My favorite version of Zen meditation instruction is,
“Sit down, shut up, and face the wall.”
I love it! Unfortunately, I frequently give meditation instruction to my sangha in Bozeman, and people do not want to hear that short version. So I go on for 20 minutes or so saying the same thing in a more drawn out, touchy-feely kind of way.
But really, just sitting and facing the wall is most important. I think Zen has a long history of what in the 70s we called ‘experiential education’. Apparently in Japan if you show up at a Zen temple, you get no instruction, just shown to a zafu (and that after several days sitting outside waiting for admittance if you are going to be a monastic).
But here in Bozeman I try to make people feel comfortable sitting. For one thing, most of us just aren’t good at sitting on the floor and lack of floor-sitting experience (compared to Japan) can create a crisis of the joints. Earlier in the western convert tradition of Zen meditation (aka the 60s) people would plop down and if they were next to someone sitting in full lotus, they would often crank their feet up into the same position. You can sometimes get away with this sort of thing if you’re in your 20s. But not always, and a few knees were destroyed along the way.
Now I spend time letting people know they can always sit in a chair (I was in one not so long ago after ankle surgery) and then there are seiza benches, and sitting Burmese style. At the end I throw in a little bit about breath counting. When I have received meditation instruction that has seemed to be the way – a lot of information on actual sitting posture and not much on what to do with your mind. The mind part will come, or perhaps the questions regarding what the mind is doing will lead people back to the sangha.
Sitting a lot by yourself is fine. I’ve met people (mostly here in Montana) who have sat regularly for years with no group (sangha) or teacher. But those folks are few and far between. For most of us, the issues of what our mind is doing will eventually become so thorny that more experienced practitioners along the way will come in darn handy to answer our questions. Without a group, people often stop sitting.
For more complete and better instruction than mine there are a couple of recent blog posts by Americans who have ended up practicing for a long time in Japan. One by Koun Franz, and another by Jundo Cohen.
And then of course, there is always the incomparable Eihei Dogen. The quote below comes from the Fukanazazengi “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen” (Hint: In Japan dragons are considered water spirits).
“The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease. It is the practice-realization of complete enlightenment. Realize the fundamental point free from the binding of nets and baskets. Once you experience it, you are like a dragon swimming in the water or a tiger reposing in the mountains. Know that the true dharma emerges of itself, clearing away hindrances and distractions.”