What is Zen? Zen or Zazen Meditation Explained


‘Zen’ comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word ‘Chan. In turn, Chan comes from the Sanskrit word ‘dhyana‘ which translates to ‘meditative state’ or ‘absorption.’ The practice of Zen is an ancient Buddhist tradition, dating as far as the 7th Century China. From there, it spread throughout Japan, Korea, and the rest of the world. 

But, what exactly is Zen? How does it work? How to cultivate the Zen personality or attitude? This article talks about every crucial detail in practicing Zazen meditation and attaining the true Zen lifestyle.

Zen began from the teachings of Buddha in India over 2,500 years ago. Zen on its own emanates loosely from Buddhist scriptures and has created its texts over the past centuries. Therefore, it combines diverse teachings from Chinese, Confucianism, and Taoism poetry.

It is mainly written in informal language and combines legendary anecdotes from great masters and Chinese street slang, and folk sayings.  However, classical literature on Zen, rarely mentions Buddha.

The Practice Of Zen Buddhism

Culture Trip Wat Mahathat's Buddha Head
Zen began from the teachings of Buddha

Zen Buddhism is an uncompromising, authentic, disciplined, meditation-based practice that bows to no doctrine, ritual. It is a direct experience of absolute reality. It is not a belief system but a disciplined approach that can help us actualize the ultimate joy of being. Mainly passed from master to disciple, it is truly a personal experience. Therefore, the practice of Zen Buddhism begins from personal, challenging, and intimate training.

Many describe Zen as ‘anti-intellectual.’ However, there are four Zen dicta, as given by  Bodhidharma, Zen’s legendary founder, to truly achieve the Zen spirit:

  • Do not establish letters and words
  • Special transmission beyond scriptures
  • Insights into one’s nature, and becoming a buddha
  • Points directly to the human mind

Therefore, Zen Buddhism clings firmly to personal experience, even as it has diverse developed traditions of ritual and teachings. It is practice-oriented, and that practice is meditation.

What is Zazen Meditation ?

Zazen Meditation
Monk in Zazen Meditation

Zazen implies ‘sitting zen.’ In general terms, it is about going into sitting upright with one ankle in front of the other position. The posture helps you remain aware of the body, especially your breath, while staying in the present moment. The posture helps you remain aware of the body, especially your breath while staying in the present moment—one reason why the ‘Sitting Zen’ is central to diverse schools of this practice. 

Although western practice tries to create phases or stages, the Zen practice has none of these things. It’s more about merely going into that sitting position, assuming a good posture, and begin paying careful attention to the breath in the belly while remaining in the present moment.

One of the many incredible benefits of this form of meditation is that it aids the discovery of how the mind works. The practice of being present comes with intense discovery, which is the true essence of Zen. Even as there are many other approaches to this form of meditation, the ‘Sitting Zen’ is the most popular. Across the training centers, monks rise early for the practice and do astonishingly long hours of silent, un-moving meditation.

Founder And History

Although there is no clear evidence of his existence, Bodhidharma is said to be the legendary founder of Zen Buddhism in China. He was said to have traveled to China in about 520, from the Southern part of India. Even as Buddhism was already a practice in China as far back as 400, it has been the Six Patriarchs’ time, including Bodhidharma and Huineng, causing a ‘split’ between the Southern and Northern School of Chan. 

Scriptures say he stayed in a cave near the Shaolin monastery. Some Chinese legends credit him with the training of the Shaolin Monks in both physical and mental fitness.  

Scriptures also say that Bodhidharma spent nine years facing a wall in constant meditation. Later on, a single disciple, Dazu Huike, went after him. To test this disciple’s sincerity, Bodhidharma is said to have refused to see him. The disciple was left outside in the snow all night long. By morning, the disciple came to Bodhidharma with his severed arm as a way of confirming his sincerity. Through this disciple, who became Bodhidharma’s heir, Zen got transmitted to all of China.

There is also a legend that he appeared even after his death, and Ambassador Song Yun of northern Wei met him on his way back home.

Schools Of Zen Buddhism

Hand of Lord Buddha in Meditation

In Zen schools, life is organized around the zen practice, emphasizing diverse related meditation objects. Most of the monasteries place a central focus on sitting in meditation. However, Zazen is so much more, and it translates to different approaches.  In reality, it is a state of mind, and one can reach it while doing other activities. For instance, Zazen practice can become a part of eating, sleeping, walking, standing, and doing all sorts of things.

