Yesterday I woke up early and headed over to the San Francisco Zen Center to attend their free introductory zazen class. This class is open to the public and happens every Saturday morning. No sign-up is necessary and they allow late walk-ins (although this may depend on the teacher). After the class I stayed for the Dharma talk, which was led by Ed Sattizahn.
This was my first visit to any Zen center, so I had no idea what to expect. When I stepped inside the center I was greeted by a man in robes. He bowed and I politely told him I was here for the intro class (I spoke as if I had just entered a library). He pointed me towards the hall and asked me to take my shoes off before entering. I asked him where to place my shoes, and he told me in a joking manner that they put shoes just about anywhere.
I entered the main hall (known as Buddha Hall) and on the floor were several zafus (cushions for meditation). I took one and sat down. Shortly after, another man in robes entered and introduced himself. Actually, the man never gave his name so I’ll just refer to him as John from now on. While most of the students participating sat on zafus, a few sat on regular chairs towards the rear of the hall. John later explained that practicing zazen on a chair is perfectly acceptable.
First of all, I was caught off guard by John’s casual manner of speaking (similar to the first man I spoke to joking about the shoes). He was wearing robes and sitting on a zafu, but he spoke like any regular guy in San Francisco. He explained how visitors to the Zen center are often afraid of doing something wrong or disturbing one of the monks wearing robes. He said this is probably due to the various forms of rituals done around the Zen center. However, the monks, he said, are quite friendly and have no problem talking with visitors (even though they may look serious), and the rituals themselves are only a standard. He explained that while rituals are followed (such as bowing), Zen is a personal practice and people respect whatever personal form you’ve developed. Basically he told us there’s no wrong way to practice Zen and no one at the Zen center will judge you for doing things your own way.
Before starting zazen, it is custom in Sōtō Zen to bow. One bows towards the zafu, then turns around to bow once more away from the zafu. Bowing, from what I understand, is basically a way to show respect to others in the zendo who are also practicing zazen. When bowing, others facing you will bow in return.
Bowing is done in gassho style, meaning hands are held together towards the chin. The body is tilted at a 45 degree angle. This is the same bow that the first man in the lobby did when greeting myself.
So, why should we follow the ritual of bowing? John told us it’s simply a way to prepare our mind for zazen – like a routine. This is just to clear our mind and set the tone before practicing.
John explained that the zazen technique followed in Sōtō Zen was recorded by Eihei Dōgen in Fukanzazengi. Dōgen is the founder of the Sōtō school (Sōtō originated in China and was brought to Japan by Dōgen). We were taught all of the different ways to sit zazen (Lotus, Burmese, seiza, or simply in a chair). We were also told that there’s no better way to sit – whichever is more comfortable.
Here’s an excerpt of Dōgen’s description of zazen from Fukanzazengi:
Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.
In short, keep a straight back, don’t lurch forward, and place your tongue on the roof of the mouth to prevent over-salivating. Also – the eyes are kept open.
When sitting, the hands are held in what’s commonly known as “cosmic mudrā.” I believe this technique, or at least the term, was popularized by Shunryu Suzuki who founded SF Zen Center. The left hand is placed on top of the right, while the thumbs are barely touching one another. Touching the thumbs lightly together is done to prevent the mind from wandering. When the mind drifts you may notice that the thumbs have come apart, or maybe you’re pressing them too hard. This is simply a mechanism to keep the mind in check.
We were taught two zazen techniques: counting breaths and Shikantaza.
Counting breaths is simple: count one on inhale, count one on exhale. Count two on inhale, count two on exhale. Repeat until reaching ten. If distracted or lost count, simply start at one.
John told us that most people count breaths for a few years before moving on to Shikantaza. I’m not sure if he was trying to be funny, but his casual tone when saying “a few years” made me laugh.
In contrast, Shikantaza is zazen without counting breaths. This technique is much harder to avoid distracting thoughts as one does not have the anchor of using breath counting. When thoughts arise during Shikantaza, one does not attach to them. Simply let the thought pass and remain in a neutral, empty state. An example of an itchy nose was given. If your nose itches during zazen, don’t analyze the itch. Just let it be an itch and move on. If you think Shikantaza seems easy, give it a shot and tell me what you think.
When ending zazen, we were taught to simply sway the body back and forth lightly. Don’t rush getting up.
Here’s Dōgen again:
When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both unenlightenment and enlightenment, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the strength (of zazen).
And that was about everything discussed during class. There was Q&A at the end, followed by a 15 minute break before the Dharma talk.
I stayed for the Dharma talk which lasted for an hour. I was hoping to attend the introduction to zendo forms, a class which normally happens every Saturday afternoon. However, the class was cancelled that day in celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment. During this holiday the Zen center holds a one-week sesshin, meditating every day from 9:30am until 5:30pm.
The speaker was Ed Sattizahn, who serves as Abbot of the SF Zen Center. A large group of people gathered in the Buddha Hall (it was crowded), and a camera and microphone was setup for live streaming (just as a side note: most of the events are streamed online – even group zazen sessions).
You can watch a recording of the talk here. I won’t go over all of the content, but Sattizahn did emphasize how Zen is a personal path. This is definitely a reoccurring theme I’ve noticed in Zen teaching (even our zazen teacher said this). Among other things, Sattizahn mentioned a bit about Dōgen and Suzuki. When I have some time I plan to rewatch the recording – I ate a light breakfast that day and was a bit hungry and distracted. After the talk I rushed down the street to grab coffee and a sandwich.
I’d call my first visit to the SF Zen Center a success. I definitely felt welcomed, and no one pestered me to donate money. While the class covered most of what I already knew, I did learn a few new things such as the bowing ritual.
I definitely plan to return and attend the zendo introductory class. In the future I hope to practice zazen at least once a month at the zendo. And who knows, maybe I’ll be a frequent visitor at other SFZC events too.
That’s about all I’ve got for this writeup. I’ve still got a lot on my plate reading-wise. So expect some new content soon relating to Zen teachings and literature. I’ll be visiting family over Christmas and should have some extra free time to read and write.
Until next time, keep practicing.