A couple of stories:
1. Once upon a time in China it was the custom for those who had lost a loved one to hire professional mourners. These women would gather at the grave site together with friends and family. They would keen and wail in the most convincing way. With their help, those stricken by loss could finally allow their own grief to appear.
2. At a meeting with American students, a teacher was once asked: "Sometimes I feel so stupid when I am meditating. I just feel like a schmuck." The teacher replied, "You are either a Buddha or a schmuck. There is no in-between."
The practice of zazen can feel pretty awkward at first, just like any other endeavor. Wash up, sit cross-legged on a cushion, erect the spine, be silent, be still, and count or watch the breath. The schmuck mind may ask, "How is this going to solve anything?" And the Buddha mind may answer, "I have no idea!" Knees ache, mind wanders. Over and over again, the student returns to practice amid endless interruptions. It takes courage and patience and doubt.
This is precisely the world Shakyamuni Buddha entered. Some may think that in other times, students were different, that they were somehow tougher, more dedicated, less plagued with doubt, more compassionate and clear-eyed. But this is not true. Times are no different. It is the same now as it was then: to find peace in your life requires attention. To find peace in your life requires responsibility. To find peace in your life requires seeing into the nature of all things. Times are no different: The great teachers of past, present, and future are all around us.
So here is a small hope that we will all realize the peace and joy that are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. Times are no different. Schmucks and Buddhas. Those who pretend to weep and those who weep. We are fortunate to have been provided with the tools to actualize a peaceful life. We are more fortunate still if we use them.
To do zazen, it is necessary to find a time and place. Both should be as uncluttered as possible. Wash up. Make sure the space used is neat and clean as well. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. If you like, set up an altar with a statue, a cup of water in front of it and an incense burner in front of the water. Light a candle if you like. An altar is not necessary. If you prefer, simply sit down on your cushion between three and six feet from an empty wall.
A zafu, or round cushion, is often used for zazen. If you use one, put the sitting bones on the front third of the cushion. Find a posture ‚ kneeling, full-lotus, half-lotus, quarter-lotus ‚ that you can hold for the period you plan to sit. If there is some physical infirmity that does not allow you to sit on the zafu, sit in a chair. Again, sit on the sitting bones, spine erect.
Once seated, place the back of the left hand on top of the right palm so that the middle knuckles of the middle fingers touch. Let the thumbs then touch each other lightly. In this way, the thumbs will form an oval. Place both hands against the belly, about two inches below the navel. Technically, the nose will be in line with the navel and the shoulders will be aligned with the hips. To the best of your ability, make sure your knees are touching the ground. This will give your posture stability.
Having created your posture, rock back and forth gently two or three times to make sure you are sitting on the sitting bones in your behind. Take three or four quiet, deep breaths.
Once settled, begin your practice. For those starting out, it is probably best to count the breath. This means to count in your mind ‚ one to ten and begin again ‚ on each exhalation. In your mind, perhaps it sounds a little like, "o-n-n-n-n-n-e, t-w-o-o-o, t-h-r-e-e-e, etc." One to ten and begin again. If there is an interruption ‚ some thought that is other than your counting ‚ just begin again. If you space out and find yourself at 27, then catch yourself, just begin again. Always, just begin again.
The most important part of practice is to keep your promise. If you say, "I will do zazen for ten minutes on Tuesday starting at 6:34 p.m.," then honor your promise. If for some reason you cannot keep your promise, admit it. Zen practice is primarily about paying attention and taking responsibility. So ... pay attention and take responsibility.