Zen Meditation Techniques Beginners Need To Know

zen meditation techniques for beginners
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In this guide to Zen meditation techniques, beginners will learn how to do Zazen meditation and other methods.

We will also look at the benefits of Zen meditation. And for beginners, we will discuss posture and hand positions.   

Each of the different types of Zen meditation has various benefits. That’s why it is worth trying all of them.  

What are Zen Meditation techniques?

Zen meditation techniques are a variety of Buddhist meditation. Specifically, Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that was heavily influenced by Taoism according to the BBC [1].    

The word “Zen” comes from “Chan”, a Chinese word derived from the Indian term “Dhyana”, which means “concentration”.

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Concentration is the heart of Zen.

In the book Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, philosopher Carl Bielefeldt explains that the early stages of Zen meditation are all about cultivating concentration. For instance, by practising mindfulness.  

Mindfulness means to focus on the present moment without judgment. And this is crucial in all Zen meditation techniques. Indeed, the first benefit of Zen meditation beginners will experience is improved focus and mindfulness. 

You will have to learn Zen meditation properly. 

Zen meditation techniques 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).  

Plus, there are numerous different types of Zen meditation techniques. For instance, Zazen (seated meditation), Kinhin (Mindful Walking), and Koans (contemplation).  

When you learn these methods, you will be empowered. As 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.”  

Let’s look at how to do Zen meditation techniques.

How To Do Zen Meditation Techniques

When learning Zen meditation techniques, we must have good posture. 

Indeed, this is one way Zen meditation is different to other methods. It involves positions for the head, neck, eyes, and general sitting positions. 

In the text the Fuken Zazengi, Japanese Buddhist philosopher Dogen says posture is important for our state of mind. However, he also says one cannot become a Buddha through posture alone, so do not romanticize it. 

Let’s look at the proper sitting position, hand gestures (mudras) and other body positions for Zen meditation.  

 

Zen Position: Sitting, Kneeling, Or Standing

Zen Meditation techniques use 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 is 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 do comfortably, but regular practice will help.

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

Proper Zen posture requires a cushion/mat/pillow called 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. And without focus, Zen meditation techniques will not work. 


Zen Standing position  

If you do not find it comfortable to sit, try standing. This is an excellent position for those who cannot sit for extended periods. It is a popular practice in China and Korea.  

  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 over the left.
  5. Do not lock your knees.

Zen Positions for the Rest of the Body

Eyes

In Zen meditation technique 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 prevents this from happening.

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 Zen meditation technique in a hall (a “Soto dojo”).

Zen meditation position for the neck and head:

In Zen meditation technique, 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.

  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. 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.

 


 Zen State of Mind

One critical aspect of Zen meditation for beginners to understand is attitude.

Acceptance and “non-attachment” are vital according to Kenneth Fung and Josephine Wong at the University of Toronto.

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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 the ten thousand things.”

 

Breathing Zen Meditation Technique

Below, we will look at the Zen Meditation technique called Zazen. For this method, proper breathing is critical. 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 inhalation and exhalations that are never forced. The focus is on exhalation.

This is arguably the most important part of Zen mediation for beginners to get right. You must not force the breath. Just let it move as it will. 

 

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 your practice will be.

Those are the basics of Zen meditation for beginners. Now let’s look at how to do Zen meditation techniques.

 

How To Do Zen Meditation Techniques (Beginners Guide)

1: Zazen meditation

*This is the primary type of Zen meditation technique. Zen Mountain Monastery calls it “The heart of Zen practice.” 

  1. Decide how long your session will last.
  2. Remove distractions before beginning. 
  3. Set an alarm for the end of your session.
  4. Find a comfortable space somewhere you can relax without distractions. 
  5. 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.
  6. Keep your back straight so your diaphragm can move freely.
  7. Breathe in through the nose with your mouth gently closed. As in Taoist methods, press your tongue lightly against the upper palate behind the teeth. Tuck your chin slightly forward to elongate your spine.
  8. Close your fist with the thumbs tucked inside the fingers. Now move your hands so that the back of your hands touches your knees with the fingers up.
  9. 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.
  10. Adopt the cosmic mudra (“Hokkaijoin”) and check your posture (see above).
  11. 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 Zen masters state that counting breaths is not a part of Zen meditation, beginners will find it helpful. 
  12. 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.
  13. I like to go into a Vipassana practice now by labelling thoughts and emotions.
  14. At the end of your meditation, you may do gassho again.
  15. Sit quietly and relax for a few moments.

Notes on Zazen meditation

Zazen meditation may 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 extended periods.  

There are also ways to adapt this method. 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. These are three traditional Zen meditation techniques.

 

2: Kinhin (Zen Walking Meditation)

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 Buddhist meditation techniques for you to try is Kinhin (mindful walking).

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

 

3: Zen Gardening

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 a mindfulness practice.

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

This is an excellent Zen meditation for beginners because being in a garden is relaxing by itself.

 

4: Koan

Some schools of Zen Buddhism meditate on Koans. These are riddles or puzzles that are not designed to be answered but to open the mind.

One Zen Koan, for instance, is “What was your original face before your mother and father were born?”

We meditate on these koans for contemplation. 

 

Benefits of Zen Meditation Techniques

So now you know how to do Zen meditation technique like Zazen. But what are the benefits of Zen meditation? 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 less negative thoughts
  • Improved intuition
  • Inner peace
  • Moves us towards enlightenment and oneness. (This one takes years of mastery)

Insight

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. 

Buddhist master Bodhidharma says that Zen meditation 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 meditation is insight. It enables 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.

Focus

Brain scans reveal that Zen meditation 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 meditation. 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 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.” This, researchers state, could mean that Zen meditation helps with conditions caused by distractive and disruptive thoughts.

Substance Abuse

Interestingly, Zen meditation techniques are 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 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]

Conclusion

Now you know how to do Zen meditation techniques. And you have a valuable tool for your mind. 

If you would like to learn more about Zen meditation techniques 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 might like to book an online meditation lesson with me.  

 

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By 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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