Thursday, September 16, 2010

Zazen Posture.

There was a nice turnout last Tuesday, the first of our weekly meetings after the summer break. Thanks to everyone who came along to try out zazen.

Some people sat on chairs, while some sat on the zafus (the small, round cushions) and zabutons (the bigger, flat ones). We have to start practicing zazen from whatever point our body is at, and, while sitting in a cross legged pose is recommended, it simply is not possible for all of us. This is fine.

The cross legged position on the floor offers the great stability of a tripod (made by our two knees and the sitting bones of our backsides). Remember we sit towards the front edge of the zafu and allow our pelvis to drop forward, which, if we are sufficiently flexible, should allow our knees to fall towards the zabuton (you can use a folded blanket on a carpeted floor at home as an alternative to a zafu and zabuton). This stability allows us to make the upright (but not rigid!) posture with our upper body.

If we're sitting on a chair it's important not to slump back in on ourselves in the lower back region, and we don't lean against the chair's back (as in the 'traditional seat' image at the top of this post). We should sit forward, towards the edge of the seat if possible, and gently stick our rears out allowing for a gentle inward curve in the lower spine (as in the 'saddle seat' image up top... this can feel a bit odd at first!) We should support our own upper body on this base, remembering to allow the shoulders to drop naturally with our hands in the mudra position. The mudra is formed around the part of our body which is the pivot area of our torso; this serves to bring a sense of centeredness and balance to our posture.
Remember: Getting into the routine of doing 3-5 mins, or whatever, twice a day (usually morning and evening) is better than doing 20 mins or half an hour infrequently!

... And be careful not to try to do too much everyday at first, so as not to burn yourself out on it and make doing it a drag. The length of time we sit daily can be built up very gradually as we get used to it.

You'll find links to some info on stretches to help open the legs, hips and back HERE... and check out the 'How to do Zazen' link in the links section up on the right hand side of this page.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Zazen Meetings Recommencing Tuesday 14th September, 7 - 8pm.

Well, I hope everyone had a nice summer break. Our zazen meetings in The Dock Arts Centre, Carrick-on-Shannon are starting up again on the 14th of September. All are welcome, as you'll see in the blurb provided below (which I wrote for The Dock's events programme):

Long River Zen Group.

Try out zazen (zen sitting meditation) and learn about Buddhist philosophy at this weekly group meeting. There are two 15 minute meditation periods and an open discussion. Buddhist practice is about encountering our life here and now just as it is, it does not require that we adopt or reject any particular beliefs, so everyone is welcome to participate.

For more info and bookings contact:

Maybe we'll see you there.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Summer Break, Brad Warner Visit, 'Dropping Views/Opinions', Zombies etc etc...

Firstly, the evenings at The Dock have finished for the summer to resume in early September. This is to follow the format of other classes/workshops there: It's a pain for The Dock to open the place up just for us. I hope you can continue to do some zazen at home during this time. Remember that it's generally advised that establishing a practice of a few minutes each day, or twice a day, is more important than doing a longer sitting just once or twice a week. You can build up the sitting time as you get used to it. Good luck, and thank you for all your efforts.

Secondly, someone last night said (quite sensibly) that they were uncomfortable with the idea of 'dropping our views and opinions' in Buddhism. It's important to stress that this statement about dropping views and opinions only refers to zazen where we allow everything to come and go for a time, where we stop our usual judging and evaluating when we notice that we're doing it. In this way we can get a broader perspective on our views and opinions for a time. The point is not to makes us zoned out, blank-minded zombies all the time: that would actually be a dangerous way to live, as we're required to evaluate and make judgements as part of our everyday lives. The problem is that we sometimes mistake our own views and opinions as some sort of real, exterior reality. Zazen addresses this and allows us to see our thinking and evaluating from a more realistic perspective. Doing it regularly also develops an intuitive understanding of the way things really are... but that's another story.

