What is zen meditation?

Zen Meditation is Zazen

Zen monks, nuns and masters, like more to call that discipline zazen. We believe zazen is not what is commonly called a meditation. Meditation is eventually a to obvious way to keep your mind busy, or free of something. During zazen, no effort is meant to be applied on the self but just on the practice. Za comes from the Japanese and means sitting, zen means literally absorption.

Zen is a japanese word, actually a phonetic adaptation from the chinese word tchan. Tchan was originally tchana, itself coming from the sanskript dhyana. If you followed well, zen is dhyana. So, what then is dhyana?

Once asked about his practice, the Buddha Shakyamuni answered: "I practice dhyana". Literally speaking, dhyana means absorption and so relates more to a passive state of mind during the exercise of simply sitting. While sitting, the concentration mixes with the absorption and the mind, the observer merges into deeper state of perception, often passing beyond them.

To study zen is to study the self.
To study the self you must let go of the self
To let go of the self is to observe the entire universe just as it is

So what is so specific about zazen, that it differs from meditation(s)? Of course, it is not the idea here to create a separation in between zazen and meditation. But very often, meditation is associated to a certain entertainment of mind and perceptions. Guided meditation is the perfect example of what is not zazen for example. Zazen is natural, automatic and spontaneous... nothing is to be done during zazen.

So as you now understood, zazen means sitting absorption or absorption while sitting. Dogen Zenji, a very important master of the transmission, would speak about shikantaza... simply put your bottom on the ground, simply sit down and let go... no more, no less.

The posture of zazen is very important and must be watched over and over by the practitioner, the assistant monks and the master. Back must be straight, heap slightly flipped forward, neck elongated and chin in, shoulders relaxed. There are a infinite amount of points that can be watched and this is how absorption starts. Eventually it won't be necessary to underline that one should absolutely not move during the exercise of the discipline. Then, breathing is  also important. One would notice that no effort is needed in order to breathe, it is mainly unconscious. Once consciousness is brought to breathing, the spontaneity of it vanishes. We then emphasize about a way of breathing that was first described by Shakyamuni Buddha: Anapanasati. Observe the breath as it is. If it is short and shallow, recognize it is short and shallow. If it is long and deep, recognize it is long and deep. Any systematic way of breathing during zazen is a counter exercise. Then state of mind is also important. Make in sort of to not follow your thoughts, just keep observing them without trying to have a grasp on them. This aspect of zazen as been made popular by mindfullness meditation and is tremendously important.


Eventually now you start to understand zazen cannot be experienced intellectually, it needs to be practiced and the experience of it will lead the practitioner to a very intimate experience. Ultimately zen is zazen.

Personally i believe that zazen is the very basic skill that a human being should develop: the ability to abandon the self and observe the nature of phenomenons as they are... without substance or finite meaning. Beyond good or bad, the body and mind make one and the illusion of being separated from the whole disappears. The mind so become free to shut or to express itself, the practitioner is not disturbed anymore.

So one advice only: try it! For that, the best is to be introduced to the proper way by experienced practitioners. Funny to say that during the carrier of a monk, the explanation he received about it were contained into a small course of less than an hour.

One more important thing about zazen: the posture of legs, hands and eyes.

Ultimately, lotus is the most perfect posture of the legs for the practice of zazen. Dogen would even insist on having the left leg on top of the right one. But there are many others possibility, such as padmasana, arhat padmasana (half lotus), burmese style (quarter of lotus), seiza (sitting on your knees)... some monks will even allow certain practitioners to sit on a chair..but before to choose for the easy way, remember to try to reach for a lotus posture in which left leg will find itself on the right one.

the hands are left in the mudra called hokkai jo hin in japanese or mahamudra in sanskript. During zazen, the left hand is inside the right one, fingers superimposed and thumbs joined in a perfect horizontal position. Even if many statues show the right hand in the left one, zazen insist on the opposite... this for certain reason that are a little to specific to be explained here.

Eyes are left half opened, half closed. The sight is left passive. Don't look outside, don't look inside, observe from inside how the realm unfolds while self is left aside.

Great, so once again, the best way to discover zazen is to practice zazen. Get in touch with an experienced and compassionate monk and learn the basics. Always remember, zen is zazen...

Funnily enough, i would never insist enough on the fact that zazen alone is not enough. One must practice something else. In the discipline of whole zen, we have other meditative practices... mainly three others: kin-hin, the silent walk, gassho, to join hands and sampai, to bow to the ground three times. If we ever get in touch together, i will obviously teach you these 4 exercices: zazen, kin-hin, gassho and sampai.





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