Today you’re going to learn how to practice zen in daily life.
Zen is not a religion, but a philosophy. It is the most well-known branch of Buddhism in the world, but it is sometimes considered a philosophy on its own.
It is a way of life. But to even begin to grasp the true gist of what Zen really is, we need to first understand Buddhism.
All entities have an origin. Bodhidharma is revered as the founder of Zen Buddhism when he migrated to China from India.
However, establishing the practice would not have been possible without the influence of Buddhism in the first place. Zen goes back hundreds of years ago to the spiritual awakening of a savant in India.
The founding father of Buddhism is Gautama Buddha—or simply, “the Buddha.” For over 2,500 years, the Buddha has gained notoriety and reverence worldwide as the sage on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.
Like with most historical figures who walked the earth thousands of years ago, the Buddha’s precise biography leaves room for error.
We know his life must have followed a specific timeline that begins with his birth, ends with his death, and includes his renunciation and enlightenment.
There are many variations, but the following biography remains fairly consistent throughout history.
According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha lived and taught in eastern India between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. He was born in either c. 563 BCE or c. 480 BCE in the Sakya Republic. He died as an enlightened man at the ripe old age of 80 in Kushinagar of the Malla Republic of India.
The word “buddha” literally means “the awakened one” or “the enlightened one.”
The Buddha is recognized by disciples as the enlightened one who shared his insights in order to help people end their cyclic suffering and attain enlightenment.
According to the Buddha, this was achieved by eliminating ignorance and craving.
Buddhism flourished in India, eventually spreading to outlying lands. Presently, there are over 300 million Buddhists worldwide, making Buddhism the fourth largest religion in
Buddhism is a nontheistic religion. This means it is not based on the belief in the existence of one God who is viewed as the creative source of the human race and the entire world.
Buddhism encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices. The Buddhist creed states that suffering is inherent in life and that one can be liberated from this suffering by mental and moral self-purification.
The Four Noble Truths are the central belief in Buddhism and makes up the foundation of the religion. After the Buddha’s enlightenment, his first sermon consisted of the Four Noble Truths.
The first truth is the truth of suffering. The second is the truth of the cause of suffering. The third is the truth of the end of suffering. And finally, the fourth is the truth of the path that frees us from suffering.
These four truths form the basis of Buddhism. They are one of the aspects that sets Buddhism apart from other religions.
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is the attainment of the sublime state of nirvana through the diligent practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Buddhists consider nirvana the final blessed state of utmost bliss which transcends suffering, karma, and samsara. It is marked by the absence of desire and suffering.
Nirvana is sought in Buddhism through the extinction of desire and individual consciousness.
Buddhism has two recognized branches: Theravada, or “The School of the Elders,”and Mahayana, or “The Great Vehicle.”
The latter brings us to the topic of this article. Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism. This branch of Buddhism developed in China during the Tang Dynasty.
“Zen” is derived from the Chinese word chan. Chan, in turn, is derived from the Sanskrit word, dhyana, meaning “meditative state.”
Zen started in China in the 6th century, introduced by Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist monk. The development of Zen Buddhism in China was influenced by Taoism and its concepts.
From China, Zen arrived in Japan around the 7th century although it did not become prevalent until the 12th century. Zen Buddhism had a significant influence on Japanese culture.
To practice Zen is to practice a powerful form of spiritual exploration. Zen practice enables oneto maintain a healthy balance of needs and obligations, and also helps one understand his role in the universe.
Its most distinctive characteristic that sets Zen apart from other schools of Buddhism is its emphasis on the present moment and reality as it is.
Zen teaches us that we do not need to observe sacred texts or worship gods or perform religious rites to achieve enlightenment. Instead, Zen teaches us to favor meditation which ultimately leads to a sudden breakthrough of insight and mindfulness of reality.
Zen teachings state that we must live in the moment and experience the world as it is. As stated by Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, this was precisely what the Buddha did to attain enlightenment.
According to Buddhist tradition, when the Buddha attained enlightenment, he said: “Isn’t it remarkable? All beings are already enlightened!”
