Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that employs various meditation techniques to develop concentration, most of which are suitable for beginners.
There are many different concentration based exercises in Zen such as Kinhin (mindful walking), Zazen (formal meditation) koans (contemplation) and more.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important techniques.
Zen Meditation Techniques
(More Buddhist methods on our Youtube)
Zen methods are quite technical. They include specific breathing methods and postures. For instance, in Zazen meditation, we use specific sitting positions and Cosmic mudra (a hand position). I’ve given specific details for all these elements below.
1: Zazen meditation
- Decide how long your session will last.
- Remove distractions before beginning.
- Set an alarm for the end of your session.
- Place your zafu or zabuton (cushion) in a comfortable spot. If you are choosing to face a wall, you will need to place the zafu about a metre in front of the wall. That way, your gaze will fall to the bottom of the wall when you meditate.
- Keep your back straight so your diaphragm can move freely.
- If you would like to show respect to Buddha, you can do gassho. This is where you adopt the Anjali Mudra (prayer hands) and bow to Buddha.
- Close your fist with your thumbs tucked inside your fingers. Now move your hands so that the back of your hands touch your knees.
- Breathe in through your nose with your mouth gently closed. As in Taoist methods, press your tongue lightly against the upper palate behind your teeth. Tuck your chin slightly forward to elongate your spine.
- Focus on your breath and particularly on your exhalation. It is best to focus on the breath around the Hara, which is an energy centre two inches above the navel. You may count your breath to help you focus if you like. Although some masters state that counting breaths is not a part of meditation, beginners will find it helpful.
- You will notice some degree of “Monkey Mind”. You might notice scattered thoughts and feelings. That’s normal. Observe these mental phenomena mindfully without attaching to them.
- I like to go into a Vipassana practice now by labeling thoughts and emotions.
- At the end of your meditation, you may do gassho again.
- Sit quietly and relax for a few moments.
- Note that we teach this method in our corporate meditation classes.
You can practice in a group
It is traditional in meditation centres and temples for monks or meditators to practice Zazen meditation in a group.
There are ways to adapt Zazen. For instance, Shikantaza (“Silent Illumination” or “Serene Reflection”) is a Japanese translation of zazen created by Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Zen Buddhism.
As well as Zazen meditation, you might like to try the following methods.
2: Kinhin (Zen Walking)
Maybe you don’t want to be seated. Maybe your cup of tea is taking a walk instead. If so, one of the best Zen exercises is Kinhin (mindful walking).
Sounds interesting? Great. I’ve written a tutorial on Kinhin (Mindful walking).
3: Zen Gardening
The third of our Zen exercises is perfect for the horticulturist in you. It is Zen Garden Meditation.
Have you ever seen a Zen Garden? They are beautiful sand or gravel gardens that are used for sessions of mindfulness. The actual act of creating and maintaining the garden is a mindfulness practice.
This is excellent for beginners because simply being in a garden is relaxing by itself.
Some schools of Chan Buddhism meditate on Koans. These are riddles or puzzles that are not designed to be answered. Rather, they are intended to open the mind.
For instance, one Koan is “What was your original face before your mother and father were born?”
We meditate on these koans for contemplation.
Let’s look at the proper sitting positions, hand gestures (mudras), and other body positions for Zen.
Burmese Position: The legs are crossed with both knees flat on the floor. One ankle is in front of the other but not over.
Half Lotus (Hankafuza): The left foot is positioned on the right thigh. You’ll need to practice this before you find it comfortable.
Kneeling Position (Seiza): In this position, we kneel with the hips resting on the ankles.
Note that proper Zen posture requires a zafu. This is a particular type of cushion that helps us maintain proper posture and comfort. A zafu is essential for both body and mind because if you do not have a comfortable posture, you will find it difficult to focus.
If you do not find it comfortable to sit, try standing. This is a popular practice in China and Korea.
- Stand straight
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Position your heel inwards a little.
- Place your hands on top of your belly with the right hand over the left.
- Do not lock your knees.
The eyes are open. This stops you from daydreaming.
In the book Heart of Meditation, Lama Shenpen Hookham states that when we meditate with our eyes closed, we enter “a kind of inner world that you have to leave as soon as you stop meditating.”
Meditating with the eyes open helps you to stay focused.
You shouldn’t focus your eyes on anything in particular. Instead, guide your gaze to one meter in front of you on the floor. Your eyes should be half-open.
You may choose to position yourself in front of a wall or some other object so that there are no distractions. Indeed, this is the traditional way that monks do Zazen in a hall (a “Soto dojo”).
