Beginners Look At Buddhist Zazen Meditation

The most fundamental techniques of Zen Buddhism is zazen, which literally translated means "seated meditation". The main principle behind Zen Buddhism is to actively meditate to calm the body and mind so that you can focus on your "inner self" and find the Buddha-nature within. Often the teacher will give the more advanced zazen students a ‘koan’. A koan is a questioned that cannot be solved by intellectual means, nor is there one right answer. One famous koan is, ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’. However, the use of a koan is not necessary to gain a deep appreciation (and the benefits of) zazen. It is said that through sincere, seated meditation that Buddha attained ultimate enlightenment. Hence, the importance of zazen within Zen Buddhism.

Through meditation, you gain a new perspective on your own existence as well as the existence of everything around you. The concept is that practicing zazen on a daily basis will help you on your path to enlightenment. Not only will you develop a heightened sense of awareness, your focus and concentration on daily activities will be sharpened as well. Interestingly, this has been proven both scientifically as well as often reported students of Zen Buddhism who begin to regularly practice zazen mediation.
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Correct body positioning is very important in the meditation process. Even though zazen means "seated meditation", there are a few choices meditative positions available to suit people of different ages or for whom the traditional seated position is not possible. Consider your body limitations when choosing a position. Also, keep in mind that sitting in a position that your body is not accustomed may be slightly uncomfortable at first, but your body will loosen up when it gets adjusted. Following are a few of the traditionally accepted positions for zazen:

One: The Burmese Position is a simple pose that allows you more flexibility with your legs while in a seated position. Sit on a cushion with legs crossed. Your ankles should be placed one in front of the other. To stabilize your body, slightly shift your weight forward so that both knees touch the floor. You can either place your hands in your lap forming a simple ‘cup’ or you can place your hands on each knee, traditionally with the palms up.

Two: The Half Lotus Position is done by sitting on your cushion with legs crossed. Take your left foot and place it onto your right thigh. Then, tuck your right leg underneath your left thigh. Shift your weight forward so that both knees touch the floor. Again, you can either place your hands in your lap forming a simple ‘cup’ or you can place your hands on each knee with palms up.

Three: The Full Lotus Position is somewhat difficult depending on your flexibility. Sitting on your cushion, cross your legs. Place your left foot onto your right thigh. Then take your right foot and slide it up onto your left thigh. Like the previous positions, you will slightly shift your weight forward so that both knees touch the floor. Hand position is the same as the Burmese and Half Lotus positions.

Four: The Seiza Position allows you to kneel with your hips resting on your ankles. If you choose this position, it would be best to have a mat or carpeted surface for extra comfort. Do NOT choose this position if you have knee or joint problems. Your hands rest on your thighs, palms down. Often, you will see this position as a resting of seated position within various styles of martial arts.

Five: The Chair Position is a good position if you cannot comfortably enter into one of the other poses. It is a very acceptable meditative position and generally favored by many Westerners. Your knees should be apart, lining up with your shoulders. Your feet should be firmly planted on the ground with back straight. Hand position is whatever is most comfortable. Many mediators who choose the Chair Position for meditation find the hands in the lap forming a cup, left hand over right, as the most comfortable.

Six: The Standing Position is performed by standing with both feet shoulder-width apart. Knees should never be locked. Make sure that your back is straight, hands can resting at your sides. Ancient standing meditation poses are depicted with the hands inside the sleeves of a coat or monks ‘habit’. The right hand in the left sleeve and the left hand in the right sleeve. This helps take the stress often the shoulders while in the standing meditative position. The standing position is best suited for those with advanced meditative skills. For beginners, it would be best to only practice the standing meditative position for a few minutes at a time (and make sure you stay focused on breath control).

All zazen meditative positions require the back to be upright. Your spine should be as straight as you can manage comfortably so that your diaphragm will function properly. Your head should be aligned with your spine. Tuck in your chin and close your mouth, unless you suffer from nasal problems. You are going to want to breathe through your nose. You can also press your tongue to the roof of your mouth to decrease the amount of saliva and swallowing. This process will help you stay in a more relaxed state without interruption.

A little more about hand placement: Placing both hands in your lap, palm-side facing upward is called the ‘cosmic mudra position’. Your hands will form a natural ‘cup’ in your lap. Hold your less dominant hand within the hand that you use the most (this is known as placing peace before aggression in some martial arts circles). Thumbs should be lightly touching, forming an oval shape. Next, lower your eyes and focus on a spot on the floor approximately 3 to 6 feet in front of you.

You are now ready to begin your meditation. Center your attention in the ‘hara’. The hara is the spiritual and physical center of the body and is felt to be located 3 finger-spaces underneath the belly button. Using your nose, take a deep breath in and then exhale. Each time you breath in, imagine and feel the air going into your body’s center. It is only going into the lungs, but imagine the air filling up your center. Focus only on the breathing.

Some teach breathing mediation using a counting system. For example, counting each breath up to ten, then starting the count over again. Some teach a breathing method of breathing in is one, exhale is two, inhale is three, exhale is four … continue the count to ten and start over. A quick tip here: Getting to the count of ten breaths sounds easy. For the vast majority of people, it is not easy. The mind tends to want to run away like a wild horse. Do not worry if you keep losing count, especially beginners. You are now learning why those with years of meditative experience tend to have very good focus and emotional control.

The ideal goal is to empty the mind and enter deep relaxation. As mentioned before, the mind tends to go every which way when meditation begins. Do not worry about it. When your mind starts to wander, refocus on your breathing. You will need to learn patience because thoughts and ideas will always try to interfere with the simple act of quieting the mind. If you find yourself deeply thinking about that hot fudge sundae you eat 2 weeks ago, that is the sort of thing that happens as you relax and empty the mind of concerns. Just gently return gently return your focus to your breathing and complete your allotted time for zazen meditation.

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Eventually, as you become more consistent with your meditation your mind will relax quicker and you will be able to remain more consistently focused on your breathing. Zazen should be performed at least once a day for 20-45 minutes. However, starting out with 5 to 10 minutes a day is perfectly fine. Just remember the highest benefits are gain from achieving the 20 to 45 minutes per day target. Zen practitioners at a formal Zen Monastery actually meditate for hours daily. As your meditating becomes more routine, your focus and concentration will sharpen, making it easier to reach a relaxed state of mind. You are likely to discover you carry this shaper, more relaxed state of mind through out the day.

When you begin to reach a deep zazen state, you may only breathe two or three times per minute. Your entire body will become still, and you will begin to understand what it means to be fully in the moment. You will discover a complete calmness and a type of relaxation many never knew existed. You may even find your enlightenment and uncover an awareness that seems to open doors you never knew existed. Of course, it all begins with sitting comfortably and calming the mind through focusing on the life giving act of breathing. The Zen Buddhists call it zazen.

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