What Is This Thing About Sitting Meditation?
Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes me sit and practice, and after all, why lots of people throughout history have done so. Most people, especially Westerners think that meditation is something weird or even dangerous.
Years ago, I visited a community not too far from my university. This was a time of burgeoning spirituality in 1970. I was talking with one of the members of the community and when I told him I was interested in meditation, he replied that meditation was a sin. Since when has breathing while being aware of one’s own breathing been a bad thing?
Another time, years later, I went on a business trip to Birmingham, Alabama, for a workshop. My host, in the midst of some cordial banter, asked, “So what did you do before you were in the insurance business? I said, “I was a Buddhist monk”. A big curtain of ice crashed down between the two of us, and his face became cold and hard. “THAT’S DIFFERENT!” he shot back. Sheesh!
Worldwide Growing Interest in Meditation Practice
Well, nowadays there is growing interest in meditation practice, but in Asia, I find that people are far more open to the subject even if they don’t do it. Seems like people at least in Thailand and China, where I have spent most of my time the last few years often consider it fairly normal. And commendable.
So the question is, what is it about meditation that is so special while not being special at all?
I did a web search and found pictures of various famous sages. Here is a classic picture of Shakyamuni (“Sage of the Shakya Clan”) Buddha, who reportedly lived about 2500 years ago, and is considered the founder of Buddhism.
This is Hsuan Hua, the famous disciple of Chan Master Xu Yun. Hsuan Hua established a strong Buddhist Center in California, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in Mendocino County, as well as other centers. There he is, sitting in Lotus Position.
Here is Lahiri Mahasaya, the famous sage discussed in Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.
This is a picture from the Brooklyn Museum, showing a man meditating in a garden setting. I think this picture is Persian or Indian.
Here is a picture of the great sage, Laozi, who lived in China and was roughly contemporary with Gautama, the Indian who became known as the Buddha. As an aside, he got the name “Buddha’ because when people asked him who he was, he answered, “Buddha” which means literally, “Awake”. Laozi was the main founder of Daoism. The Dao is “the Way”. Things just as they are.
And here is another picture of Daoist Meditation
Daoist, Meditation, “Gathering in the Light” is the method used.
a contemporary of the Buddha. It would hard for the average person to tell the difference between this picture and one of the Buddha. They both advocated sitting crosslegged, and both are often depicted with hands in their lap, seated on a lotus seat, with a halo on their head. Mahavira was the founder of the Jain religion which is still practiced in India.
Some contemporary sitters in a park, enjoying their meditation together.
What do all these spiritual practitioners have in common? They SIT!
Years ago, while I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, I spent time with a Yurok Indian Medicine Man, Harry Roberts, who actually was half Irish and half Indian, but had trained with his Uncle, the tribe’s medicine man. He told me that one of the practices that he did was to go to an isolated forest or mountain place, draw a three foot circle, and sit there for three days with no or almost no moving.
When I was waiting for an airplane in the Singapore Airport recently, I asked if there was a meditation room. In Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand, there is a room for Buddhists and a room for Muslims. In Singapore there was a prayer room that is presumably non denominational but probably almost anyone using it is Muslim. There is also a meditation room, for the use of anyone. I went inside and there were just a few small mats and one chair.
I arranged the mats so I could do Zazen (seated Zen meditation), and was there for a few minutes when two people entered. One sat crosslegged and one sat in a chair. Because of the hat one wore, I knew they were Muslim. I could hear them talking. Probably Malay, one said one sound that seemed to be “Buddha’. So my guess is, that they were talking about that Westerner sitting by the rear wall of the room, and guessing I was Buddhist.
Interestingly, I visited a bead shop in Singapore, and the owner sold various kinds of beads, such as necklaces. He also sold Buddhist malas. And when I saw some odd ( to me) looking malas, he told me they were Muslim beads. They have 99 beads, and Muslims chant the names of God. Buddhists use ones with 108. And of course Catholics also use rosary beads. Well, it is not the same necessarily as sitting, but they are used to help control the ongoing out of control thought process which 99% of us call ‘thinking’.
One time I found myself, through an internet chat situation with someone with an Arabic sounding name. He was fretting about the world, which I can certainly relate to. So I suggested that he go into a quiet room, sit down, and start to breath. Breathe in “Al” and breathe out “Lah”. Al lah….Al lah.
