What Can We Learn From Painful Zazen?

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group



When I give zazen instruction, I often mention that there are two major categories of pain when sitting zazen. The first type is characterized by sharp pains in the joints or electrical sensations in the legs or other parts of the body. This type of pain is our body telling us that our body is in a physically comprising position and that we should do something to alleviate the pain. The other type of pain possible in zazen is the achy muscle burn pain. I would also include having one's legs fall asleep under this category as well. As unpleasant and intense as this pain may be, it is not normally harmful to our bodies. In fact, experiencing such discomfort can be quite insightful.

I recently sat a five day sesshin at the Chapel Hill Zen Center. I hadn't sat a five or seven day sesshin since moving to Canada several years ago. I was a little nervous because I recalled when I first began sitting sesshins in the 1990s, I experienced some pretty intense leg pain while sitting zazen. I was afraid that my body had “back slid” to my1990s level of ability. As it turned out, sitting the five day sesshin wasn't that difficult for me, and, afterward it gave me an opportunity to reflect on how my practice has changed over the years.

Before I first began sitting sesshins, I had considerable fear and anxiety about sitting for several days at a time. However, my desire to sit zazen was great enough for me to want to try to sit a sesshin. My first sesshin was a 3 day “Zen weekend”. Wow, my legs were screaming. Actually, it wasn't my legs screaming, it was my mind which was doing the screaming. The pain was very intense.

I talked to my teacher about my fear of leg pain. She encouraged me to sit more sesshins. One year, I sat 6 five day sesshins. The pain was intense. During this time in my practice, I began to notice that it was my narrative about my physical discomfort which intensified the pain. I talked to my teacher and my teacher's teacher about this. They both said to be present with the pain. I couldn't understand what they were talking about. Staying present seemed impossible. After some time, I began to notice the compulsiveness of the narration. It was very interesting. On one hand, I knew intellectually that talking to myself about my leg pain was making it worse. On the other hand, I was observing that my mind's habituated tendency to make narratives or comments about my experience was beyond my conscious control. No matter how much I tried to suppress my narrative, I couldn't get myself to shut up.

The Chapel Hill Zen Center has all day sittings about once a month, and it was one during one of these when there was a turning point in my practice. I was sitting there with my painful legs, and suddenly, I stopped taking the physical discomfort personally. The drive to add narrative to the experience dropped away. That experience changed my practice. It's not like I never indulged in pain making narratives again, but they impulse has attenuated over the years. The compulsiveness to narrate was gone.

In reflecting on the trajectory of my zazen practice, it seems useful to talk about how my painful legs have informed my understanding of Buddhist teachings, and how my understanding of Buddhist teaching informs my understanding of zazen practice. For this talk, I would like to talk about how my experience can be understood in the context of the Buddhist teaching of emptiness.

When we talk about something to ourselves, we are essentially making what we are talking about an object, we are making it “a thing”. So, I was making my leg pain “a thing” or an object during my meditation. When we perceive an experience as a thing, it necessarily follows that this “thing” has a name and attributes.

First, we make a dichotomy between the “I” or subject of the experience and the object of the experience. We believe the subject should be having a certain type of experience, or is entitled to a certain type of experience. The object is perceived to be different from, and independent of, the subject and has its own set of attributes or characteristics. This is our fundamental delusion – that what we are experiencing is somehow “not us”. When this experience is an unpleasant or negative experience, we see it both as an imposition and as something we would like to avoid.

Second, we see our object (e.g. pain in our legs) as having a life of its own. Our flawed reasoning may go something like this: If I was really in control of this unpleasant experience, I could make it go away at will. Since it doesn't go away at will, it must have some ability to persist despite my wishes; it must have some ability to exist independently. This perception of independent existence is what is called “self-nature” or “inherent existence”. The other thing to notice about this deluded reasoning is that it is completely egocentric.

As long as I had a narrative going about the physically unpleasant sensations, I was really suffering. I was clinging to a notion of self which was entitled to have a pleasant and peaceful period of zazen. I had also built up this view of “pain in my legs” as this implacable opponent. I could not beat it no matter how hard I tried.

Why did I persist in this zazen practice when it was so painful to me? Because I believed or at least wanted to believe that Zen and Buddhism had something to offer. I felt something, an intuition maybe, that this path was an authentic spiritual path. I believed that an authentic spiritual path involved hard work and resolve on my part. For some reason, I was able to keep going. I am also fortunate to have a good teacher and have had positive supportive experiences with a number of other teachers as well.

