8 Points to Optimizing Zazen

"You are perfect as you are, and there's plenty of room for improvement."


I hate thinking about what I need to do to improve myself, because there’s too much to do!  I’d rather focus on zazen and the teaching that practice and Enlightenment are one, that when I sit and meditate, I am Buddha.  Or that when I sit zazen all the precepts are held perfectly.  In other words, in sitting zazen, no ethical mistake can be made. 


Zen also teaches that the experience of the person doing meditation for thirty years is no different from a person who just started practicing meditation.  In other words, there’s no gain to be found in practicing zazen.  Zazen affirms that we are perfect just as we are, and the more that we sit and meditate, the more we can see the truth in that. 


But Zen practice doesn’t let us rest in our innate perfection.  Moreover, we often don’t “feel” like we’re perfect.  For those of us who have studied the Buddhist precepts, we know how difficult they are to live by.  If you study at a Zen temple, there are all sorts of practices that you’ll be introduced to that demand study, learning, and mastery.  This includes such mundane activities as washing the face before morning meditation, brushing the teeth, and using special bowls for eating meals.  The quality with which we practice the precepts and these other daily activities in our life will influence the quality of our meditation practice.


 At Its heart, Zen is about self-cultivation, about getting better about how we do anything.  It’s about taking the best care possible of what we’ve been gifted.  It’s about improving our functioning in the world we live in. When it comes to zazen, it’s about taking good care of our posture, and not attaching to anything. 


If we want to grow a garden, we can’t just “do nothing” in an absent-minded sort of way.  We need to think about the seeds we want to plant, where we want to plant them, how we are going to plant them, and then how we are going to take care of them once planted.  Zen practice is no different than growing a garden.


My Zen teacher did not say, “just sit there.”  She gave detailed instructions of how to comport my back, legs, arms, hands, fingers, eyes, and tongue.  She gave instructions on what to do with my mind.  “You can enjoy your sitting.  You can enjoy your breathing.  You can enjoy your life.”  These were her instructions, as transmitted to her by her teachers.  This is Mahakashapa’s subtle smile.  However, if we do an intensive meditation retreat (sesshin) we might question whether we can actually enjoy our practice, especially when our back is in pain, our legs are sore, and we just want to go to sleep.  The point of sesshin, though, is to turn our mind towards the reality of our life so that we can wake up to what really matters.


For many people who come to meditation practice, though, the instructions on what to do with your body and mind are not enough because we are imbedded in social networks and a culture that influences how we feel in our body and mind, how we perceive the body/mind, and how our perceptions influence what is perceived.  We can’t expect the Zen center or our practice to unilaterally affect change in us without simultaneously working on other fronts of our life.


What follows are points that I have found through my own personal experience to have helped me not just optimize shikantaza (seated meditation), but to live an overall better life.  I say this with the caveat that these are points that I have found to help, and I would encourage my reader to explore these points for themselves and see if they work for you.  These points are not made to shame anyone for not doing enough, but to inspire you to look for ways to do more to lessen the suffering in your life and to increase your overall sense of well-being, as that is the heart of the Buddha’s message to humanity. 


Furthermore, keeping these points in mind does not guarantee success in perfect health and happiness.  They are guidelines, and as our life continually changes, we need to reexamine our present habits from time to time to make sure they are realistic for where we are.  There is a dynamic balance we all need to keep in mind, and the relative attention given to these points should change depending on circumstances. 


The Points are:


  1. Exercise & Food
  2. Mindful Movement/Yoga
  3. Sleep
  4. Chanting
  5. Meaningful Work or Service Oriented Jobs
  6. Harmony in the family
  7. Sesshin
  8. Play
An Unpolished Jewel Does Not Shine
An Unpolished Jewel Does Not Shine

1. Exercise & Food

Discussing such subjects is dangerous.  Merely thinking about exercise and nutrition induce shame in many of us.  So, please take what I write with a grain of salt and do the best you can within your own circumstances.  This writing is only to encourage a “beginner’s mind” with regards to a subject that is repeated all too often in other contexts.

We’ve heard the need to pay attention to these things by our doctors and by society at large, but so many of us fail miserably at them, as attested by an epidemic of obesity.  We might feel that we don’t have enough money or time to eat well and to exercise.  But if we really begin to pay attention to the present moment, we’ll see that we can find many ways of exercising that don’t require us to go to a fancy gym, and many ways to eat that don’t require purchase of expensive organic foods.  For Zen practice, exercise and nutrition are an integral part to the way one lives in a temple, not something extra that we need to make time for.  Learning how to integrate exercise without separating it out from the rest of our life is key.  The same is true of nutrition.  When it comes to nutrition, I won’t be talking too much about what to eat, as important as that is. I will, however, discuss how to eat, based on the teachings of Zen Master Dogen.


