Last updated on September 26th, 2023.
With the immense popularity of yoga and meditation these days, there are many avenues to achieving inner peace and heightened self-awareness. But for those seeking true enlightenment and making it the essence of their existence, the number of viable pathways becomes more limited, and among these, the route represented by Zen Buddhism is one of the most challenging but fulfilling.
Embarking on the path of Zen Buddhism is not a journey to be taken lightly. It requires the right frame of mind and an unconventional way of thinking and viewing the world. Meditation is everything in Zen Buddhism and it serves as the gateway to self-awareness, and ultimately, enlightenment.
To study Zen Buddhism is to see the world from a new perspective and find that many of the answers to life’s questions are found within. Are you looking for a path that will lead to enlightenment? Here are 7 ways to start studying Zen Buddhism.
What are 3 Characteristics of Zen Buddhism?
Despite appearances, Zen Buddhism is a complex system of beliefs and techniques that can be difficult to fully grasp. Here are 3 key characteristics of Zen Buddhism that you should know:
Zen Buddhism is a Belief System Like no Other
Defining Zen Buddhism is a more difficult task than it would seem. While it is perceived by many as a religion, it is viewed by others as a philosophy. And to complicate things even further, there is an argument to be made that Zen Buddhism is in fact neither a religion nor a philosophy. So what is Zen Buddhism then?
Simply put, Zen Buddhism is the pursuit of enlightenment and it is a spiritual journey that does not rely on scriptures or rituals, but rather, on self-reflection through meditation. With Zen masters as their personal guides, Zen students are challenged to put aside all intellectual presumptions and simply let enlightenment happen as it may. To this end, to place a label of any sort on Zen Buddhism is pointless.
Zen Buddhism Revolves Around Meditation
One needs to look no further than the spread of Zen Buddhism throughout Asia to understand what this practice is all about:
- Zen is the Japanese translation of the Chinese Ch’an from which it developed
- From Japan, Zen Buddhism spread to Korea where it became known as Seon
- Zen Buddhism also reached Vietnam where it was called Thien
All of these terms translate to “meditation Buddhism” and not surprisingly, meditation is the very essence of Zen Buddhism.
Zazen, which is the Japanese word for meditation, is the path to enlightenment, and mastering it requires great commitment. But unlike other endeavors where success is often a direct function of conscious effort, meditating for the sake of achieving enlightenment is a fruitless endeavor. In fact, Zen masters often speak of proper meditation techniques requiring the willingness to “just sit” while other practices even include meditation frequency music.
Zen Buddhism Embraces Nonduality
One of the core beliefs of Zen Buddhism is the concept of nonduality. Simply put, nonduality is the notion that things are neither inseparable nor are they disconnected. As Zen Buddhists put it, the idea is “not one, not two”, which is another way of saying that it is important to accept life’s challenges and situations as they come and clear the mind of prejudices and preconceived ideas.
How do I Start Studying Zen Buddhism?
If there is one thing that Zen Buddhism is accepting of, it is the reality that each practitioner is an individual with unique personality traits. And while Zen Buddhism is an inclusive practice that is open to people from all walks of life without regard to any of their cultural, social, or religious backgrounds, it is unyielding in the way that only those with the right mindset can ever experience enlightenment.
7 Ways to Start Studying Zen Buddhism
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to practicing Zen Buddhism. But embarking on the path to enlightenment through Zen Buddhism does require that you follow certain rules of the road in order to avoid getting lost or ending up at the wrong destination.
Here are 7 ways to start studying this ancient art.
Embrace Zen Buddhism as a State of Mind
One of the first hurdles to overcome when starting your Zen journey is to have the proper mindset going in, which means embracing the fact that Zen Buddhism is more than just meditation; studying Zen Buddhism means allowing it to expand to every facet of your existence, including:
- Working (more on this later)
Thus, the decision to start studying Zen Buddhism is one that should not be made lightly, as it is a state of mind that touches every aspect of your daily life.
Commit to Learning Fundamental Zazen Postures
The essence of Zen Buddhism is meditation, and therefore, mastering the fundamental zazen postures should be one of the first goals when starting your studies for even The Buddha himself achieved enlightenment while seated in meditation. The most popular methods for meditating are seated postures including the Burmese, half Lotus, full Lotus, and seiza positions.
Challenge Yourself with Koans
Another important aspect of Zen Buddhism that new pupils should familiarize themselves with is the way that it challenges the mind in new and unfamiliar ways in order to awaken the inner recesses of the psyche. The primary tool for this purpose is the use of koans, which are enigmatic riddles that are presented to students to test their willingness and ability to think in unconventional ways.
Learn to Breathe the Zen Way
Proper breathing techniques are essential to yoga and meditation and this is no less true with regard to Zen Buddhism. The main breathing practice in Zen is the breath counting technique where each breath cycle (inhaling and exhaling) is counted with mindful use of the abdomen to draw in fresh air and release pollutants from the body.
Incorporate the Zen Mentality into Daily Tasks
Most Zen Buddhism practitioners will not be able to spend their days and nights in a monastery or seated on a cushion meditating. Daily activities, such as cooking and cleaning, must be tended to as necessities of life. And most pupils have jobs or vocations that require significant amounts of time.
But taking the time to support oneself economically does not mean that the Zen state of mind takes a break. On the contrary, to study Zen Buddhism means that the Zen mindset follows you everywhere you go, including at work. Whether it is sitting at a desk or working on an assembly line, maintaining a mindful Zen means immersing yourself wholeheartedly in the task at hand with unrelenting focus and energy, having in mind that everything is made of energy.
Focus on the Here and Now – Shikantaza
In addition to contemplating koans, another mind exercise that is instrumental in Zen Buddhism is known as shikantaza which translates to “just sit hit mind”. This technique encourages pupils to focus on the here and now, contemplating observations and sensations as they hit the mind so to speak. Doing so discourages the mind from wandering and prevents unproductive thoughts from derailing meditation.
Receive the Zen Precepts
One of the objectives for serious students of Zen Buddhism is to receive the Zen precepts, which are the guidelines by which those who have committed to the ways of Zen Buddhism are expected to live their lives. While on the surface they may seem scripture-like in a religious sense, they are more accurately described as the standards by which the truly enlightened live their lives in a selfless way.
To study Zen Buddhism is to undertake a life journey of self-awareness through re-training of the mind. You will see the world through a different lens and solve life’s problems in new ways. There are zen stories to share with your neighbors that you could also learn from. And through persistence and commitment, enlightenment awaits at the end of the road.