Dharma for the Zen Student

© 1995 Dharman Craig PressonAll Rights Reserved
“Zen is not what you think!” -- anonymous


The purpose of this little book is to assure that all studentsunderstand the mechanics of Zen practice and the basic teachings ofBuddhism. The descriptions of practices have been generalized, andparticular schools have adopted variations. If you are lucky enough inthis life to find a true Zen teacher with an active school and joinit, then please follow exactly what your teacher says, and mark up orthrow away this book to accord with the usage of your own school.Also, there is purposefully very little material here which isspecific to Zen as a school of Buddhism; so there should be no problemwith using the same material in any Buddhist meditation school.Accordingly, some topics specific to Zen but varying from school toschool, such as koans, teaching interviews, ceremonies, and titles ofteachers are left to the individual schools to explain. At first myintent was to have no “original” material at all; if there wasno interpretation, there could be no controversy. This cowardlyapproach was rejected by the first people to review the work; one said“sometimes the packaging dries out the product”. So I havethrown out all but a few Sanskrit terms (but see the Glossary), andrestated some of the long, dry lists in paragraph form. In doing so Ihave opened a window for possible misunderstandings, for which I takeall blame.

Part 1: Practice

Sitting, Breathing, Walking

Seated meditation (J. zazen, Ch. T’so-chan) is the basic practicein all meditation schools. The beginning student should see it as aserious lifetime practice, not as a quick fix for life’sproblems. Our practice challenges us to be fully present in this verymoment, accepting the quality of our lives and skillfully pursuing ourexamination of mind through the myriad situations of a busy life;zazen is a means by which we build a foundation for this.

The Sitting Posture (asana)

There are several good postures for zazen: four cross-legged, onekneeling, and one using a straight chair or camp stool, as illustrated[Add illustrations of full lotus, half-lotus, sukhasana, Burmese, seiza,and chair sitting]. The best postures support the body firmly with atripod made up of the two knees (or feet) and the base of the spine. Thebelly is thrust just slightly forward, then the spine rises firmly uplike a cobra. To maintain an alert posture, imagine thrusting the crownof the head skyward. The chin is tucked in slightly so that the gaze canrest on the wall or floor about three feet in front of the body. Theeyes are allowed to relax but not close; one is not trying to see or toavoid seeing. The hands either rest upon the thighs or form thedhyani-mudra in front of the lower belly (back of the left hand restingon the palm of the other so that the tips of the thumbs very lightlytouch). When settling into the asana, it is natural to rock slightlyforward and back, and side to side, in order to find one’s balancepoint; then the motion settles down and the body remains in dynamicbalance, not stiff, with only enough tension to maintain the posture andcorrect for any residual imbalances and the slight force of the breath.


One may be given specific instructions by a teacher regarding theproper focus of awareness during zazen. Usually, we begin withawareness of the breath. One will find this very hard at first; themind is used to wandering and does not like being brought back tosomething it thinks it knows all about like breathing. In thebeginning, we usually count the breaths, counting exhalations from oneto ten and then starting over. If one loses the count, gently beginagain with the count of one; do not add to the problem by thinkingabout how poorly or well one is doing, or trying to remember the lostcount (we’re not counting to get an answer!). Notice the quality ofthe breath, how the length and depth of breath changes as one relaxesinto zazen. There are several good ways of focussing the attention onthe breath:

Do not force or control the breath in any way. Eventually, it willdeepen and slow down of its own accord. Trying to take a short cut tothis effect will just lead to over- or under-oxygenation. Typical ZenCenter sitting periods are 25 to 45 minutes. It is better, in homepractice, to have short sittings performed well and frequently, ratherthan longer but weaker sittings. The ability to sit firmly for a fixedperiod and stay with one’s practice will develop smoothly with propereffort. Timing may be done with fractions of a stick of incense, kitchentimers, or other means; having to watch a clock should be a last resort.We know one student who programmed his personal computer to ring a bellfor the end of sitting.

Walking (Kinhin)

Walking meditation may be practiced between sessions of sitting.This relieves the legs of cramps and “pins and needles”, andallows one to begin the process of carrying one’s practice off thecushion and into daily activity. During walking, follow the person infront step for step, and put full awareness into the act of walkingand breathing. There is usually a special mudra, or way of holdingthe hands and arms, to accompany this practice. The most common one isto cradle the right thumb in the right hand and enclose the resultingfist in the left hand, placing both hands over the heart. In someschools, the elbows are held parallel to the floor and away from thebody, in others, the arms are relaxed. Similarly, in some schools thepace of walking is brisk, in others it is slow and deliberate. Justfollow the leader and do not attach importance to these details. Inslow walking, especially, it is rewarding to synchronize the breathwith the pace, so that each pause at the end of an outbreath orinbreath coincides with a pause in the step, where the full weight ofthe body is carried on one foot, and the other foot is ready to begina gentle swing forward. Finishing each step and each breath in thisway deepens our awareness of walking. Each person will need toexperiment to find a natural way to breathe and walk in unison.

