Zen meditation is an ancient Buddhist tradition that dates back to the Tang Dynasty in 7th century China. From its Chinese origins it spread to Korea, Japan and other Asian lands where it continues to thrive. The Japanese term “Zen” is a derivative of the Chinese word Ch’an, itself a translation of the Indian term dhyana, which means concentration or meditation.
Zen meditation is a traditional Buddhist discipline which can be practiced by new and seasoned meditators alike. One of the many benefits of Zen meditation is that it provides insight into how the mind works. As with other forms of Buddhist meditation, Zen practice can benefit people in myriad ways, including providing tools to help cope with depression and anxiety issues. The deepest purpose is spiritual, as the practice of Zen meditation uncovers the innate clarity and workability of the mind. In Zen, experiencing this original nature of mind is experiencing awakening.
Zen Meditation Benefits
For Zen Buddhists, meditation involves observing and letting go of the thoughts and feelings that arise in the mindstream, as well as developing insight into the nature of body and mind. Unlike many popular forms of meditation that focus on relaxation and stress relief, Zen meditation delves much deeper. Zen tackles deep-rooted issues and general life questions that often seem to lack answers, and it does so based on practice and intuition rather than study and logic. Zen/Ch’an was famously described by the great Buddhist master Bodhidharma as “A special transmission outside the teachings; not established upon words and letters; directly pointing to the human heartmind; seeing nature and becoming a Buddha.
All schools of Zen practice the sitting meditation called zazen where one sits upright and follows the breath, especially the movement of the breath within the belly. Some schools of Zen also practice with koans, a type of spiritual riddle that is presented by a Zen meditation master to the student, to help them overcome their rational limitations so as to glimpse the truth beyond rationality. A famous koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Traditionally, this practice requires a supportive connection between a genuine Zen master and a genuinely dedicated student.
Rather than offering temporary solutions to life’s problems, Zen and other forms of Buddhist meditation look to address core issues. The practice points to the true cause of the unhappiness and dissatisfaction we’ve all experienced and shifts our focus in a way that brings about true understanding.
The true key to happiness and well-being isn’t wealth or fame – it lies within us. Like all other genuine spiritual paths, Buddhism teaches that the more you give to others, the more you gain. It also encourages awareness of interconnectedness and appreciation of all the little gifts that life offers us, all contained within this present moment. As our concern and compassion for others expands, our personal fulfillment gradually increases in sync. As a Zen master might say, if you seek inner peace you won’t be able to find it, but the act of giving up the idea of such a reward in itself – and focusing instead on others’ happiness – creates the possibility for lasting peace. This is truly the spiritual dimension of Zen.
On the everyday level, Zen trains the mind to achieve calmness. Meditators are also able to reflect with better focus and more creativity. Improved physical health is another benefit: people who practice zazen report lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety and stress, better immune systems, more restorative sleep, and other improvements.
Top 3 Zen Meditation Techniques
- Observation of the breath
Meditators should assume a comfortable posture such as the Burmese, half-lotus or Seiza pose during zazen. It’s best to sit on a padded mat or cushion; sitting on a chair is also acceptable. Awareness is directed towards a certain object of meditation, generally observation of the breath and more specifically the way it moves in and out of the belly area. This method fosters an abiding sense of presence and alertness.
- Quiet awareness
This form of meditation does not repose on a focal point such as the breath. Here, meditators learn to allow thoughts to flow through their minds without judgment, grasping or rejection. The Japanese call this practice shikantaza, or “just sitting.” This Zen Buddhist meditation technique is practiced with no object of meditation, anchors or contents.
The teachings emphasize that there is no goal, per se. The meditator “just sits” and allows their mind to just be. It is important for practitioners to understand that zazen is not a means to an end: it is the end.
- Intensive group meditation
Serious meditators regularly practice rigorous group meditation in meditation centers or temples. The Japanese call this practice sesshin. During this period of intensive meditation, practitioners devote most of their time to sitting meditation. Each session lasts about 30 to 50 minutes, alternated with walking meditation, short breaks and meals. Meals are taken in silence as part of the practice, usually with oryoki bowls. Brief periods of work are also performed mindfully. Today, such Zen meditation retreats are practiced in Taiwan, Japan and the West.