According to legend, around the 5th Century BCE, a young Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama left his father’s palace to seek an answer to the problem of suffering. After six long years of meditation and fasting he was no closer to his goal than when he started. One day he sat beneath a fig tree vowing to meditate until he found what he was looking for. Forty-nine days into his meditation, he attained enlightenment. From then on, he became known as “the Buddha,” which means, “the Awakened One.” Over the next forty years he traveled throughout India teaching an end to suffering and the path to inner peace.
What the Buddha taught
The Buddha taught that suffering is an inevitable part of life. We all suffer in ways great and small, from intense pain and grief to mild disappointment and vague dissatisfaction.
The Buddha taught that we make suffering worse by trying to hold on to pleasures that can’t last or by resisting unpleasant things we can’t do anything about. We’re happier when we allow our pleasant and unpleasant feelings to come and go, accepting things as they are.
The Buddha also taught that our belief that we are permanent, unchanging “selves” is another cause of suffering. We have to accept that we, like everything else, are subject to change.
Karma or cause-and-effect is another key Buddhist teaching. The Law of Karma states that what we think and do now determines who we will become in the future. If we engage in angry thoughts and actions, we become angry people. If we engage in kind thoughts and actions, we become kind people. We have the power to become the people we wish to be.
The Buddha also outlined the path leading to the end of suffering. He taught that we could obtain inner peace by acting ethically, training our minds through meditation, and understanding the truths of karma, the causes of suffering, the nature of impermanence, and our false ideas about ourselves.
The Buddha taught that we are reborn after death in accordance with our karma. We can be reborn into a hell or heaven realm, or as ghosts, animals, humans, or demigods depending to how we’ve lived our lives. When we become enlightened, we put an end to the endless cycle of rebirth and dwell in the peaceful state free from all suffering known as Nirvana. While many Buddhists believe in the actuality of rebirth, many others think rebirth is a metaphor for how our current thoughts and actions create a heaven or hell for us in our one and only life.
Branches of Buddhism
There are three main branches of Buddhism: Theravada (the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia), Mahayana (the Buddhism of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), and Vajrayana (the Buddhism of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Siberia). Zen is a variant of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China in the 5th- 6th Century CE and then spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. It is a school of Buddhism that emphasizes meditation as the path to enlightenment.
Mahayana Buddhism arose between 100 BCE and 200 CE in ancient India. The word “Mahayana” means “great vehicle.” It’s called the “great vehicle” because Mahayana Buddhists vow to bring all sentient beings to Enlightenment rather than pursuing their own personal Nirvana. According to Mahayana Buddhism, everyone has “Buddha-nature” or the basic capacity for enlightenment.
Mahayana Buddhism also stresses that nothing exists in, of, and by itself. Things only exist by virtue of their interrelatedness with everything else. You, for example, wouldn’t be “you” if it weren’t for your parents, the society and culture you were born into, enough food, water, air and sunlight, a habitable planet the right distance from the sun, a universe that obeys the laws of physics, and so on. You are interdependent with the entire vast web of existence and so is everything else. Buddhism refers to this interdependence as “emptiness,” because things are said to be empty of “self-existence.”
The Rise of Zen
According to legend, Zen began in the 5th or 6th Century CE when an Indian teacher named Bodhidharma traveled to China. The legend goes on to say that before Bodhidharma’s arrival, Chinese Buddhism emphasized studying translations of Indian Buddhist texts, establishing temples and monasteries, engaging in devotional practices, and conducting rituals. Bodhidharma allegedly introduced a new form of Mahayana Buddhism that relied on meditation rather than on speculative philosophy or rituals. The Chinese named this new form Chan. When it was transmitted to Japan in the 12th century, the Japanese called it Zen. Both words are derived from the Sanskrit word for meditation: dhyana.
The Zen teachings were strongly influenced by Taoist philosophy, which had been a feature of Chinese culture before Buddhism’s arrival. Taoism added qualities of spontaneity, naturalness and simplicity to Zen.
Present Day Zen
While Zen continues as a tradition in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, it spread throughout the West during the 20th and 21st Centuries. The first Westerners interested in Zen were mostly scholars, artists, writers, poets, and psychoanalysts who saw Zen as offering important insights into well-being and spirituality.
Western Zen practitioners meet in sitting groups, zendos, temples, and retreat centers to practice. Their practice primarily consists of sitting (zazen), walking (kinhin), and koan meditations; chanting; studying the Zen ethical precepts; listening to teacher talks (teisho); and meeting individually with teachers (daisan or dokusan) to work on koans or discuss one’s progress on the Zen path. Practitioners also go on extended meditation retreats (sesshin) in which they meditate for many hours a day over the course of a week.
Many practitioners continue to remain adherents of their faiths of origin. They practice, not to become Buddhists, but to use Zen wisdom in their daily lives.