Thirdly, if anyone is interested in hearing about one-day events or other Buddhisty things that may be going on during the summer in this area then please drop me a line with your contact details and I'll include you on our info list.

One event that springs to mind is that the US Buddhist teacher and author Brad Warner is visiting Belfast next month. Details can be found HERE (scroll down the page a bit).

...And check out the July/August retreat in lovely Co Clare in the links menu up on the right hand side there.

...AND (phew!) a few of us are talking about meeting up weekly at my house in Boyle for zazen during the summer. Contact me for details.

Hope you have a great summer!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Not One Other Thing to Hide From.

Zazen can sometimes be misused as a place to hide, as a place to protect ourselves from the world, or to feel superior, 'transcended', 'more enlightened' etc etc. Sometimes we might get absorbed in aspects of our self in doing it and abuse it to protect, and even enhance, such thoughts and feelings about our self. This, of course, is inherently selfish and is not the very real, tangible conduct of 'dropping body and mind' as proposed in Buddhism.

Zazen allows us to receive everything and everybody without exception as our own life. We can drop our involvement with our usual comfort zones and narratives for a time and revel in the great diversity of our life unlimited. In sitting firmly upright, and allowing ALL our usual 'stuff' to just come and go, we can learn and clarify what Buddhism is really about.

I came across this quote from a great Chinese Master in a book by Robert Aitken Roshi last night:

You who sit on the top of a hundred foot pole,
Although you have entered the Way, it is not yet genuine.
Take a step from the top of the pole
And the universe in the ten directions will be your entire body.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Summer Retreat in West of Ireland.

Peter Rocca Sensei (on left, with Nishijima Roshi) will be conducting a weekend retreat this summer July 31st- August 2nd in Ireland.

It'll be held at the very nice Sunyata Retreat Centre which is situated in the rolling countryside of lovely East Clare. The timetable will not be too intensive and so it will suit beginners.

You can read about it and make a booking here.

(...Although the website doesn't work for me every time I try for some reason. If it doesn't work, try later!)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sitting Upright: An Amazing, Mysterious Feat Beyond Our Comprehension!!!

Someone last night asked the very sensible question: 'Why do you do it [zazen]?'

In response to this question Kodo Sawaki, the celebrated 20th century Japanese Zen Master, might boldly roar 'Zazen is useless!' or 'There is no reason!', one of his students, Kosho Uchiyama might say 'Do zazen for the sake of doing zazen'. Gudo Nishijima Sensei might say 'Do zazen to balance the autonomic nervous system', and that such balanced action brings clarity and poise to our life...

All these answers are valid and true. The most important thing is to actually do it if we want to understand it... And remember that doing it involves dropping off all our expectations of it, and all the demands of it that we will find ourselves thinking up (which is what Kodo Sawaki was getting at maybe):

'Be like an open gate'.

The issue came up of spiritual teachers who can (allegedly) perform miraculous feats (such as levitating, manifesting solid objects out of nowhere etc etc)... We can believe or disbelieve whatever we want about this stuff, but doing zazen is not directly a matter of belief, nor cynicism: What is of central importance is that we actually do it and just let go of our values, beliefs and disbeliefs for a while... and then maybe we can learn something about our values and beliefs, and ourselves.

Our bodies constantly manifest anew from moment to moment so that we may move and grow. We can know a person's mind by the smile on her face or the tear in his eye. We can fly in a plane, or hang-glide, or bungee jump or dance around like big kids... now that is miraculous!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Buddhism: A Philosophy Based in Our Own Action.

Nishijima Sensei, my teacher's teacher and the founder of Dogen Sangha, makes a nice distinction about what Buddhism essentially is.

He says that it is a 'Philosophy of Action'. This means that, rather than its adherents being concerned with just believing in things (idealism) or explaining things in tangible empirical and quantifiable terms (materialism), they are required to actually 'do' it (Action). The 'doing it' bit is clarified in zazen, and it's the central aspect of Zen Buddhism.