Eventually, after the narrative making dropped away, I was able to just feel the sensations. In Buddhist teachings, sensation, or vedana, occurs both in the teaching on dependent origination and as one of the five skandhas. Vedana is said to be of three kinds, pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The physical sensations in my legs were definitely unpleasant. At some point, the label “painful” dropped away as well, and I was just left with bodily sensations. At this point, I was content to sit in zazen with just those sensations. It wasn't pleasant, but I wasn't struggling to avoid the ever changing flux of sensations either. This was a state of non-suffering.

You might remember in the Heart Sutra where it says,

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form

As the Sutra also says, this is true for sensation, so we can also say,

Sensation is emptiness, emptiness is sensation
Sensation is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than sensation.

What is the Sutra telling us? For starters, let's first state what the Sutra doesn't say. I have the impression that sometimes people think that “realizing emptiness.” will be accompanied by bunnies and rainbows, and definitely a feeling of pleasantness. That's not what the Heart Sutra is saying. It is saying that the sensation you are experiencing right now is nothing other than the emptiness of that sensation. There is no special sensation which leads to emptiness nor are some sensations empty and others not empty. Emptiness is not a quality embedded in or hidden by sensations. If you were to hold such a view, you believe that you could dig through the nasty, unpleasant sensations you would find your cracker jack box prize of emptiness (and bliss). No, that's definitely not it. That's the junkie's version of Zen practice – looking for the next hit of relief and bliss.

Just sitting experiencing sensation is experiencing emptiness. Realizing means to make something real and actual in your life. However, this does not mean that you will know with your discursive consciousness what is happening.. As Dogen puts it in Genjokoan,

Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

In this sense, we are realizing emptiness in zazen. Take away the discursive consciousness which narrates the experience. Take away the discriminating consciousness which superimposes preference on an experience. Take away the notions of self and other, subject and object, which are based on ideas of attainment and entitlement. Take away notions of I, me, and mine. Just sit and there it is. There is nothing to seek or attain. Buddhist practice is more of a path of dropping off, of letting go, of losing the bits and pieces which we have added as extras to the direct sensory experience. This is the long iron road of Zen.

When one can sit like this, there is a certain fearlessness which arises. When I was first starting to sit sesshins, I was afraid of my leg pains. I thought of my capacity to endure leg pain was sort of like a gas tank – I only had a limited capacity to sit before the pain became intense. Consequently, in my early days, I would try to get to the zendo right before the period started, hoping I wouldn't run out of gas before the period ended. This never worked.

During this last five day sesshin I sat, I felt no fear. Rather, I felt joy and gratitude. As soon as the han started, I started making my way to the zendo. The han is a wooden drum or sounding board that starts being hit fifteen minutes before zazen starts. So, for some 40 minute periods of zazen, I was sitting for 50 or 55 minutes. I was able to enter bodily sensations and abide there most of the time. My narratives were either not operating or were ephemeral and not grasped.

So, what's the point of all this? First, I want you to know that I believe if I can do it, you can do it. Buddhism is about actually practising and transforming ourselves. Arousing bodhicitta, or “Way Seeking mind” is important in practice. We need to believe that there is a better way to live, and that Zen practice and Buddhist teachings can point the way to a better way of living.

Second, I want to talk about the effects of fearless zazen. One thing my teacher says, and I have found to be true is that the more we able to face and be present with physical discomfort in zazen, the more we are able to face and be present with sources of emotional or psychological pain in our lives. When we investigate and see deeply into our pain, we begin to be able to see it as “not pain”, but rather a constellation of sensations, memories, labels, and narratives. The meaning we are giving to an experience loses its charge and its ability to cloud our judgment.

The fearlessness we can develop in zazen has an impact on our ethical and moral behaviour as well. We often use unvirtuous actions to avoid sources of pain in our lives. As we are more able to face and be present with the reality of our lives, the roots of unvirtuous actions and habits start to wither. Conversely, the more we are able to face and be present with sources of emotional pain, the more we are able to see clearly and grow the roots of virtuous action. This one way that Zen meditation and the Buddhist precepts fit together.

Alleviation of suffering is the reason why we practise Buddhism. Like many other facets of zazen, the physical sensations we experience during a period of sitting acts like a microcosm of the other issues and problems we face in our lives. Zazen is kind of a laboratory for exploring our consciousness, and our habit energies. The “escape hatches” we notice during zazen to try to escape physically unpleasant sensations are the same escape hatches we use in our everyday lives off the cushion. In zazen, we start to shine the light of awareness on these patterns. Once we are aware, only then do we open up the possibilities for transformation. Such are the valuable lessons that painful zazen can teach us. Thank-you.

Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2016