I was up at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center the other day, and Issho Fujita gave a presentation on the stretches involved in zazen. He ended by pointing out that we put our hands on our heads when we wonder what to do or what to think about something; we cross our hands over our heart when we seek humility; what, he asked, is the mind that goes with the posture of zazen? When we sit, we experience that mind, he said.
The Gautamid started out teaching the four fields of mindfulness, the seven factors of enlightenment, the four truths, and the eight-fold path. In my estimation, something changed after the suicide of many of his monks due to the meditation on the unlovely, which he also taught (it’s in Samyutta Nikaya volume 5 in the chapter on “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths”). When he came out of retreat and realized the situation, he described his practice before and after enlightenment as “concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths”, and he said this was a thing that was lovely in and of itself, and a pleasant way of life too.
Notice that he no longer is directing his monks to the unlovely as a means for the recognition of impermanence, nor is he advocating striving for enlightenment in some other way. Of course, the concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths he described involves in part the experience of impermanence, detachment, cessation, or relinquishment in connection with the breath in or out, yet the emphasis is markedly changed.
He also describes the experience of sense organ, sense object, consciousness, impact, and feeling with respect to each of the senses as a way wherein fevers of the mind and body gradually diminish, and the eight fold way, the factors of enlightenment, and all the rest can develop and come to fruition (Majjhima-Nikaya, Pali Text Society volume 3 pg 337-338, copyright Pali Text Society). This too represents a different emphasis than that of the earlier teachings, at least it does to me.
When the Gautamid died, he said, “everything changes- work out your own salvation”. He told the monks they didn’t have to observe all the rules anymore, just the principal three, but nobody could say which three he meant with any certainty so they went on observing them all.
So at what point do I lose the structure? I think only out of a necessity at the moment, as that necessity is realized. As Shunryu Suzuki said, it’s a mistake to think you can sit zazen- only zazen can sit zazen. I would say, it’s a mistake for me to think that I can lose the structure. It helps me to know that the Gautamid’s practice concerned mindfulness connected with in-breaths and out-breaths; it helps me to know that the anatomy behind that is the support for the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae provided by the ilio-lumbar ligaments, and to know that this support is crucial to the free movement of the sacrum in the cranial-sacral rhythm. It helps me to know that it’s about consciousness that occurs because of contact between a sense organ and a sense object, it’s about impact in the fascial structure as a result of consciousness, and it’s about an ability to feel that follows out of activity generated by impact. Most of all, it helps me to know that aversion to the particular of feeling, attraction to the particular, or ignorance of it can condition the subsequent occurrence of consciousness; I can witness the conditional nature of consciousness for myself, and experience the cessation of volitive activity in perception and sensation as a result of such a witness. There’s a certain happiness in this that draws me as a necessity, at any given moment.