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Thread: Why we sit cross-legged

  1. #1

    Why we sit cross-legged

    Just a thought, but it seems the only reason we sit cross-legged is because the Japanese who developed Zen (and the Chinese and Indians before them) didn't have chairs. I know Treeleaf is not anti-chair/stool, but for some of us, cross-legged is painful. I've been trying a chair where I lean vac a bit and my back doesn't get tense and painful. Any thoughts on this?
    I know nothing.

  2. #2
    An interesting revelation for me. Due to a knee surgery I was forced to due zazen in a chair and it brought to light my attachment to sitting in the cross legged position. I actually fought against the chair even while sitting in it hoping for my knee to heal quickly so I could get back to "normal". The whole situation for me has been worthwhile



  3. #3
    Interesting, Kirk. As Buddhism takes on a more western form, I think it is useful to look at why we practice as we do and leave no sacred cows.

    Personally I find sitting cross-legged to provide a more stable base for my spine than sitting in a chair but agree that I have noticed in myself a certain pride at being able to sit like the ancestors. Attachment to 'doing it right' would seem far less useful than being comfortable when sitting. Although being able to tolerate some degree of discomfort is no bad thing, and most bodies will take time to adjust to longer periods of sitting, if it is so uncomfortable to be unbearable, it rather defeats the purpose of sitting and just becomes an endurance contest.

    One of my teachers always found it hard to sit cross-legged but early on in his life was so attached to doing it that way he actually caused himself physical harm. In contrast, one of the insight meditation guys (Joseph Goldstein I think but could be wrong) remembers one of his teachers commenting on his pride at being able to sit in the full lotus position and pointed out that sitting like that would not get him enlightened any quicker.

    In summary, I would take function over form.


  4. #4
    Here is an article by Susan Moon on chair sitting. Read and enjoy !
    Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien. -Voltaire
    The better is the enemy of the good. -Voltaire

  5. #5
    Always helpful to remember that lotus position aligns the body. The force of gravity allows balance. Once it feels 'right' slipping off the mind/body lets you nap. . .uhh. . .wait. . .sit(!).^^


  6. #6

    From free kindle book - Buddha in Bluejeans by Tai Sheridan

    You don't have to fit a square peg in a round hole.
    無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...

    I may be wrong and not knowing is acceptable

  7. #7
    Hi Kirk,

    The topic has come up many times, but I agree with what you are saying for the most part. There is something very nurturing of a balanced mind in the balanced posture of the Lotus ... if it can be comfortably sat. I do believe that skinny Indians, Chinese and Japanese, living in traditionally more "floor based" cultures, had greater physical flexibility and acclimation than "thunder thighed" chair sitting Westerners (even younger Asians, more used to chairs and less to the traditional ways of sitting, are having trouble now). I also think that the physical benefits of the posture have been fetishized and exaggerated somewhat, especially by the very form conscious Japanese (even more than the Chinese, Tibetans and others on the continent who are often less rigid and obsessive about the posture than the Japanese.)

    I think that the Lotus Postures or Burmese (which I sit about half the time) are wonderful, and that before one decides not to sit so, one should give them a real try seeing if one can get the legs to adjust.

    But if not ... or if there continues to be pain or imbalance ... the Zazen bench, Seiza or a chair is fine if sat with balance. Just as good perhaps.

    Our "How To Sit" booklet for newcomers goes into those alternatives ...

    We have actually spoken about this before, Kirk, on some other threads where I said about the same ...

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-16-2013 at 03:27 PM.

  8. #8
    Let me add that sitting with a sometime bit of pain or other discomfort is an important part of this practice ... for we learn to sit allowing "what is". Also, if pain is more than "sometimes" but is due to a physical condition where it cannot be alleviated ... then we learn to sit with that too, allowing "what is".

    However, if the pain is more than "sometimes", and can be alleviated by changing posture to one without the pain ... then best to change posture to a comfortable, balanced way without the pain.

    Gassho, J

  9. #9
    I find it beneficial to switch up my sitting style. Variety is the spice of life as they say. Sitting in lotus is a great way to balance the body/mind and if some discomfort arises it's good practice to be able to accept it and float on. That being said, I am a thunder thighed American and find the full lotus IMPOSSIBLE for this body. I tend to alternate between half lotus and Burmese and if I'm feeling adventurous I like sitting seiza (which causes me a fair amount of discomfort, though I don't notice it much until I'm finished Shikantaza and attempting to stand). I was distracted from Zazen for a few days and since I'm not Awakened (I prefer saying this rather than enlightened, seems to be more applicable) it's easy for me to slip back into the BS. I started to a feel a bit anxious, trying to find something to do and on the cusp of boredom when I just stopped, sat in a chair in the kitchen and sat for 30 minutes. I felt just as centered in the chair as I do when I sit in any other style, so I guess it just depends on the individual and the circumstances.

    Gassho, John

  10. #10
    Well, even Buddhas seem to struggle with Lotus when they put on a few pounds.

    And just for reference, this painful pose (my limit before real pain sets in is about 20 minutes) is Japanese "Seiza", not what most western Zen students think of as "seiza" on their little benches and such. Sitting directly on the ankles, no Zafu tucked between the legs for support or the like. In Zen temples in Japan, one may sometimes need to sit in such fashion for hours at a time.

    Gassho, Jundo

    ** For those who may be wondering about the "Fat Buddha" seen in Chinese restaurants and such ...
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-17-2013 at 04:17 AM.

  11. #11
    Oh ... I know that seiza from Aikido as well as, tons of suwari waza.

    倫道 真現

    As a trainee priest, please take any commentary by me on matters of the Dharma with a pinch of salt.

  12. #12
    Sitting seiza can cut-off circulation to the feet, rendering them extremely numb after 30 minutes or so. Be careful upon getting up from your mat that you can confirm you've got feeling in your feet. I remember chanting the Lotus Sutra with a colleague of mine, a Nichiren Buddhist priest, for about an hour, sitting seiza directly in front of the altar, on a very thin, firm mat. When finished, he promptly arose, and went to the bathroom. I rose, took one step forward and literally fell flat to the floor with a very loud thud. Both feet were completely numb and inoperable for a few minutes and I didn't even know it when rising up off the mat. That! was an awakening. You only have to do that once, you know.

    Sitting on the zafu in seiza can help lift your rear directly off the ankles and feet, thus providing better circulation. But then, sometimes the pressure of the zafu (turned on it's side) actually can make
    the pubic area go a bit numb. This, of course, all comes from personal experience because I have never, ever been able to sit either full or half lotus, in youth or older age. Now, I use a padded zazen bench. (And taking restorative yoga in hopes that someday I can get back to a comfortable Burmese-style pose.)

    The bench actually allows you to spread the knees apart 18-24", thus providing a healthy "tripod" stability to sitting. One piece of advice using the bench...besides swaying side-to-side when beginning a sitting, it's valuable to also get a sense of the position of your lower back/hips so that you are sitting squarely on the "sits bones" by rocking the hips backward and forward a half dozen times.....neither slumped back or pitched too far forward. (Issho Fujita, a Japanese Zen Buddhist priest, pays careful attention to "posture" there may be some Web links to that someone can assist in finding.)

    Finally, there was a very well constructed, ergonomic chair produced some years ago, called a Balans chair, that I once found very helpful to use....for zazen and for sitting at a desk. Anyone know if they are still available?



  13. #13
    Yes, Balans chairs, made by the Norwegian company Stokke, are still available and have spawned many imitations. You need to get one where you can adjust the distance between the seat and knees. I used one for many years as my desk chair.

    (Posted from my iPhone; please excuse any typos or brevity.)
    I know nothing.

