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The Standard of Sitting-Zen Recommended for Everyone

A commentary by / Un commentaire de
Mike Chodo Cross

Comments (2nd part)

Abandon all involvements. Give the myriad things a rest.

Forget plural concerns. Sitting-Zen is integration, integrity, unity, oneness.

Do not think of good and bad.

Here is one of the ironies of sitting-Zen practice. In order to realize a good posture, it is necessary not to think of good and bad. Good posture is primarily a function of the old brain. Thinking of good and bad stimulates structures in the new brain which interfere with the proper functioning of the more vital structures in the old brain.

Do not care about right and wrong.

Worrying about right and wrong is both a symptom and a cause of shortening of neck muscles. In order to go in the right direction, the direction of muscular release, it is necessary to stop worrying about right and wrong. In other words, trust the process.

Stop the driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections.

This is asking for a conscious decision not just to pause but to stop. An analogy used in the FM Alexander technique is the difference between pressing the pause button and pressing the stop button on a cassette player: pressing the pause button leaves the motor still engaged, ready to continue only in one direction. Pressing the stop button makes the situation more open.

Do not aim to become a buddha.

The Sanskrit word "buddha" means one who is enlightened, one who is awake. But our true aim in sitting-Zen is only to be a human being, to be the human being we are. Trying to become a buddha stops us from truly being human. When we have no idea of becoming anything, then we are free to be truly human. Enjoy being a human being. Let awakening take care of itself.

How could it be connected with sitting or lying down?

Sitting and lying down are examples of actions in the daily round. Sitting-Zen is part of the daily round, but at the same time it sets a standard of action which regulates all other actions in the daily round, and so in this sense it is transcendent to and separate from the daily round.

Usually on the place where we sit we spread a thick mat, on top of which we use a round cushion.

The round cushion, called a zafu in Japanese is usually of thick black material, which is filled densely either with kapok or with a synthetic stuffing. The function of the cushion is to enable stability, wherein the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) are supported by the cushion while both knees are on the mat. Without a cushion it is practically impossible for the sitting bones and both knees to be in contact with the supporting surfaces.

Either sit in the full lotus posture or sit in the half lotus posture. To sit in the full lotus posture, first put the right foot on the left thigh, then put the left foot on the right thigh. To sit in the half lotus posture, just press the left foot onto the right thigh.

These directions may be reversed every time you sit: for example, you might sit with left foot uppermost in the morning and right foot uppermost in the evening. If you cannot yet manage the half lotus posture, at least sit cross-legged. Try to ensure that your hip-joints are higher than your knees. To accomplish this you may need extra support under your pelvis--e.g. put some big books under your cushion. Keep your pelvis as balanced as you can: don't twist your pelvis in an effort to get a knee on the floor. Also it is OK to support your knees with cushions, blocks, or books, so that you can direct the knees downwards into the support rather than straining to hold the knees in position. If you sit like this every day, regularly enduring a reasonable but not an undue amount of pain, gravity will gradually free up the joints of your hips, knees, and ankles, thus taking you in the direction of the lotus posture. Even if you suppose that you will never be able to sit in full the lotus posture, it doesn't matter: the important thing is to go in that direction, no matter how slowly. For this reason, I think it is better to sit cross-legged, however miserable your posture may feel, than to kneel.

Let clothing hang loosely and make it neat. Then place the right hand over the left foot, and place the left hand on the right palm.

Conversely, if the right foot is uppermost, the right hand also is uppermost. The lower hand may be held above the upper foot or it may be rested lightly on the foot.

The thumbs meet and support each other.

The thumbs are directed towards each other, and away from each other, in roughly a horizontal plane, "making neither a mountain nor a valley."

Just sit upright, not leaning to the left, inclining to the right, slouching forward, or arching backward.

