Saturday, February 4, 2012

Half lotus land

There's a story about an old monk with a withered leg who couldn't sit in what's traditionally seen as the ideal position for meditation, with legs crossed and both feet on the top of the opposite thigh (a posture called 'full lotus').  On his one hundredth birthday he came into the meditation hall, sat down on his cushion, looked at his leg and declared, 'All my life I have been at your service.  Now, for once, you will be at mine!'  With that, with a quick and determined heave, he pulled his crippled limb up, breaking it off, reaching enlightenment, and dying all at the same time.  Robert Aitken has a characteristically laconic comment on this, advising the newcomer to Zen not to attempt such an energetic practice, at least not until they are ready to die.

A lot of books on Zen still state that full lotus is the ideal position for meditation, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who could demonstrate it for you.  I saw one of my friends at school doing it once outside of the hall we were about to go in to do some important exams (and afterwards he went to Cambridge to study medicine, so it must have done the trick).  I saw somebody do it next to me at San Francisco Zen Center the other week.  And that's about all the people I've ever seen actually sit full lotus in any of the half-dozen or so meditation groups I've been a part of over the years.  There was one other guy doing it in the group I sat with in Oxford, and the teacher looked at him and said, 'Wow, I've only ever seen one other person who could sit full lotus before'.

But there are many people who say that you can get to full lotus eventually with a little application; okay, a lot of application.  The Dutchman Janwillem van de Wetering, who lived at a Zen monastery in Japan for a year in the early 1970s, tells of being forced to sit in full lotus for as many as fifteen hours a day.  They say that after a few months of that kind of practice, anyone can sit in full lotus pretty comfortably.  There are people who even see the excruciating pain caused by sitting - or trying to sit - in full lotus as a key part of the Zen practice of achieving detachment from your mental states and observing them with something approaching objectivity.  I've seen quotations from medical scientists appealing to the 'training' the posture offers to explain the success experienced meditators have in controlling pain or their reactions to it.

If you come to meditation as a Westerner, especially if you start out practising in either the secular or vipassana styles, it's likely your teacher will encourage you above all to be comfortable, giving you the choice of sitting on a cushion, on a chair, or even lying down.  This is actually in line with Buddhist tradition, in which there are four classical poses for meditation - sitting, standing, lying, and walking.  (I've tried all of these except for standing, though it sounds like a good approach.)  If you don't believe me, just consider any of the millions of depictions of Siddartha Gautama meditating lying on his side, for example the colossal statue at the Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.  All the Zen places I've been to, and the Tibetan temple in London I once frequented, alternate longer periods of sitting with shorter bouts of walking, usually in a line, slowly (though the Rinzai sect people like to race around).

One of the things I like most about my main Wind in Grass group is that we're always told, and always tell newcomers, to meditate in whatever position makes us feel most comfortable.  Most people seem to go for seiza, kneeling, either with their bum on a cushion and their legs to each side of it, or with their calves on the floor and their bum on a small bench.  This freedom is also extended on Pacific Zen Institute retreats, where you do see a lot of people sitting in half lotus (an easier version of full lotus, where only one of your feet is up on the opposite leg), but where an equal number of people sit on chairs.  One of them is the teacher David Weinstein, whom I've never seen meditating in any other position than seated on a chair.  Once when I was complaining of back pain David sympathetically told me about another student he'd had who had such serious spinal trouble that he used to meditate stretched out flat on his back or on his stomach.

But though the trend seems to be towards a more generous conception of how your limbs might be arranged when you meditate, there are signs of a holdout in some quarters, or maybe even a backlash.  Brad Warner, the onetime punk rocker who is now a Zen priest, is hardly the type of guy who stands on formalities.  And yet he's repeatedly insisted that 'sitting in chairs is not zazen' (that is, Zen meditation).  His reasoning is that zazen is at least partly a physical practice, like a yoga posture; doing zazen in a chair is like trying to do downward-facing dog standing up.  People who really need to sit in chairs because of spinal issues should be allowed to do so, but most of us don't really need to sit in chairs for that kind of reason.  We should keep pushing ourselves just a little bit, because getting used to discomfort is one of the main things we are doing when we engage in Zen training.

I don't want to add to the comments below Brad's post by people who've been encouraged to sit zazen and who've hurt themselves as a result.  But I do wonder whether physical posture defines zazen in the same way as it defines downward-facing dog; after all the yoga asanas are called postures, while zazen is a word for meditation.  Siddartha Gautama and hundreds of other masters after him seem to have done just fine meditating without their crossed legs reminding them of the first noble truth.  If pain and suffering are a part of life, it seems rather obnoxious to seek them out ourselves, as if we didn't have what's in our heads to keep pushing us towards endurance every second.  And what happens when we greet moments of awakening in everyday life?  Do we have to take up half-lotus in the restaurant?

I myself can't meditate in a chair for more than five minutes without falling asleep, even if there are people stomping about offering to whack me with sticks.  For some reason I can't even discipline myself not to let my back touch the back-rest, which is when the slumber comes.  I like half lotus, and find it most comfortable when my foot isn't all the way at the top of the opposite thigh, but just resting over the opposite foot.  But for some reason I do try to sit full half lotus, and have a vague ambition to one day sit full full lotus.  I could fuck up my back, like my friend Dan, who now sits in a chair with straps to help him stay upright.  I do have pain in my lower right back and near the right groin, but that may have as much to do with working on an archaeological site this summer than with Zen Buddhism.  But I go on sitting that way, and also practising meditation in the running, working, eating, meditating, playing squash, and watching a play positions.  I heartily recommend them all.


  1. My co-T meditates by facing Buddha with her hands together in front of her then she gets down on her hands and knees with her forehead on the floor in a full bow then she stands up again and repeats the whole process, over and over and over. For hours. There's also some sort of breathing technique she does so she doesn't get out of breath as easily as "normal" people.
    ps. She loved that book you sent me. xo

    1. I don't know exactly what she's up to but when I was in Thailand I was encouraged to do that kind of prostration to the main statue of the Buddha every time I entered a temple. In Zen you traditionally prostrate yourself like that in front of the teacher, and the teacher also does it in front of the Buddha statue. But doing it repeatedly for hours must mean it approaches some form of meditation, the way prostrations do in some Tibetan practices.

    2. I'm glad you like the book. I wonder how well-known Seung Sahn's teachings are in contemporary South Korea, since they've been so influential in America. He seems to be held in very high esteem here still, partly because of prominent students like Joan Halifax, a Zen teacher and medical anthropologist. Unfortunately, he turns out to have been another teacher with a few sexual indiscretions on his record, but he also seems to have taken full responsibility for them.

  2. I should add something to this post I didn't get time to write into it the first time round. I'm still trying to sit in half lotus when I can because when I'm in half lotus with a relatively upright back, I don't slouch, and so I'm ultimately in less pain. But I want to make clear that though sitting through discomfort of one sort or another is an essential part of meditation, if you're in pain you should change your posture, and if the pain is longlasting you should seek out a doctor. Only work with that kind of pain if you've had a previous diagnosis of chronic pain - otherwise you might be doing yourself harm. Jason Newland (, who offers a series of free online guided meditations for pain and other conditions, makes clear at the beginning of every recording that you should check things out with a doctor before having recourse to meditation. That's really the only sensible approach.