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alt.zen FAQ

Newsgroups: alt.zen
From: (Daryl)
Subject: FAQ
Date: 26 Apr 1999 03:36:59 GMT

0. What's in this FAQ?
1. What is Zen? (the simple question)
2. What is Zen? (the real question)
3. Why do people post such nonsense to this group?
4. Instructions for the practice of zazen (sitting meditation).
5. Glossary, some terms related to Zen Buddhism briefly defined.
6. On the use of words.
7. Introductory reading list.
8. About this FAQ (editors note).

1. What is Zen? (the simple question)
    Zen is short for Zen Buddhism.  It is sometimes called a religion
and sometimes called a philosophy.  Choose whichever term you prefer;
it simply doesn't matter.
    Historically, Zen Buddhism originates in the teachings of Siddhartha
Gautama.  Around 500 B.C. he was a prince in what is now India.  At
the age of 29, deeply troubled by the suffering he saw around him, he
renounced his privileged life to seek understanding.  After 6 years of
struggling as an ascetic he finally achieved Enlightenment at age 35.
After this he was known as the Buddha (meaning roughly "one who is
awake").  In a nutshell, he realized that everything is subject
to change and that suffering and discontentment are the result of
attachment to circumstances and things which, by their nature, are
impermanent.  By ridding oneself of these attachments, including
attachment to the false notion of self or "I", one can be free of
    The teachings of the Buddha have, to this day, been passed down from
teacher to student.  Around 475 A.D. one of these teachers, Bodhidharma,
traveled from India to China and introduced the teachings of the Buddha
there.  In China Buddhism mingled with Taoism.  The result of this
mingling was the Ch'an School of Buddhism.  Around 1200 A.D. Ch'an
Buddhism spread from China to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and recently around
the world.  It is commonly called Zen Buddhism in English speaking

2. What is Zen? (the real question)
    This question basically asks "What is the essence of Zen?".  It 
appears in various guises throughout Zen literature, from "What is the 
meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" to "Have you eaten 
yet?".  The question cuts right to the heart of the matter and can only 
be answered by you.  Perhaps the best answer is "practice".

3. Why do people post such nonsense to this group?
    One of the central points of Zen is *intuitive* understanding.  As a
result, words and sentences have no fixed meaning, and logic is often 
irrelevant.  Words have meaning only in relation to who is using them, 
who they are talking to, and what situation they are used in.  Some 
postings are indeed nonsense; other postings appear to be nonsense at 
first but this is because the meaning is all between the lines.  Zen 
and poetry have gone hand in hand for centuries.

     This zazen FAQ is based (with modification) on the publication
'Shikantaza: An Introduction to Zazen' published by the Kyoto Soto-Zen
Center.  Some sectarian differences are noted under DIFFICULTIES AND
EXPEDIENTS.  The main text is minimalist in aiming to present what is
most common in as many teaching lines as practicable.

TERMS (for this portion of faq, -see glossary also)

Gassho: (Korean: hapchang) see under HAND POSITIONS.
Hokkaijoin (Cosmic Mudra): see under HAND POSITIONS.
Hondo: (Korean: Poep Dang) a formal hall for rituals and ceremonies.
       The altar is set against a wall in a hondo.
Isshu: see under HAND POSITIONS.
Kinhin: walking zazen.
Rinzai: a Japanese (Chinese: Linji, Korean: Imjeh)
        sect of Zen Buddhism.
Shashu: see under HAND POSITIONS.
Sodo: a formal hall for meditation, meals, and sleeping.
      The altar is in the center of a sodo.
Soto: a Japanese (Chinese: Caodong, Korean: Jodong)
      sect of Zen Buddhism.
Zafu: a small round cushion used as a seat in zazen.
Zabuton: see Zaniku.
Zaniku: a large reactangular flat cushion placed under the zafu which
        cushions the knees.
Zendo: an informal hall for zazen is practice, which may combine
       the function and layout of a sodo and hondo.


In a zendo the altar is placed in either the sodo or hondo position.
Enter the zendo on the left side of the entry, left foot first.
Gassho and bow to the altar.
Walk forward across the room past the altar and go to a seat
turning corners squarely (cross in front of the altar
only during kinhin).
Gassho and bow toward the seat, greeting the people to both sides.
The people on both sides respond to greeting.
Turn clockwise and face front.
Gassho and bow to those directly across room, greeting them.
They respond with a gassho-bow in greeting.
Sit down on the zafu.
Turn clockwise toward the wall. (If in a Soto style zendo,
Rinzai style is to sit facing in from the wall.)
Always turn or move clockwise as viewed from above the zendo.


