Saturday, April 5, 2008

Zazen Notes II - right posture

This post is about the sitting posture in Zazen.

The Japanese monk Dogen wrote instructions on how to practice Zazen in a text called fukanzazengi (Universal Guide to Zazen), which he wrote in the 13th century. His instructions in fukanzazengi are generally regarded as the standard instructions for practicing zazen.

In fukanzazengi, Dogen used the expression sho-shin-tan-za (正身端坐) when he was discussing posture. Sho-shin-tan-za is made up of four Chinese characters:

1. 正 (sho) means right, correct, proper, or true
2. 身 (shin) means the body
3. 端 (tan) means upright, erect, or straight
4. 坐 (za) means sit

Together sho-shin-tan-za mean "sit straight with your body right" or "straighten your body and sit upright".

"Straighten your body and sit upright" is fairly straightforward advice, but Dogen gave some more specific instructions about what he meant by sitting straight. He said:

"Don't lean to the left or right, or forward or backward."


"Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel."

He also said to keep the mouth closed and the eyes open, and to breathe softly through the nose.

Dogen's instructions are easy to understand. Just sit straight. Don't lean to the left or right, or incline forward or backward. Keep your ears in line with your shoulders, and your nose in line with your navel. Close your mouth and open your eyes, and breathe softly through your nose.

It's not that much to remember. The hard part is that it takes a while to reach the stage where we can concentrate on those points right through zazen. After we sit down to start zazen, our head can fill up with lots of different thoughts and after a few minutes we notice that we're slouching over or leaning to the side. Or maybe our legs hurt and we start to think about moving them or adjusting our posture. So it can be hard to "sit straight with your body right." But if we stick with the practice for a while our posture gradually starts to develop and it becomes easier to sit straight. And even if, like me, your posture isn't quite perfect, and you lean or slouch over sometimes doing zazen, just stick with it. It doesn't have to be absolutely perfect. And if you do find yourself slouching a bit, just straighten your spine again and continue.

Gudo Nishijima used to hold regular zazen meetings and retreats in Japan. Sometimes complete beginners would come along and Nishijima would show them the posture and explain what to do. But he didn't spend a lot of time going around correcting everyone's posture. Occasionally he would, but he seemed to think that it was important for people to just do zazen, without worrying too much about having a kind of perfect posture right off.

When I first started to do zazen I used to get a twitch in my shoulder sometimes. It used to really worry me, particularly if I was doing zazen next to someone at one of Nishijima's meetings. But Nishijima never seemed to notice, and at some point, I don't remember when, the twitch thing just disappeared by itself.

I've noticed similar situations with other people I've practiced with. When they first started off they had trouble sitting for even 5 or 10 minutes. During zazen they'd take a little break and then start again. It looked like they were having a really hard time just sitting there. But they stuck with it and after a while they'd be sitting for 20 or 30 minutes without much problem as far as I could see.

Zazen's like that. If you're starting off, don't worry too much about whether your posture is right or wrong. Just stick with it and try to sit regularly. Your posture will gradually work itself out. Doing zazen will itself help your posture. But don't forget Dogen's pointers for sitting.


  1. Thanks, Peter.

    Always good to be reminded of these things.

    Regards to all of yours,


  2. Hi, Peter,

    Thanks for the interesting site and the open-minded material on zazen. In light of the title "the stupid way", I thought you might enjoy my writing, in particular a piece I've just finished which I titled "an unauthorized and incomplete guide to zazen". I think the easiest way to find it is to google "zen mudra" (my home page and the first thing I wrote is "the mudra of zen"), then go down to the bottom and look for the link to the guide. Or you can copy:
    hope you'll enjoy it, it's a bit different approach but I think you'll find it's compatible with your understanding (and hopefully your teacher's). If you'd like to translate it into Japanese for the usual remuneration (nada), I'd be grateful! :) Ok, just wishful thinking on my part...
    I'll email you this as well;
    yours truly, Mark Foote


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