Looking to add more calm, ease and contentment to your life? Try Zen meditation
Cultivating a meditation practice around Zen philosophy can invite more calm, ease and contentment into your yoga practice.
How often do we make excuses about being too busy to meditate — lacking time to just sit, to be present and to breathe? Are we really that busy? Or, while we have the best intentions to meditate regularly, setting time for meditation has not yet become our priority?
We may be spending too much of our time and energy on devouring books on self-cultivation, surfing the internet in our attempt to learn about the multitude of benefits of meditation, or having long philosophical discussions on the theories we have learned about, yet we often forget to put effort into the practice of sitting itself.
Zen is a derivative from the Sanskrit word dhyana, essentially meaning “meditative mind”, which also forms the seventh limb of the eight limbs of yoga.
“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day — unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour,” teaches a famous Zen proverb.
What is Zen?
What we are accustomed to refer to as Buddhism in the West has origins in India going back to around 500 BCE. There are three main forms of Buddhism at large: Mahayana (teachings emphasising social concern and compassion alongside individual transcendence), Theravada (school, focused on individual liberation, often in a monastic setting) and Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism, which incorporates esoteric practices and rituals).
Chan lineage is a form of Mahayana Buddhism, which originated in China in the 6th century CE, where Indian Buddhist Master Boddhidharma initially introduced it. Chan then spread to Japan (where it became Zen), Korea and Vietnam before its dissemination in the West at the end of the 19th century.
“Zen” is a Japanese version of the Chinese word “Chan”. Historically, monks from Japan travelled to the southern part of China to study Zen, and due to these teachings being popularised centuries later in the West coming from Japan, the Japanese name was adopted for this lineage.
There are three main schools of Zen Buddhism in Japan: Obaku, Rinzai and Soto, with the latter two being the largest in the consecutive order, and most popular in the West.
In zazen you sit for the sake of sitting, paying attention to your posture, breath and mind, and the feeling of being alive.
Zen is a derivative from the Sanskrit word dhyana, essentially meaning “meditative mind”, which also forms the seventh limb of the eight limbs of yoga, along with dharana (concentration) and samadhi (blissful absorption and fulfilment), in the third book of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, called Vibhuti Pada.
While a multitude of spiritual practices, such as attending sesshins (retreats), performing ceremonies, analysing koans, reading scriptures and practicing zazen (meditation) form a part of this tradition, the main Zen teaching fundamentally prioritises the experiential practice of being present and alive over theoretical understanding and conceptualising.
One of the important 12th-century Zen scriptures ascribed to Bodhidharma is a four-line stanza introducing the four foundations of Zen:
A special transmission outside of the scriptures.
Not dependent upon the written words.
Points directly to a person’s heart.
Seeing one’s nature and becoming of Buddha [self-realisation/truth of Nature].
Meido Moore, an abbot who is a lineage holder in Rinzai Zen School, and the author of The Rinzai Zen Way, explains the first two lines. “The first two lines reveal Zen’s general approach: the transmission of Zen occurs ‘mind to mind’ within the vital, intimate relationship between teacher and student. Furthermore, the wisdom to which Zen points — and the path to its embodiment — may be described within the Buddhist writings but will not be completed through intellectual understanding alone.”
Benefits of Zen meditation
While it is helpful to be aware of the benefits of meditation to educate us and feed our analytical minds, Zen meditation (zazen) is goal-less, and teaches not to search for external rewards. In zazen you sit for the sake of sitting, paying attention to your posture, breath and mind, and the feeling of being alive.
“When we practise zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world.”
A recent study, Zazen meditation and no-task resting EEG compared with LORETA intracortical source localization, published in Cognitive Processing involved source modelling using low-resolution brain electromagnetic tomography from 15 experienced Zen meditators during zazen and no-task resting. The results of the study suggested enhanced automatic memory and emotion processing, as well as reduced conceptual thinking and self-reference (ie being less judgemental) among the participants during zazen, compared to no-task resting.
Another recognised electroencephalographic study, conducted at Tokyo University, involved 48 priests and disciples of Zen lineage whose electroencephalograms (tests detecting brainwaves using small, metal discs [electrodes] attached to the scalp) were continuously recorded before, during and after Zen meditation. The research concluded that “[in] Zen meditation, the slowing of EEG pattern is confirmed on the one hand, and the de-habituation of the alpha blocking on the other,” indicating the specific change of consciousness, and revealing that during the meditation practice, while the participants experienced reduction in tension, they demonstrated a high level of alertness.
Other positive effects of Zen meditation, according to Omori Sogen in his Introduction to Zen Training — A Physical Approach to Meditation and Mind-Body Trainiing (in English), based on research of Professor Akira Kasamatsu, include better regulated breathing, normalised blood pressure, increased self-composure and reduced insomnia.
Types of Zen meditation
“Without zazen, there is no Zen … We may study sutras, liturgy, art, body and mind, but without zazen they remain only the studies … not yet the study of the Great Way itself,” taught John Daido Loori, an author and Zen master.
Zazen is a Zen meditation and form of shikantaza. It denotes the practice of “just sitting”, breathing relaxedly, non-doing, being present and embodying the feeling of being alive.