My own teacher, Dai-En Roshi, was formerly a professional classical ballet dancer.  She has a deep appreciation for the body, and was enamored by the way she and others move through space on stage and in front of an audience as a ballet professional.  Until her mid-thirties she danced regularly, practicing several hours a day.  Her lifestyle dramatically changed soon after becoming a nun, yet she brought mindfulness of the body, as learned in ballet, into action in monastic life.  When I first met her, I will never forget how she comported herself, particularly her spine, and the way I felt in her presence.  Her effortless attention to the detailed movements of her body when bowing and when walking, as well as when sitting to meditate, was a sight to behold, like witnessing the Buddha on the verge of attaining Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  She was 100% present to her environment.

She lived to dance.  Her job allowed her to do what she loved.  She prioritized dancing and didn’t let anyone distract her from that love.  As a thirteen year old, her parents tried to dissuade her from becoming a dancer, and they contrived a plan to do so by their minister.  One Sunday the minister told the congregation that, “dancers go to hell.”  When Dai-En Roshi heard this she never returned to the church again.  Though her parents wouldn’t pay for her lessons, she found ways to earn money so that she could dance. 

This may be an extreme example of taking care of the body through exercise, but I share it to inspire us to not make excuses.  Where there is a will, there is a way.  If the will is not there, we won’t do it.  Exercise, and all of the 8 points for that matter, needs to have a deep-seated desire at its foundation.

Dai-En Roshi’s teacher, Noda Daito Roshi, also had a very body-based approach to Zen.  He practiced shorinji kenpo, a Japanese form of kung fu.  He played taiko drums and encouraged the formation of Taiko groups.  Taiko drumming is physically oriented and requires not just muscle strength, but also cardiovascular effort.  Moreover, Daito Roshi has a multi-acre garden on the temple grounds that grows all sorts of vegetables.  He once told me that they rarely go out to eat, and that if someone wants to eat something at his temple they need to go out to the garden, pick a vegetable and cook it up themselves.  There’s a saying in Zen, “A day without work is a day without food.”

If you were to visit a Japanese training temple you would probably not see monks doing meditation unless you arrived well before dawn.  You would probably witness them doing physical activities such as cleaning and cooking or bowing.  This video of Sojiji, one of two Head temples of Soto Zen in Japan, gives examples of the life of Zen monks.

But most people reading this will probably never have an opportunity to train like a monk in a temple.  Therefore, exercise needs to be fun, age-appropriate, and sensitive to one’s health history or any limiting conditions, otherwise it won’t be long lasting.  What is it that helps you move your body in a way that is enjoyable?  Dancing?  Running?  Swimming?  Volleyball?  Making the time each day for some form of vigorous movement – for most adults that’s a minimum of 20 minutes – can release loads of pent-up energy, a consequence of our already sedentary society, not to mention the discharge of the endorphin dopamine that gives us that feeling of a natural high.

Historically, monks and nuns walked great distances before sitting down to meditate.  They were physically active.  Monks in Japan spend a good deal of their days cleaning – scrubbing floors, digging ditches and other manual labor.

In 1994, before the advent of the internet, I had been swimming almost daily for several years.  When I learned there was a meditation teacher nearby, I walked to the place she was and then I sat down.  My point is that today, we find meditation by sitting down and looking at a flat screen.  We don’t have to move our bodies to learn anything.  We read some words and our bodies are left out of the equation, as if what we do with them prior to meditation is irrelevant.

It’s thanks to the fact that I was physically active not only immediately prior to my first meditation experience, but that I had been swimming daily for years that allowed me to sit with a certain degree of stillness.

I encourage whenever possible a moderate degree of exercise prior to a period of sitting.  Meditation practice can be, if one so desires, incorporated into one’s exercise routine, perhaps just five minutes at the end of exercise, and to cool down.  Meditation can be a way to down regulate one’s emotional state especially after stimulating the sympathetic nervous system through exercise.  In this way the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems come into balance.


“We are what we eat.”  This cliché is often invoked but seldom understood, because if it was, people would look more closely at the relationship between food and mood.  While I’m not advocating for becoming vegetarian, we can’t expect to eat a half a pound of beef and then sit quietly in meditation for 30 minutes.  Red meat gives very sedentary people much more energy than they need even if they don’t have a sitting practice.  There’s a reason why the Brahma’s Net Sutra forbids the consumption of meat.  A vegetarian diet (not vegan) helps a practitioner to calm down, and also assists in the development of compassion towards all living beings.

Yet, the original Buddhist precepts don’t forbid monks from eating meat.  They only forbade monks from eating meat if it was expressly killed for them.  But this was in a society and in a time where the monks were totally dependent on lay practitioners for food offerings.  The monks were forbidden to cook anything or cultivate the ground.  In our times, most of the Zen monks I know don’t live the way monks did in the time of the Buddha, or if they do, they do so in the spirit of the law.  Some grow their own food, many have jobs outside of a temple, and some have families to support.  They are just like any other person in society that has to work for their food.  They can’t depend on begging for their sustenance the same way the Buddha did in ancient India.