Gassho is performed  by placing the hands palm to palm slightly in front
of the chest with the arms parallel to the floor.

Shashu is performed by placing the thumbtip of the left hand as close to
the left palm as comfortable and making a fist around it.  Place the
fist in the center of the chest and cover it with the right hand.  Keep
the elbows away from the body with the forearms parallel to the floor.

Isshu is the same as shashu but with the left fist turned thumb side
toward the chest.  Left fist and thumb are parallel to the floor and not
vertical as in shashu.

Hokkaijoin (Cosmic Mudra) is performed in the following manner.  Place
your right hand palm upward in your lap against the lower abdomen.
Place the left hand palm upward on top of the right.  The second joints
of the middle fingers should be touching, and your fingers parallel.
Raise the thumbs up opposite the fingers and touch the thumb tips
lightly together; forming an oval between the thumbs and fingers. The
thumb tips should join at the approximate level of the navel.  In some
Tibetan teaching lines the right hand is placed on top of the left.


Place a thick mat (zaniku or zabuton) in front of the wall and place a
small round cushion (zafu) on it.  Sit on it facing the wall.  There are
several positions for the legs.  If not too cold sit with bare feet.
Leave your wristwatch off.

The cross legged positions provide greatest stability.  To sit in full
lotus, place the right foot on the left thigh and then the left foot on
the right thigh.  To sit in half lotus place your left foot on your
right thigh.  Try to cross the legs firmly so that a stable tripod of
support is provided by the knees and the base of the spine.  The order
of the crossing of the legs may be reversed.  It is also possible to
simply sit on the floor with one foreleg in front of the other or
kneeling using a bench or a cushion.  To sit in a chair, place the feet
flat on the floor and use a cushion to elevate the seat so that the
upper thighs fall away from the body and follow the rest of the
applicable instructions.

Rest the knees firmly on the zaniku, straighten the lower back, push the
buttocks outward and the hips forward, and straighten your spine.  Pull
in your chin and extend the neck as though to support the ceiling.  The
ears and shoulders should be in the same plane with the nose directly
above the navel.  Straighten the back and relax shoulders, back, and
abdomen without changing posture.

Keep the mouth closed placing the tongue with the tip just behind the
front teeth and the rest of the tongue as close to the roof of the mouth
as comfortable.  Keep the eyes at least slightly open cast downward at a
45 degree angle without focusing on anything.  If closed you may slip
into drowsiness or daydreaming.

Rest the hands palm up on the knees and take 2 or 3 deep abdominal
breaths.  Exhale smoothly and slowly with the mouth slightly open by
pulling in on the abdominal wall until all air has been expelled and
inhale by closing the mouth and breathing  naturally.  Hands still on
the knees sway the upper half of the body left to right a few times
without moving the hips.  Sway forward and back.  These swayings are at
first larger and then smaller enabling you to find the point of balance
of  your posture.

Finally, place your hands in Hokkaijoin (Cosmic Mudra, the oval shape
against your abdomen described above under HAND POSITIONS).


Observe breathing during zazen, but do not try to manipulate the rhythm
or depth of the breath.  Breathe gently and silently through the nose
without attempting to control or manipulate the breathing.  Let the
breath come and go naturally so that you forget all about it.  Simply
let long breaths be long and short ones short.  On inhalation the
abdomen expands naturally like a ballon inflating, while on exhalation
simply let it deflate.  There are some additional remarks about

In some Rinzai and Tibetan teaching lines it is recommended that one
feel a sense of strength in the abdomen in breathing, that the exhala-
tion be done in a very slow smooth and gradual way or a very slight
contraction of the anus on exhalation (this should be so slight it may
be more felt as an intention than as a physical contraction) be per-
formed.  Theravada and Soto teachers in general do not recommend this
approach.  Soto especially emphasizes just observing the breath as it
is without trying to improve it in any way. Specifically, Dogen states
that counting the breath and following it are not quite zazen and
recommends avoiding their use.  Some lineages (mostly Rinzai) recommend
a long period of breath counting before simply practicing zazen, others
(mostly Soto) do not. Similarly, some recommend that if you are without
a teacher, only practice breath counting not zazen, others encourage
practice with or without a teacher.


