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.