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Rich View Post

    From free kindle book - Buddha in Bluejeans by Tai Sheridan

    You don't have to fit a square peg in a round hole.
    Thanks for that Rich - I'm going to look it up.

    There's always wise/balanced advice here regarding sitting.

    Let's face it - we're probably all going to get old, frail, unable to adopt these sitting positions (I like the stories of the ancients sitting upright 'till they happily keel over into death - but its a bit improbable for the average human being).

    Don't we learn something of attitude of mind through sitting that translates into the whole of life - and transcends our physical limitations. I really hope so - else it means Zazen is excluding.

    I really wish more was talked/written about disability and Zen - I think Warner's take on it has mellowed - he now writes that he finds a way to work with individuals who genuinely can't sit full/half Lotus - but I can't understand why not to be able to do so is viewed so much outside the norm.

    Perhaps the neuroscientists need to do one of their studies to see if there's really any difference at all - that might be interesting.



  15. #15
    One thing that I find when sitting non-cross-legged is that my breathing is much more relaxed; I don't need to tense up my back muscles to maintain a straight posture if I can lean my back against a chair. And this relaxed breathing seems to lead to more relaxed meditation.

  16. #16
    There is a difference between just enduring pain and actually injuring yourself...

    I have a knee deformation that cannot be seen by the naked eye.
    However, whenever I get on my knees this is very painful for me. The doctor said I should avoid kneeling as much as I can.
    At the beginning I ignored this advice though. I could endure the pain during zazen.
    However, one day - I think it was during one of the 4 hour monthly zazenkais here - I felt there was something wrong.
    When I got up one knee was swollen and stiff, I could hardly move it for days.
    As it turned out, doing zazen "the traditional way" would actually damage a part of my body, so I decided to sit on a chair without backrest, additionally using a wedge pillow to ensure a straight posture.
    At the beginning this was a bit odd for me, but now everything is fine. I sit directly on my sitting bones as usual and feel no difference to "the old days". Health comes first!

    Another thing I can very much recommend is doing zazen in the so-called Wu Chi standing position from standing Qigong. I found a short description here:


    No need to believe in the concept of chi, this is just about the posture described there.
    Whenever I use this posture it is almost like "blue sky right away". Can't explain why, but I have found it very effective to do once in a while.


    no thing needs to be added

  17. #17
    I sit in burmese position thanks to 40 years of overweight.

    Hope yoga helps me achieve full lotus someday


    Please remember I am only a priest in training. I could be wrong in everything I say. Slap me if needed.

    The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Mr. Spock

  18. #18
    Quote Originally Posted by Kyonin View Post
    I sit in burmese position thanks to 40 years of overweight.

    Hope yoga helps me achieve full lotus someday


    Please keep us posted, between the Lotus and your marathon running, how your knees and ankles are holding out in 20 years!

    By the way, even the historical Buddha complained of back aches. I do not want to say that the Lotus was a contributing factor ... but it is possible.

    From the Avassuta Sutta

    Then not long after the Kapilavatthu Sakyans had left, the Blessed One addressed Ven. Maha Moggallana: "Moggallana, the community of monks is free of drowsiness. Give them a Dhamma talk of your own devising. My back aches. I will rest it."

    Ven. Maha Moggallana responded, "As you say, lord."

    Then the Blessed One, having arranged his outer robe folded in four, lay down on his right side in the lion's sleeping posture, with one foot on top of the other, mindful & alert, having made a mental note to get up.
    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-18-2013 at 01:34 AM.

  19. #19
    For beginners, I want to emphasize that (in my reading of Shikantaza history) many Soto priests have confused and confounded (1) Dogen's emphasis on the sacredness, completeness and wonder of the act of sitting Zazen (which, in his day, meant sitting in the Lotus Posture) with (2) the potency and workings of the Lotus Posture-as-posture as the central point. When Dogen spoke of the wonder of sitting Zazen, he primarily meant (1), although it really was not an issue ... and was all mixed together ... because for Dogen and until recent times, to sit (1) typically meant to sit (2). Therefore, folks sometimes missed Dogen's point and interpreted his meaning as to be first and foremost sitting in the physical posture of the Lotus itself for posture's sake. I do not believe that was his emphasis.

