First the caveats...this discussion will cover Zen meditation cushions which are called zafus.Other forms of Buddhism and other meditation practices have developed their own sitting cushion designs and aesthetics.
|Traditional Black Zen Zafu |
In Zen the traditional zafu is round with a diameter of approximately 12 to 14 inches. They are stuffed with kapok which is a seed pod fiber that comes from trees that grow in Asia. These cushions are nice and firm providing good support. The biggest downside is that they tend to compact over time. If you fluff them after each sitting they will work well for a long time.
|Kapok in Seed Pod|
Another material that has grown in popularity is buckwheat hulls. These hulls are a non-edible byproduct from refining buckwheat. I think of these hulls as the natural alternative to stuffing used in beanbag chairs; though it is quite a bit heavier than beanbag stuffing or kapok.
|Buckwheat Hulls can be|
used in Zafus
Other materials can be used as well such as bamboo fiber, polyester (which doesn't have a very Zen aura - not that I'm judging), or cotton. These fiber based fillers are all similar to kapok in most respects; however, each of them has some slight variation. For instance, while I sort of snubbed polyester earlier it does have the benefits of low allergic response, lightweight, and quick drying should it get wet. By the way, water can do a serious number on natural fiber zafus.
Other non-traditional fillers include different types of foam or hybrid combinations. I will review my zafu in a future post which is a combination buckwheat hull and viscoelastic foam. There are also inflatable cushions which I've never had success with but others swear by them.
A Zen zafu is traditionally black or maybe navy...nice empty colors.
Ideally the cushion should provide between 6.5 and 8.5 inches of elevation. Please see my earlier post about posture and elevation. If you get too much elevation it shifts too much weight to your legs and knees. Early or intense knee or leg pain can be a sign of too much elevation. If you don't get enough elevation you typically start to feel it in your back, usually your lower back. Each of our bodies is unique so these descriptions are averages. It's important to find what works for you.
If you've read my other posts you know I'm an experimenter. I keep testing until I find the solution that is the best fit. So...what is my favorite?
I am most comfortable on my sitting bench but I have found it's important to have some variety of sitting positions when sitting for lengthy periods (anything more than an hour or two) to share the stresses as well as the vitalization with different parts of the body. I tend to alternate between bench and cushion.
I like kapok cushions but only when they are firm and provide the correct elevation - nothing is permanent.
I prefer buckwheat because it adjusts to your form and it's easy to maintain the right support firmness and elevation.
My main suggestion is to try lots of different cushions to find what works best in your situation. Zazen will create it's own physical and mental discomfort. Starting as close to neutral as possible for the physical can make zazen an incredible joy.
(Also click here to read my post on How to Select a Meditation Bench.)
UPDATE: Please see my newer post "How to Select a Meditation Cushion - Revisited"
Friendly bows _/|\_