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Kodo Sawaki doing zazen Kodo Sawaki Zazen.jpg
Kodo Sawaki doing zazen

Zazen (literally "seated meditation"; Japanese : 座禅; simplified Chinese :坐禅; traditional Chinese :坐禪; pinyin :zuò chán; Wade–Giles :tso4-ch'an2, pronounced [tswô ʈʂʰǎn] ) is a meditative discipline that is typically the primary practice of the Zen Buddhist tradition. [1] [2] The precise meaning and method of zazen varies from school to school, but in general it can be regarded as a means of insight into the nature of existence. In the Japanese Rinzai school, zazen is usually associated with the study of koans. The Sōtō School of Japan, on the other hand, only rarely incorporates koans into zazen, preferring an approach where the mind has no object at all, known as shikantaza. [3]



Zazen is considered the heart of Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhist practice. [1] The aim of zazen is just sitting, that is, suspending all judgmental thinking and letting words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them. [3] [4]



A young master Hsuan Hua sitting in full lotus Hsuan Hua Hong Kong 1.jpeg
A young master Hsuan Hua sitting in full lotus

In Zen temples and monasteries, practitioners traditionally sit zazen as a group in a meditation hall, usually referred to as the zendo . The practitioner sits on a cushion called a zafu , [2] which itself is usually placed on top of a low, flat mat called a zabuton . [2]

Before taking one's seat, and after rising at the end of the period of zazen, a Zen practitioner performs a gassho bow to their seat, and a second bow to fellow practitioners. [5]

The beginning of a period of zazen is traditionally announced by ringing a bell three times (shijosho), and the end of a round by ringing the bell either once or twice (hozensho).

Long periods of zazen may alternate with periods of kinhin (walking meditation). [6] [7]


The posture of zazen is seated, with folded legs and hands, and an erect but settled spine. [8] The hands are folded together into a simple mudra over the belly. [8] In many practices, the practitioner breathes from the hara (the center of gravity in the belly) and the eyelids are half-lowered, the eyes being neither fully open nor shut so that the practitioner is neither distracted by, nor turning away from, external stimuli.

The legs are folded in one of the standard sitting styles: [2]

In addition, it is not uncommon for modern practitioners to practice zazen in a chair, [2] often with a wedge or cushion on top of it so that one is sitting on an incline, or by placing a wedge behind the lower back to help maintain the natural curve of the spine. One can sit comfortably, but not too comfortably, so as to avoid falling asleep. While each of these styles is commonly taught today, Master Dogen recommended only Kekkafuza and Hankafuza.


In his book Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau says that practitioners in the Rinzai school face in, towards each other with their backs to the wall, and in the Sōtō school, practitioners face the wall or a curtain. [9] Kapleau quotes Hakuun Yasutani's lectures for beginners. In lecture four, Yasutani describes the five kinds of zazen: bompu, gedo, shojo, daijo, and saijojo (he adds the latter is the same thing as shikantaza). [10]


Very generally speaking, zazen practice is taught in one of three ways.

  1. Concentration
  2. Koan Introspection
  3. Shikantaza (just sitting) [11]

Koan practice is usually associated with the Rinzai school and Shikantaza with the Sōtō school. In reality many Zen communities use both methods depending on the teacher and students.


The initial stages of training in zazen resemble traditional Buddhist samatha meditation in actual practice, and emphasize the development of the power of concentration, or joriki [12] (定力) (Sanskrit samādhibala). The student begins by focusing on the breath at the hara/tanden [13] with mindfulness of breath (ānāpānasmṛti) exercises such as counting breath (sūsokukan 数息観) or just watching it (zuisokukan 随息観). Mantras are also sometimes used in place of counting. Practice is typically to be continued in one of these ways until there is adequate "one-pointedness" of mind to constitute an initial experience of samadhi . At this point, the practitioner moves to one of the other two methods of zazen.

Koan introspection

Having developed awareness, the practitioner can now focus his or her consciousness on a koan as an object of meditation. Since koans are, ostensibly, not solvable by intellectual reasoning, koan introspection is designed to shortcut the intellectual process leading to direct realization of a reality beyond thought.


Shikantaza is a form of meditation, in which the practitioner does not use any specific object of meditation; [3] rather, practitioners remain as much as possible in the present moment, aware of and observing what passes through their minds and around them. Dogen says, in his Shobogenzo , "Sitting fixedly, think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Nonthinking. This is the art of zazen." [14]

See also

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<i>Kōan</i> story, dialogue, question, or statement used in Zen-practice

A kōan (公案) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement which is used in Zen practice to provoke the "great doubt" and to practice or test a student's progress in Zen.

Dōgen Japanese Zen buddhist teacher

Dōgen Zenji, also known as Dōgen Kigen (道元希玄), Eihei Dōgen (永平道元), Kōso Jōyō Daishi (高祖承陽大師), or Busshō Dentō Kokushi (仏性伝東国師), was a Japanese Buddhist priest, writer, poet, philosopher, and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan.

Sōtō Zen or the Sōtō school is the largest of the three traditional sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism. It is the Japanese line of the Chinese Cáodòng school, which was founded during the Tang dynasty by Dòngshān Liánjiè. It emphasizes Shikantaza, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.

Shikantaza (只管打坐) is a Japanese translation of a Chinese term for zazen introduced by Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Zen Buddhism, to refer to a practice called "Silent Illumination", or "Serene Reflection", by previous Caodong masters. In Japan, it is associated with the Soto school. Unlike many other forms of meditation, shikantaza does not require focused attention on a specific object ; instead, practitioners "just sit" in a state of conscious awareness.

Kenshō "seeing ones (true) nature," that is, the Buddha-nature.

Kenshō (見性) is a Japanese term from the Zen tradition. Ken means "seeing", shō means "nature, essence". It is usually translated as "seeing one's (true) nature", that is, the Buddha-nature.


鉢多羅, is a transliteration of Sanskrit pātra, also called 應量器, means "vessel that contains just enough" is a set of nested bowls and other eating utensils for the personal use of Buddhist monks. Ōryōki also refers to a meditative form of eating using these utensils that originated in Japan and emphasizes mindfulness awareness practice by abiding to a strict order of precise movements.

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John Daido Loori was a Zen Buddhist rōshi who served as the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and was the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order and CEO of Dharma Communications. Daido Loori received shiho from Taizan Maezumi in 1986 and also received a Dendo Kyoshi certificate formally from the Soto school of Japan in 1994. In 1997, he received dharma transmission in the Harada-Yasutani and Inzan lineages of Rinzai Zen as well. In 1996 he gave dharma transmission to his student Bonnie Myotai Treace, in 1997 to Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, and in 2009 to Konrad Ryushin Marchaj. In addition to his role as a Zen Buddhist priest, Loori was an exhibited photographer and author of more than twenty books.

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Further reading