Koan Zen

In Koan Zen, contemplating begins with Zazen practice. In this case, the practitioner achieves an intense awareness of breath and body and then brings up the Koan, as though a physical object. He repeatedly echoes with breathing until words fade away and the Koan is ‘seen.’ 

The practice of the Zen Koan is generally done in the presence of a Koan teacher. On many occasions, the master asks the student to state their understanding of the Koan, even when they have no actual knowledge. To their statement, the Koan teacher responds and helps re-orientate the search for the Koan. Through diligence and discipline, one can find the essence of the Koan.

Soto Zen

The Soto Zen is in more extensive practice across Western Zen schools. Soto does not have a set or concrete method or curriculum. However, koans may be studied and contemplated. The focus is on the ‘moving zen,’ which places the Zazen practice daily. Therefore, it imbibes the high use of rituals. For instance, eating ritualized meals in the meditation hall is a common practice in the Soto Zen.

What are the differences between these Schools?

There have been many critics of these different Zen traditions. Concerning the Soto, many are critical of this practice as being flat and extremely quiet. This is because it contrasts the more dynamic and lively interaction of the Koan discipline.

On the part of the Koan, it has been criticized as been non-conceptual because it emphasizes words, insight, and meaning without making its way into pure zen living. There is also a danger in the Koan path of diminishing into a self-referential and self-protective approach. Therefore, the teacher is tasked with the mandate to prevent this event. However, on some occasions, prevention is not possible. Many dimensions of the Koan study emphasizes openness, spontaneity, and humor. Nonetheless, there is also a risk of the Koan training systems driving competition and obsession over advancing approaches instead of achieving the Zen practice’s real purpose.

Is Zazen the same as Meditation?

It is essential to distinguish between meditation and Zazen practice. Although the Zazen practice includes meditation, it is so much more. According to Rev Fujita, in a workshop called ‘The Lived-Body Experience in Buddhist Meditation,’ Zazen is better described using the gotsu-za as first described by Dogen, founder of the Soto tradition.  Gotsu-za loosely means ‘sitting immovable like a bold mountain.’ Therefore, one can visualize the various state of mind through the Zazen. It’s more than meditation. It is a state of awareness of the entire body as a holistic ‘whole.’ 

Monks in Meditation
Zen traditions are different in different countries

Zazen is an individualistic journey.

Nevertheless, it is essential to realize that Zen practice is usually an individualistic journey. Therefore, different teachers move towards a different mode of expression that is distinctive and individualistic. Zen Buddhism, on its own, has a varying history, linked to many cultures. Each culture has its own set Zen tradition, which is often in many ways slightly different from the next. Therefore, there is a much different understanding of Zazen meditation and the Zen tradition at large. For instance, the Vietnamese Zen, which is significantly impacted by the Theravada tradition, adapts to ‘genteelness’ with emphasis on carefulness and purity.

Zazen Traditions

Zen became the only Buddhist school across China and combined all of modern ch’an, including many faith-based Mahayana practices. These practices originated from many other Buddhist schools, emphasizing faith and proclaiming the name of Amida Buddha, the savior Buddha who will give rebirth to hopeful heaven to all who revere him.

The Korean Zen, on the other hand, is more dramatic and stylized. It combines immense chanting practice and prostration practice. The prostration practice usually involves repetitive displays of energetic full-to-the-floor bows in reverence. It also includes a hermit tradition that does not correlate with Japanese Zen.

Zen Buddhism in the Contemporary world

Zen Buddhism is at its core an intensive practice that is entirely monastic. However, in the contemporary western world, Zen practitioners are not altogether monastic. In Asia, it only supports the monastic establishment and is mainly focused on training regardless of life circumstances. It is more about a lifestyle of committed, ongoing practice.

If you are interested in taking up the Zen practice, building the Zen lifestyle is not challenging. A simple surf around the web can help you find a suitable establishment in your area. Show up and build consistency, and in time, you will learn the traditions of this practice.

Many groups usually offer meditation instructions for beginners, which generally takes place in group sessions. You can sign up for a formal interview to begin a more intimate and enlightening journey in time. At some point, you will achieve a breakthrough, which is better felt than described – it is a genuinely transforming journey achieving the Zen spirit.

What is the meaning of Zen Habits?

Zen habits can give you a life-changing experience. Such habits help you enjoy life by focusing more on the present, calming down to enjoy inner peace. Such habits involve food habits, behavioural changes and being aware of how the mind works in various interactions.