Upright balance requires the integration of a wide variety of sensory information--primarily through the vestibular, proprioceptive, visual, and tactile channels. The task of integration is different for each individual, depending on individual strengths and weaknesses. A person who is weak in the vestibular channel--one who is prone to motion sickness, for example--will tend to rely more on visual and tactile input. To improve the reliability of one's individual sense of upright balance, the help of a skilled teacher (for example, an experienced Alexander teacher) is likely to be invaluable in all cases. For people with more serious sensory weaknesses--e.g. those exhibiting the symptoms of dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder, vertigo et cetera--assessment by a neuro-developmental therapist, to identify immature primitive reflexes and associated sensory deficits, may also prove enlightening.

It is vital that the ears vis-à-vis the shoulders, and the nose vis-à-vis the navel, are directed away from each other.

The vital thing to understand here is that this is not an instruction to adjust one's posture in a piecemeal fashion. It is in no way an instruction to achieve a good posture by trying.

Don't try to force yourself into a mould conceived by your intellect. If you are inwardly down, don't try to cover up your real state by sitting in an outwardly upright, but forced military-style posture. To do that, as I know all too well from experience, is to set up a war within yourself.

When we are inwardly and outwardly down, these directions--"ears away from shoulders; nose away from navel"--can help us find ease in our slumped state. Being at ease in the state we are in is conducive, eventually, to lengthening and widening in stature. This lengthening and widening is a process of opening up both outwardly and inwardly. It is a process which is quite different from straightening up by trying.

Trying results in undue muscular contraction, which is exactly the opposite of the condition of antagonistic muscular stretch that is called for here.

Muscles which can cause the ears and shoulders to be drawn towards each other include the trapezius, sterno-cleido-mastoids, scalenes, splenius, semi-spinalis, levator scapulae, rhomboids, pectoralis major and minor, latissimus dorsi, and rotator cuff muscles. Imbalanced conditions of fear, anger, greed, delusion, fatigue, et cetera, are associated with loss of proper tone of these muscles through over-contraction or undue laxity, or both. To direct the ears and shoulders away from each other is to observe the natural tendency for a condition of proper tone, or antagonistic stretch, to establish itself in the musculature of the neck, shoulders, and upper torso.

To direct the nose and navel away from each other is to observe the natural tendency for the body to lengthen in stature. If there is antagonistic stretch throughout the antigravity musculature (i.e., proper tone, without undue contraction, of the extensor and flexor sheets which wind around the torso in a double spiral structure to connect the head, torso, and limbs) the tendency to lengthen in stature is associated with a simultaneous tendency to expand outwards.

This proper tone in the neck and shoulders, and this lengthening and widening direction in the torso, are vital to our health: without them, the bony skeleton, the nervous and lymphatic systems, the heart and lungs, and all the other vital systems and organs, are compressed downwards and inwards, which hinders their function.

Let the tongue spread against the roof of the mouth.

In Chinese medicine, this is thought to be important for connecting the yin and the yang.

Let the lips and teeth come together. The eyes should be kept open.

Keeping the eyes open allows the ocular head-righting reflexes the opportunity to work. Gudo Nishijima used to sit facing a vertical wooden pillar that was part of the wall of his house. He once joked that the pillar was his teacher.

Let the breath pass imperceptibly through the nose.

Audible breathing is a sign of constriction of the airways. In natural breathing reflex mechanisms keep the alae nasi dilated, so that breath passes silently.

Having readied the posture, make one complete exhalation,

Notice that this is not an instruction to take a deep breath. A deep breath is the natural result of a properly executed complete exhalation, but Master Dogen instructs us to employ the means, not to go directly for the end.

and sway left and right.

Swaying left and right, like a metronome, can help to give a sense of the head-neck-back working together in one integrated piece. Moreover, this movement stimulates the connection between balance mechanisms of the inner ear and many deep brain centres. Especially if it is done slowly as a daily practice, swaying can be a powerful tool to re-educate the vestibular system of the inner ear.

Sitting in balance in the mountain-still state, "Think the concrete state of not thinking."

The words in quotation marks are the response of an ancient master to his student's question: "What are you thinking in the mountain-still state?"

What are you thinking? is a good question, not one that should be easily passed over. It can be a very practical question. It is a question that people often ask each other in Alexander work.

