Free Online Course: Classic Teachings of Zen Buddhism – Lesson 5 – Zen Meditation

Zen Practice Zen Enlightenment: A free course on the essential doctrines and methods of Zen Buddhism.

Lesson 5   –    Zen Meditation Part 5

[Link to Lesson 1] [Link to Lesson 2] [Link to Lesson 3] [Link to Lesson 4] [Link to Lesson 5] [Link to Lesson 6] [Link to Lesson 7] [Link to Lesson 8] [Lesson 9] [Lesson 10] [Lesson 11] [Lesson 12] [Lesson 13] [Lesson 14]

The goal of this course is to provide a comprehensive presentation of the essential doctrines and methods of Zen Buddhism. To provide the most reliable account possible this course appeals to the greatest authority available; the genuine teachings of the classic Zen masters.

In the interest of maintaining a logical structure and systematic advance, each lesson introduces a specific topic by opening with a brief excerpt from The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West. This is followed with a selection of related passages from the classic literature of Zen Buddhism.

The passages of each lesson offer an array of perspectives from a variety of classic Zen records. This provides a well rounded presentation of the specific subject and introduces the diverse teaching styles of the Zen records that serve as the foundation of Zen Buddhism. The selected passages also present various levels of difficulty. The easier, more accessible passages serve to illumine and bring into relief the significance of the more difficult expressions, while the latter serve to suggest the more subtle implications of the former.

Each lesson is designed to furnish two primary approaches of study; one basic, the other more involved. The basic approach can be followed by applying oneself to the lesson for about 20 minutes or less. The more involved approach will include additional material and references to both online and traditional resources allowing for expanded study suited to individual interests.

While some comment may be offered were clarification seems in order, in attempting to let the Zen masters “speak for themselves” every effort to refrain from “interpretative” commentary will be made. Any interpretive commentary that does seem appropriate will, as far as possible be confined to the “comment” field following each lesson. Please use this “comment” field to offer comments, questions, or suggestions.

Any and all constructive feedback is greatly encouraged and appreciated. If you have a comment, question, or suggestion you want to keep private, please email me at:

Lesson 5

Zen Meditation Part 5

Introduction from The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West

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 out each 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: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West


Turning Words from the Classic Records of Zen


When you set your body on the meditation bench, it is no more than silencing and emptying the mind and investigating with your whole being. Just make your mind and thoughts clarify and become still…

Just do not give birth to a single thought: let go and become crystal clear. As soon as any notions of right and wrong and self and others and gain and loss are present, do not follow them off. Then you will be personally studying with your own true enlightened teacher.

If you do that, what worry is there that this work will not be accomplished? You must see for yourself!

Yuanwu, Zen Letters, Thomas Cleary

Zen Letters: Teachings of Yuanwu 


First set aside all involvements and concerns; do not remember or recollect anything at all, whether good or bad, mundane or transcendental. Do not engage in thoughts. Let go of body and mind, setting them free.

When the mind is like wood or stone, you do not explain anything, and the mind does not go anywhere, then the mind ground becomes like space, wherein the sun of wisdom naturally appears. It is as though the clouds had opened and the sun emerged.

Just put an end to all fettering connections, and feelings of greed, hatred, craving, defilement and purity, all come to and end. Unmoved in the face of inner desires and external influences, not choked up by perception and cognition, not confused by anything, naturally endowed with all virtues and the inconceivable use of spiritual capacities, this is someone who is free.

Having a mind neither stilled nor disturbed in the presence of all things in the environment, neither concentrated nor distracted, passing through all sound and form without lingering or obstruction, is called being a wayfarer.

Not setting in motion good or evil, right or wrong, not clinging to a single thing, not rejecting a single thing, is called being a member of the great caravan.

Not being bound by any good or evil, emptiness or existence, defilement or purity, striving or nonstriving, mundanity or transcendence, virtue or knowledge, is called enlightened wisdom.

Once affirmation and negation, like and dislike, approval and disapproval, and all various opinions and feelings come to and end and cannot bind you, then you are free wherever you may be. This is what is called a bodhisattva at the moment of inspiration immediately ascending to the stage of buddhahood.

Pai-chang, Zen Teachings, Thomas Cleary


Q: ‘What is the meaning of (the T’ien T’ai practice of) simultaneous meditation upon the One Mind’s three aspects?

M: ‘Besides the past mind which is already gone, the future mind which has yet to come, and the present mind which does not stay, which mind will you use for your meditation?’

A: ‘So the Venerable Ch’an Master does not understand the Chih-Kuan teaching (to which I alluded).’

