My notes from Issho Fujita’s visit to London 2018 – Shin Yū Claire Ruddick
A brief history of the Buddha – Four stages
- Buddha grew up in a palace protected from the negativity of the world. One day he encountered old age, sickness, death and a monk. Shocked at seeing suffering for the first time and moved by the serenity of the monk, he left the palace to seek an understanding of suffering.
- He began yogic practices in which he quickly excelled but this did not satisfy him. He then turned to ascetic practices which he practiced to the point of near death. This too did not satisfy him.
- At a loss of what to do he returned to his practice of sitting quietly under a tree which he did as a child when he sneaked out of the palace for some peace and quiet. Upon seeing the morning star on the horizon during his sitting he perceived reality as it is.
- Despite his hesitation about teaching what is beyond words and intellectual understanding, Buddha decided to teach anyway and began transmitting the practice of just sitting to others.
The zazen of just sitting
The original zazen was the Buddha’s sitting under a tree right after he gave up ascetic practices. Zazen was not created by Buddha, it was a jewel that he uncovered when he realised the limitations of human made methods for attaining a goal or purpose.
Zazen is not a meditation. Meditation has a goal or focus. This can be obvious like counting breaths, visualisation, chanting mantras etc. It can also be more subtle like trying to stop thoughts arising, trying to force the breath to be slower than it naturally wants to be or pushing thoughts away etc.
But how do we move from meditation to zazen, from forceful action to spontaneous action, from ego to nature?
We learn how not to struggle through struggling in our zazen. Our practice is to base our everyday life on this shift from forceful action to spontaneous action, from ego to nature, then we can begin zazen. We do this through undoing, by becoming aware of what we do, and returning to non-doing. The less we do the deeper we see.
Without forcing the body or labouring the mind we free ourselves from birth and death and become Buddha – DOGEN: SHOBOGENZO – BIRTH AND DEATH
To harmonise the body we make the shift from forceful to spontaneous in zazen. Posture is important but it must not be forced. The body axis must be aligned with the direction of gravity. We should totally surrender our body weight to the floor. The quality of our groundedness is decreased by sitting in a chair which is why it is important that people who practice in a chair have the soles of their feet flat to the floor. A cross-legged sitting posture makes it easy for the lower body to feel the touch of the floor. It’s important that the body feels connected, stable and grounded. The four main points of contact are the two knees and the two sitting bones.
Issho Fujita then showed us some exercises that he had taught to an 80 year old lady who had never sat zazen before. He was genuinely surprised that within a short period of time she was able to comfortably sit in full lotus posture.
To build up to full lotus posture the body must never be forced. Once you are able to comfortably sit in Burmese posture for 20 mins then you could try quarter lotus. When you can sit comfortably in quarter lotus for 20 mins then you could try half lotus etc.
I have written the exercises down as… lead with the shoulders, then the belly-button, then the nipples. (* see Addendum below)
These exercises gently open up the pelvis and allow someone to sit comfortably in a cross-legged posture without forcing or putting strain on the knees or any other part of the body.
I have been practising these exercises once a day, six days a week since I attended Issho Fujita’s lecture and it has really made a great difference to my posture and comfort during zazen. I have for many years sat in seiza (kneeling) posture but have tried on and off over the last couple years to return to a cross-legged posture with great difficulty. I can now sit comfortably in full-lotus for a short period of time (something I never thought I would be able to do again!) I feel these exercises are not only good for beginners but also for those of us who are getting older and need a little help in maintaining our flexibility and comfort in our posture.
I have taught these exercises to several people and hope they will be passed on and help many more.
These exercises are closer to what Dogen meant when he said to, “rock your body left to right,” in the Fukan Zazengi.
Practice how to feel the body rather than forcing it from the outside. Pay attention to the pelvis and sitting bones. Be aware of the front side of our spine. Make the whole body an organ of sensitive feeling. Through this we can deepen our understanding.
Eyes – Simply receive what comes to them.
Ears – Just hear the sounds.
Don’t use breathing techniques.
Sense the whole body naturally breathe producing subtle sensations all over the body – DOGEN
Instead of letting the breath come to us there is a tendency to grasp the inhalation and a refusal to let go of the exhalation. Breathe with the lungs as well as the abdomen.
The sky does not prevent white clouds from floating, appearing or disappearing. Do not prepare for anything but be ready for anything. When we pursue something it always creates tension, we can relax only when we allow.
Addendum (provided by lay community member)
In an ideal world, it’s very much better to be shown these exercises personally by someone who attended the workshop. It’s important to proceed carefully, and no liability can be assumed if you choose to explore the following suggestions, provided by one of the lay community:
Sit on your zafu in any cross-legged posture you can manage comfortably
Gently sway the torso in wide circles, aiming to maximise movement as follows:
– at the shoulders (several times, say, 3 to 6 clockwise, then the same number anti-clockwise)
– at the level of the belly-button (again, several times in each direction)
– at the level of the upper chest (again, several times in each direction)
Then settle into your normal zazen posture, keeping the spine erect, neck pulled in slightly. Aim to relax as much as possible without the least slumping.
The objective of the exercises is to give a gentle but challenging stretch to the musculature of the hips and lower spine. Don’t overdo it and hurt yourself. You will loosen gradually with time. And do get your understanding checked by someone knowledgeable at the earliest opportunity.