My favorite Zen teacher is Brad Warner (sorry, the Wikipedia page for him is not Scottish). It was his book Hardcore Zen that dragged me from the depths of a spiritual crisis that led me abandon Quakerism for years of Zen meditation that brought me back to Quakerism. Today he wrote a post proclaiming that sitting in a chair is not zazen. According to him zazen is a physical practice, and it requires sitting with your knees on the floor.
I’m not going to argue with him. He makes some very good points. He implies something I am willing to state out right: a lot of people who do zazen in chairs are just being wimps. Yeah, maybe it’s not comfortable. So what? Are we only to accept spiritual solutions that are comfortable? Everything we can achieve in our material life requires effort and struggle (for details, please read Genesis). To expect otherwise of the ultimate seems unreasonable to me. Someone once told me that clearly there was no solution to the suffering of life, because if anyone had found it then everyone would be doing it. After practicing Zen for a while I realized what was wrong with that statement. Even if you could prove that a half hour to an hour of hard work every day for five to ten years could relieve your suffering (and it can), most people still wouldn’t be willing to do it. And I mean willing. They just wouldn’t have the will power to carry through with it.
Brad Warner often makes broad proclamations like this, and some people harsh on him for it. But when Brad say “sitting in a chair is not zazen,” these people hear “you suck if you don’t sit full lotus exactly the way I tell you to.” Well, some of them do suck. In his most recent article (and in most of the other ones I’ve read), Brad makes it pretty clear that he isn’t really saying that. He says that many are sitting in chairs because knees on the floor isn’t comfortable, but he acknowledges that some are sitting in chairs because (for them) knees on the floor is really painful. I’m one of those people. I can manage half lotus for about half an hour. Any more than that and I get blinding pain in my right leg. Okay, maybe not blinding, but the kind that is still with you six hours later when it wakes you up in the middle of the night. So I don’t sit full lotus. I can manage about four or five half hour sessions of zazen in seiza (which is still knees on the floor). After more than that my back is on fire. I can barely make it through a full day session of zazen. On longer retreats I invariably end up sitting in a chair or laying on the floor. I like to think I have a pretty high pain threshold. I once had an operation to my crotch. They forgot the order for the pain medication after I left the operating room. My mom, watching me, broke down before I did. But I still can’t hack that back pain.
That’s why I agree with Brad Warner. Because in dealing with this back pain I have tried to do zazen in every position imaginable (or at least that I could imagine). Of all the positions I’ve tried, half lotus worked the best. I really think having the spine straight helps you think better by aligning the brain the way it wants to be. I really think being upright gives the brain the right blood flow. And in my experience, half lotus is the best way to support that position for any significant period of time. I would not be surprised if full lotus is even better, but my leg pain stopped me from getting to that point. What do I do? I deal with it, and meditate in the best position I can manage. Which is exactly what Brad says you should do in his article. And I don’t just deal with it when I’m sitting. I don’t think I can do anything about the leg, but I am doing my best to exercise more in the hopes that it will help my back pain, so I can at least sit seiza for days at a time.
Brad’s article was very timely for me. Because my schedule is messed up, I am doing most of my meditation on the train, basically sitting in a chair. Really worse than sitting in a chair. Your average chair is too short for me. I have to add cushions to it in order to get the most ergonomic position, which would be one hell of a pain on the Metro. So I’m not doing zazen. That doesn’t mean what I am doing is bad. It doesn’t even mean it’s not good. I think it’s actually been a more focused meditation of late, if not because of the position. It’s just not zazen. What do I do? I deal with it. I deal with it on the Metro, but when I have time I sit knees on the floor, and I am working to fix my scheduling problems.
And that, in a way, is the essence of Zen: deal with it.