Do not concentrate on any particular object or attempt to control
thoughts, emotions, or any modification of consciousness.  By simply
maintaining proper posture and breathing the mind settles by itself
without fabrication.  When thoughts, feelings, etc. arise, do not get
caught up by them or fight them.  Simply permit any object of mind to
come and go freely.  The essential point is to always strive to wake up
from distraction (thoughts, emotions, images, etc.) or dullness and
drowsiness.  Letting go of any thought is itself thinking non thinking.


Bow in gassho. Place hands on the knees and sway the body slightly and
then more so.  Take a few deep breaths and unfold the legs.  Arise
slowly especially if the legs are asleep and do not stand abruptly.
Return your sitting place to its original condition.  (Plump up the zafu
and brush it off with your hand.)


Place the hands in shashu (or isshu).  Walk clockwise around the room so
that your right shoulder is toward the altar in the center of the zendo.
The posture from waist up is the same as in zazen.  Walk taking a half
step for each full breath, slowly, smoothly, and noiselessly, without
dragging the feet.  Always walk straight ahead and turn to the right.
Rinzai kinhin is often much faster and the pace may vary.  Match your
pace to that of the group.


The art of right awareness may seem difficult and the description given
above is idealized.  If you are finding difficulties invent your own
way.  In zazen we each must find our own way. If you find you are
struggling and need a suggestion as to what to do, it is possible to
follow or count the breath among other things.

Counting the breath may be done on inhalations, exhalations or both
depending on what you find useful.  Count from one to ten and then
simply start over again at one.  Be aware of the count and the breath
and try to maintain continuous awareness of both.  If you find that you
are constantly losing the count, try counting to five.

Following the breath is done by watching the rise with inhalation and
fall with exhalation of the abdomen with each breath.  The abdominal
wall is viewed as a leaf slowly waving in response to the in and out
breaths.  Maintain awareness of the entire posture as much as possible
and watch the breath reach and leave the lower abdomen.

Keizan Zenji recommends settling awareness in the abdomen if bothered by
distracting thoughts and above the eyebrows or at the hairline if
bothered by drowsiness.  Others recommend watching contact of the air
with the nostrils or upper lip if drowsy.  Dogen Zenji mentions only the
palm of the left hand as a point of concentration in difficulties.
Hakuin Zenji also mentions slowly scanning the attention from the top of
the head downward throughout the body, like following a slowly melting
substance as a specific remedy against excess nervousness in zazen.
These are mentioned here only as examples of the expedient devices that
have been adopted by others.  Remember these are only for use in
difficulty, the norm of awareness for zazen is to be awake without
preference to everything in the universe regardless of whether it is
inside or outside the body.  Be awake to everything over and over again,
that is the essential art of zazen.

5. GLOSSARY, some terms related to Zen Buddhism briefly defined
* Unless otherwise noted or obvious the Japanese form is given first.
* The Pinyin romanization of Chinese will be used.
* Ch = Chinese, J = Japanese, K = Korean, P = Pali, Skt = Sanskrit