Neck and head:
The position of your neck and head is critical. Poor neck positioning could lead to injury. To combat this, position your head and neck as described below.
- Keep your neck straight.
- Pull your chin in a little
- Imagine that your head is gently rising toward the ceiling (but do not force it)
- Make sure that you are balanced and comfortable. You should be able to maintain the position without effort.
- Your teeth should be together lightly
- Let your tongue rest against the roof of your mouth
Hands and arms (Cosmic Mudra)
Zen uses a specific mudra called the cosmic mudra. You can read about this in my guide to the different Buddhist mudras.
To breathe correctly, sit in the right posture (see above). Then, breathe quietly in through the nose with your mouth closed.
The breath should be relaxed and should come in long, calm inhalations and exhalations that are never forced. The focus is on exhalation. You must not force your breath. Just let it move as it will.
Practice Zen In The Right Room
Distractions are the enemy of good practice. The fewer distractions, the easier it will be to concentrate. That’s why Zen monks often meditate facing a wall.
Indian monk Bodhidharma was said to have spent nine years facing a wall according to Lion’s Roar. However, facing a wall is optional. You can sit comfortably wherever you like. But be aware that the more relaxing your room is and the fewer distractions there are, the more successful you will be.
Zen State of Mind
One critical aspect of Zen is attitude.
Acceptance and “non-attachment” are vital according to Kenneth Fung and Josephine Wong at the University of Toronto.
You will naturally have thoughts come to your mind when you meditate. Let these thoughts exist. Do not repress them, fight them, or cling to them. Let them rise and fall as they will. Keep your focus on your breath and maintain the correct posture.
Master Dogen Zenji explained that “To study 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 enlightened by ten thousand things.”
Benefits of Zen Meditation
So now you know how to do Zen meditation. But what are the benefits?
Katsuki Sekida says in the Zen book Zen Training: Methods And Philosophy, “Zen training is a means of enabling us to live our ordinary lives supremely well.”
Beginners can expect to see most of the following benefits within two weeks of daily practice.
- Improved focus
- Improved sleep quality
- More peaceful mind with fewer negative thoughts
- Improved intuition
- Inner peace
- Moves us towards enlightenment and oneness. (This one takes years of mastery)
The main benefit of Zazen, at least from a traditional Buddhist perspective, is that it provides insight into the workings of the mind. This helps us to let go of thoughts and feelings.
Buddhist master Bodhidharma says that Zen techniques are “A special transmission outside the teachings; not established upon words and letters; directly pointing to the human heart-mind; seeing nature and becoming a Buddha.”
And so, the main benefit of Zen is insight.
Zen helps us to see our own nature, which is an essential part of Buddhist psychology. It is also the primary goal of other forms of meditation such as Vipassana.
This insight in turn helps us to achieve enlightenment and to recognise the interconnectedness of all beings.
In the book Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, philosopher Carl Bielefeldt explains that in the early stages, Zen cultivates concentration.
Indeed, this is one reason why we teach Zen in our corporate meditation classes. And this is backed by science.
Brain scans reveal that Zen can help free the mind of distractions. This could be beneficial for ADD, ADHD, anxiety, and other mental health complications [source]
Giuseppe Pagnoni [neuroscientist, Emory University in Atlanta] conducted research into the benefits of Zen. His team compared twelve people with experience of Zazen with twelve people who had never tried it.
Participants were asked to focus on their breathing while distinguishing between real words and gibberish on a monitor.
The research revealed that Zen led to different activity in the “default network” of the brain. This is a brain region linked to mind-wandering and spontaneous thoughts.
The brains of daily Zen practitioners returned to normal faster after each word than that of the non-meditators. Pagnoni says, “Meditation may enhance the capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts.”
This, researchers state, suggests that Zen could help with conditions caused by distractive and disruptive thoughts.
Zen helps with substance abuse
Interestingly, Zen is sometimes used in drug addiction therapy in Taiwan.
Zen improves the autonomic nervous system while simultaneously slowing the heart rate and respiration. This helps with addictions.
One study published in 2018 in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine found it affects brain-heart interactions.
Because people with a history of drug abuse have weakened autonomic nervous systems it is believed that daily practise could aid in their recovery. [Cardiorespiratory and autonomic-nervous-system functioning of drug abusers treated by Zen meditation. J Tradit Complement Med. 2018;9(3):215–220. doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2018.01.005]
Now you know the basics of Zen meditation. And you have a valuable tool for your mind.
If you would like to learn more about these and other techniques, why not book an online meditation lesson with me today.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison