it that eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor. The Zazen Yojinki (Precautions to Observe in Zazen), compiled about 650 years ago, says you should eat two-thirds of your capacity. It further says that you should choose nourishing vegetables (of course meat-eating is not in the tradition of Buddhism and it was taboo when the Yojinki was written) such as mountain potatoes, sesame, sour plums, black beans, mushrooms, and the root of the lotus; and it also recommends various kinds of seaweed, which are highly nutritious and leave an alkaline residue in the body. Now, I am no authority on vitamins and minerals and calories, but it is a fact that most people today eat a diet which creates too much acid in the blood, and a great offender in this respect is meat. Eat more vegetables of the kind mentioned, which are alkalinic in their effect. In ancient days there was a yang-yin diet. The yang was the alkaline and the yin the acid, and the old books cautioned that a diet ought not be either too yang or too yin. This is substantially what I have just told you.

Eat nutritious, mostly vegetarian food. Be somewhat hungry.

When sitting it is a good idea to have a notebook and pencil before you, because a variety of insights will flash into your mind and you will think: “I must write this down before I forget it.” Relationships which previously were incomprehensible will suddenly be clarified and difficult problems will be abruptly solved. If you do not jot these things down, they will worry you and thus interfere with your concentration.

Note down any insight that occurs during the zazen session, if you plan to access it later.


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  • vinaire  On October 21, 2018 at 8:42 AM

    Scott Gordon:

    I am really liking this.

    It is refreshing to see authentic wisdom being communicated.

    In the starry-eyed wonder of the hippies in the 60s receiving Eastern wisdom and practices for the first time, many New Age fallacies were injected into the mix through mistranslations and perhaps even intentional alterations by certain publishers. (No space to go into all of them here – applied Mindfulness should eventually clarify even these, although it is a shame when ones progress can be held back by inauthentic or ignorant oversimplifications.)

    Just to say that this material rings “authentic.”


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