Some Life-Changing Zen Habits To Begin

While you walk towards taking up the formal Zen practice, you can adopt these habits today.

1. Breath – to become fully aware of your breathing takes you away from the erratic and out of control mind. It helps you achieve and understand the importance of a calmer and controlled mind.

2. Smile – Smiling helps you release peaceful hormones helping create a feeling of happiness and peace.

3. Nature – take the time to escape the mental clutter we’ve come to live with in the world today. Take time to break away, and immerse yourself in nature. Sit, climb, or take a hike. 

4. Be Present – No matter where you are, take the time to be here simply and now 

5. Meditation – there are simple meditation techniques you can imbibe today as you journey towards proper zen practice. They can help you get started on a trip to achieving a deeper connection and inner peace.

What are Zen Foods and Diet?

Zen food
Zen food and diet

Zen practice can find its way into your life. However, it’s more about the practice than the actual foods. For instance, Shojin ryori is a common practice among Buddhist monks in Japan. Shojin loosely translates to ‘zeal’ but progressed to ‘enlightenment’ or pursuing a state of mind.

The cooking practice of Shojin ryori is more about harmony and simplicity. The main emphasis on preparing dishes is a balance of colors and flavors. Meals usually have five different flavors and colors to achieve nutritional balance while ensuring that nothing wastes preparing meals. Historically, the Shojin ryori recommends vegetables as eggs, as dairy products were scarce in Japan. Today’s ingredients can vary according to personal preferences. Your local Zen establishment may also have ideas that you can integrate into your Zen diet.

Get into a Zen Lifestyle

You may wonder – what will the Zen practice do for me? Taking a cue from the words of our founder – “nothing and yet everything”. The lifestyle can add a little bit more peace, tranquility, and mindfulness to our lives. The lifestyle is beyond the Zen meditation practice. It is also about building Zen habits. It is about clearing clutter from your life and finding a degree of order in the daily chaos we deal with. This lifestyle will help you achieve natural compassion and wisdom, which can transform your relationships. To fully understand that discovery, it is best to look at the words of Dalai Lama when asked about Buddhism. He simply answered, ‘My religion is kindness.’

So, the ongoing and consistent practice of Zen will also help you become kind to others. Perhaps, the best way to approach this practice is through – continuous practice. The intellectual approach yields nothing because the rational mind is entirely limited. Zen is much more vast and boundless. It can help you unclutter your mind, reduce stress and anxiety, and reach a full awareness free of self-imposed barriers, even in grief and sadness.

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1 year ago

How can we get others to meditate? My husband doesn’t even want to hear about meditation, let alone try it out. How do I change his mind?

1 year ago
Reply to  Claire

First of all, don’t force him. This will only make him want to stay away even more. Try meditating yourself. See how it improves your life. Be kinder to him and shower him with love. Act exactly as you’d like him to act. Do the things you’d like him to do. When he asks why are you like this, tell him. But don’t try to sell it. Just say meditation helps you a lot and it makes you happy and makes you want to love him even more and show your affection more. 

1 year ago

Thank you for this nice guide on Zen meditation. So many things I did not know. I always like learning about new things, especially in topics like meditation or the ancient world. Thank you, Debashis! Namaste!

1 year ago

I don’t understand how monks can sit for hours in complete silence, in Zen meditation. I can’t even get to 10 minutes. Am I doing something wrong? 

1 year ago
Reply to  Vanessa

Monks train for years or even decades to get to meditating for hours or even days. Don’t beat yourself up. Not everyone can get to that point. If you meditate daily and make progress then you are on the right road. Just focus on getting better, even if just a bit, each day. 

1 year ago
Reply to  Vanessa

What kind of meditation are you doing now? Are you doing it daily?

1 year ago
Reply to  Tyler

I am doing guided meditation right now because it keeps me focused. I often find my thoughts wandering and finding it hard to actually meditate with a clear mind. Yes, I am doing it daily for up to 10 minutes at the moment. 

@Jon – You’re right. If I train for years, maybe I could get to 1 or 2 hours. I will try not to beat myself up and try to make progress instead. Even if I grow with just 30 seconds more each week, while doing daily meditation, I am still making progress, right?

1 year ago
Reply to  Vanessa

Try to have pen and paper close to you and when your thoughts start racing in your mind, start writing down everything. When your mind is clearer, then return to meditating. Trying to meditate with an overwhelmed mind or one filled with thoughts is harder and you should aim to do everything you can to make things easier for yourself. Guided meditation is great for you. Try different guides and see which makes you feel the best. 


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