Last updated on September 26th, 2023.
The world is a busy place and people often find themselves adrift, looking for a belief system that can help them find answers to their most fundamental questions. Many religions look to a higher power for those answers. A few though focus their search for enlightenment inwards.
Zen Buddhism is a branch of Buddhism practiced around the world, with most adherents centered in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan (Britannica). Believers use meditation to find mental clarity and enlightenment. There are many aspects of Zen Buddhism that make it easily accessible for beginners.
If you are curious about Zen Buddhism and want to learn more about its core beliefs, read on. We will discuss the difference between Zen and Traditional Buddhism and give you a few tips to help you begin meditation.
How do I Start Zen Buddhism?
As with adopting the practices of any religion, you need to understand the beliefs of the religion, how worship is performed, and if this is the right fit for you and your religious needs. Zen Buddhism, unlike other world religions, does not have a scripture to follow. Instead, practitioners look to find enlightenment through meditation. This is one of the main beliefs of Zen Buddhism.
What are the Basic Beliefs of Zen Buddhism?
Unlike many world religions, Zen Buddhists focus less on scripture and more on practical uses of Zen. The religion’s practices and beliefs are spread from master to pupil on a personal level of communication. The main goal of Zen Buddhism is to take the mind off rational and intellectual thoughts in the pursuit of enlightenment. (BBC)
There are several beliefs in Zen Buddhism that make it unique. They include:
- An emphasis on non-duality, meaning “not one not two”. This means that things are not intertwined but are also not completely disconnected from each other. Things can be interconnected while not being the same or separate, like the body and the mind. (Tricycle)
- Learning to rely more on intuition and less on philosophy. (BBC)
- The idea that it is important to accept things as they are without trying to understand them. (BBC)
- The knowledge that meditation is important to gain peace of mind and clarity. (Tricycle)
- The belief that happiness is achievable by looking within. We are conditioned to look for happiness from outside sources but if you are not happy with yourself, then those outside sources cannot provide true happiness. (Darius Foroux)
This focus on gaining peace of mind often means that Zen Buddhists look for ways to achieve a clear mind and heart by helping their communities. Zen Buddhists have an understanding that all people suffer and that to find that relief you need to look for the interconnectedness between beings and live in a way that recognizes the truth of this pain. (Tricycle)
The Key Concepts of Zen Buddhism
In addition to the beliefs listed above, there are six key concepts and essential practices of of Zen Buddhism that can help the practitioner reach mental clarity and enlightenment.
- Mushotoku: This concept is the state of mind that is not looking to gain anything. To be in Mushotoku, you need to remain detached from objects and refrain from looking for personal profit. You cannot reach true meditation unless you are in this state of mind. Meditation is not for gain but to have understanding. There is no personal reward.
- Hishiryo: This is a special state of consciousness in meditation. It is not the same state we experience in our daily lives. Hishiryo is when you allow thoughts to pass through your mind during meditation without paying attention to them and focusing on them. You arrive at a state that is past thinking and not thinking.
- Zanshin: Zanshin is a state of mind that is found in martial arts. It is when the mind is fully aware of its surroundings while also remaining still and detached. A person in the Zanshine state of mind is present in the moment without being distracted by any unnecessary thoughts.
- Fudoshin: This state of mind is known as the “Immovable Mind”. To be in Fudoshin, you will have complete composure, fearlessness, and determination. It is especially important to reach this state when practicing martial arts.
- Mushin: When the mind is not fixated on thoughts or emotions but is connected to the cosmos, then it is in the Mushin state. There is a complete lack of ego and the mind is aware and present but empty of distractions and preoccupations.
- Satori: The final concept of Zen Buddhism is Satori or enlightenment. It is the return to the original state of mind, free from concerns and distractions. To gain true inner peace, people must reach Satori.
The various states of mind in Zen Buddhism work on a continuum, although practitioners move between the states depending on their needs. With practice, all people should be able to reach Satori at some point.
What is the difference between Buddhism and Zen Buddhism?
Prince Siddhartha founded Buddhism in the sixth century BCE in Northern India. This is a religion without a supreme deity, instead focusing on reaching enlightenment through meditation. (Artsmia) Like most world religions, there are several branches of Buddhism, the three major ones being:
Zen Buddhism developed in China, when Mahayana Buddhists were introduced to Taoism, a Chinese philosophy. Since Zen Buddhism is descended from Buddhism, there are many similarities. However, the introduction of Chinese traditions is evident in many of the practices of Zen Buddhists.
