Japanese culture can be a bit rigid and incessant on the one "right" way to do any action, be it to pour a cup of tea (this is a cultural aspect of the traditional arts) or crossing the street, and about pushing oneself to conform to that 'One Way or the Highway' ... called a 'Kata' (if anyone has martial arts experience). Such teachers may tend to emphasize that the one and only way to sit Zazen is in the "Lotus Position". Here is a little description of "Kata" (I cannot verify the source of the following, but I can verify the conclusion from 20 years living in Japan):
.... an immovable set of rules that govern what is and what is not accepted as acceptable behavior or thinking in japan ... In reality, there are many “Ways” to do most things in Japan, although each group will have a tendency to claim that its pattern is “the Way.” As a medical researcher who has participated in procedures and experiments at many dozens of Japanese hospitals, universities and the like, I know that no two groups ever will follow exactly the same patterns. Each, however, will have a tendency to explain that its way is “the Way,” usually because the most senior person in the group will have come to that conclusion after having learned it to be the thinking of some other person ... that the senior person respects. (Also, one must be very careful in suggesting that a competing group might have a better way which contradicts the opinion of a senior member of group). Every group in every culture does this, but what is unusual in Japan is the inflexible, almost mechanical way the system operates. The emphasis on proper “Kata” (Boye de Menthe has a wonderful, hard to find little book on this) in Japanese society is reminiscent of any conservative, tradition based culture, though unique in the way is has developed to permit a functioning, industrial society.
On the other hand, as with Oryoki eating (a wonderful example of "Kata"), there is a beauty in the fixed form that one literally can lose ones' 'self' in. So, "Kata" is also a very very good thing
, don't misunderstand me on that point. Conforming to "classic" form has very many beneficial aspects. I am a big big fan of Oryoki and other Kata practices, and I teach them. In fact, Dogen seems to have only talked about the Lotus Position (no seiza benches for him in the 13th century), and my own teacher, Nishijima says that folks should sit in the Lotus Position (and he is not too open to alternatives ... he rightly says that some folks reject the Lotus position and such before really giving it a try). Uchiyama Roshi has said some things in his book that place him more or less in that category.
But when this is carried too far, the "Lotus Position" itself can come to be thought of as having some "magic power", or fetishized as working some miraculous psycho-physiological effect on the body to lead to "Satori". But that is not the meaning, I believe, of "sitting in the Lotus Position is enlightenment itself".
It is, rather, "sitting in the Lotus Position as a 'pure' act, the one and only act in the universe at that moment'.
The Lotus Position itself is not the point. It is "doing one pure act in one moment". (Although, truly, the Lotus Position does have many advantages in allowing us to forget the body, and balance the body, leading to balance in mind ... chair sitting, for example, is just not as good in that way)
Well, in the fat thighed, bad back West, many folks just cannot manage the Lotus Position. So, the emphasis has changed slightly: As opposed to "sitting in the Lotus Position as a 'pure' act, the one and only act in the universe at that moment'
... it has changed to 'sitting as a pure act, the one and only act in the universe at that moment'
. In other words, "sitting in a chair is enlightenment itself' is true too if approached with that attitude. Do "chair sitting" as a Kata!
By the way, while Dogen and others emphasized that sitting Zazen is "enlightenment itself", they also taught that everything is "Zazen" if approached that way. Dogen sometimes said that Zazen is only sitting (not walking, running, standing or lying down), but he also said that Zazen is walking, running, standing or lying down (that guy knew how to talk out of both sides of his mouth!) So, I teach that perspective too here at Treeleaf.