Many practitioners hope to experience meditative states in which they directly perceive the interrelatedness of everything (satori or kensho). Zen teaches that while in our everyday perception the world is made up of separate, discrete objects, at the deepest level things exist as part of a vast ever-changing field of interrelatedness. Zen then goes one step further and teaches that these two ways of seeing the world—the separate and the interrelated—are ultimately no different from each other. Zen calls this unity of oneness and many-ness “non-duality.” Non-duality can’t be fully understood by thinking about it. It can only be directly grasped and appreciated through meditative experience. “Non-dual” experiences offer new perspectives that can change how we understand ourselves and the world.
Zen practice involves cultivating inner stillness, listening deeply to the present moment, and realizing one’s interconnection with all things. It also entails learning how to focus one’s attention, and to refocus it again and again whenever one notices it’s strayed. The following Zen practices will help you develop these abilities and enrich your life.
Zazen, or seated meditation, is the quintessential Zen practice. There are three types of zazen: breath-focused meditation, shikantaza, and koan meditation. To do zazen, assume an open, upright sitting posture. Whether you sit on a cushion, bench, or chair your ears, shoulders, and hips should be aligned, your chin slightly tucked, your eyes partly closed and looking downward in front of you. Your left hand should be placed atop your right hand, palms up, with your thumbs gently touching. If you’re on a cushion, both knees should touch the floor so that your rear end and knees form a tripod supporting your body. Your abdomen should be able to expand and contract freely with your breath.
There are a variety of ways to sit zazen. You can sit in a full lotus position, a half lotus position, or Burmese style using a meditation cushion (zafu) and mat (zabuton). If your body isn’t sufficiently flexible, the Burmese position might be more comfortable. Alternatively, you can kneel Japanese style using a seiza bench for support or sit in a chair. When using a chair, be sure to sit upright and don’t lean or slump. Your feet should also touch the floor.
Most Zen beginners start zazen with breath-focused meditation. To do this, focus all of your attention on the physical sensations of breathing in your abdomen as you breathe in and out normally. You may find it hard to keep your attention focused: after a few breaths your mind will probably drift off into thoughts or daydreams. When this happens, try to catch your mind as soon as it drifts off and gently return it to your breathing. Do this over and over and over. Count your breaths to help keep your mind focused. Count up to ten, and then start over again. If you lose count, begin again with “one.” Breath-focused meditation is about training your mind to stay focused and grounded in the present moment.
Shikantaza means “just sitting.” In shikantaza, one keeps one’s mind steady and focused on the passing parade of transient sensations and mental states as they present themselves moment by moment. We do this without attaching to them or pushing them away, allowing sensations, thoughts, and feelings to come and go like clouds floating across the blue sky. The mind acts like a clear, still mirror reflecting everything without comment. In shikantaza, our only goal is being present in a vast field of acceptance.
Koans are snippets of dialogue between ancient Zen masters and their students that serve as a focus of meditation. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “Show me your original face before your mother and father were born” are examples of famous koans. Zen students sometimes meet regularly with a teacher to attempt to demonstrate their understanding of a koan. Koans cannot be logically “solved,” and have no pat “answers.” It may take weeks, months, or years before a student responds in a way that adequately expresses his or her authentic realization of Zen.
Kinhin is walking meditation. Zen practitioners engage in kinhin between periods of zazen. Just as in breath-focused zazen one focuses on and returns to the breath over and over, in kinhin one focuses on and returns to the sensations of walking over and over. This is in accord with the Zen principle of doing one thing at a time with full attention. Kinhin reminds us we can meditate while moving as well as when remaining still. Whatever our activity, we can always focus on what we’re doing in the moment.
Zen practitioners also engage in chanting. They may chant a variety of Buddhist sutras (Buddhist texts), gathas (Buddhist poems), mantras (sacred phrases) and dharanis (incantations). While these chants have their meanings, the focus of chanting is on the act of chanting itself—on speaking the syllables in unison with the group. It’s another opportunity to put all of one’s attention on what one is doing in the current moment.
Integrating Zen into Our Lives
Once we gain experience with meditation, we can begin to integrate what we’ve learned from meditation into our daily lives. These changes are reflected in how we relate to our breath, our bodies, and our minds.
Once we have sufficient practice with breath-focused meditation, the act of attention to breathing has the power to bring us into the present moment, pulling us out of preoccupations that threaten our inner peace. Whenever we feel irritated, angry, frustrated, fearful, or sad, we can remember to take a breath and detach ourselves from the thoughts that are generating negative emotions. Taking a breath gives us a “breathing space” between a difficult situation and a knee-jerk emotional reaction to it. It buys us time to devise a wiser response. We become “responsible” rather than “reactive.”
All too often, rather than living in our bodies, we find ourselves at war with them or cut off from them. People can hate certain features of their bodies or live entirely in their heads. They can also block out awareness of bodily sensations due to experiences of past trauma. Meditation puts us in touch with our bodies as they actually are. We learn to appreciate the vibrant sensations of being alive. We befriend our bodies, accepting all sensations as they come and go. As we become adept at listening in our bodies, we discover embodied ways of knowing that precede and parallel our verbal and logical ways of knowing the world. We recover the vital heart-mind connection so that we live in a way that fully embraces the totality of our physical and emotional being.
