A rather useful discussion popped up recently on one of my sangha's listservs, and I thought I'd repost here. So here's a few things on the etymology of the word "zen", why we sit and sleep on marsh-grass, and pushy cats.

I am wondering what the Buddha taught about sitting.
The Buddha said this of life and living:

Live purely. Be quiet.
Do your work with mastery.
Like the moon, come out
from behind the clouds!
Did he say "The more you sit, the more likely you are to become enlightened?"
Not really. We (read: "zen practitioners") sit zazen because that is our primairy method of meditation. But we also walk (kinhin), bow in gassho, walk through the zendo in shashu, and many other physical action that are forms of meditation in their own right. Effectively, every movement in life, all the way down to simply sitting with no meditation object at all (shikantaza) is meditation. Often we swap "sitting" ( za+zen = literally "sitting meditation") for "meditation" when we probably shouldn't.

The Buddha said; "All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become."

So if you want to "become" enlightened, you must use the mind (the thinking thing) and the body (the sitting thing).
The monks and teachers sit so much. Should the world be sitting as much or more than them if it wants to become enlightened?
The Buddha said; "Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without."

Meaning that you can't make the world more peaceful externally; only internally. But when you accept that there is no "you", only "us", the way to get the world to be a better place is for as many "us'es" as possible to practice things that generate peace and equanimity. That's mindfulness. For most schools of Buddhism, the best and most direct form of mindfullness is whole-hearted and full-bodied concentration on the moment, and that is sitting meditation in one form or another.
Did he say that generosity is the "fastest way to enlightenment"? I have heard that he did. What did he mean?
I don't know that he actually did say that, but food for thought: You can never take too much if you're giving something freely. The first of the Ten Perfections is giving.
Is it possible to put "my enlightenment" as my first priority in life?
A more important question may be "Should I make achieving enlightenment my first priority in life?" Also, "my enlightenment" has an extra word in it that sets a condition of the ego.

We often say "May all beings reach enlightenment, even before I do" that encompasses both noble conditions: that all escape suffering, and that as a Bodhisattva, you help all do so even before you do.
What is a good guide for deciding to 'get more involved' or to 'do more sitting, studying, chanting, etc'?
What may be better to do is consider the Bodhisattva Vow instead: "Beings are numberless: I vow to free them. Ilusions are inexhaustible: I vow to end them. Dharma gates are boundless: I vow to enter them. The Buddha way is unsurpassable: I vow to embody it."

My motto: If you feel like doing it, do it. If you don't feel like doing it, do it even more ;)

I have wondered if "sitting" can mean in more than just the physical sense. Can we be "sitting" while rocking a baby to sleep; while raking leaves; or cooking? Can being fully present in these moments be considered "sitting"?
This deserves its own answer, but it is tied into the previous questions, so...

When I said, in my previous post; "Often we swap 'sitting' ( za+zen = literally 'sitting meditation') for 'meditation' when we probably shouldn't" I was being literal. Here's a brief on the etomology of our favorite word "zen", and how it relates to "sitting".

The word "zen" is the Sino-Japanese interpretation and pronunciation of the Chinese character 禅, which is typically pronounced "ch'an" in modern Standard Mandarin Chinese, but was more likely pronounced "d​'zen" (form a "d" with your mouth and lips, but pronounce "Zen") in Middle Chinese. The term "zen" is actually a contraction of the seldom-used long form zenna (Mandarin: chánnà), which is itself a derivation from the Sanskrit term dhyāna (pali: jhāna), which refers directly to a specific type of meditation: the use of the mind as a tool for examination of mind and body states without attachment or judgement. This manner of examination--meditation--was given to us directly by the Buddha, and is explained to us in the Pali Canon -- the first and most complete collection of scriptures in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. The Sanskrit word is derived from the Indo-European root that means "to see" or "to look". Bodhidharma brought this kind of meditation from India with him to China. Initially, it was poorly recieved. Bodhidharma left southern China, heading north, purpously living in obscurity in the Shaolin monastery so he could practice this "seeing" meditation with his whole being, famously sitting facing a cave wall for nine years in dedicated practice. Eventually, this practice established itself, and developed into what is known as "Chan". From China, Eihei Dōgen, a Japanese Tiantai monk, brought this practice back with him to Japan, where it became the basis of the Soto school of Buddhism, and was pronounced "zenna", later shortened to just "zen".

So, very literally, the term "zen"--in all its forms and machinations--means "to see deeply, rightly, clearly and directly". One of the most important aspects of the etmology of the word often gets left behind and that is "directly". Zen is an experiential practice, not merely a mental or intellectual one.

Sitting is a form of "zen", but to say "can we sit while doing other things" is a bit wonky and erroneous. It's more right to ask "can I practice Zen while doing something else?" The answer to that is "absolutely". The other answer to that is, arguably "That's the point..." "Zen" is whole-hearted attention to the moment, no matter what that moment may be. When you sit, just sit with your entire being. When you rock the baby, just rock the baby, being present in every action of that task with your entire being. When you rake, just rake. When you sing, just sing, and so on. When you look at it that way, every single action--physical or mental--in life can be (and our teachers, all the way back to the Buddha say is) meditation, including the very last act of life, death.

  • "zen" = examining meditaion
  • "za" = sit
  • "zazen" = sitting examining meditation
Additionally, just for fun, here are a few more interesting origins of some of our common zendo things:
  • zen + "do" (hall) = meditation hall
  • za + "fu" = zafu, or "sitting cushion" (literally: "sitting on cattails" ["fu" = "stuffed with cattail fluf", a common stuffing for cushions in China and Japan])
  • za + "buton" = zabuton or "sitting mattress" ("buton" being a varriant root of "futon" or "cattail-filled mattress" [fu+ton])
Sorry for being so long-winded. Apparently not very "zen" of me ;)

Then maybe I would know which level to use (when cooking a dinner to be ready at a certain time use 'Level 6', when petting the cat/dog use 'Level 2')
Well, in all honesty, with Zen, the "goal" is to do everything "turned up to 11"; that is, to experience every moment in as "zen" (or "meditative attention") manner as possible. Remember, it's not about intensity, it's about intention--whole-hearted and complete attention to every aspect (both subtle and gross) of everything you do. Right. Easy-peasy. Guess that's why they call it "practice" ;)

The exercise of "other" meditative tasks that are not zazen brings to mind the pursuit of traditional Japanese archery (kyūdō) often practiced by zen students. You often here "be the arrow", or "be the bow". This, too, is zen ("meditative attention"). So it is no stretch of the imagination to take, say, cooking dinner, and think "be the whisk", "be the knife", "just dice" and "just beat the batter". It may sound silly at first, but anyone who does any task that takes great concentration to achieve a particular result often talks of "finding a zone" and experiencing a falling away of the deliniations that define where they stop, and the task or given action begins.

And seriously, what cat doesn't want "level 11" attention at all times? ;)