FM Alexander described his technique as an exercise in learning how to think. He told his class of student teachers, "None of you knows how to think." What Alexander meant by thinking was not what we usually mean by thinking.

Similarly, thinking in sitting-Zen, thinking the concrete state of not thinking, does not mean abstract consideration. It means thinking that is directed toward the integral state of being/action/reality/the ineffable--that which is not thinking.

Thinking like this is not something added onto the act of sitting in balanced stillness. This thinking emerges from the effort to sit in balanced stillness; and the act of sitting in balanced stillness may be the concrete manifestation of this thinking. Thus, Master Dogen wrote in Shobogenzo that to wear out a sitting-cushion is right thinking.

"How can the state of not thinking be thought?"

This is the student's next question: How? It also is a very good question, a question to which I too have eagerly sought the answer: What is the method? What is the technique? What is the secret?

The most vital mechanisms of balance and integration are not under the direct control of the thinking brain. The postural reflexes, for example, are unconscious and automatic. They have evolved over millions of years of human evolution, to enable us to cope automatically with life on Mother Earth, with her gravitational pull of 1 G; and this evolution is recapitulated in the development of each individual human being. How can consciousness stimulate into action that which is unconscious and automatic?

"It is different from thinking."

This is the master's answer. Not only is the state ineffable, but the how also is ineffable.

It is not the kind of answer I was seeking.

Is the inadequacy in the answer? Or is the inadequacy in the attitude of one who's intellect seeks to know how?

This is the secret of sitting-Zen.

"Yo" means pivotal, vital, essential. "Jutsu" means art, technique, skill, means, artifice, trick. So "yo-jutsu" means the essential technique or the secret.

The idea of a secret technique for sitting-Zen has held me in its grasp for over 20 years. If there is a secret technique, I would dearly love to know it. I would go to any lengths to discover it. Oh how I would love to possess the secret. I would like to distil it, bottle it up, and sell it. I would be a millionaire.

But sadly, I have come to see a pinch of irony in Master Dogen's words. Ultimately, I fear, there may be no secret technique, no trick.

The separate existence of "I", "the truth," and a "secret technique" by which "I" might realize "the truth," is an illusion which the thinking brain constructs in the attempt to make sense of the unfathomable.

The ultimate secret is not a technique. The ultimate secret is only reality itself. In other words, the ultimate secret is that there is no secret. There is nothing to get, nowhere to get to, nothing to get rid of. There is only the integral reality of sitting, here and now, which is different from thinking.

What is called sitting-Zen is not learning Zen meditation.

In the word Zazen, "sitting-Zen," there is no separation between the sitting and the Zen. Zazen does not mean sitting and meditating, or seated meditation. It means sitting-meditation or sitting/meditation. The sitting is the meditation. The meditation is the sitting.

It is just a peaceful and effortless gate to reality.

The Japanese words "anraku" mean peaceful, effortless, easy, joyful, comfortable. Reality is the Dharma, not only objective reality, but reality as realized by sitting.

The ultimate secret of sitting-Zen practice, the one thing which above all my master in Japan took pains to try and teach me, is the difference between thinking and reality. It is the difference, to which I have previously alluded in this commentary, between talking the talk and walking the walk. One who talks a good talk may or may not be a true Zen practitioner. One who walks the walk, even if he never produces a word such as I am producing now, is in every case a true Zen practitioner.

It is practice-and-experience which perfectly realizes the Buddha's enlightenment.

"I shall endure hard practice now so that I may experience enlightenment in future:" this attitude, in which means and end are divided, is not true sitting-Zen. It makes sitting-Zen into a vehicle for the egotistical fantasies of would-be saints and supermen. Enlightenment in Buddhism does not mean to enter a spiritual realm as a saint, or to enter a special realm as a superman. It means to wake up to reality as the human being I really am.

The Universe is realized, untouched by restrictions or hindrances.

Again, the Universe does not mean something out there: it means the oneness of inside/outside, the integral reality realized in action. [...]

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Avec l'aimable autorisation de Mike Cross. Reproduction interdite. [Télécharger et imprimer le texte complet au format pdf]