    For example, in writings such as Fukanzazengi, there is some description of how to sit in the Lotus Posture. That is to be expected, because one is explaining to a beginner how to sit. However, the entire emphasis of the writing is the sacredness of the whole doing itself, the comfortable and balanced posture plus the mental aspect of dropping judgments and categories.

    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. Sanzen 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, ... 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 not-thinking. How do you think 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.

    If one looks at Shobogenzo Zanmai-O-Zanmai one sees that Dogen uses the Sino-Japanese term for Lotus Posture (結跏趺坐 Kekkafuza), yet the posture is really not what is being emphasized as much as the jewel that is the whole doing, the Buddha-ness of the whole event ... both body and mind, and that which is the balance of both and dropping both away.

    Furthermore, the emphasis on Lotus is not as a way with pain and fatigue, but as a way that is "the body light", freeing of pain and fatique. In other words, I think that one can keep that same wholeness and sacredness of "crossing the legs" even if not literally "crossing the legs".

    From: Zanmai ō zanmai

    Abruptly transcending all realms, to be greatly honored within the quarters of the buddhas and ancestors—this is sitting with legs crossed. Trampling the heads of the followers of alien ways and the legions of Māra, to be the one here within the halls of the buddhas and ancestors—this is sitting with legs crossed. Transcending the extreme of the extremes of the buddhas and ancestors is just this one dharma. Therefore, the buddhas and ancestors engage in it, without any further task.

    ... It is rare to have clarified that sitting is the buddha dharma, that the buddha dharma is sitting. Even if [some] realize sitting as the buddha dharma, they have not understood sitting as sitting — let alone maintained the buddha dharma as the buddha dharma. This being the case, there is the sitting of the mind, which is not the same as the sitting of the body. There is the sitting of the body, which is not the same as the sitting of the mind. There is the sitting of the body and mind sloughed off, which is not the same as the sitting of the body and mind sloughed off.

    The Buddha Śākyamuni addressed the great assembly, saying,

    When sitting with legs crossed,
    Body and mind realizing samādhi,
    One’s majesty, the multitudes respect,
    Like the sun illumining the world.
    Removed, the lethargy clouding the mind,
    The body light, without pain or fatigue;
    The awareness similarly light and easy,
    One sits calmly, like the dragon coiled.
    King Māra is startled and fearful
    On seeing depicted [one] sitting with legs crossed,
    How much more [on seeing] one who realizes the way,
    Sitting calmly without stirring.”

    Thus, King Māra is startled and frightened to perceive the depiction of [someone] sitting with legs crossed — how much more [someone] actually sitting with legs crossed; the virtue cannot be fully reckoned. This being the case, the merit of our ordinary sitting is measureless.

    ... Clearly we know that sitting with legs crossed is the king of samādhis samādhi, is realization and entrance. All the samādhis are the attendants of this king samādhi. Sitting with legs crossed is upright body, is upright mind, is upright body and mind, is upright buddha and ancestor, is upright practice and realization, is upright head, is upright vital artery.

    Now crossing the legs of the human skin, flesh, bones, and marrow, one crosses the legs of the king of samādhis samādhi. The World Honored One always maintains sitting with legs crossed; and to the disciples he correctly transmits sitting with legs crossed; and to the humans and gods he teaches sitting with legs crossed. The mind seal correctly transmitted by the seven buddhas is this.

