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Zazen Part One: Beginning

Yun Men said, “I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day, try to say something about after the fifteenth day.”

Yun Men himself answered for everyone. “Every day is a good day.” [1]

I did not find this koan difficult to understand in my head. But it has been hard for me to get it in my gut. I have been working on it, often without really noticing, since I began zazen practice.

Sila, in traditional Zen presentations of the Paramitas (the practices which can help take us beyond our everyday suffering) typically comes second. However, in Zen training, we are immediately introduced to the practice of discipline. That’s where we begin, although we don’t always label the practice as “discipline.” Ordinarily, it is called “beginner’s instruction.” This is introduction to zazen.

Zen instruction.

People come to Zen instruction with me to learn how to meditate, and whatever else they may ultimately hope to gain from the practice. In the beginning, I am a meditation coach. I am like the personal trainer in the gym, whether I am working with students individually or in a group. In the beginning, I am guiding them in building their capacity to sit.

When I was formally introduced to meditation, it was done as a lecture and demonstration. The intro went on about 30 minutes and covered meditation practice from soup to nuts — posture, breathing, all aspects of technique. To qualify to give meditation instruction at the Zen Community of New York, the Yonkers center where I trained with Jishu and Bernie, I “gave” beginners instruction to the entire sangha one Saturday morning. This was the rite of passage, the gate to be passed through before I could be authorized to offer instruction to beginners. I shared everything I had learned. I wanted to impress the others, most of whom, including Roshi Bob Kennedy who happened to be there that day, had been practicing much longer than me. What newbie could remember it all?

As a teacher, I quickly shifted my approach, instead spoon feeding students. I remembered that Kyudo Roshi had spent a year on my posture. It was only when he was satisfied with my posture that he went on to my breathing.

Bernie, Jishu, Bob — none of them ever talked to me about how to do zazen, although combined I sat with at least one of them and did dokusan weekly for twenty years. Apparently, I thought, they were satisfied with my zazen. Yet as recently as last year, I learned something totally new about my posture when at the beginning of the pandemic I began sitting an hour a day (up from my ordinary 30-minute a day practice). I developed a pain in my lower back. It was not an unfamiliar pain. I had been going to a chiropractor friend for adjustments every other week. I had stopped due to COVID caution.

On my cushion, I watched the pain and made an adjustment in my posture. Going beyond tipping my pelvis forward, I had been pushing my lower spine forward as well. I had been sitting very straight. I had been getting praised for my straight sitting for years. I relaxed my spine. I didn’t look as straight as I had, but my pain went away. In the process, my whole way of thinking about posture shifted as well.


Typically, introduction to Zen talks contain all the instructions for breathing as well as posture. Typically, beginners learn to just count their breath, 1-10 and then begin again. Lose count, begin again. Mind wanders, begin again. No criticism. No judgment. Just begin again. We are told that this is the first stage. Kyudo Roshi once told me that in the Rinzai monasteries in Japan, the monks just count their breath for seven years. We are told that when we have mastered breath counting we can go to just following our breath. And then finally, in our Soto tradition we progress to Shikantaza, just sitting.

I am studying my breathing every day.

I am studying my breathing every day. In this area at least I am a slow learner. After thirty years of practice, I finally progressed to following my breath.

From my experience, I have learned to spoon-feed my meditation instruction, teaching just enough for students to get started.

Experience vs. being taught.

About eight years ago, I learned something important to the practice of teaching Zen from an instructional coach who we brought in at ICS. Until then, the received wisdom among our faculty was that good teaching relied on the formulaic, “First, I do; then, we do; then, you do.” In math, first the teacher demonstrates a problem-solving technique. Then the teacher repeats the process with the whole class, prompting responses until someone suggests the correct next step. Only then are the students given a problem to work on their own.

...learning from experience is far more powerful than "being taught.”

Cara, the coach, suggested an alternative. She encouraged letting the students attempt to solve the problem first on their own, then to collaborate, sharing and comparing their methods, in whole class discussion or small groups or pairs. Cara believed that learning from experience is far more powerful than “being taught.”

This resonated with me. It changed my way of teaching zazen.

