Zazen – A Meditation Practice for Mindfulness and Calm

What comes to mind when you hear or read the word, meditation? With self-care on the rise, incorporating mindfulness practices are more popular than ever, including meditation. Zazen meditation is a specific type of meditation that is unique from other forms for a variety of reasons.

Zazen – also known as Zen – is a form of meditation rooted in Buddhism. While other types focus on reaching mental goals such as enlightenment, internal growth, and self-actualization process, Zazen emphasizes the mind-body connection through remaining present and creating overall awareness.

Zazen is a simple, but profound way to meditate. Zazen has been interpreted and performed over the years in slightly varying ways, but the core belief is that Zazen brings the participant into the present by creating awareness of self through the brain-body connection.

What is Zazen?

Zazen meditation promotes the state of being by sitting in a full-lotus position, half-lotus, or kneeling while the eyes remain open. Other forms of meditation focus more on the mental state – using personal visuals, chanting mantras, and keeping the eyes closed.

The Hand of a Woman Simply Meditating - Zazen - Gone Minimal
The Hand of a Woman Simply Meditating

Zazen is more of a mind-clearing practice, though the intent isn’t to not think about anything. It brings the participant to the present by focusing on the positioning of the body and emphasizing the physical aspects such as posture, leg positioning, and hand positioning. 

One of the core beliefs of Zazen is that the mind is not superior to the body, but that the mind is part of the body, a piece to be viewed as equal to the human experience. Instead of trying to get something out of meditation by achieving a higher state of consciousness or unlocking secrets to the universe – as some styles of meditation offer – Zazen grounds the person by drawing the focus to simply being. Zazen clears the mind to create harmony between the physical body and the soul inhabiting it. 

Zazen Pronunciation

“Zazen” is pronounced: zah – zin, drawing the two syllables together in short enunciation.  To improve your pronunciation, try breaking the word down into syllables and practice each one individually, exaggerating each sound until you can consistently pronounce them together.

Check out this helpful video to hear how to properly pronounce the word. 

Zazen Meaning & Background

Zazen means “seated meditation.” A main practice of Zen Buddhism, this simple definition belies the profound and deeper act of the meditation itself. 

While the origins of Zazen can be traced back to the 6th Century Indian monk, Bohidharma, Dogen Zenji is considered a pioneer and master of the practice. A 12th Century Japanese philosopher, writer, and Buddhist priest, Dogen taught the art of Zazen through his published literary works, as well as the Soto school of Zen which he founded. 

Dogen emphasized that Zazen was to “simply sit,” and was most achieved while in the kekka-fuza, or “full lotus position.” Zazen was to clear the mind from all distractions, bridging the mind and body into one. 

Zazen clears the mind and refreshes the body, creating a stronger awareness of self, lowered stress, and can increase attention, and cognitive function.

Benefits of Zazen

Meditation has grown in interest in the scientific field in recent years, but there is little evidence on the benefits of Zazen specifically. However, according to this article in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Zazen has been “found to reduce stress and blood pressure.”

By clearing the mind and centering one’s attention, Zazen directly affects brain patterns, cognitive function, and processing. An article by The National Library of Medicine discusses an experiment and its findings on how Zazen plays a role in brain activity. 

Zazen clears the mind and refreshes the body, creating a stronger awareness of self, less stress, and increased attention, and cognitive function. It can also directly affect mental health issues such as depression and anger. 

Here are some of the benefits associated with the practice of zazen:

  1. Mindfulness 
  2. Reduces stress
  3. Improves concentration
  4. Helps regulate emotions
  5. Self-Reflection
  6. Increases compassion
  7. Reduces blood pressure and improves health
A Woman Meditating - Zazen - Gone Minimal
A Woman Meditating

Zazen Meditation

Engaging in the practice of Zazen is possible for everyone. The practice itself is very simple, although the posture is very important. A zabuton (soft mat), with a zafu (cushion) on top of it, are the two items that are needed for Zazen meditation. We’ll walk you through how to do Zazen below. 

Zazen promotes the state of just being through the mind-body connection, while other forms of meditation hold mental and spiritual growth as the base of the beliefs and values.

How to Do Zazen

Set Up the Space – Find a quiet space away from noise and distractions. It’s ideal to face a wall. Lay the zabuton on the ground and place the zafu on top of it. 

