Pillows an interview with Urszula Sapeta

 How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010

How to Meditate for Hours, for a Long Time

HTM: What types of meditation-related products do you create and sell?

Urszula: I make both zafu and zabuton— basic cushions one can use doing zazen practice or other sitting meditation, and several kinds of support cushions. Second types of products I make are robes for lay and ordained people in the Zen tradition.

HTM: I would like to focus on the cushions for now. Where did you learn to make these meditation cushions or pillows, and how long have you been making them?

Urszula: The first zafu I have ever seen was in early seventies in Poland. Someone brought two of them from Germany. By taking apart one zafu I figured out the pattern and made several for our first zendo in Poland. A few years later I came to USA to practice in Rochester Zen Center. I learned how to make all cushions and I was put in charge of Endless Knot. At that time this was a center's business. I have been making cushions here for thirty years.

HTM: Is Endless Knot an extension of the Rochester Zen Center, or is it a separate business?

Urszula: It was a part of Rochester Zen Center until the beginning of 1988. When my teacher retired, the staff became much smaller and there was no one who could manage Endless Knot. Community needed cushions and robes so I was asked if I could continue this as my private business, to which I agreed. Since 1988 it is a separate business and I am the owner.

The Zen Center has a residential training for Zen students, who live and practice together in a sort of semi-monastic environment. I was a resident at Zen Center until January 1988. This was a time when my teacher retired. After living there almost eight years it was time for change.

HTM: Do you currently meditate, and do you find the process of making these meditation cushions and pillows meditative?

Urszula: I do zazen and consider the making of cushions, zazen in action. Sewing requires one pointed focus if I want to make a good quality product and as an activity it is very complementary to sitting zazen. I find it very helpful.

HTM: Are the cushions and pillows hand-made, and what materials are they made of?

Urszula: The cushions are hand-made. I do not use electric cutting devices or other machines, except sewing machine, of course. The outer shell is made from medium weight strong fabric, usually twill. They are filled with kapok or buckwheat husk, accordingly.

HTM: I really appreciate your answers. Thank you. Do you use these cushions yourself? What is the value of these pillows? If I meditate often, and I have never used one, what difference would I experience?

Urszula: You are welcome. Yes, I do use cushions myself. And you are right, it is possible to sit on the carpet or blanket and use any kind of pillow, but if one meditates often these cushions will make tremendous difference. They help to keep body in proper and stable position for longer periods of time. They are designed specifically to do this and are used in sesshin when people do meditate many hours a day for several days. Also, people do have different bodies and may sit in several different positions. They can choose appropriate cushion or several of them to be able to sit unmovable and more comfortable for longer period of time.

HTM: Do they help you keep an erect spine and proper alignment? If so, can you offer some details? I am guessing that this is what you are referring to by "proper and stable position" and yet I am interested in the details as far as posture goes. Also, as there are many postures, do these pillows support all of them? Lastly, how do they manage to do this (i.e. proper support)?

Urszula: For someone who sits in any cross-legged position it is important to use the cushion. When knees and buttock are on the same level it is extremely difficult to keep spine straight. The cushion put under buttock raises it and when you nail the tail bone into cushion and have knees down on the zabuton, this triangle is a strong base for keeping spine straight and having lower abdomen loosen.

Zafu can be used for all cross-legged postures. Because kapok is a very resilient fiber and new zafus are quite firm, the height of cushion does not collapse. People who need more height can insert a support cushion under zafu. There are several kinds of support cushions, some thinner and some more thick. For seiza (kneeling position) one can use zafu or rectangular husk cushion.

Some of the support cushions may be also used in different ways. During long retreats people put flat supports under their aching knees, for example. There are also a couple of cushions which can be used to support hands mudra. While meditating is important that upper part of body, from waist up is completely relaxed. Sometimes hands slide down while person sits for a long time, and this causes neck and shoulder tensions and perhaps even bending of spine.

If the feet of crossed legs do not support hands then it is better to use husk cushion to support them. Usually good teacher instructs a person how to keep a good posture, but two aspects are the most important: straight spine and loose low abdomen to allow for deep breathing. It is a matter of personal experience and each person can see what kinds of extra cushions will be helpful for keeping body in right posture when sitting for longer periods of time.

HTM: This was all so extremely helpful. Thank you. Do your cushions come with instructions like this, or some written material to help show positions and how cushions (pillows) are used? Also, do you sell all of these cushions and pillows that you mentioned in your last response?

Urszula: I do sell all the cushions mentioned above. The best way to order is to print order form my site Endless Knot and mail with a check. I do not include instructions about how to use cushions or how to meditate, but some information can be found on my website. Most people who order meditation cushions have their own teachers who instruct them how to meditate, and there are endless books published with photos and instructions about postures. My personal feeling is when you give people less explanations and instructions they are able to find out more by themselves for themselves.

HTM: I can see the value in finding it out for oneself. Perhaps just the mention that "not knowing how" is an absolutely acceptable way to proceed helps here. Do you have a book you could recommend?

Urszula: Are you asking about the book which explains about how to do zazen and about postures? I am sure that every American Zen teacher has written one. My favorite ones are actually written by Japanese teachers: Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida, and An Introduction to Zen Training by Omori Sogen. Also the book which does not speak about postures but shares other aspects of Zen Path written by my Teacher of recent 18 years, Points of Departure - Zen Buddism with Rinzai View by Eido Tai Shimano.

HTM: Do all of the cushions come finished and filled? I can see the value of reducing shipping costs by including instructions on filling it with buckwheat, and having it Velcro-closed. Perhaps this undermines the integrity of the pillow. It was just an idea that came to me.

Urszula: As you can see on my order form #1 there is a position: empty zafu shell. Often various Zen Centers or groups order empty shells and fill themselves either with kapok or buckwheat husk. I also do some custom designed projects. When someone needs special cushion of different specifications than the standard ones I make, they contact me by e-mail and request.

HTM: You mentioned that an order form and a check are best. Do you accept credit cards online as well?

Urszula: Unfortunately I do not accept credit cards—only check or money orders.

HTM: I have one more question that I will just go ahead with here, and that is as to whether there are those who recommend your meditation pillows in particular. Perhaps you have organizations that you sell to that use only your pillows-- or how many pillows have you provided to zen centers all over the world—something impressive that should not go without mention.

Urszula: Zen Center in Rochester which is nearby and all their affiliates in USA, Canada as well as Europe have been using my cushions since I have been making them. But also other places like Dai Bosatsu Zendo, where I do practice now. I have been making their style of zafu shells which they fill and sell in the Monastery Store. Members of groups connected with Dai Bosatsu also order my cushions.

There are many other groups whose members buy my cushions and robes as well as individuals who discover me on the Internet. I am not sure how many pillows I made by now but really VERY many... It is hard for me to advertise myself.

HTM: Thank you so much for interviewing. Think of how many people are sitting now on your cushions. It's beautiful. You are providing (literally) a comfortable place for them to dwell while they seek greater awareness and a deeper love. I really enjoyed the interview. Thank you again.

Urszula: Thank you very much! If my cushions can help someone in discovering what is important in life, then that will make me very happy.