I sit in a chair. Yes, of course, but I mean I sit zazen in a chair. This is a recent development, arising no doubt from a karmic web of causes and conditions, but the primary one is osteoarthritis in my knees.
Everybody knows that a Zen student truly dedicated to the Way sits cross-legged on the floor. Buddha was sitting cross-legged when he was enlightened under the pipal tree 2,600 years ago, and there are millions of Buddha statues to prove it— sitting cross-legged on altars and bookshelves all over the world. Several of them are in my house.
The image of Shakyamuni in seated meditation is the essential icon of Buddhism. And 800 years ago, Eihei Dogen, founder of Soto Zen in Japan, instructed seekers of the way to “sit either in the full lotus or half lotus position.” These are ancient yogic asanas, sacred positions—they come with a warranty. Back in my limber days, I believed that I was bound to get enlightened if I just sat still long enough in half lotus on my black zafu. Now I see how unreasonable it would be if the cross-legged people were the only ones who got to cross over to the other shore.
These days sitting cross-legged causes me intense pain. Everybody knows that not turning away from suffering is at the heart of Zen practice, and this includes not turning away from pain in the knees. Sesshins (long Zen meditation retreats) are an opportunity to learn to sit through pain. When there is pain in the knees, if I can see it as nothing other than pain in the knees, then I will be a happy person with pain in my knees. So I have been taught, during more than 30 years of Zen practice.
Some years ago, when I was still a floor sitter, a fellow practitioner had to move to a chair after knee surgery. (The anecdotal evidence I’ve heard suggests that a remarkably high proportion of Zen practitioners require knee surgery.) I asked how he liked it, and he said he missed his pain because now it was “harder to focus” during zazen. That threw me for a loop. I too have found that pain focuses the mind, but what does it focus the mind on? Pain! Is that useful?
Another friend had an epiphany in zazen. He was in pain, but he promised himself he wouldn’t move before the end of the period, no matter what. The pain got worse and worse, and he just stayed still and stuck to his wallgazing, and a few minutes before the end of the period, the whole universe opened and he saw that everything was everything. “No pain, no gain,” he explained, when he described the experience to me later. That never happened to me, though.
A teacher once asked me, “If you avoid pain now, what will you do down the line when you are old and sick and have pain you can’t avoid? Don’t you want to learn to live with it?” I’ve decided to cross that bridge when I come to it. I figure there’s enough pain coming my way anyway, why should I take on extra?
I have learned some things about pain through my sitting practice. If I move too soon to adjust my posture, the pain will chase me wherever I go, but if I just sit still when the pain starts, it often goes away, or recedes into the background. That kind of pain is like a child who wants attention and gets bored if you don’t respond. This anti-fidgeting training also has useful applications to secular life beyond the zendo, to the concert hall for example, or the business meeting, or the MRI gurney.
I have also learned that there comes a point in zazen when the pain is so intense, I know it’s not going to ebb away—it just gets worse, until I am raging against it and against a spiritual practice that would ask this of me. Pain is, after all, an early warning system devised by evolution to prevent us from injuring ourselves. It hurts when you touch the hot stove so that you don’t burn the skin off your hand.
Pain is an important aspect of ritual in various religious traditions: the penitents beat their backs bloody during Holy Week; some pilgrims climb up stone steps on swollen knees to sacred shrines; Native Americans on vision quests stand still and naked in the sun’s burning heat. But these are special rites of passage, not everyday practices.
I have come to the point of diminishing returns as far as sitting crosslegged goes. When I started practicing Zen, I was 32 and sat in a half lotus position with manageable discomfort. My legs hurt in sesshin, but I knew this was part of the bargain. Now I’m 65 and I have arthritis in my knees. I can sit cross-legged for 10 or 15 minutes, with four or five extra support cushions propping me up, and then the pain begins in earnest. When I consulted an orthopedist last year about the trouble I was having with my knees, I mentioned that I do Zen meditation and he scolded me for sitting cross-legged. I now have doctor’s orders to sit in a chair. I could have asked him for a note for my teacher, but I didn’t need to, because these days, fortunately, all the Zen teachers I know have become quite tolerant of chair sitting. It’s allowed, even though it’s not exactly de rigueur. The harsh taskmaster within is the one who still gives me trouble.
Not Long ago I swallowed my pride and sat my first sesshin in a chair. This was a turning point. There were several other chair sitters, and I was grateful not to be alone at this higher elevation, not to have my lone head sticking up like a sore thumb in the thin air above the clouds. Lo and behold, this was the first sesshin in years in which I wasn’t fighting myself—Why the hell am I doing this? I settled down. It was the first sesshin in which I didn’t once pray for the bell to hurry up and ring for the end of the period. I was able to be here now—or rather, at this writing, to be there then.
I praise the chair as a spiritual aid. A chair is a tool for sitting in, a gift invented and produced by human beings for human beings. This body knows how to sit in a chair. There’s a lovely geometry to a person in a chair, with the legs, seat, and back of the living body parallel to the legs, seat, and back of the chair, in a double zigzag, expressing the rightness of right angles.
Sometimes I miss being down on the floor—it feels good to be grounded, to get down. So I remind myself: if I am sitting on a chair and the chair is on the floor, then I am sitting on the floor. Besides, it’s important to be able to get up again when the bell rings; after all, there are two parts of Zen practice: sitting down and getting up, and for me, getting up from the floor takes too much time away from the next activity. I don’t want to miss my chance to use the bathroom before the next period of zazen.
In a recent sesshin at a traditional Zen practice center, my second in a chair, I was the only chair sitter, even though I wasn’t the oldest person. This gave me pause. Was I the only one because I was the person with the least amount of cartilage in my knees, or because I was the wimpiest person, or the person who cared the least what others thought of me? I realized, sitting there in my chair, that it didn’t matter. The only real question was and always is: am I making my best effort? If I am making my best effort while sitting in a chair, then I am sitting perfectly.
There are plenty of challenges to chair sitting, so don’t worry that it’s too easy—you can still be miserable. The five hindrances of lust, sloth, ill will, restlessness, and doubt assault me in a chair as easily as they did when I sat on the floor. Pain visits me, too, on occasion, sharp and hot between the shoulder blades, but I know it’s not injuring me, and it doesn’t stay.
Sitting in a chair, I feel gratitude for the practice. I enjoy sitting upright. I enjoy my breathing. I am not guarding against the onset of pain, and I am not fighting with myself for being a sissy. I am not making bargains with myself the whole time, such as Ten more breaths and then I will allow myself to move. I check my posture: I feel my feet firmly planted on the floor, I feel the uprightness of my spine, I feel my sitting bones on the seat of the chair. I am close to the others in the room; whether they are on the floor or in chairs, we are practicing together, held by the same silence.
What’s next? Perhaps I’ll go on to hammock practice, or sitting zazen in a chaise lounge, poolside. I’ll let you know how that goes when I get there.