Zen And the Art of Standing
As a student of both the Dharma and the internal arts, I must preface everything to come with a brief disclaimer. This article represents my beginners (always beginning) understanding of both Zen and Baguazhang/Xingyiquan. Any misunderstandings are my own and not the fault of my teachers or the lineage of teachers.
Bodhidharma is considered the founder of the Chan lineage in China which became the Zen lineage in Japan. Zen or Chan are transliterations of the Sanskrit word dhyāna (jhana in Pāli), which can be taken to mean meditation or concentration, and the primary practice of the various schools of Zen is zazen, seated meditation.
At Zen Mountain Monastery, the residential training monastery that is my spiritual home, this takes the form of thirty-five minute sitting periods with five minutes of kinhin, walking meditation, in between sitting periods. On an average day, the residents there will sit two periods in the morning and two periods in the evening, with an additional period in the afternoon during the three-month intensive training periods. During a sesshin, the week-long silent retreat held each month, there may be twelve sitting periods during the day with additional sitting during formal ōryōki meals and talks by teachers and senior students.
The instructions for sitting are the first thing someone receives when they’re new to zazen. Take a seated posture – this could be cross-legged in full-lotus, half-lotus, or Burmese with one ankle resting on the other foot; it could be kneeling in seiza or on a bench; or it could be seated in a chair. Let your sit bones and knees or shins be heavy to ground yourself and create a stable base (or the soles of your feet if sitting in a chair), while relaxing your legs and hips. Let your spine be long and tall creating space in your center and ribs. Let your shoulders relax. Let your neck extend through the crown of your head. Tuck your chin slightly and touch the tongue to the roof of the mouth. The eyes are open and the gaze lowered (like looking at a point a few feet in front of you while the head remains upright).
If you’re reading these instructions and it’s sounding a lot like zhàn zhuāng (post standing), that’s because similar principles are at work.
Place your right hand at dantien, resting on your lap palm up. Rest the back of your left hand on your left palm and touch your thumbs, forming a circle with your thumbs and hands. This is zazen mudra. A mudra is a hand-posture intended to create an energetic effect. For example, the sword hand of martial arts is also known as prana mudra.
In the beginning, the practice is developing concentration by attending to the breath. Count each inhale and each exhale without forcing the breath to be anything; let a long breath be a long breath, let a short breath be a short breath. Let the whole body breathe through every cell and every pore. Count ten breaths (an inhale and exhale are considered two separate breaths at this point) and start counting again at one. If you notice you’re attention has wandered from the breath to thoughts, sensations or feelings, gently come back to the breath and start again at one, allowing the thoughts, sensations or feelings to dissipate on their own. If the thought, sensation, or feeling is not easily dissipating, attention may need to shift in order to let it go and return to the breath. Whatever arises, be still. Allow it all to come and go; shifting the body can be a form of escape from whatever is present, just as much as a mental narrative can be a form of escape. When it becomes easy to maintain concentration like this, count each full inhale-exhale cycle as one breath and continue to ten as before until this becomes easy. Eventually, when this becomes easy, let go of counting and experience the breath directly and intimately.
In baguazhang’s ball-holding posture, you are standing not sitting and your arms are raised in front of you without the hands touching, yet similar energetic dynamics are at play. In xingyiquan’s standing san ti shi, similar principles are also present, even though the posture is more active. Everything must be relaxed yet maintaining structure. Awareness is both internal and external. Ball-holding posture’s round arms or the three roundings of san ti shi create a horizontal circling. The straightness of the spine creates a vertical circling. The active yang of the legs sinks into the yin of the earth. The receptive yin of the torso, of the dantien, of the opening heart, opens to the yang of the heavens. Zen master Linji spoke of the true person having nothing to do and nowhere to go. This is true in zazen, this is true in standing. Completely engaged in the posture from marrow to skin to posture to the space you are in, observe the goings on of body and mind. See where there is restriction, tightness, congestion; see where there is exuberance and excessive movement. Allow them both to settle into a fluid stillness.
Concentration has a dual meaning. There is the aspect of focus and bringing attention to something. There is the aspect of gathering and accumulating. We bring attention to the breath at first, becoming finer-grained with practice, turning inward to subtler states of bodymind and expanding outward to the world. We gather energy internally to support and develop external activity. In both zazen and zhàn zhuāng, these aspects are at play. One requires the other, neither can be left out.
When a musician asked the Buddha for meditation instruction, this was their exchange:
“What happens when you tune your instrument too tightly?” the Buddha asked.
“The strings break,” the musician replied.
“And what happens when you string it too loosely?”
“When it’s too loose, no sound comes out,” the musician answered. “The string that produces a tuneful sound is not too tight and not too loose.”
“That,” said the Buddha, “is how to practice: not too tight and not too loose.”
Can you find not too tight and not too loose as you stand each day?
Can you allow the posture to be the experience of just this, not adding or taking away?
Can you embody the posture with ease and joy?
Miryam Gillian Jikai Kriger is a Zen student of Geoffery Shugen Arnold Roshi at Zen Mountain Monastery and a baguazhang and xingyiquan student of Tom Bisio. They live among the mountains and waters of the Catskills.