During zazen, the cortex relaxes and blood flow towards the deep layers of the brain increases. Zazen is also able to mimic the cerebral waves produced during a deep sleep namely ‘alpha’ and ‘theta’ waves while still being awake which leads to greater well-being, serenity and calmness.
Zazen can best be described as the study of the self. The basis of the meditation and its technique can be quoted in the great Master Dogen’s words: “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” The premise which zazen draws upon is, Buddha’s own enlightenment, where he was in seated meditation; thus, Zazen allows one to return to that seated meditation, to grow spiritually and expand mentally.
All the techniques illustrated below are techniques outlined by the great Master Dogen nearly a millennium ago.
1. Choosing a place:
. Find a quiet place where neither wind nor smoke will intrude.
. The room should have average lighting, not too dark or too bright.
. The temperature must be in accordance to the season (i.e. Not artificially manipulated to be hot or cold)
2. Do I need Special Props?
. Traditionally zazen is practiced on a special round cushion called ‘zafu‘ in Japanese.
. The cushion helps in raising the hips and forcing the knees to touch the ground which is said to make the zazen more stable and comfortable. Your body will form a tripod base in this position which is natural, grounded and stable for meditation.
. Zafus are usually 13-14 inches in diameter but it can also be found in various sizes in terms of its thickness and diameter to suit individual needs.
. Zafu is packed with a material called ‘kapok’ which is a natural fiber from a Kapok tree.
. A makeshift zafu can be made by folding a thick blanket.
. Zabuton is put under the zafu, so as to cushion the knees and the legs.
Both the ‘Zabu‘ and ‘Zabuton’ can be substituted by a thick blanket but if you’re practicing zazen seriously, invest in these two special accessories.
3.How to Practice Zazen?
. It is recommended to sit facing the wall, about one arm’s length away. This is to calm the mind and avoid unnecessary distractions.
. You will need to sit in the center of the zafu.
. You can sit in the Burmese position, Half Lotus position, Full Lotus position, Kneeling (Seiza) position or in the Chair position depending on your comfort level. Half Lotus (Hankafuza) and Full Lotus (Kekkafuza) are traditionally practiced; the others are for people who are not comfortable in these positions.
. After you have chosen your position, take a deep breath. Put the back of your hands on your knees, palms up, and gently shift your body from left to right two or three times.
. Next, do gassho (place your palms against each other, as if in prayer, and bend your entire body forward a few seconds) and then practice zazen.
. If you aren’t starting with the full lotus position, gradually move to that position as it gives the maximum benefit of practicing zazen.
. Whatever position you’re practicing, it is very important that you push the floor firmly with your knees, so that your pelvis is tilted forward at the fifth lumbar vertebra.
. The spine and neck must be as erect as possible, chin must be pushed back and try to push your head towards the sky without exerting too much tension.
. The body must not lean forward or backward nor should it swing sideways.
. To avoid needless movement, make sure that the tip of the nose is on the vertical imaginary line above the navel.
. Although it sounds highly disciplined, zazen movement needs to be smooth and soft without tension in any part of the body.
. You must place your tongue against the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth.
. Swallow once to seal the position and to reduce the need to salivate.
. Lips should be closed, and teeth should be together.
. Eyes must be naturally open (not too wide or too narrow).
. Without focusing on anything in particular, keep your eyes looking one meter in front of you on the floor.
. In this position, the eyes will be covered by the eyelids eliminating the need to blink.
. The eyes are not closed in zazen so as to avoid drowsiness or drift into daydreaming.
-Hand Mudra (Hokkaijoin in Japanese)
. All the positions will follow the same mudra
. Put your left hand on the right one, palms turned towards the sky, thumbs touching each other lightly and forming a straight line at the height of the navel. Keep your shoulders relaxed and at the same height. .Your arms should be kept slightly away from your body, forming a horizontal line from one elbow to the other.
4. Breathing Techniques
The Zen masters did not teach breathing techniques traditionally as they believed correct posture would lead to correct breathing.
. Begin by rocking the body back and forth, slowly, in decreasing arcs, until you settle at your center of gravity.
. You must breathe through your nose, keeping your mouth closed.
. Take a long deep breath, inhaling and exhaling establishing a strong and slow but natural rhythm.
5. The Zen State of Mind
. The essence of zazen is not just to be mindless but to go beyond thinking.
. Avoid thinking intentionally, if certain images or thoughts arise, let it flow like the clouds and accept them. This is very normal and natural in the beginning.
. Try not to ponder or escape from them; the more you struggle the stronger the thoughts will become. “Like the reflections in a mirror, the expressions of the unconscious pass, pass again and then vanish.” And one gets to the deep unconscious, without thinking, beyond thought (hishiryo) reaching true purity.
. As a beginner, practice zazen for 20-30 minutes and increase the time gradually.
. Remain calm and quiet for a few moments after finishing.
. Don’t hurry to stand up.
. Do gassho and start by slowly moving your legs first, and then start to slowly stand up.
. Try not to talk for a few minutes after completing Zazen.
During zazen the mind emerges naturally from deep concentration due to the posture and breathing, which allows control of mental activity leading to better cerebral circulation.
According to a study conducted at the University of Komazawa in Japan; During zazen, the cortex relaxes and blood flow towards the deep layers of the brain increases. Zazen is also able to mimic the cerebral waves produced during a deep sleep namely ‘alpha’ and ‘theta’ waves while still being awake which leads to greater well-being, serenity and calmness.