What Is Zazen Meditation?

Medically reviewed by Daniel Bubnis, MS, NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS on June 15, 2017Written by Emily Cronkleton on June 15, 2017

Understanding Zazen

Zazen refers to sitting meditation. It’s a meditative practice that’s meant to give insight into your true nature of being.

Zazen originates from the teachings of Buddha, who lived in India 2,500 years ago and founded the religion and philosophy of Buddhism. These teachings were brought to schools of Chinese Buddhism and then to Japan.

The aim of the practice is to let go of all judgement and goals. The meditator is aware of all sensations and thoughts that arise and pass by. Meditation is the practice of seeing things as they really are and being aware that everything is temporary. It allows you to do this by focusing on the present moment.

Meditation can improve your life and self in profound ways, and it allows you to develop concentration of mind.

Keep reading to learn more about Zazen meditation and five common types of practice.

How to get into position

How to sit

To practice Zazen, you need to be sitting upright and attentive. This posture helps you keep your awareness on the body and the present moment. If possible, sit facing a wall. You should be balanced between staying grounded and being open. Half lotus and full lotus are ideal postures for Zazen.

If you can’t sit like this, you can try a different position.

  • Sit in Burmese position, with one ankle in front of the other.
  • Sit back on your heels and use a meditation cushion for support.
  • Sit on a chair or stool with your feet flat on the ground.

What to do with your hands

Bring your hands into a mudra of your choice. Try these options:

  • Put the backs of your palms on your thighs if you’re in a lotus position.
  • Place the right hand on top of the left hand with your palms facing up, arranging your fingers so they are pointing to the side.
  • Place the small fingers against your lower belly, gently pressing the tips of your thumbs together above the palms of your hand.

Keeping your awareness on your hands can help you stay focused and alert.

How to keep your posture

Keep your shoulder blades engaged without tensing your shoulders. To do this, keep your head straight and your chin tucked in slightly toward your chest. Your spine should be straight with a tilt in the lower back. You’ll feel weighted and grounded in the lower part of your body, and your upper body will feel light.

Place the tip of your tongue at the front of the top of your mouth. Keep your teeth together and your lips shut.

Don’t completely close your eyes or open them wide, either. Keep a soft gaze ahead of you.

What to do with your breath

Your thoughts have a direct effect on your breath. Keeping your awareness on each breath as it rises and passes can help you stay present.

Remember:

  • Feel the breath instead of watching or following it.
  • Focus your mind by bringing your attention back to each breath when your mind wanders.
  • Breathe as you normally would so your breath stays natural.
  • Keep your belly soft and relaxed.

How to keep your mind focused

Your thoughts will probably fluctuate, moving and jumping all over the place. Use the stillness of your body and the rhythm of your breath to stabilize your mind.

Remember:

  • Always be gentle with yourself as you seek to quiet or steady the mind.
  • Any force on your part will be met with resistance of the mind.
  • Allow yourself to become an observer. Sit still as your thoughts run their course.

Other tips

Your formal practice is your seated meditation, and your other practice is to bring what you learn from it into every aspect of your life. Use the same awareness you have in seated meditation as you go about your day.

There’s no set schedule for how much time you need to dedicate to your practice. You have to create your own practice and decide how much time you can dedicate.

For example, start with an attainable time of 10 to 30 minutes per day. On days when you have more time to meditate you can increase the amount of time. As you develop in your practice, you may find it necessary to devote large blocks of time to meditation.

It’s best to seek out a qualified teacher who can guide you through the practices. You may find it beneficial to meditate in a group, at least from time to time.

Now that you've learned how to focus your mind and position your body, let's explore the five common types of Zazen meditation.

Type 1: Bompu Zen

Bompu means “ordinary.” This meditation is suitable for all people. Bompu Zen has no philosophical or religious content. It’s thought that practicing Bompu Zen can improve physical and mental health by bringing about feelings of happiness and well-being. It has no negative side effects.

Bompu Zen can teach you to concentrate and to control and calm your mind. You can learn how to restrain your thoughts, resist temptations, and get rid of attachments. Bompu Zen allows for intellect, feeling, and will to develop. It helps cultivate your personality and strength of character. It allows you the strength to face any difficulty in your life with ease.

The following therapeutic practices can be considered Bompu Zen:

  • martial arts
  • Taoist longevity practices
  • Noh theatre
  • Zen arts
  • most forms of modern Western meditation

Type 2: Gedo Zen

Gedo translates to mean “outside way” and refers to teachings outside of the Buddhist tradition. It also means outside the normal experience of your life.

Gedo Zen is connected to religion and philosophy. Instead of Buddhism, Gedo Zen relates to Hindu yoga, Confucian sitting practices, and Christian contemplation practices. It doesn’t adopt Zen Buddhism in a formal way, but it does use components of it.

Gedo Zen is frequently practiced to develop powers or skills not available to the average person. The intent is to reach an altered state of consciousness or perform physical feats of which you’re not normally capable.

Type 3: Shojo Zen

Shojo literally means small vehicle. It focuses on the teaching of moving from illusion into enlightenment. It’s a small vehicle because it’s meant only for you. You’re responsible only for yourself and your own peace of mind.

This type of meditation allows you to examine the cause of any suffering and confusion. It’s an exploration of the world around you through direct experience. Shojo Zen is Buddhist, but it differs from Buddha’s highest teaching. Through awareness, you learn that you are part of a whole and not separate from anything.

Shojo Zen is for people who believe in the dual nature of reality and see themselves as separate from the whole. Shojo Zen believes that some states of mind are better than others and practitioners should strive to achieve equanimity.

Type 4: Daijo Zen

Daijo Zen is known as the great practice. It’s a truly Buddhist Zen that allows you to see your true nature in each moment. It’s the type of Zen that was taught by Buddha.

Daijo Zen allows you to understand that you are inseparable from all beings. You learn that you affect everyone else, and they affect you. This understanding allows for deeper intimacy and compassion.

Daijo Zen teaches you to break free from the illusions of the world to experience an absolute, undifferentiated reality. You learn to remove boundaries and limitations. It focuses on the nature of the self and is a religion of enlightenment.

It teaches you to awaken and actualize your true nature. The more you practice this technique, the more you’ll want to practice it and feel the need to do so.

Type 5: Saijojo Zen

Saijojo Zen is the highest vehicle of Buddhist Zen. It’s said to be the greatest practice because the focus isn’t on trying to realize or achieve anything.

Proper practice of Saijojo brings you back to the essence of your true nature, which is perfect. You refrain from wanting, grasping, or trying to achieve something. Rather, you have faith that you will reach enlightenment from dedicated practice. Its focus is practicing the practice. Your seated practice becomes simply sitting and being. You’re fully awakened to your pure, true nature with this practice.

The bottom line

The variety of choice in Zazen meditation can be beneficial because your needs and focus may change over time. Start with the type that appeals to you most at this time. You can experiment with different types to discover what types best suit you.

Make a commitment to the practice and remember that Zazen isn’t going to help you fly away from reality. Its focus is grounded in the present moment, and it will help you be more balanced and centered. The more you practice, the easier it will be for you to have awareness of the present moment.

Remember that the object is to be aware of what’s happening and not to judge it as good or bad. Zen meditation will get easier over time, as it’s a discipline that can be learned with practice. If you can, seek out a qualified teacher who can help guide your practice.

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