    The Buddha Śākyamuni, sitting with legs crossed under the bodhi tree, passed fifty small kalpas [eras of time], passed sixty kalpas, passed countless kalpas. Sitting with legs crossed for twenty-one days, sitting cross-legged for one time — this is turning the wheel of the wondrous dharma; this is the buddha’s proselytizing of a lifetime. There is nothing lacking. This is the yellow roll and vermillion roller [that holds all the Sutras and Commentaries]. ...
    So, most important is to sit with such an attitude of Zazen as a sacred and complete act, your sitting as the Buddha Sitting, no other place or thing to do in all the universe, sitting in a light and balanced way ... than to just cross the legs like a pretzel and wait for some mysterious effect from that alone.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-18-2013 at 04:33 AM.

  20. #20
    We sit croos~legged until we can't
    and then
    and then only
    we sit cross~legged
    as always



  21. #21
    Thanks a lot, Taigu and Jundo!


    no thing needs to be added

  22. #22
    Like LimoLama, there's something wrong with my knee; I can sit Burmese quite comfortably, but I may not be able to straighten my knee when I get up, or walk for a week. Like Daido, I was surprised to see just how attached I was to form rather than substance; I felt quite humiliated to sit in a chair, like it was a personal failure of some sort. Once I saw it for what it was, as it was, zazen became just zazen again.
    Wonder what other aspects of ritual and ceremony which I'm so fond of I'm hung up about.
    May all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind
    quickly be freed from their illnesses.
    May those frightened cease to be afraid
    and may those bound be free.
    May the powerless find power
    and may people think of befriending one another.

  23. #23
    G'Day Treeleafers.

    I learned something today that might be of interest to someone who is having great difficulty sitting in almost any position. I discovered a very valuable resource....water....a swimming pool to be exact, when playing with my grandkids in a community pool.

    I sat seiza in about 2-1/2 to 3 feet of water. You can sit with knees close together or spread apart. I recommend the latter because it creates a gentle tripod for stability.

    The water keeps you buoyant enough (and probably body mass has something to do with just how bouyant you are. It seems that the more shallow the water the less buoyant (mass and water displacement....and all that)

    I found there really isn't pressure of gravity from sitting on your
    feet. Everything floats just enough (comfortably cushioned) especially when you find the right depth, that you remain fixed in a stable position but you aren't putting pressure on limbs.

    Now I'm not here to tell you how you are possibly going to work a swimming pool into your daily sitting. But, try it. Then be resourceful if it could help you. Meaning, I recommend it to those who are having major difficulty sitting (including benches, chairs, etc.)


    P.S. Please.....this isn't anything about samadhi tanks and sensory deprivation. It's about helping those who have unendurable pain in their limbs.....or anyone who is interested to experience what I am describing.

  24. #24
    Hi Richard,

    This sounds interesting. The thought of zazen in a swimming pool never ocurred to me, but what you say makes sense to me.
    Thanks for sharing!


    no thing needs to be added

  25. #25
    Richard - thank you - I have a delightful image in my mind now of swimming pool Zazen

    I am thinking though we need to somehow drop the notion of 'major difficulty sitting'. This thought was a great stumbling block for me at the beginning because I can't maintain a sitting position at all. I've come to realise that Zazen has nothing to do with a particular kind of sitting position - though if one can 'sit' this obviously helps in a certain way in finding a centre of balance and focus.

    If I can give an example - back to swimming pools and water. My little granddaughter was telling me how she had learnt to 'float' in her swimming lesson. She was very excited about her ability to achieve this. Listening to her description of 'floating' I realised she was completely at one with the experience of floating - how she had achieved this was off secondary importance.

    So yes, sitting, lying down, floating in water, whatever feels possible - with good intention - and then utterly unimportant when dropping off body and mind.



  26. #26
    There is also this, but I would think only for very short sittings ...


  27. #27
    Oh, she's been there for a long time. Look how white and wrinckled her palms and feet are . I'd imagine she's not even breathing
    仁道 生開 - Jindo Shokai "Open to life in a benevolent way"
    May all of our actions contribute to the harmony of the universe

  28. #28
    Or maybe we can do this

    倫道 真現

    As a trainee priest, please take any commentary by me on matters of the Dharma with a pinch of salt.

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