How To Practice Zazen

sitting zen

Zen Buddhism is based on a sitting practice known as Zazen. This page has instructions and a video demonstration on how to practice zazen. There's also a video of Gudo Nishijima talking about the meaning of zazen, and an answer to a question about the sitting posture for Zazen.

How to Practice Zazen - PDF file

This is a pdf file with illustrated instructions on how to practice Zazen. The instructions are based on extracts of a book by Gudo Nishijima and Joe Langdon. It's also got instructions on how to make your own zafu. I made this as the appendix to the 4th edition of a book called gTo Meet the Real Dragonh by Gudo Nishijima and Jeffrey Bailey.

Video - How To Practice Zazen (runs for 10 minutes)

  • Click on the picture to watch the video

Video - The Meaning of Zazen (7 minutes)

Click on the picture to watch the video

Questions about Zazen


Answers to questions I was asked about zazen.

Q: Is there a difference between choosing to sit in full-lotus posture, half-lotus posture, Burmese style posture or Seiza posture?

A: The half-lotus or full-lotus posture are generally regarded as the traditional styles for Zazen. When someone first starts to do Zazen, it's easier to sit in the half-lotus posture. After practicing in the half-lotus posture for a few months or years our leg muscles become looser and we can try sitting in full-lotus, even for just a few minutes. The main difference between the half-lotus posture and the full-lotus posture is that both knees firmly touch the ground in the full-lotus, which makes the posture more stable. Full-lotus is the traditional posture that was practiced by Gautama Buddha in India long ago.

I donft have much experience with the Burmese style posture, but it's probably a good posture for anyone who finds the half-lotus or full-lotus posture difficult. After getting used to the Burmese style, it might be good to try the half-lotus or full-lotus posture. I've never sat in the Seiza posture during Zazen. The only experience I have of sitting in the Seiza posture for a long time was at a Japanese tea ceremony I went to once. I had to sit in the Seiza posture without a cushion for about 30 or 40 minutes. It cut off the blood circulation to my legs and I could hardly stand afterwards, which was a bit embarrassing until I noticed most of the other people could hardly stand either. It was kind of funny. Using a cushion or some kind of bench with the Seiza posture should make it easier though.

When I first started doing Zazen my legs used to be really stiff and it was hard for me to sit in any kind of posture. All I could manage was to sit cross-legged with my knees way up off the floor. After a while I started to sit in a kind of gquarter-lotus postureh with one foot on the calf of the other. After doing that for a while I managed to sit in half-lotus. After a while I could sit in the half-lotus posture fairly comfortably, sometimes with me left foot on my right leg and sometimes the other way round. A few years later I started doing full-lotus for a few minutes at a time. I gradually increased the time that I sat in full lotus for as my legs got used to doing it. Nowadays I sit in either the half-lotus or full-lotus posture.

Q: I have a question regarding concentration during Zazen. I know Nishijima talks about balancing our nervous system through maintaining an upright spine during Zazen. I suppose attempting to pay attention to the spine is a form of concentration. I get confused. Most other sects of Buddhism teach you to follow the breath. I suppose because it happens every moment and in increments, it makes it easy to build concentration. What are your thoughts? I really have a sense that what Nishijima teaches is the gtrueh teaching, but I have this nagging feeling that I need to be developing my ability to focus. I get bombarded with MRI imaging studies of meditationfs transformative effects on the brain. It really makes the little "me" want to go for that stuff.

A: Nishijimafs idea about paying attention to the spine in Zazen is that when we find ourselves thinking about something we should straighten our spine and start to look at the wall again. That can happen often in one sitting. So when you notice yourself thinking about or considering something while youfre doing Zazen, just straighten your spine and look at the wall. More than likely youfll start thinking about something again. But when you notice yourself thinking again, just straighten your spine again. We usually end up repeating that several times during Zazen, but there can be times during Zazen when our thinking is not so active and we are just sitting there without much mental activity.

When I first sit down to do Zazen Ifm usually thinking or considering various things. After a while I notice Ifm thinking so I straighten my spine and focus on the wall. During Zazen my thoughts tend to come and go, but I try to avoid latching on to them or examining them. Sometimes I do though, and when I notice Ifm doing that, I try to drop whatever it is Ifm thinking about and straighten my spine. Sometimes near the end of Zazen I notice my thoughts have slowed down. Nishijimafs idea is that just doing Zazen helps our thinking to slow down naturally. And when wefre sitting without thinking too much, we can notice wefre just doing a simple action of sitting.

I know what you mean about getting confused by different ideas people have about meditation. Following your breath may be helpful when you first start, but if you continue for a while you might feel like itfs not necessary anymore. To be honest, Ifve never really done Zazen that way so I donft know for sure. For what itfs worth, my idea on counting breathes is that it's like wefre giving our brain a task to do during Zazen, and Ifm not sure if that's really what Zazen is about. Sometimes when I hear about stuff like counting breathes, I think about Gautama Buddha in India sitting under the bodhi tree. I know itfs a kind of silly example, but I guess he was just sitting there without counting or following his breath.

About developing your ability to focus, I think it may be okay to let go of that idea and just to sit there. That way your ability to focus can develop in a more natural way than in a particular way you might have in mind. Of course, to just let it develop naturally like that we kind of need to trust Zazen a bit. Itfs a different approach to the one in which we try to make something happen in Zazen. But it can be a nice approach too.

Things like MRI imaging studies are very important and provide useful information. But I donft think the MRI imaging studies and other studies fully describe what happens in Zazen. Itfs helpful to know the scientific side of Zazen, but when youfre actually doing it, it may be best just to sit without worrying about studies and things too much.

Q: When Nishijima says to look concretely at the wall and to keep the eyes focused, does he mean on one spot?

A: I don't think Nishijima means to keep the eyes focused on just one spot, but more like let your eyes settle on the wall. Sometimes the particular spot you're looking at may change or sometimes it may be the same.

Q: If Zazen is "enlightenment" itself, then what happens when we get off the cushion?

A: When we practice Zazen we usually feel a bit different after we do it. Nishijima call that feeling the "balanced state". The words "balanced state" sound a bit flaky, but if you've done Zazen a few times you'll probably know what he means. Of course, it's not like that every single time, but that's the general idea. For example, we might do Zazen in the morning before we go to work. When we get up off the cushion that balanced state we feel after doing Zazen stays with us. When we're gbalancedh like that and our thoughts don't distract us so much, we can see things more clearly than we might usually do. But as we go through the day situations arise that we have to deal with. Maybe we have a problem with our boss or a friend or something. A lot of those situations make us lose our natural balance. So by the end of the day, our balance is pretty much gone or isnft the same as it was when we got off the cushion in the morning. So Nishijima recommends doing Zazen again in the evening to bring us back to the balanced state.

And Zazen is like any physical exercise. If you do it regularly, you get used to doing it, and it becomes easier to keep that balanced state throughout the day, even when wefre faced with difficult situations. So in that sense, when wefve been doing Zazen for a number of years the balance or genlightenmenth may stay with us after we get off the cushion. But even though the balance can stay with us for longer when we're not on the cushion, we still need to do Zazen regularly.

How long to sit for?


If you're just starting to try zazen, you might be wondering how long to do it for. A good time to start off with is around 10 or 15 minutes, although it'll depend on your own physical condition. Once you get used to doing 10 or 15 minutes you could try 20 or 25 minutes if you like. There's no rush though to build up the amount of time you sit for, and it's more important to get into a habit of doing it everyday, even for just a few minutes. It's also good to do zazen twice a day, morning and evening, if you can manage the time.

Other stuff