What is Zen?

The word “Zen” is tossed around so carelessly in the commercial world, the human potential world, the world of design, and in popular culture in general, that for someone new to it as an authentic spiritual tradition, it has become too vague to have much meaning. Real Zen is the practice of coming back to the actual right-now-in-this-moment self, coming back to the naturalness, the intimacy and simplicity of our true nature. Zen practice is not about getting away from our life as it is; it is about getting into our life as it is, with all of its vividness, beauty, hardship, joy, and sorrow. Zen is a path of awakening: awakening to who we really are, and awakening the aspiration to serve others and take responsibility for all of life.

This sounds good, but how is it to be accomplished? How is it possible to enter such a new way of experiencing one’s life?

The Practice

There is a term in the Celtic tradition that I find resonates with something fundamental about Zen practice. The Celts spoke of “thin places,” places like caves or wells or other special sites where the boundary between the mundane and magical was permeable. To me, Zen practice offers a kind of thin place, a “place” where we can discover that there is fundamentally no separation between ourselves and others, that what we seek is always so close, always right here. In the Lotus Sutra’s parable of the burning house, the only escape from our greed, anger, and ignorance is said to be through a “narrow door.” The narrow door, the thin place, and any of a number of metaphors point us in the direction of our own realization. A door or a gate or a threshold also implies that there is effort, movement, investment in transformation.

At the heart of Zen practice is zazen, seated meditation. One master said that listening and thinking are like being outside the gate, and zazen is returning home and sitting in peace. Zazen is really a very simple practice and does not involve complicated instructions. When one studies the ancient Zen meditation manuals, it is always surprising how brief and plain they are. While they speak of the possibility of attaining the freedom and naturalness of a tiger in the mountains or a dragon in the water, the actual instructions are so concrete. Sit in the proper posture and attend to the body, breath, and mind.

Related: Practicing Zazen Meditation 

Make a Place to Sit

It is best to have a place set aside for regular zazen. Whether it is a room or just a corner, the space should be clean and uncluttered. Place a mat on the floor (a folded blanket will do) and on it a zafu, another type of comfortable sitting cushion, or a bench. If floor sitting is too difficult, simply use a chair.

Preparing to Sit

When you do zazen, wear loose, clean clothes. At the beginning of a sitting period, it is traditional to bow to an altar, offer a stick of incense, and bow once more. Then, as you stand before your seat, bow toward and away from your cushion, bench, or chair. These acts help us to realize intention and respect. The incense is offered with the intention that this session is for all beings, for all creation, not just for oneself. The standing bow to and away from our cushion actualizes our respect for our practice and for those, whether present or not, who practice with us. The physical act of bowing, of folding our body down, placing our head in a traditionally respectful position of vulnerability, gives the ego a big break, an opportunity to let go. When you are seated—whether cross-legged, kneeling, or in a chair—settle into the zazen posture: Place your hands on your lap or thighs, in the cosmic mudra, your right hand holding your left one, palms up, with your thumbs barely touching, forming a circle.


Your posture in sitting is vitally important. Sit on the forward third of your cushion or chair, so that your hips are higher than your knees and your belly is free to move in and out without stress on your lower back. Your ears are in line with your shoulders, your head balanced gently on your neck, your eyes are slightly open, gazing down about three feet in front of you. Your chin is pointing neither up nor down, but is slightly tucked in. Place your tongue just behind your teeth on the roof of your mouth. Sway from side to side until you find your center point.

The Breath

Now attend to the breath. Breathe naturally. Breathing in, allow the breath to fully enter your body until your lower belly expands; then, breathing out, softly allow the breath to ease out through your nostrils. Notice how the breath seems to travel through the main avenues of your torso. Your belly should rise and fall naturally with each breath. Let the breath fill your lower abdomen as if it were a balloon. Later, you may notice that even the bottoms of your feet are breathing in and out. As you relax into the breath, you can begin silently counting each full cycle of breath, noting “one” on the out-breath, “two” on the next out-breath, and so on up to “ten.” When you reach “ten,” begin again with “one.” When you realize that you have stopped counting, and are caught up in thinking, simply take another breath and go back to “one.”

Do this—counting your breath, maintaining your posture, sitting still—for the 20-minute period of zazen. Notice that urges to move—to scratch your nose, to tug on your ear—are usually ways to move away from the energies in your body. Instead of moving, stay with them, observe them, and bring your focus back to the breathing. Learn to notice how these urges fall away, only to be replaced by others, demonstrating the second noble truth: the cause of suffering is craving. All the disparate ideas, thoughts, impulses—everything comes and goes, and yet you sit. And little by little, the chatter drops away and your body, breath, and mind are one. Zazen is so simple. We focus on our posture and on counting our breath, and this develops samadhi, a unified mind. But the practice is not about reaching “ten.” It is about training the body and mind. Let the body settle, let the breath settle, let the mind settle. Don’t worry about whether your practice is working, don’t judge your performance, don’t tell yourself stories or find other ways to avoid this very moment. These are just ways of separating from our deepest intention and our zazen. When you do zazen, just do zazen. That’s enough.

The Original Self

In the Genjokoan (Actualizing the Fundamental Point), Zen Master Dogen writes:

When one first seeks the dharma, one is far away
from its environs.

When one has already correctly transmitted
the dharma to oneself, one is one’s original
self at that moment.

