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Zazen meditation: An holistic overview

Zazen literally means ‘seated meditation’ is a meditative discipline that is typically the primary practice of the Zen Buddhist tradition. The meaning and method of zazen vary from school to school, but in general, it can be regarded as a means of insight into the nature of existence. In the Japanese Rinzai school, (Rinzai is the Japanese line of the Chinese Linji school, which was founded during the Tang dynasty by Linji Yixuan zazen)  is usually associated with the study of koans.

Koans are said to be riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.

An example of koans can be “When both hands have clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”A Zen koan is a purposeful statement that is meant to stop the analytical/logical mind and foster the use of intuition in “solving the koan”. The purpose of koans is to stop the analytical side (left side) of the brain to force the meditator to come up with an intuitive answer. The meditator gets routinely quizzed (and stressed) by the Zen master to see if they have solved the koan.

The Sōtō School of Japan is the largest of the three traditional sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism. It is the Japanese line of the Chinese Cáodòng school, which was founded during the Tang dynasty. They rarely incorporate koans into zazen, preferring an approach where the mind has no object at all, known as Shikantaza. It emphasizes Shikantaza, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.

During Zen practice, seated meditation, or Zazen, is practiced. As a matter of fact, Zen is called the “meditation school” of Buddhism. It is an inquiry into the self. The Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be awakened by the ten thousand things.” To see the unity of the self and the universe is to understand the Buddha Way. While the Buddha meditated to achieve enlightenment, 2,500 years passed meditation tradition has continued, passed down to us from generation to generation. Buddha’s meditation practice spread from India to China, China to Japan, Japan to other parts of Asia, and then finally to Western Europe. Beginning and intermediate practitioners alike should understand the basic principles of zazen. At the same time, if someone practices consistently, their meditation experience can evolve greatly. Zazen transforms the mind, heart, and life of the practitioner.

Types of position

Meditation is always about finding a comfortable position, to set your mind toward the wisdom and peace of the inner world if your body is not at ease, it’s futile to continue.

Burmese Position

 zazen meditation
As you sit cross-legged, you can adopt a variety of different leg positions. Those who sit in Burmese position employ a simple position in which they cross their legs and place both feet flat on the floor. It is advised to put a blanket or a rug on the ground. Before starting the meditation one should always give their lower body a little warm-up, this can be done by shaking your legs, rotating your ankles, and just generally moving your lower body. Investing in a zafu could be a wise decision if you feel that this is the more comfortable position for you. Zafus are special cushions for meditation that lie on top of the ground to cushion it and add a sense of embracing coziness to the room.

Half Lotus Position

Half Lotus Position in zazen meditation

Another position is the half lotus, where the left foot is placed up onto the right thigh and the right leg is tucked under. This position is slightly asymmetrical and sometimes the upper body needs to compensate in order to keep itself absolutely straight. People who use this position should make a habit of alternating which leg they bring up.

Full Lotus Position

Lotus Position in zazen meditation

For achieving the full lotus position place your left foot on your right thigh first. Alternating the order of your foot placement each time you assume the Lotus Position, gives your muscles a balanced stretch over the course of your Power Yoga practice.

Although this position is very symmetrical and strong, it requires a lot of hip flexibility, so it may take some time and stretching to achieve and it is not for everyone. The ligaments and joints in your body easily adapt to gradual changes, so you should always adapt slowly. You could hurt your knees and slow the progression of your entire Power Yoga practice if you use this posture too often or too soon.

As you open your chest, lengthen your spine, and gently draw your shoulders back, feel your chin held proudly; feel your muscles relax as you sit upright and in good posture.

And don’t forget to press your lower back inward to maintain its natural curve.

Seiza Position

seiza cushion

It’s not advisable for people with knee issues to sit in a seiza position. According to Indian yoga instructions sitting this not only helps with digestive issues but also cures backaches. It also has been an integral and required part of several traditional Japanese arts, such as certain Japanese martial arts and tea ceremonies.

It is possible to sit seiza without a pillow, kneeling, and resting your buttocks on upturned feet, which act as an anatomical cushion. You can also keep your ankles from sagging with a pillow. If you want to sit seiza, you can also use a seiza bench. Keeping your spine straight makes it easier with a chair that takes the weight off your feet.

