What is Zen Buddhist Meditation?

By Mario Esposito
Last Updated: August 13, 2018

Why do you meditate?

Most people take up meditation in a quest for inner peace, balance—or, as some might put it, a state called “zen.” In popular culture, Zen has become shorthand for a transcendent state of being, often portrayed as achievable only by grizzled old masters with a penchant for sitting under waterfalls and calling people “grasshoppers.” Zen implies stillness, in body and mind. For the chronically sleepless, reaching a state of Zen is the dream, literally and figuratively!

But how do you get there? Zen meditation can sound like a daunting practice, and if you’re new to meditation, it can be hard to figure out where to begin. While we at Good Night’s Rest aren’t experts, we do have a longstanding personal interest in meditation, and we’re happy to help you nurture your interest, too. You can’t go wrong with a solid understanding of what you’re getting into, and when it comes to Zen meditation, that means starting with some history.

What is Zen Meditation?

The practice of Zen meditation comes from Zen, a school of Mahayana Buddhism that began in East Asia. Most of us know Zen as a Japanese tradition, but its roots actually go back to China, from where it spread to nearby countries like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

The term Zen itself, however, is Japanese: it means “meditation,” from the Chinese chán (“quietude”) and the Sanskrit dhyana (“meditation”). This emphasis on meditation comes from the Zen school’s belief in practice, experience, and direct understanding. In Zen, spiritual awakening—that transcendent “peace” or “balance” that practitioners strive for—isn’t an ethereal piece of knowledge that you acquire; instead, it’s an attitude that you cultivate and express through the flow of actions that constitute your daily life.

What kind of attitude, exactly? Like mindfulness, this is a hazy concept with no standardized definition. Many practitioners will differ on the finer points of what it means to be Zen. That said, there are two fundamental concepts to understand: unity and suspension.

What Sets Zen Meditation Apart?

Zen meditation emphasizes the integration of your mind and body into a harmonious whole. This focus on unity stands in stark contrast to many common ideas of meditation as a mind-centric practice that works mostly by harnessing thoughts or “clearing” your consciousness. As some Zen masters lament, these approaches to meditation tend to take on a “dualistic structure” where “the body sits while the mind does something else.”

Zen meditation is different. Even the Japanese term for the tradition, zazen, highlights this: zazen is often translated as “sitting meditation.” Here, stance or posture matters—it’s an integral part of bringing every part of your being into alignment. Just as stillness cultivates balance in your head, embodying that stillness through physical actions like sitting in the right position and regulating your breath cultivates balance in the body.

Zazen is meant to help you anchor yourself so that you can then sit suspended—at a remove from your insecurities and concerns, your desires and possessions. Like mindfulness, the point is not to suppress or banish these things, but to collect yourself enough not to be troubled by them.

The Benefits of Zen Meditation

Those principles of harmony and suspension, while different in method from other meditation traditions, reap similar benefits. Here is Zen master Eido Roshi on the everyday rewards of practicing Zen meditation:

Many scientific studies also point to Zen meditation’s concrete physiological and psychological effects:

  • Findings suggest that a regular Zen meditation practice can combat aging’s effects on the brain, reducing cognitive decline and preserving gray matter volume, especially in the parts of the brain dedicated to attentional performance.
  • Zen meditation has also been found to be an effective tool for pain management.
  • Several studies have found that Zen meditation can reduce stress and blood pressure, as well as boost antioxidant activity in the body.
  • Zen meditation can also help regulate respiration and heart rate. As this study further suggests, these physiological benefits can be achieved even without prior meditation experience.
  • Most relevant for the sleepless, Zen meditation has been shown to increase alpha and theta wave activity—associated with the early stages of sleep—in the brain.

While not a cure-all for sleep and health difficulties, meditation can be a potent addition to your wellness toolkit. So how do you get started?

How Do You Start Zen Meditation?

The master Dogen Zenji, founder of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, viewed the kekka-fuza or “full-lotus” position as the cornerstone of Zen meditation practice. Sitting quietly in this position and with the correct form unites mind and body. Or as Dogen put it, “Sit in kekka-fuza with body, sit in kekka-fuza with mind, sit in kekka-fuza of body-mind falling off.”

The traditional full-lotus position requires some flexibility, though. If you’re struggling to maintain the position for a long period, you can also meditate in other positions. Some of the most common alternatives are:

  • the half-lotus, or hanka-fuza;
  • kneeling, or seiza;
  • simply sitting, whether on a traditional zafu cushion or any other available seat

Zen meditation is more particular when it comes to posture, so you should take care to keep your head, neck, and back aligned, and to maintain an upright position throughout your meditation session. According to many expert practitioners, correct posture also leads naturally to a calm breathing rhythm, which is also essential to your Zen meditation practice.

Once you’ve settled into a comfortable alignment and a steady breathing rhythm, you can then focus on cultivating the calm, balanced mindset characteristic of a zazen session.

Of course, these are only the first essential steps to beginning a Zen meditation practice. We’re not experts, after all, so rather than trying to give you tips beyond our experience, we’ve instead gathered some great resources to help you continue your zen meditation journey.

Below, you’ll find a great video with an overview of how to do zazen. You can also check out some of our favorite Zen meditation blogs.