Za-zen meditation
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Za-zen meditation

Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy

When one engages in Zen meditation, Zen recommends that its practitioner follow a three-step procedure: adjusting one’s body, breathing and mind. The practitioner follows these adjustments in the order mentioned when he or she begins. When concluding a sitting session, the procedure is reversed so that he or she can return to an everyday standpoint.

The Adjustment of the Body

Generally speaking, the adjustment of the body means to prepare oneself (one’s mind-body) in such a way that one can achieve an optimal state of being free. To do so, the practitioner needs to have a proper diet, engage in appropriate physical exercise, and avoid forming habits contrary to nurturing a healthy mind-body condition. Specifically, however, when Zen mentions the adjustment of the body, it has in mind seated meditation postures. There are two postures which Zen recognizes: the lotus-posture and the half-lotus posture. A long Zen tradition takes them to be effective for stilling the mind and dissolving various psychological complexes and psychosomatic disorders. However, if a lay practitioner cannot at first assume these postures, they can be substituted initially by sitting on a chair with the spine straight, as it can bring about a similar effect. The adjustment of the body is necessary for the practitioner in order to experience the practical benefits of doing meditation.

The Adjustment of Breathing

The benefits of Zen meditation are closely tied to the practice of breathing. Generally speaking, Zen doesn’t recommend any complicated, strenuous breathing exercises as in Yoga. Zen’s breathing exercise is called “observation of breath count” (sūsokukan). In this exercise, the practitioner counts an in-coming breath and an out-going breath. Before counting the breath, the practitioner breathes in through the nostrils and breathes out through the mouth a couple of times. Then one starts counting breaths, but this time breathing in through the nostrils and breathing out through the nostrils. The breath count is performed while performing an abdominal breathing: one brings in air all the way down to the lower abdomen, and breathes out from there.

Though these are simple instructions, they are difficult to execute because the neophyte tends to become distracted. Present concerns, worries, fears, and past memories often surface. Zen calls them “wandering thoughts,” which refers to any mental object that prevents the practitioner from concentrating. If one wants to make progress in meditation, this is one of the first things that the practitioner must learn to overcome.

[I]f we observe a person in a peaceful state, the breathing is deep, smooth, slow, and rhythmical. These examples show that there is a strong correlation between the pattern and the rhythm of breathing and a person’s emotional state, or more generally, state of mind. Zen breathing has a way of naturally heightening the positive correlation between the activity of the autonomic nervous system and emotion.

Neurophysiologically, it happens that the center where breathing is regulated and the region where emotion is generated coincide. This means that the conscious breathing psychologically affects the pattern of how one generates emotion, and at the same time it also has a neurophysiological effect on how the autonomous activity of the unconscious is regulated.

The Adjustment of the Mind

Once the bodily posture and the breathing are adjusted, the practitioner next learns to adjust the mind. This means that the practitioner consciously moves to enter a state of meditation. In so doing, the practitioner learns to disengage him- or herself from the concerns of daily life. That is to say, one tries to stop the operation of the conscious mind. However, if one tries to stop the mind by using one’s mind, the mind which is trying to stop itself is still operative. In other words, it is practically impossible to stop the mind by using the mind. Instead, Zen tries to accomplish this by the immobile bodily posture and the breathing exercise. In this connection, it will be informative to know how the practitioner experiences breathing as he or she deepens meditation.

We can identify three basic stages: initially the practitioner can hear the audible sound of the in-coming and out-going breaths. This is rough and “gross” breathing. This is followed by the second stage in which he or she can feel the pathway of the in-coming and out-going breaths. Breathing at this point becomes “subtle” in that there will no longer be audible sound of the breaths but simply a stream of life-energy. In the third stage there is no more feeling of the in-coming and out-going breaths. When this occurs, the practitioner can settle into a deeper meditational state. Also, it is significant to note that as the practitioner enters a deeper state of meditation, the interval between inhalation and exhalation is prolonged, i.e., the retention of breath is prolonged, as the reduction of breathing activities occurs.

Meditation trains one to sit face-to-face with one’s self, while creating a psychological isolation from the external world. With this, one enters into an internal world of psychē. As the practitioner attempts to enter the world of psychē, various things start surfacing in the field of the practitioner’s meditative awareness. These are mostly things of concern that have occupied the practitioner in the history of his or her life, or things the practitioner has consciously suppressed for various reasons. Initially, the practitioner experiences recent desires, anxieties, concerns, ideas, and images that have surfaced in his or her daily life. A psychological reason that the practitioner experiences these various things is due in part to the fact the practitioner has lowered the level of conscious activity, by assuming the meditation posture, and doing the breathing exercise. This mechanism is the same as when one has a dream at night. When the level of consciousness is lowered, the suppressive power of ego-consciousness weakens, and consequently the autonomous activity of the unconscious begins to surface.

However, these desires, images and ideas are distractions insofar as meditation is concerned. This is because in meditation you must learn to focus your awareness on one thing. One must learn just to observe without getting involved in them. That is, one must learn to dis-identify oneself with them. In the process of deepening meditation, one can roughly identify three distinct stages: the stage of concentration, the stage of meditation, and the stage of absorption. In the stage of concentration, the practitioner concentrates, for example on the lower abdomen, establishing a dualistic relationship between the practitioner who is concentrating and the lower abdomen that is the focus of concentration. This dualistic relationship is broken gradually as the practitioner moves into the stage of meditation. The activity of the ego-consciousness is gradually lessened, and the barriers it sets up for itself are gradually removed. When the practitioner enters the stage of absorption (samādhi), the dualistic framing of the mind will be removed such that the mind starts structuring itself non-dualistically. There will be no separation or distancing between an object of the mind and the activity of the mind itself.

As the practitioner repeats this process over a long period of time, he or she will come to experience a state in which no-thing appears. Zen uses the phrase “no-mind” to designate this state. No-mind does not mean a mindless state. Nor does it mean that there is no mind. It means that there is no conscious activity of the mind that is associated with ego-consciousness in the everyday standpoint. In other word, no-mind is a free mind that is not delimited by ideas, desires, and images. No-mind is a state of mind in which there is neither a superimposition of ideas nor a psychological projection. That is, no-mind is a practical transcendence from the everyday mind, without departing from the everydayness of the world.