Chair Position

chair meditation

Maintain your feet flat on the floor while you perform this posture to help ground your body. Alternatively, you can use a cushion, or zafu, just as you would on the floor by placing it underneath you and sitting on the forward third. It’s best to sit forward on the chair so you’re supporting your spine; if you must lean into the back of the chair due to your back issues, place the feet on either side of the chair to provide a support pillow between the small of your back and the back of the chair, to keep your spine straight and vertical.

Make sure to relax your upper body by lifting and dropping your shoulders about 10 times, swing your arms back and forth about 5 times. Relaxing your upper body helps you sit in the proper position during zazen.

Very generally speaking, zazen practice is taught in one of three ways.


Koan introspection

Shikantaza (just sitting)

Koan practice is often associated with Rinzai schools and Shikantaza with Soto schools. It depends on the background of the student and the teacher, but many Zen communities integrate both practices.


The initial stages of training in zazen resemble traditional Buddhist Samatha meditation in actual practice and emphasize the development of the power of concentration.

With mindfulness exercises such as counting breaths, the student begins by focusing on the breath at the hara/tanden (energy center). Counting can also be replaced with mantras. One of these practices is typical to continue until sufficient perception of “one-pointedness” of mind has been achieved for an initial experience of samadhi. A practitioner then moves on to either of the two other zazen methods.

Koan introspection

The practitioner can now focus his or her attention on a koan as an object of meditation once awareness has been developed. It is a method for alleviating the difficulties of solving koans by way of introspection since koans can not be solved by intellect alone. Insight can therefore shorten the intellectual process, leading directly to a realization of reality beyond the mind.


Shikantaza is a meditation practice, in which the practitioner does not focus on any one particular object for meditation; instead, practitioners are aware and observant of what occurs in their minds and around them.

What to do with your hands

It happens sometimes when you sit, get ready for meditation and you think to yourself, what I am supposed to do with my hands.

Try these options:

  • If you are in the lotus position, place the backs of your hands on your thighs.
  • Arrange your fingers so your right hand is on top of your left, palm facing forward.
  • Gently press the tips of your thumbs together above the palms of your hand by placing the small fingers against the lower belly.

It is important to stay aware of your hands so you can remain focused and alert.

How to keep your posture

zazen meditation
Engage your shoulder blades without tightening your shoulders. Keep your head straight and tuck your chin in slightly towards your chest to accomplish this. You should have a tilt in your lower back otherwise your spine will be straight. As the lower part of your body feels grounded, your upper body will feel light.

Placing your tongue at the front of your mouth is a good way to begin the meal. Don’t let your lips move and keep your teeth together.

Keep your eyes open, but don’t close them completely. Try to maintain a soft gaze forward.

What to do with your breath

You can directly influence your breath with your thoughts. Focusing on each breath as it rises and drops can help you stay present.

Keep in mind:

  • Rather than watching or following the breath, feel it.
  • Your mind wanders, so you have to bring it back to each breath when you notice it.
  • Keep your breath natural by breathing as you normally would.
  • Maintain a soft and relaxed belly.

If you are a beginner, here are some soft tips that might help

  • It’s really tough to take out some time out of your life and sit idle for some time especially when you are a number of things and the deadline to drop, so tell yourself to sit for just two minutes. This will seem ridiculously easy, to just meditate for two minutes.

That’s perfect and easy. You can never say no to 2-minute noddles and meditation. Begin by spending just two minutes daily for a week. Continue to increase the time by two minutes every week if it goes well. By increasing little by little, you should be meditating for 10 minutes every day in the second month, which is fantastic! Just begin slowly.

  • Do it first thing each morning, get up, and take a step that will not only give you a feeling of accomplishment but save you from the damn cycle of an addictive cycle of procrastination. It’s easy to say, “I’ll meditate every day,” but then forget to do it. Instead, set a reminder for every morning when you get up, and put a note that says “meditate” somewhere where you’ll see it.More of Japan from Japanchunks here.

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