Relaxed belly breathing (fukushiki kokyu in Japanese), when your diaphragm moves freely and your abdomen and chest are relaxed, is accentuated in Zen meditation. It is taught as an introductory practice prior to formal seated meditation.
To practise this abdominal breathing, begin by lying on your back (supine) on the floor in a relaxed position, with one of your hands over the lower tanden (the centre of your abdomen just below your navel). Inhale deeply into the belly, feeling it push against your hand. Then exhale completely, allowing your abdomen to fall towards the spine and relax, noticing a pause that happens between breaths. Allow your next inhale to happen naturally. Continue this practice for five-10 minutes daily.
What you need for Zazen
The first step in developing a meditation practice, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-respected Zen Master and author, is “making space for meditation” by creating a clean and peaceful place in your home for your zazen practice.
You will be sitting in meditation for 20-30 minutes (twice a day, whenever you can), so you need to prepare a few props to support your body throughout your seated practice. Traditionally, a zafu and zabuton — two cushions, a round one on which you sit on, placed on top of a larger square one — are used, although you can utilise any cushions you find comfortable to sit on, or a bolster, yoga blocks or folded blankets.
Set a timer for the chosen duration of your meditation to avoid being distracted thinking about the amount of time you have spent sitting, and to allow for better focus, and being present with the experience of your zazen practice.
Zen meditation postures
Position your body in preparation for zazen. The correct posture is strongly emphasised in zazen teachings, as it allows for the free flow of qi (energy), alters energetics of your subtle body and promotes alertness and deeper awareness.
If you find sitting cross-legged uncomfortable, warm your body up first by performing a few rounds of sun salutations followed by hip-opening yoga poses such as virasana (hero pose), baddha konasana (bound angle pose), eka pada rajakapotasana (one-legged king pigeon pose), ardha matsyendrasana (lord of the fishes pose) and agni stambhasana (fire log pose), to relieve stiffness in your legs and hips.
In yoga, full lotus and half lotus poses are seen as advanced asanas, which we see assumed in the statues of Buddha and other yogi deities such as Tara, Hanuman, Saraswati and Shiva. While in Zen tradition padmasana (lotus pose) is considered an ultimate seated meditation posture, do not attempt it without prior experience, and opt for the alternative meditation positions described below.
Ardha padmasana (half lotus)
Begin by sitting at the edge of the cushion with your legs extended.
Draw your right heel to the navel and, rotating your right foot outward, place it on top of the left thigh so that the right heel is positioned at the left hip crease.
Draw your left heel to the navel, and place your left foot on top of your right thigh, allowing your heels to rest near either side of your perineum. This is full lotus.
For ardha padmasana (half lotus), place your right foot at the left hip crease, bringing your left foot to rest underneath your right leg.
Sit on the floor or edge of a cushion. Bend your knees, allowing them to spread wide, and place your feet in front of each other in front of your pelvis.
If your knees do not rest on the floor, place an extra cushion or a folded blanket underneath one or both of your knees for support.
|Seiza pose (on a bench or cushion)||Kneel on the floor and sit on your heels, yoga block or a stack of cushions for your buttocks to rest on. You can also place a rolled blanket between the backs of your thighs and calves for more support. You can also choose to sit in a variation of seiza pose over the length of your bolster, like you would sit on a horse.|
Sit on a cushion or folded blanket to elevate your hips and allow for a slight forward tilt of your pelvis.
Cross your ankles, so that your feet are under opposite knees. This is easy pose.
For adept’s pose, tuck one foot under the opposite ankle.
|Sitting on a chair||Sit away from the back of the chair with your feet firmly grounded on the floor. Avoid leaning back.|
If you experience back pain, sit with your back closer to the wall and place a yoga block between the wall and your lumbar curve to support your back.
Head, face, spine, neck and shoulders
For either of the chosen meditation positions, lengthen through the spine and maintain your natural back curves. Keep your back erect, your torso above your hips and your ears above the shoulders, as you extend upward through the crown of your head. Draw your chin slightly in, keep your lips closed, the tongue against the roof of the mouth and your teeth lightly touching.
Downcast your eyes at a 45-degree angle, allowing your vision to softly rest 3–5 feet in front of you, without straining your eyes or staring. While many mindfulness practitioners have their eyes closed during meditation, in zazen the eyes are kept halfway open to heighten the sense of being present with all the senses open, inclusive of sight.
Assume the dhyana mudra (meditation hand position) by placing your left palm on top of the right with both palms facing upward and the tips of the thumbs lightly touching. If you are left-handed, keep your right palm on top of the left. Allow the blades of your hands to rest against your lower abdomen while maintaining this oval-shaped mudra.
Breathing and the mind
When practising zazen, the emphasis is on movements of the breath, the awareness of the unforced breathing naturally occurring, and being alive in your body.
“When we practise zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world,” taught Shunryu Suzuki in one of his discourses recorded in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice. “When you are practising zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes to your mind, let it come in, and let it go out … when you try to stop thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything.”
It is not a wrongdoing that thoughts, emotions, memories and physical sensations appear as you sit in meditation, and there is no need to stop them. Remain still in your posture, allow the thoughts to arise and fade away, and then, without evaluating the practice, keep bringing your attention back to the breath and being present in your body for the duration you set for yourself. This is zazen.
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