Zen meditation, also known as Zazen is part of the Buddhist Zen tradition. It literally translates to sitting in the right posture to meditate or sitting meditation. There are several types of zazen and each of them serves a different purpose.
Zazen practice teaches to rise above all worldly pleasures and achieve inner peace and enlightenment.
In this article, I’ll guide you to Zazen best practices and guided zen meditation for beginners.
What is Zen Zazen meditation?
Zen meaning ‘meditation’ in Japanese is a derivative of the Chinese word Ch’an. The latter is the translation of the Sanskrit term ‘dhyana’. Buddha introduced zen meditation practice in India around 500 BC. Later it was later brought to Buddhist schools in China in the 6th-century CE.
Zen meditation is similar to mindfulness in the sense that both emphasize the presence of the mind. The latter, however, emphasizes general awareness rather than focusing on one specific object.
A zen practitioner starts by sitting in a full-lotus or a half-lotus position while focusing their attention inwards. Some zen experts argue that counting the breath makes it easier to focus. Others believe that no counting is needed.
Five Types of Zazen Meditation
Following are the five different types of zen meditation.
1. Bompu Zen
Bompu or “Usual Zen” is one of the five styles of zen. As the name suggests, there’s nothing special about this zen practice. People practicing Bompu zen often are looking to improve physical and mental health. The best thing about this style of zen is that anyone can practice it.
2. Gedo Zen
It is the second of five kinds of zen practice. Gedo translates to “an outside way” zen. It is a zen practice that isn’t Buddhist zen and yet has a religious approach. Gedo Zen relates to Hindu yoga or Confucian sitting practices. People practicing Gendo zen are looking to achieve something supernatural skills or power.
3. Shojo Zen
The third zen approach is Shojo meaning “Small Vehicle” or “Practice of Jhana.” It is a single-seater small vehicle meaning only for you alone to travel in the path to enlightenment. In this form of Zen, you are only responsible for yourself and your peace of mind. You do not take responsibility for other’s happiness and well-being whatsoever. Shojo Zen is also Buddhist zen but not of the highest Buddha’s teaching. This form of meditation teaches you to explore the world through direct experiences.
4. Daijo Zen
The fourth model of zen practice is Daijo or “Great Practice Zen” or “Great Vehicle” or “Mahayana.” It is purely Buddhist zen and was taught by Buddha himself. Unlike Shojo or “Small Vehicle,” Deijo teaches that you are not alone. It allows you to understand the fact that you are inseparable from other beings. That your actions have a direct or indirect impact on others and vice-versa. Practicing Daijo allows you to become compassionate and caring towards all living beings.
5. Saijojo Zen
The last of the zen category is Saijojo meaning “Great and Perfect practice.” It is also referred to as the highest vehicle. Buddha used to practice Saijojo. It is the greatest practice because it is not trying to focus or achieve anything in particular. It is the expression of life in its purest form. Saijojo focuses on practicing the practice, breathing the breathing, and sitting the sitting.
Benefits of Zazen
In the past, practicing meditation was more of a leisure activity for people in the west. But people are seeing meditation in a new light. As a result, the implication of meditation in treating disease and illness is on the rise. Health experts now emphasize practicing meditation as a healthy morning routine.
Zazen much like any other meditation practice has many benefits. Some of the benefits of practicing zen meditation are:
1. Helps to improve concentration.
2. Develop loving-kindness.
3. Makes you creative.
4. Improves sleep quality.
5. Peace of mind.
6. Improves mood and promotes positive energy.
7. Relieve fear.
Best Sitting Postures to Practice Zen Zazen
A. Cross-legged Postures
There are a total of four different cross-legged postures to practice zazen meditation. I’ve listed all four sitting postures for zazen below starting with the highest difficulty level.
1. Full-lotus posture (padmāsana). In padmasana, the right foot is placed on the left thigh and the left foot is placed on the right thigh. It forms a very stable triangle with both your knees firmly placed on the ground. It is by far the most difficult sitting position to achieve. One needs a lot of practice before being able to sit in a full-lotus posture.
2. Half-lotus posture (Ardha Padmasana). In this posture, the right foot is placed on the right thigh or the other way around. You can alternatively change your leg after sitting for a couple of minutes.
3. Quarter-lotus posture. In this posture, the right foot or the left foot is placed on the calf. Sitting in a quarter-lotus position is not that difficult even for beginners.
4. Burmese posture. In this posture, one foot is placed at the front of the opposing leg. It is by far the easiest of all the cross-legged postures and is suitable for beginners.
B. Alternative Postures
5. Seiza or Kneeling posture. Seiza is a popular alternative to cross-legged posture. It is the formal way of sitting down based on traditional Japanese culture. The practitioners may use a stool or cushion to achieve this posture.
6. Sitting in a chair. It is another popular alternative to cross-legged posture. It is suitable for people who are unable to sit on the ground for medical reasons. While sitting on a chair, make sure that your feet are firmly placed on the ground.
Zazen Meditation Guide (Sitting Meditation)
Here’s a beginner’s guide on how to practice Zen meditation.
Step 1: As a beginner, starts by sitting erect in a quarter-lotus or Burmese posture. Your knees are firmly rooted on the ground while your head is held high. Rest your hands on your thigh and place your left palm at the top of your right while facing upward. Place edges of both hands against the lower abdomen and thumbs gently pressing against one another.
Step 2: Pull your pelvic in, stretch your spine and relax your shoulders. Notice that when you sit erect, your spine bends inward slightly. Tuck your chin inward just a little. Seal your lips together and fix the tip of your tongue against the palate. Half-close your eyes so that your gaze naturally falls towards the ground.
Step 3: Take a long and deep breath and apply some force as you exhale. Repeat this process 2-3 times before mindfully focusing on your breathing. Notice the air going in through your nostrils and coming out of your nose. Feel the sensation of your breathing at the tip of your nose. Also, notice the flow of your thoughts quieting as you maintain your posture and focus on your breathing.
Step 4: You’ve now reached a state of stillness and utter relaxation (general awareness). The distractions in your mind are no more. Your thought processing returns to normal.
Step 5: When ending the Zen meditation practice, be gentle with the body. Notice any pain or aches in your legs. Take extra care to move them gently from side to side before standing.
Here’s a YouTube video by Yokoji Zen Mountain Center on how to practice zazen meditation.