Because many if not all Zen monks go out to a grocery store to purchase their own food, they are fully responsible for the choices they make.  For years I worked as the Tenzo, Head Cook, at the temple I trained at.  I had the temple checkbook and it fell on me to purchase the food we needed for retreats and daily living.  As Zen practitioners, keeping the Bodhisattva Precepts in mind, we need to consider how our food was processed as we make choices at the grocery store.  In our meal chant we recite, “Innumerable labors have brought us this food.  We should know how it comes to us.”

Where does our beef come from?  Our chicken?  Our vegetables?  Our fruits?  Our grains?  Can we trace it back to its origins and learn something about how what was once living was treated during its life and before becoming food for us?  How do we feel about what we learn?  Is there any connection between how an animal was treated during its life and how we feel after eating it?  Can we look at the food in front of us – whether it’s meat or vegetables, or fruits, or dessert, with the eyes of the Dharma?


However, something must shift once the food is on our plate and we’re about to eat.  While there is the practice of noticing where food comes from, in the end we may as well say that it comes from celestial beings, because if we look deeply enough the source is unfathomable. Thus comes a point where we stop noticing the source and simply eat.  Letting go of the source, how do we eat the food?


Zen Master Dogen wrote, “Just let Dharma be the same as food, and food be the same as Dharma.”  To equate the physical manifestation of food with the teaching of the Buddha itself is to give it the highest respect.  This is a challenge to Zen practitioners living in modern day America because we have an unprecedented abundance of food, so we don’t think twice about throwing it away.  Would we treat a book on the Buddha’s teaching the same way?  Would we throw away a teacher (metaphorically speaking) the way we would throw out the extra green beans on our plate?   In our consumerist culture it’s easy to treat people like things to be used, and once done, there’s no relationship.  We need to be careful on this point.  The way we treat food is a mirror of the way we treat each other, if what Dogen says is true.

If the food is already on our plate, regardless of how it got there, as important as that process is, there’s really only one attitude to express: gratitude.  There’s a Zen saying, “A monks mouth is like an oven.”  In other words, we don’t judge the food that we’ve been given to eat.  Regardless of how “pure” it is or how it came to us, the fact that it’s in front of our eyes is profound.  Yet, we are often highly critical of the taste of the food, or how it was prepared, or where it came from.  Again, food is the Dharma, and the Dharma is food.  Yet how often do we think of Dharma as something a teacher says, or words written in a book?  Can we see the plate in front of us as filled with the Dharma?

Practice in the context of food has to do with noticing our preferences, our likes and dislikes, and eating everything before us with some degree of gratitude.  We should try to feel a sense of gratitude for the food and verbalize that gratitude to those who prepared it and to those beings who gave their lives for us.  If we like the food, that’s extra.  The stomach refuses no nutrition.

In the same way that we choose what to purchase at the grocery store, we also choose how much food lands in our bowls.  The Zen practice is to eat everything we’ve taken so that nothing is thrown out.  A lot of people struggle with this when they first practice eating Zen style with oryoki (Zen bowls).  The word “oryoki” translates as, “enough.”  We do our best to take only what we need, and not more.  There’s a Japanese saying, “Hara hachi bu.”  It translates as, “stomach 8 parts.”  It’s what people say when they are full, but not over full.  8 parts means that our stomach is filled to 8 parts out of 10.  We try our best not to over eat, and to leave a little bit of space empty.


Zen eating is a challenge because many of us are not used to listening to when we’ve had enough to eat, and we’re also accustomed to scraping uneaten food off our plate and into the trash.  In Zen eating we don’t do that.  What we take we are responsible for finishing.  Every morsel of food is scraped out of the bowl and into our mouth.  The bowls are washed with water, and that rinse water is also drunk.  This is the way we demonstrate our gratitude for the food.

This may sound extreme, but we have to remember that even in modern times there are many places and people that don’t have enough food to eat.  My own teacher suffered from malnutrition in Japan in the 1970’s.  To completely eat our food, regardless of our preferences, is to embody an awareness of those who don’t have enough food to eat. 

However, it’s tricky to teach this.  We also need to be sensitive to the many people who come to a Zen Center in the United States who may not be aware of this gap – between the haves and have nots – and not to shame or guilt them when it’s brought to their attention.  Shaming people into eating everything on their plate is not only unskillful, it can create a lot of suffering unnecessarily.  Everyone has their own time frame for waking up.  While Zen can facilitate that awakening, forcing it may prove counter-productive in some cases.

to be continued…

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