A Note on the Use of Chairs in Zen Meditation
I have been practicing Zen well past fifty years. My skin is wrinkling. My hair is a different color than it was in my youth and maturity. I’m shorter than I once was. And I need to go to the bathroom when I need to go to the bathroom. Admittedly, I still am not worried about buying green bananas. But I know that day is right around the corner.
I’m in a new season. And there are new ways of focus. And practice.
Each of the moments in our lives invite new perspectives. For example, I love that ancient anthology of spiritual anecdote and direction, the Blue Cliff Record. Case 36.
One day Changsha went off to wander in the mountains. When he returned, the temple director met him at the gate and asked, “So, where have you been?” Changsha replied, “I’ve been strolling about in the hills.” “Which way did you go?” “I went out following the scented grasses and came back chasing the falling flowers.” The director smiled. “That’s exactly the feeling of spring.” Changsha, agreed, adding, “It’s better than autumn dew falling on lotuses.”
Now, the way the whole thing is presented is so perfect. A radical call into the way. There is a path, but we need to wander, and being in its general vicinity is enough. Following those scented grasses. Returning chasing the falling flowers. Each step full.
And. Then there’s that observation about the spring feeling. There is something glorious as we tumble into the way, Especially, if, like spring, it is so full of promise. Genuinely wonder, genuinely wonderful.
But really, autumn dew falling is just as intimate. Less future in front of it. And, maybe with more aches and pains. But. Without doubt. Genuinely wonderful.
Also, this case reminds us while we’re constantly called to this moment, it is also a journey. We are mutable. And passing. And we are constantly invited to notice. It’s with that, that every step is golden. Going out. Coming back. Mysteries unfold.
These days when I sit in meditation, I almost always sit in a chair. I’ve spent decades sitting on the floor in the traditional style of the Zen way. Over those years, when for one reason or another I’ve had to sit in chairs, I felt embarrassed. Sort of like I was cheating. Or, as a teacher that I was setting a bad example.
For a number of reasons, not least because the early Zen meditation manuals pretty much always talk about sitting on the floor in a full lotus, with the only concession to human frailty in a half-lotus, many Zen teachers tend to ignore, make light of, or discourage sitting in chairs.
I know one Zen teacher who told me he didn’t like how chairs affected the aesthetic of the line of meditators.
Some do so because they fetishize the posture, saying that it is the identity of practice and awakening. A sad literalizing of a deep truth. We need to find that place where our bodies and our awakening are not two. Thinking it means a specific posture is that miss which is as good as a mile.
And, while I’ve at least had the decency never to tell anyone they had to sit on the floor crosslegged, I did hold myself to that rule. For many years.
But times change. Bodies change. And, and this is important, sometimes we never have the option of sitting crosslegged on the floor. The autumn dew falling on lotuses. No better. No lesser.
We’re being called into an intimate moment.
Zafu. Chair. Heck, I’ve found some of my best moments have been sitting in my rocking chair.
And here’s a fact. Chair sitting is going to be increasingly a part of my practice. And, here’s another fact. It is perfect just as it is. Just being present. Just breathing. Each breath can be the last. Just as each breath can be the first. Opening our hearts, opening my heart, each breath a wonder.
And another small lesson. Learned over and over. Turns out one of the blessings of the autumn practice is how it is mostly about letting go.
Letting go. Really letting go. And, how that is just fine.