M: ‘Do you understand it, Venerable Commentator?’

A: ‘I do.’

M: ‘As the great Master Chih Chu said, “Chih (silencing the mind to obtain samadhi) is preached to wipe out (the illusion of) Chih; and Kuan (looking into the mind to cause prajna to appear and function normally) is preached to eradicate the illusion of Kuan. To dwell on Chih is to drown oneself in the ocean of birth and death, to abide in Kuan is to upset the mind.” Will you use the mind to put a stop to mind and stir the mind to meditate on it? Setting the mind on meditation involves attachment to permanence; setting no mind on meditation involves annihilation. Clinging to the concept of “either existence or non-existence” implies (attachment to) a dualism. Then how will the Venerable Commentator expound (the Chih-Kuan practice) correctly for me to see?

A: ‘Since you put it like that, there is really nothing I can say.’

M: ‘If so, have you ever really understood the Chih-Kuan practice?’

Hui Hai, The Zen Teaching of Instantaneous Awakening, John Blofeld

Zen Teaching of Instantaneous Awakening


Q: Are we to make this effort only when we are sitting in meditation, or also when we are walking about?

A: When I spoke just now of making an effort, I did not mean only when you are sitting in meditation; for, whether you are walking, standing, sitting, lying, or whatever you are doing, you must uninterruptedly exert your-selves all the time. This is what we call ‘constantly abiding’ (in that state).

Hui Hai, The Zen Teaching of Instantaneous Awakening, John Blofeld 

Zen Teaching of Instantaneous Awakening


Learned Audience, what is sitting for meditation? In our school, to sit means to gain absolute freedom and to be mentally unperturbed in all outward circumstances, be they good or otherwise. To meditate means to realize inwardly the imperturbability of the essence of mind.

Hui-Neng, The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui-Neng, A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam

Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-neng (Shambhala Classics)


As for sitting, sitting is something that should include fits of ecstatic laughter—brayings that make you slump to the ground clutching your belly. And when you struggle to your feet after the first spasm passes, it should send you kneeling to the earth in yet further contortions of joy.

Hakuin, Wild Ivy, Norman Waddell


I have NO THING to offer. It is because you allow certain people to lead you astray that you are forever SEEKING intuition and SEARCHING understanding. Isn’t this a case of disciples and teachers all falling into the same insoluble muddle? All you need to remember are the following injuctions:





Huang Po, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, John Blofeld

 The Zen Teaching of Huang-Po: On the Transmission of Mind 


A question was asked: “How can one be at ease when one has to give attention to something which spontaneously arises?”

The Master {Fa Yung} replied, “When one is spontaneously attentive to something, he gives no mind to anything. If he speaks paradoxically, he is bothered by name and form, but if he speaks out straightforwardly he is not encumbered. He is happy to be mindless, and even happiness is not felt since he is enjoying life all the time. What is meant by mindlessness now is not different from mindfulness.”

The Transmission Of The Lamp, Sohaku Ogata

The Transmission of the Lamp: Early Masters


When I bring up one thing and another for you as I do, you think I am explaining Zen; but the minute you go into action you make it into worldly convention.

Only if you keep your attention on it will you be able to make a discovery; but as I see, most of you just remain in eyes ears, seeing and hearing, sensing and feeling—you’ve already missed the point. You must find the nondiscriminatory mind without departing from the discriminating mind; find that which has no seeing or hearing without departing from seeing and hearing.

This does not mean that “no seeing” is a matter of sitting on a bench with your eyes closed. You must have nonseeing right in seeing. This is why it is said, “Live in the realm of seeing and hearing, yet unreached by seeing and hearing; live in the land of thought, yet untouched by thought.”

Foyan, Instant Zen, Thomas Cleary


Supplemental Instructions For Advanced Study


Dogen: On the Model for Doing Meditation (Zazengi)

To train under a Master is to do seated meditation. In doing seated meditation, a quiet place serves well. Spread out your meditation mat so that it lies thickly. Do not put it in a place that is windy or smoky, and do not expose it to rain or dew. Make the place where you sit secure for your body. There is the example from the past of Shakyamuni’s sitting in a diamond-hard place under the Bodhi tree, seated upon a huge rock in the shape of a lotus, upon which He had spread out a thick cushion of dry grass. Your sitting place should be lit, without letting it be in the dark, day or night. Make ‘warm in winter and cool in summer’ your technique.

