The Importance of Posture & Environment in Zazen.

Meaningless Ritual, or Effective means to Enlightenment?

Just how important is proper posture? Well we can begin by seeing one of the functions of Buddhist statues was to serve as models for both posture and mudras.

"Many mudras evolved through trial and error, by observing the sensations that arose while performing it. Some can be traced back to Hindu practices that originated before the Buddha's time, such as the mudra we use during zazen, known as the "cosmic mudra," or hokkaijoin. It appears in Hindu writings several hundred years before the Buddha, depicted as an eye or mouth to the hara, the seat of consciousness."

-- Albuquerque Zen Center Newsletter

Modern science indicates hand positions effect which side of the brain is being activated and even conditioned.

Next, we only have to make some direct observations ourselves. Watch people as they walk down the street. Some will have their heads and backs erect, others will be slumped over and bent, they seem to be carrying a great burden with troubles bearing down on their shoulders. In truth, there is a relationship between slumping and recursive thinking, and it is a two-way relationship. Slumping causes recursive thought, and recursive thought causes slumping.

Here are some experiments you can try for yourself.

  1. Seated in meditation posture count each exhale from 1 to 10. When you reach 10 start back at 1. Note how many times you go past 10 or lose track of your counting. Do this exercise in a proper erect posture, and then try it slumping over. Also, try it with your eyes open, head tilted down 20 degrees, and eyes looking down another 20 degrees. Then try it with the eyes closed.
  2. Scientific research shows that head and eye position effect the response of PG and V4 cells in the inferior frontal lobe and primary visual cortex, and meet the requirements for optimum attention.
  3. Next try changing your hand position. If you are accustomed to left over right, reverse the position and note how you sense the differences.

The Thalmus (Greek: Anteroom or bridal chamber) has major effects on our consciousness. It functions as a sensory gate which helps resolve incoming messages of space and time, as well as other sensory reactions. It also relays messages to the limbic system and pituitary glands and effects how we feel about something as well as generating releases of biochemicals and hormones to our mind and body. In fact, all of our senses are processed through the thalamus with the exception of our sense of smell, which bypasses the thalamus and goes directly to the amygdala in the limbic midbrain. The amygdala is the "center of our emotions" in the brain, and has a direct efferent effect on the hypothalamus and thereby the pituitary gland and the production of various biochemicals like dopamine. Dopamine is one of the best examples of the effects of aromas because it's effects are so obvious in Parkinson's disease where there is a noticeable loss in motor function leading to shakes and tremors. However, oriental artists have know for hundreds of years that the aroma of sandalwood incense improves motor responses and "steadies the hand."

Incense has also played a major role in practicing meditation for as long as the practice has been performed. On a primary level it stabilizes the aroma in the Zendo or Meditation Room and limits distractions from currents of body odor and other aromas passing through the room. On a deeper level it promotes dopamine production which relaxes the body and mind. Other traditional ingredients in Buddhist incense formulas serve other functions as well. Turmeric limbers the muscles and ligaments and makes sitting more comfortable; Borneol and Clove promote alertness and prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses, Aloes wood promotes creative introspection; and Cassia may be anti-melancholic.

The Chinese Dhyana Master, Chih-I talks abundantly about both rituals and incense in his treatise, "Mo-ho Chi-kuan" (Great Stopping & Seeing). In one section he specifically talks about sandalwood incense, and in another relates incense and lamps as "discipline & wisdom." There are over twenty references to incense alone in his famous work which became the basis for later Zen practices, specifically Shikantaza. The title refers, of course, to the original forms of Buddhist meditation found in the Pali Canon known as Shamatha (Calming) and Vipashyana (Insight). Digha Nikaya 22 (Mahasatipatthana Sutta)



Close inspection of Traditions & Rituals invariable show they were based in some practical purpose. Sometimes the practical reasons get lost over the years, but very few were ever superfluous and meaningless to begin with, and may be more important today than people realize. Aversion to tradition and rituals of Buddhist practice appear to arise from ignorance of the practical origination of these practices.


Zen and the Brain -- James Austin

The Scented Ape -- Stoddard

Smell the Secret Seducer -- Piet Vroon

Digha Nikaya 22 (Mahasatipatthana Sutta)

Mo-ho Chi-kuan -- Chih-I

In Ghostly Japan --Lafcadio Hearn