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Some Southern Zen

Sitting in Lotus

© Nanabozho (Gichi Wabush)
This page updated 15 november 2006

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[If you should wish, you may skip this introduction, and go directly to the other headings by clicking on the links below.]

Introduction: my personal approach

For years, from 1973 on, Buddhism, and especially Zen, were for me nothing but the object of intellectual study. I was attracted to Buddhism, and my parents library offered some occasions to inform myself about it, but, at the same time, I found there a constraint that I refused to apply to myself, not to mention the simple lack of correct explanations, which led me to understand something somewhat nihilistic. Those waverings nevertheless allowed me to get a good -- nothing more -- general culture about Buddhism.

Among those books, a life of Milarepa, lives of Zen Masters, a life of the Buddha, and then, along the various occasions and reading suggestions, Alan Watts, and especially the famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. I should mention by the way that the latter was the only one to mention the need for the sitting practice. Alan Watts, held it to be useless. It is following my reading of Sakaguchi Hisachi's Manga Ikkyu, a romanced biography of the famous Zen monk of the 14th century, that the idea forced itself upon me that I had to practice zazen.

Zen, introduced in France by Taisen Deshimaru starting with the sixties, was well represented all around. I was therefore quite natural for me to go at the local dojo in order to start this practice. Unfortunately, it seems that the premature decease of Master Deshimaru, in 1982, didn't allow for a correction of some incoherences within the association that he founded, which led to enormous lacks in the teachings and counsel to the students. Discussing and exchanging between the students being strongly discouraged, in favour of an exclusivity of the teacher, seem to have entailed that practice in that association is limited to sitting and nothing more.

One day, when I went to my first sesshin(the intensive practice retreats of zazen) I asked the responsible if he knew any method for easing the pain I had in my knees. What I asked, what I wished, lies within the pages that follow. Instead of answering that simple question, I was allowed a  low grade platitude that the pain in my knees is my ego ! Although that answer found in me some meaning, I couldn't refrain from wondering at the lack of compassion and intelligence of the teacher on that point, and I couldn't recommend too strongly to those who'd wish to start practicing meditation to remain attentive to this. Indeed, I later learned that many have suffered lasting damage to their knee joints, due to a lack of limbering up. Nothing is worth that one should remain handicapped, especially since, too often, that keeps one once and for all away from the sitting practice, sometimes after decades of assiduous practice.

What's more, it also seems that the practice of zazen without body litheness, and without the study of the texts, can bring about some stiffnesses, not merely physical, but also mental, and bring about a "drying up" of the person, who'll become mean, hard, snarling and even rude, in short, the total opposite of what one might expect from a Buddhist practice. With this surprising conclusion that hundreds, and maybe thousands believe they have been practicing zazen for years, whereas they have been merely giving that name to a practice that has nothing whatsoever to do with zazen.

Such disillusions brought me to searching on the Internet, looking for new and alternate sources, among which Nishijima Roshi's site, after what I became Nishijima's disciple. Among other Zen Buddhist sites, I also found that of the Albuquerque Zen Center, in the USA, which included, among various descriptions of a Zen monk's life, a reproduction of an old extract from a yoga magazine. Since the pictures were not very legible nor very clear, being scans of printed black and white pictures, I decided to substitute them with pictures of my own.

Besides, after a Buddhist teacher colleague's suggestion, I have been practicing on a very regular basis the sûrya namaskar, the "sun salutations. That exercise is excellent for limbering up a ageing organism, quite stiff after a night of immobility, and for maintaining a young one toned. It allows for a warming up of the muscles before executing the yoga exercises that follow, which is why I added a diagram of explanation for those who should be interested.

At the age of twenty-five, I was extremely stiff. At that of thirty, I could barely touch my knees with my hands while keeping my legs straight. At nearly fifty, one can imagine it had not got better in any way. When I started practicing Zazen, that proved a bit of a disadvantage, and I thought to myself that it wasn't going to get better by itself. Since the nearly ten years that I have been practicing those exercises, they have allowed a progressive lithening of my joints, and, nearing the age of sixty, I find that I do benefit of a greater flexibility than in my youth, I feel physically better in my everyday life, and much more at ease while sitting Zazen.

I hope those exercises may do as much for you. Suppler in body shall help you being suppler in mind, and those are great steps on the Path to Liberation. Which is why I have also added an excellent text by Eric Rommeluère on this subject, bearing mostly upon pain and its "management", and which is definitely complementary with what follows.


Follows: Limbering up exercises: the Sun Salutations

Growing up a Lotus: how to avoid damaging one's knees

The Practice of Zazen

Namo Dharmaya
Michel Yûdô Proulx, 15 September 2006

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