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Cankama Sutta: Walking Meditation Sutra: put some mileage on your Buddhist practice with formal mindful walking

Cankama Sutta: Walking Meditation Sutra: put some mileage on your Buddhist practice with formal mindful walking

Meditation is the metaphorical transport vehicle on the journey towards Enlightenment. Mediation is a key practice within the Noble Eightfold Path, specifically: Right Concentration (samma samadhi) and Right Mindfulness (samma sati). But, no one ever said the only way to meditate was in the seated posture. Walking meditation actually teaches us to be in the present moment:

“Each step brings you back to the present moment, which is the only moment in which you can be alive.” — Thich Nhat Han

Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen teacher, explained: “Practising walking meditation is to practice meditation while you walk. You walk, and you do it as if you are the happiest person in the world. And, if you can do that, you succeed in walking meditation. Because we don’t set ourselves a goal, or a particular destination, so we don’t have to hurry, because there’s nothing there for us to get. Therefore, walking is not a means. It’s an end, by itself.”

 

Walking meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh, from the documentary “Walk With Me.”

 

Walking meditation — Ideal for busy people, sleep minds and long-lasting results

Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree until he was Enlightened. In Buddhism, the word “sit” is virtually synonymous with meditation. However, in our transportation metaphor, you can have many vehicles: sitting, standing, walking, prone, active visualizing, — even sleeping (as we covered in our recent feature on Sleep Yoga>>)

It surprises some Buddhists that Buddha specifically taught the benefits of Walking Meditation in the “Discourse on Walking” (AN 5.29 PTS: A iii 29):

“Monks, there are these five benefits of walking up and down. What five?

One is fit for long journeys; one is fit for striving; one has little disease; that which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion; the composure attained by walking up and down is long-lasting.

These, monks, are the five benefits of walking up and down.”

Formal walking meditation on a worn path is a daily recommended practice for Buddhists. Sutra and teachers recommend alternating walking and sitting.
 Monks typically, during intense practice, would alternate sitting and walking meditation. In formal walking meditation, however, there are suggested methods for the best “mileage” in your practice.

Confusing posture with a type of meditation

Seated meditation is not a type of meditation; it’s only a posture. Mindfulness is a type of meditation; but it can be performed while seated, standing, walking or lying down. Although, in Zen (specifically), Shikantaza is considered a type (it means “just sitting”), generally, most meditation types are exclusive of the posture.

Buddha mentioned walking in more than one sutra. In the Mindfulness Discourse, He famously said:

“Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I calm my body.’Moreover, when a practitioner walks, he is aware, ‘I am walking.’” — Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness

 

A nun performing formal walking meditation in a temple. Note the hands gently clasped in front and the eyes half-closed.

 

Buddha taught many types — mindfulness, calm abiding, insight, and much more (see list below) — but many Buddhists forget there are also different “postures” within these types. You can meditate on insight or mindfulness while seated in a yogic posture, seated in a chair, standing, lying down, sleeping — or walking. Some meditators, especially on long retreats, will mix up all of the poses. Others settle into just one that works for them — although on a retreat eighteen hours of sitting can be excruciating for people, especially those with arthritis or other health conditions.

Walking meditation is also good for you

“Walking meditation has many of the same benefits as sitting meditation,” explains Yuttadhammo Bhikku (video below.) “In the same way we do in sitting meditation, in walking meditation we try to keep the mind in the present moment.”

For hectic, stress-filled lives, and especially given modern sedentary lives — not enough exercise! — increasingly walking meditation is becoming the favourite “vehicle” or pose for modern meditators. Especially after forty minutes of formal “sitting”, a mindful walk can be a must. Some people, are even making walking meditation their main focus. You can still focus on breath, mindfulness of body or phenomena, calm abiding or insight while engaging in a measured, mindful walk. With a little experience, you can even take along the dog — at least for mindfulness practice.

For hectic, stress-filled lives, and especially given modern sedentary lives — not enough exercise! — increasingly walking meditation is becoming the favourite “vehicle” or pose for modern meditators. Especially after forty minutes of formal “sitting”, a mindful walk can be a must. Some people, are even making walking meditation their main focus. You can still focus on breath, mindfulness of body or phenomena, calm abiding or insight while engaging in a measured, mindful walk. With a little experience, you can even take along the dog — at least for mindfulness practice.

As Buddha Taught: “One is fit for long journeys; one is fit for striving; one has little disease; that which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion; the composure attained by walking up and down is long-lasting.”

Yuttadhammo Bhikku explains: “Walking meditation has several benefits that are not found in sitting meditation.” He highlighted health and concentration (a side-benefit of improved health). “The second benefit is that it teaches us patience — because it is something done very slowly, repetitiously. It tests our patience.”

Yuttadhammo Bhikku teaching Walking Meditation:

A Walking Meditation How To

Thich Nhat Han, the Zen master, taught: “You walk, and you do it as if you are the happiest person in the world. And, if you can do that, you succeed in walking meditation. Because we don’t set ourselves a goal, or a particular destination, so we don’t have to hurry, because there’s nothing there for us to get. Therefore, walking is not a means. It’s an end, by itself.”

