zen meditation techniques for beginners

In this guide to Zen meditation techniques, beginners will learn how to do Zazen meditation and other methods, along with the benefits, hand positions, and sitting postures.

Each of the different types of Zen meditation has various benefits, so it is worth trying all of them. And if you follow our newsletter, you certainly will have seen how valuable many these methods are.

What are Zen Meditation techniques?

Before we actually look at How to do Zen meditation techniques, let’s discuss what Zen meditation is.

Zen meditation techniques are a variety of Buddhist meditation.

Naturally, Zen meditation techniques stem from the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that is heavily influenced by Taisom [1]. That’s why there are many similarities between methods like Zazen and traditional Daoist meditation techniques.

One of the primary focuses of this school of Buddhism is Mindfulness.

The majority of Zen meditation techniques focus on increasing mindful awareness. They also incorporate specific postures. For instance, in Zazen meditation, which is a traditional seted practice, we use specific seating positions along with the hand positions called mudras.

There are many different Zen meditation exercises. It is worth practising each of them because they offer unique benefits. The walking method called Kinhin, for instance, will give you different benefits to seated Zazen meditation technique.

One of my favourite books on Zen meditation is Zen Training: Methods And Philosophy. In it, author Katsuki Sekida says, “Zen training is a means of enabling us to live our ordinary lives supremely well.”

The key to living supremely well is mastering your mind, which is what these methods are all about.

So, how do you do it? It’s best to begin with the postures and positions because these are so vital to the practice.

How To Do Zen Meditation

It is traditional and beneficial to use proper seating position, hand gestures (mudras) and other body positions when practising meditation. Here is a guide to adopting the right position for the body so that you can practice properly.

Positions: Sitting, Kneeling, Or Standing

 

Zen Meditation techniques us specific sitting positions and standing positions, like so:

zen meditation sitting positions
zen meditation sitting positions

Burmese Position: The legs are crossed with both knees flat on the floor, one ankle in front of the other but not over.

Half Lotus (Hankafuza): The left foot is positioned on the right thigh. This position takes time to adopt comfortably, but regular practice will help.

Kneeling Position (Seiza): In this position, we kneel with the hips resting on the ankles.

*These sitting positions require a cushion/mat/pillow called a zafu. This is a particular type of cushion that helps you maintain proper posture while also being comfortable.

A zafu is essential for both body and mind because if you do not have a comfortable posture, you will find it very difficult to focus. And without focus, the exercises simply will not work.

A good cushion will elevate the hips in such a way that the knees are lowered to the floor, which is a stable and comfortable position conducive to focus.

Standing position  

If you do not find it comfortable to sit or you do not have a zafu, try standing instead.

This is an excellent position for those who cannot sit for long periods, and is widely used in China and Korea. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Stand straight
  2. Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  3. Position your heel inwards a little.
  4. Place your hands on top of your belly with the right hand held over the left.
  5. Make sure not to lock your knees.

Positions For The Rest Of The Body

Eyes

One of the differences between Zen meditation techniques like Zazen and other forms is that the eyes are kept open. This is to stop you from drifting off into a daydream.

The right way to use your eyes is to focus on nothing but instead softly guide your gaze to one meter in front of you on the floor.

Your eyes should be half-open. You may also choose to position yourself in front of a wall or some other object so that there are no distractions.

Traditionally, when doing Zazen meditation technique in a hall (a “Soto dojo”), monks would face a wall to remove distractions.

Neck And Head

In Zazen meditation technique, the position of your neck and head is critical. If your neck and head are in the wrong position for extended periods, you could suffer a spinal injury. To combat, position your head and neck as described below.

Zen meditation position for neck and head:

  1. Keep your neck straight.
  2. Pull your chin in a little
  3. Imagine that your head is gently rising towards the ceiling (but do not force it)
  4. Make sure that you are balanced and comfortable. You should be able to maintain the position without effort.
  5. Your teeth should be together lightly
  6. Your tongue should be 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.

