The Art and Science of Zen
Zen meditation practice is one of the most popular and misunderstood of all meditation practices.
Drawing of the Tang Dynasty Zen monk Faru (法如)
Source: Public Domain. Wiki Commons
As with Taoist meditation, to which it bears many similarities, no religious or supernatural beliefs are required to engage with and practice this form of meditation.
It is based on very simple procedures of breathing and posture that can easily be acquired by anyone.
Scientific research has also demonstrated that the health benefits of practicing Zen meditation are considerable, leading to an overall sense of well-being and inner peace, not to mention a greater longevity.
However, none of this matters to the practitioner of Zazen. The practice is undertaken for itself. The desire to obtain, to achieve some benefit or result undermines the practice.
In this article we'll first take a few minutes to get a good understanding of the basic principles of the Zen philosophy and then go through the instruction that you need to get started with Zen meditation practice.
It is the simplest form of practice there is. It is almost as simple as no practice.
If you strive for illumination, you will not achieve it. If you achieve it, it will no longer matter to you. So why strive to achieve it? It does not matter that you are illumined or not illumined. It makes no difference.
What is Zen Meditation?
Zen meditation is a mindfulness practice that is the core of Zen Buddhism.
It is not a religion. It is not a supernatural belief. It is a simple, natural practice of breathing and body/mind awareness.
The practice of Zen meditation is called Zazen.
Zazen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese words dzwoh chan which simply mean 'sitting meditation.' This is the Chinese character that is placed between sections of this page. There is nothing more mysterious about it than that.
There is only one fundamental requirement of Zazen.
That is to sit still
with the eyes open
and the spine straight
the breathing calm and...
In the practice of Zazen meditation, you are not trying to achieve anything or have any particular experience or illumination or anything at all. You are not thinking or visualizing or praying or seeking or striving in any way. All thoughts, feelings and sensations should be calmly observed and then ignored.
Just to be still is the only objective.
All you have to do is sit still.
That is what Zen meditation is.
Whatever happens, however you feel, whatever you think. The practice is simply to sit and be still for the duration of the meditation period.
Sit. And be. That's it. Easy.
Or is it?
Watch the following video which is an animation inspired by the Zen 'fly meditation' story. The fly represents the practitioner's thoughts.
The sword, his will.
Zen Fly Meditation
Zen Buddhism is the name used to refer to the practice of Zazen as it has been handed down from Gautama Buddha who first figured it out.
Many myths have arisen around the name of the Buddha but they are of no importance to the practice.
Even the history of the man that Gautama was is of no importance.
The story of how he arrived at this practice is of no importance.
Buddha is of no importance.
All that matters is the practice. There is no need to tell stories about it.
The practice is not important when we talk about it. It is not important when we read about it. It is not important when we write about it.
Zazen is only important when we do it. And to do it is to do nothing.
To practice Zen meditation is to sit.
Zen Buddhism is to sit.
That is all.
Zen and Meditation
Many people interested in Zazen, in Zen sitting meditation, will have an idea or an image of Zen Buddhist monks in their black robes, seated on cushions facing an empty room or blank wall.
If they have been to a Zen meditation center they may also be aware of statues of Buddha, of incense sticks, of the bell and the begging bowl.
None of these things matter in the practice of Zazen.
You can sit in the lotus position or the half lotus position. It doesn't matter.
You can light incense and sound the bell. It doesn't matter.
All you should do is sit.
How to Meditate Zen
Zen Meditation Posture
The traditional posture for the practice of Zazen, the practice of sitting meditation, is a posture called, 'the lotus position.'
The 'half-lotus' is often used by beginners.
Kneeling with the seat resting back on the heels is also a way of sitting.
The hands are then rested in the lap, forming the mudra.
In most cases, a cushion called a zafu is used to provide support when sitting.
"These forms are not the means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture is itself to have the right state of mind. There is no need to obtain some special state of mind."
Whether taking a traditional posture or not, whether using the zafu or not, the important thing in Zen sitting is to keep the spine straight, the chin tilted up and the eyes at least half-open. The reason for this is that you cannot fall asleep while maintaining this posture!
The most important thing is to sit straight and breath naturally. Nothing should be forced.
When to Begin Zen Meditation
There is no need to begin Zazen.
If you practice Zazen, the time is now. There is nothing more to learn here.
Here is a story.
A student of Zen had to leave the monastery to undertake a long journey. She did not want to miss her lessons. She asked her master, "Will you accompany me so that we can still talk and I can still learn?"
The master replied, "If you need to eat, can I fill your belly by eating for you? If your legs ache, does it help you if I keep walking? If your bladder is full, can I urinate for you?"
And so the student left her master and set out on her journey.