What is “zazen”?

Zazen is a Japanese word translated literally, and roughly, as “seated meditation”. It’s the core practice of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, a Japanese sect once popular among the working class. While superficially resembling other activities known as meditation, zazen is somewhat of a different discipline. Eihei Dogen (1200-1253 AD), founder of the Soto school, made note in his treatise Fukanzazengi (Universal recommendations for zazen) that “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation”. This distinction is important and I’ll touch more on that later.

Zazen is not thinking hard about things. It’s not focusing or visualizing intensely on a subject, reveling in daydreams, contemplating “past lives”, or connecting with spirits. It isn’t sitting and telling yourself that everything is OK. Zazen isn’t humming a noise, feeling a vibration, aligning chakras, or praying for the blessings of a higher power. Zazen is not trying to become enlightened or advance on a spiritual journey. Zazen isn’t fun.

Zazen is a rigorous, difficult, and often frustrating discipline. You will feel bored, itchy, achy, tired, fidgety, restless, anxious, angry, sad, hopeless, clueless, and lost. You’ll sit bolt upright, eyes open, staring at a blank wall, wondering why on earth you’re wasting your time doing this thing that this guy on the internet already told you will get you nowhere. Your eyes will droop, your head will nod, you’ll feel tiredness so acute it’s physically painful. Which will confuse you, because you slept well the night before and didn’t feel tired until you hit the zafu. In between those trials, you may have other experiences including euphoria, epiphany, awakening, enlightenment, transcendence, oneness, meeting with God, tangling eyebrows with the ancients, sensations of floating or being extremely heavy, seeing colored lights and orbs, having detailed visions, visitations from deceased relatives, out of body experiences, or identifying with the universe as your true nature. You might mention such extraordinary experiences to your teacher, who will likely reply something like “Yes, that happens. Keep practicing.”

None of these are the aim of zazen. This isn’t about punishing yourself with discomfort until you submit or chasing after some nebulous notion of spiritual attainment.

Zazen is a living practice, an ongoing activity. There isn’t an end to it, it’s just something you do as a regular discipline.

Why should I practice zazen?

I don’t know, maybe you shouldn’t. Zen tends to actively discourage proselytizing, and in my experience, for good reason. People tend to come to Zen of their own accord. The practice requires genuine devotion, and folks with a passing interest or curiosity don’t tend to stick around. And that’s fine, there’s no insistence this is the “only” or “correct” way to go about things. There’s an old tale of a man visiting a master and requesting instruction. The master leads the man out to the middle of a stream, and quickly grabs him by the neck and holds his head underwater. After struggling a moment, the master lets the man breathe and says “When you hunger for Truth like you hunger for air, come back and see me”. It’s a bit of a dramatic example, but the sentiment is there.

My teacher said, “The only thing harder than practicing zazen…is not practicing zazen”.

If you’re looking to settle your most urgent questions about life, the universe, and everything, and are willing to put in the effort, zazen might be the way for you. Or it might not.

How do I get started practicing Zazen?

First, I think it’s a good idea to read the Fukanzazengi. It’s short, it’s a little confusing. This is the description of zazen written by Eihei Dogen, who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan, and put a lot of emphasis on the practice of zazen. Don’t put too much thought into his words- they’re heavy with the culture of his time and with phrases and terms that aren’t necessary to understand.

There are a few principles that are good to observe regarding zazen practice. I encourage folks interested in taking it up, to create a designated space and time for it. Zazen is something that should be practiced on a daily basis. It should become as regular a part of your day as eating and sleeping. It’s a good idea to carve out a specific time in your day for it. In the morning just upon waking, later in the evening towards bedtime (I do not recommend sitting zazen immediately before bed), or whenever you find you can slip it into your day. Consistency is good. Try to make it the same time each day- that will help cement it as a regular fixture of your routine. When it’s time for zazen, you just go sit zazen.

You should also have a designated space for sitting. It doesn’t take much. A corner of a room, section of a room tucked away somewhere. You want a spot that’s relatively uncluttered, where you can sit and face a blank wall. Ideally it’s not too noisy and doesn’t have many people, but know that a silent area is not vital, or even really optimal. All you really need is a firm support to put under your butt, and hopefully some sort of padding underneath you, to cushion your ankles and knees.

