How to Practice Zazen - Interview with Seikan Cech

How to Practice Zazen

What was your first experience with meditation?


My earliest memory of meditation is sitting on a sled in a lane in Prague, with big snowflakes falling all around me and on my body. The lane was flat, so I was just sitting there like a small hill. I would have been about 4 years old.


Like a small hill? Your description is inviting. Did you know even then that this was meditation?


I guess that depends on what you mean by "knowing". Small hills, young children, snowflakes, all are states of knowing in themselves. So did the 4-year old know meditation as an experience? Yes. Did he know meditation practice? No.

Meditation practice, particularly in Zen, is not so much about experience, as about a particular structure as a means of letting go. Most people that I meet who first come to Zen meditation seem to do so with a hope of experiencing special mind states. But in practice we either manage to settle for the structure of sitting meditation, or we soon stop coming and look for special experiences somewhere else.

So in Zazen, or Zen meditation, the often touted notion of "just being" ceases to be something abstract and starts being the physical reality of "just sitting". In the first instance, this can often involve sitting with some pain or discomfort. Ironically people come to Zen mostly looking for pleasant experiences of the mind, and instead we discover the body and usually meet with pain.

This reminds me of a story of Bodhidharma, the legendary Indian monk said to have brought Zen to China and to have spent many years just sitting in a cave facing a wall. When a young monk approached him there for advice on how to settle his mind, Bodhidharma's advice was that he should go find his mind and Bodhidharma would settle it for him. When the monk eventually returned to say that he had not found his mind, Bodhidharma replied: "So there you have it, I have settled it for you".


Thank you for those details. I understand. You speak of structure being essential. Are you speaking of an imposed structure, or the structure that nature has provided? What I am particularly interested in, is how the structure that follows this intent in the mind to meditate makes a difference. Why is the body not structure enough? And perhaps you could include further explanation of this that you wrote - "we discover the body and usually meet with pain".


As you point out, the intent to meditate first arises in the mind, as one of our many many ideas. Our thinking minds are indeed like factories for having ideas, enabling us to imagine, plan, remember, interpret, analyze, and so forth. In effect, we cultivate states which are out-of-body and out-of-time. These of course can happily feed on themselves, which is why it is so easy to become absorbed in the realm of our ideas.

The intent to meditate itself arises in the form of an idea, usually tied to something like "stress relief", "peace of mind", "spiritual development", and the like. However, so long as we hold on to these kinds of ideas of developing one outcome or another through meditation, we just remain in the realm of ideas and outside of meditation practice. Even in relation to our ideas themselves, we end up perpetuating the very circumstances that we were hoping to change.

Therefore it is the physical structure, rather than our intentions, which is paramount in Zen meditation. The physical structure is what supports our letting go of ideas and the gradual settling of our thinking mind. In this context, the physical structure of the practice and our physical body are one continuum. You asked, "why is the body [as such] not structure enough?" It is not enough because without the physical structure of a practice like Zen, most of us tend to let our body go, to a point where it turns into just another idea. In Zen practice, the body and our use of the body become inseparable, and through it our body becomes real.

If and when physical pain does arise from sitting straight, then that too is an important part of what gives reality to the body sitting. When it happens, our mind may well start thinking something like, "but this is pain, this isn't [my idea of] meditating." Different ideas come and go, and we remain just sitting.

So Zen practice is really a Trojan horse affair. It tends to set off as a wonderfully promising idea, then it connects us with our physical body and pain, and eventually it leads to not much at all, at least in the sense of nothing much to write home about. So again, as Bodhidharma may have remarked, there is our "peace of mind". Or as Bob Dylan sings it, "I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from".

The irony with Zen meditation is that most of us first engage with it to chase after rewards of one kind or another, and when those rewards eventually do come - not least because we stop being so fixated on them - there also no longer seems to be that strong sense of a separate "self" with its eagerness to claim them.

Continue with Interview: What is Zazen Meditation?

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