How to Meditate

The following is an excerpt from "Zuo Chan (Tso-Ch'an)," an article by Chan Master Sheng Yen, originally published in the October 1988 issue of the "Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal."

The Chinese term "zuo chan" (zazen) was in use among Buddhist practitioners even before the appearance of the Chan (Zen) School. Embedded in the term is the word "chan," a derivative of the Indian "dhyana," which is the yogic practice of attaining samadhi in meditation. Literally translated, "zuo chan" means "sitting chan" and has a comprehensive and specific meaning. The comprehensive meaning refers to any type of meditation practice based on the sitting posture. The specific meaning refers to the methods of practice that characterize Chan Buddhism.

FUNDAMENTALS OF ZUO CHAN

Zuo Chan (meditation) was practiced in China long before the appearance of Chan. The earlier masters practiced according to methods in the Hinayana sutras, which emphasized the techniques collectively known as samatha-vipasyana. Generally speaking, these were methods for achieving samadhi through three aspects: regulating one's body, regulating one's breathing, and regulating one's mind.

REGULATING THE BODY BY SITTING

To regulate the body by sitting, one should observe the Vairocana Seven-Points of Sitting. This refers to the seven rules of correct sitting posture. Each of these criteria has been used unchanged since ancient days.

POINT ONE: THE LEGS

FULL LOTUS POSITIONHALF LOTUS POSITION

Sit on the floor with legs crossed either in the Full Lotus or Half Lotus position. To make the Full Lotus, put the right foot on the left thigh, then put the left foot crossed over the right leg onto the right thigh. To reverse the direction of the feet is also acceptable.

To take the Half Lotus position requires that one foot be crossed over onto the thigh of the other. The other foot will be placed underneath the raised leg.

The Full or Half Lotus are the correct seated meditation postures according to the seven-point method. However, we will describe some alternative postures since for various reasons, people may not always be able to sit in the Full or Half Lotus.

A position, called the Burmese position, is similar to the Half Lotus, except that one foot is crossed over onto the calf, rather than the thigh, of the other leg.

KNEELING FRONT VIEWKEELING SIDE VIEW

Another position consists in kneeling. In this position, kneel with the legs together. The upper part of the body can be erect from knee to head, or the buttocks can be resting on the heels.

SEATED FRONT VIEWSEATED SIDE VIEW

If physical problems prevent sitting in any of the above positions, then sitting on a chair is possible, but as a last resort to the above postures.

The positions above are given in the preferred order, the Full Lotus being the most stable, and most conductive to good results. Sitting cross-legged is most conducive to sitting long periods with effective concentration. The position one can take depends on factors such as physical condition, health, and age. However, one should use the position in which prolonged sitting (at least twenty minutes or more) is feasible and reasonably comfortable. however, do not use a position that requires little, or the least effort, because without significant effort, no good results can be attained.

If sitting on the floor, sit on a Japanese-style zafu (round meditation cushion) or an improvised cushion, several inches thick. This is partly for comfort, but also because it is easier to maintain an erect spine if the buttocks are slightly raised. Place a larger, square pad, such as a Japanese zabuton, underneath the cushion. Sit with the buttocks towards the front half of the cushion, the knees resting on the pad.

POINT TWO: THE SPINE

HALF AND FULL SIDE LOTUS VIEW

The spine must be upright. This does not mean to thrust your chest forward, but rather to make sure that your lower back is erect, not just slumped. The chin must be tucked in a little bit. Both of these points together cause you to naturally maintain a very upright spine. An upright spine also means a vertical spine, leaning neither forward or backward, right or left.