Zen teachings maintain that all sentient beings have the power to attain enlightenment seeing as we have a deep-rooted Buddha-nature inherent in all of us. We, the people of the world, are already enlightened.
This natural enlightenment within us is justobscured behind a thick veil of ignorance.
Through Zen practice, this ignorance may be overcome, resulting in enlightenment.
Zen Buddhism usually requires training and guidance from a Zen master. However, more and more disciples are practicing Zen independently, particularly in North America.
Zen is popular among Japanese samurais as a form of discipline and self-control. Artists call to Zen’s aid in calligraphy and painting. In the Western world, Zen has been incorporated into many daily ventures and enterprises such as landscaping and even sports. Anyone can benefit from Zen if they only take the time to live it.
Enlightenment through Zazen
During meditation, when the true nature of reality is revealed, enlightenment occurs.
Achieving enlightenment consists of not only meditation, but having absolute insight into the Four Noble Truths and having perfected the practice of the Eightfold Path.
One that has perfected this insight sees an end to his suffering and is unshackled from the cycle of samsara.
For the remainder of his life, he lives in a conditional nirvana. Upon death, he experiences complete nirvana.
Zazen is one of the meditation practices by which one can achieve enlightenment. This meditative discipline is the primary religious practice in Zen Buddhism. Generally, zazen is a means of insight into the true nature of existence.
It is a study of the self. The aim of zazen is simply just sitting in a lotus position and letting ideas, thoughts, and words pass without judgment or involvement.
When practicing zazen at a Zen temple, a group of practitioners usually meditate together in a hall. Everyone sits on cushions placed atop a special mat called a zabuton.
Before seating, however, one must perform a bow called gasshoto their seat, followed by a second bow to his meditation mates.
This bow is performed again upon rising at the termination of zazen. The commencement of a zazen session is announced by ringing a bell or gong thrice. Similarly, a gong is sounded at the cessation of a zazen period.
For beginners, the following is a general outline of the zazen meditation method.
The first step is to find a place that is conducive to meditation. The place of your choosing should be quiet, clean, and free of distraction.
You might find this at a quiet park, under a tree in your backyard, or next to a small pond.
Next, procure a small pillow and a mat on which you will set the pillow.
The next step is getting into the proper position for meditation. The way in which you sit is a crucial part of the overall zazen experience. There are various sitting positions when practicing zazen.
The first is the Burmese Position. That is, the legs are crossed and both knees are resting
flat on the floor with one ankle in front of the other.
Another is the Half-Lotus Position achieved by placing the left foot on the right thigh and tucking the right leg under the left thigh.
Then there is the Full-Lotus Position which is the most used in Zen meditation practices as it is the most stable.
To sit in the Full-Lotus Position, place each foot on the opposite thigh—right foot on left thigh, and left foot on right thigh. This position is solid and perfectly symmetrical.
Other sitting styles do not actually involve sitting at all, but are still suitable for zazen meditation. First is the Kneeling Position which is accomplished by kneeling with the hips resting on the ankles.
The Chair Position is another approach. It is simply the act of sitting on a chair. When opting for this position, it is important to keep the back straight and the feet flat on the floor during meditation.
The last position is specifically geared toward those who find it difficult to sit for long periods of time. It entails standing straight with the feet shoulder-width apart and the heels closer in distance than the big toes.
Both hands should rest on the stomach with the right hand atop the left hand.
The third step is to fold your hands in the cosmic mudra. Namely, your dominant hand should be placed palm up with the other hand in it, also palm up.
If the cosmic mudra is done correctly, the knuckles of both hands will be overlapping, the thumbs will be touching slightly, and the hands will form the shape of an oval.
Do not lace your fingers together. The hands should rest on the upturned soles of your feet if you are sitting in the Full-Lotus Position. The purpose of the cosmic mudra is to turn your attention inward.
