In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen’s manual of Zen meditation, he succinctly describes the form for practicing zazen:

At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.  Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. 

This is pretty clear and straightforward.  The practice of Zen meditation, as taught by Dogen, places a particular emphasis on the external form that the body takes.  This is in fact the position that the Buddha took when he attained enlightenment, and we are to take the same posture, and thereby express the sane, wakeful quality of our hearts.  Of course today we recognize that each person’s expression of Buddha’s posture is different – some may sit in half lotus, some may sit on a bench, some may lie down – but in our practice, each of us is expressing our awakened hearts by putting our bodies into a specific posture.

One of the hallmarks of formal Zen Buddhist practice is that it involves placing significant limitations on our activity.  We walk in a certain way, we bow in a certain way, and we sit still for a long time.  This can look pretty austere – and it can sometimes feel that way too! – but if you stick with it, most people find that there’s something liberating about giving yourself over to the restrictions of the formal practice.

I think there’s an analogy in music.  We don’t make beautiful music simply by playing whatever notes we want, whenever we want.  Think about the music of Bach or Mozart.  They are highly structured pieces, and we make beautiful music by limiting ourselves to play particular notes in a particular key, with strictly regulated tempo and harmony.  If we just play a bunch of notes, we can’t make music; we make noise, dissonance.  So in a similar way, in our Zen practice as in the rest of our lives, we have to limit ourselves.  But it is through this limitation that we give voice to the music of our lives.

Dogen expands on this point in Genjo Koan:

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.  Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.

It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find you way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past and it is not merely arising now.

Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it–doing one practice is practicing completely.

No matter what our life circumstances may be, we have some element.  In the zendo, our element is the formal practice of Soto Zen Buddhism.  If we are able to relax into the forms of our practice, we will naturally covering our full range.  When we completely do the formal practice, we never reach the end of it.  This is why we can continue to practice day after day, year after year and continue to find depth and support in the practice of zazen.
I have always been inspired by Dogen’s statement that doing one practice is practicing completely.  This reminds me of a story about the great choreographer George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet.  One of the lead ballerinas was having difficulty with one of his dances, and rather than working with her on the whole dance, Balanchine just had her practice one particular turn of her foot, over and over and over again.  When she got that, the rest of the dance came together for her.  This is one practice, practicing completely.

On the other hand, if we’re sitting in the zendo grumbling about having to sit still for so long or about having to face the wall when you’d rather face the center of the room, or about having to bow in a certain way, that is trying to reach the end of our element before moving in it, and we will not find our way.  We all know this feeling.  This is what happens when we get overwhelmed by life and try to do too many things at once, or when we wish that our life situation was different from what it is.  So, as always, the practice is just to come back to what is, to totally experience our realm.

When we can do that, even if it’s just for a moment, that’s a moment of complete practice.  What is the element of your life?  How do you play the music of your life?

by Juhan Liiv
It must be somewhere, the original harmony, 
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits, 
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
that music?