Since shikantaza is a central part of my zen practice, I like to spend time exploring different postures for my seated meditation.
I am a runner, and variants of the lotus position are all hard on my knees (especially the morning after a long run). From what I understand, some people are well suited for it, others are not. I am fully in the latter camp of folks. Notice I said “variants of” there. Full lotus? Not a chance!
When I began noticing knee pain from sitting half lotus, I decided to make a couple meditation benches. These provide a comfortable way sit seiza that isn’t hard on the knees. I do not consider myself very experienced with woodworking and was still able to knock each bench out over the span of a weekend. If you are interested, checkout this excellent tutorial over at Instructables. I modified mine a bit to better fit my 6′ 2″ frame, but other than that I followed the plans very closely on the first one pictured below, sans cushion.
After making the first meditation bench I made a single, center-leg version with left over lumber. I use it for camping trips and other outdoor meditation opportunities since it is lighter and easier to carry around.
Both benches serve me well, and I still use them from time to time. However, I wasn’t quite done exploring different ways for me to sit for zazen. I felt the need to keep experimenting to determine if sitting with only a zafu would ever be sustainable for me. Enter Burmese-style posture.
The Burmese posture is sometimes referred to as the “easy posture”. Below is one of my favorite videos describing how to sit in this posture.
Interestingly, Burmese-style posture is something I had tried very early on that didn’t quite feel right. It could simply be a change in my body from sitting regularly, or perhaps early on I just wasn’t quite getting the right elevation. Either way, I am glad I tried again and encourage others to as well, especially if you have trouble doing full lotus. With this posture, I do not feel like I am damaging my knees, or over straining sore legs after a run, and my back is completely comfortable for longer sits. If anything, it feels good! Like a nice, extended stretch.
All of this said, I personally feel it is also important to not have an over attachment to sitting posture. Questions of “am I doing it right?” can get in the way of practice. That is our, as they say, executive “I” passing judgement and can quickly get in the way of good practice if one obsesses over it. The main point is to find a comfortable position so that we can focus on the practice. Jundo Cohen, the Zen priest of Treeleaf Sangha, has actually held zazenkais in which everyone reclines for zazen. Their sangha has some members who have major health issues and must recline for zazen. Having everyone do so is a way of showing support and a establishing a good atmosphere for everyone. The point is not to injure ourselves, the point is to practice.
Although it is an excellent mediation posture, full/half/quarter/whatever lotus is a bust for me. If you find yourself struggling with sitting in lotus positions, I highly recommend giving the Burmese style a go. Failing that, see if you can find someone with a meditation bench that you can try out. Even if you are not the crafty type, you can find benches for a reasonable price online.
In my view, what it all boils down to is that finding what posture works best is a very personal and important part of zen practice. Otherwise, thinking not thinking can turn into dwelling on discomfort.
Born, then a whole season gifted
Shades of green
Frigid starless nights
Now brings the color of rest
A full season’s gift
Pirouetting for a passerby
Or a gassho, perhaps?
No yearning for the ground
No yearning for things as they are, were, or someday might be
Just one with the anchor
…and one with the breeze, who will soon set free
Gifted a whole season
At the pivot of nothingness
One with all, all that is and all that will be