In Zen Buddhism, zazen (literally “seated meditation“; Japanese: 座禅; simplified Chinese: 坐禅; traditional Chinese: 坐禪; pinyin: zuò chán; Wade–Giles: tso4-ch’an2) is a meditative discipline that is typically the primary practice. The precise meaning and method of zazen varies from school to school, but in general it can be regarded as a means of insight into the nature of existence. In the Japanese Rinzai school, zazen is usually associated with the study of koans. The Sōtō School of Japan, on the other hand, only rarely incorporates koans into zazen, preferring an approach where the mind has no object at all, known as shikantaza.
In Zen temples and monasteries, practitioners traditionally sit zazen as a group in a meditation hall, usually referred to as the zendo. The practitioner sits on a cushion called a zafu, which itself is usually placed on top of a low, flat mat called a zabuton.
Before taking one’s seat, and after rising at the end of the period of zazen, a Zen practitioner performs a gassho bow to their seat, and a second bow to fellow practitioners.
The posture of zazen is seated, with folded legs and hands, and an erect but settled spine. The hands are folded together into a simple mudraover the belly. In many practices, the practitioner breathes from the hara (the center of gravity in the belly) and the eyelids are half-lowered, the eyes being neither fully open nor shut so that the practitioner is neither distracted by, nor turning away from, external stimuli.
The legs are folded in one of the standard sitting styles:
- Kekkafuza (full-lotus)
- Hankafuza (half-lotus)
- Burmese (a cross-legged posture in which the ankles are placed together in front of the sitter)
- Seiza (a kneeling posture using a bench or zafu)
In addition, it is not uncommon for modern practitioners to practice zazen in a chair, often with a wedge or cushion on top of it so that one is sitting on an incline, or by placing a wedge behind the lower back to help maintain the natural curve of the spine. One can sit comfortably, but not too comfortably, so as to avoid falling asleep. While each of these styles is commonly taught today, Master Dogen recommended only Kekkafuza and Hankafuza.
Types of zazen
In his book Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau says that practitioners in the Rinzai school face in, towards each other with their backs to the wall, and in the Soto school, practitioners face the wall or a curtain. Kapleau quotes Hakuun Yasutani‘s lectures for beginners. In lecture four, Yasutani describes the five kinds of zazen: bompu, gedo,shojo, daijo, and saijojo (he adds the latter is the same thing as shikantaza).
Very generally speaking, zazen practice is taught in one of three ways.
The beginning of a period of zazen is traditionally announced by ringing a bell three times (shijosho), and the end of a round by ringing the bell either once or twice (hozensho).
Dogen uses various terms to describe zazen, one of which is gotsu-za, which means “sitting immovable like a bold mountain.” A related term of great importance is kekka-fuza—“full-lotus position”—which Dogen regards as the key to zazen. However, Dogen’s understanding of kekka-fuza is completely different from the yogic tradition of India, and this understanding sheds a great deal of light on how we should approach zazen.
In most meditative traditions, practitioners start a certain method of meditation (such as counting breaths, visualizing sacred images, concentrating the mind on a certain thought or sensation, etc.) after getting comfortable sitting in full-lotus position. In other words, it is kekka-fuza plus meditation. Kekka-fuza in such usage becomes a means for optimally conditioning the body and mind for mental exercises called “meditation,” but is not an objective in itself. The practice is structured dualistically, with a sitting body as a container and a meditating mind as the contents. And the emphasis is always on meditation as mental exercise. In such a dualistic structure, the body sits while the mind does something else.
For Dogen, on the other hand, the objective of zazen is just to sit in kekka-fuza correctly—there is absolutely nothing to add to it. It is kekka-fuza plus zero. Kodo Sawaki Roshi, the great Zen master of early 20lh century Japan, said, “Just sit zazen, and that’s the end of it.” In this understanding, zazen goes beyond mind/body dualism; both the body and the mind are simultaneously and completely used up just by the act of sitting inkekka-fuza. In the Samadhi King chapter of Shobogenzo, Dogen says, “Sit in kekka-fuza with body, sit in kekka-fuza with mind, sit in kekka-fuza of body-mind falling off.”
The Padmasana or Lotus Position (Sanskrit: पद्मासन [pɐd̪mɑːs̪ɐn̪ɐ], IAST: padmāsana) is a cross-legged sitting asana originating in meditative practices of ancient India, in which the feet are placed on the opposing thighs. It is an established asana, commonly used for meditation, in theHindu Yoga, Jain and Buddhist contemplative traditions. The asana is said to resemble a lotus, to encourage breathing proper to associated meditative practice, and to foster physical stability.
Padmāsana means “Lotus throne” and is also a term for actual thrones, often decorated with lotus foliage motifs, on which figures in art sit. In Balinese Hinduism, a prominent feature of temples is a special form of padmasana shrine, with empty thrones mounted on a column, for deities, especially Acintya.
In Chinese Buddhism, the lotus position is also called the “vajra position” (Skt. vajrāsana, Ch. 金剛座 jīngāngzuò).The traditions of Tibetan Buddhism also refer to the lotus position as the “vajra position.”