When we encounter the meditator, sitting silently with a straight back and eyes
focused inward, we are impressed by the stillness, and regard it as an expression
of inner quiet. But this fantasy quickly fades when we ourselves attempt to sit
still with a straight back for even just five minutes. We soon discover that it’s not
quiet at all. Many thoughts appear, and feeling comfortable is not particularly
easy. It turns out that just sitting is an effort that entails both physical and
emotional discomfort. Why, despite this, do we choose to sit in meditation, and
what is the place of the body within this practice?
In this article I will describe two Eastern traditions that place an emphasis on the
body in the practice of meditation: the classical yogic tradition of Patanjali and
his commentator Vyasa, and the Japanese tradition of Soto Zen, as expressed in
the teachings of Dogen and his followers. Both methods have a straightforward
practice, with no need for previous knowledge or faith, and they promise no
rewards in return. They connect to the physical body in a simple way and are
based on monotonous practice that is neither sophisticated nor aspiring to great
achievements, and therefore does not raise expectations of success or fear of
failure. Such simple, limited practice not directed towards gain is especially
effective for people living in a modern society characterized by material and
intellectual pursuits. Its effectiveness stems from the fact that the mind learns to
observe and act in a way opposite to that which it is used to: Rather than racing
to and fro, collecting and sorting thoughts and feelings, the mind learns restraint,
while focusing on the body.
It is important to remember that meditation is a heading of many methods of
internal work, methods in which the body usually takes a much lesser role. These
methods include recitation of mantras, visualization, and cognitive meditation in
which the practitioner focuses on a thought, emotion, or specific idea, such as
compassion. These methods will not be discussed here.
The Body in Meditation According to Patanjali and Vyasa
Through, adhering to the navel, knowledge of the organization of the body.
To the space of the throat, cessation of hunger and thirst.
To the light in the head, vision of those perfected.
To the heart, understanding of consciousness.
–Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Chapter III
The Yoga Sutras is a work of 185 short sentences (sutras), which shed light on the
practice of yoga and its goals. The Sutras are part of the six darshanas that
comprise classical Indian philosophy. Researchers estimate that the book was
composed between 100 BCE to 100 CE, and that Vyasa wrote his essential
commentary four or five hundred years later. The book details the practices of
three methods of yoga. The third and final method is ashtanga (eight limbs), a
type of yoga comprised of eight levels or steps. The first five phases of ashtanga
yoga include standards of behavior between oneself and others; rules for
purification of the body and soul; and physical practice, that is, postures,
breathing exercises, and the practice of turning the senses inward.
At the outset of the third chapter, the Vibhuti-Pada, or Chapter of Powers,
Patanjali describes three internal phases of ashtanga yoga—concentration, dhyana
(meditation), and samadhi (a high state of consciousness). Vyasa’s commentary
and the continuation of the Vibhuti-Pada, serve to clarify the centrality of the
body in a process that at first look seems to take place solely within consciousness.
Here is a translation from Sanskrit of the first five sutras of the third chapter of
the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:
1. Concentration is the binding of consciousness to a place.
2. Dhyana—when the idea or thought is directed there continually.
3. Samadhi is when the object alone shines forth as if [the consciousness] is empty of its own form.
4. These three together—samyama.
5. Through its mastery—all-encompassing wisdom glows. (beautiful)
Vyasa comments on these first sutras, which describe concentration as the
binding of the consciousness to a place, by choosing to focus on specific places or
spots in the body of the meditator. He does not indicate abstract or quintessential
ideas to concentrate on, and in this way makes the unadorned body itself the
focus of concentration.
