Japanese wellness practices are known all over the world. From buckwheat pillows to zen meditation, these tools provide physical and mental health benefits, helping people lower stress and feel good.
Many forms of meditation have their own techniques, philosophies, and origins. Zen meditation is one of the most notorious forms of meditation with a long history. Its roots are in Zen Buddhism, which teaches meditation as the path to enlightenment. This form of meditation is also known to reduce stress and anxiety and improve sleep. This centuries-old practice isn’t solely practiced at Buddhist temples in Japan. You can also benefit from zen meditation at home - with the right mindset and set-up, you can benefit from zen meditation at home.
The History of Zen Meditation
Before getting into the history of zen meditation, we must first understand the history of Japanese Buddhism. In the 6th century, Buddhism arrived in Japan from China via the Silk Road. The indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto, along with many other aspects of Japanese culture, have been shaped by Buddhism. For example, matcha tea ceremonies and Japanese gardens have ties to Buddhism.
Zen Buddhism is a school of Buddhism that originated in China and spread to Japan, where it then became known as Japanese Zen. The term Zen itself has roots in Sanskrit. It is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of chán, a Middle Chinese abbreviation for a transliteration of the Sanskrit word for meditation. In many ways, Zen itself means meditation. It is a spiritual teaching focused on meditation, the nature of the mind, and self-restraint.
Meditation is at the core of Zen Buddhism, and Zazen is the term used to refer to this meditation practice. Zazen is a Japanese word that means “seated meditation,” where an individual will sit and still the mind. This means no judgmental thoughts, ideas, images, or words taking hold of the mind. Instead, they may simply float on by.
In Zen temples and monasteries in Japan, there are meditation halls where groups will sit Zazen together. Each person will sit on a special meditation cushion called a zafu. The word zafu translates to “round cushion.” This cushion is made of comfortable but firm materials to provide a seat that will enhance posture. The filling is often made of seed heads or buckwheat hulls, just like a buckwheat pillow. The zafu can be placed on the floor or on top of a zabuton. A zabuton is a thinner, square-shaped pillow. Zabuton’s can also be used independently and are often preferred for kneeling.
Traditionally, a practitioner will bow to their seat before and after sitting. This is called a gassho bow and is followed by a second bow to those around them. The Zazen will begin at the sound of three bells known as shijosho. The zafu meditation pillow makes sitting for more extended periods more comfortable. As you can imagine, it is much more challenging to clear one's mind when you have aches and pains shooting through your lower back and legs. In addition, the pillow helps keep your posture aligned. The practitioner will sit on the cushion with their legs crossed. The pillow will keep the upper legs off the ground and knees falling out to the side. Hands are then folded into one’s lap, and the spine is straight.
The legs can be crossed in different ways. However, there are four common sitting styles. The first is the Kekkafuza, also known as the full lotus. This sitting posture is widely practiced in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Tantra meditation practices. In this position, one foot is placed on top of the other thigh, with the sole facing upwards. A practitioner will open their hips and tilt their pelvis forward by sitting on the forward edge of the meditation pillow.
Hankafuza, known as the half-lotus, is similar; however, only one foot is in the lotus position, and the other leg is bent and resting on the ground. This position is more accessible than a full lotus.
The Burmese is the easiest and most common in meditation practices in the Western world. It is a basic cross-legged position where ankles are placed together in front of you on your pillow.
The fourth position is a kneeling posture using a zafu meditation pillow or bench. Zazen may also be practiced with the practitioners back against the wall, or in the Sōtō school of practice, facing a wall or curtain.
Practicing Zazen at Home
The seated meditation practice known as Zazen can easily be practiced at home. You can even virtually attend formal Zen training through the Zen Mountain Monastery on Zoom! But, if you prefer a self-study approach, you can pick up some books from your library or local bookshop to learn the fundamentals.
Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism, said, “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.” According to the Zen Mountain Monastery, to be enlightened by ten thousand things means recognizing that everything is one. Therefore, you must recognize the unity of all things and the self.
Many great books expand on Master Dogen’s teachings. The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master is excellent for sharing Dogen’s wisdom and powerful readings. Next, you can dive into Dogen: Japan’s Original Zen Teacher by Steven Heine. This book will tell you more about the master’s life, influence, and religious quest. It will also share Dogen’s teachings in Japan and his time in China.
In addition to learning the teachings of Zazen, you must learn proper posture. Zazen postures are not simply your body’s position but involve the breath and state of mind. In addition to sitting tall with legs crossed in front of you, you need to be relaxed. To do this, pay attention to your breath. Breath with your diaphragm, deep and freely. Unlike other forms of meditation, in Zazen, you don’t control your breathing. Breath naturally, through your nose and out of your mouth. Relax your jaw and let your tongue press lightly against your upper palate.
Remain mindful of your breath and reduce visual distractions by keeping your eyes closed or lowered to the floor. To keep your spine aligned, lower your chin and imagine your sit bone is rooted into the zafu meditation pillow below you.
Once in position, you may find your mind begins to wander. For example, you may shift in your seat or start thinking about how long you have been sitting. To steady your mind, try counting your breath. Count each inflation and exhalation getting to at least 10. This will relax your mind and body and slow your breath.
Having thoughts, ideas, and distractions creep up during meditation is normal. Don’t let this discourage you. Instead, visualize these thoughts as clouds passing by in the sky. There is no judgment or attachment to these thoughts; you are just an observer watching them pass. When you are not attached and engaging in these thoughts, they will dissipate quickly. And whenever you feel you need to, return to counting your breath.
If you are new to zazen, start with an attainable time. There are meditation apps that you can set that will notify you when time is up with the sound of a bell. To begin, you may want to start with 10 minutes. This amount of time is short enough to feel attainable but long enough for you to still your mind and breathe deeply. With practice, you may find the time goes by more quickly, and you can extend your meditation up to 30 minutes or longer.
The Zazen you begin to practice at home is called Bompu Zen. Bompu means ordinary and is a meditation suitable for everyone. No religious context is associated with it, but it will improve your mental and physical health. Bompu Zen is also said to help you resist temptations, remove attachments, restrain thoughts and calm the mind.
There is also Gedo Zen for a more advanced practice, which involves teachings outside the Buddhist tradition and everyday life. It is connected to philosophies like Hindu yoga and Christian contemplation. Although it doesn’t reflect Zen Buddhism in a traditional sense, there are elements of it. This practice is believed to help the practitioner reach a state of altered consciousness.
Shojo Zen could be considered the next level of meditation as it moves the practitioner to a state of enlightenment. It is regarded as a vehicle that will help you explore the world around you from a new perspective. Daijo Zen is the true Buddhist Zen that will allow you to see the true nature of all around you. This is the Zen taught by Buddha and helps the practitioner understand that they are inseparable from all beings. It will provide a greater understanding of others, empathy, and compassion. It is also focused on enlightenment and removing the illusions of the world.
Last but certainly not least is Saijo Zen. This is considered the highest vehicle of Buddhist Zen, bringing the practitioner to their true nature. It is a dedicated practice, and when seated on a zafu meditation cushion, the practitioner will be perfectly still and in true nature and alignment.
You can easily practice Zazen or Zen meditation at home, and the depths to which you want to take your practice are up to you. With an eagerness to learn and a good meditation pillow, you can benefit from the ancient traditions of Zazen.