About our Practice
“When the sun first comes up and shines on you, your shadow is big behind you. But as you continue to sit, your shadow gets smaller and smaller, until finally it’s just Buddha sitting there.”
In 1223, a young Zen monk named Dogen asked, "If all human beings are born with Buddha-nature, then why do we need to seek enlightenment?" Unable to resolve this question in Japan, he traveled East to China to seek an answer. After four years of training abroad, he returned home to teach others the path of realization, a practice rooted in seated meditation and wholehearted engagement in daily activities. These teachings laid the foundation for the lineage of Buddhism known as Soto Zen.
Soto Zen became one of the two dominant Buddhist schools in Japan over the centuries and made one of its first journeys to the United States with a priest named Shunryu Suzuki. In 1959, the Soto School of Japan sent Suzuki-roshi to lead a Japanese American community at the Soko-ji Temple in San Francisco. Soon after his arrival, an American student asked him about Zazen. Suzuki-roshi answered, "Please come back at 5:15 am." Curious people of the beat generation and bohemians began to wander into early morning meditation. Among these first new students at Soko-ji was Jakusho Kwong.
Suzuki-roshi was impressed by the “beginner’s mind” of his unexpected practitioners an their genuine openness to Zazen practice. As their numbers grew, Suzuki-roshi departed from Soko-ji and founded San Francisco Zen Center. Jakusho Kwong studied with Suzuki-roshi here for ten years. Shortly before his death, Suzuki-roshi recognized Jakusho Kwong as his dharma heir and instructed his son, Hoitsu Suzuki-roshi, to complete Dharma transmission. In 1978 Kwong-roshi received full transmission at Rinsoin, Japan, becoming the ninety-first generation in an unbroken lineage of dharma transmission tracing back to Shakyamuni Buddha.
Seated meditation is the foundation of Zen Buddhist practice. There are many reasons why a person might be open to this spiritual path. New students often arrive at a meditation center for the first time with a specific concern in mind. They would like to be less distracted, more mindful, less depressed, or more prepared for death. But the reason to sit is much deeper than anything that we could ever imagine. The depth and value of it are very difficult to express in words. However, the profound words of teachers like Kwong-roshi can instill inspiration to seek this path of silent illumination.
“You sit on your black cushion, your mind and body rhythms become slower and slower, quieter and quieter. You begin to be aware of the inherent harmony of all things. Everything is simple and direct, and everything feels much more spacious within our lives.”
“Zazen instills a wondrous feeling of peacefulness and dignity. You know that this is the only place you want to be right now. You are completely satisfied. You're not thinking about what you're going to have for lunch or what you're going to do after lunch. You are present and complete."
“In traditional Zen spirit we don’t emphasize the stages in meditation practice or have any gaining idea from zazen. We emphasize having strong confidence in our original nature. That’s the spirit of Zen, and this confidence unfolds through the cultivation of practice.”
“We practice the same thing over and over again until the mind becomes very soft and spacious. When this occurs, there is less thinking, which allows our body and mind to feel its original nature. Pretty soon all the old projections and tapes that we carry around begin to fall away.
“The heart of meditation is basically an expression of who you truly are. This is the point, to fathom all the intricate layers of who we think we are until we become fully who we are.”
No Beginning No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen
“The altruistic act is dependent on Sangha. Compassion cannot be realized without practicing with others.”
While Zen Buddhism is a path of inner illumination, a community, or Sangha, provides a structure that can help maintain individual practice and gives us a place to apply inner truth and clarity of mind to our relationships with others.
Join us to deepen your practice:
How to Sit
“The posture of the body is the posture of the mind, and this is why taking a good posture is so important.”
Zen meditation lays heavy emphasis on form in sitting. It seeks a posture stable enough to sit still for long periods of time without the distraction of movement. But more importantly, it seeks a form that embodies the right focus of mind.
The late Shunryu Suzuki-roshi instructed:
“When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right food is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one. Our body and mind are not two and not one.”
“The most important thing in taking the zazen posture is to keep your spine straight. Your ears and your shoulders should be on one line. Relax your shoulders, and push up toward the ceiling with the back of your head. And you should pull your chin in. When your chin is tilted up, you have no strength in your posture; you are probably dreaming. Also to gain strength in your posture, press your diaphragm down towards your hara, or lower abdomen. This will help you maintain your physical and mental balance.”
“Your hands should form the ‘cosmic mudra.’ If you put your left hand on top of your right, middle joints of your middle fingers together, and touch your thumbs lightly together (as if you held a piece of paper between them), your hands will make a beautiful oval. You should keep this universal mudra with great care, as if you were holding something very precious in your hand. Your hands should be held against your body, with your thumbs at about the height of your navel. Hold your arms freely and easily, and slightly away from your body, as if you held an egg under each arm without breaking it.”
In the Fukanzazengi (or Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen), Eihei Dogen also precisely detailed the form of seated meditation. But as for state of mind, his only instructions were:
“Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking.”
Shunryu Suzuki’s lineage focuses on the breath as a way to settle into this place beyond both thinking and not thinking. We breathe in on 1 and out on 2, in on 3 and so on up to 10, and then start over. This is a very difficult exercise that practitioners interrupt themselves in again and again. But in the words of Kwong-roshi, “After the breath sweeps the mind, you rediscover the spaciousness that is quiet, calm, and bright and that has always been with you.”
Drop into Saturday meditation instruction and join our Intro to Zen class to learn more.