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Zen Meditation…. a little insight



Meditation has seen a rise in popularity these past few years with mindfulness based stress reduction, a boom in all types of yoga, as well as relaxation and breath-work courses popping up all over the country.  Due to our busy, city based lifestyles many of us feel increasingly stressed and unable to cope with the fast paced life we now lead and have been turning to meditation and yoga to help us keep some balance in our day to day existence.


There are many different types of meditation that people can practice these days and over the course of the next few weeks we are going to delve into a couple of these techniques.


This week we’re going to begin with talking about Zen meditation but first a little background.


Origin of the word Zen


The word Zen comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word, Chan, derived from the Sanskrit word Dhyana, translating into, ‘absorption or meditation’.  Zen meditation seems to have similar roots to yoga philosophy and meditation as it’s borrowed the word from Sanskrit.


In Japanese, ‘Za’ means ”sitting”, Zen as we have said means meditation, together they form the word Zazen, translated as seated meditation.  Zazen is commonly used to refer to the practice of Zen meditation.


Buddhism and Zen Buddhism


Buddhism itself was born on the Indian subcontinent and travelled across Asia in its various forms. There are two widely recognised branches of Buddhism; these are the Theravada tradition and the Mahayana tradition.


Zen Buddhism is part of Mahayana Buddhism and Zen Buddhism originated in China during the Tang dynasty, around 1500 years ago and was originally known as Chan Buddhism.  It spread across Vietnam, Korea and then towards Japan where it became known as Japanese Zen.


Within Japanese Zen Buddhism there are three traditional sects of Zen.  These are the Soto School of Zen, Rinzai and Obaku.  Out of these the Soto School of Zen is the largest and the practice outlined below comes from this school.


Zen Meditation


Zazen meditation is at the heart of Japanese Zen Buddhist practice and through meditation stresses the importance of self-control and discipline.  The goal of is to allow the ego to dissolve and to be able to realize one’s true self or nature that exists behind the ego.


How to practice Zazen


Practitioners traditionally sit as a group in a meditation space commonly referred to as the zendo. 


They sit on a cushion called a zafu, which is placed on top of a mat called a zabuton.  Once you have your mats arranged you sit in a lotus or half lotus position allowing the spine to be erect and straight.  Sitting with the correct posture in Zen meditation is very important as it helps to keep your body aligned and allows for optimal breathing.  Slumping wouldn’t allow a full inhalation and exhalation that’s why much emphasis is placed on posture.


Ideally the position should be comfortable yet steady at the same time. Hands are resting on top of each other in dhyana mudra, the right hand on top of the left hand gently resting in the lap, palms facing upwards.


If you find it difficult to sit in this position you can take a chair and place a cushion underneath to ensure you’re comfortable and your back remains erect.  Practitioners sit facing a wall to aide with concentration.  Eyes are half closed and half open to help stay awake as well to aide with attentiveness.


The meditation focuses on bringing the awareness to the breath, either by counting the breath or by watching the breath as you inhale and exhale.  Whilst focusing on the breath you remain in the present moment, ensuring that your mind doesn’t wander here and there but stays connected and concentrated on the breath.  The breath is through the nose, inhalation and exhalation, never through the mouth.


Another way is to bring the awareness to the belly below the navel, which is considered, in many traditions to be an energy centre.  By watching the breath or the belly, the idea is that the mind will eventually calm and quieten. 


This is because the breath is the bridge between the mind and the body; a slow, quiet calm breath will have the same effect on the mind especially when the focus is on the breath.  Breath awareness is a technique used in many meditation styles, as it is very effective.


In the Soto school of Zen the meditation focuses on not just breath awareness but awareness of the thoughts.  That doesn’t mean getting caught up with what you’re going to have for breakfast but to watch the thoughts as an impartial observer. Through observation you are allowing yourself to observe the mind and the constant stream of thoughts allowing them to come and pass without reacting. This may seem difficult to conceptualise but if you think of yourself as sitting on the banks of the river and watching the river go by, you can sit and watch the river without having to jump in, think of your thoughts as that river and you are watching them go by.  With no judgements, or reactions, letting them rise and fall as they always do.


It’s best to start any new meditation practice with a few minutes at a time slowly building up from 5 minutes to 10 minutes, 15 to 20, etc until you’re able to sit for up to an hour in one session.  A famous monk once said if you’re busy meditate for half an hour and if you’re very busy meditate for an hour.


The main thing for your practice is for it to be regular, ideally twice a day, first early in the morning and secondly when you get back from work or just before bed.  A regular practice of even ten minutes twice a day will give good benefits and two hours a day will reward you with a new found calm and serenity.


Interesting Facts unique to Zen Meditation


One doesn’t use any props in the Soto school of Zen; there are no candles, or objects upon which to focus, only oneself and one’s thoughts.  Other traditions of meditation often use objects to focus on but not here.


It was a feature of group sitting Zen meditations especially for monks, for meditators to be tapped with a stick on the shoulders upon falling asleep or drowsiness during practice.   This is unique to Zen meditation and Zen Buddhism.  The stick used is a flat, wooden slat used to strike meditators on the back in between the shoulders with the intention of keeping practitioners awake and focused.  If a meditator starts to fall forward or their head starts to droop giving the impression they are falling asleep they would experience a tap on the back with the stick to wake them up and keep them focussed.


This is more of a feature in longer meditation retreats and for monks, rather than if you attend your local Zazen meditation group although it is always worth checking as each school or centre will have their own rules.


A famous Buddhist monk who is thought to be the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, is legendary for having cut off his eyelids whilst falling asleep during meditation, as he was so angry with himself for losing concentration.  




Zen meditation is one of many meditation techniques that exist today; one thing is true of all techniques.  Whichever technique you are drawn to, the benefits of a regular meditation practice are real.


Meditation reduces stress, anxiety, depression, pain, increases empathy, provides better relationships, helps you have clarity in your decisions, helps overcome addictions, changes your relationship with food amongst a myriad of other benefits.


There is no reason to not meditate as meditating regularly will enable you to take life’s ups and downs in your stride and will allow you to accomplish more not less in your life.


Next month we will be delving into Vipassana meditation and a guest contributor will outline their experience of doing a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat to explain the benefits and challenges they experienced during their course.


Until then enjoy the rest of your summer and stay Zen.