What is Zen ? A Spiritual Guide
Zen. It is a very commonly used term in our world today—and one that many of us use in our daily lives. However, the phrase ” What is Zen ” is pretty common, and while many people have a general idea of what the word Zen means, it can be difficult to define.
This is why we have created a spiritual guide for you that will help you gain a better understanding of what Zen is and how to incorporate it into your life so you can live more spiritually.
What is Zen?
Zen is actually a Japanese term that is derived from the Chinese word “Ch’an.” Translated, it means concentration or meditation. The practice itself is a type of Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes the value of meditation and intuition.
In western culture, the term “Zen” is used quite liberally, and with a few definitions, but at its core, Zen is a type of traditional wisdom that encourages people to have a peaceful and personal relationship with your own mind and a higher power outside of yourself.
Simply put, if you want to “be” Zen, you are in a state of being at peace with your own thoughts and being self-aware of your place within the universe.
What is Zen Meditation?
Zen meditation, also known as Zazen, is an ancient Buddhist tradition that has a long and detailed history. Zen meditation can be dated back to 7th century China, and is a traditional Buddhist discipline that provides insight on how the mind works.
The goal of Zen meditation is to uncover clarity and workability of the mind. Many people who practice Zen meditation experience a unique type of awakening as they are able to learn how to let go of thoughts and feelings that cloud their minds. This form of meditation also helps practicing meditators have a better insight into the nature of the body and mind.
While some forms of meditation may be all about relaxation and stress relief—Zen meditation goes much deeper and attempts to help people tackle life questions and deep-rooted issues.
There are three common Zen Meditation techniques.
- Observation of Breath- This is where you sit on a padded cushion and draw awareness to your breath and how it moves in and out of your body.
- Quiet Awareness- This form of meditation encourages those meditating to allow their thoughts to flow through their minds. During this time, you are not supposed to have a goal, but instead should just “sit” and allow the mind to be with judgment, thought, grasping or rejection.
- Intensive Group Meditation- More serious meditators can choose to practice group meditation in special centers or temples. This is a Japanese practice known as sesshin and involves sessions that last nearly an hour and are alternated with a walking meditation and meals taken in silence.
This unique type of meditation can help you reach a spiritual understanding unlike any other type of meditation can.
What is Zen Buddhism?
Zen Buddhism is a very simple, focused and stripped-down version of Buddhism. It is meditation-based and does not rely on scriptures or rituals like other forms of Buddhism. Instead, it focuses on personal experiences.
This type of Buddhism is also passed down from master to disciple through intimate training. One of the major cornerstones of this type of Buddhism is Zen meditation.
Benefits of a Zenful Life
So, whether you are just trying to have a more Zen attitude in your day-to-day life, or if you are looking to study the ancient forms of Zen Buddhism—there are many benefits of living a more Zenful life.
Greatly Improved Health
Embracing a more Zen life, and learning to be at peace with your mind, wont just have mental and spiritual benefits—it will have physical benefits as well. Studies on Zen and health have found that Zen meditation can actually help improve the immune system. If you want to make sure that you are well-protected against colds and flu—regular meditation may be able to help.
Other proven effects of those who regularly practice Zen meditation includes the ability to lower heart rate, improve blood circulation and lower blood pressure.
More Restful Sleep
If there is one thing that all people today could benefit from—it is more restful sleep and living a Zenful life can help you achieve that calm, relaxing, restoring sleep you have always wanted.
Short, Zen Meditation practices before bed is a great way to help make sure that you get this restful sleep—although you may start noticing a better quality of sleep simply from your more relaxed and peaceful state during the day.
Focus on breathing exercises and the feeling of letting go of all that weighs you down, and practice this form of meditation for 5-15 minutes before bed to start enjoying the type of sleep that actually helps you feel restored.
Improved Compassion and Creativity
Being Zenful is all about working on the relationship with yourself, but embracing a more Zen life won’t just help you become more self-aware, it can also help improve your understanding of others. Through regular practices that help you understand your place in the universe and be more mindful of other people, places and things around you—you can learn to be more compassionate.
This self-awareness is also known to trigger a heightened sense of creativity within many people. With a clear, centered and focused mind—there is less clouding your thoughts and more opportunities for you to expand your mind and tap into your more creative side.
If there is one benefit of living a more Zenful life that everyone could take advantage of—it is the fact that it can help with stress. Regular Zen meditation can also help reduce pain and sensitivity as it can teach those who practice hope to cope with the pain that they deal with—as it can be a big help with stress reduction.
