What is Zazen Meditation?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Zazen meditation is a practice employed by Zen Buddhists with the aim of calming the body and mind in order to approach satori, or enlightenment. It is an integral part of the practice of Zen Buddhism. Zazen is performed by sitting quietly with the eyes half closed and breathing deeply. There are a few different traditional postures that may be assumed for Zazen meditation, and those new to the practice may cultivate calmness through concentration exercises.

Zazen meditation is performed by sitting still with the eyes closed.
Zazen meditation is performed by sitting still with the eyes closed.

Zazen is performed in groups at meditation centers called zendo. The meditation practice is led by an instructor or guru, and it is often alternated with walking meditation. People more advanced in the practice of Zen Buddhism may practice Zazen meditation on their own.

The lotus position is designed to mimic the shape of the lotus flower.
The lotus position is designed to mimic the shape of the lotus flower.

When practicing Zazen meditation, people sit with folded arms and legs and an erect spine, with eyes neither fully open or fully shut, and breathe fully into the center of the belly. The practitioner traditionally sits on a cushion or a mat, but a chair may be used as well. Traditional postures for performing Zazen meditation include kneeling, sitting cross-legged, lotus position, and half-lotus position.

In lotus position, the legs are crossed in front, and each foot is placed on top of the opposite thigh, with the bottom of the foot towards the ceiling. In half-lotus, only one foot is placed upon th opposite thigh. Half-lotus position is recommended for those who do not have the flexibility to comfortably execute full lotus. When performing Zazen, the hands are folded together over the belly in a simple mudra, a spiritually symbolic gesture.

The goal of Zazen meditation is to completely calm and quiet the mind and body in order to allow insight to develop. For some Zen Buddhists, Zazen meditation is simply sitting quietly in awareness of the present, a state called shikantaza. Others use methods to cultivate quietness, including concentration and a practice called koan. Some practitioners use these methods as a way to grow towards being able to perform shikantaza.

Koan is the practice of meditating on a short question or story that cannot be understood through rational thought, such as the famous "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" A Zazen practitioner focuses on a single koan for the entire meditation. The Koan is meant to inspire intuition and understanding outside of the intellectual process.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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