Part 2: Theory

The Buddha

The historic founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, was born a princeof the Shakya clan in what is now southern Nepal, in 563 or 566 BCE.Sheltered and pampered as a youth, he was profoundly shocked when hefinally saw the reality of sickness, old age, and death. This caused himto make a great resolution, to leave home and find a way of liberation.He studied meditation under two of the greatest yogis of the day, andmastered their teachings. He found that their practice was wonderful asfar as it went but did not answer his burning questions, and so he leftthem and practiced severe asceticism with a group of forest sadhus. Hesurpassed them in self-denial, to the point of nearly dying, but foundthat a weakened body could not pursue the Way; so he took nourishmentand set off on his own, finally taking a seat beneath a pipalla tree ata place called Gaya, from which he vowed not to rise alive unless hisdoubts were resolved. Wrestling throughout the night with the forces ofillusion, he penetrated deeper and deeper levels of samadhi(contemplative absorption) until he won through to full awakening. Atdawn, he watched the rise of Venus and in that glorious sight knewclearly that his personal quest was done. But was it possible tocommunicate what he had learned and become?

The Dharma

Although the teachers and scholars of the three vehicles and thecountless schools have written many words about the Buddha's teachings,and although the Buddha was said to have preached 84,000 distinctsermons in his lifetime, the core of the teachings are in the Four NobleTruths, the Eightfold Path, the Chain of Causation, and the teachings ofImpermanence (anitya) and Transparency (shunyata).

The Four Noble Truths

1. All existence is suffering;

Ordinarily, we try to live by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, suchas by making lots of money so that we can be insulated from pain, or byhaving many friends to tell us how good we are, or other suchstrategies. The Buddha sees through all these strategies and reminds usthat our pleasures and our lives are transient and incomplete.

2. Suffering is rooted in desire;

Once we have undertaken to live as an individual in the world, somedegree of attachment is inevitable, and we take on other attachments dueto possessive cravings. Because we are not really in control, but havemade an illusion of it, all these attachments tear at us in the courseof life.

3. There is an effective means of cessation of suffering;

This Truth is the basis of the Buddhist system. It proclaims that Buddhaexperienced release from suffering in his own human life, not as someabstract concept or as an assurance of later reward.

4. The means of cessation of suffering is the Eightfold NoblePath.

The Eightfold Noble Path

1. Right view: understanding the four noble truthsand the doctrine of no-self, that the conventional notion of aseparate, independently-arising, permanent self is ignorance, thefirst link in the Chain of Causation. We keep coming back to this asour practice matures and we get glimpses of pure unconditionalreality, with its complete lack of categories and concepts to hold onto.

“Don’t hold anything. Then, you will get freedom from life and death.”
-- Zen Master Seung Sahn

2. Right resolve: without deep motivation, theaspirant falls short. One must be willing to give what the Buddha gaveto realize liberation; must be at once patient, willing to devoteone’s entire life, and impatient, knowing that life may end at thisinstant.

3. Right speech: avoiding all lying, slander, andgossip. Speaking from a position of wisdom and compassion; speakinghumbly, knowing that the listener is also Buddha.

4. Right conduct: going about one’s life asharmlessly as possible, in accordance with the high standard ofmorality. This goes beyond the rote following of rules, to an activere-invention of the moral precepts out of wisdom and compassion.

5. Right livelihood: avoiding professions that areharmful to sentient beings; acting responsibly in the conduct ofone’s business or profession.

6. Right effort: persevering, putting forth allone’s energy; constantly returning to and correcting one’spractice.

7. Right mindfulness: being constantly aware of body,feelings, thoughts, and impulses; carrying practice into daily life.

8. Right concentration: meditation practice leadingto perfect samadhi. Zen instruction emphasizes this part of the pathbut it must be realized that concentration is not separate from theother aspects of the Path.

The Chain of Causation

From ignorance arises mental formations and impulses, from impulsesself-consciousness, from self-consciousness name and form, from nameand form the senses and the thinking mind, from the senses perception,from perception feelings, from feelings craving, from cravingclinging, from clinging conception, birth, old age and death. This isan outline of the process of interdependent causation examined andelucidated by Buddha.

We did not get to see the process by which we bought into the illusionof an individual ego, a self which somehow lives in our bodies, whenwe did it as children. But by careful attention in our Zen practice,we begin to catch glimpses of how we maintain the ego-character. Wefeed it all the time by actions and reactions. Because we are alwaysworking to shore up the ego, we are full of habit-energy, alwayspaying attention to various low-level impulses and complexes in themind. These impulses give rise to, and are coordinated by,consciousness. Without any sense of having a separate self to maintainand defend, we would not have (self-)consciousness, and without theillusion of a history of consciousness, we would drop our attachmentto names and forms. Without the attachment to a single separatebody-image and name-history, we would not carry around sense-objects,feelings, cravings, clinging, and in fact would not give rise tobirth, old age, and death. There would only be the sense of purePresence.

