Zen Buddhism originated in China in the 5th century and is a mix of Taoism and Indian Mahayana Buddhism. It has since spread across Asia and recently to the West.
The word zen merely means “meditative state,” and Zen Buddhists emphasize direct understanding of the mind and reality through spiritual practices rather than through religious texts or doctrines.
To reach this deeper understanding beyond words and intellectual knowledge, 3-pronged meditation practice was developed. In this blog, I will explain the types of zen meditation, the benefits, and how you can get started.
What are the 3 Types of Zen Meditation?
In Zen meditation, there is no goal to achieve. The meditation practice itself is the goal. There is no reward or enlightenment to grasp, we just let go of all expectations and do the practice for the sake of doing the practice.
In this way, the practice becomes its own reward. The longing and craving for some end result do not become an impediment or disturbance on the path to enlightenment. In fact, the benefits will come more naturally as we let go of any desired outcome.
To get started, much like any other meditation practice, we sit on the floor if that is possible or a chair if it is not. On the floor, sit with a cushion under your butt and cross your legs in the lotus or half-lotus position (Indian style).
Sit with your back, neck, and head straight and erect with your chin pulled in slightly. Don’t sit too tense or too relaxed. Try to find the sweet spot in the middle.
Put your hands on your thighs or knees, wherever feels comfortable. You may also fold them in your lap as seen in this picture, with your thumbs touching, left fingers on top of your right fingers, and slightly forward so your pinkies are not touching your stomach.
Close your eyes and look slightly downward just above the tip of your nose. Unclench your teeth and rest your tongue on the back of your front upper teeth where the teeth meet the roof of your mouth.
Alternatively, keeping your eyes open and staring unfocused at a wall in front of you is also commonly done.
Do not worry if this position is difficult at first. It usually is at first but it gets much easier. Zen Buddhism is about practicing and developing discipline. They consider the best students as the ones who have the most difficulty because those are the students who will have overcome the most and exhibit the most discipline of thought and action.
This is the first type of meditation any zen student will practice. Before moving on to various other types of meditation that clear the mind of all thoughts, a student must first be able to concentrate on a single thought or object.
Developing the power of concentration can be done in a variety of ways. Most often, this involves focusing on the sensations of the breath by observing the belly expanding and contracting.
Some students will be instructed to count breaths as a way of assisting in concentration and focus. Others will use mantras instead of counting.
After practicing this for some time, single-pointed concentration is achieved and an initial experience of the meditative state can be reached.
From there, students will move on to one or both of the following types of zen meditation.
Once you have mastered the ability to focus and concentrate, the next step is to focus on an unsolvable riddle. Most famously being, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
There is no answer to discover, nothing to figure out, no solution to be had. All the reasoning in the world will not help you get to the answer.
These types of koans force the meditator to short-circuit their thinking mind and sit in stillness, allowing for the koan to enter them on a deeper level than just the surface of the mind. This is where true wisdom resides.
The world, like a koan, isn’t something to figure out. It is merely something to be experienced. The more we reduce complexity into simple words and syllables, the less we understand.
Koans help us to observe without the cloud of judgment, experience fully without being lost in thought, and to be at peace with all things.
Also called shikantaza, this type of meditation does not use any object or concept to focus on. Students simply remain aware of their thoughts and the present moment.
This is a pure observation: watching thoughts come and go, sensing the body and our surroundings, and just allowing whatever comes to come and go without judgment or interpretation.
Perhaps, one of the most difficult meditation practices, nonthinking does not occupy the mind with any concept, object, or mantra. But, that is precisely why it can be the most transformative and beneficial practice there is.
Nonthinking is the true practice of present alert awareness—our natural state of being. This is our highest state of consciousness, our intuitive intelligence, and our true selves.
Since the earliest days of humanity’s discovery of farming, we lost our way of being. We lost the majesty that belongs to all animals, from soaring eagles to wild horses.
We’ve traded peace for worry and bliss for depression. Moreover, we’ve gone from living naturally through our instincts to overthinking insanity. Not only this, we’ve gone from cooperation to competition, from generosity to greed, from love to fear.
Nonthinking helps us reclaim this calm, peaceful, blissful, compassionate natural way of life. We will still have the thinking mind but we use it, it no longer uses us.
What are the Benefits of Zen Meditation?
Our brains produce brain waves which are divided into five categories. Beta waves occur when we are in an alert, stressed, anxious, fearful state. Delta waves occur when we are in a deep, dreamless state. Gamma waves mean that we are in a problem-solving, learning, and cognitive processing state.
According to brain scans, zen meditation puts our mind’s brainwaves into theta and alpha wavelengths.
Alpha waves are associated with a relaxed physical and mental state. This state releases tension, stress, and anxiety in the body and mind. Alpha waves occur during periods of super learning, serotonin production, healing and wellbeing.
Creativity and Insights
When our brain starts to enter a theta state, we experience insights, creativity, dreams, and deep meditation.
Rest, Recharge, Recover
Alpha and theta wave states allow us to enter peaceful, joyful, calm, clear states of mind. Our bodies are able to rest, recharge and recover. The sense of pain becomes diminished. Our cardiovascular health and our immune system improve.
Focus and Energy for Productivity
The effects of daily zen meditation lead to better focus, creativity, and productivity at work. It leads to falling asleep quicker and getting better sleep. You’ll have more energy, more confidence, and less stress too.
Patience and Positivity
Many people report having more patience, feeling less rushed (although still able to get the same amount of work done), having a better mood, and a more positive attitude.
All these benefits happen rather quickly with zen meditation. In just a couple of weeks, noticeable changes can occur.
Zen meditation has huge benefits for corporations as well. The improved focus and memory, ability to plan and prioritize, greater empathy and attitude, have all contributed to companies’ bottom lines.
How Can I Start Practicing Zen Meditation?
The best way to develop a strong foundation for lifelong zen meditation practice is to take a course from a highly trained expert.
The Mindfulness Meditation Course at EastWesticism is a great way to learn. Our meditation teacher has spent years living in Zen Buddhist monasteries across Asia, mastering the techniques, and he teaches in a style specifically for a Western audience.
The following are some simple ways to start finding your zen right away.
How Can I Start Living More Zen?
Focus on What You’re Doing
Beyond meditating, everything we do in our lives can be a zen meditation practice. Instead of multitasking, try focusing on one thing at a time. Be fully present, do it carefully and with intention.
Leave space in your schedule for doing nothing. This will allow the body and mind to slow down, feel calmer and more relaxed. Also, give extra time to the tasks you do have so you’re not rushed and stressed.
Take a Moment to Be in the Moment
Before you start any activity, take one or two conscious breaths. Allow your body to become present and relaxed, then start. When you’re finished, take a couple more deep, relaxed conscious breaths. This will add presence throughout your whole day.
One of the key tenets of Zen Buddhism is being in the service of others. The more we focus on the happiness of others, the happier we become ourselves. Spend some time every day smiling at others and focusing on how you can help others.
Everything you do can be a meditation. From walking to eating, cooking to cleaning, practice being completely aware of every little sensation. Do it slowly and consciously. Feel what it feels like and try to be present.
You don’t have to be a monk to clear the clutter in your life. If something in your life isn’t making you a healthier and happier person, feel free to get rid of it and replace it with something that does—or with nothing at all. Allow for simple pleasures, like watering plants or taking walks, create a feeling of peace and stillness in your life.