Admittedly this is the meditation I know the least about.
I was introduced to Zen meditation via books. Unlike the previous meditation pages (where I had onsite training) this was entirely through book learning.
In the section on Vipassana, I quote a lot from the book Mindfulness in Plain English: 20th Anniversary Edition. The author, Bhante Gunaratana, mentions a distinction in the difference between Tantra, Zen and Vipassana.
As he puts it:
- Tantra is like becoming a deity yourself.
- Zen is harsh, like warrior training. In some schools you would be hit with a stick for slouching.
For the most part I think he’s right. In regards to Zen, there are many different schools. Each stresses a rigidity to the structure of the training. There is no “I’ll do it kinda like that.” It’s doing it right.
The training I used for Zen meditation was from the book: A Guide to Zen: Lessons from a Modern Master, which is a commentary of the root text: Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy (Shambhala Classics). I’ve linked to these books on Amazon.
Katsuki Sekida is the writer of Zen Training, and wrote the founding text for A Guide to Zen. Sekida is considered non-Zen by some Zen schools. That is something worth talking about. In Buddhism, there is sometimes a ego of training… something like, “Zen isn’t Mahayana. Mahayana isn’t just letting go of thought. Your school is misled.” Even within Zen that ego can be seen in students of a school saying, “Sekida’s method isn’t true Zen. He closes his eyes in meditation and uses breath control – these are not Zen.”
In general the advice that is most often given is – follow your schools teachings. If you attend a specific Zen school and they teach you how to meditate, then don’t take this advice, or the advice in a different school over what you are learning.
But for those who have no easy access to Zen schools, maybe these books would be of assistance to Zen meditation.
Zen, like Vipassana, has a goal of dropping thought and discovering pure existence. If you are interested in Zen, I would recommend looking for a local Zendo and see if you can find the time to learn the techniques in person.
The basic kind of Zen practice is called zazen (sitting Zen), and in zazen we attain samadhi. In this state the activity of consciousness is stopped and we cease to be aware of time, space and causation. -Marc Allen
Body and Mind have fallen off: The state in which awareness of the body, as well as the mind have fallen off.
Emptiness: This is again where Sekida will differ from traditional Buddhism. Emptiness to Sekida is an idea that mental thoughts have their own internal pressure. When the internal pressure is dissolved, there is no more mental pressure – he calls this Emptiness. However, traditionally in Buddhism emptiness means something quite different – as the lack of self existence. But for Sekida’s work, you should know his reference to emptiness reflects this ideal.
Kensho: is that experience of the external world in the frame of samadhi.
Mushin: Means “no mind.” No ego, or mental pressure (see emptiness referenced above) is present in the state of Mushin.
Off-Sensation: When the awareness of the body has fallen off.
Tanden: this is the lower part of the abdomen. It’s very important in Sekida’s practice, as his style uses stress in the tanden to control and regulate breath and thereby thought.
Zazen: is the sitting practice of Zen. It’s initial goal is that of samadhi. If the experience of samadhi is retained upon returning to awareness, one may lead to experiencing pure existence in the external world.
Like all meditation styles, we have to first talk about posture. In the most orthodox of Buddhist schools, they don’t like people using chairs in meditation. This is however accepted in many modernist styles and schools. But traditionally there are the Full Lotus, Half Lotus and Burmese.
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After taking a posture you feel comfortable with, push your belly out, holding your mid section straight. Doing this should produce a sort of “stress” in the mid section just a few inches below the navel. This is considered a stabilizing effect – keeps your body from moving. It is also believed by Sekida that when the weight of the body is centered in the tanden it produces a mental silence.
The chest and shoulders should be relaxed and lowered.
Meditation Technique: One – Minute Zazen
In A Guide to Zen: Lessons from a Modern Master, Marc Allen has a technique he calls “One-Minute Zazen.” This is a quick little meditation that you can do almost anywhere. The idea here is to get a taste of what it is we’re doing and how it can benefit you. This isn’t a full meditation, nor should it be used to substitute a full meditation.