I begin now with only one instruction: “Sit still and shut up.” In my first class, I begin only with this instruction. And then, “Let’s sit for ten minutes.” I ring a bell. We sit together. After ten minutes, I ring the bell again. “How was that?”

Participants share their experience. I listen. I offer snippets of the traditional beginner’s instruction which speak directly to the students’ experience, the problem of sitting still.

When everyone has shared their initial experience, I suggest, “Shall we sit for 15 minutes?” When the period ends, another round of comments and questions.

At the conclusion, I share a story and a second instruction. The story is a version of the Buddha’s story of the City of Gold from the Lotus Sutra. I say it’s a story, but I don’t know who believes me.

Notice the changes in your life.

“For most of us — we are practitioners of householder Zen, we all have busy demanding lives, none of us are monks — a half hour a day of zazen is enough, although some days, even when you have been practicing for years, you will need more than 30 minutes to settle down. But it takes most of us a while to build up to sitting for thirty minutes a day. How long it takes to build that capacity is different for each of us. The important thing is to sit every day and to gradually build yourself up. Once you are sitting 30 minutes a day, within three to six months, you will begin to notice the changes in your life.”

And I add, “You actually may not notice these changes yourself at first. Your first noticings may be pointed out to you by someone else.”

“Not much of a golden city story,” you might say.

Well, maybe it is more subtle than the Lotus Sutra guide’s golden city story. But almost everyone comes to Zen practice with their own fantasy of how the practice will change their lives, how it will make them better people, happier people, more peaceful people. Everyone imagines their own Golden City.

Oh, I am an honest guide, or at least I try to be. I do tell beginners that the changes which occur may not be the changes they imagined.

Warnings be damned. We all begin sitting with our hopes and dreams and fantasies intact.

Warnings be damned. We all begin sitting with our hopes and dreams and fantasies intact. The first-week homework is to try to sit every day. See how long you sit each day. Keep a record. Bring the record to class next week.

The second meeting, as well as subsequent meetings, begin with a check in. How many days did you sit? How long each day?

Based on the number of days that a person sits, I ask, can you sit one more? If they managed to sit three days that first week, “Do you want to try to sit four days?”

Then, I usually take the shortest amount of time that the person sat — it might be ten minutes. I suggest that they then sit 10 minutes a day for four days this week. “Don’t sit longer. Just do your ten minutes. Four days.” I want students to experience success as much as possible, to have the experience of achieving the goals which they take on for themselves.

I want students to experience success as much as possible, to have the experience of achieving the goals which they take on for themselves.

When everyone has checked in, “Ok, let’s sit 10 minutes.” And then a round of questions and comments. And then we sit for 15 minutes. “Any final questions?”

“Good luck. Don’t forget. Keep a record. Bring your record to class next week.”

In each subsequent week, the check-in begins, “What was your goal this week? How did you do?”

If a student has achieved their goal, “Can you add one day to the number of days that you sit?” No increase in the length of sitting. I keep emphasizing, “Sitting every day is more important than the length of time that you sit.”

No increase in the length of sitting time until the student is sitting six or seven days a week, and then we increase the length of the sitting period by two or three minutes a day. Always with the student’s agreement. For the student who has been sitting twenty-two minutes a day, “Do you want to go for 25 minutes a day this week?” Going forward is always the student’s decision. I am holding them back from setting discouraging targets. It’s too easy to give up at this early stage of practice before the student had really begun to experience the changes in their lives that will arise.

Progress, stalls, and fall backs.

Sometimes students make steady progress. Sometimes they stall. Some students fall back.

When students who have been sitting half an hour a day, six or seven days a week, are feeling comfortable with this, I offer the Zen 108 challenge, to sit for one hour a day (usually in two periods) for 108 consecutive days. I offer it as a way for students to build confidence in their ability to sustain their practice through the stresses of life. Students who are attempting Zen 108 report the number of days they have been sitting.

With all students, we applaud their achievement. We are taking a page from AA. Even one day of sobriety is an achievement.

Even a day in which we fail to sit is an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to get to know ourselves.

Why didn’t I sit?

Who am I?

Every day is a beautiful day.


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