Zazen and the Art of Dressage

Zazen is a particular kind of meditation, unique to Zen, that functions centrally as the very heart of the practice. In fact, Zen Buddhists are generally known as the “meditation Buddhists.” Basically, zazen is the study of the self.

The great Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” To be enlightened by the 10,000 things is to recognize the unity of the self and the 10,000 things. Upon his own enlightenment, Buddha was in seated meditation; Zen practice returns to the same, seated meditation again and again. For 2,500 years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on. It spread from India to China, to Japan, to other parts of Asia, and then finally to the West. It’s a very simple practice. It’s very easy to describe and very easy to follow. But like all other practices, it takes doing in order for it to happen.

We tend to see body, breath, and mind separately, but in zazen they come together as one reality. Throughout the years of the evolution of Buddhism, the most effective positioning of the body for the practice of zazen has been the pyramid structure of the seated Buddha, which is much the same as the dressage seat except for being cross-legged–waist pulled toward your hands, spine straight and open upper body with the chin tucked in and symmetrical weight distribution through the legs and knees. The importance of keeping the back straight is to allow the diaphragm to move freely. The breathing you will be doing in zazen becomes very, very deep.

Scattered mental activity and energy keeps us separated from each other, from our environment and from ourselves. In the process of sitting, the surface activity of our minds begins to slow down. The mind is like the surface of a pond–when the wind is blowing, the surface is disturbed and there are ripples. Nothing can be seen clearly because of the ripples; the reflected image of the sun or the moon is broken up into many fragments.

Out of that stillness, our whole life arises. If we don’t get in touch with it at some time in our life, we will never get the opportunity to come to a point of rest. To relate this to riding, when our minds are clouded, the signals to our equine partners are muddled.

In deep zazen–deep samadhi–a person breathes at a rate of only two or three breaths a minute. Normally, at rest, a person will breathe about 15 breaths a minute–even when we’re relaxing, we don’t quite relax. The more completely your mind is at rest, the more deeply your body is at rest. Respiration, heart rate, circulation and metabolism slow down in deep zazen.

The Zen Mountain Monastery offers many programs and retreats. For more information on zazen meditation, write to them at PO Box 197, Mt. Tremper, New York 12457, call (845) 688-2228 or visit the Web site at

Read more about the clarity and focus of zazen and how it illuminates the experiences of five top riders in the September 2002 issue of Dressage Today.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!