Meditation is the foundation of Zen Buddhism. Zen literally means “to meditate.” Meditation, in Zen, is the path and the goal. The goal is to meditate. Like all religions, Zen Buddhism has split into sections. Zen has two schools of thought, the gradual and the sudden approach to enlightenment. In the gradual school, there is only one way to practice Zen meditation, which is seated meditation, called zazen. Zazen can be performed in several different ways, but the positions have no spiritual significance. The positions are mainly to create comfort, stability, and ability to breathe through the diaphragm properly. The sudden school believes enlightenment could potentially occur instantly. They use koans, mondos, and turning phrases to help the practitioner gain more insight, and hopefully be enlightened. Koans, mondos, and turning phrases are irrational dialogues or statements that practitioners contemplate upon. The main topics to point out when discussing meditation in Zen Buddhism are the goals of their meditation, the gradual school of thought, and the sudden school of thought.
In Zen, the path of meditation is the goal. It is similar to riding your bicycle just to ride your bicycle. Through mediation, Zen Buddhists do not attempt to do anything, but to be in the moment. The Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says, “We practice so that each moment of our life becomes real life.” There is no goal in Zen, but to focus on one’s being, moment by moment. While practicing meditation, one may also find other benefits, like better health and a more relaxed state of my mind.
Unlike many sects of Buddhism, as well as many other religions, Zen Buddhists do not have scriptures to which they should study, but they may do so if they choose. Zen Buddhists focus primarily on one simple act, which is meditation. They believe that achievement of the Buddhahood comes from silence.
Zen has two popular sections, gradual and sudden. They both are means to enlightenment, but have two different points of view. In the gradual school of Zen, there is only one technique of meditation, which is called zazen. Zazen literally means sitting meditation. Zazen’s motto is: “To be a Buddha is to sit like a Buddha.” That is, while sitting, sit completely. Be aware of the stillness of everything while enjoying not having to do anything but be in the moment.
Although there are no doctrines or disciplines in Zen, there are many instructions for meditation postures. In Zen culture, there was less of a difference between body, breath, and mind than in the west. Zen practitioners believe if one aligns their spine correctly, fold their legs properly, sit properly, and keep still; they can achieve stillness of the mind. Much of the stillness of the mind in Zen is believed to be achieved through the correct posture of the body. Many of the Zen postures come from ancient Indian yogic positions developed to increase alignment and awareness. Although they come from yogic postures, they have no divine meaning them; they are only intended to increase comfort, stability, and the ability to breathe well. In Zen, it is believed that awakening must penetrate every cell of the body, so they must engage the body as well as the mind when meditating.
Zazen is typically done in one way with several variations. The most effective way of seated meditation is done is with one’s legs crossed and spine aligned straight up and curved, giving a pyramid shape to one’s posture. It is usually done on the floor, with a soft mat and pillow to sit on to raise the body a little so that one’s knees can touch the ground. With one’s knees touching the ground, it creates three points of contact with the ground to give the practitioner a sturdy base.
The easiest form of zazen is the Burmese position. In the Burmese position, one has their legs crossed, and their feet flat on the floor. In this position it is very easy to keep one’s back straight because putting one’s feet on the floor forces the practitioner to keep his back curved, which is an essential part of zazen.
Two other positions are the half lotus and the full lotus. Both positions are very similar, but the half lotus requires less flexibility, and is easier for most people. To perform the half lotus, one foot placed over the opposite thigh, and the other foot is placed under the opposite leg. The full lotus position is when both legs are put on both thighs. This position is more recommended because it gives the practitioner much more balance.
There are also two other zazen positions which are commonly used. The first position is the sieza position. The sieza position is kneeling, with your buttocks on both feet. You can sit on either a pillow, or your bare legs. You can also use a sieza bench to kneel on. The second position is the chair position. The bench keeps one’s back straight, and takes the weight off of one’s feet. The other position is to simply sit on a chair with one’s feet on the floor, arching the back.
It is important to keep one’s back straight while meditating so that one can breathe with the diaphragm properly. A good sitting posture as well as good hand position allows the body to give uninhibited deep breaths. While doing Zen meditation, one should use the Dhyani mudra hand position. The Dhyani mudra is a way to position one’s hands so that they can take deep breaths from their diaphragm. To do so, the practitioner will place both hands on top of one another, with their palms facing up. Their knuckles should be on top of one another as well, with their thumbs touching gently together.