A nice, positive aspect of Buddhism is that we can still believe in things (such as God) and practice it, so you get people whom may be adherents to a religion such as Christianity but who also practice zazen sincerely. Buddhism is generally not a religion which excludes on the basis of belief or lack of it, but it requires us to look at the nature of our beliefs and our selves via the Action of zazen when we are not restricted by, or limited by, our own values and beliefs.

In zazen, and particularly in extended 'sesshin' ( zazen retreats), we have the opportunity to explore the nature of Buddhist 'Action': All sorts of stuff might come up when we sit zazen... we will get bored and frustrated, we might feel all spacey and spiritual, and we'll likely have to deal with physical discomfort and all sorts of daydreams and fantasies; but we can just firmly sit through it all and learn very directly that we needn't be pushed around by what we think and feel.

We're actually already free to act despite what we think and feel with our body and mind and despite all our habitual reactions to our 'stuff', but we need to really practice this principle often and regularly to substantially realise it in our lives.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

No Meeting Next Week.

Hi Folks,

Two things:

Please bear in mind that there is no zazen in the Dock next Tuesday (6th of April). We'll be back there again the following Tuesday (the 13th) as usual.

Some time in the next month I'll be holding a one-day zazen retreat at my home zendo situated just outside of Boyle, Co Roscommon. It'll probably run from @ 10 am til 3pm or so on a Saturday or Sunday.

If you're interested in attending let me know by email: longriverzen(at)

More details about that event will follow. All that is certain about it at the moment is that it'll be free of charge.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Great Perfection.

Buddhist philosophy posits that everything is already perfect, everything is Buddha-nature and is totally complete in itself...

"Yeah, right!" you might say, and, fair enough, the world is an unapologetic shit hole at times.

When we adopt this notion of 'everything being perfect' idealistically, just as some silly limited idea in our head or whatever, then we can quickly see that it really isn't that useful, truthful or accurate: our lives are more than a bit sucky at times, and this often hurts. But that's not what this Buddhist idea of perfection is about at all: As with all Buddhist philosophy, we should examine this more fully from the perspective of our own practice of zazen.

In zazen we can see that we ourselves make 'good' and 'bad', 'holy' and 'ordinary', 'friend' and 'foe', that we tend towards 'this' and away from 'that' based on our experiences and values... we chop up the Perfection with our thoughts and wants and aversions and all that stuff from our lives. But we can see too that we can lessen this activity with practice and the right sort of effort.

In sitting upright and firmly we can let all that usual drama just come and go; we don't have to get involved, we can see it all as just the Perfection itself unfolding playfully if we don't get involved in the narrative of our lives as we usually do. In doing this the Perfection that already exists before we make things 'perfect' and 'imperfect' will start to become clearer.

Of course, we have to get up off the cushion and step back into the world of discriminating what's good and bad for ourselves and others and striving to do the right thing and make ends meet, but, if we have really expressed and experienced the Perfection, then maybe we can arise with the direct recognition that our often squalid, tiny little lives of frustration and confusion are an expression of something that we cannot limit in the ways that we generally tend to limit ourselves.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Time, Please!

In practicing Zazen we can enjoy an interesting perspective on time:

The past is just our own memory made in our own brains, and the future is just a thought made in our brains as well... in a sense we make our own 'time' in this way.

The present, the eternal present that never stops nor starts, is this moment where we can allow all thoughts of 'past', 'future' and 'present' to just come and go. Doing this is to BE Real-time and to understand Real-time/existence: Real-time is not how we imagine the 'past', 'present' or 'future' to be and so we can experience it in letting all our thoughts come forward and drop away... after a while of sitting thus we'll get into the groove of this Real-time and it will come to meet us and help us out.

We might like to think of the wise Buddhas of the past, or some Truth or Realisation that will come in the future... but the only Truth and the only Reality is this present time. This is the only time when we can really exist and act, or be true, or be realised... or just be deluded by all our thinking!