By lowering stress levels, Zen meditation can also help increase the production of serotonin—which is a hormone which can cause headaches, depression and even obesity.
The History of Zen
Zen Buddhism was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhiharm in the 6th century CE. By the 7th century CE, it spread to Korea and then eventually to Japan in the 12 century CE. By this time, Zen Buddhism had become a global practice and one that was only growing.
What is most impressive about this spread of Buddhism is that, according to tradition the transmission from Zen must go from master to disciple. This creates a spiritual bloodline, and it has been that way for more than 2,500 years.
Throughout its history, Zen has been based upon the belief that awakening can be achieved by anyone—but must be taught by one of these masters.
How is Zen Practiced?
There are two primary activities that are involved with formal Zen practices: sitting and breathing. You should always do this with awareness, paying close attention to your breath.
Once you master the art of sitting and breathing, also known as Zazen, you can start incorporating this awareness and breathing into your other everyday activities.
Over time, you can start incorporating your Zen awareness into your everyday activities, such as walking, eating, working and even chanting. This is how Zen becomes a part of your everyday life—not only in your meditative practices.
During Zazen, the meditator must initially focus on breath—allowing your breath to flow softly and naturally. Zazen’s primary focus must be on attention to breath, which is common not only in Zazen, but in other forms of meditative practices.
Zazen is actually quite simple—it is all about devoting the mind’s attention to sitting and breathing. Formal meditation sessions can last anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, or event longer.
Here are some tips on how to practice Zazen:
- Sit in a quiet location, with a tall, strong posture.
- Use a cushion, mat, blanket or meditation bench to make sure you are in proper form.
- Hold your hands either in cosmic mudra- with the left hand on the right palm facing up, encircling the navel, or on the natural shelf. This is where the elbows are held slightly away from the core.
- Sit and take several deep breaths in and out—to make sure that you are keeping your mind from wandering, every ten breaths, return your wandering mind to your breath.
It is simple as that. Experts recommend that you engage in this practice daily for up to 45 minutes per day to get the best results.
Walking Zen, also known as walking meditation or Kinhin. While you are walking with this type of meditation, you can do this practice on your own, focusing your attention on movement and breath.
However, if you really want to practice this form of meditation in the correct manner—you will need to do it in a group. Here is how:
- Walk in a single file line, close to the person in front of you.
- Hold hands in shashu—at waist level, where the right hand holds the left thumb and the left hand covers the right.
- Hold the elbows slightly lifted so that the lower arms form a line parallel to the floor.
- Walk in a line appreciating your breath, movement and the environment around you.
If you are practicing Zen walking on your own—then all you need to do is take a leisurely walk focusing on your breathing and awareness as you do.
Koan in Zen Buddhism is a succinct paradoxical statement or question that is used in Zen meditative practices. It is a discipline that can help novices who are looking to master the art of Zen.
This exercise is a way to test a novice’s competence and fosters communication between the Zen master and the learner. There are a few different examples of how this practice goes, one of the most common being a question-and-answer form.
For example, the teacher may ask “What is Buddha?”
And the novice will answer “three pounds of flax.”
There are also clapping exercises and other ways to test the novice as they learn about the intricacies of Zen.
The best way to learn about Zen of course is to go to a school of Zen or to a meditation center that specializes in Zen Buddhism. There is no better resource. However, if you are unable to make it to a center for an appropriate education on Zen Buddhism—there are other resources available that can help you learn.
Books on Zen
Books are some of the best resources available for those looking to learn more about Zen practices. Here are a few different books on Zen that can help you learn more about this practice. These are particularly helpful for those who are beginners and just getting started.
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practices by Shunryu Suzuki, Trudy Dixon, et al.
- Buddhism for Beginners: Buddhist Rituals and Practices to Eliminate Stress and Anxiety by Dharma Hazari
- Zen: Beginner’s Guide: Happy Peaceful and Focused Lifestyle for Everyone by Ian Tuhovsky
- Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind by Norman Fischer and Susan Moon
Keep these books in mind when you are looking to do a little casual reading on Zen Buddhism so you can learn more about this practice, what it entails and how to incorporate Zen practices into your everyday life.
You can start embracing a more Zenful life each and every day. Sometimes, the smallest steps towards being more mindful, at peace and in-tune with the world around you can go a long way in transforming your life—as you truly become more “Zen.”
Take the time to learn more about the milestones of Zen Buddhism and about what resources can help you on your journey towards a more Zenful life.