Step 1: Eyes open – stare at something in the distance (this could be a tree, a sign post, a building, etc.)
Step 2: Try and hold or stop your breathing, while keeping your vision locked on the object in Step 1.
Step 3: While the breath is held/stopped, try and quiet all thought
Step 4: Breath in again and attempt the steps above.
As you restrict your breath, Sekida found that our thoughts are also restricted. It’s quite interesting – and quite a point of controversy in Zen circles. However, Sekida did NOT invent this. This connection between breath and mind was part of Hinduism long before Buddhism was birthed. It’s called Pranayama. In the teachings of the Guru Paramhansa Yogananda, he taught that there was a “breathless” state where breathing naturally ended (without any will on the part of the meditator) in that state of no breath, surface thought would end.
But as you can see, by restricting the breath un-naturally, we are able to restrict thought.
Variation of One-Minute Zazen
This is were we get a step closer to Sekida’s formal method. It’s the same as the One-Minute method above, with one change.
In Step 2, we don’t fully hold the breath, but we breathe slowly and deeply – generating tension in the respiratory muscles.
You will find that if you hold this tension that your thoughts abate.
First we count the breath. In Sekida’s Zen technique, he offers three variations of breath counting:
- Mentally count “one” on the first inhale, and “two” on the first exhale… then “three” on the next inahle and so forth up to 10.
- Mentally count your exhalations only, up to 10.
- Mentally count inhalations only, up to 10.
As you feel you have done enough breath counting, you can move into a practice of Bamboo Breathing. This is a rather complex aspect, and it’s difficult to understand in writing. Without a teacher however, I turned to the internet and found several posts about bamboo breathing. About the best way of describing how to do it was found at THIS DISCUSSION BOARD.
The basic summary is you breath normal a few cycles:
Part I: on an inhale – breathe till lungs are full.
- As you exhale you stop the exhale several times (3 times) with a pause between each stop.
- On the next inhale, inhale till the lungs are 50% full and then stop the inhale and pause for some time.
- Finish inhaling the remaining 50%.
Part 2: Breathe normally for 3 cycles.
Part 3: Exhale but stop at the 50% mark and pause.
- Finish the exhalation.
- Inhale, but stop/pause at 50% of the lungs being filled.
- After the pause, continue inhaling the remainder of the 50%.
- REPEAT part 3, 2 more times. So that you have done the partial breathing in 3 cycles for inhale and exhale.
Part 4: Repeat from Part I and follow through each part.
After Bamboo Breathing…
It appears you would continue this practice of breathing, to keep the mind from wondering and thoughts abating. That deep awareness would develop as the mind and body are lost and pure awareness is found.
Other Zen Styles
I can’t go too far into other Zen styles. I am aware that Katsuki Sekida’s method is not orthodox with Zen at all. This is due to his use of closed eyes and breath control.
My understanding is that traditionally in zen, you sit near a wall. With eyes open or partially open you stare at a blank point on the wall. You keep your attention on that point, and force all thoughts to end.
In some Zen schools (like Rinzai) the student is given a koan. This koan is thought of as a question that has no formal answer. The ego mind tries to solve it but can not – keeping the mind working and away from creating random thoughts.
The one thing you will notice about the orthodox Eastern styles of meditation – they do not utilize music. Meditation music is something of a modern approach to meditation. There’s nothing wrong with it. But realize it’s not something you’ll often come across in the traditional teachings.
My advice … is to find a school of meditation. Learn from a master (or a good student) on how to meditate… and have an open mind. Try not to think that the way you are taught is the only way, or true way. Try not to look down on others as being “too new age” or “modern” or “less than you.” Those are ego traps, which negate any wins you gain in meditation.
In the absence of a school of meditation in your local area, you can of course look online and read up on it. The form of meditation, that I think is the easiest to pick up, is probably Vipassana. It’s simple and relates to us where we are. So that might be a good place to start.