Instructions for Chair Zazen

Instructions for Chair Zazen April 29, 2018

The other day I was visiting with my friend Gyokei Yokoyama, the resident minister at the Long Beach Buddhist Church and a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. He shared a pile of copies of a pamphlet with me to distribute at the Zen groups I guide.

The pamphlet was titled “Instructions for Chair Zazen.” It’s copyrighted by the Sotoshu Shumacho. No author is attributed, but a brief note credits Dogen’s Fukanzazengji (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen) and Keizan’s Zazen Yojinki (Advice on the Practice of Zazen) as the principal sources.

I thought it was worth as wide a distribution as possible. This adaptation slightly changes the formatting and numbering from the original.

One: Before Starting Zazen in a Chair

The important point of zazen is to sit in the right posture and breathe in the right manner. It is the same with zazen in a chair. It is especially important to stablize the part of the body below the waist, relax the upper body, and stay flexible without tension. Therefore, you need to pay attention to the position of your feet while also visualizing the pelvis (sit bones) and spine.

Two: Pick a Chair

Use a chair with a firm cushion. Make sure your knees are horizontal to or slightly lower than your buttocks. It is convenient to use a chair which has an adjustable height. It doesn’t matter if the chair has a back rest or not. Use a chair without an arm rest. Chairs that turn around or move on casters are not suited for zazen.

Three: Proper Environment for Chair Zazen

First, let’s tidy up the room for sitting zazen. It is important to create surroundings that help you concentrate better. Look around and see if you notice anything that may distract your attention. It is better to put distracting things away. One easy solution is to sit facing a wall. Please make a space of at least 1 meter between yourself and the wall. Turn off the TV and radio and remove all possible causes of distraction. Keep the room at a moderate temperature, neither too hot nor too cold. Do not place an electric fan so that it blows directly on you. Simply put, keep your five senses from being stimulated. Zazen practice begins with setting up a comfortable environment.

Four: Sit in a Chair

Usually when we sit in a chair, we let our body lean against its back. Zazen requires a slightly different posture. When you do zazen in a chair, you need to sit on the front half of the seat with your back away from the back rest.

Five: Relax Your Body

Relax your body before sitting down.
Lift and drop your shoulders about ten times. Swing your arms back and forth about five times. Turn your head about five times. Finally, take three deep breaths. Inhale a little and exhale through your mouth to thoroughly let the air come out. Relaxing your upper body helps you sit
in the proper posture during zazen.

Six: Make Your Pelvis Upright

Keeping your pelvis upright is the most important thing. See if you can feel your sit bones under your pelvis touching the surface of the chair.
It is not necessary to push your lower back forward.

Seven: Position and Angle of the Feet

Adjust your knees so they are lower than or horizontal to the top of your thighs.
Set your feet shoulder-width apart. It’s OK to pull your feet back and rest on your toes, with your heels not touching the floor.

Eight: Imagine Stacking Your Vertebrae in a Column

Once your pelvis is standing upright, make sure the entire lower back is stablized and visualize stacking up your vertebrae one by one from the bottom. Then, once you reach the neck, slightly pull in your chin so you feel settled.

Nine: Cosmic Mudra (Hokkai-join)

Put your left hand on top of your right hand. Put the thumb tips together and naturally place your hands on your lap.

Ten: Swaying Your Body Sideways (Says-yoshin)

First breathe out consciously through your mouth a few times and release all the tension from your upper body. Paying attention to your pelvis, sway your body sideways. Make sure your body is not tilted either to the left or the right, to the front or the back. Imagine a horizontal line running through your shoulders and ears and a vertical line running through the nose and navel to help you make small adjustments and check your posture for yourself.

Eleven: Position of the Eyes and Mouth

Keep your eyes open. Look at the area about 1.5 meters in front of you. Neither widening
or narrowing your eyes, let them naturally stay open. Close your mouth and keep your tongue against the roof of your mouth.

Twelve: How to Breathe

You basically breathe into and out of the abdomen.
Until you are accustomed to breathing like this, please focus on taking slow, long breaths. Once you can breathe quietly and deeply, you do not need to make a counscious effort.

Thirteen: At the End of Zazen

Do not stand up abruptly. Sway your body sideways gradually and relax your mind and body. Let the relaxing serenity of chair zazen linger.

For a PDF of the pamphlet go here

And, at no extra charge a video from Yokoji on Zazen. Visuals do help!

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