When we look at this image it might invoke a number of different responses. To some, it might look austere or impenetrable, to others noble and beautiful. It could be said to convey simplicity and quietude. What we are looking at is a photo of zen master Kodo Sawaki practising the Japanese buddhist form of meditation called zazen. He holds his body in the classical buddha mudra. In the zen tradition this is called kekka but it goes back to the ancient indian mudras or body postures of the yogis. He sits with back straight, legs folded beneath him, hands clasped in his lap, left on right, the fingers and thumbs forming the encircling shape of unity. We sense from his outer physical posture something of his inner world. We can never fully know what is going on for him internally but it doesn’t look like agitation or distress.
So why sit this way? Not all of us can. Meditation should never be a competition to sit the longest or hold the best posture. Nor should it be confused with a neurotic perfectionism. Of what use then is the Buddha Mudra and why might it help us with our meditation; whether we are buddhist or not? It might be better to see it in two ways; as both a position that it is possible for the body to hold and a mental image of that position that serves as a motivating ideal. For example, whether we choose to sit in a chair or lie down to meditate, we can still bring to mind and be inspired by the stability and balance of the buddha mudra. We can then move our focus to look for the symmetry in our own body no matter what meditation posture we favour. Even while lying down we can still bring a sense of balance to the positioning of our body. Also, moving ourselves both mentally and physically towards the classical posture can help ground us and bring calmness to our practise. Subtle adjustments to the positions of our limbs, the angle of our heads and the curve of our spine can have remarkable effects on our mental state and bring our focus to the physical and away from the ruminations of our mind. It’s not always easy to do this and the body can protest. Those of us who suffer from persistent pain may need to modify this approach but we may also find that we can build a new relationship with our body that comes out of patience and sensitivity.
The more we bring ourselves to refine the posture we use for our meditation the more we see how it can have an effect on the inner workings of our thought processes by bringing us back into the present moment and grounding us in the physical. Mediation is an embodied practise, it is as much about training the body as it is about training our mind, and then, when we move beyond the duality of mind and body, we see that it is all just one practise.