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?
Zen meditation techniques are a variety of Buddhist meditation.
The Buddhist tradition of Zen meditation originated in the Tang Dynasty of 7th Century China. From there it gradually spread across the world into Korea and Japan and other parts of Asia. The meaning of the word “Zen” comes from “Chan”, a Chinese word derived from the Indian term “Dhyana”, which in itself is a form of meditation and means concentration. discuss what Zen meditation is.
Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that is heavily influenced by Taoism . 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. For this reason we can say that the two main benefits of Zen meditation are concentration and awareness of the inner workings of the mind.
Zen meditation also incorporates 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
Before we look at how to practise Zen meditation, it is essential to know the right positions for the body. One way in which Zen is different to other meditations is that the sitting position, head position, hand position, and eye positions are all very important.
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.
Zen Positions: Sitting, Kneeling, Or Standing
Zen Meditation techniques use specific sitting positions and standing positions, like so.
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.
*Proper Zen posture 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.
Zen 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:
- 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 held over the left.
- Make sure not to lock your knees.
Zen Positions For The Rest Of The Body
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:
- Keep your neck straight.
- Pull your chin in a little
- Imagine that your head is gently rising towards 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
- 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.
Zen 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.
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 the ten thousand things.”
Breathing Zen Meditation Technique
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.
- 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.
- Set an alarm for the end of your session.
- Find a comfortable space somewhere you can relax and where you will not be distracted.
- 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. Keep your back straight so that the diaphragm can move freely.
- To begin, relax. You will find it helpful to practice breathing methods for a few minutes. Breathe in through the nose with your mouth gently closed. As in Taoist methods, the tongue is pressed lightly against the upper palate behind the teeth. The chin should be tucked slightly forward, which helps with elongation of the spine.
- 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.
- 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.
- Adopt the cosmic mudra (“Hokkaijoin”) and check your posture (see above).
- Begin focusing on your breath and particularly on your exhalation. It is best to focus the breath around the Hara, which is an energy centre two inches above the navel. It can be helpful to count the breath, although some Zen masters state that proper Zazen practise does not include counting. It helps to keep the mind focused.
- You will notice some degree of “Monkey Mind”. You might notice scattered thoughts and feelings. That’s normal. Simply observe these mental phenomena mindfully without attaching to them.
- I like to go into a Vipassana practice now.
- At the end of your meditation, you may do gassho again.
- Sit quietly and relax for a few moments.
This exercise may also be practised in groups. It is traditional in meditation centres and temples for monks or meditators to sit in a group and perform the exercise above for long periods.
There are also ways to adapt this method. For instance, Shikantaza (or “Silent Illumination”, or “Serene Reflection) is a Japanese translation of zazen created by by Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Zen Buddhism. “
As well as Zazen meditation, you might like to try the following methods, which are two traditional mindfulness exercises.
2: Kinhin (Zen Walking Meditation)
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 Buddhist meditation techniques for you to try is Kinhin (mindful walking)
Sound interesting? Great. I’ve written a tutorial on Kinhin (Mindful walking).
3: Zen Gardening
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.
Some schools of Zen Buddhism meditate on Koans, which are riddles of puzzles that are not designed to be answered but rather to open the mind. One Zen Koan, for instance, is “What was your original face before your mother and father were born?” These are then meditated on a way similar to contemplation.
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?
- Improved focus
- Improved sleep quality
- More peaceful mind with less negative thoughts
- Improved intuition
- Inner peace
- Moves us towards enlightenment and oneness.
The main benefit of Zen meditation, 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. It is significantly deeper than most modern methods, which are designed for relaxation. This is how Zen meditation is difference to other methods.
Buddhist master Bodhidharma explains Zen meditation as a, “A special transmission outside the teachings; not established upon words and letters; directly pointing to the human heartmind; seeing nature and becoming a Buddha.”
And so the main benefit of Zen meditation is that it enables us to see our own nature, which are essential parts of Buddhist psychology, similar to how Vipassana does. This in turn helps us to achieve enlightenment, to recognise the interconnectedness of all beings, and to develop great insight, as well as other spiritual benefits.
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. The brains of daily Zen meditation practitioners 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.
Zen meditation is also sometimes used in drug addiction therapy in Taiwan because it improves the autonomic nervous system while simultaneously slowing heart rate and respiration. One study published in 2018 in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine found that Zen meditation affects brain-heart interactions. Because people with a history of drug abuse have weakened autonomic nervous systems it is believed daily Zen meditation may 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]
If you would like to learn more about Zen meditation there are numerous ways to do so. Certainly literature on Zen is rife. Most large cities have at least one Zen monastery. And specifically to learn Zen meditation you may like to book an online meditation lesson with me.
I hope you have enjoyed this guide. I would love to hear how you got on.
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