Impermanence and Transparency

Thus we see that the Buddha taught that our conventional views of anEgo, or self, as either identified with the body, or as somethingdifferent from the body altogether, are illusory. His teaching was andis radical because it shows us that the nature of the mind is empty andvoid (shunya); that consciousness, and all mental formations areimpermanent (anitya) and without any unified, persistent self-nature(anatman). The Eye of Wisdom sees no objects, only interconnectedprocesses, and all processes arise, carry out their functions, and thendisperse, giving impulse to other processes.

The Sangha

Many Buddhist services begin with the formula of taking refuge in theThree Treasures:
I take refuge in the Buddha;
I take refuge in the Dharma;
I take refuge in the Sangha.

The Sangha is the community of teachers and students who have beenengaged in studying, following, and transmitting the Dharma for 2500years. Many rules have been made for the moral conduct of its members;monks and nuns have had hundreds of precepts to follow. Most schoolsagree on five great Precepts, however, that are the basis for the restand are sufficient for the right conduct of a layperson's life:

1. Not to kill;
2. Not to take what is not given;
3. Not to engage in misconduct done in lust;
4. Not to lie;
5. Not to indulge in intoxicants to induce mindlessness.

A further expression of Buddhist morality are the Four Immeasurables.These are positive ideals as contrasted to the negative strictures ofthe Precepts:

1. Limitless kindness toward all beings;
2. Limitless compassion for the suffering of all beings;
3. Sympathetic joy in the happiness and liberation of others;
4. Equanimity toward all, seeing friend and foe in the same light.

A more general expression of Buddhist ideals is contained in theParamitas, or Perfections:

  1. Generosity (Dana) this means being generous with one's time andattention as well as material goods.
  2. Morality (Sila) Observance of the precepts, as a fruit of practice.
  3. Patience (Kshanti) This is patience in a cosmic sense, directed atoneself and others, and taking account of beginningless time.
  4. Energy (Virya) Inexhaustible effort and determination.
  5. Meditation (Dhyana) Deep exploration of the world of Samadhi.
  6. Wisdom (Prajna) Not book-learning only, but the transcendentwisdom of the awakened mind.


Even though these teachings are the barest basics of meditation andBuddhism, do not think that you can absorb and practice them overnight.Be prepared to put forth serious and persistent effort, but be totallykind to yourself and the others around you as you begin. We haveprovided a glossary of foreign and jargon terms, and a few suggestionsfor further reading. Do not be hasty or greedy in your reading; the bestbooks contain everything you need on each page. Each time you take astep upon the path, Buddhas and saints arise to aid you. May you receiveand give peace.


asceticism: A path of denying and punishing the bodyto strive for enlightenment. Tried and found wanting byBuddha.

anitya: Sanskrit (Pali anicca) for impermanence,transitoriness.

anatman: Sanskrit (Pali anatta) for “non-self”:the doctrine that the self, and by extension all objects of therelative world, has no independent, permanent, self-arisingnature. Anitya, anatman, and dukha (suffering) are the “threemarks” of conditioned arising.

asana: Yoga term for “posture”.

Buddha: 1. Honorific title, meaning "Awakened One";2. The historical teacher Gautama; 3. The principle, or nature, ofPure Presence, which itself is the cosmic teacher, orSat-guru.

Dharma: (Pali Dhamma) a Sanskrit word with manymeanings. In some contexts, it means “object” or“complex”; capitalized, it means “Way” or “Law”, asin, Buddha-Dharma.

Dhyana: (Pali Jhana) Sanskrit for concentration ormeditation. Transliterated into Chinese as Ch’an-na, shortened toCh’an, the word was then carried to Korea as Soen and Japan asZen.

kinhin: Japanese term for walking Zen. Almost allBuddhist schools have this practice, as it was said to have beentaught by Buddha.

mudra: Sanskrit term for a ritual gesture or postureof the hands. Mudra literally means “seal” or“sign”.

Pali: The Indian language of the earliestsutras. Pali is similar to Sanskrit but grammatically simpler.

sadhu: Sanskrit term for a holy hermit. Most, but notall, practice in solitary and emphasize asceticism.

samadhi: Absorption in meditation where subject andobject are not different. Also called “one-pointedness”.

Sanskrit: The literary language of ancientIndia. Many sutras and commentaries are written in a form ofSanskrit. Today’s Hindi language is a direct descendent.

shunyata: (Sanskrit) Emptiness; the Void; animportant term, but very hard to translate. Perhaps using "potential"as opposed to "nothingness" will give the right flavor.

sutra: The Sanskrit term (Pali sutta) for ascripture, recording the discourses of Buddha and hisdisciples.

zazen (see Zen): Japanese term (ChineseT’so-ch’an) for seated meditation.

Zen (see Dhyana): 1. The practice of concentrationand samadhi; meditation. 2. The school of Buddhism characterized byemphasis on meditation; 3. The teachings of the Zen school.

Suggestions for Further Reading

This list is short on purpose, and the omission of many wonderfulbooks is not intended as a slight.

Hanh, Thich Nhat, Old Path White Clouds: Walking In the Footstepsof the Buddha, Parallax Press, 1991.

---, The Miracleof Mindfulness

Kohn, Michael H., tr., The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen,Shambhala Publications, 1991.

Suzuki, Shunryu, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Weatherhill, 1971.
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