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Zazen is a Japanese word which literally means “seated meditation”. It is a practice which is central to the school of Zen Buddhism. Through Zazen the disciple is able to calm their body and mind. This allows them to create insight into the true nature of existence or what is called the Buddha nature.

What is Zen Buddhism?

Zen is a unique blend of the Chinese Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Zen emphasizes the direct and wordless transmission from the master to the disciple. While other traditional forms of Buddhism concentrated on the scriptural aspects of the religion, Zen cut to the heart of what Buddhism is. It has one guiding principle which is to simply sit. Through meditation the practitioner is able to able to see through their attachment to the material world and understand the wisdom that already is within each of us. This state is known as the “Buddha nature”.

Another important aspect of Zen Buddhism was the introduction of “Koans”. These were riddles which appeared to be unsolvable. Because Koans are not solvable by recourse to logical reasoning they lead to a direct understanding of the true reality exists beyond thought. The most common of these is the oft repeated “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” By completely absorbing themselves in the Koan the student was able to see into the true nature of existence which is termed “Satori”.

Zazen and the importance of posture

Introduction to Zazen : Sitting
By: Meet the People, Witness the Events Big Mind Zen Center
Introduction to Zazen the Seated meditation: Sitting

Posture plays an important role in Zazen meditation. The way that you position your body will impact what happens with your mind and your breathing. Zazen replicates the traditional position of the seated Buddha. This position is used because it is believed to be the one that makes the practitioner the most grounded. A small pillow known as a “zafu” is placed beneath the buttocks so that they knees are then able to touch the ground. The end effect is to create a very natural and stable position. There are four major positions that can be used to perform Zazen meditation. These include half lotus, full lotus, Seiza and Burmese. Zazen can also be performed in a seated position on a chair.

Where Zen meditation is performed

Zen mediation can be performed in any setting, but is traditionally performed in temples and monasteries. The practitioners of Zen meditation sit in a group in a mediation hall known as a “Zendo”. The zafu which is mentioned above is itself placed on a “Zabuton” which is low, flat mat. The beginning of a Zazen session is typically announced by the ringing of a bell three times. At the end of the session the bell is rung either once or twice. Before taking their place the practitioner takes a bow to their seat and to their fellow practitioners. They repeat this process at the end of the meditation as well.

Learning Zazen meditation

There are a number of different ways that Zazen meditation is taught. Typically the new disciple will be taught to focus either on their breathing or counting as a way of concentrating the mind. Some forms of Zazen mediation will use a mantra in the place of breathing or counting. Once the disciple has mastered mantra based meditation, they will be moved to either breathing or counting meditation. Zazen meditation can also be taught through the practice of “Shikantaza”. With Shikantaza the disciple does not meditate on any specific word, breath or count. Instead the disciple stays in the present moment as much as possible. The observe what is going through their mind and what is happening around them without judgement.

Zazen and breathing

Breathing is integral to Zazen. Breath is the central force of your body and essential to life. When you are in an agitated or disturbed state you breathing is rapid and shallow. When you are calm your breath is deep and without effort.

Achieving stillness

As the practitioner becomes more proficient at Zazen meditation that the surface activity in their mind begins to slow down. At the same time their breathing will also progressively slow. In the state known as deep Samadhi the practitioner only breaths 2 – 3 breaths a minute compared to the normal 15 most people breathe. From the stillness that is achieved the practitioner is able to see the world as it really is. The mind is naturally suited to Zazen and does not desire to cling to thoughts and ideas. Zazen helps the practitioner to return to this natural state.