Vyasa mentions five points: the navel, heart, head, tip of the nose (probably the
upper tip of the nose) and the top of the tongue (perhaps the throat although the
tip of the tongue is also a powerful point to focus on). It is possible that he hints
at focusing on certain chakras (energy centers according to Indian system), thus
preceding the later tantric view of seven chakras aligned on the vertical axis at
the center of the body, from the tailbone to the tip of the head. We can assume
that if Vyasa selected these body spots out of the thirty or more places and
objects described in the Vibuti-Pada and the Yoga Sutras, it is because he endows
special importance to them. He seems to have believed that at least one of them
could fill our mind to such an extent that the entire world, including our
consciousness, would disappear. Not love, nor God, or soul would fill our mind
in this way, but rather one place or another in our own bodies. When
consciousness continuously gazes on a point or an object undisturbed, without a
glimmer of thought, so that only the object exists and the consciousness itself
seemingly disappears, then the gaze of the meditator or the meditator himself
reflects a heightened state of consciousness called samadhi.
Staying fixed on one point is called samyana, and is comprised of three phases—
concentration, meditation, and samadhi. After much thought, I came to the
conclusion that the most fitting translation for samyana is devekut. In Hebrew this
is a Hassidic phrase which implies intense religious fervor towards God or the
Tsaddik, the Rabbi of the Hassidim. In samyama, the consciousness is bound to,
really glued to the point of focus, and that place to which it sticks is essential.
Similar to the hasid who binds himself to a tzadik, with the tzadik becoming the
essential component, the path itself. From this point of view Hassidut is a form of
Guru Yoga. But in order to understand yogic devekut we need to isolate it from
Hasidic ideals such as love and devotion. In classical yoga, devekut is the binding
of consciousness , creating a kind of concentration that intensifies as it focuses
towards a specific point. Here we are not referring to the murmurings of the
heart engaging powerfully with the divine. This may occur, but it is not essential
for yogic devekut, for samyama. Vyasa maintains that as devekut strengthens,
understanding and clarity grow. Vijnana Bikshu, another important
commentator on the Yoga Sutras, adds that this clarity is the ability to perceive
subtle objects which are usually hidden: He hints at inner subtle objects such as
the buddhi or wisdom mind, and even the root of consciousness itself.
Over the years I have found that quite a number of people who attempt
meditation without verbal guidance experience spontaneously an energetic
awakening and focus of their mind on one of the points mentioned in Vyasa’s
commentary. It turns out that the mind focuses on these points not necessarily
from having been instructed to do so, or due to a belief that they will bring a
calming or spiritual experience, but rather because these spots as if ask to be
claimed and pull the consciousness towards them from inside. If the meditator is
perceptive, and continues to direct the mind until it is bound to its spot, he or she
will have energetic experiences without intending or aspiring to do so. These
experiences will have a clear physical component such as heat, burning, or a
feeling of ingathering or widening in the place of concentration. It is possible that
memories, and pleasant or unpleasant pictures from the life of the meditator will
flood the mind. The mind will not expel these images or be too busy with them,
but rather will return again and again to the place of concentration.
Practice is Enlightenment
Dogen (1200-1253) was a Japanese Zen monk who studied in China, and brought
the Soto Zen (Chan in Chinese) tradition to Japan. The root of the word Chan is
essentially dhyana, or meditation in Sanskrit. There are those who claim that the
Chan tradition developed in China from a fruitful meeting between Buddhism
from India and Daoism, the Chinese belief system that holds forth, among other
teachings, that of spontaneity. Dogen was the son of a single mother [was she
widowed? single mother carries many connotations, I think he was a bastard son of a
lord or something], and became a monk after her death when he was eight years
old. After living and studying in monasteries in Japan, he traveled to China and
studied in the great monasteries for two years. Only when he encountered Rujing, abbot of Mount Tiantong monastery, did he find a worthy teacher who spoke to his heart. Dogen became a close student of Rujing, who authorized him to teach, and after some time Dogen returned to Japan to impart the way of his teacher. Dogen was a demanding teacher who specialized in Chinese Zen Literature, and was himself a talented writer of Zen philosophy and poetry. In the last decade of his life he taught at Eihei monastery in a mountainous area far from the capital of Kyoto. With him were a few students who carried on his path. Yet for hundreds of years his teaching was almost forgotten until it was rediscovered and adopted by, among others, Western Zen students of our generation.