Differences Between Zen and Traditional Buddhism
The main difference between Zen and Traditional Buddhism is that Zen Buddhism places an emphasis on enlightenment through self-discovery, while traditional Buddhism encourages focus on others. When it comes to meditation, Zen Buddhists focus on the self without external visualizations while Buddhists rely on these outside visualizations.
Practitioners of Zen Buddhism have other beliefs that differ from traditional Buddhism. A few examples of these differences include:
- Deity: Traditional Buddhism rejects the idea that there is a supreme deity. However, Zen Buddhism believes in “Buddhas” that live forever and can influence our lives the way a traditional god might.
- Places of Worship: Zen Buddhists worship in temples and pagodas, while traditional Buddhists worship in monasteries, temples, and shrines.
Shared Belief in Reincarnation
One major belief that traditional and Zen Buddhists have in common is multiple births and Nirvana. Both groups believe that when we die, we are reborn, over and over, until Nirvana is reached and we break the cycle. (Diffen)
The circle of life and death is called Samsara. It is a constant cycle of life, suffering, and death. Nirvana is reached when the circle is broken and we are freed from suffering. To reach Nirvana in Buddhism, you must follow several paths to enlightenment. These paths include recognizing the suffering, making an action to correct it, and finding mindfulness. (Onemind Dharma)
All branches of Buddhism share the same core beliefs. As they developed and evolved, they added and subtracted some practices of traditional Buddhism. However, they have more in common with each other than differences.
What is Zazen Meditation?
Zazen meditation is the heart of Zen Buddhism. It is a form of seated meditation and is the study of the inner self. By practicing Zazen meditation, we learn that the body, brain, and breath are not separate entities, but are interconnected. As you have already learned, one of the core beliefs of Zen Buddhism is the interconnectedness of things that might appear separate. (zmm.org)
How do I Practice Zazen Meditation?
To practice Zazen meditation, you must first focus on your position. Your position influences your breathing and state of mind and it is important to choose the one that suits you best. This will allow your mind to relax. Zazen meditation is performed on the floor for grounding and stability. A small pillow under the hips, a zafu, lifts the hips and pelvis, allowing the knees to touch the floor.
There are four positions to choose from when meditating:
- Burmese: In this position, you sit with your legs crossed and your feet flat on the floor. When you first sit, you might find your knees don’t reach the floor, but as your muscles relax, your knees should drop. Sit with your spine straight, as if a string was pulling your body up towards the ceiling.
- Half Lotus: This position begins as a crossed leg one, but you place one of your feet on top of the opposite thigh. Since the half lotus position is asymmetrical, you will need to compensate to keep the body straight. Alternate which foot is on top to avoid strain.
- Full Lotus: The full lotus position is the most stable of all the positions but it requires the most flexibility. You will place both feet on top of the opposite thigh. It may require practice before being able to sit in this position.
- Seiza: This position is a kneeling position. The buttocks rest on the heels of your feet. If you want to keep the weight off your feet, you can use a pillow or a seiza bench, which helps keep your spine straight.
If you are unable to sit or kneel on the floor, you can practice Zazen meditation while sitting in a chair. Keep your feet flat on the floor and sit forward in the chair to support your spine.
Once you are seated, you want to make sure that your spine is straight and that your muscles are relaxed. The most important aspect of meditation is breathing. Breathe easily through your nose, without controlling the breath. Focus on a spot on the ground two to four feet in front of you.
Hold your hands in the cosmic mudra, which is with the dominant held with the palm up, holding your other hand, also with the palm up. Allow the knuckles of both hands to overlap, touch the thumbs together to form an oval with your hand, and rest your hands on your feet and thighs.
Once you are in position, focus on your breathing. It is normal to have thoughts and emotions come into your brain, but try not to focus on them. The more you practice meditation, the more capable you will become of being aware of your thoughts and emotions but not being distracted by them.
Zen Buddhism is Easily Accessible
If you have thought about exploring Zen Buddhism and Zazen meditation, then there really shouldn’t be anything stopping you. Unlike other religions, which require study and conversion, Zen Buddhism is self-directed. To mediate, you only need to be in the right frame of mind. With time and experience, you can find mental clarity and enlightenment.
Check out this article to learn more about how do buddhists meditate.