How to practice Zen meditation?
The practice of Zen meditation or Zazen is at the heart of the Zen Buddhist experience. Originally called Dhyana in India, Zen meditation is a very simple yet precise method of meditation, where the correct posture is imperative.
Before starting your meditation, you need to find a quiet and peaceful place where you will not be disturbed. The room where you will practice in should not be too dark or too bright, too warm or too cold.
There are different ways that you can practice Zen meditation. Traditionally, only the full lotus position or the half lotus position is used. If you lack flexibility, it is also possible, yet least recommended, to practice Zazen kneeling or to sit on a chair.
Zazen is practiced sitting on a zafu, a thick and round cushion, in the full lotus (Kekkafuza in Japanese) or half-lotus position (Hankafuza in Japanese). The purpose of this cushion is to elevate the hips, thus forcing the knees to be firmly rooted to the floor. This way, your Zazen will be a lot more stable and also comfortable. Additionally, you need to have a zabuton, which is a rectangular mat that is placed under the zafu to cushion the knees and legs.
Ideally, its is recommended that you buy a zafu but, as a beginner, you can fold up a thick blanket to work as a zafu. Zafus are usually around 13-14 inches in diameter but can be found in a variety of sizes. You can also utilize a thick blanket as a homemade zabuton.
For the half-lotus position, put either foot on top of the opposite thigh, and place the other foot on the floor underneath the other thigh. For the full lotus position, put each foot on the opposite thigh with the line of the toes matching the outer line of the thighs. It is important to “push” the sky with the top of your head and to push the floor with your knees.
These postures might seem uncomfortable and unnatural for most beginners, but with practice, your legs and hips will become more flexible, your mind will relax, and you will find the posture to be quite comfortable.
If these postures are too uncomfortable, try sitting in seiza, the traditional kneeling position used in Japan for regular sitting in daily life. If that posture is also too uncomfortable, you can use a meditation bench. You can also sit on a chair without using the backrest.
The important point of this posture is to keep the body upright and well balanced; try not to lean in any direction, neither right nor left, neither forward nor backward.
Head and neck
Whatever the position you choose to adopt, make sure that your back and neck stay as straight as possible. Pull your chin in a little to erect the neck and try to “push the sky” with the top of your head. Do not be too tensed or too relaxed while you do this; try to find balance in your posture. Keep your mouth closed during zazen; your teeth should be together, and your tongue should be against the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth.
Traditionally in Zen, the eyes are kept open during meditation. This prevents the meditator from daydreaming or becoming drowsy. Without focusing on nothing in particular, direct your vision about one meter in front of you on the floor. Your eyes will naturally come to rest in a position that is half opened and half closed. When doing zazen in a soto dojo (meditation hall), the meditator sit facing a wall in order to avoid distracted by external movement. It is suggested to do the same at home.
Hands & arms position
The position of the hands during Zazen is the same for the full lotus, half lotus, seiza and chair positions. This hand position is called the Cosmic Mudra or Hokkaijoin in Japanese. First, put your left hand on the right one, and palms turned towards the sky. Now, make an oval by touching the tips of the thumbs together so that your thumbs touch each other and form a somewhat straight line. The tips of your thumbs should lightly touch each other. Both of your wrists should rest on your thighs; the edge of your hands should rest against your belly. Keep your shoulders relaxed.
There are two reasons for this hand position. First, shape of the hands harmonizes the condition of our minds. The meaning of the mudra is «beyond duality». Secondly, if your mind is somewhere else when you sit, naturally the shape of this oval becomes distorted. This can be a signal for yourself that something is wrong with your meditation and for your teacher so that he can correct you.
Zen breathing cannot be compared with any other, and it is a fundamental part of the Zazen practice. The correct breathing can only be achieved through the right posture. During Zazen, breathe quietly through the nose and keep the mouth closed.
Try to establish a calm, long and deep natural rhythm. You should focus on exhalation while inhalation is done naturally. Zen breathing and martial arts breathing are similar, and they can be compared to the mooing of a cow or the roaring of a tiger.
The state of mind
As with breathing, the mindset is essential in the practice of Zen meditation. The right state of mind emerges naturally from a deep concentration on the posture and breathing. During zazen, it is normal to have images, thoughts and emotions coming up to the surface, appearing from the unconscious mind. Do not pursue them or fight escape from them. The more you try to get rid of them, the more attention you give them, and the stronger they become. Try not to attach to them. Just let them go without judgement, like clouds in the sky.
So, as soon as you become aware that you are interacting or grasping on thoughts, immediately bring back your concentration to your posture and breathing; your mind will settle down naturally.
With experience, you will have less and less thoughts during Zazen, and your mind will come to rest more easily and more quickly.
As Zen master, Taisen Deshimaru said: “By simply sitting, without looking for any goal or any personal benefit, if your posture, your breathing and your state of mind are in harmony, you will understand the true Zen; you will understand the Buddha's nature.”
Now it’s time to start Zazen. To avoid distraction, it is recommended that you practice facing a wall, as you would do in a training hall (dojo) or a monastery. Place your zafu on your zabuton so that, once sitting, your body is about one meter away from the wall. If you are using a kneeling bench or a chair, also try to position yourself a meter away from the wall.
Once you have taken the position that is the most comfortable for you, take a few deep breath. Close your hands into a fist with your thumbs inside your fingers and the back of your hands on your knees, with the fingers up. Now, slowly balance your body from left to right three or four times.
Next, do gassho. Place your palms against each other as if in prayer, and bend forward a few seconds as a sign of respect for the Buddha and the Buddha’s teaching or Dharma. Finally, place your hands in the Hokkaijoin position, and keep your back and neck straight (push the sky with the top of your head) and start Zazen. As a beginner, it is advised to practice for 15 to 30 minutes. A good way to keep track of timer during zazen at home, instead of checking time constantly, is to use a meditation timer on your phone. I would recommend two timer: Enso for iOS and Undo for Android.
Once you have finished Zazen, do gassho again. Remain sitting on the cushion calmly and quietly for a few moments; don't hurry to stand up. Try not to talk for a few minutes after completing Zazen.
*These images were respectfully taken from the highly recommended book "How to Practice Zazen" by Gudo Nishijima and Joe Langdon.
Learn more about Zazen (video): How to do Zazen?
Book suggestionsZen & Karma by Taisen Deshimaru
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
The Way of Zen by Allan Watts