Our minds can be our biggest enemies. Rather than living in the present, we can dwell in regrets about the past or fears about the future. We can endlessly retell ourselves stories about who did what to whom, how great or awful we are, and what we think we need to get or get rid of to be happy.
Meditation teaches us that our stories are just stories. As we observe ourselves repeat the same stories over and over, we begin to take them less seriously—we no longer have to believe everything we think. As we observe our desires come and go, we learn we don’t have to obey every whim as if it were a command. We become discerning about which urges, if pursued, lead to happiness and which lead to trouble and misery.
Zen is not just about cultivating awareness, but also about developing qualities of the heart: empathy, kindness, and compassion for others, and the intention to help reduce whatever suffering they may be undergoing. Zen also reinforces ethical qualities such as honesty, integrity, and abstaining from harmful actions. All of this flows from the fundamental recognition that we are all deeply interconnected.
The Ethical Precepts
Zen practitioners agree to abide by sixteen ethical precepts called the bodhisattva precepts. Bodhisattva means “enlightened being,” and refers to practitioners who are motivated by bodhicitta, or the intention to liberate all beings from suffering. The precepts include vows to abstain from killing, stealing, harmful speech, sexual immorality, and indulging in intoxicants that impair judgment. Meditation alone can’t lead to inner calm when one’s behavior continues to stir up discord and turmoil; to attain inner harmony, we must learn how to create and sustain harmony with others. Zen students go through an intensive period of studying the bodhisattva precepts with a teacher and sew a bib-like ritual garment called a rakasu in preparation for jukai, a ritual ceremony in which the teacher publicly recognizes the student’s commitment to practicing the precepts.
The Bodhisattva Vows
Zen practitioners vow to 1) liberate all beings from suffering, 2) end the mental defilements of greed, hatred and ignorance, 3) study the Buddha’s teachings, and 4) strive towards Enlightenment. These vows are called the “Bodhisattva Vows.” “Bodhisattva” means “enlightened being.” A bodhisattva, in this context, isn’t a fully enlightened being, but a person who has committed him or herself to progress on the path to Enlightenment.
The Divine Abodes
Zen identifies four states of mind as “the divine abodes:” compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity, and taking joy in the good fortune of others. We try to extend kindness and compassion to everyone and rejoice in their well-being regardless of who they are. We also strive to develop equanimity. Equanimity is the mental quality of composure, stability, and even-temperedness. When we have equanimity, our self-worth doesn’t soar or plunge based on external events. We take success and failure, praise and criticism, loss and gain in stride. Equanimity also means treating everyone the same—with kind and compassionate intentions. However, it doesn’t mean excusing people’s bad behavior. It means responding effectively to other people’s bad behavior without cruel, hateful, or harmful intent.
Doing one thing at a time
Zen is about paying attention whole-heartedly and single-mindedly to whatever one is doing in the moment. Each activity deserves one’s full, undivided attention. When washing the dishes, don’t get lost in thinking about work or that disagreement you just had with your spouse. Focus instead on the temperature of the water and the way your hands feel as you rinse the plates. When playing with your children, avoid distractions such as thinking about making dinner or paying the bills. When your mind wanders, bring it back. There is no greater gift you can give to your children than your full attention.
Devoting time to sitting
Carve out some time each day to meditate. If you can sit for 20 minutes or longer, great! If your schedule won’t allow it, even 5 minutes a day can be beneficial. Think of all the time we waste playing games on our phones, surfing the Internet, or watching television. This is all time we can devote, it we choose, to sitting.Try sitting the same time each day. Set a special place aside for your meditation cushion, and perhaps an altar with fresh flowers, a candle, and incense. Set the timer on your phone so you don’t have to keep checking the clock. Just remember to place your phone on airplane mode—you don’t want to get interrupted by phone calls and text messages!
The more complicated we make our lives, the harder it is to slow down and smell the roses. We end up missing the simple things that really make life worthwhile: the warmth of a hug, the beauty of a sunset. Our lives can be driven by an unending series of urges to buy more, do more, and be more: more money, a bigger house, a flashier car, a thinner, more sculpted body, more “likes” on social media. When we allow ourselves to be driven by our desires, we find ourselves on a treadmill to nowhere. Zen helps us to step off the treadmill. It teaches us to be content with our lives just as they are. We become wiser about when pursuing a desire is really in our best interest, and when it’s best to just let it go.
Zen teaches us that we’re too wrapped up in ourselves. While no one can ever really fulfill the Bodhisattva Vow to “free all beings from suffering,” the vow helps to remind us that not everything is about us. We begin to approach situations with an attitude of “how can I help?” rather than “what’s in it for me?” Focusing more on helping others can pull us out of a self-obsessed funk and help us feel better about ourselves. The longer we travel the Zen path, the more appealing a life of service to others becomes.
This About Zen section is excerpted from Segall, S. (2020). Living Zen: A Practical Guide to a Balanced Existence. RockRidge Press.