People often ask “How long should I sit for?” This kind of thing tends to take care of itself. Start with ten or fifteen minutes if that’s comfortable. Or five minutes, or two. Anything is better than nothing. Far more important than the length of time is consistency, that you sit zazen every day. Start with what you’re comfortable sitting, and as you grow in experience, you’ll tend to sit longer. Don’t go crazy, an hour at a time should be the limit. If you usually sit for half an hour and some day just can’t do it that long, sit shorter. No problem. “When the wind blows too hard to offer a full stick of incense, offer half a stick instead”, my teacher said.

On that note, it’s a nice idea to have some kind of timer to let you know when the sitting period is over. You may find yourself losing your sense of the passage of time and wondering how long you’ve been sitting there. A timer helps you let go of that worry. There are several good apps for smartphones, I personally like Insight Timer (no affiliation). You can just use an egg timer from the grocery store, provided it doesn’t tick, or do it old school- light a stick of incense, and when it goes out, you’re done.

I’ve got zazen space and time established, cushions, and a timer. Now what?

Now, let’s talk about posture. Zazen pose is very specific, and for good reason. It’s not an attempt to look spiritual or Buddha-like. It isn’t because “that’s how we’ve always done it”. Recommendations for posture while sitting zazen are pragmatic and promote the development of calm, alert awareness.

The image of a meditator in “lotus pose” is a common trope, and I’d always figured it was a theatrical element that just made folks feel more spiritual. In fact, I’d come to learn there’s a reason for it. Sit on a hard floor, in typical “criss-cross applesauce” style. Make a note of what parts of your body actually contact the floor. It’s probably your butt, and your ankles as they’re tucked close together, under your legs. In your head, draw lines between those points of contact and note the size of this base you’re teetering on. Now, if you’re able, assume lotus posture. Much like conventional cross-legged sitting, except each foot should be on top of the thigh of the other leg. Note again what’s contacting the floor. Now, it should be your butt and your knees. This is a much wider, more stable base and lessens the amount of subtle muscle contractions and adjustments your brain needs to unconsciously make, to keep you upright. Lotus is used because it’s stable. If you are able to get into lotus, I strongly recommend always sitting zazen in lotus. It will be uncomfortable in the beginning, but you’ll get used to it eventually. You may also find, like me, in time that you actually prefer it. You’ll notice it doesn’t bend your ankles, doesn’t have as many hard points of contact as conventional sitting. Blood flows more freely in the legs, and they don’t get as tired with long sits.

If you’re not able to sit full lotus, don’t be worried. Try half lotus instead, where just one foot is on top of the other thigh. Or Burmese posture, with both lower legs parallel on the floor. You can try seiza, a kneeling position used either with a zafu on edge, or dedicated seiza bench. If none of those work, sit in a plain, armless, backed chair.

Arrange your legs, and sit upright. No slouching. Your posture should reflect an attitude of wide-awake, calm, alert. A common imagery is to think of a string attached to the very top of your skull, pulling toward the ceiling and straightening your neck and spine. Or imagine your vertebrae as stacked coins. You want them each directly below the next, upright, balanced. Tuck that lower spine in, pull those shoulders back. No hint of laziness or slack.

Teeth and lips should be closed. Place the tip of your tongue against the front roof of the mouth. Tuck the chin in towards the chest slightly, and eyes should be about half-open, gazing downward at about 45 degree angle. Not staring at a particular point- un-focus the eyes and look through the wall. Keeping the eyes open helps prevent drowsiness, as well as makes it a little harder to start painting mental images before you and become lost in daydreams.

Place your hands in your lap in the “cosmic mudra”: right hand down, palm up. Left hand on the right, palm up. Thumb tips touching gently to make an oval with your hands. Not too hard, not too soft. Just enough pressure to hold a piece of paper.

