If you have ever taken part in any type of meditation practice, you will know that it requires a lot of focus, concentration and discipline. It can often be easier to meditate when you have something to focus on as this stops the mind from wandering. So, imagine trying a meditation practice that requires you to ‘just sit.’
This is exactly what Zazen is, and while it may feel like a difficult concept, this type of zen meditation has been practised for hundreds of years and the benefits are clear. If you are working towards enlightenment, you may find this practice invaluable.
In this article, we are going to be looking at how to practice zazen as well as giving you an insight into the history and benefits of this zen practice.
What Is Zazen?
There is a lot of confusion in the west as to what the word zazen means, a lot of people are under the misunderstanding that this is one of those meditation practices that requires you to clear the mind of all thoughts. However, this is not the case.
In short, zazen simply translates to zen and is one of many words used to describe this practise. It comes from the Zen Buddhism tradition. The idea is not to place your awareness on anything in particular or try to remove all thoughts from the mind but rather to be in a holistic body posture. Once you achieve a greater understanding of this, you may reach enlightenment.
The term was coined by master Dogen Zenji who was the founder of one particular branch of zen known as Soto Zen. He reminds us how the practitioner must sit in a certain position and that this is the main object of the practice.
The most important part of zazen is getting the upright posture correct and later in this article, we will be looking at the right way to do this.
What Is The Purpose Of Zazen?
With many other types of meditation, the aim is to draw attention to a certain aspect of oneself, perhaps focusing on breathing or improving your ability to focus. These are all viable reasons to take part in such practices and meditation schools around the world promote this way of meditating.
However, this zen tradition will place more of a focus on how you sit as opposed to what is going on in your head, and this allows you to experience meditating as a whole new thing. During the practice, you will let go of any goals or judgement and just be. You don’t need to focus on anything and if any thoughts, feelings or other things arise, you can let them pass by without placing too much awareness on them.
There is no one thing that zazen aims to achieve but more a combination. As you sit upright in the zazen posture, you can contemplate the workings of your mind. There is no right or wrong but the practice does try to connect the body and mind. Quite often, we are taught that meditating should focus solely on the mind but zazen brings this together with the body, placing an equal importance on both.
Sitting in a full lotus position, sometimes called kekka-fuza, you are able to look at what is true in the present moment. The traditional practitioners talked about how one should simply ‘sit zazen and that is it’ these famous words resonate with zen practitioners everywhere. What’s more, it is believed that sitting with the legs crossed in an upright posture can help to open a dharma gate.
There is no over-complicated meaning and the purpose of the practice is to align the body and mind. In turn, this will allow you to understand your very nature, the nature of suffering and how to end suffering as well as learning to live a life that is much more ethical. All of these things give you wisdom on who and why you are. Once you understand your being and the reason for existence, you can move towards enlightenment.
A great way to look at it is that for the most part, we are taught to focus on our breath so that our minds do not wander; huge importance is placed on getting the mind in the right place but it is rare that this importance is extended to the body. When we perform this type of meditation alone, it can lead to our minds taking and this can lead to something of an unbalanced life. Many eastern teachings place attention on the importance of balancing all of the internal organs and how each part of the body is linked to the next, the posture of zazen promotes this perfectly.
Those who follow the religion of the Buddha believe that by sitting cross-legged and focusing on your posture as opposed to your breathing, our minds and bodies will be able to form a strong connection with each other.
To sum it up, discovering your true nature of being will be your main practice realization.
How To Do Zazen
One of the main things to focus on with zazen is the position in which you sit. When you first begin, you might find that the position is not comfortable but that is OK and it shows that the practice is working.
You must sit upright with the spine straight and traditionally, you would need to sit in a full lotus position. However, if you cannot physically manage this then using a half-lotus position is OK. If half lotus is not available to you, you may find that using a zafu is a good way to help you get comfortable.
A zafu is a type of meditation cushion that has been used for many years to help you sit in the correct position for zazen. It might be difficult to believe that sitting is an art in itself; if you thought that focusing on the breath in a breathing meditation was difficult, try sitting with a straight spine for more than a few minutes and you will soon see why your meditation teacher suggested sitting on a cushion.
A zafu can also help you to get into the correct physical state for the practice. It will support the hips while allowing you to place the legs comfortably in front of you in the right way with one foot in front of the other. You will notice that the legs drop off the edges of the zafu and you can cross the ankles placing your right foot in front of the left foot.
Once you have found a comfortable way to sit, you can begin your practice. We would advice facing a wall as this can remove any distractions and help you to get into this zen state more easily. You might also wish to work with the hands and put them together in a mudra. The best way to do this is to put the back of each hand onto the thigh; the left hand on the left thigh and the right hand on the right. Alternatively, you can place one hand on top of the other, with the thumbs together. You might even join the hands at the heart. By placing your awareness on the hands, you may be able to keep your focus.
The position of the mouth is also important. The first step is to put the tip of the tongue at the front of the top of the mouth and then gently close the teeth and lips.
The next step is to put a focus on your breath since the breath will be affected by thoughts. With each breath, keep the belly relaxed and if you find that the mind starts to wander, you can return your focus to the breath. However, it is important that all your breath is natural and not forced.
You should not force yourself to do zazen more than is comfortable. It is recommended that you begin with a shorter session, perhaps ten minutes a day before building up to something a little longer once you are able to hold the position. This is another important aspect of the concept; training the body into achieving this demanding pose.
Buddha was a teacher who lived thousands of years ago and his teachings are still followed today, there are several branches of Buddhism and the zen practices are now being noted in the western world. This is not surprising since the idea behind all of these practices is to become at one with yourself and the meaning behind your very existence.
Zazen is a practice that aims to join the body and mind so that the practitioner can gain a greater understanding of themselves. This is achieved by remaining in the present moment. however, unlike other types of meditation that demand you to place your awareness of one specific thing, zazen combines everything and instead of having to remove your thoughts, all you need to do is sit. Sitting and observing.
However, this is not something that comes easily to everyone and you may notice that it can take some practice to get zazen meditation correct. But that is the beauty of it, each time you sit, you will learn a little more about yourself.