City Dharma: Zen Buddhism in Pittsburgh


“Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath exhale fully, rock your body right and left and settle into steady immovable sitting.”   Eihei Dogen- Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen

This provocative photograph creates an image of the lower extremities extending from the torso like roots of a tree. Notice how they swirl and intertwine as they reach outward and beyond.  Here I’ll focus on how the legs are in relationship to the torso in particular to the activity of zazen, seated meditation. For now, can you sense where the legs begin?  This is really a practice in sensory awareness, an attention to this body.  Sitting becomes an experiment in sensing!  Sitting as this body is.  So what exactly is the torso?  How does it articulate with the legs?  I think this photograph displays an utterly beautiful interplay between the flow of gravity down through the legs while simultaneously surging upward, outward through the upper torso and arms.  This is the perfect dance expression of  “down to go up”.   The downward flow of gravity meets the upward life force. Hence, a perfectly balanced body+mind.

In zazen, we sit either on the floor, a bench or on a chair. In activity, the femur, upper bone of the lower limb, supports the weight of the body and has a tremendous range of movement; it’s also the longest and strongest bone in the body.   The  lower limb consists of the femur, tibia, patella, fibula and a series of small bones that comprise the foot/ankle.  There are twenty-two muscles that support the femoral joint i.e hip joint.  Interestingly, twenty-one of twenty-two originate from the pelvis.  

In this conversation, the pelvis, hip joints, the entire length of the spine, all the way to the top of the spine (i.e atlanto-occipital joint) make up the torso.  In sitting, we can open and relax, allowing the legs to rest completely into the earth.  Yet many of us have lost flexibility, elasticity in the lower limbs, because we have spent so much time sitting “in” chairs.  When we sit on the floor, the legs can begin to ache, ankles hurt from being pressed against the mat, not to mention the upper and mid-back.  When sitting can we relate to the surface?  What does it feel like?  What do you notice when the surface is hard?  When it’s soft, can we sense downward through to the supporting surface?

Preparing the body for sitting, allow the torso to fold over the legs, sense the movement occurring at the hip joints  Breathing one full breath, we come forward and up, let the head lead the movement. Finding the sitting bones, ischial tuberosities, allow them to sink into the surface. Then sense an energetic flow extending outward to the thighs, down through to the knees, to the ankles and out through the feet.  Allow the feet to lengthen simultaneously in two directions out through the toes and back through the heels.  Here we are developing intuitive awareness in action. The sitting bones are part of the torso and are approximately 1″ in width, depth, height.  That’s it, 1 inch and here we can balance on pointe.  Notice too, that the sitting bones are located directly under the hip joints. Your newly found feet! Okay, so you now have two anatomical references for coming to balance. Note both are part of the torso.  

By this time, the legs are soaring away from the torso into the earth’s core.  When the legs are part of the attention, they open, relax and naturally come down to the floor.  Allow gravity to assist releasing tension in the legs.  Gravity is the downward pull into the earth. In fact, it is pulling us down and in. Hence, the natural response is to go UP.  And up means up.  You are the planets, moons and stars. The interplay between gravity and life force is depicted so well in this photograph.  See how they intersect at the base of the torso. In fact, we could say they are originating from the spine.  And the twenty-second muscle, iliopsoas, connects the lumbar spine to the femur. Well, that’s for another conversation.  For now, see how “just sitting” can become effortless and begin dancing on the surface and falling into the earth’s depths. 

With warm regards, Jisen

 (Photograph by Eric Vasquez)

“It” is this

photo“Life of a human being is like a leaf, short-lived and falling into emptiness.”

Dear Friends of City Dharma,

Since the last post in March 2014, there have been countless changes in my life.  One significant event was the passing of my Mother, Julia, on 13th June, 2014.  During this time, I accompanied and supported her until her death. I had been her caregiver with ever increasing responsibilities during these past seven years.  The days were heart heavy and filled with weeks of moving within the complex world of healthcare.  By this summer’s end, I found myself exhausted and feeling sad and discouraged.

In August, I returned to the monastery to rest and celebrate my Mother’s life.  The monastic community offered a lovely Memorial Service.  Many of the monks attended and those who couldn’t sent emails or spoke to me afterwards.  I received encouragement and support to “just keep going.”  So in this spirit, where do you put your trust in the darkest of times and for that matter in the best of times?  Things change.  Relationships end, loved ones die, and we get sick.  Rilke says it well, “Just let everything happen to you.  Beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final.”  Can we be aware when we’re soaring the peaks and conversely  falling into the gutter?  When we’re feeling inspired, joyful  or discouraged, disheartened, can we open to change? This is a refuge we can trust.  This awareness is our refuge, a sanctuary for beginning to hear with our eyes and see with our ears that it is this.

As I was writing this entry, an elderly gentleman stopped by and asked me if I had cancer,  not so unusual for those of us with shaved heads. He said, “I was wondering if you have cancer and if you do and are feeling down, I’d like to talk to you and cheer you up.” I said, “Well, no, I don’t..” He said, “Well, I have stage four cancer and have about a year to live…. You know, it’s all part of life……” I said, “Yes, it is like this,  just here sharing a conversation.”  He smiled and told me his story and I listened, listened.

As he was going out the door, I heard him say to his wife, “I think I’ll have a beer…some dinner.” Hearing him speak, I said, “Okay, I’ll just sit here, my heart feels heavy, and yet here’s another twenty-four hours.”  If we had only twenty-four hours, then what?  And if we’re fortunate, perhaps another twenty-four.

Sometime during my Mother’s last hours, she looked directly into my eyes and said, “There’s so much to be grateful for.”  I can still see her lying there motionless in bed with her hands folded perfectly over her abdomen, wearing a soft, light flannel nightgown, etched at her neck with tiny, pink roses.  She was so still; only her mouth moved and eyes lit while she spoke.  Within an hour of her death, the light left her eyes. When I looked into them they were dark, opaque.  The stillness of her body and breathing was eye-opening.  She died very peacefully; I was fortunate to be present.  Since her death, I have been reflecting on these questions.  Can we be satisfied with the way things are?  Can we really see that “it’s like this“?  Because it has been so long since I last wrote, I wanted to share this with you.

I hope you will consider joining us at City Dharma.  It requires a tremendous effort to begin anew and it cannot be done alone.  We meet Thursday evening and Saturday morning at Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill.  Meditation instruction is available upon request.  To receive event updates and schedule changes, please “Subscribe” by clicking on the “Follow” button.  Training at City Dharma offers zazen, studies, exploration in movement and encouragement to engage with issues of daily life and global concerns. We are dedicated to offering a practice that is both collaborative and teacher led. If you are interested, there is a seat for you.

With warm regards,
Jisen Coghlan

 (“it’s like this” – Ajanh Sumedho’s phrase found repeatedly in The Sound of Silence)