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In the lessons in this module you learn the hows and whys of sitting Zazen.

Positioning your body

To begin with, you will learn how to sit — how to arrange your legs, adjust your spine, place your hands, and direct your gaze. It’s important to be quite careful about following these guidelines, not because they are rules and not because they will make you a good meditator, but because they support you. It's like laying the foundation for a building—if the foundation is not level and properly lined up, the whole structure will be shaky.

So even if you have a little trouble getting the position right, be patient and careful with yourself, so that you can get settled into a good posture for sitting.

The sitting instructions you receive in a Soto Zen center today are remarkably similar to the instructions Dogen Zenji offered eight hundred years ago. [Read]

This is not to suggest we blindly follow ancient traditions. Rather we’re doing something that has been field-tested for many centuries.

When sitting in zazen a number of positions or postures are possible. From these you can choose that which currently works best for you.


Although is it is possible and quite acceptable to sit on a chair, we will first explore the classic postures for sitting on the floor. Whichever sitting posture you use, it is important to sit on a cushion (zafu). Raising your buttocks off the floor helps you rest your knees on the ground. With your buttocks on the cushion and your knees on the ground, you’re forming a tripod base which provides stability, as well as helping maintain a straight back and low center of gravity.

You may want to place the zafu on a mat (zabuton) or folded blankets — something to cushion your legs, feet and ankles.

The Lotus position

In classic Buddhist meditation the recommended position is the lotus position. Place your right foot on your left thigh, and the left foot on the right, making sure your heels are drawn up as close to your abdomen as possible.

I mention this posture first because it offers the firmest support for the spine and thus helps you sit in an upright posture for extended periods of meditation with minimal effort. Sitting in the lotus position, you’ll find it less necessary to make corrections to your position, thus aiding concentration.

Don’t force yourself into a painful posture.

That said, it’s quite possible that you may find this position uncomfortable or downright impossible, unless you are unusually flexible and supple or have been practicing yoga for a long time. Don’t force yourself into a painful posture. Remember that most of us have grown up sitting in chairs not on the ground. If tightness of your leg muscles causes severe pain, start with another position. If you practice steadily, you may loosen up considerably over time and may want to return to trying full lotus. Or not.

A general rule about pain: Do it if you feel only mild discomfort, but don't do it if you feel severe pain. (We explore pain in Lesson 14.)

Because full lotus is so difficult for most of us, there are alternative sitting positions.

The half lotus position

Because the half lotus puts less pressure on your knees and legs., you’ll find it easier than the full lotus. Place the left foot on the right thigh but fold the right leg under the left thigh, resting it on the floor (or the zabuton). In this position the right hand rests upon the heel of the left foot, which forms a natural support for the left hand, which rests palm up.

While sitting in the half lotus position does meet the basic requirements of forming a tripod with our buttocks at one point and our knees the other two, you aren’t as balanced as in the full-lotus, so there’s a tendency for your body to tilt slightly to one side, which you must then compensate for when you get into the position.

It’s useful to be aware of the ways that the half lotus doesn’t provide the stability of the full lotus so that you can make the necessary adjustments. Your left knee may tend to rise into the air, which you can compensate for trying a higher zafu so that both knees rest solidly upon the floor or zabuton. As you sit in this postiion, it is important to tilt your pelvis so that the top of the pelvis is slanted forward and the base of the pelvis is slanted toward the rear. This will support your spine.

The Burmese position

In the Burmese position, which is the easlest of the crossed-leg positions, place the left leg in front of the right leg, with both feet resting on the zabuton. In this position the tripod base is wider, with the knees are just about shoulder-width.

Remember the importance of both knees resting on the zabuton for stability. The farther you get from full lotus, the higher the zafu you may need; you can even try putting one zafu on top of another for greater height if necessary. If your knees don’t rest comfortably on the ground, you can try placing support cushions under your knees. Also you can try sitting on the forward third of the cushion, which will distribute your weight onto the knees and buttocks.

The Burmese position is a good position for beginners as it’s easier to get into and easier on the legs. Be aware, however, that by providing the least support for your pelvis and spine, it tends to be most tiring to the back over a long period of time. So be more careful with your pelvis, and be alert for the first signs that your posture is beginning to slump — feelings of tension or stiffness in the back — so that you can correct it.

With practice over time (and with some exercise to help) you will become more flexible and your body will adjust.