Let your worries and fears pass, give up ultimately, and come to rest with mind and body – Zen meditation practice promises nothing and yet gives a lot if you are willing to practice patiently and disciplined. Here you will get a first overview of Zen and Zen meditation’s history, which have developed over centuries in this spiritual practice.

To study the path is to study yourself, to study yourself is to forget yourself. To forget yourself means to become one with all existences.

Dōgen Zenji (teacher of Japanese Zen Buddhism, early 13th century)

The History and Background of Zen

The term ‘Zen’ is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana (state of meditative contemplation) and refers to a current of Mahayana Buddhism. Zen Buddhism has its roots in Southeast Asia and spread and developed via Korea and Vietnam to Japan, where it finally took its present name.

Behind Zen is the ‘goal’ to realize emptiness (Shunyata) and non-self (Anatta). The word ‘goal’ is under quotation marks because Zen Buddhism does not pursue a concrete goal. Instead, it describes the practice and the path of life that strives towards Shunyata and Anatta.

Zen students understand that the individual ego is only an illusion and that everything is connected. Adherence to this ego (and to everything else) creates suffering (dukkha). Solving it through meditation enables access to the fullness of life and the connection between the inner and outer worlds.

The Zen Meditation Techniques

So much for the theoretical basis. The Zen Buddhist practice includes three main exercises, the most important of which is called ‘zazen.’ The other two main activities, Kinhin (walking meditation) and the recitation, complement Zazen.’

First of all, practice with a teacher if possible, so that, should problems arise, they can be solved by an experienced Zen master and do not get in the way of Zen practice. This way, you can also learn your Zen meditation from the ground up to meditate ‘correctly,’ so to speak.

What Is Zazen, and How Is It Practiced?

Zazen is the heart of Zen practice. The term comes from the Japanese (Za-, meaning ‘sitting’ and Zen-, meaning ‘meditation’). It serves as a starting point for the other techniques and is intended to eventually find its way into all areas of life.

Here’s How It Works – Instructions for the Correct Zen Posture:

If possible, as in the lotus position in yoga, interlock your legs (alternatively, you can also sit in the half-lotus position, heel position, or Burmese position).

  • You can use a thick mat, a blanket, or a seat cushion as a carpet pad.
  • The knees should be firmly anchored to the ground.
  • The back is straightened, the shoulders and back are entirely relaxed, consciously let your shoulders drop if you are often tense there.
  • The head is straight, the crown of the head tends towards the sky, the chin is slightly retracted so that the neck is stretched, and the ears are perpendicular above the shoulder.
  • The left-hand rests on the right. The thumbs touch lightly on the crests and form an oval that encloses the navel.
  • The elbows are directed slightly outwards, and the arms are stretched so far from the body that a fist would fit into the armpit.
  • The eyes are half-open, do not focus, and the gaze is directed to the floor about one meter in front of the body.
  • Let the breath flow naturally and gently. Count from 1-10 when exhaling. One unit takes about 30 minutes. Body and mind concentrate fully on sitting and breathing. Try to let emerging thoughts move on.

The Balance: Kinhin

Kinhin, the walking meditation, is usually practiced directly after Zazen to compensate for the rigid sitting posture. The procedure is similar to that of Zazen, except that it is done while walking.

  • The speed can be quite different: one step per inhalation and exhalation, or a little faster (especially when practicing outdoors).
  • The spine is straight, shoulders and back are relaxed.
  • The hand position (Shashu): The left fist is enclosed by the right hand (when walking in the sense of time). The hands are in front of the upper body at the level of the lower sternum. The forearms form a line parallel to the ground from elbow to elbow.
  • In the beginning, concentrate solely on your steps and contact the soles of your feet with the floor.
  • As in zazen meditation, pay attention to your breath and disappear entirely into your practice.

The integration of Zazen in this second exercise serves to integrate meditation into more active activities than sitting. In this way, the exercise can, at some point, become part of everyday life.

Recitation of Buddhist Sutras

Sutras are Buddhist teachings. They are recited as a kind of chanting. The aim is not to absorb the philosophical meaning of the words but rather to merge with the environment through the sound of the voice and the produced terms.

There are three deep bows at the end of the recitation, not to praise the text’s content or the practice, but to give up the body and connect more deeply with the current moment and the environment.

When you look inward, a whole new world opens up and your old language becomes meaningless.

– Osho (Indian philosopher and founder of the neo-sannyas movement, 1931-1990)

The Goal of Zen Meditation

As mentioned above, Zen Buddhism and its practice have no immediate goal. A Zen master is said to have once said, “I would like to offer something to help you, but in Zen, we have nothing at all. But it is precisely this “nothing” that is often sought.

Zen meditation helps to experience silence and emptiness (Shunyata) and bring the restless mind to rest. Only a clear mind can think clearly and recognize the true essence of things. Mostly what we perceive is interpreted through filters, which can lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

The so-called Hishiryō should be practiced. It means as much as ‘not thinking’ and goes beyond our usual categorizing thinking.

One learns to recognize and question one’s thought patterns, see blockades, and dissolve attachment to the ego and other life elements. According to the Buddhist teachings, suffering (dukkha) is created clinging to something, which has to be solved.

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