Next, relax your body and clear your mind.There should be no tension whatsoever in your body and your muscles should be soft. Keeping the back straight is critical as it allows your diaphragm to move without restrictions and facilitate the deepening of your breath during zazen. It is not a good idea to wear clothing that inhibits circulation.
Begin breathing, counting each inhalation and exhalation until you get to ten. By the time you reach ten, you would have inhaled five times and exhaled five times.
Your tongue should be relaxed and placed lightly against the upper palate of your mouth.
It is advised to keep your eyes closed or at least half-closed during zazen meditation as blinking is seen to disrupt zazen.
Your mouth should be closed, however, and you should breathe through your nose.
Breathe naturally. Do not attempt to manipulate your breathing.
Continue this breathing technique for at least fifteen minutes. If a thought intrudes, acknowledge it and let it go, and begin counting to ten again.
Eventually, you will be able to reach ten repeatedly without any intrusive thoughts. When this is achieved, begin counting an inhalation and exhalation as one instead of counting them separately.
In due course, you will be able to concentrate on breathing without having to count.
During zazen meditation, your undivided attention and energy should be focused on both the breath and the Hara. The Hara is the point roughly two inches below the navel. It is the center from which one enters and exits life.
The Hara is the point in the body where the body and soul are in contact with one another. It is both the spiritual and physical center of the body.
The more you practice zazen, the more you become acquainted with the Hara and the easier it will be to direct your energy to it.
When fifteen minutes are up, stretch and warm your legs and arms in order to increase your blood pressure to its normal rate. Zazen should be practiced on a daily basis. On the first week, meditate for fifteen minutes only.
Keep adding five minutes to your meditation time every week until it reaches an hour, if possible.
The more you become experienced in zazen, the more relaxing your meditation sessions will become. Your awareness will sharpen and you will begin to notice things you have never noticed before. During the session, you will experience a sweet stillness, a wonderful tranquility.
That stillness gives rise to your whole life. Exploring that stillness may lead to an unearthing of an awareness hidden deep within you.
Those experienced in deep zazen meditation breathe at a rate of two or three breaths per
minute. These are the people who are truly relaxed.
These are the people that can experience that wonderful stillness we seek in zazen. In deep zazen, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and circulation decrease to a point not reachable even in deep sleep.
When we let go of our thoughts and opinions, the mind is free. When the mind is free, we can discover the reality lurking there, the true nature of who we are.
Zen Practice and Liturgy
Zen practice is all about observing the breath and the mind.
Regulating the mind involves a rigorous technique of directing the attention toward counting the breath and toward the Hara. This is the first thing one must know when practicing Zen meditation.
One can practice alone or with a group. Monks routinely meditate as a group in temples. These monks typically meditate for several hours every day. There are periods when they are required to meditate around the clock, stopping only to eat and fulfill their duties in the monastery.
Even during rest, the monks maintain the same mindfulness they possess during meditation. Sleep is cut short during this intensive practice period.
One unique aspect of these intensive group meditations is the use of a wooden plank called a kyosakuwhich is used to keep the meditators awake and focused.
Another form of meditation in Zen Buddhism is kinhin. While zazen is a sitting meditation, kinhin is a walking meditation. It is practiced by monks during the intensive meditation periods but is not limited to just monks.
Any meditator practicing Zen may use kinhin meditation as a form of respite between long periods of sitting. It is intended to relieve stress and tension in the legs as the limbs often go numb during sitting meditation.
In kinhin meditation, practitioners walk clockwise around the room. While doing this, one hand is closed in a fist while the other hand clutches the fist.
During kinhin, one breath is taken, followed by one step forward. The walking pace during kinhin may be slow or fast to the point of jogging.
Kinhin symbolizes the Buddha’s circumambulation of the bodhi tree following his enlightenment. Similarly, it represents your own wandering about in the world of enlightenment.
Like zazen, kinhin has its benefits. It provides physical relief to a practitioner without disrupting the stillness of zazen.
It also brings the stillness of zazen into the actions of our daily lives. Kinhin is nothing if not the extension of the stillness of zazen. Kinhin and zazen are not separate from one
Sometimes a liturgy accompanies Zen practice. This is especially true in Zen monasteries where practitioners are required to practice a daily liturgy service. The service is centered on major sutras which the practitioners chant.
