I came to Zen meditation late (with inflexible hips, knees, calves, and ankles) and have been hobbling along for ten years. Over time, I’ve managed to train my body (and mind) so that I can sit for up to eight hours per day for a week (on retreat), using a few postures other than lotus. In Thailand monks sit on bare floors, without cushions, in full lotus, for hours; most Buddhist centres in the West, however, allow flexibility in how you sit, as long as it is still and upright. At the monastery where I trained, lay practitioners are free to sit on either chairs, benches, or cushions using various postures. Meditation periods last 50 minutes, with a short “wiggle bell” at the half-way point to allow for posture adjustment.
If you’re an experienced sitter who knows what “full lotus” means, these instructions are old hat. But if you’re new to this, you’ll benefit from having experience with more than one posture. The easiest way to sit on a cushion may well be in the Burmese position (as shown). Both legs are folded in front of you, neither crosses the other. It doesn’t matter which leg is in front as long as you are comfortable. If you sit for an extended time, it’s best to occasionally switch which leg is in front.
The big square cushion is called a zabuton (in Japanese). They come in several colours and degrees of thickness. Zen centres typically provide them; at home a blanket folded into a 3′ x 3′ square will do. You’ll need a second cushion which is round and called a zafu. You sit towards the front edge of the zafu (as shown here); some people use an additional wedge underneath to emphasize a downward angle towards the knees.
The key to all postures is to create a tripod made of knees and buttocks. Let your hands rest naturally in front (more on that later) and your body upright with the spine straight but not forced.
photo credit: Still Sitting Meditation Supply on Vashon Island, WA.