Zazen and the Four Wheels of the Chariot

In Zen, the meditation instructions you receive as a newcomer are the same you follow decades later. There are no secret techniques to be revealed after you’ve mastered breath counting. No late-night initiations when you are given the ultimate meditation practice. This may be good news or bad, but it’s good news if it can help us let go of thinking there’s got to be more to this than just sitting here facing a wall, sending the mind far and wide on an unnecessary search. Zazen is about finding a balance between effort and effortlessness, gently holding the mind in the present, while letting go into spacious awareness. You just have to sit down and experience this.

Early in my practice, I came across this interesting teaching from the Samadhiraja Sutra (King of Samadhi Sutra) called the “Four Wheels of the Chariot.” Elucidated by Chogyam Trungpa, the sutra helped me understand the balance of effort and effortlessness better. His description of the qualities needed for meditation gave me a visceral sense of where I was over-applying effort and other places where I needed to hold steady. Though not a traditional Zen teaching, it is part of our Buddhist tradition, and gives us another lens from which to view our meditation. What is happening in your meditation?

The four wheels, create balance — not two or three or six, but four. According to Trungpa, the first wheel is about attention, the effort of mind itself to stay with the breath, or breath counting. But this can become very gripped, or forgotten entirely. How can we keep a light touch on the technique? Trungpa says each wheel deserves 25 percent of our attention. The next wheel is relaxing. The zazen posture involves unusual muscles and sometimes during meditation they remain tensed for extended lengths of time. See if you can pour yourself into your upright structure, allow the solid base to support a loose upper body, like a willow tree. The third wheel is about making friends with yourself, which I take to effecting a kind, compassionate stance toward whatever is arising in the body; pain, emotion, thoughts sublime and difficult, and other sensations. How much do we judge and compare our meditation to others or think we’re not doing it right?

The last wheel may surprise some Zen practitioners, but I think it’s the most important, and this is expectation. Wait! But I thought we were practicing with “no gaining idea,” you say. This expectation however, is not about hoping for something particular, some peaceful mindset or benefit to hold on to, but a mind that acknowledges that the present moment is pregnant with possibility. When I read this, I realized that gripping a technique too tightly pushed away these other qualities, this one in particular, that exemplifies the spirit of Zen — each moment fresh, each moment a new self, a new circumstance. This sense of expectation is expansive and open, and helps us let go of this small package called “I.” This expectation touches the heart and brings into the fore those qualities you see in young children. This expectation is about the world expecting us — we let go and there it is.

These four wheels were good medicine for me at the time, helping bring ease toward the self and attention where it was needed. I offer them to reflect and pay attention to each breath in zazen. No two sittings are ever the same. It is not useful to think too much on these four wheels or add more confusing instructions to zazen, but if these wheels resonate with you intuitively, perhaps the Great Vehicle will give you a ride.

See you on the highway.  :  )

In gassho,



The Essential Trungpa, edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian (Shambala, 1999)