He was flabbergasted. “How did you know I already do that, you must be Muslim!” “No, I replied, this is normal, sit down, breathe in breathe out, this is the human way to calm the mind”.
“No no…you must be Muslim… you should read the Koran.” I thanked him for his suggestion.
The forest monks in Thailand breathe in Bud, and breathe out Dho…Bud…dho. Same thing. There are all kinds of methods one can use in the process of meditation, but common to many many is the simple act of sitting.
But Why Sitting?
Sitting seems to be the natural way for us to just settle down. But in addition, when we sit in a symmetrical way, such as crosslegged, or in a chair with feet planted on the ground, our body finds alignment and balance. Once the body is aligned and in a state of balance and in harmony with gravity, our whole being settles down, in a natural and harmonious way.
We don’t have to “do” anything. Which is exactly the point. We humans are always doing or thinking we “have to” do something. Eat, sleep, walk, talk, but these are more complicated and require more than just the act of focusing, or just observing. So we create more and more stuff from our actions. It really does get tiresome, finally!
There is nothing to do and nothing to fix. Everything is just as it is. Once we are willing to Just Sit, just standing, just walking and so on become natural, our life becomes seemingly effortless, without struggle. “Learning” to sit is the first step.
Lying down is OK, too, but it seems harder to keep the mind from wandering. Likewise with walking or standing. All of these are good and useful, especially if done observantly. Once we reach a point of observing and focusing, then our actions start to change in subtle ways that are apparently more harmonious. Humans share some basic hardwired values, like not harming or killing, stealing lying, etc.
Of course those unwholesome activities can be very profitable, which is why lots of people do them. But in the end, settling down, seeing things as they are, life becomes somehow easier.
So, sit, be aware.
Wordless Teaching: Just Do What You See
Usually, when we enter a Buddhist temple or meditation hall, there is a statue or an image of Shakyamuni Buddha, or another of his famous disciples or other Enlightened Beings. People objectify these images, and we bow to them. Some people dismiss this as idol worship. How can bowing or offering incense of flowers to a block of wood or stone be useful?
However, when I see a such a statue, I ask, what is this about? Is the block of wood saying, ‘give me money’, ‘give me incense’, ‘light a candle’, etc.? I can assure you that the image will do just fine without that (although making some offering to the temple will help support the activities there of course, and also help to open our hearts with the feeling of generosity.)
But that is not what the statue is ‘saying’. I am amazed that people overlook this most direct teaching. Children learn by watching and copying others. So the wordless teaching of a Buddha image is,
If you want to be liberated and free, like me, then do what I am doing RIGHT NOW. SIT!” Said with a smile of course.
The great founder of Soto Zen (Caodong Chan in Chinese)Dogen Zenji, gave a wonderful exposition of this practice, Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen. In it he says,
“Need I mention the Buddha, who was possessed of inborn knowledge? The influence of his six years of upright sitting is noticeable still. Or Bodhidharma’s transmission of the mind-seal?–the fame of his nine years of wall-sitting is celebrated to this day. Since this was the case with the saints of old, how can we today dispense with negotiation of the Way?”
Mindful Sitting is Not Being a Couch Potato
Of course, this sitting does not mean being a Couch potato! It is not an excuse to zone out. However, sitting frees us from the usual tasks that living beings have, and allows us the freedom to direct our mind, or as Dogen says, to turn the light backward. Instead of always looking outside, look within.
Jesus said not to worry so much about the splinter in the other person’s eye, but to see the log in our own eye. That is the same idea. It is sitting which is the scalpel that refines our consciousness.
When we first start to practice sitting meditation, our minds and bodies may be very restless and even uncomfortable, kind of like a fish out of water, flopping around, or, as it said in some of the earlier Buddhist texts, like a calf tied to a post, jumping around, trying to escape.
However, if we use our consciousness and effort to gently and persistently return to just sitting with our meditation topic, be it mindfulness of the breath or body, or thoughts, or a mantra, or other specific mental object, or even, no object just attention to the present moment… at some point we realize that Dogen is correct when he says, that Zen sitting is ‘not meditation, It is simply the Dharma Gate of Repose and Ease.”
Sitting down, settling down, we find that we and everything is somehow OK just as it is. From there, we can go out into the world and act appropriately.
Look again at all the famous sages noted above, from many spiritual traditions. What do they have in common? They sit!