Meditation is the way of coming home to one’s True Self. It is the path to the pure and powerful mind, profoundly beautiful in its luminous clarity. With diligent practice, direct understanding will eventually be gained in the way things truly are and of what one truly is, a Buddha.
For seated meditation, one may use a cushion, a meditation bench, or a chair. But traditionally, in much of the Buddhist world the ideal seated meditation posture is as follows: 1) Sit in a cross-legged position, 2) with a straight spine, 3) the head tilted slightly forward, eyes slightly open, 4) straighten the shoulder blades like a bird flexing its wings, 5) the lips gently touching, 6) while the tongue touches the roof of the mouth, 7) and place the back of the right hand on the left open palm with the tips of the thumbs gently touching.
It is important not to slouch or tense the shoulders too much, and it is advisable to have a cushion to support the buttocks while also supporting the spine. To assist this process, ideally the cushion height should allow the pelvis to be positioned slightly above the knees for comfort and balance of body and mind. Relax! The body has its own natural posture, which allows normal energy flow. Breathe gently through the nose into the abdomen, and don’t try to manipulate it in any way. Allow the natural flow of abdominal breathing to come in and out of the body through the nose.
For those who are not used to sitting cross-legged, it would be wise to begin with what is called the “Burmese Position.” The left leg is crossed to the inside, while the right leg is crossed to the outside. Both legs are on the floor/mat, and the ankles are never crossed, nor does one leg rest on the other, because this would effect normal blood flow. If one has difficulty getting the knees to comfortably touch the floor, then support cushions may be used.
In the “Quarter Lotus Position,” the top of the outside foot is placed on the calf of the inside leg, but be aware that this position may cause the inside leg to fall asleep due to pressure on the calf. In the “Half Lotus Position,” the top of the outside foot is placed atop of the inner thigh, with the sole of the foot pointing upward. In the “Full Lotus Position,” both feet are placed, soles facing up, on the opposite thighs. This latter position is considered to be the most stable one for seated meditation.
IMPORTANT WARNING: Never try to force your body into any unfamiliar cross-legged sitting position. To do so means risking serious damage to muscle ligaments, and tendons. Even experienced practitioners should do regular stretching exercises before and after seated meditation. Yoga, Qigong, and T’ai-Chi are very beneficial in this regard.
Sitting on a Bench, Straddling a Cushion, or Using a Chair
Meditating on a chair, requires that the practitioner should sit forward on the front half of the seat, with both feet flat on the floor about shoulder-width apart. For those who have chronic back problems, it is alright to use a cushion to support the lower back. But for all others it is unnecessary! Otherwise, the rules of posture, hand position and breathing are the same no matter what one sits on.
The Basic Practice: “Returning to the Source”
Pay attention to the rising and falling of the abdomen while you let go of whatever thoughts, sounds, and bodily sensations arise. When you are in a state of gentle concentration, begin the practice of Returning to the Source: when you find yourself drawn away by any thoughts, sounds, or bodily sensations, just return to the fundamental Mind which exists before those thoughts, sounds, or bodily sensations arise. When you have returned to that mind, abide there in stillness. Whenever the thoughts, sounds, or bodily sensations reassert themselves, just repeat the process without comment.
Alternate Practice: “Silent Awareness”
Silently observe whatever thoughts arise without any internal commentary. Simply watch the birth, death, and changes in between of all the thoughts that your brain-mind creates. To be attached to certain habits of thought is to live in the past or the future, not the present. When you find yourself drawn into naming/labelling a particular thought, and become aware of it, gently let it go and return to experiencing the Silent Awareness of the present moment. At some stage in this meditation, when thoughts are allowed to dissolve naturally, you may begin to recognize (even briefly) the space between thoughts, the periods between the inner chatter. If so excellent, but don’t react to it with attachment, fear, or aversion, just continue the process of being silently aware of the present moment.
The practice of walking meditation was encouraged by the Buddha himself, and adds a wonderful contrast to seated meditation. The body position, from the waist to the top of the head is the same as it is in seated meditation, with the chin tucked in slightly, and the eyes slightly downcast, while the head rests comfortably atop the spinal column. The pace of walking meditation is slower than normal, yet not extremely slow.
The focus of your concentration during walking should be the entire body. Observe the entire act of walking, from the point where the soles of your feet touch the floor to the top of your head, as the body moves around the hall/garden path. Remember to bring your attention back to the walking body whenever anything takes it away.
The hand position for walking meditation is as follows: with the dominant hand, gently grasp the thumb of the non-dominant hand as if you were picking up a hammer. Allow the fingers of the non-dominant hand to fall across the clasped fingers of the dominant hand. Relax your shoulders, and let the arms drop straight down, and place the thumb of the dominant hand against the navel, then rest the knuckles of the dominant hand against the abdomen.
Parts of the text reprinted with permission of the Zen Society of Cleveland. Copyright © 2013-2022 – Venerable Shih Jingang