How to practice zazen

Louie Wing’s instructions on how to practice zazen. Excerpted from The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

Learned audience, the various meditation techniques of Buddhism can be divided into the two general, complementary modes of cessation and observation or stopping and seeing. Cessation is stopping of delusion; observation is illumination of prajna, enlightened wisdom.

One of the clearest presentations of cessation and observation is found in the great treatise of Mahayana Buddhism known as the Ta-ch’eng ch’i-hsin lun, or the Awakening of Faith treatise. The Awakening of Faith is a distillation and summarization of some of the most essential teachings of Buddhism. Good friends, because of its clarity, I will use the words of this text to briefly outline the two basic modes of Buddhist meditation. The Awakening of Faith treatise regarding cessation states:

Should there be a man who desires to practice ‘cessation’, he should stay in a quiet place and sit erect in an even temper. His attention should be focused neither on breathing nor on any form or color, nor on empty space, earth, water, fire, wind, nor even on what has been seen, heard, remembered, or conceived. All thoughts, as soon as they are conjured up, are to be discarded, and even the thought of discarding them is to be put away, for all things are essentially in the state of transcending thoughts, and are not to be created from moment to moment nor to be extinguished from moment to moment; thus, one is to conform to the essential nature of Reality (dharmata) through this practice of cessation…

In regard to observation, The Awakening of Faith treatise states:

He who practices ‘clear observation’ should observe that all conditioned phenomena in the world are unstationary and are subject to instantaneous transformation and destruction…

After reflecting in this way, he should pluck up his courage and make a great vow to this effect: may my mind be free from discriminations so that I may practice all of the various meritorious acts everywhere in the ten directions; may I, to the end of the future, by applying limitless expedient means, help all suffering sentient beings so that they may obtain the bliss of nirvana, the ultimate goal…

Learned audience, you should know that it is of the utmost importance to balance these two modes of meditation. The importance of balancing them, as well as specific instruction on how to do so, constitutes a generous amount of Zen and Buddhist literature. The Awakening of Faith affirms the necessity of this, and sums up the reason that balance is essential thus:

Whether walking, standing, sitting, lying, or rising, he should practice both ‘cessation’ and ‘clear observation’ side by side. That is to say, he is to meditate upon the fact that things are unborn in their essential nature; but at the same time he is to meditate upon the fact that good and evil karma. . .are neither lost nor destroyed…

The practice of ‘cessation’ will enable ordinary men to cure themselves of their attachments to the world… The practice of ‘clear observation’ will cure . . . the fault of having narrow and inferior minds, which bring forth no great compassion, and will free ordinary men from their failure to cultivate the capacity for goodness.

For these reasons, both ‘cessation’ and ‘clear observation’ are complementary and inseparable.

Good friends, cessation meditation aims at the realization of emptiness. To become attached to emptiness causes disengagement from the real world of everyday life. Observation meditation activates and refines the wisdom of differentiation. To become attached to differentiation causes one to live in turmoil, which blocks off clear perception of reality. Each of these modes of meditation serves to balance the other. Observation works as an antidote for attachment to emptiness. Cessation works as an antidote for attachment to differentiation.

In learning to apply any of the techniques of Zen meditation, sitting in zazen is usually the easiest and most direct method to begin with. Therefore, I will now describe the method of sitting meditation as the Zen ancestors have transmitted it down through the generations.

For practicing sitting meditation, anywhere you can sit comfortably will suffice. A lighted place that is clean, dry, quiet, and maintained at a comfortable temperature is best.

Before sitting, be moderate in food and drink. It is also good to be well rested. Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing, and if sitting in a group, dark, solid colors are preferred, in order to lessen the distraction to others.

It is best to sit on a zafu, a round cushion that is placed on a zabutan, a larger, square cushion. If such cushions are not available, a meditation bench or a chair is adequate, the aim being a comfortable and stable, upright sitting posture.

Sit with the two sit-bones of your buttocks on the zafu, and your legs folded on the zabutan. Sit in either the full or half lotus posture. For the full lotus posture, place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. For the half lotus, place your left foot on your right thigh and simply keep your right foot on the zabutan with your right leg folded in close to your left leg.

Sit upright in a stable, symmetrical position. Place the left hand on the right hand, aligning the middle joints of the middle fingers, both palms upward, and allow the tips of your thumbs to lightly touch forming an oval shape, as if cradling an egg. With your hands in this position, allow them to rest in your lap, holding them close to your body just below your belt line.

Hold your head up so that your ears are aligned with your shoulders and your nose is aligned with your navel. Place the tip of your tongue gently against the roof of your mouth just behind your upper teeth, with your teeth and lips together.

Breathe through your nose. Allow your eyelids to relax so they are comfortable, neither wide open nor closed. Let your gaze fall several feet in front of you or if facing a wall, about the level of your chest. Relax your vision, neither trying to focus it nor allowing it to wander.

Once you are comfortable and stable, take several deep breaths then allow your breathing to become quiet and natural.

Allow your mind to completely relax. Disregard intentional thinking; make no effort to suppress thoughts. Mentally step back and rest in the source of your own fundamental awareness. Trust the inherent wisdom of your own mind and let go of all intention. With total, nonjudgmental acceptance, allow thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and mental formulations to arise from, abide in, and return to the source of your fundamental awareness without interference.

For beginners that find difficulty settling their minds and bodies, the method of breath counting is often helpful. To apply this method, simply count each ‘out breath’ until you reach the count of ten. If you lose track of your count or find that you have gone beyond the number ten, simply return to one and begin your count over. When you can consistently reach ten, without losing count or going over ten, for fifteen minutes or so, you can let go of your counting and simply rest comfortably in your own awareness.

Good friends, for sitting in meditation, this is the method recommended by all the Zen ancestors.

~The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing



2 thoughts on “How to practice zazen”

  1. Nice one! I should definitely read your book someday! Thank you for your efforts, Ted! Keep up the excellent work!


    1. Hello Uku,

      Thank you for the encouraging words.

      If you email me a shipping address, I would be happy to send you a complimentary copy of The Flatbed Sutra.

      Three Full Bows.


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