Get Into Position – While the full-lotus position is said to be the most ideal for achieving total Zazen, feel free to start out with a position that feels more comfortable and natural to the body. Here are some options for positioning:

  1. Full-lotus: sitting on the cushion, both legs are folded/crossed so that each foot is on top of the opposite thigh. The back is upright and straight (as it should be for all positions.)
  2. Half-lotus: one leg is laid on top of the other in a folded/crossed position, so that one foot is on the opposite thigh, while the other leg supports underneath. 
  3. Burmese – also known as “criss-cross.” Cross the ankles in front of one another, instead of folding the legs on top of each other. 
  4. Low kneel – get into a kneeling position on your knees. Position the zafu so it rests between your heels and hamstrings, and lean back so you’re sitting on the cushion for support. 
  5. Chair – if sitting on the ground is too uncomfortable sit in a chair with the legs uncrossed and feet flat on the ground. Make sure the back is erect and not slouching. 
A Man Meditating - Zazen - Gone Minimal
A Man Meditating

Posture – Once the lower body is in position, take time to ensure the upper body is retaining the correct posture. Keep the back straight, with shoulders back and the chin tucked slightly in. It’s important to keep this posture throughout the practice. It’s also important to note that the eyes remain partly open during this practice. Don’t focus on a specific object, let the eyelids fall halfway shut if that feels comfortable. Closing the eyes allows for more mind wandering, and soul exploring which isn’t the point of Zazen. 

Hand Positions – What seems like a simple gesture holds great importance to the Zen Buddhists. The hand position, or “mudras,” are spiritual symbols for the various buddhas. The “cosmic mudra” is said to be the ideal hand position for Zazen, but there are other options as well:

  1. Place the right hand on top of the left with both palms facing up, the thumbs overlapping to create an open circle. Place the hands in front of the stomach. This is known as the “cosmic mudra.”
  2. Place both palms face up or face down on the thighs 
  3. Place palms on the stomach with fingers overlapping, thumbs coming to a point, creating an open circle on the belly. 
Women Practicing Simple Meditation - Zazen - Gone Minimal
Women Practicing Simple Meditation

Breathing – notice the breathing, but don’t follow it. You can start off by doing a few deep inhales and exhales, a series of short holds, or any breath pattern to slow the breathing and become more aware of it. The breath will mimic the emotions so as you allow your thoughts to cease fall into a breath pattern that feels natural and calm. Don’t follow the breath or focus on the breath, just simply notice it as it regulates the energy in the body. 

Mindset/Concentration – this is what Zazen is all about – the stillness of the mind, and the merging of the mind and body as one. Don’t consciously try to stop thinking, that generally doesn’t work. 

Be an observer – let your thoughts ebb and flow until they fade away completely. Like the tide coming into shore, thoughts will naturally rise and fall, go in and out. Try not to engage these thoughts, but observe them, and let them pass, going back out to sea until nothing but still water remains. 

This can be challenging at first. The more you try to not think, the more the mind will resist. Be gentle with yourself and keep trying to retain that overall sense of awareness without focusing on any specific details. Following the breath can help calm the mind, just be sure to not fully focus and engage with the breath. The mind will slow itself down and stop eventually, leading to “just sitting,” the essence of Zazen. 

The Ocean Tide at Sunset - Zazen - Gone Minimal
The Ocean Tide at Sunset

Characteristics of Zazen

There are certain characteristics of Zazen that set it apart from other types of meditation, such as the posture and the goal of the practice. While meditation is used in other styles as a practice of internal work, reflection and self-actualization, Zazen is to “simply sit,” quieting the mind and becoming aware but not engaging with anything in particular. Zazen promotes the state of just being through the mind-body connection, while other forms of meditation hold mental and spiritual growth as the base of the beliefs and values. 

Zazen Posture

The posture in which to practice Zazen is unique because one doesn’t close the eyes as is most common in other types of meditation. Instead, the eyes are open or half-open, the gaze unfocused on any specific object. This helps prevent the mind from becoming active, as is the primary goal of other meditations (why the eyes are usually closed, to close off the physical senses and distractions, enabling the participant to go deeper within). 