One such sutra is the Heart Sutra which is the most popular sutra in Zen Buddhism.
The text is relatively short, composed of only sixteen lines when translated from Chinese to English, and repeated during a liturgy.
The Heart Sutra is one of the forty sutras belonging to the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra Collection.
It is one thing to believe in the contents of the Heart Sutra, but to appreciate that the sutra cannot be comprehended by human intellect means much more.
One of the verses of the Heart Sutra, in its most accurate English translation is as follows: “O Sariputra, form is no other than emptiness, and emptiness is no other than form. Form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form.
The same is true for feelings, conceptions, impulses, and consciousness.” Emptiness is the basis of Zen. All things in existence are based on an active emptiness.
Many other sutras are chanted during a liturgy, including chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra and the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness.
During service in a monastery, offerings are made to the images of the Buddha on an altar called the Butsudan.
In Zen Buddhism, reciting liturgies is a means by which a practitioner can connect with past Bodhisattvas, or people who have attained Buddhahood. Liturgies are not limited to Zen practice; they are also used in funerals and memorials.
Essential Zen Teachings
The most important thing Zen Buddhism teaches us is that we are already originally enlightened (1). This must never be forgotten. Buddhists seek out their hidden enlightenment deep within.
A central concept in Zen Buddhism is “suchness,” or Tathata. In essence, suchness is defined as reality as it is.
Ideally, one is supposed to live in this world during Zen meditation, live in and live with suchness to the point where one becomes Suchness.
If you were ill, the correct attitude of Suchness would be to say, “Such is the way of the body.” If you have an unyielding stomachache, simply accept it because such is the nature of things.
If you accept the stomachache, it will magically dissipate. This simple action yields an energy within which acts as a healing force when released.
Accept things as they are without complaint or conflict and things will change for the better. This is the essence of Suchness—things as they are.
The Zen Buddhist implements Suchness in his daily life. He dines and sleeps and breathes in Suchness. He loves in Suchness and cries in Suchness.
Sadness, and even death, could potentially be beautiful if one had the capability of accepting them. Suchness is total acceptance of any given situation.
The most essential Zen-teachings could be narrowed down to the emphasis of Suchness and inherent Buddha-nature, the importance of zazen, and the Bodhisattva-ideal, which emphasizes compassion toward all beings.
Zen has been around for over one thousand years during which many teachings and schools of Zen were formed. The three sects of Zen are Rinzai, Soto, and SanboKyodan.
Rinzai is the Japanese lineof the Chinese Linjschool which was founded during the Tang Dynasty. Rinzai tradition underscores insight into one’s true nature, or kensho. Kensho is an initial awakening, not quite Buddhahood.
Following kensho, one must further train the self to deepen this initial insight and express it in his daily life in order to attain full Buddhahood. Zazen is essential in attaining this insight and ripening it.
Soto is the Japanese line of the Chinese Caodongschool which was also founded during the Tang Dynasty. Soto lays emphasis on shikantazawhich is the Japanese term for zazen, or “nothing but precisely sitting.”
The founder of Soto in Japan, Dogen, stressed that practice and enlightenment cannot be separated.
According to Dogen, one is already expressing Buddhahood by practicing zazen or shikantaza. To him, meditation is the spirit of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism alike.
The third school of Zen is SanboKyodan which is a combination of Rinzai and Soto teachings. Essentially, it is a Japanese organization that consists of amateur lay practitioners.
SanboKyodan encourages both kensho and zazen.
One of the founding fathers of this school states that Zen is geared toward three goals: joriki, or development of concentration, kensho-godo, or awakening, and mujodo no taigen, or the understanding and utilization of Zen in daily life.
While alive, the Buddha himself offered three great teachings. The first is the fact that nothing is lost in the vastness of the universe.