Master Dogen wrote about this in a Chapter of Shobogenzo called "Uji" ('Time-being').



Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Right and Wrong.

In the Buddhist lineage I'm involved in there is currently some hot debate and dissent about the question of morality and what's 'right' and 'wrong' in Buddhism.

Thankfully, the Buddhist teaching on this is very practical and clear and was summed up in ancient times in these terms:

Not to commit wrongs,
To practice the many kinds of right,

Naturally purifies the mind;

This is the teaching of the buddhas.

Master Dogen, the Buddhist Master considered the founder of Soto Zen, particularly emphasised the first line about 'not committing wrongs' because, when we are not committing wrongs, things manifest as they are, we manifest as we are, and we are naturally right when we allow ourselves to be right.

Basically, the emphasis is not on lofty, moralistic ideals, or worrying about what other people are doing, or praising them or criticising them for being 'right' or 'wrong' as we perceive it. The emphasis here is actually on our very own conduct right here and now: We make real, manifest right and wrong just here and now with our own real actions of body, speech and mind... any 'right' and 'wrong' outside of this is just a thought in our heads, a judgement, a splitting up of the situation using our intellect.

This does not mean that we should not have views and opinions on events or situations, or that we should not make efforts to improve things for ourselves and others, *but*, from the perspective offered in Buddhism, we should clearly understand that our views and opinions are just our own views and opinions and not some objective truth.

It's easy to get intoxicated by our own views and opinions, and Buddhism recognises this:

If needs be, we should try not to do what we know to be wrong,
We should let good manifest as it is,
This clarifies our intention and our lives.

Nobody is perfect, everybody makes mistakes... please bear in mind that Buddhism is essentially not a philosophy/religion of lofty, abstract morals and sitting in judgement of others. It's about us. It's about our own personal actions/conduct right here-and-now. That's what we can change, that's what we can control.

Of course, the natural introspection of zazen, where we drop off all thoughts of 'good' and 'bad', is indispensable if we wish to understand and clarify our thoughts and intentions. It aligns us with our natural goodness that already exists before we think up 'good' and 'bad'.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hips (and 'watch yer knees!')

Most people, if they want to start doing zazen cross legged on a zafu (round cushion) on the floor, will probably have to do some stretches to open up their hips a bit. It's important to do this as, if the hips aren't rotating enough the twist of the leg is transferred from the hip to the knee, but the knee cannot rotate like the hip, and so it can easily get damaged. It's bad news when that happens.

Be careful when sitting or stretching: if there is any sharp knee pain or prolonged discomfort then stop doing whatever you're doing.

Here are some basic hip opening exercises suitable for cautious beginners.

Here is a longer yoga-based hip routine that is intended to help people work towards the lotus posture.

Here is another page with preparatory stretches for lotus.

Please heed all the warnings on these hip stretching pages and remember that stretching the hips is a gradual and gentle process.

Starting next week I'll be doing a series of topics introducing the main points of Zen Buddhism and its practice.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

'Beginner's Mind'.

“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few”.

(Shunryu Suzuki Roshi)

It's not easy to relinquish all our views and opinions about ourselves and everything for a time, but that's what we have to do in zazen if we really want to taste it.

'Beginner's mind' is sometimes revered in Buddhism as the attitude that is open to all possibilities, that is unhindered by assumptions and the mental baggage of habitual, learned behavior. However, often a beginner might approach something with expectations, or with ideas of how something should be based on what they've heard about it, or they might mix it up with something similar and have that as a sort of comparison. I certainly approached Buddhism like this. A lot of people seem to approach Buddhism and Buddhist practice with all sorts of ideas about it and other things, like ideas they've read or seen on TV or heard about or whatever. It's understandable because we want to get a handle on what it's all about. Often we first want our expectations and ideas affirmed, and we might even loose interest and/or be disappointed if they're not.

