Saturday, January 30, 2010


Crankset, 2007.

Since I started practicing zazen, I've developed an intimate understanding of my legs.

They're relatively long, a bit bent, and tend to settle into an uneasy spidery kind of configuration when I cross them for zazen. My knees are on the loose side, with my left knee prone to swelling, pain, and stiffness if I don't maintain the muscles in balance by some exercises at the gym. My calves are much weaker than my thighs, which are pretty strong, actually, because I do a fair bit of cycling when it's not winter. My left leg is a good deal more flexible than my right one. There are a bunch of little scars on the shins from various bicycle crashes and other mishaps over the years. Both my hamstrings and my hips started out very stiff, but eight months of regular yoga-based stretching exercises have helped, and now they're only moderately stiff. I can touch the floor with my palms with my legs straight, and with a little bit of encouragement, a nice fat zafu, and a couple of folded-up towels, I can sit for a half-hour in quarter-lotus without having to fight through a red haze of pain. Thanks, Mom, for the instruction on those exercises!

And the bastards hurt. Less now than six or eight months ago, though.

To start with, I could barely make it through a half-hour round of zazen in a fairly high seiza position (sitting on my knees with my weight on the zafu), had to take a few minutes to get up from it, and was left with a dull ache in them for the rest of the day. By September, I was able to sit through two rounds of zazen plus 45 minutes worth of teisho without too much pain, although I really appreciated a warm bath afterward, and felt them the next day. By November, I made it through a seven-hour zazenkai, although at the end the red haze of pain was back and the next day I felt like I'd been pulled out from under a landslide. By December, I was able to alternate between cross-legged sitting and seiza, and while there was still a fair bit of pain toward the end of the zazenkai, I recovered quite quickly.

Perhaps I'll be able to reach half-lotus in a few more months. If not, I'll be happy to be able to sit in quarter-lotus with relative comfort -- I can maintain my posture in it far better than in seiza or the Burmese position; especially in the former I seem to be correcting my posture almost continuously.

However, I'm getting a bit of a dawning realization about this. Mumon linked to an article about a Taiwanese Zen monk the other day, which mentioned a legend that Bodhidharma sat so long that his legs fell off. He also mentioned a scary pain in his hip another time. Sante-sensei, the senior teacher in our sangha, occasionally mentions pains in the knees. Shunryu Suzuki, when discussing samadhi, mentions that 'the pain in your legs will bother you not at all.' I've seen some folks in my sangha who have been sitting for over a decade rubbing life into their legs after a simple half-hour round of zazen, just like me. And some young, incredibly stretchy people who serenely sit in full-lotus get strangely pained expressions when extricating themselves from it.

The pain is not going to go away.

I've been figuring that all I need is practice and stretching, and eventually I'll be able to sit on crossed legs as comfortably as on the ergonomic marvel of an office chair my employer has supplied me. Yet from all those little hints, it seems like the pain in the legs is going to be there, to some degree, no matter how flexible you are, how long you've been sitting, or how deeply you've realized your True Nature.

I mentioned in an earlier post about a zazenkai I attended that something rather strange and wonderful happened during it: my legs were hurting badly, but it wasn't bothering me. I've been able to cultivate that a little bit even in my daily sitting.

Perhaps the pain serves a purpose. It's a lot harder to drift off into a reverie if there's a little ache there to remind me that I'm supposed to be doing zazen, not daydreaming. It's perhaps also a concrete way of experiencing and practicing the idea that 'pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional,' and illustrates what, exactly, the skandhas of body, form, and sensation mean, and how they relate to cognition, volition, and consciousness.

So, lately, I've resolved to practice not fighting the pain, but accepting it and learning from it, and not expecting it to go away. I won't actively seek it, of course, and will continue my leg exercise regimen to keep it to a minimum, but I'm trying to lose my expectation of eventually being rid of it.

And if I'll manage to learn to experience pain without suffering, that would really be something.


  1. Hi, we haven't been introduced, save for a couple of exchanges in other times and other web places, but I hope you don't mind if I chime in.

    Thing is I had this (kind of) epiphany about the difference between pain and suffering a couple of years ago. Seeing what you're reading and some of your older posts, you've left me wondering about whether that's a subject that belongs to a 'regular Buddhist syllabus', so to speak. Any pointers on that? TIA

  2. Hey, that's what the comments are for. (Who are you, if you don't mind my asking?)

    Yeah, the distinction between pain and suffering is a central one in Buddhism.

    Pain is a sensation: something your senses transmit to you. Suffering -- dukkha -- arises from discrimination, between "good" and "bad", for example. Pain turns into suffering when you compare being in pain to not being in pain, and develop a preference for the latter.

    If somehow or other you're able to get rid of that preference, you'll still be in pain, but you won't be suffering.

    It's a nice theory. From that to be able to serenely undergo torture is clearly a long, long way, but somehow I think it may not be completely impossible, and I think even I might make it to the stage where I'm able to handle mildly achy legs.

  3. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, one always begins with "short sessions, repeated many times" so that the mind develops a positive association with meditation and it stays fresh.

    OTOH, I recall this saying, maybe from a Shambhala ad: "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional."

  4. I try to observe pain as just another sensation. If no one had told me it "hurts" when I was young then maybe it would have just been something to be aware of but not scared of. Hope this makes sense. I try to practice it when at the dentist!