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Thread: Zazen as "Keeping the spine Straight" by Nishijima

  1. #1

    Zazen as "Keeping the spine Straight" by Nishijima

    I tried Nishijima's method the very first time yesterday. The method as I understand is as follows

    It is "just sitting" as an ongoing action of "keeping the spine straight". As long as we are aware, we keep trying to keep the spine straighter and straighter; even when it is already straight. Whenever we wake up from thought we go back to that process again. I think it is pretty similar to what is described in "Opening the hand of thought" as "Aiming at coming back to straight line ZZ', waking up from drowsiness and distraction". But I like Nishijima's one better because it makes just sitting an active process as we are doing a real physical action.

    Few observations. When I tried this method, my awareness was much much better compared to any other methods that I tried previously. At the same time, I felt the method is intense and when I sat in the weekend treeleaf Zazenkai, the second sit seemed to cause some pain in the neck and upper back area during the sit. Despite liking the method, I am afraid doing this incorrectly can hurt the spine.

    Would like suggestions from those who followed this method.


  2. #2
    Hi Sam,

    Still running from one method to another, I see.

    Well, see how it goes for you.

    My Teacher (as you ask me to speak of the recently departed) had some very personal theories about Zazen and the spine. He was a former runner who found great physical and mental balance in the sitting of Zazen, very much as he felt in running. He then tried to explain the source of that feeling of balance, and developed some ideas about that. Roshi came to compare the experience of balance and oneness experienced in running to the sense of peace/balance/wholeness/oneness that is often experienced in Zazen. Nishijima Roshi came to attribute this in significant part to the physiological effect of the sitting posture itself. Here is a sample of Roshi's writing on the subject:

    In Zazen we sit on a cushion on the floor with both legs crossed, and with our lower spine, upper spine, and head held straight vertically. Keeping the spine straight has a direct and immediate effect on the autonomic nervous system that controls many of our body’s functions. Its effects include control of heart rate and force of contraction, constriction and dilatation of blood vessels, contraction and relaxation of smooth muscle in various organs, the ability to focus the eyes and the size of the pupils, and the secretion of hormones from various glands directly into the blood stream.

    The autonomic nervous system is composed of two subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, our heart rate increases, arteries and veins constrict, the lungs relax, and our pupils dilate; in short, we become tense and alert. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, the opposite happens; our heart rate decreases, arteries and veins dilate, the lungs contract, and the pupils constrict. You can see that the two systems prepare the body for an active or passive response sometimes known as the “fight or flight” syndrome. When the effect of the two systems on the organs is in balance, we are neither ready to fight, nor ready to run away; we are in a normal state.

    The parasympathetic nerves emerge from the spinal chord at the base of the spine (the second, third and fourth sacral vertebrae) and through the cranial vertebrae in the neck, whereas the sympathetic nerves emerge from the spinal chord through the middle vertebrae in the back (the T1 to L2 vertebrae). Keeping the spine normally upright, with the head sitting squarely on the top of the vertebral column minimizes the compression of the nerves of these two systems at the points where the nerves emerge through the vertebrae, and ensures an uninterrupted supply of blood, allowing them to function normally. When the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems are both working normally, they function in opposition to give us a state of balance of body-and-mind; not too tense, and not too relaxed, not overly optimistic or pessimistic; not too aggressive and not too passive. It is this physical state of balance in the autonomic nervous system that give rise to what we call a balanced body-and-mind.

    In addition to this, sitting in the upright posture, where the force of gravity acts down through the spine onto the pelvis, is a position in which our body’s reflexes can work efficiently to integrate the functioning of the whole body.

    (p 11-12 here) ... -Zazen.pdf
    Personally I, as do about all Zen folks, believe that a balanced and stable posture does aid in allowing a balanced and stable mind ... as body-mind are intimately connected and whole. I also feel that Nishijima Roshi was decades ahead in realizing that Zazen does have a neuro-physiological component which science is just coming to recognize (through placing meditating monks in MRI machines and other testing). Much of Roshi's assertions are based on the writings of Karl Menninger, Herbert Benson and others, and have a solid basis. However, I believe that Nishijima Roshi's theories on the marvelous effects of sitting in Lotus Posture itself with a straight spine ... while having some such basis, and while a balanced posture is certainly important ...were perhaps stretched by him rather too far into areas where there is really no scientific backing, or where scientific data is directly contradicting some of what he says. (I am rather sorry that you raised this question today, just days from his death. However, I answer as best I can).

    Taigu and Taigu's Teacher Chodo Cross (and others in the Soto world) who are heavily influenced by the more flexible and less rigid "Alexander Technique" believe that many Japanese Zen fellows like Roshi insist on a two rigid, soldier-like posture. I agree with that. The Chinese, Koreans, Tibetans and others "on the continent" generally do not sit as rigidly and stone-like as the Japanese. I would ask Taigu to comment on that.

    On the other hand, Sam, give it a go! Please report back in a couple of months on what you experience.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 02-01-2014 at 06:52 AM.

  3. #3
    It all comes down to how you define "straight." The spine is not meant to be in a straight line, but gently curved. So if you try to force it into your concept if straight, you may be wrong.

    (Posted from my iPhone; please excuse any typos or brevity.)

    I know nothing.

  4. #4
    Hi Jundo,

    Is there a book or a source where we can find out more about Nishijima's thoughts on running? I would love to read and learn about that. Thanks.


    Hondō Kyōnin
    奔道 協忍

  5. #5
    Hi Kyonin,

    As far as I know, he has not written anything directly on running apart from saying, here and there, that he found the "loss of self", pure action and balance he sometimes encountered in running as much the same as Zazen.

    Gassho, J

  6. #6
    Member Liang's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2014
    In the Blueridge Mountains, USA
    This is a very interesting topic! As an OT we focus a lot on posture and will help by adding a pillow here or a modified seat there to help achieve that. As someone with a bad back, I use a pillow against a wall or back of a couch to give myself enough support to hold that natural curve for an extended period. Traditionally people sit without any back support and I think the argument is it is too easy to become overly relaxed/sleepy or perhaps if not placed correctly encourages slouching. Thoughts?

    Not to pretend to have the expertise of Nishijima, but what he says makes perfect sense from a nuero logical, physiological, and sensory perspective. In addition to his good points, keeping the head in a stable neutral position minimizes input from the inner ear's to the vestibular system. Also adopting the same position each time creates an association between motor positions/movements and the emotional/awareness experience on a physical level in the brain according to nuero plasticity and increasing connections. Just like riding a bike can bring back associated memories and emotions of other times you rode one.

    Gassho, Fred

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