While it's certainly good to understand aspects of Buddhist philosophy, it's more important to commence practicing zazen sincerely allowing all our expectations, comparisons and aspirations to come forward and just fall away. After a while they'll cease to disturb us and we'll begin to understand what 'beginner's mind' really means. This is how we really learn the essence of Buddhist philosophy.

If I could go back and give myself some advice I'd say "Listen more! Talk less! Ask more questions! Don't make assumptions!"...but I doubt I'd listen to the advice really as I was, and am, a bit thick when it comes to being a good beginner at anything.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


An awful lot could be said (and has been said!) about doing zazen.

1. Sit in an alert but relaxed upright posture with a straight spine.

2. Let thoughts just come and go without involving yourself with them.

3. If you find yourself intentionally thinking or daydreaming then just stop it.

Eventually our wild brains will settle down and we'll see for ourselves that there's nothing left to do...That's the way I'd explain it in a nutshell at least!

You can download a free PDF booklet HERE with some nice, clear instructions for zazen, including info on good posture etc etc.

It's good to start with a couple of short sittings per day... maybe five minutes in the morning and five mins in the evening. It's very important to practice it regularly if you really want to get a feel for it. It seems better to start off with short sittings like this that you can work into your schedule and that don't 'burn you out' on sitting or make you dread going back to the cushion (on the other hand, some people seem OK with sitting for quite long periods right from the start... I certainly wasn't!)

You can always built up the length of time that you sit very gradually as you get used to it and as it becomes part of your daily schedule.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Heart of the Matter.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva,
when deeply practicing prajna-paramita,
clearly saw that the five skandhas are all empty,
and was saved from all suffering and distress.

Tonight we started looking at The Heart Sutra. This is a central Mahayana Buddhist scripture that is studied and chanted widely throughout the Buddhist world.

It takes the form of a speech delivered by the Bodhisattva of Compassion (called 'Kannon' in Japanese) to Sariputra, one of the Buddha's main disciples.

In it Kannon reveals that all things (including all aspects of our self) are of the nature of sunyata or 'emptiness'. This term 'emptiness' is sometimes misunderstood to mean that things aren't real or that they don't exist, but actually it refers to the nature of things just 'as they are' as we can directly realise them in zazen when we become balanced and stable, when our thinking calms down and things become clearer (even in our un-clearness!).

It seems important to note that Kannon delivers this revelation while 'deeply practicing prajna-paramita' (or deeply practicing 'perfect wisdom'), so s/he is expressing the nature of things as experienced in a very stable state of zazen.

There have been volumes written about sunyata/emptiness and what it means as a philosophy and whether it negates things or not etc etc etc... but it seems more important to directly clarify substantially for ourselves what emptiness/shunyata is in our own sitting zazen. It's not really just a philosophical matter.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Top Losers!

We touched on a lot of stuff tonight in our not-so-little pre-zazen chat (a remarkable amount really, given that there was only three of us there!)

One thing that came up is these various methods for making one's life better with positive thinking and various meditation-type practices (The Secret is the latest craze in this it seems). That stuff is all fine in its context (although it was noted that often these 'get more successful' schemes come with a very high price tag... so I suppose they do indeed work: somebody's definitely gettin' rich!), but it's good to recognise the difference between that sort of meditation or method and the 'no gain' aspect of zazen as transmitted in Buddhism. It's quite different in nature.

It is the case that we generally feel better after zazen (especially after we've been doing it regularly a while), and it may often be true that people who practice zazen regularly enjoy less stress, decreased levels of aggression, more clarity, more balanced lives, better sleep even, and other positive physiological effects... but that's not the point of it, nor should it be our motivation in zazen. In fact, if our motivation is to 'get nice stuff' or 'feel good' in zazen, then we can't really be said to be practicing zazen as it has been handed down from Buddhist ancestors. Zazen is not about achieving goals in that way at all.

