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Thread: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

  1. #1

    Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    I have been sitting in Burmese position throughout my Shikantaza practice (last three years or so). Only in the last two-three weeks have I been able to get both knees to the mat. I had done quite a bit of stretching (and yes forcing) to get to the point where I did not have to support my knees and thighs with cushions. As I have been a track cyclist for years, my thigh muscles are notoriously tight. After every workout on a bike the muscles that had stretched out on the mat would tighten right back up. I probably forced myself into this position a bit too quickly - after a morning sitting last Friday (2x30 minutes) with remarkably little fidgeting/adjusting, I noticed after some time that the inside of my knee was very painful. After some examination, it turns out my interior (or tibial) cruciate ligament has been strained. As a result, I have started sitting in Seiza - a position I could sit in without any cushions for years. This time around, I am using my zafu between my legs to provide a supporting platform.

    I wanted to share a few observations regarding this change in position -

    1) I realize how much pain I had been filtering out while sitting in Burmese. In Seiza, I am so comfortable I have noticed myself falling asleep multiple times. Pain had been an effective focal point for concentration! (kidding). As a result I do much less fidgeting and can settle my mind, and breathing down much more quickly.

    2) The resulting mind traffic that I am witnessing is very interesting - as I had progressed in Burmese position I developed the notion that I had progressed in my practice - that it had become more authentic - and as a result of working on the posture felt in some way more connected to those who had gone before me.... a false mental construction I agree, but one that is pinging on me nonetheless.

    3) Resulting from this is a feeling of weakness or lack of authenticity - by sitting in seiza (and with a zafu between my legs) I feel like a wimp - I have been used to training with pain in a number of sports for years but I am at a point where I feel I have to recognize the ravages of the years upon my joints. I am not used to being kind to my body (or myself) and it is hard to go easy and accept the new position.

    4) I notice in becoming drowsy that I sway, and approach toppling over in this position - almost did a face plant last night (very amusing I must admit - these used to be the subject of bragadoccio in the pub after a day on the slopes - ah how times have changed) - I miss the stability of burmese position.... obviously I do not want to sleep through my zazen, so this is an opportunity to develop skills in awareness and presence - whether by counting breaths, or reciting lines from koans/sutras to focus myself. I had formerly used all the physical fidgeting to break the streams of thought that I would chase before recognition dawned...

    I just wanted to share this development with you. My practice continues to change and evolve. Perhaps I had become attached to the posture as an object of practice and furthered my illusion of having attained some form of progress - when there is indeed nothing to be attained and the body is a transient phenomenon. Joints age and we change. I have a hard time with that.

    If you have made it this far, thank you for your patience (no face plants on the keyboard please).


  2. #2

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    I know there are several colleagues in the sangha who practice in variety of postures due to physical realities and I draw upon your collective wisdom and practice to realize that a position does not necessarily a Buddha make.... we already possess that which we seek. I just forget from time to time.

    Once again,


  3. #3

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    I sit the same way with my zafu placed on its sides to make it a bit higher. I am not very flexible at all, so burmese is tough for me as well.

    I was thinking of the Mountain Seat as a cushion which might add some stability, but I don't know anyone who has one and its a relatively pricey product.

  4. #4

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    Hi Yugen,

    There is nothing wrong in sitting in seiza. If you feel like a wimp you could question your beliefs about what is correct or incorrect sitting...In fact, as you beautifully say, you already possess what you are chasing. People that can't sit anymore can always do shikantaza. Some people in hospital beds do so. Maybe, somewhere in your head, there is a bit a macho, idealistic image of what sitting should be. Please come back to what sitting is. And appreciate it.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.



  5. #5

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    I appreciate your response. You are entirely right - in focusing on the posture I have strayed away from the essence of sitting. It is strange to just sit and not be preoccupied by notioms of posture and the actuality of discomfort. And yes, there is a "macho"' aspect here that I am being given an opportunity to recognize and focus on the essence of practice.


  6. #6

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    I am experimenting with a variety of body positions while shikantaza-ing, even though I still have not finished sewing my zafu and due to financial situations my not for quite a while ops: . Zazen is all of life, right? Just like "what's not a Buddha statue?" The practice is right here and right now, right?

    Just some thoughts


  7. #7

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    By the way Yugen, some of these issues have already been discussed here:

    viewtopic.php?f=1&t=3232&p=45100&hilit=athlete+zen #p45100

    Take it easy.



  8. #8

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    Thank you for sharing Yugen,
    Peter, usually doing zazen on a bench

  9. #9

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    Thank you for the reference to the discussion thread. Very helpful indeed. Peter and Jonathan, thank you for sharing your experiences. The last few days I have found it liberating to sit and not worry about contorting myself into Burmese and wondering "how far can I get my knees close to the floor today?" Peter, a bench may be in my future...

    I appreciate everyone's thoughts and support.



  10. #10

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    I moved to Japan eighteen years ago at age 56. My hips were not accustomed to sitting cross legged for meals, parties, discussions, meetings, etc. But that's the way it was. As an embalmer i was immediately conscious of the different ways in which the japanese hip can contort. With some persistence I managed to conform. After sittng zazen for perhaps a year I will always remember the morning when Tanaka-oso quietly but with astonishment, wispered in my ear, "Maxwell-san, your knees do not touch the floor !" Soon after, I made a zafu from the instructions found at the back of the book, "Shikantaza" And, proceeded to train my legs. Upon returning to Canada, the zafu became a memory and with the help of a small stool recommended by my shakuhachi sensei and a well used yoga mat, I sit in a quasi-half-lotus position that leaves me feeling comfortable and able to drift off/fall away into clarity with some semblance of balance and harmony (also provides Billlie with a place to ensconce and purview her world.) And then again, do we really care (or not-care)

    p.s. Ijust noticed when inserting the picture that the stool and mat are in color harmony 8)
    and i've been sitting this way for ten or so years???