Dogen Zenji’s teaching reminds us of our initial separation from what is ours. When we begin to seek the dharma, there is an “I” that looks for it over “there.” But the dharma is already alive in us, and requires only that we realize it, which is what he means in the second sentence: having “correctly transmitted the dharma to oneself,” one is one’s real self in that moment.

I think all of us yearn to experience ourselves as whole and complete, to live our lives fully and freshly in each moment. But something blocks us, and Zen training is one way to see that, all along, we have what we need. This is called the realization of the original self.

The Daily Practice: Be Consistent

The zazen period we are recommending is 20 minutes. You may find that you will want to do more—or less— and that is fine. What is important is consistency. To keep your practice consistent, remember what the famous Nike ad says: “Just do it.” Don’t concern yourself with trying to get to some particular place or state of mind. Each day’s zazen will be a little different, just like the rest of life. We practice steadiness in our daily meditation—alert, sleepy, focused—we just practice each day, through the high points and the low. When you mess up—and you will— just say, “Okay, back to my cushion.” When you are sitting, you may realize that you are thinking about something else. At that moment, take a deep breath and recognize that, in that moment of realization, you have come back to now. As an old meditation manual says, as soon as you are aware of a thought, it will vanish! When we are thinking of a thing, we are lost in it, lost in thinking about “x.” But when we become aware of our thinking, then we are in a secondary state. The actual thinking of “x” is gone, and there is either just awareness or we begin a new thought based on that awareness. Either way, the original thinking is gone. If we practice daily, soon we are able to stay more often in that space of pure awareness without an object. Just breathing, just being present—we call this being naturally unified.

Zazen is a form that allows us to practice the no form of boundless emptiness. The freedom that is made available to us through form is one of those grand paradoxes of life. When we organize ourselves and create a structure, we also create the means to be free of structure. Form helps us by organizing and directing our energies. But we can carry our form lightly, with respect and appreciation for its gifts. This subtle discipline—settling, unifying, letting be—is called the dharma gate of peace and joy.

In addition to zazen and bowing, there are other aspects of Zen practice that help us on the way. One is setting up a home altar, which encourages the actualizing of respect and devotion. To place something on an altar is to meet it, to hold it in esteem. Traditionally, in Zen monasteries, the altar in the zendo (meditation hall) had as its focus a statue of Manjushri, the bodhisattva representing transcendent wisdom. Manjushri holds a sword that cuts away delusions, thus clearing our minds. By putting such an image on our altar, we vow to take on that strong energy of slicing away at our delusions, our ignorance, our greed and anger. We vow to be clear. For your home altar, place a statue or image of any buddha or bodhisattva who evokes in you the aspiration to realize those qualities— wisdom, compassion, peace—that he or she embodies. You may place an incense bowl and incense (which is a fine way to time your zazen); a flower, which evokes transient beauty; water, an element of nourishment; and a candle to brighten the space.

Related: Give Yourself a Breathing Room 

Study is another aspect of Zen. We study to encourage, refine, and deepen our own practice and that of others. This ango—the traditional 90-day Zen practice period—we will study Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan. How do we approach this or any other Zen study text? How do we penetrate the surface to get to the heart of the matter, to the workings of enlightened mind in the midst of daily life? Study the text as if it were a koan (a paradoxical phrase pointing to the nature of ultimate reality): chew on a few lines each day. And with each reading, stop and put the meaning into your life, asking yourself what this line means to you. In studying this inspiring and brilliant work, you can bring it directly into your own life, your own practice, so that the text comes to actually be yours and you express the text in your life. This is Zen study, and the Genjokoan will be the subject of my accompanying talks online.

Image: Dustin Eli Brunson, photo taken at Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, NM. introduction to zen
Image: Dustin Eli Brunson, photo taken at Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, NM

The Precepts 

Finally, because all of this practice leads to our realization of our interdependence and interrelatedness with all beings, we will also take up the practice of the sixteen bodhisattva precepts. These precepts are not commandments; rather, they are guiding principles for living a life of freedom and service. The precepts will be one of the topics in the online discussions. The precepts are themselves worthy of a lifetime of study and practice. Indeed, in some Zen traditions, they are part of formal koan study, with each precept appreciated from various perspectives. Make them your own, be intimate with them. Rather than simply trying to follow them, embody them, in much the same way in which you “become” your zazen.

Sitting with Others

I encourage you to step up and experience Zen practice. But for now there is one more thing to keep in mind. While we are trying, both in this section and through the online resources, to provide you with what you need to get a solid start in establishing your own daily practice, Zen is not a solitary practice. As we chant at the end of our liturgy, “May we realize the Buddha Way together.” Sitting with others, studying with others, working with others, talking with others—all these are integral to the life of Zen. So I encourage you as well to join with others whenever possible. Go to a Zen meditation center or a similar group and sit with other people. And participate in our online community as well, where you will find a directory of Zen centers and teachers. Listen to the lectures, join the discussion group, read the supplemental material that will be posted. I hope that for the next three months you will help me in my own practice by joining this ango.

Let’s let Master Dogen have the last word:

The dharma is amply present in every person, but without practice, it is not manifested; without realization, it is not attained.

Read more on Tricycle’s 90-day Zen meditation challenge
The Big Sit Introduction
Setting Up Your Home Altar
The Value of A Vow
How to Sit
The Bodhisattva Precepts

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .