Zen is the way connecting us to the Universe
(Kodo Sawaki Roshi)
The light of a candle just lightens an almost empty room. In front of the wall still characters sit, in a perfect alignment, wearing black, roomy, soft clothes. The austere and vigorous silence is only broken off by a deep voice that from time to time, with a severe compassion, reminds the beauty of the present moment.
What are these people doing? Nothing - could be the answer - they are simply sitting. Actually, they are meditating, they are practicizing Zazen.
Now, the term Zen, which stands to indicate one of the forms of Buddhism in Japan, means meditation. It derives from the Chinese term chan, which in turn derives from the Sanscrit word dhyana, used to indicate meditation practice in India.
At this point it is useful to remember that in the West with the term meditation, or meditatio, one usually means the choice of a passage from the Gospel, to reflect or think about to reach an increased and deeper understanding of Christ's message. At the sunrise of the confluence with Eastern doctrines, Western scholars defined "meditation" as the whole set of ascetical/concentrative practices that were typical of Eastern philosophies. However, in the Buddhist approach the Sanscrit term standing for such practices in general is bhavana: it derives from the verbal root bhu, which means "to be". Therefore, bhavana can be translated as to be there, to be there more, now.
Thus, the contemplative Buddhist practice should not refer to an ongoing cogitating, but rather to being completely immersed in the present moment. In other words, it is about being completely aware or mindful of ourselves, our body, our thoughts, what surrounds us.
Buddha, the enlightened one, is the being who is completely awakened, absolutely immersed in the unrepeatable beauty of the present moment. It is in light of this fact that in the Zen tradition it is even asserted that Zazen is satori, meaning that meditation practice is enlightenment in itself: in other words, if being enlightened means being completely immersed in the present moment, and meditating means being fully here and now, then the two terms coincide.
The Zen tradition is called in such a way right because it strongly emphasizes the sitting practice, having understood the importance of it. Then, what is Zazen practice, or better sitting (za) meditation (zen)?
First of all, a place to sit in tranquility needs to be found, which is neither too hot nor too cold. Then one has to wear roomy, soft and possibly black clothes, and then sit cross-legged on a solid cushion, for about forty minutes. It is however possible to sit for a shorter time at the beginning of the practice.
The right position for Zazen is the complete lotus: the right foot lies on the left thigh, and the left foot on the right thigh. This position presents both symbolic and practical valences. Indeed, on one hand it symbolizes the lotus, the flower that, even sinking its roots in the mud, raises to the sky with its orange petals. Orange is the color of the rising sun and spiritual renaissance. On the other hand, the lotus position is extremely practical, as it is firm, stable. One has to care to sit on the edge of the cushion, and to let the knees touch well the ground. In this fashion a tripod is formed, which provides stability and vigor to the whole posture, and allows the back to remain naturally straight, without too much effort. It is also possible to sit in the half-lotus position, with the right foot on the left thigh, or vice versa, trying however to recreate the stability of such a tripod.
The back has to be kept perfectly straight, with the hands touching the abdomen with their internal edge, with the left hand lying on the right. The measure of the right superimposition of the hands is provided by the left middle finger, whose central phalanx has to coincide with the central phalanx of the middle finger of the right hand. The tips of the thumbs touch lightly each other, to form a perfect oval, which has to be maintained for the whole duration of the sitting. In Japanese this position of the hands is called hokkaijon, standing for the seal of the Ocean of the Dharma. It is symbol and index of concentration: actually, when one becomes drowsy, the thumbs get loose and form the so-called "valley"; if by contrast there is agitation in a turbulence of thoughts, the thumbs press each other, forming a "mountain". Furthermore, the movement to make for arriving to this position of the hands is also very important: the two hands start from opposite sides and converge toward the center. In the same way, the mind which is usually dissipated, distracted in thoughts entraining it back and forth, at the beginning of the sitting has get re-centered, focused.
The shoulders need to be relaxed, with the elbows kept distant from the body. Unlike in other meditation schools, the eyes are kept open, for the simple reason that keeping the eyes closed, even if at the beginning of the sitting might result very calming, in fact would afterwards rather induce drowsiness. Usually the eyes are closed to sleep, whereas when one is awake the eyes are open. Now, if this has to be the practice of awakening, it is good that the body assumes the attitude of an awake person.
The chin has to be turned back and the nape stretched: the image that the Zen tradition offers to help the practitioner to assume a right posture is that of a column which on one extremity pushes the earth down, and on the other pushes the sky up. In such a way, who practices becomes a sort of cosmic axis unifying the celestial spheres to the earth: the pole through which it is possible to reach the sky, or better, the Absolute.
But what to do during Zazen? Essentially, one has the focus awareness on two things: the posture and the breath, the two wings on which meditation flies.
A right posture needs then to be enlivened by a right attention to the breath. In other words, the breath is observed without for this reason controlling or modifying it in any way. If it is shallow, it is registered as such, and when it is agitated, or calm or deep, the same happens. With time and practice the breath will become quiet and unperceivable: the out-breath will become subtle and prolonged, and the in-breath brief and resolved.
The tradition likens the discursive mind to a hungry dog: like the dog needs constantly to chew something, the discursive mind needs constantly to "ruminate" thoughts. Then, the hungry mind is given a bone to chew, something calming its desire to be always busy in a cogitating process, at the same time keeping it connected to the present moment. Attention to posture and breathing is the response, the bone the discursive mind is given, the object to keep the mind busy without letting it wander away from the present. Actually, both posture and breathing are elements which are present now, to perceive in the immediacy of the present.
Normally the discursive mind is lost in ongoing comparisons, future projects or past memories: a quick glance at the present moment, and soon the inner "movie" starts, with a tracking shot of thoughts diverting from the reality. Indeed, talking about reality is not exaggerated, as if we think about it, the past is past, the future still has to be: only the dimension of the present effectively is, exists, is real. Now, the discursive mind, which is lost in its thoughts, makes human beings living as ghosts, alienated from the present moment in which life is acted out.
Zen practice, with its vigorous recall to presence educates to the ability of being in the here and now, of being completely in the here and now. This ability brings the practitioner to discover an unknown dimension, even though present in front of the eyes: the vibrant reality of the present moment, in which it is possible to notice our own original Self, the mysteriously subtle nature of life connecting us to all other beings in an inseparable way.
The simple fact of sitting with all of ourselves (or shikantaza, in Japanese), means to accept and thus comprehending our own nature. The real nature, or original nature of the Self is common to all beings. Accepting and comprehending this nature with the sole mind is impossible, and thus it is necessary to accept, sense and assimilate it also with the body.
When we are sit, simply sit, enjoying the silence and the immobility of Zazen, it is possible to observe, know and accept ourselves, and to recognize our connection, or interconnection, with the rest of the Cosmos. It is for this reason that it is said that Zazen is the gate to access the real peace and harmony in which all the existences in the cosmos permanently live: the Nirvana.