Put simply, our life is often characterised by running away from things which we consider 'bad' (e.g. poverty, being an asshole/ being boring old 'me', depression, stress etc etc etc) and running to things which we consider 'good' and that will cure the 'bad' stuff (e.g. being rich, being a 'perfect, enlightened' being, having amazing meditative experiences, being happy all the time, being care-free etc etc etc...) , but zazen, if we really tuck into it and practice it sincerely, is a break from this sort of inherently circular existence of getting what we want and being 'happy' then, inevitably, loosing it and being 'unhappy' and then struggling to get what we want in order to be 'happy' again.

Zazen offers more stability than a life of just irresistibly chasing after an ethereal carrot on the treadmill driven by our habitual wants and aversions. We can just stop that 'running to' and 'running away from' activity in sitting upright and non-thinking, letting that whole drama just come and go for a time. In this way we can get a broader perspective on it. Of course, we do have to try to make things in our lives better for ourselves and others, but getting caught up in just that, to not be able to see beyond that, is the source of some serious problems in life it seems.

Master Dogen, in a chapter of Shobogenzo called 'Bussho', explains that expressing the state of a buddha, that substantially 'getting' it, is a matter of 'being without'. This great attainment, this great wisdom of the ancients, involves us dropping away our lives of wants and needs, of 'good' as opposed to 'bad', of even the senses of loss or attainment themselves... to win at Buddhism is to gain every single thing everywhere in manifesting the Ultimate Loser right here and now.



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kenshō & Zazen.

Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi

T'was very quiet tonight in The Dock. It was our first Tuesday night back after the Christmas and snow extravaganza (have all you budding zennies gone into hibernation or something?)

Those of us there (both of us, that is!) had a nice chat about zazen and the 'sudden awakening' experiences we sometimes notice in zazen. Such experiences are referred to in Zen tradition as Kenshō.

At such times we might have a sudden realisation about ourselves, or experience a feeling of connectivity with everything around us and/or a very fine clarity and lightness in our sitting or other activities. These experiences are often a very valid part of practice... sometimes they're not though; they might just be random mental events due to our current state of body-mind (referred to as "makyo" in Zen terms), so it's important not to read too much into them as a general rule.

It seems important not to get too caught up in such experiences, especially in seeking them or trying to 'make them happen' or replicate them every time we sit. That's a sort of attachment to our own mental events which is quite contrary to just sitting and allowing every thing to come and go.

All aspects of zazen, just as it is right at this moment, are already complete in themselves. This moment of practice perfectly contains everything in its perfection and imperfection. It really doesn't need improving, and we can't improve it in that way anyway!

Zazen, every aspect of it, is the point of doing zazen and there is no realisation beyond what we are presently realising, beyond what we are presently making real.

Dosho Port posted some excellent points from Dainin Katagiri Roshi to his blog recently where Roshi says:

Peace is not inside or outside. Peace is right in the midst of the functioning of zazen. You think that by zazen you will become peaceful. At that time, peace is already outside. When you feel peaceful by zazen you feel peace inside. But this isn’t real peace and harmony. Next moment it disappears. Real peace and harmony, which is blooming from moment to moment, is not in the idea, but in the midst of the process of zazen.

Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi
, in an interview with a student, offers a nice touchstone to keep our heads screwed on in this regard also:

Q: Some people would like to improve themselves with spiritual practice, to get better...

Roshi: If the desire to become better disappears, then they will become better.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi

Saturday, January 9, 2010

And Now, Cometh The Freeze.

Happy New Year to All.

We're going to re-commence our Tuesday evening sittings on Tuesday the 19th of January.

The roads are a bit dodgy due to the weather here and it seems like it might be better to wait for a little while before starting up again.

We're not good with a couple of inches of ice and snow in this country: everything goes a bit pear-shaped... People in Finland and Sweden and places like that, please stop sniggering at us!

Hope everyone is safe and warm.