The Way is basically perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? The Dharma-vehicle is free and untrammeled. What need is there for man’s concentrated effort? Indeed, the Whole Body is far beyond the world’s dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from one right where one is. What is the use of going off here and there to practice?

And yet, if there is the slightest discrepancy, the Way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the Mind is lost in confusion. Suppose one gains pride of understanding and inflates one’s own enlightenment, glimpsing the wisdom that runs through all things, attaining the Way and clarifying the Mind, raising an aspiration to escalade the very sky. One is making the initial, partial excursions about the frontiers but is still somewhat deficient in the vital Way of total emancipation.

Need I mention the Buddha, who was possessed of inborn knowledge?—the influence of his six years of upright sitting is noticeable still. Or Bodhidharma‘s transmission of the mind-seal?—the fame of his nine years of wall-sitting is celebrated to this day. Since this was the case with the saints of old, how can men of today dispense with negotiation of the Way?

You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.

Related: Fundamentals of Dogen’s Thoughts 

For sanzen [zazen], a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a buddha. Zazen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.

At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the Full Lotus or Half Lotus position. In the Full Lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the Half Lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm [facing upward] on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.

Related: Introduction to Zen Buddhism

Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left, and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.

The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when he enters the mountain. For you must know that just there [in zazen] the right dharma is manifesting itself and that from the first dullness and distraction are struck aside.

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past we find that transcendence of both unenlightenment and enlightenment, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the strength [of zazen].

In addition, the bringing about of enlightenment by the opportunity provided by a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and the effecting of realization with the aid of a hossu, a fist, a staff, or a shout, cannot be fully understood by man’s discriminative thinking. Indeed, it cannot be fully known by the practicing or realizing of supernatural powers either. It must be deportment beyond man’s hearing and seeing—is it not a principle that is prior to his knowledge and perceptions?

This being the case, intelligence or lack of it does not matter; between the dull and the sharp-witted there is no distinction. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is negotiating the Way. Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward is a matter of everydayness.

Originally titled Fukanzazengi, or “The Universal Promotion of the Principles of Zazen,” these guidelines for sitting were given to monks by Japanese Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) This passage was translated by Norman Waddell and Abe Masao and is reprinted with permission from Eastern Buddhist.

Dharma Words

The ideograph of zazen is composed of two main Chinese characters, za, which is translated as “sitting” and zen, which is translated as “meditation.” However, when we examine the characters other implications are obvious.


Za is also composed of two characters: hito, which means person or man, and tsuchi, which means ground or earth. In fact there is not just one person, but two persons in the character. Another meaning for tsuchi is balance or scale. If you look at the character, it resembles a scale with one person on opposite arms of the scale. In order to have balance, one person is not sufficient. There needs to be harmony between oneself and others, or between one’s true self and one’s apparent self. There is an element of stability or solidity when a person sits on the ground. That very shimesu act itself implies harmony.


The two characters composing zen are shimesu, meaning to show or to reveal, and tan, which means one or single. So the fundamental implication of zen is to show the oneness or to reveal ourselves as the unity of everything. In fact that is what we are. Through zazen we are nor gaining anything, but we are revealing our natural state, which is the true balance.

This first appeared in The Ten Directions (Fall/Winter 1992) and is reprinted with permission.