A Guide to Zen Meditation



A Guide to Zen Meditation


Zen meditation is a very simple form of meditation that asks us to simply sit and become aware of the vastness of what we are. It starts with a focus on the breath.


To sit Zazen is not to sit in the presence of big existential questions. It is to sit as these questions. In place of an assured goal or method, or the promise of final answers, Zazen practice offers radical uncertainty that is alive with something bigger, more generous, more promising.

Roshi Susan Murphy

Zen Meditation: instructions

Settle into stillness with an upright spine and a slight curve at the base of the spine, assisted by a cushion that subtly tilts the pelvis and establishes a firm base that is free of strain.

Upright and self-supported, head erect but chin slightly tucked in to draw the weight of your head off your neck and spine, you begin to focus on every part of each breath.

You are asked to favor a gentle persistence—not so much controlling the mind as letting thought soften.

At the same time, maintain a foreground awareness of the whole body breathing, hearing, feeling, resting. Any unbidden sounds, sensations, emotions, and half thoughts passing through are taken to be just right and just enough.

In each moment you offer “just what is” your complete confidence, and rest your mind in that.

There’s no need to fear failure. As the contemporary Chan master Sheng-yen said, “If you have never failed, you have never tried.” When straining for something falls away, what is more natural can appear and success and failure no longer trouble you. “Natural” means closer already to your true nature.

As self-consciousness begins to soften its grip, you intimately encounter, breath by breath, a sense of who you really are.

In that heartfelt awareness of body, breath, and mind, you become more seamlessly breath-body-mind. Slowly the mind darkens from thoughts into a state of “not-knowing.” When that grows deeper, some utterly ordinary sound or sight or touch can abruptly escape the clutch of conceptual mind and reveal its self-nature in a way that wondrously confirms your own original nature. Dogen called this the falling away of body and mind in realization. In becoming real.

A sudden birdcall, a twig snapping, a flame flickering, a shadow melting in grass, the crunch of an apple in the mouth, the ridiculous beauty of a crushed beer can found on a beach—any ordinary blessed thing can bring the entire universe to light as your self, clean as a whistle, with nothing that can possibly be attached to it.

This “confirming of the self” is an unbidden coup de grace, a gift that can reach the ground of mind made receptive by freeing itself again and again from “supposing” anything in advance or adding anything in excess of this one breath-mind moment.

From Susan Murphy: Zazen: Just Ordinary Mind, Lions Roar

Zen Meditation: Yielding the self to each moment

Receptivity is an act of yielding the self to the completeness of each moment. Even if the particular moment is difficult, when it is received complete we are able to die to one moment and be born fresh to the next, with our sense of curiosity and appreciation intact, free from the crippling mind of “better” and “worse.”

Zazen is a disciplined act of conceding full agreement with what is.

With this comes the dropping away of the kind of “knowing” implicit in anticipation and disapproval, and Zazen begins to open as a pure question.

What is the provenance of this breath? What is it? Who is breathing? Where on Earth did this mystery of being here and breathing come from? And where does it go when we are gone?

To sit Zazen is not to sit in the presence of big existential questions. It is to sit as these questions. In place of an assured goal or method, or the promise of final answers, Zazen practice offers radical uncertainty that is alive with something bigger, more generous, more promising.

As the late Robert Aitken Roshi put it, Zen is dedicated not to clearing up the mystery but to making the mystery clear.

Whales, blue wrens, cries in the dark, the sudden fall of a heavy camellia—each thing steps forward to let us know how mysterious this being here really is. As Emily Dickinson said, “Life is so astonishing, it leaves very little time for anything else!”

So how do you offer yourself to such intimate inhabiting of this very moment of life? The poised alert state of Zazen presumes nothing; with a simple, ruthless kindliness, it just avoids inattentiveness and preferences.

When you choose not to object to what’s going on, the lovely thing is that it has a much harder time becoming objectionable. And when you persistently drop each arising impulse to control or engineer things for ever-improved “outcomes,” you can discover the peculiar contentment, low-lit and wondrously “ordinary” inside the subtle action of the mind of not-doing.

From Susan Murphy: Zazen: Just Ordinary Mind, Lions Roar

Zen Meditation: Breath counting

Zazen is a matter of just doing it.

However, even for the advanced Zen student, work on the meditation cushions is always being refined.

It is like learning to drive a car. At first everything is mechanical and awkward. You consciously depress the clutch and shift into low, then release the clutch gradually while depressing the gas pedal, steering to stay within the white lines and to avoid other cars. There are so many things to remember and to do all at once, that at first you make mistakes and perhaps even have an accident.

But when you become one with the car, you are more confident. And you become a better and better driver with experience.

The preliminary method on the way o f Zen is the process of counting the breaths, as it is for many other illuminative schools of Asian religion.

It is somehow the natural first step. The breath is both a spontaneous part of our physical system and, to some degree , under our control.

In early days of our Western culture, breath was considered our very spirit, as our words, “inspiration” and “ expiration” show clearly. When we “expire,” once and for all, we have ended our inspiration for this life.

Sit with your back straight, and count “ one” for the inhalation, “ two” for the exhalation, “ three” for the next inhalation, “ four” for the next exhalation, and so on up to “ ten ,” and repeat.

Don’t go above “ten” because it is too difficult to keep track of higher numbers.

You are not exercising your thinking faculty in this practice; you are developing your power to invest in something.

Counting is the first mental exercise you learned as a child. It is the easiest of all formal, mental efforts, the closest to being second nature.

But though breath counting is natural, you cannot dream at it and just let it happen.

Truly to meet the challenge of your rampaging mind, you must devote all your attention just to ‘‘one, ” just to “ two. ”

When (not if !) you lose the count and you finally realize that you have lost it, come back to “one” and start over.

Many people can count to “ten” successfully the first few times they try, but no one who has not practiced can maintain the sequence for long.

Counting the breaths shows us that indeed, as a Chinese proverb says, the mind is like a wild horse.

Breath counting is not the kindergarten o f Zen. For many students it is a full and complete lifetime practice.

But even with just a month of practice, a few minutes each day, you will be able to focus more clearly on your work or study and to give yourself more freely to conversation and recreation.

You will have learned how to begin, at any rate, the task of keeping yourself undivided, for it is thinking of something other than the matter at hand that separates us from reality and dissipates our energies.

Adapted from Robert Aitken Taking the Path of Zen

Zen Meditation - Resources from the WWW

Zazen Meditation Guide

This introduction to Zen meditation from the Zen Mountain Monastery includes helpful pictures on sitting postures: The body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to oneself.

Meditation as Healing – Roshi John Tarrant

As we integrate meditation more and more into our culture, it is coming to seem natural that healing of our states of mind is the beginning of kindness and imagination and making a successful culture.

Meditation: the journey home – Joshin Brian Byrnes

During a half-day intro to Zen meditation, Joshin gives a short, sweet talk about journeys of return. In Zen we return home to just this unadorned moment — this slight breath which is the site of a great spiritual journey. It’s the very place where we discover “eternity, intimacy, purity and joy.”


Beginning Zen Online 

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