What is Zazen: Meditation Explained

by | 11 Apr, 2024

A serene zen garden with a meditation cushion placed in the center

Zazen, a form of meditation derived from Zen Buddhism, is a practice deeply rooted in mindfulness and self-awareness. It is a method of seated meditation that is designed to quiet the mind and body in order to fully experience the present moment. This article will delve into the intricacies of Zazen, exploring its origins, techniques, benefits, and more.

While the term Zazen is often used interchangeably with meditation, it is important to note that it is a specific type of meditation that has its own unique characteristics and practices. This practice is not about achieving a certain state of mind, but rather about letting go of all expectations and simply being present in the moment.

Origins of Zazen

Zazen originated from Zen Buddhism, a school of Buddhism that emphasizes direct, experiential realization through meditation and mindfulness. Zen Buddhism itself traces its roots back to the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in the 5th century BCE. However, the specific practice of Zazen was developed later in China during the Tang Dynasty, under the influence of the Indian monk Bodhidharma.

Bodhidharma is credited with bringing Zen teachings to China and establishing the Chan school of Buddhism, which later evolved into Zen Buddhism as it spread to Japan. The practice of Zazen is central to Zen Buddhism, and it is through this seated meditation that practitioners aim to achieve enlightenment.

The Role of Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who brought Zen teachings to China, played a pivotal role in the development of Zazen. He is often depicted in art as a bearded, wide-eyed monk, symbolizing his intense focus and dedication to meditation. Bodhidharma’s teachings emphasized direct, personal experience and the importance of meditation over theoretical knowledge.

According to Zen tradition, Bodhidharma spent nine years in meditation, facing a wall (a practice now known as “wall-gazing”). This story illustrates the intense dedication to meditation that is central to the practice of Zazen.

Zazen in Japan

Zazen was further developed in Japan, where it became a central practice in Zen monasteries. In the 13th century, a Japanese monk named Dogen Zenji traveled to China to study Chan Buddhism. He returned to Japan with a renewed emphasis on Zazen, which he saw as the true path to enlightenment.

Dogen founded the Soto school of Zen, which places a strong emphasis on Zazen. In this tradition, Zazen is not just a means to enlightenment, but is considered an expression of enlightenment itself.

Practicing Zazen

Zazen is more than just sitting in meditation. It is a practice that involves the body, breath, and mind. The physical posture, the pattern of breathing, and the state of mind are all integral parts of the practice. In Zazen, these three elements are interrelated and influence each other.

The practice of Zazen begins with finding a quiet place to meditate. The practitioner then assumes a seated posture, often in the lotus or half-lotus position. The eyes are kept half-open, gazing down at a 45-degree angle. The hands are held in a specific mudra (symbolic hand gesture), with the left hand resting on the right hand, and the thumbs lightly touching.

Posture in Zazen

The posture in Zazen is of utmost importance. The spine is kept straight, but not rigid, allowing for natural breathing. The chin is slightly tucked in, aligning the head with the spine. The shoulders are relaxed, and the hands rest in the lap in the cosmic mudra, with the palms facing upwards and the thumbs lightly touching.

The lotus or half-lotus position is often used in Zazen, but it is not mandatory. The key is to find a stable and comfortable position that allows for a straight spine. Other positions, such as the Burmese position or sitting on a chair, can also be used.

Breathing in Zazen

Breathing in Zazen is natural and relaxed, but also mindful. The practitioner focuses on the breath, but does not try to control it. Instead, they simply observe the breath as it is, without trying to change it. This practice helps to cultivate mindfulness and concentration.

The breath is often used as an anchor in Zazen, helping the practitioner to stay present and avoid getting lost in thoughts. When the mind wanders, the practitioner gently brings their attention back to the breath.

Benefits of Zazen

Zazen offers numerous benefits, both physically and mentally. Physically, it can help to improve posture, reduce stress, and promote relaxation. Mentally, it can help to cultivate mindfulness, improve concentration, and foster a sense of peace and clarity.

Moreover, Zazen can lead to deep personal insights and spiritual growth. By sitting in silence and observing the mind, practitioners can gain a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world. This can lead to a sense of interconnectedness and compassion towards others.

Physical Benefits

Physically, Zazen can help to improve posture by encouraging a straight spine. This can help to alleviate back pain and other physical discomforts associated with poor posture. Additionally, the deep, mindful breathing practiced in Zazen can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Furthermore, regular practice of Zazen can lead to improved physical health. Research has shown that meditation can help to lower blood pressure, improve heart health, and boost the immune system.

Mental Benefits

Mentally, Zazen can help to cultivate mindfulness and improve concentration. By focusing on the breath and observing the mind, practitioners can learn to stay present and avoid getting lost in thoughts. This can lead to improved mental clarity and focus.

Moreover, Zazen can foster a sense of peace and tranquility. By sitting in silence and letting go of thoughts and expectations, practitioners can experience a deep sense of inner peace. This can help to reduce anxiety and improve overall mental well-being.

Common Misconceptions about Zazen


Despite its growing popularity, there are still many misconceptions about Zazen. Some people believe that it is a religious practice, while others see it as a form of escapism. However, Zazen is not about adopting a particular belief system or escaping from reality. Rather, it is about fully experiencing the present moment and gaining a deeper understanding of oneself.

Another common misconception is that Zazen is about achieving a certain state of mind, such as bliss or enlightenment. However, Zazen is not goal-oriented. The aim is not to achieve anything, but simply to be present. Any experiences or insights that arise during Zazen are seen as by-products of the practice, not the goal.

Zazen is not a Religion

While Zazen originated from Zen Buddhism, it is not a religious practice in itself. It does not require belief in any particular doctrine or deity. People of all faiths, as well as those with no religious affiliation, can practice Zazen.

Zazen is a practice of self-discovery and self-realization. It is about observing the mind and body in the present moment, without judgment or expectation. This practice can lead to deep personal insights, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

Zazen is not Escapism

Some people see meditation as a form of escapism, a way to avoid dealing with life’s challenges. However, Zazen is not about escaping from reality, but about fully experiencing it. In Zazen, practitioners learn to face their thoughts and emotions directly, without avoidance or denial.

By sitting in silence and observing the mind, practitioners can gain a better understanding of their thoughts and emotions. This can help them to deal with life’s challenges in a more mindful and compassionate way.


Zazen is a profound practice that can lead to deep personal insights and spiritual growth. It is a practice of mindfulness and self-awareness, where the practitioner learns to be fully present in the moment. Whether you are seeking physical relaxation, mental clarity, or spiritual enlightenment, Zazen can offer a path towards these goals.

While it may seem daunting at first, Zazen is a practice that anyone can undertake. It does not require any special equipment or prior experience. All it requires is a willingness to sit in silence, observe the mind, and be present in the moment. Through regular practice, Zazen can become a transformative tool for personal growth and self-discovery.