Dogen often interpreted Buddhist texts for his students, interpreting them in a
new refreshing ways. He wrote long essays that are literary, philosophical, and
spiritual gems. Although he was without doubt a great scholar his main teaching
was not scholarly. As his teacher Rujing, Dogen also believed that the only way
to solve the “great issue” was with practice. Practice for him was seated
meditation, or as it is called in Zen discourse, shikan-taza, or “just sitting.” Dogen
was skeptical of mantra recitation, repeating the name of Buddha, and the
method of koans — the paradoxical Zen riddles such as “what is the sound of one
hand clapping?”—because he believed that these practices were not efficient. His
important statement, “practice is enlightenment,” clarifies his belief that the way
and the goal are one, and that the idea of gaining something through meditation
is empty of meaning.
One of Dogen’s envoys in modern Japan was Sawaki Roshi. Sawaki believed that
meditation is the key to understanding Buddhism. In the book Living and Dying
in Zazen, Ucchiyama Roshi’s American student Arthur Braverman recounts that
Sawaki was greatly influenced by the following passage from Dogen:
“…the practice of prolonged austerities is not difficult, but to harmonize
bodily activities is most difficult.
Do you think the crushing of bones is of value? Although many endured
such practice, few of them attained dharma. Do you think people
practicing austerities are to be respected? Although there have been many,
few if them have realized the way, for they still have difficulty in
harmonizing the mind.
Brilliance is not primary, understanding is not primary, conscious
endeavor is not primary, introspection is not primary. Without using any
of these, harmonize body-and-mind and enter the Buddha way.”
— Moon in a Dew Drop, pp. 38-39
When he first read those sentences, Sawaki Roshi felt embarrassed and humbled.
He suddenly understood that his austere and demanding practices, and his
Buddhist studies, had emerged from his competitive nature and had not helped
him to understand or live Zen.
Like Dogen, Sawaki Roshi also feared that contemplation of koans and textual
studies could turn Zen into intellectual pursuit, and thus believed more and
more in “just sitting,” with no expectation of gain, completely giving up the wish
for enlightenment or knowledge. With this belief Sawaki sat in a small, isolated
monastery, alone from morning to night for three years. In this way his belief in
pure sitting with no goal or result deepened. He recounted a visit from
university students who asked him why he practiced zazen (sitting meditation).
His answer that there is no benefit in zazen , and that he simply does it,
surprised them. Later on they returned and requested to join him, in this thing
that is of no benefit.
What is the place of the body in meditation without a purpose, where
consciousness gains clarity from just sitting ?
Sawaki’s principal student, Uchiyama Roshi, explains that the basis for quiet
clarity is created in trusting the posture of sitting, without searching for solutions
for everything. We simply sit, without the goal of fulfilling some fantasy of
enlightenment or self-improvement.
Uchiyama warns against overdoing, and at the same time warns against dosing
off or daydreaming. Scatteredness and dullness can cast a shadow on our mind
and deplete our vitality. Therefore, when they appear, we must wake up and
return to sitting. For him, those are the only actions required for simply sitting.
This practice is itself enlightenment, quotes Uchiyama from Dogen, and adds his
own interesting note: a complete practice of that enlightenment is to continue
Joko, a student of another student of Sawaki often speaks of the connection
between consciousness and posture. He claims that there is a direct correlation
between thinking and the slackening of posture, with slackening being an
expression of not being entirely present. In that people are thinking beings, it is
impossible to stop thought. According to Joko, the way to deal with our
countless thoughts and their distracting nature is to see their expression in our
bodies and to deal with them there. Therefore maintaining one’s posture is
critical: thoughts appear again and again, and with each thought the neck, back,
or another part of the body sags, and again we must correct the posture. As
sagging posture signals that we are not entirely present, a way towards
awareness and presence is through maintaining one’s posture. It does not matter what comes up during sitting—fantasies, fears, random thoughts, ecstasy,
feelings of connectedness and unity—we must maintain the posture. Then the
practice of meditation becomes a vigilant physical and mental effort to maintain
posture. Both in the manifold view of our reality and in the deep, captivating
view of our internal world, we want to stay straight and present.
