Zazen is a meditative discipline that is usually viewed as the primary practice of the Zen Buddhist tradition. Often referred to simply as “Zen meditation,” it is a form of seated meditation that is central to Zen Buddhism. Thought to have originated in India in the 5th century BCE, this ritual has been transferred from master to disciple uninterrupted for thousands of years. As such, it has led to a profound and highly disciplined practice that places its attention on the exact alignment of the posture, the natural flow of the breath, and the rise and fall of thoughts. It is believed that regular practice of zazen generates a peaceful mind and a clear spirit, and can help to create stability in the midst of adversity and chaos. This comprehensive journal entry will explore the origins and history of Zazen, delve into how it is practiced, and discuss its modern applications and significance from a restorative standpoint.
Origins and History:
The history of Zazen meditation is deeply intertwined with the development of Zen Buddhism and the evolution of meditation practices in East Asia. Although there are differing viewpoints regarding the origins and historical trajectory of Zen Buddhism, it is generally accepted that after taking root in India for an extended period, the tradition found its way to China through the travels of monks and teachers along the Silk Road. Of those teachers, Monk Bodhidharma holds a prominent role in the propagation of Zen Buddhism in China. At the time referred to as Chan Buddhism, it was deeply influenced by Indian Buddhist principles while also integrating elements from Daoist and Confucian philosophies. Zazen, as we know it today, began to take form in the 6th century CE with the emergence of Chan Buddhism. Over the centuries, both in China and later in Japan, Zen Buddhism refined Zazen into a distinctive meditation practice. Although the term "Zazen" is Japanese, its roots can be traced back to China, where it was known as "Zuochan," signifying "seated meditation." It was introduced to Japan by the Monk Eisai in the 12th century. In Japan, Zen Buddhism thrived and adapted Zazen into its unique form, with various Zen masters, most notably Dogen Zenji, making pivotal contributions to its refinement and codification, shaping the distinctive style of Zazen practiced today.
How to Practice:
While Zazen may be characterized by simplicity, it requires strict discipline, attention to detail, and the support of a master or others to practice correctly. Zazen is practiced while seated on a round cushion, known as a zafu. The size of the zafu will depend on the practitioner’s physiology, as the position of the pelvic and hip bones are key elements in achieving the ideal meditative position. Therefore, it is important to realize the different aspects of zazen posture to prevent pushing the body into static rigidity.
Begin by finding a private and peaceful place for your meditation. It is preferable to practice in a quiet, well-ventilated room, and essential to wear loose, comfortable clothing that allows you to sit in an upright posture for an extended period of time.
First and foremost, the body posture should be balanced, grounded, and open. Both knees should be firmly planted on the floor, with your pelvis tilted forward to stretch the spine. The full lotus or half lotus are optimal positions to practice in, but for the less flexible, the Seiza position with a zafu or bench will yield similar results. Keep your spine erect, as if being pulled up by an invisible string. This posture facilitates alertness and prevents drowsiness. Lengthen your neck by pushing the back of your head to the sky and feel the grounding of the floor with your knees. Rest your left-hand in the palm of the right–hand with the thumbs lightly pressing against each other in line, while positioning both hands against the lower abdomen. This mudra will help you notice how you are throughout your practice. Tuck in the chin, elongate the back of your head, align the nose with the navel vertically, and ensure that your shoulders remain relaxed. Keep your mouth gently closed, position the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and maintain a relaxed jaw. Half-close your eyes, letting your gaze naturally descend towards the ground in front of you.
In Zazen, the breath is observed naturally. Breathe through your nose, keeping your mouth closed. Focus on the natural rhythm of your breath. Be mindful of each inhalation and exhalation without attempting to control or manipulate your breath. Once in the correct position, you may focus on the out-breath by pushing down with your stomach. The in-breath will come naturally, and after a while, you will simply observe the breathing. It is imperative to observe your breath without trying to control it. The breath will typically be directed to the lower abdomen or hara. It should gradually become calm, long, and deep.
Stillness & Focus
The practitioner should remain still and minimize all movement inclusive of mental thought. In this posture, the flow of thoughts is often quieted simply by focusing on both the correct muscular tension and on breathing, allowing for thoughts to simply come and go as they please. The practitioner may focus their attention on a koan (a paradoxical or enigmatic question) or simply on the act of breathing itself. The mind should be observed, but not allowed to attach itself to thoughts or distractions. The aim is to cultivate mindfulness, awareness, and insight, while being fully present in the moment. Hishiryo, the state of mind beyond thinking and non-thinking or thinking without thinking voluntarily, occurs naturally when we concentrate on the posture and the breathing.
Zazen sessions can vary in length, from a few minutes to several hours. Traditionally, Zen monastics may sit for extended periods. Consistency is key to reaping the benefits of Zazen.
In a traditional Zen setting, a teacher, or Roshi, guides and corrects the practitioner's posture and practice. The teacher-student relationship is highly significant in Zen. If you are new to Zazen, it can be helpful to seek guidance from an experienced teacher or use guided meditation recordings. A teacher can offer corrections to your posture and provide valuable guidance as you look to grow your meditation practice.
It is essential to acknowledge that while there is substantial evidence supporting the mental and physical benefits of meditation, including Zazen, individual experiences may vary. Zazen should not be viewed as the exclusive solution for treating serious medical or psychological conditions or the only meditative tradition to practice. Ideally, meditation should complement other healthcare practices and be undertaken under the guidance of a qualified instructor.
With that in mind, Zazen has evolved to meet the demands of the modern world, extending beyond religious and monastic contexts. In today's world, where mental health is a growing priority of many, meditative practices like Zazen offer a path to self-reflection, self-discovery, and a deeper understanding of oneself. This leads to better emotional regulation, heightened creativity, and, most importantly, personal growth. Regular practice is thought to enhance mental clarity, focus, and cognitive abilities, facilitating improved decision-making and problem-solving skills. Additionally, it boosts emotional resilience and the capacity to calm the mind, thereby reducing stress-related physical issues, including lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. From a physical perspective, regular Zazen practice improves posture, minimizes musculoskeletal problems, and enhances sleep patterns and quality.
Cultivating mindfulness and inner peace through practices like Zazen meditation allows individuals to better cope with the demands of modern life.
When practiced regularly, it becomes a valuable restorative ritual to include in your repertoire, enhancing both mental and physical well-being. As we contemplate self-growth, it is essential to equip ourselves with such restorative rituals to navigate life's challenges and adversity effectively. Zazen meditation, a profound and disciplined practice, promotes mental clarity, reduces stress, and fosters inner peace when performed consistently. It facilitates self-discovery and personal growth, making it a powerful tool for enhancing overall well-being. By following the steps outlined in this guide and maintaining a dedicated practice, you can embark on a transformative journey toward a more mindful and centered existence, whether your goals involve spiritual awakening or personal development.