Safety in Buddhist Meditation

Hi all,

A lot of people like to explore meditation in Buddhism, but if you’re not experienced with meditation, then it might be intimidating or you may try too hard and injure yourself.

I found this video online thanks to the Raichozan Zen group in Arizona (I sat in meditation with them once, while visiting there on a recent trip). This is a Zen teacher from the Victoria Zen Centre in Victoria, BC who provides a nice explanation about how to prepare the body for meditation, common postures, etc.

The teacher explains that as we get older, our body changes, and can’t do certain postures that children can. This can make meditation painful or stiff. So it’s important to do what you can do safely, then gradually move toward more stable and advanced positions.

Since visiting the Arizona temple, I usually sit in seiza style (sitting on the cushion like in the video). It’s works well enough and I don’t meditate often anyway to get more flexible.1

Don’t be show-off, be smart and know your limits if you’re new to meditation. The Buddha’s own advice about meditation posture was very limited. It was assumed to be folding the legs, as described in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN22 in the Pali Canon, trans. Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

“There is the case where a monk โ€” having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building โ€” sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore [lit: the front of the chest]. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

In other words:

  • Find a quiet place to sit.
  • Fold your legs (i.e. tuck them someplace stable/safe).
  • Keep your body upright, don’t slouch.
  • Be alert to your breathing: in and out.2

So there’s a fair amount of flexibility in how you do this. You don’t have to setup an expensive studio or go to the mountains like the great Buddhist masters of old did. If you follow some healthy, common-sense advice, and follow the basic methods with a reasonable amount of effort, you will have positive change.

But there is one other bit of advice that should be followed: do not neglect the importance of following moral conduct outside of meditation. This is a kind of “safety tip” too, because if you willingly and consciously violate the five precepts, your mind will be disturbed and uneasy and no amount of meditation will fix that. You don’t have to take my word for it, a lot of seasoned Buddhist monks and priests will tell you the same thing.

So, safety in meditation isn’t just physical, it’s mental too.

Anyhow, thanks to the Raichozan group in Arizona, and especially to the Victoria Zen Centre for the helpful information.

Namu Shaka Nyorai

P.S. First post of 2013. Had a great New Year’s with wife, daughter, Japanese friends and a nice, new temple I discovered.

1 Maybe 2-3 times a week, 12 minutes each. Why 12? 10 feels too short, and I am not patient enough to do 15 yet. ;p

2 Alternatively, as Ven. Yin-Shun taught, in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition (Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam) you can also visualize a certain Buddhist figure: a Buddha or Bodhisattva for example.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

6 thoughts on “Safety in Buddhist Meditation”

  1. Regarding just the physical part of meditation, I have felt almost from the beginning of my practice (25 years ago) that as Westerners do not sit on the floor customarily that there was no reason to do so for meditation. Nevertheless, I dutifully complied with using a cushion and sitting on the floor when I belonged to a Zen center, and when on weekend visits to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries; however, even after several years this continued to be painful…and as far as I was concerned, simply a distracting affectation. I turned to sitting in a straight back chair, and would date my meditation practice as truly beginning from that point. I can understand why Asian teachers would have introduced sitting on the floor in kneeling or lotus positons when they came to the U.S. as that was the norm for them. But why Westerners have continued with it leaves me bemused. Is the assumption that one is less meditative sitting in a straight back chair?

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    1. Hi Jack,

      I guess it’s an issue of stability. I don’t meditate much so I’m not an expert, but I know I can manage certain basic positions fine and thankfully without pain. Real beginner stuff, but I can’t complain. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Those positions do provide some great stability and if the body is stable the mind will be more stable.

      So if a chair is stable then I guess it makes sense to do that too. A chair’s center of gravity seems different though so perhaps that’s why some people may not recommend it. I really don’t know.

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  2. Just began watching the Victoria Zen video. The problem that the instructor points out with the chair he uses for his demonstration is easily overcome. Do not use a molded modern chair, use a traditonal flat-bottomed, straight-backed chair. I use such a chair with a flat seat of woven rushes that I picked up from an old man in the mountains of Cyprus, who made them to keep busy and sell to tourists. But you can find the exact same chair all over the U.S., often they are imported items in low cost, budget stores. They are sturdy and as they have a flat seat, you do not automatically lean back.

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