The simplest method is to adapt the oldest style of formal walking meditation, which has the meditator walking the same path back and forth, very slowly and deliberately. The goal is to be distraction-free and comfortable, walking slowly enough that you’re never out of breath, and on a path family enough that you’re not distracted.

 

Formal retreat walking meditation normally uses a straight 40-foot path that the meditator walks back and forth mindfully.

 

The concept is a good one. The repetitive back and forth removes the “thinking” burden of planning your path, and the “distraction” issue of scenery. This is by no means the only method. Many walking meditation advocates (myself included) prefer to alternate with formal walking on a longer natural path. After all, we’re learning to stay in the present moment. Instead of mindfulness of body, here you can focus on mindfulness of surround phenomenon (passive observation and listening.)

Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen Master teaches Walking Meditation:

“Each step you make must make you happy, peaceful and serene,” Thich Nhat Hanh explained. “And each step brings you back to the present moment, which is the only moment in which you can be alive.”

The concept is a good one. The repetitive back and forth removes the “thinking” burden of planning your path, and the “distraction” issue of scenery. This is by no means the only method. Many walking meditation advocates (myself included) prefer to alternate with formal walking on a longer natural path. After all, we’re learning to stay in the present moment, and this can be very powerful if practiced in an environment where the present moment is changing. Simply, being aware is the practice.

 

Formal walking meditation practice novices.

 

For those who want to practice the older “forest-style” walking meditation, the instructions are:

  1. Find a straight path (return to it daily) approximately 40 feet long (shorter is okay if you have small back yard), preferably level, with no bumps or obstacles. A wooden path was traditionally used in some temples (see picture) and retreat centres. Alternately, a sandy obstacle-free path in the woods. Avoid mosquitos and other obstacles, unless you wish this to be part of your mindfulness training.
  2. Go barefoot, or with light non-distracting shoes/sandals.
  3. Focus on your posture as you would in sitting — remain upright but not stiff, good posture but not rigid.
  4. Half close your eyes — this is one of the reasons to use the repeating path so that you can move your thoughts within as you would in sitting meditation.
  5. As with seated meditation, in formal walking you might use a single mudra, usually hands loosely on top of each other as you would in a seated posture (see images). This is to help prevent weaving and bobbing movements. It is also the mudra of meditative equipoise.
  6. As with sitting, you choose your meditation: mindfulness of breath, or mindfulness of phenomenon (around you), or mindfulness of your body (focusing on your muscles as you move), or even analytical meditation.
  7. Alternately, if you are Tibetan or Zen oriented, you could hold your Mala in front of your heart and count mantras as you walk (in place of mindfulness practice or breathing practice. This can count (depending on your teacher’s guidance) towards mantra counting retreats if done as formal practice.
  8. Now, walk, back and forth, on the short path, but at a very SLOW measured pace. Try not to bob or weave (which can happen when walking quickly). Do not swing the arms as indicated in point 5 above. Your pace should be measured. You should aim for effortless grace. If you have arthritis or a dissability alter your gait to the best comfort zone.
  9. When turning at the end of the path, don’t lurch around or swing around like a marching soldier — take short flat step turns in a very deliberate fashion to keep it formal and graceful.
  10. Now, lose yourself in the present moment — of the object of your meditation — in the same way as you would for sitting. This can be breath — for example, one breath in for every four steps, and focusing perfectly on your breath going in and out — or mindfulness of phenomenon, where you might learn to listen for every sound around you (insects, birds, twigs cracking), or any meditation your prefer.
  11. Alternately, if you have Tibetan sadhana practice memorized, for Vajrayana students you can actually practice Sadhanas with mudras as you walk.
  12. Every few steps, check where you mind is. Keep yourself calm, centred and comfortable, but mindful.

Ben Griggs (video below) with some useful tips on walking meditation:

 

Thich Nhat Hanh — Walking Meditation

Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for his formal walking meditation sessions with students. There are many videos and photos of the great Zen teacher leading dozens of students on a walking session.

“When we practice walking meditation, we arrive in each moment. Our true home is in the present moment. When we enter the present moment deeply, our regrets and sorrows disappear, and we discover life with all its wonders. Breathing in, we say to ourselves, I have arrived. Breathing out, we say, I am home. When we do this we overcome dispersion and dwell peacefully in the present moment, which is the only moment for us to be alive.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

A formal teaching on Simple Mindfulness while walking from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Formal walking meditation according to Sutra

In walking meditation, it is generally taught to be mindful of the six part steps to walking. So, in this case, rather than being mindful of breath, thought, phenomenon, we focus on the movement of our feet. These are taught as:

  1. One step: standing
  2. Two-part step: lift and place
  3. Three-part step: lift, move, place
  4. four-part step: lay-up, lift, move, place
  5. Five-part step: lay up lift, move, lower place
  6. Six-part step: lay-up, lift, move, lower, touch, place.

The goal is to make walking very precise, almost robotic in repetitive motion, but very graceful.

Watch this video for an excellent explanation and demonstration:

 

NOTES

[1] “Cankama Sutta: Walking” (AN 5.29), translated from the Pali by Aggacitta Bhikkhu & Kumara Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013.

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