This strict posture not only promotes calm alertness and allows consistency, but also serves as a barometer for our attention. As you become lost in thought, boredom, tiredness, or are otherwise distracted, you’ll find your posture quickly mirrors the mind. Spine will slouch, shoulders roll forward. Tongue will droop. If you’re tense, you may find your thumb tips pushing together firmly. Very tired, they may start to sag. When you notice these, simply correct your posture, and return to sitting.

This posture will feel uncomfortable, unnatural, and unpleasant to maintain for any length of time. This will change quickly, and you may soon find it comfortable and refreshing.

I’ve got the posture down, what do I think about?

That is the big question. The truth is, Zen practice does not point to any particular concept, idea, dogma, or mental state as the Fundamental Point. Since all writing depends on a concept to be conveyed, I’m unable to say “This is what Zen is” or “This is what to do with your mind in zazen”. Most types of meditation use some sort of anchor for attention. Whether a mantra, a mandala or other image, bead counting, or just breathing, usually we’re given something to focus on, to the exclusion of other thoughts. We don’t get that in zazen. Ultimately we can’t even say that “just sitting” is the anchor, since that’s merely another idea.

Dogen specifically points out in his Fukanzazengi: “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation…” What does he mean?

Sit upright, on your cushion, in your space, eyes open, facing the wall. As thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise, simply let them pass again. The moment you notice awareness of the new mental construct, let it go, and return your awareness to the wide-open reality of sitting in silence in that moment. In the beginning, it will feel like thoughts continue to arise at blinding speed. You’ll find yourself becoming lost in thought over and over again within minutes. You’ll have moments where you “snap out of it” and realize you just spent the last fifteen minutes absorbed in a complex daydream. This is all normal. The moment you become aware, then simply and without judgement, let it go and return to the reality of sitting right here.

This is the practice. There is nothing else but continually returning.

You’ll find very quickly that the brain hates this practice. It’s antithesis to the purpose of an organ made to create thought. You’ll be stunned and amused at the creative methods the brain designs to get you to stop doing that zazen stuff. It will protest loudly and tell you this is a waste of time. It will form endless lists of things you could be doing that are not zazen. It will remind you of that brilliant project you briefly thought of ten years ago and forgot. Wouldn’t it be nice to start that? That’s at least productive!

Your brain will search deep in corners long forgotten and bring up flashes of childhood memories you hadn’t thought about since the day they happened. It will force painful memories on you, and you’ll have to confront emotions, defense mechanisms, and beliefs that you may not have wanted to. The brain will generate discomfort, itching, yawning, anything to get movement or distraction from you. It may even cause bizarre experiences- floating, colored orbs of light, sensations of floating, hearing odd whispers or music, and others.

These are all thoughts and mental states, constructs of mind. When you become aware of them, let go, and return to sitting.

This practice isn’t to add something on to what we’re already experiencing, but to stop adding. It’s like a glass of water with sand in it. All day we spend stirring the water, trying to achieve a goal or result, involved in and attaching to the beautiful shapes the sand makes as it swirls around. Zazen is not to try to stir the sand into the shape of enlightenment. It isn’t trying to filter out the sand or force it down. Zazen is simply to stop the stirring. In time, movement calms, the sand settles by itself, and the water becomes clear.

Eventually, stick long enough at it, and you may have a very extraordinary experience. You may, in a flash of insight, suddenly find you no longer identify with the various forms the mind takes, and instead with the entirety of reality or the universe as a whole. You may have a moment in which it seems the sky cracks open, thinking ceases immediately, and reality becomes brilliantly clear, open, timeless, and spotless.

Those are neat experiences. They’re encouraging. Most people return to zazen the next day and try to make it happen again. They will not succeed. When these experiences happen, see that they are happening, and return to sitting. Avoid the strong temptation to latch on to an experience like that, thinking it’s the goal of zazen you’ve been after, trying to recreate it, chasing it back to delusion and dissatisfaction. Let it go, and return to sitting.

On and off the cushion, throughout your practice, you’ll encounter an endless variety of experiences and thoughts about it. Always remember whatever you’re thinking about is another thought, another mental state. None of them really pierce the heart of zazen.