Matter and energy are recycled, as are leaves and seeds. All sentient beings are one in the same. Plants, humans, and animals are interconnected; we are made up of them and we depend on them.
If we destroy a plant or an animal, we are destroying ourselves.
The second philosophy is that everything continuously changes. Life flows on and on as an ever-changing entity.
At times the flow is fast, and other times it is slow. Unexpected surprises lurk in every corner but we must embrace change.
Lastly, the Buddha explained that continuous change is due to the Law of cause and effect. This is called karma. We reap what we sow.
Good deeds are rewarded with good things in our future. Likewise, bad deeds are penalized with bad things. We create karma on a day-to-day basis by our thoughts, actions, and words. The Buddha once said, “The kind of seed sown will produce that kind of fruit. If you carefully plant a good seed, you will joyfully gather good fruit.”
Dharma is the term for the teachings of Buddha, or the natural law. It not only refers to the word of the Buddha, but to the practice of his teaching as well as the attainment of enlightenment.
Practicing Dharma is the method by which ignorance is eliminated and quality of life is improved.
The teaching of all the Buddhas can be summarized into three key points: one must not do any evil including seeing, speaking, and hearing evil; one must foster good; and one must purify one’s heart.
The Bodhisattva Precepts
Zen practitioners, whether expert or student, are not true disciples of Zen Buddhism if they do not abide by the Bodhisattva Precepts.
The principles are an essential part of Zen practice. To disregard them is to disregard Zen.
The Bodhisattva Precepts are a set of ten moral canons used in Mahayana Buddhism to help a practitioner progress along the path to becoming an enlightened being.
I take up the way of not killing. A Zen disciple is a Buddha disciple. A true disciple of Buddha shall not, by any means, kill or encourage any other person to kill. He should not applaud killing or applaud witnessing a killing.
He must respect life and not kill an animal or any sentient creature. A Zen practitioner must do everything in his power to protect all beings on Earth and vow to save them.
I take up the way of not stealing. A Zen practitioner shall not steal anything (2) or encourage others to do so. A stolen object could be as insignificant as a grain of sand, but it will still be a stolen object.
He must be charitable and respect the belongings of others.
I take up the way of not speaking falsely. A Zen practitioner shall not lie or encourage others to lie. A white lie is still a lie.
He must utter the truth each and every time he opens his mouth to speak. He must maintain Right Speech and Right Views, and promote these to others.
I take up the way of not using drink or drugs. A Zen practitioner shall never be under the influence of any substance that clouds the mind.
He must not sell or trade alcoholic beverages or encourage others to do so. Instead, he must proceed clearly andaid his fellowmenin achieving a clear mind and clear wisdom.
I take up the way of not discussing faults of others. A Zen practitioner shall not publicize or discuss the transgressions of his fellow disciples in the Buddhist assembly
nor encourage anyone to do so.
He must see perfection in all sentient beings, not offenses. He must not discuss the misdeeds that occur within the assembly.
If he hears anyone speak ill of the assembly, he should guide them to into developing faith in the Mahayana.
I take up the way of not praising myself while abusing others. A Zen practitioner shall not glorify himself and speak ill of others, nor should he encourage anyone to do so.
He must not elevate himself and blame others. Instead, he must realize that “self” and “other” are one.
He must not suppress another being’s good deeds and traits, thus subjecting them to slander. He must endure humiliation in the place of others and pass the glory to them.
I take up the way of not being stingy. A Zen practitioner shall not be withholding nor encourage anyone to do so.
If an impoverished person seeks aid from him, the disciple must be generous in whatever he gives. He must never deny aid or support, be it a sentence or a pebble, or rebuke anyone who needs his assistance.
I take up the way of not indulging in anger. A Zen practitioner shall not harbor anger or encourage others to do so.
He must never insult or physically attack another being out of anger. He must be compassionate, actualize harmony, and refrain from getting angry altogether.
Violating any of these precepts is considered a major offense in the sutra.
A Zen practitioner should not only meditate, but follow the Bodhisattva Precepts as well.
It is what makes for a true adherent to Zen Buddhism.