 State Of Mind

If you perform the other parts of Zen meditation technique correctly, your state of mind will naturally follow. Without the right state of mind, you will not get the health benefits of Zen meditation.

When it comes to attitude, acceptance is vital, as it always is in Buddhism. You will naturally have thoughts come to your mind when you meditate, as you do with other methods. Let these thoughts exist; do not repress them, fight them, or cling to them, but rather let them rise and fall as they will.

Keep your focus on your breath and maintain the correct posture.

Breathing Zen Meditation Techniques

When doing Zazen meditation, breathing technique is fundamental. The right breathing here is a little different to what you might have experienced with other methods. And it is imperative to get it correct.

To breathe correctly, sit in the right posture (see above). Then, breathe quietly in through the nose with your mouth closed.

An important part of learning how to do Zen meditation technique is to correct your breathing. The breath must be relaxed, and should come in long, calm inhalation and exhalations that are never forced. The focus is on the exhalation.

The Right Room

Distractions are the enemy of good practice. The fewer distractions, the easier it will be to concentrate, which is why Zen monks often meditate facing a wall.

However, you do not need to be facing a wall. 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 your pratice will be.

Now let’s look at how to do Zen meditation technique.

 

How To Do Zen Meditation Techniques

1: Zazen meditation

*This is the primary type of Zen meditation technique.

  1. When you begin, you should have an idea of how long your session will last. And you should have done everything to make sure that you will not be distracted during that time.
  2. Set an alarm for the end of your session.
  3. Find a comfortable space somewhere you can relax and where you will not be distracted.
  4. Place your zafu or zabuton 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 so that your eyes fall to the bottom of the wall when you meditate.
  5. To begin, relax. You will find it helpful to practice breathing methods for a few minutes.
  6. Close your fist with the thumbs tucked inside the fingers, and move your hands so that the back of your hands touches your knees with the digits up.
  7. If you would like to show respect to Buddha, you can do gassho. This is where you adopt the Anjali Mudra and bow to show your devotion to Buddha.
  8. Adopt the cosmic mudra (“Hokkaijoin”) and check your posture (see above).
  9. Begin focusing on your breath and particularly on your exhalation.
  10. Count to 108 breaths.
  11. I like to go into a Vipassana practice now.
  12. At the end of your meditation, you may do gassho again.
  13. Sit quietly and relax for a few moments.

 

As well as Zazen meditation, you might like to try the following methods, which are two traditional mindfulness exercises.

2: Kinhin

zen walking position kinhin

Maybe you don’t want to do the seated Zen meditation technique. Maybe your cup of tea is taking a walk instead.

If so, one of the best Zen meditation techniques for you to try is Kinhin (mindful walking)

Sound interesting? Great. I’ve written a tutorial on  Kinhin (Mindful walking).

3: Garden

zen garden

The third of our Zen meditation techniques is perfect for the horticulturist in you. It’s a 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 in itself a mindfulness practice.

Read my complete guide to Zen Gardens to learn all about them.

Take a break for a 15 Minute Guided ZEN Meditation

Benefits of Zen Meditation Technique

So now you know how to do Zen meditation technique like Zazen. But what are the benefits of Zen meditation? 

Research 

Brain scans reveal that Zen meditation can help free the mind of distractions, which could be beneficial for ADD, ADHD, anxiety and other mental health complications [source]

Giuseppe Pagnoni [neuroscientist, Emory University in Atlanta] conducted research into Zen meditation techniques. The team compared 12 people with experience of Zazen with 12 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, which is linked to mind-wandering and spontaneous thoughts. Zen meditators brains returned to normal faster after each word than the non-meditators did. This, Pagnoni states, shows that “meditation may enhance the capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts,” Pagnoni said. This, researchers state, could mean that Zen meditation helps with conditions caused by distractive and disruptive thoughts.

I hope you have enjoyed this guide. I would love to hear how you got on. 

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About Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.


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