The Importance of Meditation Postures – 2016

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

Oftentimes when people consider beginning mediation not that much attention is given to posture.  Since posture is an integral part of meditation in Zen communities, and since it may be relatively difficult, uncomfortable, or even painful to do,  I have given some thought to the importance and value of a meditation posture.  In our current society, we are used to instant gratification and prefer the easiest way to attain our goals.  However, with meditation there is not an easy or instantaneous way.  I realized that all classical, and even many popular, instructions for meditation begin with a description of meditation postures.  

The classic Zen meditation instruction is given by Dogen Zenji in the 13th century in his writing, Zazengi, in the Shobogenzo.   In Zazengi,  Dogen gives specific detailed instructions for a sitting posture.  The reading of Dogen’s description is a familiar and meaningful litany to Zen students.  I’m going to include all of Dogen’s instruction so that you can appreciate this ancient teaching:

“When you practice zazen wear a kesa and use a small round cushion.  Do not sit on the middle of the cushion but place the front part under your buttocks.   Cross your legs and put them on the mat.  The cushion should be touching the base of your spine.  This is the basic posture that has been handed down from Buddha to Buddha, from Patriarch to Patriarch.

Use either full lotus or half lotus posture.  In the full lotus, the right foot is placed on the left thigh and the left foot is placed on the right thigh.  Keep your legs horizontal, and your back perfectly straight.  In the half lotus the left foot is placed on the right thigh and the right foot is tucked underneath the left thigh.

Loosen your robe and straighten up.  Right hand on left foot, left hand on right foot.  The thumbs should be touching lightly.  Both hands should be against your abdomen.  The top of your thumbs should be kept even with your navel.  Remember to keep your back straight at all times.  Do not lean to the right or the left, or front or back.  Keep your ears even with your shoulders.  Likewise your nose and navel should be in the same plane.  Place your tongue against the roof of your mouth.  Breathe through your nose and keep your teeth and lips together.  The eyes should be kept open in their natural way.  When you begin, adjust your body and mind by taking a deep breath.

The form of your Zazen should be stable like a mountain…. This is the splendid way of zazen.  Zazen is not the means to enlightenment, zazen itself is the completed action of the Budha.  Zazen itself is pure, natural enlightenment.”

Dogen Zenji, Zazengi, The Rule of Zazen, Shobogenzo

In the two books, “Taking the Path of Zen” by Robert Aitken and “Zen Mind Beginners Mind” by Shunryo Susuki, both authors include a detailed instruction for sitting meditation.  It is interesting to see that theirs and most meditation instructions follow closely Dogen’s traditional instruction.   As we can see,  they are saying to meditate, you need to assume a posture – one of several specific postures.

Robert Aitken, my own previous Zen teacher (and a renowned Zen Master),  further explains that two things are necessary for “meditation”:  breath and posture.  You might think that breath is the most important of these, but he surprisingly and specifically wrote that the most important of the two is posture.   

Of course it is natural to wonder why it is necessary to assume a specific sitting posture.  Can’t we just sit in a relaxed position on a chair, sofa, or bed?  So I reflected on this because it often comes up as a question in therapy for those who are considering beginning meditation.   The meaning of  meditation posture itself or the ways that the posture affects the process and outcome of meditation is not often addressed in the literature for the layperson.   Because of the ways that mindfulness and meditation are often taught to the layperson today,  sometimes it’s thought that a posture for meditation is not important.  Or sometimes it’s just assumed that meditation doesn’t necessarily require a specific posture.  From the religious perspective, prayer is not limited to sitting or to a posture.  However, contemplative prayer may imply a kneeling position or even a Buddhist meditation posture.   (Today monks in Trappist monasteries sit in contemplation in Buddhist form.)  We see pictures of saints at prayer, kneeling at an altar.  It makes sense that contemplation also requires stillness and a focused mind.  Perhaps the correct words for sitting in a relaxed position on a chair or sofa are study or reflection. 

Daido Loori, the founder and previous Zen Master at Zen Mountain Monastery in New York,  writes, “Zazen is the cornerstone of Zen training.  Za means “sitting.”  Zen –which derives from the sanskrit, dhyana–means meditation.  In its beginning stages, zazen is a practice of concentration, with a focus on following or counting the breath.  More than just meditation, however, zazen is a powerful tool of self-inquiry, boundless in its ability to reveal the true basis of reality.”   He explains, “In zazen we look at the self, study it, begin to understand how our own mind works.  Bit by bit, samadhi, single-pointedness of mind, develops.  We learn how to take all our scattered energy and bring it into focus.”  (Mountain Record of Zen Talks.)

If part of the goal is to take all of our scattered energy and bring it into focus, then it makes sense that we need to begin with our body.  If we are in a straight and disciplined position then we are more likely to bring order and focus to our mind.  In addition, the meditation positions are chosen because they provide the most support and stability for longer periods of time than other positions. 

There are four accepted traditional positions including the two described by Dogen:   saiza, burmese, half lotus, and full lotus.  Saiza is sitting on the side of a round cushion or on a bench with legs folded under the body.  Burmese is sitting cross-legged with one foot in front of the other calf.  Four alternatives have been added for those who cannot assume the traditional meditation postures.  Those are:  sitting at the front edge of a straight backed chair, sitting on a danish style kneeling bench, and sitting on a low cut meditation bench.    For those that are ill or disabled, lying flat on the back is called “corpse posture”.   According to some Eastern traditions that are concerned with the flow of energy through the chakras, corpse posture would not have the advantage of facilitating the movement of energy.  

In the book, Zen Ritual, Dale Wright reflects on his experience staying at the Zen Monastery, Eiheiji, in Japan.  He writes, “…what I feel as I sit in meditation is primarily my body—and not just feelings more generally.  At one moment I am completely focused on the patterns of my breathing, and at another moment, just my knees.  Then my buttocks, then my back, and at some point, I return to conscious respiration.  Whatever learning of Zen I accomplish takes place in and through my physical existence.  Zen is embodied understanding, and the mental states that practitioners achieve through it are not separate from their physical framework.”   About the instruction he received he says, “Although a few suggestions are made about what to do with my mind, the instructions are overwhelmingly about the comportment of my physical existence.  My teachers assume that, in time, the mind follows the body and that getting novices into the appropriate postures and movements makes possible the acquisition of appropriate ‘Zen’ states of mind.”

In Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kaplau also provides detailed instruction for the practice of sitting meditation following Dogen’s guidelines. After describing meditation postures, he explains that the spinal column must be erect at all times and that this admonition is important, as Dogen Zenji points out in his 13th Century instruction. When the body slumps, it is negative physiologically. He goes on to say, “Since the body and mind are one, any impairment of the physiological functions inevitably involves the mind and thus diminishes its clarity and one-pointedness, which are essential for effective concentration.” Clark Ratliffe, a Tanto at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha and my own mentor, emphasizes this point. He says that an important part of meditation instruction at HDS includes an emphasis that body and mind are one. They respond as a unity—which they are in the body. They intricately and intimately affect each other and respond synchronously.

Kaplau adds another observation about erect posture which is, perhaps, difficult to hear,  “From a purely psychological point of view, a ramrod erectness is as undesirable as a slouching position, for the one springs from unconscious pride and the other from abjectness, and since both are grounded in the ego they are equally a hindrance to enlightenment.” 

Instruction for meditation also includes the implication of silence and stillness. Both of these are components of meditation for the same reasons that posture is.  Voices or music are distracting from the purpose of meditation – to pay attention to and explore the self, to concentrate and be focused on the present moment, moment by moment.   In the same way movement is distracting.  Paying attention to changing positions, getting up, sitting back down, an effort to get comfortable,  takes your attention away from your silent, still focus.

In Genjokoan in the Shobogenzo, Dogen Zenji said, “To learn the Buddhist Way is to learn about oneself.  To learn about oneself is to forget oneself.  To forget oneself is to perceive oneself as all things.  To realize this is to cast off the body and mind of self and others.  When you have reached this stage you will be detached even from enlightenment, but will practice it continually without thinking about it.”  

The primary benefits that are said to derive from meditation and the ultimate purpose of meditation, realization, come from the circumstances that take place within the posture.  Immediately after Buddha’s realization under the boddhi tree (where he was sitting in a meditation posture), he articulated the four noble truths:  life contains suffering or anguish, this suffering/anguish comes from attachment, the way to reduce anguish is non-attachment, and the way to non-attachment is the Eightfold Path.  The Eightfold Path is:  Right Views, Right Understanding, Right Speech, Right Effort, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation.  

The most important factor in considering the necessity and benefits of posture relates to the direct relationship between increasing the third noble truth, non-attachment, and meditation.  When you are sitting in meditation for a period of time various attachments arise.  You’re foot is going to sleep so you want to move your foot.  Your nose itches so you want to scratch it.  You are thirsty so you want a drink of water.  If you accommodate those wants,  then you are fulfilling your attachments.  If you do not and you retain your meditation posture, then you are beginning to learn, and practice, and literally embody,  non-attachment.  

This effort with meditation posture is what creates the opportunity for everything else to take place – for the experiences that lead to a peaceful, calm mind, and to the Four Great Wisdoms: loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.  If you are meditating in a relaxed position, move your foot, scratch your nose, get up to get a drink of water,  then what you are doing is not the traditional definition of “meditation”, and the benefits of meditation are not likely to take place.  

However, it is “meditation” if we assume a formal posture no matter what is going on inside our mind.  Of course the effort needs to be on following the breath, concentration, or focus on the present moment, but no matter what is taking place in your mind, as long as you are assuming a posture, the effort is considered a meditation.  Shunryo Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, echoed Dogen Zenji”s words when he said, “Whether or not your zazen is painful or full of erroneous ideas, it is still Buddha’s activity.”   

If you are sitting in meditation and your mind is idly wandering, filled with judgments, opinions, and preferences, you are technically meditating.  Yet, if you let your mind wander in this way you are continuing and indulging the attachments that arise in your thinking.   For your judgments, opinions, and preferences are just another level of attachment.   But – if you take non-attachment further, and you let go of mental formulations and discriminations, then your mind, as well as your body, can become quiet, and you will be able to focus and concentrate with just pure awareness in the present moment.  I address this further in my article on mindfulness.

If you are relaxing in a comfortable position, then by definition you are not doing the activity that has been handed down century by century because of the benefits that come from getting to know oneself and non-attachment.  And if you hold on to your judgments, opinions, and preferences than you are also missing the opportunity to practice non-attachment.   Buddha taught that a reduction in suffering will take place with non-attachment.  In that sense, meditation is exactly the practice of non-attachment. 

One thing to remember is that our tendency to want instant gratification or to avoid discomfort is not something just occurring currently in our own culture.  Freud wrote about the primary influence of the pleasure principle years ago.  But even before that, a long time ago, Siddhartha Gautama discovered something even more significant — life contains suffering or “dukka”.  Dukka is translated many different ways.  Walpola Rahula translates it as suffering, sorrow, or misery.  Robert Aitken translates it as anguish.  Clark Ratliffe writes that “…whole lives can be spent —wasted even—trying to get comfortable.  We think it is our birthright to have everything just so, conforming and cradling the sense of self….”   But Siddhartha Gautama also discovered that part of the way to reduce “dukka” or anguish is meditation. 

If you begin meditation and you practice with specific sitting postures,  you will find out, probably right away, that the benefits of meditation do not come in an easy way!  That is why Right Effort is one of the Eightfold Path.  That is why people develop a formal and regular practice, go to all day meditations, three day, five day, eight day, thirty day, three month and even year long retreats in order to attain the benefits of meditation.  I have gone to many retreats including a three month period, and I know from my own experience that the benefits come according to the effort.

Even though they may not be explicitly explained that often, there are specific reasons for and benefits to sitting meditation postures.  I hope now when you are making the effort to assume a meditation posture, you can relax knowing that you are maximizing the opportunity to be able to settle in to your meditation,  let go of your discomfort, keep your focus in the present moment, and hear the chickadees that are singing outside your window and the wind that is blowing through the trees.  In Crooked Cucumber, a biography of Shunryo Suzuki  the author, David Chadwick, said that one time someone asked Suzuki what he thought about consciousness.  Suzuki said, “I don’t know anything about consciousness.  I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing.”