This article is part of the alt.zen FAQ, contributed by John Neatrour

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE PRACTICE OF ZAZEN

This is based upon a pamphlet from the Kyoto Soto Zen Center with modifications.

In a zendo the altar is placed in the center of the room.
Enter the zendo on the left side of the entry, left foot first.
Gassho and bow to the altar.
Walk forward across the room past the altar and go to a seat turning corners squarely (cross in front of the altar only during kinhin).
Gassho and bow toward the seat, greeting the people to both sides. The people on both sides respond to greeting.
Turn clockwise and face front.
Gassho and bow to those directly across room, greeting them. They respond with a gassho-bow in greeting.
Sit down on the zafu.
Turn clockwise toward the wall.

HAND POSITIONS

Gassho is performed by placing the hands palm to palm slightly in front of the chest with the arms parallel to the floor.

Shashu is performed by placing the thumbtip of the left hand as close to the left palm as comfortable and making a fist around it. Place the fist in the center of the chest and cover it with the right hand. Keep the elbows away from the body with the forearms parallel to the floor.

Isshu is the same as shashu but with the left fist turned thumb side toward the chest. Left fist and thumb are parallel to the floor and not vertical as in shashu.

SETTLING INTO THE POSTURE

Place a thick mat (zaniku or zabuton) in front of the wall and place a small round cushion (zafu) on it. Sit on it facing the wall. There are several positions for the legs. If not too cold sit with bare feet and leave your watch off.

The cross legged positions provide greatest stability. To sit in full lotus, place the right foot on the left thigh and then the left foot on the right thigh. To sit in half lotus place your left foot on your right thigh. Try to cross the legs firmly so that a stable tripod of support is provided by the knees and the base of the spine. The order of the crossing of the legs may be reversed. It is also possible to simply sit on the floor with on foreleg in front of the other or kneeling using a bench or a cushion. To sit in a chair, place the feet flat on the floor and use a cushion to elevate the seat so that the upper thighs fall away from the body and follow the rest of the applicable instructions.

Rest the knees firmly on the zaniku, straighten the lower back, push the buttocks outward and the hips forward, and straighten your spine. Pull in your chin and extend the neck as though to support the ceiling. The ears and shoulders should be in the same plane with the nose directly above the navel. Straighten the back and relax shoulders, back, and abdomen without changing posture.

Keep the mouth closed placing the tongue with the tip just behind the front teeth and the rest of the tongue as close to the roof of the mouth as comfortable. Keep the eyes at least slightly open cast downward at a 45 degree angle without focusing on anything. If closed you will easily slip into drowsiness or daydreaming.

Rest the hands palm up on the knees and take 2 or 3 deep abdominal breaths. Exhale smoothly and slowly with the mouth slightly open by pulling in on the abdominal wall until all air has been expelled and inhale by closing the mouth and breathing naturally. Hands still on the knees sway the upper half of the body left to right a few times without moving the hips. Sway forward and back. These swayings are at first larger and then smaller enabling you to find the point of balance of your posture.

Finally, place your right hand palm upward in your lap against the lower abdomen. Place the left hand palm upward on top of the right. The second joints of the middle fingers should be touching, and your fingers parallel. Raise the thumbs up opposite the fingers and touch the thumb tips lightly together; forming an oval between the thumbs and fingers. The thumb tips should join at the approximate level of the navel. Keep this shape carefully and gently, without tension.

BREATH

Observe breathing during zazen, but do not try to manipulate the rhythm or depth of the breath. Breathe gently and silently through the nose without attempting to control or manipulate the breathing. Let it come and go naturally so that you forget all about it. Simply let long breaths be long and short ones short.

AWARENESS

Do not concentrate on any particular object or attempt to control thoughts. By simply maintaining proper posture and breathing the mind settles by itself without fabrication. When thoughts arise, do not get caught up by them or fight them. Simply permit them to come and go freely. The essential point is to always strive to wake up from distraction and thoughts or dullness and drowsiness. Letting go of any thought is itself thinking non thinking.

ARISING FROM ZAZEN

Bow in gassho. Place hands on the knees and sway the body slightly and then more so. Take a few deep breaths and unfold the legs. Arise slowly especially if the legs are asleep and do not stand abruptly.

KINHIN - WALKING ZAZEN

Place the hands in shashu (or isshu). Walk clockwise around the room so that your right shoulder is toward the altar in the center of the zendo. The posture from waist up is the same as in zazen. Walk taking a half step for each full breath, slowly, smoothly, and noiselessly, without dragging the feet.
Always walk straight ahead and turn to the right.

DIFFICULTIES AND EXPEDIENTS

The art of right awareness may seem difficult and the description given above is idealized. If you are finding difficulties invent your own way. In zazen we each must find our own way. If you find you are struggling and need a suggestion as to what to do, it is possible to follow or count the breath among other things.

Counting the breath may be done on inhalations, exhalations or both depending on what you find useful. Count from one to ten and then simply start over again at one. Be aware of the count and the breath and try to maintain continuous awareness of both. If you find that you are constantly losing the count, try counting to five.

Following the breath is done by watching the rise and fall of the abdomen with each breath. The abdominal wall is viewed as a leaf slowly waving in response to the in and out breaths. Maintain awareness of the entire posture as much as possible and watch the breath reach and leave the lower abdomen.

Keizan Zenji recommends settling awareness in the abdomen if bothered by distracting thoughts and above the eyebrows or at the hairline if bothered by drowsiness. Others recommend watching contact of the air with the nostrils or upper lip if drowsy. Dogen Zenji mentions only the palm of the left hand as a point of concentration in difficulties. These are mentioned here only as examples of the expedient devices that have been adopted by others. Remember these are only for use in difficulty, the norm of awareness for zazen is to be awake without preference to everything in the universe regardless of whether it is inside or outside the body. Be awake to everything over and over again that is the essential art of zazen.