Breathing through the diaphragm creates deep, slow breaths, which is quite useful when practicing zazen. Breathing is not only useful while meditating, but it is useful in all aspects of our health. Andrew Weil M.D., an author and physician said, “Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health. If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. There’s no single more powerful – or simpler – daily practice to further your health and well-being than breath-work.” ~ Andrew Weil, M.D.
The sudden school of Zen, which believes in sudden enlightenment, has koans as a focal point of meditation. In “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism,” Gary Gach says that koans are “seemingly illogical riddles, like “Two hands come together in a clap. What is the sound of one hand?” A koan is not a riddle. It doesn’t call for a solution (it’s not a math puzzle with an equation waiting in an answer book); rather, it is a personal breakthrough with a flash of enlightenment.” In other words, it is a statement or conversation that cannot be understood by rational thinking; it can only be understood by intuition.
Zen Buddhists believe that scriptures will lead scholars to misinterpretations of the original meanings, which is why Zen masters made Koans. Koans go beyond words. They attempt to go beyond the boundaries of intellect and language, and find awakening or enlightenment. Zen master Hakuin, author of the koan, “What is the sound of one hand?” has said, “What’s true meditation? It’s to make it all – coughing, swallowing, gestures, motion, stillness, words, action, good and evil, success and shame, win and lose, right and wrong – into one single koan.” Although Zen Buddhist’s are not against words, they try to limit the amount of description to leave the interpreting to the practitioner who is attempting to gain insight.
The primary beginning of using koans in Zen Buddhism originated from Hui Neng, a poor man who gathered and sold firewood for a living. He achieved enlightenment suddenly while he overheard a man reciting the Diamond Sutra, a scripture on emptiness and wisdom which requires great insight to understand. When he overheard the man say, “Awaken your mind without fixing it anywhere”, he was enlightened on the spot.
Koan’s are meant to be contemplated until they are realized. While one meditates is the optimal time to think about them, but they can also be taken home to contemplate.
According to “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism,” there are about 400 indexed koans and about 1700 in all. There are so many koans because they deal with particular parts of the Way of enlightenment. Many of the koans, such as Hakuin’s koan, “What is the sound of one hand?” are designed to take the practitioner past the normal self into Buddha mind.
There are also koan related Zen dialogues called mondos. Mondos are question-and-answer banter between people. They are similar to koans because they have the same non-sense questions and statements. An example of a mondo is in the Milindapanha, which reads, “King Milinda said to learned monk Nagasena, “I’m going to ask you a question. Can you answer it?”
Nagasena replied, “Please, ask your question.”
The King: “I’ve already asked.”
Nagasena: “I’ve already answered.”
The King: “What did you answer?”
Nagasena: “What did you ask?”
The King: “I asked nothing.”
Nagasena: “I answered nothing
Also similar to koans and mondos, the sudden school of Zen also used turning phrases to help promote enlightenment and understanding. Examples of a turning phrases are, “Not one, not two”, “Chop wood: carry water”, and “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” These are all mottos that are used to help the practitioner gain more insight, and hopefully find sudden enlightenment.
Being the foundation of Zen Buddhism, meditation is the main aspect of the religion. Zen essentially is meditation. In Zen, the path is the goal. It is like riding your bicycle simply to ride your bicycle. Zen Buddhism has split into two schools of thought, the gradual and the sudden approach to enlightenment. In the gradual school, there is only one way to practice Zen meditation, which is seated meditation, called zazen. Zazen can be performed in several different ways, but the positions have no significance other than comfort and stability. Breathing is an important part of meditation as well. The sudden school believes enlightenment could potentially occur instantly. They use koans, mondos, and turning phrases to help the practitioner gain more insight, and hopefully be enlightened. Koans, mondos, and turning phrases are irrational dialogues or statements that practitioners contemplate upon. The main topics to point out when discussing meditation in Zen Buddhism are the goals of their meditation, the gradual school of thought, and the sudden school of thought.
Gach, Gary. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism. 3rd. New York City, New York: Alpha Books, 2009. 183-200. Print.
Saint-Hilaire, J.Barthelemy. The Buddha and His Religion. 1st edition. London: New York E.P. Dutton and Company, 1914. 267-87. Print.
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