Set aside all involvements and give everything a rest. Do not think about what is good or what is bad. Do not exercise your discriminatory mind or weigh and judge your mind’s remembrances, concepts, and reflections! Do not aim at becoming a Buddha, and drop off any concern with whether you are sitting or lying down. Eat and drink in moderation. Cherish the light of days and the dark of nights. Take to doing seated meditation as though you were extinguishing a fire upon your head. The Fifth Chinese Ancestor, Daiman K?nin of Mount ?bai, did not do anything particularly different: he just diligently did seated meditation.

When sitting in meditation, wear your kesa. Spread out your mat and put your round cushion atop it. Do not sit in lotus position with the cushion supporting the whole of your legs, but put it well behind the back half of your legs. Consequently, the mat will be under your knees and thighs while the cushion will be under the base of your spine. This is the method for seated meditation that has been used by Buddha after Buddha and Ancestor after Ancestor.

Some people sit in the half lotus position and some sit in the full lotus position. When sitting in the full lotus position, we put the right foot atop the left thigh and the left foot atop the right thigh. The tips of our toes should line up uniformly on our thighs and not lie unevenly. When sitting in half lotus position, we simply place our left foot on our right thigh.

We should drape our clothing in a loose-fitting manner, yet neatly. We place our right hand atop our left foot and our left hand atop our right hand. The tips of our two thumbs touch each other. Both hands are then held close to our body. The point at which the two thumbs touch should be placed opposite the navel.

You should sit with your body upright, that is, not leaning to the right, inclining to the left, bending forward, or arching back. You need to align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel. Let your tongue rest in your mouth. Breathe through your nose. Your lips and teeth should be touching. Your eyes should remain open, but neither widely nor narrowly so.

With body and mind regulated in this manner, breathe out once. Sit with the stillness of a mountain, and let what you are thinking about be based on not deliberately trying to think about any particular thing. How can what anyone is thinking about be based on not deliberately thinking about something? Simply, by not making ‘what I am thinking about’ the point of your meditation. This, then, is the technique for doing seated meditation. Seated meditation is a practice and not something for intellectual study. It is the Dharma Gate to peace and joy. It is unstained training to realize the Truth.

Shobogenzo, Zazengi, Hubert Nearman


Hakuin Zenji’s Song of Zazen

All sentient beings are essentially Buddhas. As with water and ice, there is no ice without water; apart from sentient beings, there are no Buddhas. Not knowing how close the truth is. we seek it far away–what a pity!

We are like one who in the midst of water cries out desperately in thirst. We are like the son of a rich man who wandered away among the poor. The reason we transmigrate through the Six Realms is because we are lost in the darkness of ignorance. Going further and further astray in the darkness, how can we ever be free from birth-and-death? As for the Mahayana practice of zazen, there are no words to praise it fully. The Six Paramitas, such as giving, maintaining the precepts, and various other good deeds like invoking the Buddha’s name, repentance, and spiritual training, all finally return to the practice of zazen. Even those who have sat zazen only once will see all karma erased. Nowhere will they find evil paths, and the Pure Land will not be far away. If we listen even once with open heart to this truth, then praise it and gladly embrace it, how much more so then, if on reflecting within ourselves we directly realize Self-nature, giving proof to the truth that Self-nature is no-nature. We will have gone far beyond idle speculation. The gate of the oneness of cause and effect is thereby opened, and not-two, not-three, straight ahead runs the Way. Realizing the form of no-form as form, whether going or returning we cannot be any place else. Realizing the thought of no-thought as thought, whether singing or dancing, we are the voice of the Dharma.

How vast and wide the unobstructed sky of samadhi! How bright and clear the perfect moonlight of the Fourfold Wisdom! At this moment what more need we seek? As the eternal tranquility of Truth reveals itself to us, this very place is the land of Lotuses and this very body is the body of the Buddha.

Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (From Dharmaweb)


Resources For Advanced Study


The Dharma Essentials for Cultivating Stopping and Contemplation

By the Swei Dynasty Shramana Chih-i of T’ien-t’ai Mountain’s Dhyana Cultivation Monastery, Translated by Dharmamitra


On The Meditation of Dharmadh?tu 

By the Huayen Buddhist Master Tu Shun, Garma C. C. Chang


On Zazen (Zen Meditation), Ted Biringer

 [Link to Lesson 1] [Link to Lesson 2] [Link to Lesson 3] [Link to Lesson 4] [Link to Lesson 5] [Link to Lesson 6] [Link to Lesson 7] [Link to Lesson 8] [Lesson 9] [Lesson 10] [Lesson 11] [Lesson 12] [Lesson 13] [Lesson 14]