Zazen is achieved through the full-lotus position – although other positions are allowed if one isn’t flexible – with the back straight, shoulders and neck relaxed, and chin slightly tucked. The hands are placed in the “cosmic mudra”, with the right palm placed on top of the left and the thumbs meeting to create an open circle. 

The Back of a Person Meditating - Zazen - Gone Minimal
The Back of a Person Meditating

Zazen vs. Vipassana

Another type of Buddhism meditation is Vipassana and there are some notable differences between the two. Vipassana originated in and is still largely practiced in India and throughout Southeast Asia. Unlike Zazen, Vipassana is insightful meditation, going within to reach higher states of awareness.

There is still an emphasis on overall awareness such as observing the breath and not letting the mind wander as in Zazen, but the goal of Vipassana is to develop wisdom, gain energy and insight, and elevate the mind. Vipassana is done with the legs crossed and the eyes closed, unlike the full-lotus position and the half-gaze of Zazen. 

Examples of Zazen

Zazen Samurai

One of the best examples of people who practice Zazen is the Samurai. Zen meditation was taught to the Samurai warriors by the Buddhist monks in Japan. Being a Samurai was a physically demanding job. With all of the movement and constant activity, the Samurai found peace and stillness by practicing Zazen. They were able to take the mental discipline they learned in Zazen, and apply it to the battlefield, emptying their minds, quieting their emotions, and advancing their martial arts skills. 

In this helpful video, learn more about Zazen meditation and how to attain enlightenment and just sit without expectation.

Related Insights

What is the difference between Zen and zazen?

There seems to be some debate between theologians on what the difference is between Zen and Zazen meditation. Many believe that they are one and the same, and can be called either interchangeably. 

For those who view the two as differing practices, Zazen is proclaimed as simply sitting, and not thinking, while Zen focuses on the mental state, encouraging internal work and self-exploration while the body is in a place of stillness. Zazen clears the mind, while Zen elevates the mind. Zazen creates a cohesive feeling between body and mind, while Zen keeps them separate. 

What is the best form of meditation?

Zazen is the best form of meditation for those wishing to achieve a greater sense of self-realization. Zazen enables the participant to become aware of their physical self as well as the essence of their being in nature. Zazen bridges the gap between the mental world and the physical world, drawing the participant away from the spiritual realm into the physical by washing the mental state clean by focusing on the actual presence of self in one’s body and the world around them. 

What are the most common chants in Theravada Buddhism?

Buddhism, like other religions, has varying sects and branches. While Zazen comes from the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism is another major denomination. Chants are common practice in Theravada; they focus attention as well as instill the teachings of Buddha. Theravada is more active, while Mahayana – and Zazen – are more stoic forms of Buddhism. 

There are several chants that are common in Theravada Buddhism including: 

  1. Buddhabhivadana (Preliminary Reverence for the Buddha)
  2. Tisarana (The Three Refuges)
  3. Pancasila (The Five Precepts)
  4. Buddha Vandana (Salutation to the Buddha)
  5. Dhamma Vandana (Salutation to his Teaching)
  6. Sangha Vandana (Salutation to his Community of Noble Disciples)

How Meditation Plays a Role in Everyday Lives 

The interest and use of meditation are growing as more and more people discover and reap the benefits from it. When polled on social media, 62% of people said they do not meditate, while 38% said they do. Out of the people who said they do meditate on a regular basis, they reported a myriad of positive benefits such as better sleep, being less reactive, lowered stress, a higher sense of clarity as well as focus, being generally more positive, and feeling a greater sense of peace. Of those who don’t meditate, when asked, 70% said they are interested in learning more about it. 

Benefit of MeditationPercentage of People
Better Sleep50%
Less Reactive25%
Lowered Stress62%
Increased Clarity & Focus37%
Positive Mindset37%
More Peaceful50%
Benefits That Real People Experience From Meditating

Other Resources:

Zazen meditation is a practice with a rich history, deep roots in Buddhism, and many benefits. To “simply sit,” Zazen removes distractions and invites the participants to just be. In its simplicity the benefits of Zazen are profound: less stress, more peace, greater cognitive function, fuller sense of awareness, and so much more. By disciplining the mind, Zazen creates a space of stillness and peace in the hectic and hustling world we live in. 

Have you ever tried Zazen? Let me know in the comments below. 

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