Ango: (J, K: An-go  or Kyol Che) A period of monastic practice
   and training typically 3 months long in winter or summer.
   Duration may vary depending on location.
Arhat: (Skt, Ch: Lohan, J: Rakan, K: Arahan) One free from the ten
   fetters to freedom. Used both to criticise an individual who
   practices only for self benefit and to praise an accomplished
   adept. In the latter sense, one of the Ten Names of a Buddha.
Avidya: (Skt, P: Avijja) Ignorance although unawareness and
   unconsciousness are also good translations.  Most simply it
   is manifested as attachment to greed, anger, and delusion.
Bodhisattva: (Skt, Ch: Bosa, K: Bosal J: Bosatsu (pron: Bosats)
   a Buddha to be who may be delaying his/her own enlightenment
   to continue a practice benefitting all beings.  As praise it
   is for selfless practice; as criticism, for insufficient
   attention for one's own practice.
Buddha: (Skt, K: Bulta, J:Butsu Ch: Fu) an enlightened one.
Gassho: (K: hapchang) a hand position in which palms are placed
   together vertically in front of the body.
   (See HAND POSITIONS in zazen FAQ.)
Hokkaijoin: Cosmic Mudra the oval hand position used in zazen.
Hondo: (K: Poep Dang) a formal hall for rituals and ceremonies.
   The altar is set against a wall in a hondo.
Isshu: similar to shashu but with a horizontal fist.
   (See HAND POSITIONS in zazen FAQ.)
Karma: (Skt, P: Kamma, K: Up) Literally deed or phenomenon.
   Also short for the the law of karma, or cause and effect.
   Actions have foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences.
Kensho: (J, K: Kyon Songan) experience of seeing into one's own nature.
Kinhin: walking zazen usually practiced between sittings but may
   also be practiced on its own.
Koan: (Ch: kungan, K: Kong-an) literally, a 'public record' pointing
   to realization in a Zen teaching context, usually involving
   Short Example: A monk asked Joshu, 'Does a dog have Buddha nature?'
                  Joshu replied, 'Mu.' (literally: without or lacking)
   Koans may be used discursively or as objects of meditation.
Nirvana: (Skt, P: Nibbana, J: Nehan, K: Yolban) An aspect of the world
   expressed as oneness, stillness, and exhaustion of desires.
Rinzai: a Japanese (Ch: Linji, K: Imjeh) sect of Zen Buddhism.
Samsara: (Skt & P) An aspect of world expressed as differentiation,
   change, becoming, impermanence and desires.
Satori: an experience of enlightenment
Sesshin: Literally to inspect the heart-mind, a period of intense
   practice, typically approximately a week.
Shashu: a hand position with the left fist vertically against the chest
   and covered with the right. (See HAND POSITIONS in zazen FAQ.)
Sodo: a formal hall for meditation, meals, and sleeping.
   The altar is in the center of a sodo.
Soto: a Japanese (Ch: Caodong, K: Jodong) sect of Zen Buddhism.
Sutra: (Skt; P: Sutta, K:Kyong-jon, J:Kyo) The teaching discourses
   of the Buddhist canon, most are presented as the words of the
   historic Buddha.
Tathata: (Skt) Thusness, the as-it-is-ness of the world.
Tathagatha: (Skt) The thus-come-thus-gone one, an epithet of the Buddha.
Ten Fetters: (Skt: Samyojanas) Illusion of an ego, skepticism,
   belief in magic as solving the problem of life, sensory delusion,
   ill-will, desire for formed existence, desire for formless
   existence, arrogance, restlessness, and ignorance of the true
   nature of reality.
Wato: (K: Hwadu, Ch: Huatou) the head word of a koan,
   in the example under koan 'Mu'.
Yongmaeng Chongjin: (K) intensive retreat (more literally,
   "fearless practice").
Zafu: a small round cushion used as a seat in zazen.
Zabuton: see Zaniku.
Zaniku: a large rectangular flat cushion placed under the zafu which
   cushions the knees.
Zazen: (J; Ch: Zuochan, K: Jwa Son) Sitting meditation.
Zen: (K: Son; Ch: Chan; Skt: Dhyana; P: Jhana; Vietnamese: Thien)
Zendo: (K: Sonbang) an informal hall for zazen is practice, which
   may combine the function and layout of a sodo and hondo.

  "Bodhisattavas never engage in conversations whose 
   resolutions depend on words and logic."

    These words, attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha 2,500 years ago, embody
the attitude Zen has towards the use of words.  Truth and Meaning have
existence beyond and independent of words.  Words may or may not contain
truth.  Ultimately the awakening to our fundamental enlightened mind, is
beyond descriptions possible in words.  Words are convienient tools or
sounds limited by the both the nature of sound itself, and the minds of
both speaker and listener.
    Ever try explaining how a certain food tastes to someone who's 
never tasted that particular food before? When you were finished did you 
think they really knew the taste?  Could they honestly, just from your
description, say they've tasted it?
    No they couldn't.  But you could, through the use of language,
build motivation in the person to taste the food for themselves (at 
which point they they'd probably be more than happy to tell you how
your description was lacking!)
    In that exact same way, Zen Masters use words only to coax, prod,
push, or drag a person to enlightenment, both as an experience and a way
of life. Zen has little use for words which don't precipitate or point
to, Awakening.  Even logic must take a far, far, second place to the all
important task of a personal realization of the unborn, undying, pure 
wisdom source which is the birthright of every human.
    For more specific and philosophical discussion on the use of words 
refer to the Surangama and Lankavatara Sutras.  You can find both these 
sutras in "A Buddhist Bible" (the first book on the reading list).