  11. #11

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    My story, in a nutshell, is that, because I could, I forced myself to sit in full lotus while sitting zazen for the first year and a half or so after starting a daily sitting practice, because I thought it was the "correct" way to sit.

    This continued until I did my first sesshin, and after just a few periods in full lotus, I was in great pain. I forced myself to sit through that pain, and was amazed how pain was just a sensation when you can let go while witnessing it... but hurt myself in some way that caused me to limp for a couple of days. After that, I switched to Burmese (half-lotus is how I normally sit when I'm just chilling out on the floor, but feels incredibly "uneven" to me as a sitting posture). I've never looked back.

    I know from my own personal experience that the arguments about one particular posture being superior are wrong. What the Buddha taught was to sit in a posture that achieved two things: (1) it helped you remain alert and (2) it was comfortable and stable enough to support sitting for long periods. Now, "alert" is relative; it's natural to feel sleepy sometimes when sitting still (unless your mind is an ululating echo chamber 24/7 like mine :lol: ). But, naturally, the mind itself is in a different "posture" when sitting upright than when walking or lying down.

    Burmese has been the "correct" posture for me because it has enabled me to sit for extended periods of time in relative comfort. When I did a solo meditation retreat, I was able to sit for 3-4 hours at a time with only brief stretching breaks in between periods--less than 3 minutes--and no kinhin. I was not in pain or stiff in any way afterward. I even recall sitting for as long as two hours without stretching. The only pain I experienced was in my upper back because I carry tension there. Whereas, when I sit in lotus, because of my body shape, leg length, etc., my top leg always slides down the thigh of the lower leg, my knees and ankles get strained and become painful if I sit for much longer than 20 minutes, etc. And I worked with yoga teachers for years trying to figure out what I was doing "wrong." No one could help. No matter how many hip opening exercises I did, my body was just always awkward in that pose.

    I experienced what the Buddha described when I sat in Burmese during that solo retreat. There was the dignity and alertness of the upright seated posture, but a level of comfort and ease that was impossible for me in the traditional lotus pose.

    I think each of us has to find what pose achieves that balance of bright alertness and relaxed comfort, for our own particular bodies. Human bodies are remarkably similar, but they are not the same, and I think it's silly to think that one posture is the "perfect" or "correct" posture for everyone.

    I personally can't sit in seiza because it creates incredible pain in my knees. And I prefer the more grounded feeling of having my butt on a cushion. But when I've tried seiza, other than that strange "floating in the air" feeling it has on a subtle level, it really doesn't feel that different qualitatively than other sitting postures...

  12. #12

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    Hi everyone!

    I'll just add my two cents... I've nothing precise to say about this matter but a thought to share:
    Once, I was sitting at home with a friend. She has been told to sit burmese (Vipassana tradition), and I've nothing against it... I do it too when half lotus is not possible! But it was difficult for her to remain in "stilness".
    Later, we talked and I noticed that she didn't know about other postures.
    She tried the full lotus... dawn it looked easy for her! And the sitting was far better!
    In fact, she is a tall girl with "lots of legs"... enough legs to play the "full lotus game"... Than something came to me... I'm not "designed" for this full lotus posture! I tried it many times, to the point of hurting myself and troubling my sitting... but never succeeded in sitting for long (one day maybe!)...
    I still try to sit in every posture but I've the impression that some people have the "body" or "proportions legs/torso" that make some posture more comfortable than others...
    And finaly, isn't it all about being in a comfortable posture that we can keep for practicing zazen without too much difficulties?


  13. #13

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    Hello all,

    Yugen - so many have stated here what I would repeat...find the best position that works for you. It seems you may have found just that. I waiver my sitting positions, I cannot sit full lotus. Mostly I sit burmese or seiza and shift to half lotus at times. I am naturally "unbalanced" as my spine has an intense curve in the lower lumbar region. Sometimes the only way I can sit is in a chair or lying down, but it's all still zazen.

    This week has involved alot of chair zazen with icepacks on my back, but it's still perfect zazen as imperfectly as it may seem.

    Happy sitting...


  14. #14

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...


  15. #15

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    Thank you all for sharing your personal experiences and encouragement. The last few days have been amusing actually, I am so comfortable in seiza I have to watch out not to fall asleep... some time for adjustment!


  16. #16

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    Remove the Zafu if you want some pain back into the game! :wink: :twisted:

  17. #17

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    Could also use broken glass or nails to keep me awake!!


  18. #18

    Re: Burmese position and the delusion of attainment...

    In zazen, every moment is a beginning, every moment is an achievement. Any sitting position should not become a habit, something taken for granted. We are invited to have a fresh and open look at the posture, not locking anything, fixing anything, but always exploring as life changes, circumstances and body too... Pain is not required but sometimes it keeps you awake. The balanced state, the original face, the ineffable ... we cannot put our paws on it, traps and snares cannot catch it as it is said in Dogen's Fukanzazengi. So we all have to accept that this very simple action of sitting on a cushion or a bench may require a lifetime practice. Travellers? For sure. We are endlessly exploring this little-huge corner of reality called the self.



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