How to Practice the Proper Form of Sitting Meditation
- This is part of a series introducing the book "In One Lifetime, Pure Land Buddhism" by Venerable Wuling through selected excerpts. Read the first chapter on Amitabha Blog titled "What is Pure Land Buddhism?" here.
Forms of Practice
To begin our practice, we put our hands together, palm to palm in front of our heart. Fingers are also placed together without any space between them. Eyes are focused on the tips of the middle fingers. Elbows are slightly bent. The head is tilted slightly down. This movement is used to express respect and is called hezang in Chinese. Besides being used to symbolize the mind without wandering thoughts, it is also used to express the oneness of the true nature.
It is traditional to begin practice with a simple ceremony that includes bowing to the Buddha. Bowing, also called prostrating, is our way of showing respect and can serve to purify the three karmas of body, speech, and mind when it is combined with chanting. Since this practice can be difficult physically for people who are unaccustomed to the movements, it is acceptable to do a standing half bow instead of a full bow to the floor.
When ready to begin a practice session, do a half bow, three full bows, and a half bow. Both forms will be explained in detail in following sections. With this bowing, we pay respect to the Buddha and mentally prepare to begin our chanting. Having done this, we may next light an incense stick if conditions allow, and then take up our position.
Assume a comfortable position on a meditation cushion or stool, or on a chair. Use a cushion, either on the floor or your chair, that is slanted so the back is slightly higher than the front of the cushion. This will incline your pelvis forward and provide better support. When sitting on the floor with a cushion, you may do so in a full or partial lotus position, or you may cross your legs. If this position is painful, it may be more comfortable to use a meditation stool or higher cushion. Sitting on the stool and placing one’s legs under it in a simulated kneeling position is the usual position. If sitting on a chair, place both the soles of both feet on the floor about a foot apart.
To sit in a lotus position, sit on the cushion and try to place the top of your left foot on your right thigh. Next, place your right foot on your left thigh to form a stable seat. The back and shoulders should be erect but relaxed. If this is too difficult, as it is for many people, try the half lotus position, in which you raise only one foot onto a thigh, and rest the other under the opposite thigh. Or sit cross-legged. Please remember that it is not necessary to force yourself to sit in an unfamiliar position that is too physically demanding.
Try to determine whether your discomfort is simply the result of sitting still in a different position from what you are used to, or due to taking up a position that is just too difficult or painful. It is more important to focus on subduing our pointless, wandering thoughts than on subduing bodies that are not used to sitting in unfamiliar ways.
Hold your hands on your lap with the back of the right hand resting on the palm of the left hand, and with thumb tips slightly raised and lightly touching. Eyes may be lightly closed or slightly open. If you feel drowsy when your eyes are closed, open them slightly. Posture is very important, so sit upright comfortably without slumping or leaning forward. Hold the head at a slight downward tilt with the chin pulled in just a little. In this position, begin chanting “Amituofo” aloud or silently.
Breathe in through the nose, pulling the air down into the deepest part of the lungs while distending the diaphragm and then slowly breathe out through the nose. Breathing should be natural. Try to use your diaphragm to pull the air deeper into your lungs instead of breathing shallowly. In silent chanting, the tip of the tongue lightly touches the back of the upper teeth, and teeth and lips are held as usual. Shoulders are level and elbows are held slightly away from your sides.
If you are not yet accustomed to such practice and experience discomfort such as leg cramps, slowly move your legs into a position in which you are more comfortable. It is best to keep initial sessions short: ten to fifteen minutes. Sessions may be gradually lengthened as you become more used to the practice. It is better to do a short period of chanting than not do it at all. You may use walking or bowing to calm both mind and body before you begin your sitting. Continue your chanting as you vary the physical forms of practice.