    The following short list of books is meant to help the beginner
gain, not only a philosophical understanding of Zen, but also, at least,
an intellectual understanding of why the practice of Zazen is the 
primary practice of Zen.  There are many other good books available, so 
many that space on this FAQ does not permit anything close to a 
comprehensive list.  Instead we give this short list which covers most
fundamental aspects of Zen, Zen practice, and Zen Buddhism.  Most of the
writers in this list have written more than one book, so if you like
your first taste of a particular author, you are encouraged to pick up
other titles by the same author.  There are also many other wonderful
writers and books on this subject, this list is INTRODUCTORY ONLY.  You
are encouraged to use your intuition when selecting material to read
(or not).
    May these books be the starting point of your own path to Awakening.


"A Buddhist Bible" Edited by Dwight Goddard:
    This is the classic work which began many of the beatnik Zen
practioners of the sixties (including Jack Kerouac) on the path.  There
are certain books which are considered gateway books, that is to say,
books that introduce whole generations of people to Zen and this is one 
of them.  Even if you would like to practice Zen without being a
Buddhist, it is important to understand the practical and philosohical
ties between the two. This book serves this purpose well, while keeping 
a Zen slant.  In addition to the two sutras mentioned earlier, this book 
also has translations of the Diamond Sutra, Dao De King (more popularly 
known as Tao Te Ching), the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Zen Patriarch
(See NOTE) the Awakening of Faith Shastra, solid fundamantal discussions
of the historical Buddha and his teachings.  The latest reprint has a
foreward by Aitken Roshi.
    NOTE:  This particualar translation of the Sixth Patriarch's 
Platform Sutra is worded in a way which might be easier understood by
reading other translations.

"Buddhism; A Way of Thought and Life" By Nancy Ross Wilson.
    A simple, clear, accurate overview of the Buddha's teachings,
with chapters specifically on Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism.


"The Three Pillars of Zen" By Roshi Phillip Kapleau:
    Another gateway book. This book covers Zazen practice, common 
questions and problems, and the enlightnment experience.  Written by 
an American who studied in Japan for 15 years, this is a classic work
by a modern western master.

"Zen Mind, Beginners Mind" By Shunryu Suzuki:
    This book covers Zen practice with especially good comments on
bringing practice from the sitting experience into each minute of our 
lives.  It is written in a simple style which still manages to convey
the deeper meanings of Zen and its practice.

"Questions to a Zen Master" By Taisen Deshimaru:
    Except for the excellent chapter on Zazen (Soto style) this book 
shows many basic religious and philosphical implications of Zen.  With 
a heavy taste of the "just sitting" Soto Zen style, Master Deshimaru 
covers frontiers of the mind in an easy reading style that maintains 
the integrity of Truth.

"Every Day Zen"  By Charlotte Joko Beck:
    Another American Master, Beck, speaks in a way easily understandble
to the western mind, with especially good advice on sitting practice and
relations between people, along with some insightful comments on what
Zen history means.

"Dropping Ashes on the Buddha"  By Sueng Sahn:
    This book by the Korean Master is written in a question and answer
style.  It covers main points on practice, finding a teacher (and why
you should bother), and basic koan practice.  Also shows excellent
exchanges between master and student.

"Taking the Path"  By Robert Aitken.
    Written in a no nonsense western style, this book is another
gateway book.  Aitken Roshi has knack for making esoteric or difficult
concepts, easier for those unfamiliar with Zen or those whose practice
is just starting.  Aitken Roshi is an American master who heads the 
Diamond Sangha in Hawaii.

"The Miracle of Mindfulness"  By Thich Nhat Hahn.
    This Vietnamese Zen Master has had intimate contact with the
west since the 60's when he campaigned for peace during the war (in
spite of opposition from both U.S. and North Vietnamese, Governments).
His life has been exemplary and his skill as an essayist is only
rivaled by his ability to bring Zen intimately into our daily lives.

8. About this FAQ (editors note)

This FAQ is a compilation of efforts by some denizens of alt.zen.  It
is intended to provide what a FAQ might be expected to provide, some
answers to some frequently asked questions.  The answers are by no
means comprehensive, nor do they represent the full range of
possible answers.  Take them for what they are; possible starting
points, handy references, or, at the very least, the opinions of a
small handful of alt.zennites.

Modification, June 26 1997:  References to energy yogas removed.


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