Dogen explains: “It is very difficult to understand what sitting is, but it is surely
not connected to doing.” He adds, “Allow all relationships to fall, and put aside
all tasks; do not think about what is good and what is bad, do not try to judge
right and wrong. Do not attempt to control your vision, your awareness. And do
not try to understand your feelings, thoughts, or opinions. Try to free yourself
from the idea of being aware.”
Yes, it is difficult to grasp what “sitting” is. From the words of Dogen it becomes
clear that there is a quality of consciousness that we cannot control, and it does
not come about from conscious awareness. If we remain long enough with the
body, if we remain with the posture, sitting will reveal itself, the body will reveal
its true form.
Staying with the Body
The goal of Buddhism is to free oneself from suffering and to achieve
enlightenment; the goal of classical yoga is to weaken the mechanism of suffering
of the consciousness and to become free. If Vyasa chooses to focus on body, and
Dogen chooses to speak about practice without thought of gain, they are as if
undermining the foundations of their own canonic teachings. This subversive
tension is almost inevitable in the light of the paradox in which those who walk
the path find themselves: The yearning for and working towards enlightenment
refines our selfish desires by redirecting them toward a spiritual goal, yet they
continue to trail us. Rather than overcoming these delusive hankerings, we
duplicate them in sophisticated ways, so that we remain agitated and disquiet
inside, yet try to cover it up in guises of calm, gentleness, and kindness. Thus,
giving up all wanting, [even for enlightenment and freedom,] and just sitting
without any expectations and without attempting to control consciousness are
tasks that are impossible to carry out, but possible to allow for or to enable.
The idea of samyama described in the third chapter of the Yoga Sutras of
Patanjali and the Zen practice of just sitting offer a meditation in which the
consciousness focuses on the body and not on its contents. Nevertheless, there is
something different in the experience that develops in each method of practice.
In meditation on specific points in the body, the intense focus of the
consciousness on an energetic center in the body (such as the heart or the third
eye) creates a powerful uplifting experience. When the consciousness widens, the
meditator finds himself beyond the mundanity of everyday life, beyond worries,
and even beyond likes and loves. Nevertheless, due to a disregard for, or a lack
of interest in ‘reality’, the moments of wide consciousness have no connection to
the “I “ of the meditator, or to the way in which that “I” meets the world and
behaves in real life. Therefore, when we return from this kind of sitting to
everyday life, very often everything remains as it was. Whereas in the Soto Zen
method, the body is an anchor, and maintaining its posture is the way in which
the consciousness stabilizes and stays awake and present in the reality of the
current moment. In this way, practice creates balance, quiet, and equanimity that
differs in its quality from the powerfully uplifting and inspirational experience of
classical yogic meditation.
People who are interested in meditation will be attracted to uplifting experiences
or equanimity, according to their basic nature and needs. I, myself, have found that over many years my consciousness or my practice tended spontaneously
towards focusing on certain places in the body. In this way I experienced
something of the uplift and power of that practice. Nevertheless, the dimension
of stability in everyday life was missing. With the years, as this direction became
more important in my life as a mother and teacher, the need for focusing on
posture and watching the entire body became the new center of my sitting.
While there are many good ways to meditate, it is important for me to emphasize
that in our times the practice of focusing on the body is particularly relevant. The
abundance of information and knowledge sent our way, and the demand that we
endlessly process it in order to succeed in this world, has become a heavy
burden. Binding the consciousness to the body, without a goal, is refreshing, like
lemonade on a terribly hot day. It offers relief from the tumult of our modern yet
bloated consciousness, mercilessly driven by the plenty around it. It is so simple
to stay with the posture, or focus on a place within the body, so unmysterious.
There is no promise of gain or some deep expansive thought. What a relief.